Monday, August 28, 2017

5 Reasons Every Smart Business Owner Seeks A Mentor

business-mentorAdvice is cheap. As a new business owner, you don’t have to take any advice you hear, but failing to listen and learn from someone’s prior experience can cost you a fortune. As a long-time mentor and business advisor, I find it ironic that many look only to friends for advice. They forget that friends tell you what you want to hear, while good mentors tell you what you need to hear.

When the message is the same from both, you probably don’t need the mentor anymore, but you always need the friend. Also don’t confuse a business mentor with a business coach. A business mentor helps to fill an experience gap, while a coach helps fill a skill gap. Both may be required.

A mentor’s aim is to teach you by using specific examples of what to do and how, unlike a coach who helps you develop your generic skills for deciding what to do and when. Before you are ready for a mentor, you must know yourself. Have you assessed your strengths and weaknesses? What are your goals? Where are you heading?

Unless you know these things, no one can help you. Also, you need to be mentally prepared to accept advice and criticism, if it is honest, helpful, and given in a friendly way. Once you are ready, what are some attributes of a good mentor and advisor that you should look for? You need someone who can:

  1. Focus your ideas toward viable business results. Most business owners have lots of ideas. Some can be put into practice easily, but others will be off-the-wall and need refinement to implement. A good mentor will have knowledge and some perspective on almost every business subject, to keep your focus in the right ballpark, and the right ball.

  2. Assess time spent on daily crises versus priorities. It’s easy to be driven most of the time by the crisis of the moment. As such, it’s easy to neglect the real priority for growing the business. Sharing your goals with your mentor means that if you don't complete goals, you have a credible voice to remind you and help get you back on the right track.

  3. Recommend required pivots and exit strategies. A successful business is constantly innovating. You need alerts to new pivot requirements, growth strategies, and partnering alternatives, with a realistic understanding of the costs and resources required. Then, there is the exit strategy which needs planning, connections, and forethought.

  4. Introduce you to the contacts and partners you need. When you need contacts for investors, equipment, and legal or accounting advice, your mentor has the contacts and knows where to find the information. More importantly, the mentor tells you what you need to do to build and maintain your own list of contacts.

  5. Provide an unbiased and pragmatic status perspective. A good mentor knows what to look for, and sees what your customers see. It’s natural to become so immersed in your business that you forget to step back and look in from the outside. It’s like living next to the railroad tracks; after a while you don't even see or hear the trains.

How do you find that all-knowing business mentor who is a perfect match for your temperament and your business? The best approach I know is make a short list of the people you most respect in your domain, who are accessible, do your homework, and get to know them personally. If the relationship works, ask for their help. Compensation may be offered, but is often not required.

An ideal candidate is someone from the Boomer generation, who is semi-retired, but still active in local organizations or the investment community. Another alternative would be a business professional who does this for a living, or a role model in a related business who is willing to share.

Even famous billionaire business leaders, including Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg have mentors. Of course, many of these are now friends as well. But in the beginning, you should assume that you need at least one of each, and the ability to tell the difference.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/14/2017 ***



Friday, August 25, 2017

8 Ways The Maker Movement Turns Ideas Into Businesses

maker-movement-entrepreneurIn case you haven’t noticed it, the rapid evolution of do-it-yourself (DIY) facilities for developers, including 3-D printers, SketchUp and makerspaces such as TechShop, have scaled down the cost of prototypes and hardware design by an order of magnitude. This movement, coupled with free websites and apps, makes it possible for almost any technical person to start a business.

This Maker Movement has now spread across the world, spawning hundreds of events and companies, including Maker Faires, Makerspaces, Hackerspaces, and Maker Film Fests. This technology is not only spawning a new generation of entrepreneurs, but is also changing the educational landscape, all the way down to early grade school.

In my view as an advisor to new ventures, the Maker Movement is an integral part of a new age of the entrepreneur. This new culture builds on hobbyist technologies, extends the open-source inventory of hardware and software, and bridges the gap into real business solutions with other advantages, as follows:

  1. Shortens the time and cost from idea to prototype. In today’s fast moving market, the basic product development cost and time are critical to survival. They come at the early stage while a startup has no revenue or valuation, so professional investors are hard to find. Quick low-cost design and fabrication alternatives are extremely valuable.

  2. Facilitates building skills and familiarity with new tools. Makerspaces and hackerspaces have sites and events, including education and training, where people with common interests can meet, socialize and collaborate. With the new rapid prototyping tools, products can be physically built for analysis, rather than just conceptualized.

  3. Provides networking with cofounders and strategic partners. Relationships are best built while working and learning together, rather than over drinks at a mixer or industry conference. There are already more than 2000 hackerspaces worldwide, as listed on the Hackerspace Wiki. Countless startup teams have already been spawned from these.

  4. Opportunities to meet investors and support organizations. Venture capitalists and investors are where the action is, to see first-hand what is possible, and who are the leaders. Makerspaces are becoming the new incubators and accelerators for startups, and support contacts, including lawyers and marketing groups, will be easy to find.

  5. Mind-expanding for new entrepreneurial opportunities. With low-cost digital design and fabrication, such as 3D printing and the ability to digitize almost any object, bold new innovations become apparent. Young entrepreneurs get to “touch and feel” the results, and experiment to their heart’s content. These ideas can grow quickly into real products.

  6. Meeting the new consumer demand for customization. Customers today increasingly demand solutions that are customized just for them. Hobbyists and craftsmen have made custom solutions for a very long time, but companies have resisted this requirement to keep costs down. Maker tools are changing these economies of scale.

  7. Accelerates the trend to higher purpose startups. The new do-it-yourself capabilities and low entry costs mean that you don’t have be a Bill Gates to offer solutions that have an impact on society. The Maker Movement is already poised to transform learning in our schools, and offer low-cost solutions to solve environmental and third-world problems.

  8. Breeds success through people diversity. By collaborating with the Maker Movement, artistic entrepreneurs work with the technology freaks, and both benefit from cultures around the world. New products emerge, as diverse as networked-art installations, Internet-of-Things innovations, and many other hybrid software-hardware solutions.

Now is the time for all you hobbyists and inventors to take the next step and turn your passion into a business. It won’t cost you the many thousands of dollars to outsource your prototype to China, and risk losing the intellectual property, and it will hook you up to peers and investors who can help you make your dream a reality. Now is the time to catch the wave and just do it yourself.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/09/2017 ***



Friday, August 18, 2017

5 Steps To A Compelling Story For Business Proposals

rapt-business-audienceIf you are proposing a merger or acquisition, or simply seeking an investor for your business, the process is the same. You have to put together a convincing story of a win-win opportunity for both sides. This may seem intuitively obvious, but as an angel investor, I have heard hundreds of new business pitches that focus heavily on the product, but don’t tell the rest of the story.

For example, if I don’t know you, and you didn’t sell your last company for $800 million, your story needs to educate me on why anyone would bet on you to succeed, and how you would reward me for success. Don’t forget that investors invest in people, more than ideas. Mark Zuckerberg was not the first to build a social media platform, so he had to find investors who believed in him.

Every business pitch has to tell a solid overall story, spanning the range from personal motivation, business opportunity, to return on investment for both you and me. I found some great guidance on how best to do this in a new book, “Let the Story Do the Work,” by Esther K. Choy. She speaks from years of experience coaching entrepreneurs and executives on the magic of a story.

I’m a believer in her five-step formula, paraphrased here, for weaving data around the context of an innovative solution, key players, and an effective business model, to paint a convincing picture of a compelling business proposal:

  1. Put yourself in the audience’s shoes and practice empathy. The first secret is to know your audience before you pitch. These days, with the wealth of information on the Internet and social media, there is no excuse for not finding a connection, even if the pitch is long distance. Address their challenges and interests in the story, not yours.

  2. Persuade with data from third-parties, rather than passion. When crafting business stories in today’s environments, you need proof from authoritative sources, and content to arouse the emotion and support of a specific audience. Remember that every person is different, and their emotion will likely not match yours. Temper your emotion with data.

  3. Use words to frame a limited set of numbers. Don’t try to overwhelm any audience with a large amount of data. The average person can only hold around seven numbers in working memory, so the words that position these critical figures are the key to making the story convincing and credible. Choose your points well, and make them memorable.

  4. Create meaning out of the data and emotion. To create meaning for decision-makers, focus on the whys of the relationship you are proposing. Remember the old storytelling basics of setting the scene and establishing the hook, followed by reminding, recounting, and reframing. In the end, tie back to how it all began, why your audience should care.

  5. Give them what they want to hear, then what they need. If your audience wants to hear about return-on-investment, don’t dodge that subject. Their minds won’t be open to more important points, until the first is addressed. Transition with a story to illuminate other critical needs, ending with the actions you need in the short and long term.

Unfortunately, too many business professionals see their story preparation as “window dressing,” or a waste of their valuable time in moving forward to success. In my experience, the right story, with all the right elements, is just as critical to long-term success as the right solution, with the right team. If you can’t attract the right investors, or the right strategic partners, all else is lost.

Indeed, when you get down to basics, crafting a business success story is the way you communicate to your team and external constituents, and how you market effectively to your customers. It pays to get it right the first time, since first impressions can make all the difference.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/04/2017 ***



Wednesday, August 16, 2017

8 Steps To A Positive Mindset And Business Success

think-positiveMany business executives and entrepreneurs I know are convinced that business success is all about having the right solution for the right price. These are indeed important, but we all know people who have failed, despite having a great solution, or have succeeded with a mediocre solution. Thus most investors I know claim to invest in the person, rather than the product.

In the same way, you may think that people assessment is all about skills and experience, but as a mentor to business owners, I have learned to look more for the right attitude, persistence, and determination, as success factors. I like the points made in the classic book, “You Can Win,” by Shiv Khera. His 30 years of business and coaching experience bring credibility to his perspective.

He details a step-by-step formula for becoming a top achiever in life, one I believe applies equally to success in business. In one of these steps, he outlines eight practices for building and maintaining a most critical positive attitude, which I will paraphrase here in a business context:

  1. Change focus, and accentuate the positives. Start looking for what is right in a person or business situation, instead of looking for what is wrong. Forget the mistakes of the past and press on to the greater achievements of the future. Spend so much time improving yourself that you have no time left to criticize. Be an optimist, and give everyone a smile.

  2. Make a habit of doing it now and celebrating completion. We have all procrastinated at some time or another in our business lives, leading to a negative attitude and missed opportunities. A completed task is fulfilling and energizing; and incomplete task drains energy. In today’s fast moving pace of business change, tomorrow may be too late.

  3. Develop an attitude of gratitude and humility. Relationships and collaboration are most important in business. A great philosophy to live by is ‘never forget what others have done for you and never remember what you have done for others.’ Count your blessings, and not your troubles. Celebrate every small win in business with your team.

  4. Make your business a continuous learning process. Too many business owners yearn for that stable point where the business runs like a machine, and there are no more changes. That fosters a lack of attention to new markets and new competitors, instead of an eagerness to learn and innovate. Experience without learning is wasted effort.

  5. Build high self-esteem in you and your team. When people feel good about themselves, the business looks positive, productivity goes up, and relationships are a lot better. There are two kinds of people in business – givers and takers. Takers can never get satisfaction, and they antagonize those around them. Only givers build self-esteem.

  6. Stay away from negative influences in business. Negative influences in business are usually team members or partners that don’t have high self-esteem, and like to highlight negative implications to every business challenges. Other influences to avoid include doom and gloom prognosticators, and work weeks that stretch through every weekend.

  7. Learn to like the things that need done. Some things need to be done whether we like them or not; for example, daily cash-flow analysis and business metrics. Smart business executives learn to use new technology software to give them new insights and more free time. They see customer support as positive lessons to improve quality and processes.

  8. Start your day with a positive business challenge. After a good night’s sleep we are relaxed and ready to review the good news, and take on the challenges of strategic issues. Save the daily crisis for later. In order to bring about change, you must make a conscious effort to focus on positive thoughts and behavior in others, as well as yourself.

The most effective sequence is to get your attitude and team positive, even before you start the business. That’s why smart investors, like the best ones in Silicon Valley, and the ones on Shark Tank, can tell a lot about the future success of a business, even before results. Ask yourself: Am I working as hard on my own attitude, and the attitudes of people around me, as I am on the product?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/02/2017 ***



Monday, August 7, 2017

7 Ways To Take The Lead In Building A Personal Brand

brand-yourselfIn this age of information overload, success is all about building a brand that stands out above the competition. Whether you are focused on your professional career, or starting your own company, YOU are the first or only brand that anyone will see and remember. That means that you need to overtly market yourself, rather than wait and hope that the right people or customers will find you.

In my long-time role as a mentor and business advisor, I still see too many people who are waiting to be found as a candidate for their dream role, or waiting for investors to find their startup. Unless you are proactive, you will wait a long time as others less qualified buzz right past you. Building your personal brand is a key step to success in every career and business today.

I saw this message highlighted well in a new book, “Do It, Mean It, Be It,” by Corrie Shanahan. Corrie speaks from years of experience helping executives improve their position in large enterprises, as well as in small companies. Of course, she assumes that you are confident and courageous, and willing to capitalize on all your strengths and opportunities to market yourself.

Based on my experience and her recommendations, here are seven relatively easy ways to take the lead in building your own brand:

  1. Offer to speak at local business or industry events. Every Chamber of Commerce, educational organization, and many business organizations are looking for people who are willing to share some special expertise, skills, or interests. Look for a gap to fill, and do the work to make your presence memorable. Build your momentum to bigger forums.

  2. Attend networking events with investors and influencers. For an introvert like me, networking is exhausting, rather than exhilarating. Yet relationships and future warm introductions are well worth the effort in building a brand. Every business community sponsors a plethora of these events. You will learn more by listening rather than talking.

  3. Start a blog and write for industry forums and newsletters. Every organization and web site is begging for content, so spread yourself around. These days, people love short articles, rather than taking the time to read a book. Being published will make it more likely that you’re invited to speak at events, or recognized as a brand while networking.

  4. Seek out and mingle with reporters at business events. Reporters are always looking for content, so they rarely turn away professionals they meet at conferences or events. Stock up with interesting insights, and don’t be afraid to take a position on recent trends. Just make sure they get your name and contact info for publication and follow-up.

  5. Invite experts to your company and organize an event. A little initiative here will get you branded by your peers and leaders as a connector, and provide you with the skills you will need later in marketing your own business. The experts you invite will be flattered, and will remember you as one of them. These relationships can be mined later.

  6. Compete for awards or recognition for you and your team. Too many people don’t actively look for these, again waiting for someone to ask first. Search the Internet and trade associations for relevant awards and mark the submission dates on your calendar. When your team wins, you get credit multiplied by the number of members on your team.

  7. Build international relationships outside your industry. These days, there is a huge focus on sustainability and societal improvements, in your country and world-wide. Roles and relationships with these organizations, including Hunger Relief, United Nations, and World Bank, make you and your company a global thought leader and recognized brand.

Building your brand is all about increasing your visibility and relationships. It’s really not about blowing your own horn, but simply being recognized and rewarded for the work you do, and remembered by the people who can offer new opportunities. For startup visibility, the most important people are potential customers, as well as investors and strategic partners.

Successful business professionals work hard to create the life they want, rather than simply waiting and hoping that they will be found and recognized for their capabilities. Successful startups do the same in building their visibility and image. Isn’t it time for you to take more control of your personal brand?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 07/24/2017 ***



Saturday, August 5, 2017

6 Situations Where A Business Plan Does Not Add Value

startup-business-plan-creationWriting a business plan is hard work, so I get lots of pushback from prospective new venture founders that it’s just a waste of their valuable time in this rapidly changing environment. They all claim to have the plan in their head, and writing it down will only slow down their success. In my experience to the contrary, first-time entrepreneurs without a written plan almost always fail.

On the other hand, if you just sold your last business for $800 million, no investor or advisor is going to ask you for a detailed plan on your next one. A good executive summary, backed up by a few PowerPoint slides should be more than adequate. Yet it’s interesting to note that most serial entrepreneurs don’t hesitate to create or ask for detailed business plans on every new venture.

They realize that a written business plan really has the most value to them as the founder, since most mere humans can’t build a complete plan in their head, and the real-time costs for items overlooked or forgotten can be huge and time consuming. The written plan also is extremely valuable in communicating all the required elements to your team and strategic partners.

For the rest of you who might still be skeptics, or are not quite sure where to start, I will outline the situations where I believe a written business plan makes the least sense:

  1. You are a solo entrepreneur and your solution is still evolving. It may be too early to even know for sure that you have a product to sell, or you are still experimenting with different business models. Since you are the team, and you are not expecting any investors soon, don’t bother with a business plan. Investors classify these as hobbyists.

  2. This is not your first rodeo, and your investors know you well. If you have a proven track record, your previous investors don’t have to see a written plan to believe you can do the job again. In fact, they probably don’t want you to write down the plan or distribute it to other investors, for fear of losing their opportunity or negotiating down their share.

  3. You need money, but plan to get it from friends and family. These people are investing in you, and they probably don’t have any experience evaluating business plans anyway. I wouldn’t do one, unless your rich uncle is an accountant, or has his own business. For your friends, all the issues in a good plan may actually scare them away.

  4. You plan to use crowdfunding for validation and funding. Like attracting friends and family, crowdfunding requires a marketing focus, and work on a business plan could be distracting. In fact, all the project preparation, promotion, and feedback from your results will be great input for the more detailed execution plan (business plan) you need later.

  5. You intend to license your technology to a major player. In this case, you really are not starting your own business, but you are negotiating a single big transaction to one or more “customers,” who will in turn integrate your solution into their existing business. To the extent it is possible, you should focus on their costs, timeframes, and benefits.

  6. You know little about business and intend to find a CEO soon. Spending time on a business plan at this stage may indeed be a waste, since you don’t have the experience to know what to put in it. I also don’t recommend buying any of the cheap freelance plans you find on the Internet. Bring in the business partner first and task them with the plan.

Of course, building a plan is not a substitute for first interacting with customers, investors, and industry experts. There is always value in getting to know your customers directly, iterating on a minimum viable product, and experimenting with different business models to find the most attractive business. Writing down a plan before you know the basics, benefits no one.

My sense is that not writing a business plan is more often an excuse rather than a time saver. Building a business is a long-term non-trivial task, like building a house. Would you commit results or start spending, without a detailed plan, to build a house for your family? In my view, you should treat your new business with the same respect.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 07/19/2017 ***



Friday, August 4, 2017

6 Keys to Marketing Customer Experience vs Products

Closeup of woman holding shopping bags with copy spaceNot so long ago, every business assumed that the keys to success were the highest quality product, the best value for the buck, and the best customer service. Now all we hear about is providing the best “customer experience.” Exactly what is that customer experience that every modern marketer is talking about, and how do you measure it?

A classic article in the Harvard Business Review “The Truth About Customer Experience” defines it as your customer’s end-to-end journey with you, not just the key touchpoints or critical moments when customers interact with your organization. Customer experience is the cumulative impact of multiple touchpoints over time, which result in a real relationship feeling, or lack of it.

The advent of social media and real-time interactive feedback via the Internet allows every customer to build and expect a relationship with your business, rather than just touchpoints. Yet we are all still learning what that means, in terms of hard business practices.

I like the insights outlined in a more recent book “Summit,” by F. Scott Addis, who is an experienced business executive and recent Inc. “Entrepreneur of the Year” finalist. He ties business success and your personal summit to elevating your customers’ experience with the following specific recommendations and key differentiators:

  1. Listen to the individual customer. Every relationship requires listening, as well as talking. You have to hear your customer’s dreams, goals, passions, and aspirations. That opportunity for your customers to talk and be heard is pleasurable and memorable, and defines their customer experience, more so than just satisfying business touchpoints.

  2. Exploit your product and service differences. A memorable experience has to have something different from the norm. You must be able to highlight these differences between your products and services, and those of your competitors. If not, you are part of the crowd, and no relationship can be built.

    Don’t talk about just another device added to your product line, but highlight how you have added new capability to connect easily to other ConnectKey devices and customize the experience to fit unique needs across the business.

  3. Demonstrate the value of your offering. The first step in being able to demonstrate your value is being willing to find out what your customers want or need. This will create a connection with them, which demonstrates more value than price or quality.

    Show how production workflow software expands customer reach, streamlines processes and reduce costs, rather than merely introducing the latest technology. You create a loyal customer that wants to buy from you, and will recommend you to others.

  4. Show your passion and creativity in every solution. This active discovery mindset searching for new questions drives real innovators away from more of the same. They fundamentally become value seekers; they look for value in every experience, in every conversation.

    Customers don’t want prescriptions - they seek possibilities. For example, make configuring your new office solution a transformational experience, rather than a technical installation challenge.

  5. Demonstrate your personal commitment. When in contact with customers, focus 100 percent on them, and do all you can to determine and meet their needs. Remember, customers are the reason you do what you do. Give them the respect and results they deserve and they will tell others about your good work and your business.

  6. Shoot for the customers’ hearts. Engagement and an emotional connection will make a customer relationship the driving force for loyalty and differentiation. Move from customer friendliness to customer charisma. A business with charisma gives the customer something very special, and they want to tell others about it.

Once you know how to improve your customers’ experience, you need to also know how to benchmark it. Remember the old adage, “If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.” So how do you measure customer loyalty and relationships? One metric now commonly used is called the Net Promoter® Score (NPS).

This works by asking your customers for feedback, and dividing them into three categories:

  • Promoters. Loyal enthusiasts who keep buying from you and urge their friends to do the same.
  • Passive. Satisfied but unenthusiastic customers who can be easily wooed by the competition.
  • Detractors. Unhappy customers who feel trapped in a bad relationship.

The formula for the Net Promoter® Score is the percentage of customers who are detractors, subtracted from the percentage who are promoters (NPS=P-D). Legendary companies like Amazon and Costco operate with an NPS between 50 to 80 percent. But the average venture sputters along at an NPS of only 5 percent to 10 percent, or even negative.

Maybe it time for all of us to focus more on the customer experience. There is ongoing evidence that companies with the highest customer experience typically grow at more than double the rate of their competitors. The inverse case is that you can lose you competitive lead very quickly by focusing on the wrong things. Have you checked your customers’ experience lately?

Marty Zwilling

*** Published by Xerox Small Business Solutions on 07/31/2017 ***