Monday, January 29, 2018

8 Ways To Nurture New Venture Stock Into A Goldmine

goldmine-stock-certificateI’ll never forget that great sense of excitement I felt when I incorporated my first business, and realized that I was now the proud owner of 10 million shares of common stock. Of course, initially these founder’s shares were worth essentially nothing, but it doesn’t take much of an imagination to grasp the possibilities. It’s great motivation for every entrepreneur to get that value up quickly.

Unfortunately, in my years since as a small business advisor, I have seen too many founders squander this asset through a lack of understanding of some basic legal and operational issues, or by handing out nominally “free” stock to the wrong people at the wrong time. Now is the time to talk to a qualified attorney, and get some discipline in place for the following strategies:

  1. Manage founder’s shares like gold with partners. Even though initial stock has no market value today, it is extremely valuable in dividing equity ownership between co-founders, investors, and early partners. Make sure you make allocations commensurate with commitments and contributions. Don’t allow personal assumptions or verbal offers to go undocumented. These will be back to bite you later when you achieve unicorn status.

  2. Register your stock early with the IRS to minimize taxes. Waiting to incorporate until you have investors gives your founder’s shares immediate value, and the IRS will want to collect on that value when you can least afford it. Every entrepreneur should incorporate well before this time and file an 83(b) election within 30 days of incorporation.

  3. Always specify a vesting period for new partners. Where possible, pay out committed shares over time as they are earned, as opposed to all up front. Typically, vesting in startups occurs monthly over four years, starting with the first 25 percent vesting only after a participant has satisfied commitments for at least 12 months (one year cliff).

  4. Reserve the right of first refusal to buy shares back. To retain control of your business, you need to reclaim stock shares from anyone leaving the startup for any reason. Otherwise, later stock value growth may be lost or used against you before you can capitalize on it. Buying back stock on the open market may cost a huge premium.

  5. Manage dilution with proper use of new investment terms. When new equity investors purchase a share of your company, the re-allocation of existing shares should be based on a formula that maximizes the number of your remaining founder shares. Some reduction is ownership percentage should be expected with every new investor.

  6. Maximize your own vesting if the business is acquired early. If you are pushed out by an acquisition due to unusual success or strategy conflict before the normal vesting schedule comes to a close, only an accelerated vesting clause can save your original percentage. Here is another case where work up front is required to make this happen.

  7. Negotiate an upgrade from common shares to preferred stock. Investors typically demand preferred stock to give them more control and first payouts, but these advantages can be at least partially offset (up to 20 percent) if you plan ahead. The acceptance of this option is now common, even though introduced only a few years ago.

  8. Set maximum board seats and select criteria in bylaws. Typically, every new investor expects a board seat, which can lead to an operational nightmare and loss of control. I recommend a limit to no more than five board members, with at least two being from within the company. This assures you a reasonable voice in strategy and investments.

Sometimes opting out as Founder and CEO, as your company scales up, or even being pushed out, is not a bad thing, as long as you still retain a reasonable percentage of your original founder’s shares. Most true entrepreneurs I know are really good at starting companies, but are not ready for the focus on processes and personnel that come with a more mature organization.

If you have done the proper homework along the way as suggested here, you won’t be a part of one of those sad stories of a new venture selling for millions of dollars, or going public, with the founder being squeezed out of all the gains. Remember, founder’s shares may be just paper when you get them, but they can be a goldmine if you treat them right.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/12/2018 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, January 26, 2018

6 Strategies To Build Traction and Validate Your Plan

growth-curve-tractionAs an advisor to many new venture founders, I often hear their frustration at being told by investors “I love your idea, but come back when you have more traction.” As a member of an angel investment group, I have to admit this is probably the most common rejection we issue. The intent is to indicate that founder passion is not a substitute for real customers buying the product.

The challenge is to convince investors that your business will attract real customers, before you have a revenue stream that exceeds your expenses. Even if you are funding the project yourself (bootstrapping), you should be asking yourself the same question before you have burned all your resources. Pivoting early, based on real customer feedback, is always cheaper than later.

I learned this the hard way a few years ago in a startup where customers loved our idea and the free prototype, but we couldn’t sell one for the full price needed to meet our financial projections. We simply hadn’t tested the price sensitivity in the market segment and geography that needed the features we offered. In fact, no founder can predict all the variables in today’s marketplace.

So what should a new venture founder do to convince themselves, as well as potential investors, that they have a viable business before the results are conclusive? Here are some strategies that I recommend from my own experience, to improve your odds of business success, as well as build traction points with your investors:

  1. Quote market research and input from outside experts. No matter how passionate you and your friends are about your solution, it doesn’t mean that if you build it, they will come. Seek evidence from recognized sources, like Gartner Group, and spend time with industry experts and real customers, before quantifying your opportunity and prices.

  2. Start selling it on social media before you build it. Marketing is everything these days. On the average, it takes as long to build marketing momentum as it does to build the solution. Really listen to the feedback you are getting. If you wait to begin marketing until your product is final, you will find it very expensive to pivot to meet real world input.

  3. Build a realistic revenue model and price, based on cost. The free model, with an implied intent to monetize later, doesn’t work with investors anymore. It takes real money to sustain a business, with a margin in the 50 percent range, and some realistic milestones and metrics. Sell at least one at full price to a real customer to show traction.

  4. Document and initiate a multi-faceted marketing plan. Word of mouth and viral marketing alone are not adequate, and a website is not all you need for credibility. To get the visibility and distribution for scaling, plan on one or two levels of partner relationships, as well as real events and promotions early. Traction is marketing and sales results.

  5. Gather early customer testimonials and commitments. Great customer experience expectations these days span the range from shopping, closing, delivery, usability, to support. If you don’t have real customers yet, focus on the size of the pipeline, letters of intent, and penetration into recognized retail and distribution outlets.

  6. Show team organization and preparation for scale up. New ventures requesting funding without credible operational and financial leadership will likely be declined. Don’t assume that customer-facing employees can be hired and trained at the last minute. Your plan targets and milestones in these areas are key to achieving the results you expect.

I’m not suggesting that all these business elements need to be perfect before you ask for funding or open doors for business. As an active angel investor, I do expect founders to be able to communicate a plan and progress toward these elements, just as I expect them to understand and communicate all the elements of their technology and their solution.

There is no magic indicator in business, just results. The more evidence that you can provide of customers in hand, or waiting impatiently outside the door, the more likely and timely it is that you will be able to achieve the next step. Your passion and personal conviction are necessary, but not sufficient, to turn a great idea into a scalable business.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/09/2018 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

7 Tips For Success With Today’s Demanding Customers

customer-experience-ratingIf you think your business has weathered the storm, think again. In addition to obvious economic challenges, the emerging generation of customers is determined to radically change the rules for customer engagement. Their expectations of relationship and personalization are taxing businesses today, and their power through social media will kill those who can’t or won’t comply.

An eye-opening list of insights was highlighted in a classic book, “Build for Change,” by Alan Trefler, Founder and CEO of Pegasystems. He makes a convincing argument that it’s time for every company to get prepared for the next customer generation, or your company is heading toward life support.

As a backdrop, he defines the evolution already in progress from current Gen Y customers to a more demanding and less tolerant state (Gen D) that will make them even quicker and more technologically able to demonize and destroy your business, if it won’t meet their norms of interaction, personalization, and purpose.

While I’m not so sure that I agree that these represent the ultimate apocalypse of customers, I do believe the solutions he recommends should be taken seriously by every entrepreneur. I summarize here my interpretation of his key points:

  1. Take heed of serious next generation customer expectations. More and more, I see evidence that customers want to be pulled to your company, rather than feel that you are pushing yourself on them. They are not hesitant to engage the crowd through social media and sites like Yelp to drive you from the marketplace. Your reputation can be compromised these days by poor handling of even a single customer experience.

  2. Don’t count on big data alone to save you. In reality, data today is only memory about past transactions. Responding to transaction trends without the proper context can lead to broken relationships. Your changes must allow them to discover something so awesome that they are excited, versus disgusted, that you seem to know who they are.

  3. Add context and intent to your customer analysis. Use aggregated data from social media, professional market research, public sentiment, and key influencers for change analysis. Going beyond data to get intent is common sense, more than technology. Intent goes both ways, so make sure your customers understand your business as well.

  4. Make sure all your processes are customer-centric. Most business processes today are driven by internal needs to cut costs and maximize quality. Customers want their interactions and transactions to be painless and personalized. It’s time to rethink every process from the outside-in, to be consistent with customer expectations.

  5. Upgrade to modern information technology tools. Too many businesses still tolerate archaic IT tools, or resort to rogue mashups developed to circumvent the approved tools. Only modern tools can assure you the best and seamless execution for every customer interaction. Traditional waterfall development and outsourcing won’t keep up with change.

  6. Rethink how you organize, train, and reward employees. The first step is to break the legacy silos and underground channels in the current organization, which usually means realigning executive leadership and roles. Integration of all groups is the key to an optimal customer experience, starting from the hiring process to pay for performance.

  7. Adopt new core principles to stay competitive and assure survival. These must include democratizing how you do technology, thinking in layers, and using modern analytics to optimize continually. Technology need no longer be only the realm of expert gurus, business professionals in each layer of the business can build solutions, and executives with analytics can continuously refine the high-definition view of the customer.

Your ability to meet the test of the ever more-demanding and less-tolerant customer, as well as the emerging swarm of new competitors, is dependent on your willingness and ability to change your thinking and your company. The challenges ahead are great, but the opportunities are greater. Don’t be left behind in the ashes.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Saturday, January 20, 2018

5 New Venture Deliverables Put You Ahead Of The Crowd

audience-entrepreneursAs a mentor to startups and new entrepreneurs, I continue to hear the refrain that business plans are no longer required for a new startup, since investors never read them anyway. People cite sources like this recent Inc.com article “5 Reasons Why You Don't Need a Business Plan,” or my own blog discussion on this subject, “Situations Where A Business Plan Does Not Add Value.”

Let me be clear – business plans are never “required,” they should never be written “just for investors,” and if you sold your last startup for $800 million, most investors will not ask for a written plan for the next. On the other hand, if you are a first-time entrepreneur, the discipline of building a business plan will dramatically improve your success odds, and your odds of finding an investor.

For aspiring entrepreneurs, or if your last startup failed, it’s all about standing out above the crowd of others like you, and demonstrating your readiness. There is no crowd of successful entrepreneurs. Here is my outline of key deliverables that could convince me that you are a cut above the “average” entrepreneur that approaches me with nothing but a dream and a prayer:

  1. Personal video introduction with elevator pitch. Successful startups are all about the right people with the right stuff. In a two-minute video clip, you can introduce yourself, show your passion and the engaging personality you need to win over customers, partners, and employees. Net out the problem and your solution in the first 30 seconds.

  2. Executive summary glossy. For the more traditional investor, or for that chance meeting in a real elevator or meeting, you need a two-page brochure (two-sided page). The challenge here is not to see how many words you can get onto each side, but how you can make this so engaging in layout and content that an investor will ask for more.

  3. Investor and strategic partner pitch. A perfect size is ten slides, with the right content, that can be covered in ten minutes. Even if you have an hour booked, the advice is the same. I’ve seen a lot of startup presentations, and I’ve never seen one that was too short - maybe short on content, but not short on pages. Pitch your company, not your product.

  4. Written business plan.  Disciplining yourself to write down the plan is actually the best way to make sure you actually understand it yourself. Would you try to build a new house without a plan, if you have never done it before? In simple terms, it is a 20-page document which describes all the what, when, where, and how of your new business.

  5. Financial model.  Most new entrepreneurs tend to avoid the financials of the business, and as a result are badly surprised by cost realities, and can’t answer investor questions. I suggest a simple Excel spread sheet loaded with your revenue, cost, and margin targets covering the first five years of your business. Investors will expect it for due diligence.

Thus you see the business plan is only one of five elements of a package that every aspiring entrepreneur needs to build to stand above the crowd, in your own level of understanding of your business. You need it for communicating to your team, finding strategic partners, or soliciting investor funding from friends and family, angel investors, VCs, and crowd funding.

The ability to communicate effectively is critical to standing above the crowd. Good communication is not talking louder and longer than others, but practicing active listening, and providing a package of other elements to effectively to back up your words. Make yourself unforgettable, in a good way. This means adding value before, during, and after every interaction.

Believe it or not, there are many people in the entrepreneur crowd with outstanding ideas, but building a business is more about execution. If you have built a successful business before, you don’t need all the components above to convince anyone, including yourself, that you can do it again.

Even including repeat entrepreneurs, statistics continue to show that the overall failure rate for startups within the first five years is greater than 50 percent. The real objective of “standing above the crowd” is to give you as an aspiring entrepreneur every chance to end up in the winning group, rather than the crowd of losers.

Starting without any written plan elements may seem easier, but is not the way to win.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, January 19, 2018

7 Guidelines For Funding New Research & Development

141010-F-DF892-703As an advisor to new business owners, and an occasional angel investor, I see new business proposals daily, many seeking investors to fund early research and development (R&D) of a new product idea. Unfortunately, most entrepreneurs don’t realize that the words “research” and “development” are red flags to investors, and all such proposals are routinely discarded.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, angel investors and venture capitalists (VCs) are looking for solutions that are already complete, with some real market traction, that need funding to be scaled to a large market, with potential for rapid growth and a large return. Funding new product research and development is just too risky, with a large time delay before any return is likely.

In fact, there are people and organizations amenable to very early stage opportunities, so my advice is target your proposals to the right people to match the stage of your effort. Broadcasting or repeatedly hitting the wrong people is not only is a waste of time, but it kills your credibility with those investors later when you really may need their help. Here are the guidelines I recommend:

  1. Recruit friends and family at any stage. People who know you, trust you, and believe in you above all else are always candidates for requesting an investment. In the trade, this category of investors is called friends, family and fools (FFF), and is the primary source of funding for entrepreneurs with no prior track record in business or technology.

  2. Look to academia and the government for basic research. If you are looking to fund a technology study, before any specific commercial product can be considered, you need to focus on relevant large organizations with deep pockets. Sources include government grants, universities, and large enterprises searching for next generation products.

  3. Find private fund incubators for technology pilots. If you project is more in the applied research stage, ready to solve practical problems, but haven’t yet named a final product, the investment sources should be extended to include large private and public fund initiatives, such as AMA IBM Healthcare or Environmental / CleanTech Projects.

  4. Explore crowdfunding for the prototype stage. Funding for commercial product prototypes is still R&D in the eyes of most VC investors, but in business areas with large consumer opportunities, this activity will catch the eyes of crowdfunding investors. It’s still considered high risk for investment, since manufacturing and quality issues are likely.

  5. Target specialized VCs for the certification stage. These days, almost every new product is not deemed scalable until it has been certified as meeting a multitude of quality and agency standards, including the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and Food & Drug Administration (FDA) clinical trials. Industry specific VCs may jump in at this stage.

  6. All professional investors love the scaling stage. Solution development at this stage is the process of scaling up for manufacturing and marketing rollout. The technology is now embodied in a replicable solution, and has been sold to at least one customer. Your fundability with investors now depends on traction and perceived execution capability.

  7. Reinvest early returns to expand the product line. Even for mature startups, there is always a need for further product development and research to compete and diversify the business, and investors understand this. But to prevent confusion with basic R&D, these costs should never be called out as a major category in your use of funds to investors.

Fortunately, in many attractive business domains, including mobile software, Internet apps and ecommerce, the cost of product development is at an all-time low. Developers are finding powerful tools to build mobile apps and websites for a few thousand, rather than millions of dollars. They don’t need the long research and development cycles of a new technology.

Thus smart entrepreneurs often find personal funding for solution development, and save investor funding pitches for the larger scaling-up marketing costs later. Build solutions, not technology, and don’t waste your time and credibility talking to angels and VCs until you have something of interest to them.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/04/2018 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, January 15, 2018

10 Keys To Finding That Perfect-Fit Business Partner

Building92microsoftIn my experience, the initial idea for a new product usually comes from a single entrepreneur, but the implementation plan for a new business requires a team, or at least a co-founder. The reason is that any one person rarely has the bandwidth, interest, or skills to manage all the tasks required to build a business. Thus I find that two heads are usually better than one in a startup.

Way back in the early eighties, I had the privilege of working with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, when Microsoft was still a startup. I realize now that these two were near-perfect co-founders, with Bill having the technical passion, and Steve bringing the business experience from his prior stint at Procter and Gamble. Their skills and interests were complementary, and their trust in each other was palpable.

The challenge is how to find that elusive perfect-fit partner. As a mentor to aspiring business owners, I often get asked to find that partner for them, since founders are usually too busy with their solution. I always laugh, and ask them if they want me to find a spouse for them as well, since the right partner requires many of same attributes of chemistry, values, and passion.

I may indeed be able to mention a couple of possible names from my meeting with others, but I believe that finding the right co-founder or partners is more critical than any other task for a new entrepreneur, and it needs to be done personally. Thus I always recommend a common series of steps that I have seen working for other entrepreneurs:

  1. Write a partner description for that ideal co-founder. Take a hard look at your own business strengths and weaknesses, and write down what partner skills and experiences would best complement yours. Your best friend, spouse or a family member is the least likely candidate, so don’t start there. Seek input from seasoned investors and peers.

  2. Network to find co-founders as you network to find investors. In fact, your ideal partner may also be an investor. Many of the same venues, such as industry conferences and entrepreneur forums are useful for both. Online, it pays to join entrepreneur and investor groups on social media, and build relationships with people meeting your criteria.

  3. Explore matchmaking sites for business partners. Co-founders are business partners for startups, so don’t be afraid to join and explore sites such as FoundersNation, StartupWeekend, and CoFoundersLab. Also start a discussion on the wealth of business blogs frequented by entrepreneurs, where you can make your interests known.

  4. Support local university entrepreneur organizations. University professors and student leaders always know a selection of top entrepreneurs, alums or staff members who are just waiting to find the perfect match for their own interests, skills and ideas to change the world. Support local activities and you support yourself.

  5. Look for a partner from a different culture or background. In today’s global economy, your ideal partner may be half way around the world, from a different geography and business culture. Every startup infrastructure is flush with smart people from all cultures, many of whom may be ready and able to bring new energy and creativity to your startup.

  6. Re-connect to strong associates from prior assignments. If you were impressed with someone’s drive and capabilities in a prior work role, now is the time to connect again to check their interest and availability, or recommendations they may offer. Use caution to avoid employer conflicts of interest and non-compete clauses.

  7. Relocate to a more lucrative geography. Finding a high-tech co-founder in the middle of Kansas may be a long search. There’s a reason that Silicon Valley and Boston are hubs for high-tech startups. These areas may have not just your co-founder, but also the robust ecosystem your startup needs for investors, programmers and customers.

  8. Explore candidate values and goals outside of work. Co-founder chemistry and interest matches are best explored outside the office. Find some common hobbies or sports to get acquainted before giving away half your company. Business partnerships are long-term relationships, so take your time getting acquainted before closing the deal.

  9. Jointly define major business milestones and key deliverables. This process is the ultimate test of a true shared vision and working style. Building a startup is hard and unpredictable work, and people get busy, so now is the time to jointly commit. If you can’t work as a team now and easily agree, it probably won’t happen at all in the future.

  10. Negotiate and document roles early, including who is the boss. No matter how equal you all are, there is only room for one at the top to make the final decision on hard issues. Especially when everything feels good today, don’t be hesitant to ask the hard questions of each other. Investors and stockholders expect only one chief executive officer.

There are so many challenges in a startup that no founder should try to go it alone, as you need someone to share your successes, and help you recover from the inevitable setbacks. When you find someone that works, I’m betting you will be together on your next startup, and the one after that. Great teams persevere, and success breeds success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 01/02/2018 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Sunday, January 14, 2018

5 Strategies To Capture Sustainability Opportunities

Sustainable_development.svgAs I have said many times, the cost of entry for an aspiring entrepreneur has never been lower, and the total wealth of opportunities has never been larger. Today you can start a new web site business for as little as $100, produce cheap smart phone apps, or lead the effort to tap the multitude of opportunities brought by capitalizing on our concern for dwindling natural resources.

A while back, I focused on the new sharing economy, so this time I will highlight how a shortage of something, like natural resources, should be seen by an aspiring entrepreneur as a wealth of new startup ideas. I was inspired by the classic book, “Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century,” by Stephan Heck and Matt Rogers.

Based on their work in CleanTech and sustainability, Heck and Rogers outline five strategies for existing companies to apply to current practices and processes for dramatic efficiency improvements in the use or production of resources. I have recast these strategies here for new entrepreneurs and startups, who thrive on change, to show the wealth of opportunities for them:

  1. Substitute new materials for scarce natural resources. Entrepreneurs have huge opportunities to deliver higher-performance materials at lower cost, like carbon fiber for steel. These will not only save some weight, but build better vehicles, and improve the environment. Consider the startup MarkForged, which takes carbon-fiber to a 3D printer.

  2. Eliminate waste throughout existing processes. Mature companies often lose sight of scrap and changeover time in existing systems. Entrepreneurial minds can more easily see energy, water losses, and inefficient material usage. For example, a startup named Dirtt has been able to take reusable building components to a whole new level.

  3. Upgrade, reuse, or recycle every product. Make every product a natural loop, from creation to use to recycle to reuse. The tighter the loop, the greater the value captured and the stronger the competitive differentiation. Reusing a phone, like the ecoATM story, is more valuable than reusing a chip, or just extracting the gold and silver.

  4. Optimize existing product efficiency, safety, and reliability. Sadly, cars are parked 96% of the time, and shipping containers takes lots of space while empty. You don’t have to be an aspiring entrepreneur to see opportunities for improvement. Startups like Uber for cars, and Staxxon for containers are already there, but these are only the beginning.

  5. Move physical products and services into the digital realm. Steve Jobs has led the way here, by turning music, movies, cameras, and flashlights into apps. The opportunity is to reinvent whole products and whole industries, making things ten times better in the process. This not only saves scarce natural resources, but adds value to the economy.

Relative to all these principles, the “big three” of scarce natural resources consist of land (food), water, and energy. The stark reality is that the people and businesses of the world need to produce more with less in all these areas, while eliminating wasteful practices and policies. The effort has started, but there is still a huge need in all areas.

A key fact for both startups and existing businesses is that we have more than 2.5 billion people in developing countries to support who need to be moving out of poverty and into industrial and service occupations by 2030. This number almost doubles the number who have already moved into the middle class and urbanized. These will be your customers, and your competitors.

Overall, with all these opportunities, entrepreneurship is perhaps the most scarce and valuable natural resource in today’s society, for driving economic growth and social development. So now is the time to invest in all natural resources, by supporting aspiring entrepreneurs, in support of the opportunities they are mining. It’s a higher calling than one more social media platform.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

6 Steps To Empowered Employees And Unstoppable Growth

womens-power-unstoppable-growthAs a business advisor, one of the things I see most often as a drag to productivity and growth is employees who, despite their best efforts, can’t change things that they know are hurting the company. They want to grant deserving customers special concessions, or fix a broken process, but are convinced it may cost them their job, or find that no one above them seems to care.

Perhaps you remember as well when the norm in business was a no return policy, or one size fits all, or getting support meant waiting hours on the phone to reach an unhelpful and unhappy employee. If these still exist in your organization, they are huge red flags and you can be certain that you are losing your best employees as well as customers.

Yet every CEO I know believes that his team is motivated and empowered to make the business better for both customers and the company. I’ve spent many hours identifying the causes of this dichotomy, and working on specific steps to fix it. In that context, I found in a new book, “The Unstoppable Organization,” by Shawn Casemore, some good steps for every business owner:

  1. Schedule time for personal feedback from employees. Don’t assume that feedback filtered through your management chain is adequate. We have all heard how messages change, when passed up or down the line, even without any politics or personal agendas. You need to hear first-hand what is working well, and what is not delighting customers.

  2. Plan to redesign and realign employee teams every quarter. Market changes happen rapidly and regularly these days, requiring a realignment of skills, processes, and approaches to keep up. Don’t let your team get stuck in the “way we have always done things.” New perspectives are invigorating for the team, as well as for your customers.

  3. Provide multiple direct communications to every individual. Don’t assume that your priorities, challenges, and support needs will “trickle down” through the management chain. Use multiple and regular communication opportunities to amplify your message, including daily briefings, team updates, as well as management by walking around.

  4. Utilize technology and tools for collaboration and sharing. Things that are not measured cannot be managed. New and better technology is becoming available every day to present dashboards and metrics to show how well processes and empowerment are working, assess workload backlogs, and capture customer feedback and satisfaction.

  5. Identify team champions to drive initiatives and processes. Employees who have the respect of other team members, and have shown more motivation, are typically more effective than managers in driving new processes, and identifying areas that need tuning or change. Make sure these champions get your full attention, recognition, and support.

  6. Assure employee engagement and buy-in for each change. Buy-in starts by clearly listening and implementing ideas from the front lines, with full employee attribution, rather than implying management initiatives. Engagement is always enhanced with the right incentives, financial and recognition, as well as quick reaction to interim feedback.

I recognize that all of these steps go against the traditional business wisdom that growing successful businesses must define inflexible and fully documented customer processes for efficiency, automation, and lower cost. But the reality is that customer and employee expectations have changed, and your competitors have stepped up to the demands for positive experiences.

Of course, every successful business is about achieving the right balance between costs and returns, as well as keeping up with marketplace demands. So while you must continue to strive for repeatable processes, it’s time to recognize that your customers are now much more empowered, and you must do the same for your team.

It will make your organization unstoppable, more profitable, and you will certainly find the business to be a lot more fun.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/26/2017 ***

0

Share/Bookmark

Monday, January 8, 2018

8 Ways New Ventures Burn Resources Without Thinking

too-much-inventoryEvery entrepreneur I know is short on resources, including time, money, and skills. The last thing they can afford is to waste any of these, but in my mentoring and coaching activities, I see it happening all too often. Waste in a startup is any activity that spends resources, but creates no value or competitive advantage in the eyes of customers.

Much has been written about this subject in the world of manufacturing, stemming primarily from the 1990’s work by Taiichi Ohno, called the Toyota Production System (“Lean”). More recently, the concepts have been applied to the general business management context, in a classic book by Certified Turnaround Professional, Thomas H. Gray, titled “Business Techniques for Growth.”

While his book goes well beyond controlling waste as an element of growth and success, I was struck by how relevant the waste points are for every startup and every small business. Thus I am morphing the points here, with specific focus on the entrepreneur, who would never think of themselves in the context of automobile manufacturing:

  1. Offering too many products and services concurrently. In the startup world, this is often seen as a lack of focus. Trying to do too many things with too few resources, usually means the startup will not shine at anything, and will not survive the competition. That’s a deadly waste you can’t afford. My advice is to keep it simple, and do it well.

  2. Inventory and features added too soon. Inventory is money sitting idly by, adding no value. For market changing products, build first a minimally viable product (MVP), and never build products for sale until you have real orders in hand. More features and inventory added early will be wasted as you will need to pivot to match the real market.

  3. Bottlenecks to team productivity. Time utilization inefficiency is wasted time. Make sure you are not the bottleneck for your team. Many entrepreneurs insist on making every decision, and spend too much time working in the business, rather than on the business. The result is lower productivity all around. Hire real help and learn to delegate.

  4. Lack of communication. Communication is the fuel that controls the speed of startups. Delays in sharing, or lack of communication from the top, result in time and effort wasted, adding no value to the business. As an entrepreneur, you need a visible business plan and weekly team meetings, so everyone is working on current issues and real goals.

  5. Poor or too many business processes. Business processes can be your biggest time saver, or your biggest waste. Productive processes start with a plan, and end with metrics that measure value delivered. Entrepreneurs have to embrace creativity and change, yet move quickly with trained teams who can deliver repeatable processes.

  6. Focus on activities rather than results. Too many entrepreneurs confuse action with momentum and results. Focus on the 20% of your important tasks that will deliver 80% of the results. Judiciously apply 20% of your energy where it will achieve 80% of the momentum you desire. Then always measure customer results, not work.

  7. Defective products and services. Poor quality products and poor customer service are doubly deadly wastes. You lose the customer you paid to acquire, and the unhappy customer spreads the word to potential customers that you are spending marketing resources on, but will never win. Recovery efforts are wasted resource which rarely succeeds.

  8. Underutilizing people skills. When people can do more than they are asked or motivated to do, the money spent on others doing that work is waste. The solution is to maximize your own staff productivity first. Recognize and reward the people who excel, provide training, and challenge the team to invent new methods for significant change.

Entrepreneurs and small business always operate on the edge. There is no cushion. Waste means death. Are you as an entrepreneur really ready to deal with the new technology, new regulations, and a new workforce schooled in the digital age? How much time have you spent learning to use the practical techniques and new tools available? It won’t be wasted.

Marty Zwilling

0

Share/Bookmark

Friday, January 5, 2018

How To Validate Your Innovative Product As A Business

Apple_Watch-In my experience with technical entrepreneurs, they work hard on creating an innovative and elegant solution, and assume that customers will flock to them (“if we build it, they will come”). The reality is that successful businesses these days require an equally elegant business model, with the right marketing, delivery channel, price, and target customers, to get real traction.

In fact, many experienced entrepreneurs argue that constructing a business model around your solution is far more critical and difficult than developing the product. Certainly the knowledge and skills required are different. That’s why I recommend that two co-founders are often better than one -- with one expert on the technical solution, and the other with business model experience.

This dual-leadership approach would have avoided the disaster I experienced in a startup a few years ago where beta customers loved our software solution as a free prototype, but we couldn’t sell a single one for the full price that seemed reasonable for all our work and innovation. The founder had simply not done the work to validate a price and the perfect customer segment.

In the investment community, this work is called proving the business model. It starts with validating a business opportunity (a large customer segment willing to pay money to solve a real problem), in much the same way as your proof of concept or prototype validates your technical solution. Here are seven steps I recommend for establishing the right business model:

  1. Validate the value of your solution with real customers. Customers often complain that existing approaches are not intuitive or integrated, while old solutions may be familiar and locked in. Estimate your costs, including a 50 percent gross margin, as a lower bound on a price. Products too expensive for the market won’t succeed, and prices too low will leave you exposed. Match with competitor prices and market demographics.

  2. Confirm that your solution effectively solves the problem. Once you have a prototype or alpha version, expose it to real customers to see if you get the same excitement and delight that you feel. Look for feedback on how to make it a better fit. If it doesn’t relieve the pain, or doesn’t work, no business model will save you.

  3. Finalize your channel and marketing strategy. Now is the time to pitch the business model to a group of customers or a specially selected focus group. This is not just a product pitch, but must include all elements of your pricing, marketing, distribution and support. Here again is your chance to make pivots for almost no cost.

  4. Test your model with industry experts and investors. An advisory board of outside people with experience in your domain can give you the unbiased feedback you need, as well as connections for setting up distribution and sales channels. It’s also valuable to talk to potential investors for their views, even if you are bootstrapping the effort.

  5. Execute a pilot plan in with a limited geographic scope. Good traction on a limited rollout is great validation of a business model. It allows you to test costs, quality and pricing in a few stores or a single city, with minimum jeopardy and maximum speed for recovery and corrections. Save your viral campaign and major inventory buildup for later.

  6. Make every pilot customer commit to be a reference. Give extra attention to those first few customers, and ask for publishable testimonials and word-of-mouth support in return. If you can’t get their support, even with your personal efforts, take it as a red flag that the business will probably not scale at the rate you projected.

  7. Get national visibility at trade shows and industry meetings. You need positive visibility, credibility and feedback from these organizations as a final validation of your business model, as well as your product model, in the context of major competitors. This may also be a great source for leads as a key part of that final rollout and scale-up effort.

Your business model may be a more sustainable competitive advantage than your product features, or it can be your biggest risk exposure. Too many of the business plans I see are heavy on competitive product features, but light on business model details and innovations.

If you or someone on your team hasn’t spent at least the same effort on the business model as on the product service, you are only half prepared for the real world of business today. It’s hard to win by doing half the job, especially if that is the easier half.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 12/20/2017 ***

0

Share/Bookmark