Friday, June 30, 2017

9 Reasons Why Execution Trumps Thinking In Business

idea-vs-executionIn my role as an advisor to entrepreneurs and new businesses, I often get asked to critique an idea, but rarely get asked to comment on an implementation plan, or execution actions to date. For the record, my experience tells me that success in a new business has very little to do with the idea, and everything to do with execution. Execution trumps everything in a new business.

I’ve seen too many innovative ideas go down in flames, due to poor execution, and conversely, some mundane ideas implemented to great success, In fact, if you think about it, some of the biggest current business successes were based on ideas were not unique, including Google (search the Internet), Facebook (talk to friends), and Amazon (electronic shopping).

In today’s rapidly changing business environment, the future is largely unpredictable, so heavy thinking doesn’t provide the same insights as executing some “experiments.” The advantages of approaching your new business as a well-planned experiment include the following:

  1. Find if you like the business side of the equation. People rarely achieve success at something they really don’t like doing, or don’t know anything about. For example, many technologists love to invent things, but can’t stand the realities of running a business. Unless they find a partner who loves the business side, most inventions languish unsold.

  2. Thinking without action leads to lost opportunities. Time is money in business. While you are still thinking, your competition will be stealing your market or the opportunity itself may go away or evolve. Patents and other intellectual property go to the first person who files, rather than the first person with the idea. Ideas are very fragile.

  3. If you act now, you won’t spend your life wondering “What if . . .?” If all you ever do is think, you can gain tons of theoretical knowledge, but none from the real world. Creating a specific business plan, and executing it, is the only way to answer the real question of how much value your idea brings to customers, as well as yourself.

  4. As you act on a plan, you test the commitment of your followers. I often hear something like “All my friends and followers love my idea.” Most new business founders find there is a big gap between them loving the idea, and buying the product or service. Potential partners and investors may be interested, but unwilling to commit real money.

  5. Building business relationships takes action and mistakes. Running a business is not rocket science. It’s more a function of good people and good relationships, than a scientific algorithm. Deep thinking doesn’t build people relationships. In fact, most entrepreneurs tell me they learned more from people mistakes than successes.

  6. You find out definitively what works and what doesn’t. Every honest entrepreneur will tell you about the many surprises they found on the road to success, no matter how certain they were of their idea initially. Changes in startups are so common they are called “pivots.” Great solutions are almost never obvious before the fact.

  7. If you never act, you will never know if you are right or wrong. You may think you know the result, but you won’t be able to point to anything concrete to prove you are right. The problem with that, as Mark Twain pointed out, is: “It ain’t so much the things we don’t know that get us into trouble. It’s the things we know that just ain’t so.”

  8. Action leads to a market reaction, which may spark another new idea. Action produces evidence of business viability, which becomes fodder for new thinking. You act, therefore something changes, and in observing that reaction you gain market knowledge. A great business is not just one idea, but a never-ending stream of innovative solutions.

  9. Experiments lead to faster, cheaper, and better results. Or you may conclude that the idea is not implementable at this time. Thought experiments alone won’t identify all the issues. Thomas Edison tested 10,000 lightbulb filament ideas before he found one that worked. He then went on to build a fabulous business, with more than a lightbulb idea.

I’m not suggesting that you act before thinking, only that you not get stuck too long in the thinking stage. For example, I discount entrepreneurs who tell me they have been thinking about a great idea for several years, working to perfect it, but have never moved to the execution stage.

Success in business requires that you move forward one small step at a time, with a few steps backward along the way. Great entrepreneurs find the satisfaction and the learning in making those steps, rather than merely thinking about them.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/15/2017 ***

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Wednesday, June 28, 2017

7 Business Lessons You Can Learn From A 7-Year-Old

NevaLeeReclaSnapshotParents, it’s never too early to start nurturing entrepreneurial talents in your kids! As an active business advisor and angel investor, I’m convinced that we are rapidly entering a new age of the entrepreneur, and those who are best prepared will be the first to reap some big rewards.

You may think you need more entrepreneurial courses in school, or more advanced degrees, but in my experience it’s more of a mindset, some good coaching, and learning by doing that separates the winners from the losers. I continue to see stories of really young entrepreneurs, and I just met a really impressive one, Neva Lee Recla, at a recent Fast Inc. Network conference.

Neva is only seven years old, and she boldly proclaims that she has been handing out her business cards since the age of two. I was participating on a panel to assess about 20 two-minute startup pitches, and she thoroughly impressed everyone with her pitch and her story.

According to one of her two websites (how many of your kids have even one website?), she’s now creating a bestselling book and offering businesses an opportunity to promote their brands by sponsoring her as a young entrepreneur. She has already created or shared in at least three businesses, including selling bracelets, Hot Clothes for Kids™, and creative drawings to benefit veterans and wounded warriors.

After meeting with her (and her entrepreneur parents), I’m convinced that the opportunity is ripe for all of us to learn from the youngest generation in the true entrepreneurial spirit. Here are some of the insights I gained from this interaction:

  1. Experience is a better teacher than academic classes. Memorizing facts is not fun, but making people happy is something you will never forget. Everyone also needs to experience failures, since these can teach more than success. Neva won’t forget some negative feedback on one initiative that “hurts a lot,” but she learned to “keep on going.”

  2. You learn as much as a coach as the student. I can certainly attest that my own efforts to coach and mentor aspiring entrepreneurs have taught me much about business and people. Neva’s parents, who are entrepreneurs themselves, also attest that they have benefited greatly from the coaching experience so far. It’s a win-win opportunity.

  3. You don’t need a blockbuster idea to do good. Results are a function of the execution and the commitment, rather than the idea. We can all think of many ways to improve the world, but too many aspiring entrepreneurs I know keep finding excuses not to start, waiting for that ultimate idea that can’t fail. For example, Neva recently used her drawing talents to produce 1000 sponsored handouts to honor veterans and wounded warriors.

  4. Find corporate sponsors to reduce startup costs. The key to success as a startup is finding like-minded people, and it can work on the front-end with sponsors, before you have back-end customers for revenue. Neva has learned early to focus on ideas with humanitarian, as well as commercial value, such that others are more than willing to help.

  5. Sometimes it helps to not know what’s not possible. It’s refreshing to see the unlimited creativity and curiosity of very young entrepreneurs. I see many aspiring entrepreneurs hesitating due to all the things they know can go wrong, to the point that they never start anything. The lesson is that you can never succeed if you never start.

  6. Startup pivots are best made early and quickly. Based on my own experience, startup corrections are inevitable. No matter how certain you are that your idea will be a winner, you are likely wrong. Young entrepreneurs seem to understand this, and have no hesitation making changes. Others can be very stubborn and charge blindly ahead.

  7. You learn more by talking to people early, versus stealth mode. Stealth mode entrepreneurs won’t tell people about their idea early, or ask for feedback, for fear of the idea being stolen or copied. I watched Neva give her pitch, and talk to everyone who would listen, before too much effort might be wasted. Real entrepreneurs are seldom paranoid.

Overall, the best lesson I heard from Neva for other entrepreneurs is “Don’t be afraid to be yourself.” She is doing what she loves, and you should be doing the same. That’s the only way your passion and determination will get you through the business challenges and the market changes ahead. Enjoy the journey, as well as the destination. Your future and mine depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/13/2017 ***

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Friday, June 23, 2017

Do You Have The Right Stuff For A Growth Business?

business-growthAs an angel investor, I get approached regularly by aspiring entrepreneurs who can talk endlessly about their latest great idea, and little else. While I recognize that every new venture starts with an idea, a successful business of lasting value is all about people and execution. Every investor is looking for someone who can turn an idea into a solution, and turn that solution into a business.

If you think about it, some of the biggest current business successes have been based on fairly mundane ideas, including Google (search the Internet), Facebook (talk to friends), and Amazon (electronic shopping). Based just on my own experience, each of these has been tried thousands of times, and only a few of the teams and implementations have met with long-term success.

In fact, according to a new book, “Built for Growth,” by Chris Kuenne and John Danner, the specific beliefs and preferences of the founders can be shown to be far more important than the idea alone. These personality elements drive team motivation, decision making, and personal leadership style, and ultimately shape the plan and the execution leading to success or failure.

In fact, new business founders come in every shape, size, and personality type. Yet my own experience is consistent with the author’s analysis that there are four distinct types who consistently are among the most successful – Drivers, Explorers, Crusaders, and Captains.

After looking at the strengths and weaknesses of each of these in some detail, per a related article by the authors, I applied my own extension of this analysis to how they could be most effective in addressing the five challenges that we both believe every entrepreneur faces, no matter what the type:

  1. Converting ideas into solutions. Drivers and explorers have the advantage here. The challenge is to correctly sense the market, and match the product to the customer need, rather than celebrate the technology or assume that everyone will buy. Captains and crusaders sometimes get too focused on selling the idea before they have the solution.

  2. Galvanizing talented individuals for collaborative impact. Business growth requires many people, so captains step to the forefront in this challenge. Every business ultimately needs empowered teams, with less dependency on star talent. Great businesses are built with trusting relationships, both inside and outside the company. Watch your alignment.

  3. Transforming customers into advocates. Today’s dependence on the customer experience also requires need and cause alignment, as well as exceptional relationships. Every entrepreneur type needs to balance their focus on the customer, with their love for a solution, cause, or business return. Customers will solicit or drive away new customers.

  4. Aligning investors and strategic partners. Investors and external partners tend to favor drivers and captains. However, strategic partners who are already drivers or captains need to align with crusaders and explorers. The challenge is to find complementary relationships, for added value, rather than non-productive thrashing.

  5. Scaling and innovating the business. For scaling and long-term survival, every business needs a continuing focus on the systematic approaches and continuous innovation of an explorer. It’s time to empower more people, keep the broader team engaged, continually translate why to how, and be flexible for market shifts.

It’s evident to me that new business builders who understand their own personality type, with their own particular combination of beliefs and preferences that drive motivation, decision making, and leadership style, can select the right partners, the right team, and the right customers for maximum impact. Business is not rocket science, but it is personal. Get to know yourself first.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/07/2017 ***

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Monday, June 19, 2017

Is Your Leadership Style Motivating or Demoralizing?

angry-man-demotivatingEvery business leader realizes their primary objective is to motivate people to do what is required, yet all of us with any experience in business tend to remember most those times when we felt highly demotivated by our leaders. Since I can’t imagine any leader demoralizing their team intentionally, I’ve concluded that the challenge must be how to see your own faults and fix them.

I’m sure there are a few leaders who are convinced they have no faults, so they don’t look. For the rest, as a coach, I still struggle with definitively telling leaders what to look for in themselves, and how to change. In that context, I just finished a new book, “Communicate Like A Leader,” by Dianna Booher, who has long coached executives at some of the largest Fortune 500 companies.

I like her summary of seven habits that differentiate generally demoralizing managers from ones that are seen as highly motivating. With some of my own commentary, I see these habits characterizing leaders whose management style includes the following:

  1. Dole out bits and pieces versus the big picture. Business professionals don’t want to be treated as “kids,” by parents who parcel out only what they think their children can handle or need to know at the moment. They expect to be motivated by the “big picture,” or higher purpose of your business or group. Don’t ever talk down to your team.

  2. Focus on the “how” rather than the “why.” Only automatons need to be programmed with how to do something, without any understanding of why, and no human is motivated to be a robot. Poor leaders often neglect to offer the why, perhaps because they don’t understand it themselves, or fear they may get challenging questions or disagreement.

  3. Discourage questions as a waste of time. Great leaders actually seek insightful questions and even opposing views, as an avenue to engagement, innovation, and collaboration. The best leaders love to learn, and they know they can’t learn much while talking. Leaders must practice active listening to optimize learning and motivation.

  4. Assign projects or tasks and then disappear. A more motivational approach for leaders is to delegate projects or tasks at a reasonable pace, taking care with each to make sure the team understands the assignment, accepts responsibility, and has the resources to reach the goal. Extra time spent in the beginning will save much time later.

  5. Hire people perceived to be less capable than themselves. Ineffective leaders tend to hire “helpers” rather than “help.” Helpers take more time to manage and train, but won’t challenge your boundaries. If you hire people smarter than yourself, they will be motivated to complement your skills, and both you and your business will benefit.

  6. Communicate indirectly and assume people understand. This approach leaves staff guessing about their standards and expectations, introduces errors, and reduces motivation. People are motivated to deliver if they clearly understand what is expected, with no surprises. Informal direct discussions are more productive than formal ones.

  7. Tend to share mostly bad news or negative feedback. No one is motivated by a leader who only seems to show up when things go wrong. The best leaders communicate personally, regularly, and consistently in both good times and bad. They are quick to celebrate small wins, and give positive feedback more often than negative.

In my experience, the best assessment of where you fit in this spectrum is the amount of positive feedback you get directly from your team, and the number of people who lobby to join your team. If you are hearing more negatives than positives, or your best people are always ready to leave, it may be time to take a hard look in the mirror. Only you can really change the person you see.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/05/2017 ***

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Sunday, June 18, 2017

9 Steps To A Balanced Business – Purpose vs Execution

balanced-business-purpose-executionI’m a big proponent of building your business based on a higher purpose, rather than financial gain alone. Today I find that some entrepreneurs, are putting all their focus on a social or environmental cause, and perhaps naively expect that purpose alone will lead to a sustainable business. The reality is that purpose must be balanced with execution for long-term survival.

For those of you who are looking for some guidance on how to meet this balance, I found some real insights in a new book, “Purpose Meets Execution,” by award winning HR executive and business leader Louis Efron. I advocate his nine deliberate steps for bringing balance between purpose and execution to every organization, including new startups and mature businesses:

  1. Define a pragmatic organizational purpose first. If team members and customers can’t relate to your purpose, or don’t agree with it, your business will not thrive. It’s important to involve your team in the definition of purpose, and agree it is consistent with a viable business model, including opportunity, customer need, and a positive return.

  2. Design a structure flexible enough for change. If you build an organization that can’t change, you will become extinct. The only way to do this is to assume that change is necessary to keep up with the market and competitors, and make it part of the process. The longer a system goes without change, the harder it is to pivot when required.

  3. Find new methods for improving communication. Better communication facilitates both purpose and execution. Be aware that communication is much more than just talking and documenting – it’s active listening, building relationships, and walking the walk as well as the talk. Hire, coach, and train everyone on the team to focus on communication.

  4. Lead with an executable vision for the future. Employees and customers alike will rally around a vision, supporting your purpose, if it is seen as executable, with the potential for making their life better if they get it right. The intent is also to get beyond the dream stage, and focus the organization’s energy on the challenges at hand today.

  5. Live and demonstrate aligned people values. Company and organizational values must be aligned with employee and customer personal values, or your execution won’t work, no matter what the purpose. These values must be lived by the leaders during execution every day, and reinforced by rewards and recognition on an ongoing basis.

  6. Place only the right people in the right roles. This starts with hiring only people with a purpose and cultural fit, as well as having the right skills and experience to fill specific roles. On an ongoing basis, it also means mentoring for development of existing team members to prepare them for both the purpose and execution of new functions.

  7. Create a mission that helps people enjoy work more. Part of employee satisfaction is having a well-understood purpose, but they also have to enjoy the execution. Make sure they fully understand the mission, how their efforts will help customers live better, and how their efforts will be fully appreciated and rewarded by company leaders and peers.

  8. Measure employee and customer engagement. By focusing on both employee as well as customer satisfaction, you will balance purpose with execution. It also helps to look for triggers of disengagement, such as a time-consuming expense process, or an uptick in customer complaints. Leaders can gain much from walk-arounds and customer visits.

  9. Take visible action quickly on engagement issues. If you let engagement issues continue unchecked, the negativity will quickly spread throughout your business and damage both purpose and execution. Take action and celebrate results. Foster a sense of urgency, and look for positive energy both inside and in customer feedback.

In my experience, the most powerful driver of business success is a great culture of purpose balanced with executional excellence. A focus on one without the other doesn’t bring personal satisfaction, or financial gain. I encourage every entrepreneur and business leader to take a hard look at the balance in their own organization. Waiting until you sense a crisis is too late.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/01/2017 ***

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Saturday, June 17, 2017

9 Keys To Maximizing Your Business Leadership Impact

leadership-impactIn this age of social media and world-wide Internet, message delivery from business leaders needs to change, just like the message changes from leaders in your personal lives. Just a few years ago, no one could have imagined getting text messages from parents, or a President prone to communicate via Twitter. Not only what you say, but how you deliver it shapes your impact.

In that context, I just finished a new book, “Leadership Material,” by Diana Jones, containing a wealth of insights, compelling stories, and examples taken directly from her coaching sessions with current business leaders. Based on my own experience mentoring entrepreneurs, I see the same things, and recommend the following principles for every aspiring business leader today:

  1. Communication must address content and relationship. Every act of communication now has two messages: a content message and a relationship message. The content is what you want to say, and the other half is how you express your attitudes and feeling. Either can get you valued and followed, or rejected by your team and your customers.

  2. With texting and email, syntax and punctuation are critical. In the new mediums, you don’t have body language, tone of voice, and facial expressions, so every word, syntax, and context is critical. Ignoring the relationship considerations, and ordering people to act, causes resentment. Everyone wants their work and loyalty to be valued.

  3. Influence and collaboration trumps command and control. No longer can leaders consider communication as “information out, information in.” You can’t hide behind your technical expertise or a formally appointed role. To be a leader with influence, you must create a culture of engagement and participation, through your language in all channels.

  4. Message tone must align with your observable actions. With the pervasive use of video and instant messaging, people know when you are “walking the talk,” or not. They sense whether your emotional tone is genuine, and consistent with words received. Relationships and your impact quickly break down if you revert to old default behaviors.

  5. Engagement requires a clear use of “I,” “you,” and “we.” Careful use of these three words is necessary for positive business relationships. They can create engagement, unity, and collaboration, or cause alienation. People want to be included in the goals, as well as the results. Customers want to be part of your family, not just transactions.

  6. Be sure to talk to the team, rather than about them. How many times have you listened to a leader talking about their team, rather than to them? This is often the moment when the emotional tone of the group shifts from anticipation to disappointment, and a crucial opportunity for engagement is lost. The same concept applies to customers.

  7. Maximize inclusion by asking open-ended questions. Inclusive questions allow team members to tap into their thoughtfulness and experience, whether they identify with the main theme or not. Team responses give the leader important information for refining their content and adapting it to new contexts. Ask people to share personal perspectives.

  8. Avoid the impersonal and passive to close the gap. Relationships narrow the distance gap between leader and team, or teams and customers. Impersonal language forces listeners to make assumptions, interpretations, and associations, resulting in misunderstandings and broken relationships. Passive is always the language of distance.

  9. Demonstrate personal accountability without ambiguity. Leaders who never refer to themselves, or use the ambiguous “we,” appear to be dodging ownership and responsibility. In today’s work environments, with multiple locations, and people working from home, people have to count on your words alone to provide the right message.

These guidelines are especially applicable to aspiring future leaders and business professionals who simply want to be appreciated for their contribution. The language of leadership is far more important than title, tenure, or expertise. The new communication vehicles and expectations today gives you new opportunities to highlight your value, or hasten your demise. It’s your choice.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Huffington Post on 06/16/2017 ***

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Monday, June 5, 2017

Are You And Your New Venture Positioned For Success?

business-positioned-for-successEven the most diligent investors are often surprised by apparently solid business startups that fail, while others succeed, despite the odds. In my own experience as an investor, I have concluded that success is more about the people than the product. The best founders operate with a key set of internal principles that allow them to break through all but the toughest business obstacles.

I found this perspective validated in a new book, “Plan Commit Win: 90 Days to Creating a Fundable Startup,” by serial entrepreneur and strategic consultant Patrick Henry. He cites several studies, in addition to his own experience, that highlight the following key people drivers to business success:

  1. Founders need to be driven by impact rather than money. This is an emerging theme in the past decade as investors learn that customers assign more value and loyalty to business owners who display this attribute. The result is a win-win-win situation for investors, entrepreneurs, and customers alike. More value delivered and success for all.

  2. Extraordinary commitment to a chosen path. Other studies indicate that a top reason for many startup failures is that the founders just gave up too early. Owners with the strongest commitment to their solution or cause never give up, and often break through obstacles to success that would kill the rest of us. Don’t be afraid to stay the distance.

  3. Willingness to adjust, but not constantly adjusting. There is indeed a fine line here, between stubbornly sticking to some pre-conceived assumptions, versus changing course based on today’s complaint. Every startup I know has pivoted at least once, but successful companies make each of these a well-planned and well-orchestrated effort.

  4. Persistence and patience with timing mismatches. Solutions that imply a paradigm shift always take longer to sell, and more money for marketing and education than expected. New business owners with this challenge need more patience and persistence to survive. Changing economic conditions and political changes also cause timing issues.

  5. Willingness to observe, listen, and learn. Business success is all about two-way communication, between you and your customers, investors, partners, and internally between team members. Social media and other channels provide the vehicles, but everyone has to be open for the process to work. Use active listening to learn the most.

  6. Develop the right mentoring relationships. It’s easy to assume that your best friend is also your best mentor. But a real mentor will tell you what you need to hear, rather than what you want to hear. Find someone with complementary business knowledge, and the time to help, with your trust and respect, Document your objectives and talk often.

  7. Leadership with general and domain knowledge. The grass always looks greener on the other side of the fence. Don’t start your business in a domain where you have no experience, even if it looks like a sure-fire success. The rules for success in any given business are not in the back of the book. Instead, find a partner with domain experience.

  8. Implement “lean startup” principles. The lean startup methodology, popularized by Eric Ries about ten years ago, expedites new business success through iterative solution cycles, focused business experiments, and validated learning. Investors avoid startups that are in stealth mode, long development cycles, and an inflexible business model.

  9. Balance of technical and business knowledge. According to one study, teams with one technical founder and one business founder raise 30 percent more money, have 2.9 times more users, and are 19 percent less likely to scale prematurely than technical or business-heavy founding teams. Two heads are almost always better than one.

Of course, these principles all work best in the context of a comprehensive overall plan (documented for effective communication), being executed by a committed team, and supported by the right investors. If you can put technology aside long enough to focus on these principles, you too will find the funding you need, and beat the odds of success with your new venture.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/22/2017 ***

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