Saturday, June 30, 2018

5 Principles For Driving Revenue, Not Just User Count

unicorn-startup-valuationsSome analysts argue that revenue drives growth, while others say user growth drives revenue. Both have worked. Google reached $1B in revenue within five years of incorporation, and now has a market capitalization of over $800B. Twitter showed no focus on revenue in the first five years, but was able to parlay 500M users into a $25B public company, now growing revenue.

Every startup dreams of achieving that milestone, when they can focus more on scaling the business and enjoying their earnings, rather than fighting for another investment infusion. Most are still confused about the right priority. Should they focus on increasing revenues and profitability, or entice more and more users with “free” services, to increase their valuation.

Traditionally, it was simple. A business only achieved critical mass by becoming cash-flow positive. Revenue growth (top line) then had to be converted into profit growth (bottom line), before a business was deemed to be self-sustaining and worthy of public investment.

It’s only been in the last decade or two, that social media companies, like Facebook and Twitter, have achieved market valuations in billions of dollars (unicorn status), while clearly sacrificing revenue to gain users. In my view, the pendulum is swinging back, with investors looking more for the traditional indications of business integrity, stability, and growth:

  1. Some element of organic growth is a good thing. The purest form of capitalism has always meant charging a fair price and making a fair profit. Re-investing profits to grow the business is organic growth. The concept of free goods and services to get you hooked, financed by deep pockets, or advertising, seems marginally ethical to many.

  2. Long-term stability requires revenue growth and profit. Most modern investors still look for a business model that embodies a gross margin over 50%, and a net margin in the 20% range. A healthy business, ready to scale, has been doing this for a year or more, with an existing customer set generating a non-trivial and growing revenue stream.

  3. High customer loyalty and high team passion. Startup productivity is embodied in key ratios, including low cost of customer acquisition, high retention, and high revenue per employee. High customer churn and lackluster team members are still indicators of a high-risk investment opportunity, to be avoided by both public and private investors.

  4. Growing appreciation for the value of the solution provided. These days, you need customer evangelists who see the value and will pull in their friends through viral actions to keep the business growing. Too many of the high user growth startups have been fads, and numbers can go down as fast as they go up, as per Friendster and MySpace.

  5. Understanding competitive early mover requirements. First movers in a new space need users more than revenue to maintain market share, so investment pitches need to highlight this priority in requests for funding resources. More complex and defensible businesses should highlight their organic drive to profitability and brand leadership.

Unfortunately, the Internet and heavily funded startups have nurtured a customer expectation of free web services and free smartphone apps. In these domains, it is now difficult to monetize at all until you have a large critical mass of users. In these cases, growth scaling is important, both before and after revenue flow begins. The business plan must reflect both growth phases.

Thus even after a startup has achieved a critical mass of users, the expectation of long-term revenue growth and profitability does not go away. Twitter is facing this challenge right now, as the large majority of public investors expect a near-term financial return on their investment, every quarter of every year.

So a higher focus on user growth may be necessary early, but is never sufficient. If you are in it for the long run, don’t forget the basic business principle that if you lose money on every customer, you can’t make it up in volume.

Martin Zwilling

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Friday, June 29, 2018

10 Key Insider Rules for Every New Venture Founder

warren-buffett-straight-talkAfter many years as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, and an occasional angel investor, I realized that new venture founders all seem to stumble on similar pitfalls, despite my best efforts to steer them to smoother routes. Of course, I would never say never, and passion does overcome many obstacles, but it still pays to learn from a few key lessons of others before you.

You may not be ready to absorb all one-hundred insider rules I found in a new book, Straight Talk For Startups, by Randy Komisar and Jantoon Reigersman, so I’m offering here a selection of my top ten from their list, adding my own insights. For the rest, these authors come with a wealth of startup and venture capital experience, with real-life examples to back up all their rules:

  1. Starting a venture was never easier – succeeding never harder. In the early days (20 years ago), most new e-commerce businesses, for example, cost a million dollars to set up. Now the price is closer to $100 if you are willing to do the work yourself. But “easier” brings more new startups, with more competition determined to rise above the crowd.

  2. Aim for an order-of-magnitude improvement. Make sure your idea has real customer value, a large opportunity, and a sustainable competitive advantage before you start. “Nice to have” or a ten percent cost advantage alone doesn’t make it these days. To get investor and customer attention, you need a tenfold improvement in cost or function.

  3. Know your financials and interdependencies by heart. Most of the tech entrepreneurs I know pay minimal attention to the financials. They assume that “if we build it, they will come.” Early investors expect you to explain five year revenue projections, gross margins, and break-even. At rollout, you need to add cash flow and customer acquisition.

  4. Net income is an opinion, but cash flow is fact. A large customer like Walmart will provide a large net income, but can easily kill you with cash required for inventory and receivables cycles. I recommend that every startup CEO sign every check personally, and be miserly in managing payables and expenses. Out of cash means out of business.

  5. Don’t accept money from people you don’t know well. Many entrepreneurs argue that the color of the money is the same from all sources. They fail to realize that investors are like spouses, requiring chemistry and a complementary win-win relationship for long-term success. Take your time courting investors, and get views from peers and advisors.

  6. Avoid professional investors unless you absolutely need them. If you don’t want a boss, don’t look for an investor, since they can be the toughest boss you ever had. Fund it yourself and grow organically to avoid the cost, pain, and time of finding angels or VCs, and keep control and equity for yourself. Over ninety percent of startups today are self-funded, or use only friends and family.

  7. Don’t let a short-term fix become a permanent mistake. Crowdfunding, for example, may seem like a good fix for initial funding, but usually precludes professional investors later if needed to scale the business. The same is true if you accept unusual valuations or term sheet options to close a specific deal. Every investment has long-term implications.

  8. More ventures fail from indigestion than starvation. Raising too much money can be a curse. Early ventures with too much cash lose focus and are reluctant to pivot. Founders should ask for funding in stages, as the venture builds momentum, decreases its risks, and increases valuation. Hungry entrepreneurs are always the most creative.

  9. The founder should choose the best CEO available. Most often, new venture founders are the solution builder, visionary, and the first CEO. Yet many don’t have the interest or experience to scale the business. Don’t let your ego prevent you from stepping into a better fitting role as the business evolves. It’s more fun than failing or being pushed out.

  10. Choose an exit strategy - don’t wait for it to find you. The best exit for most startups these days is to be acquired by a major player, rather than going public (IPO), or staying private too long. It’s best to start early in courting potential acquirers or investment bankers, rather than waiting for them to swoop in and knock you off your feet.

In addition to these rules, I also want to second the cardinal rule that every entrepreneur needs to be able to explain why the proposed new venture is important to them, to others, and worth all the blood, sweat, and tears that will likely be involved. Only then will I believe that you that you have the potential to beat the odds and change the world, and have some fun at the same time.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/14/2018 ***

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Wednesday, June 27, 2018

7 Steps To Building A Highly Engaged New Venture Team

engaged-new-venture-teamEntrepreneurs need to be effective team leaders, since no one can transform an idea into a product and a business without some help. Unfortunately many founders I work with as a mentor are experts on the technical side, but have no insight into leading a team. But fortunately, team building is a skill that can be learned and practiced, for those willing to put in some effort.

The only real alternative is to find a co-founder who can build and lead the team, while you focus on the product. Otherwise, in my experience, the startup will fail. The importance and the specifics of practical team leadership were re-confirmed to me recently in the classic book, “Unlocked,” by Robert S. Murray, who is a recognized expert in the field of business leadership.

I recommend his checklist as a starting point for developing team connections and building engaged team members as a key step in becoming an effective team leader, even if your team is spread all over the country:

  1. Consciously reduce time spent on outside activities. You won’t be viewed as the team leader if you spend most of your time on activities that are not relevant to your team. Being visible and engaged on a random part-time basis, due to other jobs, won’t do it. If your team has trouble finding you, you won’t make productive connections.

  2. Be compulsive about scheduling time for your team. Even busy entrepreneurs need to schedule regular and predictable times which will be devoted only to working and interacting with the team. Possibly an hour in the morning and an hour in the afternoon may be enough, if you make it happen consistently.

  3. Maintain a weekly “huddle meeting” with the entire team. This can even be done remotely via Skype, but it’s important that every team member attends. You need to listen as each summarizes their accomplishments for the last week, and their plan for the week ahead. Leadership is making sure they have resources and understand the strategy.

  4. Have monthly reviews with each team member. Team members need and crave feedback, much more frequently and informally than the annual performance review. I recommend scheduled monthly 30-minute informal checkpoints, as well as quarterly updates on objectives and performance. Ask what you can do for them in every review.

  5. Practice leadership by walking around (LBWA). I personally have found this to be one of the most effective ways to find out what is going on, as well as an opportunity to provide feedback on strategy and direction. Go for walks every day and stop at people’s desks. Ask them what is going on, both in the team and outside of work. Listen.

  6. Recognize team members for individual efforts. Communicate individual results as well as team results to everyone. Most leaders don’t say “thank you” enough. Recognition in front of peers is often more motivating that monetary awards. This is the time to talk about wins with customers and what is coming on the horizon, and the team role in each.

  7. Be real and authentic in every interaction. If you are not, your team will see right through it and you will be worse off than if you stayed locked up in your office. Make sure you’re treating all team members as you would want to be treated. Be genuinely interested in learning something new every day from your team, and they will follow you.

The value of startup teams with the founder as an effective leader is many times the value of many strong individuals working independently. It’s not only your connection with the team, but their connection with each other that is critical. Only a dedicated leader can spot those special powers in each member and then build a well-oiled team which can win the startup war for you.

The result is not only more productivity, but also a startup where everyone loves to contribute, and the whole team feels the energy and satisfaction of accomplishing your dream. Now your personal leadership becomes business leadership, which can actually change the world.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 25, 2018

Make Your Total Customer Experience Your Winning Edge

total-customer-experienceThrough the Internet today, it’s easy to find and compare the technical specifications for every solution in the world that claims to solve your problem, and there will be many. Most often the differentiators go beyond the product, into the ease of ordering, delivery, customer reviews, and finding your options. Your overall customer experience will trump product features every time.

For example, Zappos has been winning customers for years with their ease of product selection, shipping speeds, and personalized customer service. People post reviews talking about their delightful experiences, more than the perfect product. Zappos is recognized as a winner in the design of the whole customer experience, more so than the design of their shoes and clothing.

Thus every entrepreneur and inventor needs to understand and focus as much on the principles of customer-centered business design as applying technology to create a customer solution. These principles are well documented by thought leaders and key standards organizations on the Internet, but are too often ignored by the aspiring entrepreneurs I advise:

  1. Total design begins with an understanding of the customer view. This must cross the boundaries between product, demographics, marketing, culture, and other disciplines. In a non-technical sense, it requires multi-disciplinary skills and perspectives, and always supplements technology-driven design and environmentally sustainable design.

    Tesla and Elon Musk hit this point well when they eliminated the auto-dealer negotiation stage from their car-buying experience—to make it actually pleasurable, by placing Tesla stores in malls and letting people order their cars online.

  2. Factor in all customer tasks, employee tasks, and the environment. The objective is to build a win-win relationship between all people involved in selling and supporting the solution, as well as a positive impact on sustainability and the environment. This requires people on your team who have real-world experience, as well as design training.

  3. Engage real customers for requirements and ongoing feedback. With interactive social media, as well as high-bandwidth video tools, there is no excuse for not involving real customers, and prospects who fit the desired demographic. In addition to these, you apply common tools, such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews.

    Check out Starbucks Reserve, launched by coffee company Starbucks in an effort to engage more meaningfully with customers looking for unique experiences. Customers on social media asked for a more multi-sensory coffee experience, to watch freshly roasted beans arrive, chat with coffee specialists, and experience coffee brewed multiple ways.

  4. Evaluate results in multiple localized customer environments. No matter how thorough your research, it is highly likely that some localization will be required for different environments and cultures. Your challenge is to design and deliver global solutions that have total relevance to every local market in which you operate.

  5. Make sure customer-facing employees are trained and motivated. Even the best process designs won’t succeed unless your team has the training, empowerment, and motivation to make them work. Define metrics which properly reflect the total customer experience, rather than one aspect, such as sales volume, or support issues closed.

    Zappos, for example, places such a premium on employees with the right training and attitude that they put new hires through an immersive four-week training program. They also offer a $1,000 “bonus” to quit at the end of the first week if a new employee does not feel committed.

  6. Use innovation and iteration to continually improve the total design. Customer needs and expectations change over time, driven by economic conditions and competitive alternatives, so customer-centered design must be a continuous process, rather than a one-time event. Define full customer experience use cases for continuity.

Most new customers now are mobile or digital first as a result of the devices and apps that shape their lives. These products with their instant access anywhere have reshaped their expectations and decision making, and should reshape your experience design considerations. You must build on these customer changes, rather than ignoring them.

If you are looking for a competitive advantage, creating a memorable total user experience is the only place to start. Too many existing companies have evolved into silos of expertise, which make customer-centered design difficult, if not impossible. As a new business, you have the opportunity to take the lead, and become the world’s next super-brand. Now is the time to start.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/12/2018 ***

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Sunday, June 24, 2018

5 Rules For Market-Focused Versus Technology Solution

Samsung-forum-technologyTechnical entrepreneurs love their technology, and often are driven to launch a startup on the assumption that everyone will buy any solution which highlights this technology. Instead, they need to validate a customer problem and real market need first. Don’t create solutions looking for a problem, since investors ignore these, and customers other than early adopters will be hard to find.

Exciting new technologies these days range from the easier to use social media software platforms I see almost every week, to new transportation models, like consumer space travel and hydrogen fuel autos. These founders all seem to be pushing their technology, rather than highlighting their solution to a painful need. Customers buy solutions, not technology.

In fact, outside of those few early adopters, technology by itself has negative value to the majority of potential customers. Most people are wary of change, and know that new technologies take time to learn and stabilize, so customers prefer solutions based on tried and tested proven technologies. Smart entrepreneurs build market-driven solutions, per the following principles:

  1. Size the opportunity and customer interest first. Your passion isn’t enough to create a market. If there is a growing opportunity, an accredited market research group like Forrester or Gartner will already have data to quantify your excitement, and help make your case. Prototype your solution for customers, and discount friends and family.

  2. Look for customer willingness and ability to pay. Just because users support your free trial doesn’t mean they will pay for the solution. Nice to have does not motivate a revenue stream. Technologies that cure world hunger may find that that hungry people don’t have money, and government agencies as customers are a very long sales cycle.

  3. Limit the features and complexity. Technologists tend to add more features, just because they can. More features usually means more complexity in operation and support. The best solutions, from a customer perspective, are able to mask the technology with a very simple and usable interface that focuses on their problem only.

  4. Take a hard look at alternatives and competitors. New technology does not necessarily make better solutions. If you claim no competition, investors may perceive that you have no market, or you haven’t looked. Neither is positive. Customers may be perfectly happy with existing alternatives and competitors.

  5. Work in a familiar domain, on a problem you have experienced. The most successful entrepreneurs tackle problems that have caused them personal pain, in an area they know well. Every business domain looks simpler to outsiders who have no insights into the complexities that increase your risk.

None of these principles is meant to imply that technology is not important in building new solutions. In fact, some technology leaps are so great that they enable a whole new class of products, or a whole new market. These are called disruptive technologies or the next big thing, in the sense that existing markets or economies of scale are disrupted by the scope of change.

Examples of solutions from disruptive technologies include the appearance of personal computers, smartphones, the Internet, and the first social media platforms. Even for these, which can indeed change the world, the aforementioned principles still apply, in conjunction with a couple of additional considerations:

  • Time frames for acceptance are longer and the risk is higher. Based on history, the acceptance period for major technology changes is much longer than innovative evolutionary changes – sometimes taking 20 year or more for pervasive acceptance. Investors thus tend to shy away from these startups, meaning you need deeper pockets.
  • Disruptive technologies require customer education to create a new market. Customers tend to think linearly, so existing customer feedback is unlikely to lead to, appreciate, or pay quickly for the new solutions from world-changing technology. This means more time and money for viral marketing, product iterations, and promotions.

So the more you emphasize the technology of your offering, the more you need to be prepared for increased costs, reduced investor interest, slow customer acceptance, and a longer wait for any return. On the other hand, the longer-term impact and return of disruptive technologies is likely to be huge, if they survive the early challenges.

My recommendation for first-time entrepreneurs, and the rest of us who don’t have deep pockets, is to focus on customer problems that are causing pain today, and customers who are willing and able to spend real money on a solution.

You will more likely get the investor resources you need, the guidance from existing experts, the opportunity to hone your business skills, and the confidence from success. Then when you sell your first company for several hundred million, you will be ready to tackle that favorite disruptive technology leading to the next big solution to change the world.

Martin Zwilling

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Saturday, June 23, 2018

5 Reasons Most New Venture Creators Need A Co-Founder

Steve_WozniakIt seems like every entrepreneur I meet these days is quick to proclaim themselves a visionary, expecting that will give more credibility to their startup idea, and improve their odds with investors. In reality, I’m one of the majority of investors who believe that startup success is more about the execution than the idea. Thus, unless the visionary highlights a cofounder who can take the vision and execute, I assume the worst.

It’s true that gifted visionaries bring many good things to an organization, including big picture ideas, seeing around corners, and a hunter mentality. Yet they also come with a set of shortcomings. These were outlined well, with some good recommendations for overcoming them, in the classic book, “Rocket Fuel,” by Gino Wickman and Mark C. Winters, both with a wealth of experience in this domain.

My bottom-line recommendation and theirs is that every visionary entrepreneur needs to be matched with a cofounder or key team member who has the required execution attributes. Let’s take a hard look at the key potential weaknesses of a visionary, and the value of an execution-oriented partner, which the authors call an integrator:

  1. Staying focused and following through. Visionaries tend to get bored easily. To spice things up, they start creating new ideas and direction, which gets everyone excited. This may cause a wonderful 90-day spike in performance, but in the end often sabotages their original vision. Many projects get started but few are completed, and momentum is lost.

    To compensate, every visionary entrepreneur needs to find a partner who gets great satisfaction from results, and loves the discipline of making things happen on a day-to-day basis. This person is the glue that can hold the people, processes, systems, priorities, and strategy of a developing startup together.

  2. Too many ideas and an unrealistic optimism. Most true visionary entrepreneurs have unusual energy, creativity, enthusiasm, and a propensity for taking risks. This can be disruptive, as they love to break the mold. They often show little empathy for the negative impact this can have on capacity, resources, people, and profitability.

    Again, the solution is a partner who is the voice of reason, who filters all of the visionary’s ideas, and helps eliminate hurdles, stumbling blocks, and barriers for the whole leadership team. Titles for this role in a startup are not fixed, but usually show up as president, COO, or chief architect.

  3. Cause organizational whiplash. Due to founder visibility, the team is so tuned in to the visionary and current direction that every turn to the right to pursue a new idea turns the whole team to the right. The organization can’t keep up the pace of change, and soon loses motivation, productivity, and all sense of where they are headed.

    Every organization needs a steady counter-force that is focused on directional clarity, and great at making sure people are communicating within the organization. Good integrators are fanatical about problem resolution and making decisions. When the team is at odds or confused, they need this steady force to keep them on track with the business plan.

  4. Don’t manage details and hold people accountable. Visionaries typically don’t like running the day-to-day of the business on a long-term basis, and aren’t good at following through. Even communicating the vision itself can be quite a challenge, since it’s so crystal clear in their head that they can’t imagine having to repeat or clarify for others.

    Balance here comes again from the operational expert, who is very good at leading, managing, and holding people accountable. They enjoy being accountable for profit and loss, and for the execution of the business plan. When a major initiative is undertaken, they will anticipate the ripple of implications across the organization.

  5. Tends to hire helpers and not develop talent. Idea people are so bright that they don’t see the need to leverage the capabilities of others, or hire people smarter than they are in any given domain. They are usually too self-centered to see the need for developing skills and leadership in the other members of the team, or building a succession plan.

Here also the solution usually is a partner with prior experience, who has learned how and when to hire real help, and implement metrics and processes to measure results. They enjoy the coaching and development role, and are able to match work assignments to people’s strengths, promoting both people and company growth.

Of course, many will argue that the visionary entrepreneurs can simply fix their shortcomings, and thus save resources by satisfying both roles. But in my experience, very few entrepreneurs have the bandwidth to make this work, and the adapted entrepreneur ends up doing both jobs poorly.

I’m a proponent of capitalizing on your strengths, rather than focusing on fixing your weaknesses. If your strength is being a visionary, use that vision to attract a complementary partner, and make it a win-win opportunity for both of you.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, June 22, 2018

7 Ways To Position Competitors Without Any Negativity

Greg_Skibiski_Business_Plan_Pitch_CompetitionMost entrepreneurs spend far too much time thinking negatively about competitors, and can’t resist making derogatory statements to their own team, to investors, and even to customers. This approach only makes these important constituents question your integrity, intelligence, and your understanding of business basics. Pointing out flaws in others does not give you strength.

As an investor, I always listen carefully to what an entrepreneur says, and does not say, about competition. Every business area has competition and every customer has alternatives, so a smart entrepreneur needs to acknowledge these as a positive in defining a big market, and position the features of a new solution in this context. Here are seven key ways to do this:

  1. Frame the competition as manageable. Investors want to see evidence of specific competitors who make the market, and your sustainable competitive advantage to hold your own. They don’t want to hear of no competitors, or a long list implying a crowded space. Use three generic categories, and relate your position to a key player in each.

  2. Highlight your positives to suggest competitor shortcomings. Talk about competitors with positive statements about the advantages of your own product. For example, “While Product X has worked well in the server market, my product also provides Cloud support, to drastically reduce IT costs and maintenance.”

  3. Emphasize intellectual property and dynamic product line. Patents and trade secrets are more powerful advantages than missing competitive features, which might be quickly filled in as you gain traction. Be careful with the first-mover claim, since big competitors have deeper pockets and can accelerate to quickly eliminate this one.

  4. Demonstrate expertise on the range of competitors. You don’t need to talk about every competitor, but you better know every one, just in case someone challenges you. Do your research thoroughly on the Internet, with industry experts, and advisors. Build your credibility by presenting balanced competitor leadership and team histories.

  5. Become a thought leader on industry evolution. Make it evident that you have learned and evaluated competition from a higher perspective – meaning the evolution of industry technology and trends. Show that you have thought about indirect competitors and alternative solutions, like airplane technology versus a better train.

  6. Develop a timeline showing continuous innovation. Make your competitive position a long-term advantage by presenting a timeline of technology evolution, rather than a comparison at time of first rollout. Investors don’t like an apparent “one-trick pony,” or a momentary advantage that can be quickly overcome by smart competitors.

  7. Position your solution in the world market. Every market and every opportunity these days is global, so successful strategies and positioning are done with that in mind. Your rollout needs to be focused and targeted locally in the near-term, but competition needs to be addressed in a much broader long-term way.

Don’t forget that the primary objectives of every competitive positioning are to demonstrate your business acumen and integrity, as well as the strengths of your solution. Any overly negative comments you make about competitors doesn’t help you on either of these objectives, and will kill your momentum with investors and potential customers.

Spot comparisons are also less and less valuable these days, as the market tends to change quickly, and competitors can pivot and recover just as quickly. Remember that smart competitors are likely working on new features with resources greater than yours, and timeframes to delivery that may be shorter than yours.

In addition, thinking positively about competitors is what your customers will do, and what every smart investor or potential business partner does. You have to get on the same wavelength to optimize your solution, maximize your credibility, and minimize the competitive risk. The alternative of being an entrepreneur full of negativity is no fun for either side.

Martin Zwilling

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Wednesday, June 20, 2018

10 Business Strategies From Self-Made Millionaires

Jeff_Bezos_2005Many of the entrepreneurs and new business owners I advise have a primary vision of becoming millionaires or greater, per the model of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg, Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, and many others. They don’t realize that achieving this dream involves far more than having a great idea and making it happen. In fact, much of the success will have nothing to do with money.

In my experience, and the view of most experts, the journey has to begin with the right mindset, attitude, people skills, cash management, and other good habits. I saw a good summary of these requirements in a new book, “What Self-Made Millionaires Do That Most People Don't,” by Ann Marie Sabath, who interviewed dozens of real millionaires to better understand their practices.

While her focus was not specifically on entrepreneurs, I have highlighted a subset of her identified priorities for creating your own success that I have found to be particularly relevant and most often overlooked by aspiring self-made business millionaires:

  1. Think bigger, and begin with a memorable end in mind. Maybe it’s just me, but I seem to hear too many “great” ideas in the realm of finding the nearest bar via a smart-phone app, or a dating site for your pets. Self-made millionaires tend to start with a solution to a painful problem that can change the world, with a billion dollar opportunity.

    Force yourself to think bigger by scheduling some uninterrupted thinking time and overtly stepping outside your comfort zone to entertain the impossible. It helps to start by writing down initial goals and objectives, and then reading them with a critical eye for impact.

  2. Develop a business from what you know and love to do. I often hear aspiring entrepreneurs determined to start their own business just because they don’t like working for someone else. These people are not likely to become self-made millionaires. What I want to hear is a business you enjoy doing so much that you wouldn’t even call it work.

  3. Set purposeful goals and take full control of your destiny. I don’t know any self-made millionaires who don’t know where they are going, or play the perennial victim. For you to have any chance of creating and achieving goals, you need to identify your strengths, have a positive sense of self, and avoid “analysis paralysis.” Don’t be afraid to start.

  4. Take calculated risks, and persevere through failures. Taking a calculated risk implies going that extra mile to evaluate the costs versus reward probabilities before jumping in with both feet. In addition, many startups fail simply because the entrepreneur fails to persevere and gives up too soon. Failures are the best learning experiences.

  5. Maintain a thirst for knowledge, and be a lifelong learner. The learning curve for successful business people actually has been shown to go up after formal schooling, rather than flattening. They do things like scheduling time every day for thinking, using down time while driving for podcast updates, and building new relationships with experts.

  6. Develop effective listening and questioning skills. It’s hard to learn anything while you are talking. With all the distractions at our fingertips today, the art of listening and asking good questions is on the decline. Tips for more effective listening include staying in the moment, using positive body language, and waiting to be asked for advice.

  7. Develop relationships with like-minded and smart people. Self-made millionaire entrepreneurs make a point of surrounding themselves with people smarter than they are, and with people they aspire to be like. They hire help, rather than helpers. They build teams of smart people to solve problems, rather than making every decision themselves.

  8. Be more innovative and embrace change. Successful business people know they have to reinvent themselves and their business on a regular basis as the market and technology changes. Rather than resisting every change, they figure out what caused it and move forward by creating a solution that capitalizes on the new opportunity.

  9. Stay in control of your financial destiny. The first rule for a successful business is managing cash flow personally. Too many entrepreneurs I know leave these decisions to their staff, who focus only on their own expenses and purchases. Self-made millionaires don’t forget to pay themselves first, build an emergency fund, and pre-plan purchases.

  10. Enjoy the journey as much as the destination. The best entrepreneurs live for the problem-solving challenges of growing a business, and enjoy their ability to support a favorite social cause, or improve the world environment. Of course, they enjoy the money that comes with success, but that is secondary to their passion for their work and impact.

The bottom line is that there is nothing wrong with making money – in fact, it’s a necessary, but not sufficient result, for any business to thrive. The same is personally true for every entrepreneur and business owner.

Now is the time to take a hard look at your own priorities, relative to the strategies presented here. With all of these, you may be able to skip over millionaires directly to billionaire status, like Bill Gates and the other 2000 people already there. Wouldn’t that be exciting?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/06/2018 ***

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Monday, June 18, 2018

8 Secrets On New Venture Funding From The Shark Tank

secrets-from-shark-tankAs an advisor to entrepreneurs and active angel investor, I often get questions about the realism of the Shark Tank TV series, compared to professional investor negotiations. The simple answer is that with all the staging of TV lights and billionaire investors, it’s nothing like Silicon Valley. Yet the process is eerily realistic, and every entrepreneur can glean some important lessons.

Here are eight key points that I believe should be taken from the show by every startup founder looking for investors in real life, across the range of venture capitalists, angel investors, or even friends and family:

  1. You will be judged first as a person, then by your idea. If you’ve watched the show, I’m sure you remember entrepreneurs who appeared doomed by their presence, almost before they started. Others with the right confidence and personality were able to garner funding, despite a weak business plan. Investors invest in people, more than ideas.

  2. Grab investor attention in the first couple of minutes. Skip the background story and customer pitch, which every investor has heard all too often. Investors want to hear a quantified problem, a simple solution description, opportunity size, competition, traction, team qualifications, how much money you need, and what equity you are willing to give.

  3. Personalize your presentation, if possible, for every investor. Smart Shark Tank presenters have done their homework on each investor, and customize their sample product or anecdote for each. In a more general sense, find out as much as you can about every group and person you address, and tune your pitch ahead of time to match.

  4. There is no substitute for knowing your business. We have all seen the entrepreneur who believes that passion and emotion will overcome all investor objections and requests for answers. The most common failures on the show, and in real life, are people who don’t know their margins, cost of customer acquisition, channels, or other key data.

  5. Dress to impress and be credible to investors. A colorful costume may catch TV viewer attention, but may hurt your image and turn off investors. Remember that most business investors are from an era where sandals and frayed jeans were not associated with hard work and business success. Exceed the expectations of the investor.

  6. Keep calm, and never get defensive when questioned. Entrepreneurs who interrupt investor questions, or show a temper, will quickly lose investor respect, and likely lose the deal. Be sure to pose your counterpoints as clarifications rather than disagreements. Agree to evaluate investor views on subjective issues, rather than just dismissing them.

  7. The value of an investor goes far beyond cash. Many entrepreneurs feel that investor money is all green, and thus the same. On Shark Tank, you can easily see that some people need Lori and QVC, while others need Damon and his apparel connections. Investor knowledge and experience routinely have more value than the money.

  8. The initial outcome is the beginning, not the end. All handshakes in investor forums, or on the show, are subject to follow-on due diligence reviews. According to reports, the investors on Shark Tank close less than one-third of the deals as you see them on the show. On the other hand, many who don’t get an initial deal win later through good visibility and connections. Based on my experience, both of these are also true in real life.

Thus, while the forums and investors are different in the real world, there are many relevant lessons than an astute entrepreneur should take away from Shark Tank. So if you plan to face any forum of potential investors in the near term, position and practice your own pitch with advisors until you are ready to calmly face the bright lights. The last thing you want to hear from any of them is “I’m out!”.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, June 17, 2018

7 Questions To Focus Your Search For Venture Funding

Marcela Sapone, CEO & Co-Founder at Hello Alfred talks to DOL employees and outside attendees as they gathered in the Great Hall in the DOL Building fora panel on “Positive Choices in the Digital Sector: Building Good Jobs Principles into Emerging Platforms” "Future of Work."Too many entrepreneurs tell me they are looking for an investor, and can’t differentiate between venture capital (VC) investors versus accredited angel investors. They argue that the color of the money is the same from either source. They fail to realize that the considerations are quite different for each, which can make or break their investment efforts, and ultimately their startup.

Let’s consider some basic definitions. Accredited angel investors are non-professionals investing their own money, while venture capitalists are professionals who invest someone else’s money (usually from large institutions). The amounts from angels start as low as $25K, while minimum venture capital amounts usually start in the $2M range.

That doesn’t mean you should always go for the big bucks first. In fact, the reality is quite the opposite. Angels are more likely to fund new entrepreneurs, and early-stage or seed rounds, while VCs tend to focus on entrepreneurs with a successful track record, and later stage rounds. Of course, between these extremes is a large overlap of interest and potential.

More importantly, the focus on numbers tends to hide other more subjective issues that could be more important for any given startup. These considerations include the following:

  1. How much ownership and control are you willing to give up? VCs tend to demand more control of your spending and strategic decisions, with required board seats and lower valuations. Angels will likely agree to simpler term sheets, better valuations, and less restrictive terms on potential dilution, voting rights, exit options, and executive roles.

  2. How big is your startup opportunity? If your targeted business plan opportunity is not at least a billion dollars, most VCs won’t even be interested. Both angel and VC investors are looking for solutions that scale easily (product versus service businesses), and both expect revenue growth that can reach the $20M mark by year five.

  3. How large is the financial return you project? VCs will be looking for a 10X return on their investment in 3 to 5 years, or 30% annual IRR (Internal Rate of Return). That may sound high, but they know that up to 9 out of 10 startups fare poorly, so they are looking for one big win. Angel investors wish for the same return, but may accept a 5X deal.

  4. How many investment rounds will be needed? Angel investors are usually constrained to making a single investment per startup, but very few entrepreneurs make it to cash-flow positive on a single round. VCs tend to protect their initial investment, and they have the resources to make several multi-million-dollar rounds as required.

  5. How experienced is your team? First-time entrepreneurs rarely catch VC interest, unless they have one or more people on their team who have a track record of startup success, in the same business domain. Angel investors often have emotional motivation to give-back, and assume their own expertise and involvement will assure success.

  6. How good are your connections in the investor community? Sending unsolicited business pitches to every angel and VC investor you can find on the Internet is a waste of your time as well as theirs. You need a warm introduction for most VCs, to get their attention. For angel investors, you only need to do some local networking to get interest.

  7. How much help do you expect and need? Both VCs and angels can and will help you, but VCs are likely to be more “hands-on.” They tend to have partners focused on a given business area, with current insights, executive connections, and the ability to bring in new team members. If you are looking for money alone, angels are the better alternative.

If your startup can’t yet relate for any of these considerations, then your alternative is that popular first tier of investors, called friends, family, and fools (FFF). With these, you are on your own in negotiating amounts, valuations, and roles. These are people who believe in you personally, without evidence of previous startup experience, no current traction, and lack of valuation.

In all cases, investors tend to invest in people, more than the idea, or even the stage of execution. They are looking for a win-win deal, with entrepreneurs that demonstrate a positive chemistry and open communication. The color of any investor’s money may look the same, but it won’t help you if the price you pay is higher than the value it brings.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, June 16, 2018

6 Key Components For Success In Your New Business

failure-growth-businessThe best part of being an entrepreneur is having the independence to make your own decisions, the flexibility for a better work/life balance, and personal satisfaction from driving change. But nobody said it would be easy. The road to business success is filled with guidance on how to build and maintain the traction needed to survive and prosper. Of course, experiences and failures are the best challenges and frustrations that most aspiring entrepreneurs never even imagined.

In my role as advisor to many startups, I try to prepare them for the inevitable bumps in the road ahead, as well as to provide practical guidance on how to build and maintain the traction needed to survive and prosper. Of course, experiences and failures are the best teachers, but I find that learning from other people’s experiences is a much faster and less painful approach.

In his classic book on building a business, “Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business,” Gino Wickman, a similar experienced business consultant and developer of the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS), outlines five common frustrations that we both hear from entrepreneurs, as follows:

  • You are the boss, but you don’t have control. You don’t have enough control over your time, investors, the market, or your startup. Instead of controlling the business, the business is controlling you. By definition, the world of startups today is one of rapidly changing unknowns, where the inputs you receive will often conflict. It’s very frustrating.
  • All the constituents have their own agenda. You continually get frustrated with your team members, customers, vendors, and partners. They all have their own objectives and priorities, and don’t seem to listen, understand you, or follow through with their actions. You only expected that kind of a challenge from your competitors.
  • Persistent profit and cash flow shortages appear. Simply put, there’s frustratingly never enough profit or cash. Even when orders are clearly on the upswing, you need more funding to cover inventory and lagging accounts receivable. Then there are the expenses you never could have anticipated, driving down margins.
  • Constantly bumping your head on the growth ceiling. No matter what you do, you can’t seem to break through and get to the next level. Your growth has stopped, and you feel frustrated and unsure what to do next. You never have the time and resources for International expansion, acquisitions, venture capital investors, or going public.
  • Conventional strategies don’t seem to work for you. You have tried all the popular initiatives and quick-fix remedies, including social media, search engine optimization, and content marketing. None have worked for long, and as a result, your staff has become numb to new strategies. You are spinning your wheels, and need traction to move again.

My first answer to all these frustrations is to step back and focus on the basics. Every great business is made up of a core group of key components. Wickman outlines six of these in his book as the entrepreneurial operating system for success:

  1. Vision – Communicate a compelling image to everyone describing where the business is going, and how it’s going to get there.

  2. People – Surround yourself with great people. You can’t build a great company without help. It’s having the right people in the right seats.

  3. Data – Define a handful of key metrics to free you from managing personalities, egos, subjective issues, emotions, and intangibles.

  4. Issues – Constantly provide updates and direction on the challenges and obstacles that must be overcome to execute on your vision.

  5. Process – These describe your way of completing each key element of your business. Each must be documented clearly and refined regularly.

  6. Traction – Entrepreneurs gain traction by executing well, with focus, accountability, and discipline.

There is no magic here, and none of the six key components is rocket science. In my experience, entrepreneurs who are highly frustrated in their startup have overlooked or have dropped their attention to one of the six basic business components.

Learn from the frustrations of other entrepreneurs, or you are doomed to relive their pain. Put your entrepreneurial operating system in place, and you too can trade in your frustrations and join that select group who enjoy making their own decisions, achieve their work/life balance, and relish the personal satisfaction of their dreams.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, June 15, 2018

8 Keys to New Venture Funding Success from the Crowd

crowdfunding-todayCrowdfunding has come a long way in the last decade with the Internet and many popular platforms, including IndieGoGo and Kickstarter. In fact, crowdfunding now rivals both venture capital and angel funding as the money source of choice for new entrepreneurs. As a small business advisor, I often recommend it as the best alternative for aspiring entrepreneurs.

But don’t be misled – it is no panacea or shortcut to funding success. According to statistics, more than two-thirds of crowdfunding campaigns do not meet their monetary goal and have to return anything they do collect. That’s not as high as the failure rate with professional investors, but it should convince entrepreneurs that even the crowd requires you to do your homework first.

Based on my experience, and input from the experts I know, here is a quick summary of the key strategies and practices that can be instrumental to your success in your crowdfunding efforts:

  1. Build a support community before launching a campaign. Successful crowdfunding requires anticipation and early momentum, which can best be built by social media, viral videos, and traditional marketing. If you see little traction from these efforts, it may be time to rework your idea before making a bad first impression with the crowd.

  2. Prepare with the same intensity as finding angels and VCs. There is no easy money for funding a business, so prepare with the same planning, prototyping, and dedication you would expect from someone taking your own money. You can’t build and run a crowdfunding campaign in your free time. Seek advice from peers who have succeeded.

  3. Avoid equity crowdfunding if you need multiple rounds. Crowd investors with little or no investing experience can be very high maintenance. Such a messy investor pool will make the company less attractive to subsequent professional investors. Experienced bankable entrepreneurs will find conventional raises have a lower "cost" of capital.

  4. Time your campaign around a prototype, not just an idea. People want to see that you have something before they commit real money. Anyone can come up with an idea, but few can execute. I recommend a polished minimum viable product (MVP), which you can demonstrate in a video, rather than asking people to visualize your solution.

  5. Calculate carefully how much funding you really need to ask for. Asking for too large an amount is the surest way turn people off, and asking for too little will only cause you to fail in delivery. Making something awesome always costs more than you expect, and starting a business is hard. You need just enough of a start to qualify for VC funding later.

  6. Move fast after crowdfunding to stay ahead of competitors. Be aware that potential competitors are monitoring crowdfunding campaigns for market interest and solutions. Your pricing, design and feature list, in addition to your exact launch timing is there for anyone to react to. Successful startups are always working one generation ahead.

  7. Crowdfunding success does not assure business success. Many successful campaigns, including iBackPack, Kreyos Smartwatch, and Ubuntu phone, have failed as a business due to inability to deliver, poor launches, or one of the many normal business challenges. Plan for and keep your focus on business success, not just funding success.

  8. Don’t expect crowdfunding traction for enterprise products. If your solution is aimed primarily at businesses (B2B) versus consumers (B2C), then I recommend more conventional fundraising. Regular people in the crowd are less likely to understand or care about more complex business systems, such as manufacturing or billing.

Thus, even though crowdfunding is here in a big way, and projected by Statistica to grow almost 30 percent annually to reach US$26 billion in 2022, I don’t see crowdfunding replacing or crowding out angels and VCs in the near future. There is just never enough money to feed the startup beast, and it’s always nice to have another a great alternative.

If you want your share, be sure to heed these reality checks, and don’t hesitate to get some advice and counsel from peers and advisors who have been there before you. Very few crowdfunding campaigns lead to the success of the Pebble Watch, or the Oculus Rift acquisition by Facebook for US$3 billion. But if you do the job right, you could still be the next one.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 06/01/2018 ***

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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

6 Ways To Start Marketing Before You Have A Product

concept-marketingSavvy entrepreneurs start testing their ideas on potential customers even before the concept is fully cooked. They have enough confidence in their ability to deliver that they don’t worry about someone stealing the idea to get there first, and they don’t forget to listen carefully to critical feedback. They become walking public relations machines for themselves, as well as their idea.

The alternative is to spend big money later on pivots, lost credibility with investors, and delays at rollout trying to build visibility and credibility. I’m not proposing that anyone promise things that they don’t intend to deliver, but it’s time that founders switch to start selling their product before they build it, rather than believing the old adage of “if we build it, they will come.”

I still hear too many excuses for not working early on the elevator pitch, like wanting to fly under the radar, don’t have the team together yet, or can’t afford an agency. In fact, you don’t need a third-party public relations agency at this stage. There is real value in doing the key things yourself, before your startup is even started:

  1. Demonstrate thought leadership before selling a product. Highlight the problem and your concerns in industry blogs, speaking in public forums, and making yourself visible on social media and networking opportunities. You want people to see you as an evangelist for hydrogen fuel, for example, so your later auto engine will have credibility by default.

  2. Craft and hone your elevator pitch early. Before the product is set in stone, you can test your message and continue to refine it until it connects well with investors, as well as customers. Later you may have the problem of being told by public relations firms to stay on message, even after you suspect it is not working.

  3. Visibly be a bit controversial to test the limits. This early in the game, any coverage and peer review is better than just being another unknown entrepreneur. It’s human nature that challenging the status quo gets more attention than quiet concurrence. People tend to forgive controversial views if you aren’t perceived as pushing a product.

  4. Proactively seek out thought leaders and journalists. Entrepreneurs who wait to be found are destined to spend a lot of time alone. Social media sites today, including Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter, provide ideal forums for presenting your cause and your concept. Start actively blogging on your own site, as well as on industry forums.

  5. Make your business cards stand out in the crowd. Everyone exchanges business cards, and most are forgotten immediately or never really seen. These days, images are especially important, as well as a tag line, and your social media links. Unique and professional business cards are still well worth the investment.

  6. Follow up personally on every new connection. Key introductions in a networking meeting will be quickly lost, unless you take the next step of calling or emailing later to request a personal meeting. Use these meetings to build the relationship, more by asking questions than by pitching your concept. Requests for investment come later.

Every entrepreneur has a story, perhaps the inspiration for your idea, or the path taken to get to this point, or a key lesson learned from past mistakes. Stories are the grist reporters look for, and they make you unique and memorable. Find your personal hook – it can be more key to your entrepreneurial success than any given product or service that you are about to offer.

If you are a social entrepreneur, a natural hook is the environmental or humanity cause that you espouse. Perhaps you can amplify your position by sponsoring an event, travelling to a visible location, or donating your time and other resources.

These days, winning in the crowded startup world is all about marketing. The sooner and more effectively you utilize all the available marketing channels, the more visibility and impact you will have later when your product or service arrives. As an entrepreneur, you are the most important part of your brand, not the other way around. Capitalize on yourself early.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 11, 2018

8 Disciplines That Indicate A Business Versus A Hobby

hobbies-versus-businessAs a startup investor, I often see business proposals looking for funding that really look like expensive hobbies looking for donations. I recognize that entrepreneurs tend to substitute vision and passion for formal processes, but using no discipline or process in building something new is a sure way to spend money, rather than see any return and build a self-sustaining business.

I’m not suggesting that you model your startup after the complex corporate organizations you hated in your last job, but there are at least eight key functions and activities that every investor expects to find in a startup proposal with any real potential to change the world. Each of these requires some ongoing effort, so I expect at least a rudimentary process associated with each:

  1. Record of spending and business assets. I still see entrepreneurs who spend money and time for months on a new business idea without any separation of personal and business funds, and any formal accounting system for their new business. This is the first business process that every startup needs, that I wouldn’t expect to find for a hobby.

  2. Managing to specific goals, priorities, and a plan. Technologists building cool new platforms, just because they can, won’t find investor interest. Entrepreneurs need to document a process of responding to a market need, sizing opportunity, assigning a specific business model, and planning for marketing, sales, and customer satisfaction.

  3. Solution development and delivery. Products and services for a business need to be attuned to customer requirements, cost and quality tradeoffs, with milestones for pricing and completion. Typically some production and delivery is outsourced, requiring formal contracts and documentation. Hobbies are developed ad-hoc, driven by personal needs.

  4. Preparation and management of funding. Even if you are not requesting outside funding, I would expect a clear process for sourcing and managing the investment you plan to apply. External investors expect a documented business plan, with clear targets on funding needed, use of funds, revenue projections, return potential, and exit strategy.

  5. Team building status and plan. Solo entrepreneurs, with a team of helpers, will be assumed to be a hobby rather than a business. I recommend every startup plan for at least two or three decision level team members, and at least a couple of highly-qualified external advisors. Show that you have a process to hire, fire, and train others as required.

  6. Formalize the use of tools and information technology. Productivity and repeatability is the hallmark of a good business, whereas a hobby usually assumes everything is custom built and personal. I look for business startups to already have their website up and running, administrative tools purchased, and basic procedures automated.

  7. Customer receivables collection and vendor payments. These are critical processes for any business, so they need to be implemented even before investor requests are sized or solicited. For progress and success assessment, each of these needs some metrics defined, a training plan, and responsibility assignments within your team.

  8. Marketing, sales, support, and service operations. I’m assuming that most of you will see these as intuitively obvious elements of a business, but not needed for a hobby. Yet I continue to get funding requests that never mention any specific plans or costs to be associated with these elements. No mention usually means no plan and not competitive.

For all of these, your objective should always be a minimum viable process to start, with the expectation that each will be enhanced and pivoted as you learn from customers and competition that works and what doesn’t. The key is to be proactive, rather than assuming that you can react to each crisis as it happens. Customers today are easy to lose, and expensive to replace.

It’s a myth in the startup world that not having processes makes you more competitive. In my experience, no defined process means unable to respond in a timely fashion, unpredictable quality, and high operating costs. None of these are attractive to investors, and jeopardize the success of even the best initial idea. A hobby may take your idea to a product, but a startup has to take the idea to a business.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, June 10, 2018

8 Key Learning Insights To Thrive In A Changing World

dubai-marina-arabAspiring entrepreneurs who rely only on traditional learning vehicles (teachers, classrooms, and risk-free practice) are doomed to failure in anticipating change today. Either they are never really ready to commit, study an opportunity until it has passed, or fail with tools and techniques from a bygone business era. The Internet and the current information wave have changed everything.

Being a successful entrepreneur these days requires a current insight to a myriad of changes, including many that haven’t yet been integrated into the traditional academic learning vehicles of textbooks and professors. The Internet is the problem, by facilitating constant change, and it’s the solution, by providing an absolutely current view of customers, trends, and best practices.

The challenge is to find the time and initiative to keep up with the information wave, and be able to curate the data into knowledge that must be learned, unlearned, or relearned. It requires an attitude of self-education, versus an assumption that someone else will provide the education. For entrepreneurs, change is the norm, so you have to relish it before you can make it happen.

This required ability is aided by some supportive personal attributes, such as confidence, initiative, problem solving, and determination, but the basic learning principles must include the following:

  1. Satisfaction will come from learning something new every day. This goes hand-in-hand with every entrepreneur’s desire to do things better, and make a real impact on the world. This is a key part of enjoying the journey, as well as the destination. It doesn’t imply any sense of superiority or weakness, but often provides motivation beyond money.

  2. Success requires challenging assumptions and status quo. With this principle, real entrepreneurs start with a conviction that new learning will reveal flaws in existing models, leading to new opportunities. The Internet is the source of data for alternative views, and social media allows direct customer interactions to test these views.

  3. Learning means understanding, far beyond memorization. Great entrepreneurs strive to understand the depth of a customer need, rather than just the ability to recite a longer list of features. Technologies are not solutions, but understanding a technology, in the context of a customer need, will result in more competitive and long-lasting solutions.

  4. The act of communicating and writing enhances learning. The process of documenting what you think you know in a business plan, for the team and for investors, solidifies your own understanding of your new business. With that learning, you are able to more effectively share and market your solution to customers and business partners.

  5. Building a new business is not rocket science. Growing a business is understanding the needs and thoughts of regular people and simple financial transactions, not some complex technology that you might assume you can never learn. With the Internet, you can see all you need explained in a dozen ways in text, videos, pictures, and podcasts.

  6. Learning is nothing more than looking outside the box. Extending your knowledge is like dealing with competitors – if you aren’t extending your comfort zone, you are losing ground. With the Internet, you can quickly test your new business concepts, with crowd funding and social media, and get quick feedback from around the world at low cost.

  7. Relationships are a test of your learning readiness. Building a new business today is all about building relationships with your customers and your team. As an entrepreneur with a new startup, you are the brand, and customers today expect a relationship. In addition, you always need relationships with advisors, investors, influencers, and peers.

  8. Proactively ask for help and anticipate the need to pivot. With the Internet, you can ask for help from normally inaccessible experts, with minimum personal exposure and cost. It’s easy to see how often others have made changes, so your own learning and associated pivots should never be an embarrassment. Avoid the arrogance trap.

No one is too old to learn new things as an entrepreneur, whether you are just out of school at twenty, or just finished your first career at sixty. If you follow the principles outlined here, and take advantage of the pervasiveness of the Internet, you too can be a part of the solution rather than a part of the problem. A failed startup is the harshest learning lesson of all, and we need to change that approach.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, June 9, 2018

7 Key Follow-up Steps To Take Your Idea To A Business

Elon-Musk-Tesla-carIn my experience with entrepreneurs, there seems to a wealth of self-proclaimed “idea people” who aspire to start businesses, but only a few who are willing and able to dig in and get the job done. All the great ideas in the world won’t make a business, if the ideas never get implemented. Only rare great entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, have proven to be both.

I worked with Bill Gates in the early days of Microsoft and the IBM PC, while I was with IBM. Bill was relentless in his focus on getting the software PC DOS project delivered, while continually challenging us with new business models. Elon Musk is known for his focus on implementation, often working 80-100 hours a week, while still able to offer an endless supply of innovative ideas.

If you or your team sees you as an idea person, your first task as an entrepreneur should be to find a co-founder who can deliver. Finding a co-founder is rarely a bad thing, since two heads are always better than one in meeting all the startup challenges. Let me be a bit more specific on how follow-up trumps ideas for success in the key challenges of a startup, or any small business:

  1. Networking with investors, partners, and customers. Meeting people and talking about your ideas won’t get you very far. First you have to listen carefully to what the other party is looking for, and then you have to follow-up to meet their connections, do personal dinner invitations for relationship building, and demonstrate traction.

  2. Tailor investor proposals and term-sheets. Professional investors expect far more than an idea pitch – they are looking for a documented opportunity analysis and realistic financial projections. They watch for formal follow-up to questions, demonstration of real product, and revenue results. Passionate reiteration of the idea won’t close funding.

  3. Detailed product specifications and prototypes. With great idea people, an initial product is rarely fully defined, as features are added and subtracted to meet the audience of the day. Milestones are not met because there is no implementation discipline. Products from idea entrepreneurs often try to be everything to everyone.

  4. Productivity and time management challenges. Idea entrepreneurs are largely driven by the “crisis of the moment” or the next event on their schedule. They are too busy to follow-up on a major partner opportunity, customer inquiry, or a critical internal process that simply isn’t working. Communication to the team suffers, and productivity is low.

  5. Managing marketing metrics and the sales pipeline. Effective marketing requires converting ideas to real content, creating programs to educate channels, and managing metrics to see what works and what needs to change. Follow-up is required for every sales lead, a pipeline built, and a sales process documented, with training for new reps.

  6. Customer acquisition, retention, and support. Ideas don’t generate customer loyalty – they want to see specifics for their case. Most experts agree that acquisition of a new customer costs six times retaining existing customers. Lack of follow-up after a sale can cost you more customers than poor service or poor quality.

  7. Maintaining professional relationships. No business associate will be impressed with ideas for long, if they experience unpredictable follow-up delays in email, phone calls, or delivery commitments. Disciplined execution is as critical to communication and relationships as it is to the bottom line of your business.

For business professionals, I would suggest that if you don’t do follow-up well, you should never aspire to be a manager or an executive. That’s what they have to do most of the time, so you won’t enjoy the job, and probably won’t be seen as doing it well. Most executives will tell you that their idea time is while sleeping, or while working out in the gym.

Of course, every small business needs to be built around a great idea, and every entrepreneur needs to find innovative new ideas regularly to stay ahead of the crowd. But the bulk of the real work and time to make a startup or small business successful is in the execution and follow-up.

In my view, idea people will be more at home and more appreciated in the design, marketing, or planning department of a larger and more mature organization, with an implementation team behind them. Successful entrepreneurs need to enjoy the journey, perhaps more than the destination.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, June 8, 2018

7 ‘Best Practices’ Have To Change For Survival Today

IBM-Quantum-ComputingMost companies today claim they are embarked on a transformation to ensure their long-term survival in this era of disruption and rapid change. But in their day-to-day practices, many of their leaders and employees blindly follow the same practices they always have. The results include a rising tide of fading stalwarts, including Sears, Toys R Us, Borders, and Men’s Wearhouse,

Based on my own experience at IBM during the personal computer revolution, I learned first-hand that transformations are a tough challenge. I was impressed to see the issues outlined well in a new book, “Detonate,” by Geoff Tuff and Steven Goldbach, based on their own executive roles with Deloitte Consulting, working with many top clients, and struggling with the same challenges.

I like their summary of the “best practices” that don’t work during today’s disruptive change, and their practical and empowering advice on how to free organizations from old-school practices. With these tips, you can reinvigorate your own and your company’s long-term health with next generation thinking:

  1. Revenue should not be the key thing you worry about. When established companies think of growth, it’s always some function of looking at past revenue, comparing it to “expert forecasts” of projected industry growth, and thinking of how they will increase their revenue share. That is extrapolated to capital requirements, staffing, and profits.

  2. This approach doesn’t work when you need to penetrate new markets to compete. When we at IBM felt the need for PC technology to thrive many years ago, personal computer revenue projections were low to non-existent. Technology and thought leadership are harder to quantify and sell to management, yet are really critical to long-term survival.

  3. A strategic planning cycle is largely a waste of time. Every year on a fixed schedule, most companies task a small group of people to go off-site, juggle financial data, and come back with a strategic plan. Unfortunately, market disruptions don’t happen on schedule. Planning and budget horizons should center on the timing necessary to change customer and employee behavior to achieve new goals in the marketplace.

  4. Syndicating past data alone creates no advantage. The challenge is to look ahead, where there is no data, as well as behind. All your competitors are looking at the same past data, so you need your own proactive market experiments, proprietary trend analysis, and organizational transformations to stay ahead of the crowd and prosper.

  5. Don’t just wait for customers to tell you their needs. Customer inputs are good predictors for incremental needs, but most customers can’t predict transformational events. They may only recognize a good thing when they see it, so they need your experiments, your thought leadership, and your incentives to see new opportunities.

  6. Discard one-size-fits-all risk management systems. Successful companies with proven business models typically use an inflexible risk management process, for incremental changes as well as disruptive technologies. In today’s environment, small step execution and testing are the key, with incremental risk analysis between steps.

  7. Celebrating failure without analyzing the cost is an excuse. Large companies, or even small ones with too much funding, tend to allow a pivot to expand too long before calling it a failed experiment, and celebrating the learning. That’s why small startups have such an advantage when it comes to innovations.

  8. PepsiCo went far overboard in time and money back in 1992 to enter the “new-age beverages” market with its clear, caffeine-free Crystal Pepsi. Webvan spent $800 million expanding before they realized that some cities didn’t have the critical mass to support profitable home grocery delivery.

  9. Embrace impermanence in org charts and team members. Every organization needs to bring a beginner’s mind to the scene on a regular basis. People need new challenges, and organizations need wholesale restructuring to deal with disruptive change. Current organizational design should never be the cause of your actions, or lack of action.

Even with all our team efforts to rethink these debunked best practices, IBM never fully adapted to the personal computer hardware market, and abandoned it after a few years. Yet IBM did learn the emerging value of services and solutions from their personal computer experiments, and have since totally refocused in the services direction for a dramatic business recovery.

It’s probably past time to start a conversation in your organization about some best practices that aren’t working anymore. If you hear answers that sound like “this is the way we’ve always done it,” then it’s time to start blowing up things before your company and your job are on the fuse.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/25/2018 ***

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Wednesday, June 6, 2018

7 Force Multipliers Accelerate Your Business Growth

growth-force-multipliersThe military has long recognized that machine guns are force multipliers for rifles, but businesses have been slow to capitalize on this concept. Sometimes all the planning in the world isn’t enough for business survival, when things change as fast as they do today. Every business, especially startups, needs all guns blazing quickly on every opportunity or insight into the market.

This point was highlighted well in the classic book, “Disrupting Digital Business,” by R “Ray” Wang, CEO and Principal Analyst of Silicon Valley-based Constellation Research. I recommend that every entrepreneur and small business investigate and implement as many as possible of his seven new business force multipliers that I will paraphrase here:

  1. Information sharing through social media networks. The speed, interactivity, and sharing we can do today through the social media networks of Twitter, Facebook, and many others is a major force multiplier. Communications that traditionally could only be broadcast to all can now be done on a customized person-to-person level, interactively.

  2. Soliciting user-generated online feedback and reviews. User generated content that is immediately available to other users is another positive force multiplier. Of course, it can also be a negative force multiplier, if you are not paying attention as an entrepreneur, or choose to challenge your customer’s view of reality.

  3. Crowdsourcing for funding and ideas. Crowdsourcing allows entrepreneurs to bypass the experts and professional investors, to get quick validation and help for efforts that meet the needs of today’s audience. New ways are being developed every day to reward and influence people who participate in crowdsourcing, for a very low cost.

  4. Flash mob activities created for immediate impact. These can be utilized as force multipliers by creating “pop-up” stores or events at a moment’s notice in the middle of an opportunity to get interest, attention, and sales. Apple did it with a pop-up store in Austin to sell the new iPad to 20,000 technologists near the South-by-Southwest music festival.

  5. Nurture dedicated customer advocates and fans. Consider advocates to be a step up from customer engagement. Advocates talk about you and become influencers to the many who are undecided. These dedicated fans and partners believe so much in your brand, your cause, and your product, that they do all the force multiplying work for free.

  6. Improve situation awareness for real-time decisions. This means that your network has connectivity to the right people and groups to hear the right information at the right time and place to make speedy and informed decisions. It’s a force multiplier by allowing your business to react and jump into something important before everyone else does.

  7. Do predictive hot-spotting to anticipate near-term changes. Effective prediction of the future is the ultimate force multiplier. It’s already in use by law enforcement to predict security hotspots, health-care to predict needs, but most businesses are far behind in the use of analytics and big data. It’s time to exploit your network for trends and direction.

If you want to grow your startup, and you are only reaching one customer at a time, one market or one partnership at a time, you’re not going to grow fast enough to be competitive, especially against the larger players that have a full infrastructure in the marketplace. These force multipliers allow you to scale up rapidly, and reach opportunities you could not support any other way.

But force multipliers used without focus are not enough to make a company great. Top entrepreneurs still have to decide what activities and tools are the most important for their domain and their environment. We all have limited resources and time, and need the right force multipliers to leverage every single element of both.

Of course, the concept of force multiplication goes far beyond your startup networks. Simple force multipliers, like product cost reductions and powerful new software tools, have been around for a long time. Every team member needs to constantly seek forces that can multiply their impact and productivity. What new force multipliers are you using in your startup today?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, June 4, 2018

7 Best Practices For Winning In Today’s Sharing Model

sharing-economy-best-practicesAs dialogs with peers become easier and more trusted via smartphones and the Internet, people are more willing to share their assets with others, and capitalize on the potential for a quick return for very little effort. This new sharing economy is rapidly becoming the new “online shopping” model, with major winners already including Airbnb (rooms), Uber (rides), and SnapGoods (stuff).

Experts are calling this the “we” economy, instead of “me.” It seems like a simple movement, but like any change in business, there are some new best practices that you need to learn, to make it work for you. Here are tips to keep your business from landing on the failure heap, like Carpooling.com (long-distance ridesharing), Beepi (used cars), and Homejoy (home services):

  1. Provide relationship building opportunities for your customers. Customers today expect two-way relationships with the companies they choose, rather than transactions. To facilitate this, your team must use and embrace available interactive communication modes, including social media, blogging, web site forums, and special events.
  2. For example, on Instagram, Airbnb encourages users to use the hashtag #Airbnb in order to be featured on the company website. If the company likes your picture, it creates a post showing how, in this scenario, city dwellers easily belong to the swimming enthusiast community.

  3. Deliver personalized solutions and memorable experiences. The new demographic wants to provide input, and wants to be treated as one-of-a-kind in their solution, delivery, and service. The days of mass production and commodity pricing as an asset are gone. Being good in business now needs to feel like an art, with creativity and innovation.

  4. Build your market by focusing locally before globally. Narrowing your initial focus actually builds exclusivity and allows you to charge a premium because you are “the expert.” Start with a niche that you know especially well, and build a reputation of being the best. This will give you the credibility to expand to other niches and grow the market.

  5. Uber and Lyft recognized that local regulations are different from region to region, so they launched market by market in order foster loyalty from their customers, maintain quality of the service, and comply with the region's laws.

  6. Develop a culture of innovation and creativity in your team. This requires leadership from the top on purpose and shared goals, and being the model for actively listening to customers and incenting change. Team members need to be taught to think like innovators, and see a reward system that fosters change, rather than punishing failures.

  7. Let people be pulled to you, rather than pushed by marketing. Both customers and employees expect to see value beyond a product or service, especially for social and environmental good, as leading the way forward. The result is an enhanced loyalty, both inside and outside your company, which is a strong component of momentum and profit.

  8. This works especially well for services. In my own blog and speaking engagements, I talk about generic requirements to attract investors, but never mention that I offer a service to assist. Entrepreneurs are incented to followup with me for more specific fee offerings.

  9. Communicate with stories and engaged customer advocates. Personal stories and testimonials are the best way to draw in customers and grow your business. Stories always trump marketing content for improving recollection and understanding. They help people remember in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph won’t.

  10. Provide value to the community, as well as customers. If you provide real value and give-back to the global community and employees, thus generating trust and loyalty, you will appeal to more customers. The result is the desired win-win situation, with more profits for your business, more satisfied customers, and happy employees at all levels.

  11. For example, Citi Bike is building themselves a great business by providing bicycles everywhere for sharing, but also is enhancing tourism and providing native New Yorkers with a fun and affordable new way to get around town.

The world of commerce has been forever altered by the growth of the world-wide Internet and pervasive mobile telecommunications. The customer and business universes are now globally and intimately connected. This means that all customers see relationships, culture, sharing, and social needs as part of their own world, and expect these to be part of every business focus.

Thus, as the new sharing economy challengers continue to evolve their new business models, the traditional incumbents will be smart to adapt, or forced out of the marketplace. It’s time to take a reading on where your business is in this spectrum. Are your company practices consistent with the ones outlined here, or are you still operating on yesterday’s model?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/22/2018 ***

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