Monday, October 15, 2018

6 Story Attributes Will Highlight Your Business Pitch

business-woman-telling-storyThe biggest challenge for every entrepreneur and every startup today is to get noticed and remembered in today’s information overload. The number of entrepreneurs worldwide is huge, starting an estimated 50 million new businesses per year, or 137,000 per day. Every one of these probably has a unique story, but in my years as a startup advisor I only remember hearing a few who capitalized on their story.

The impact of a memorable story was highlighted for me recently as I reviewed the classic book, “Sell With A Story,” by Paul Smith, who is an expert trainer on increasing business results through storytelling. His focus is primarily on improving the results for traditional sales professionals, but I’m convinced that the same principles are equally critical for entrepreneurs selling their startup to investors, strategic partners, and customers.

I say that because I’ve heard too many abstract pitches about the next paradigm-shifting technology, which I can’t relate to, and only a couple with stories that really grabbed me. The best story I remember related the family impact of devastation wrought by Alzheimer’s disease, leading to the development of a mitigation process, and I am now fully committed to this effort.

I learned from Smith that a memorable story doesn’t have to hit you personally, but it does have to include six key attributes to raise it above the standard sales pitch, or new venture problem statement, opportunity sizing, and value proposition. These attributes include the following:

  1. Specific moment-in-time indication. Most entrepreneurs were incented to start their venture at a specific moment they remember well, so telling the story of when and how this happened is a natural. The result will always have more impact than merely outlining a new technology, cutting costs, or tackling a known problem, such as world hunger.

  2. Place where it happened. A memorable story needs to start with location specifics to make it real. Stories relay events, and these events have to happen somewhere. The words can be simple, like “I was meeting with a customer in Boston,” or “When my home was devastated by a tornado.” It’s even acceptable to make up a place with a “what if.”

  3. Every story needs a main character. This should be obvious, but much of what passes for “a story” these days are things like elevator pitches or product descriptions that have no characters at all. In the context of new venture stories, the character would most likely be the entrepreneur, a potential customer, an investor, or all of the above.

  4. The obstacle or the painful need. This is the villain in the story, which should be the problem you are solving. If could be a disease you are designing medicine to combat, missing data that your solution provides, or a safety risk in a common process. The explanation of your solution, financial return, and the rollout comes later.

  5. A worthy goal. The main character in a story must have a specific goal, ideally one that is appreciated or even noble in the eyes of the listener. These days, it’s not cool to have a primary goal of making lots of money, but it is smart to include evidence that the new venture is sustainable as a business, and will provide a satisfying return to constituents.

  6. Something has to happen. Statements about your product’s amazing capabilities or your service commitment, or testimonials about how awesome your company is, are generally not stories because they don’t relay events. They are just someone’s opinion about impact which still belong in marketing collateral, but won’t make you memorable.

If possible, every entrepreneur should craft a unique story, or tune their story, for different audiences, such as investors and customers, to convey your values and your commitment in their specific context. Add emotion, surprise, dialogue, detail, data, and other elements to make your story fresh and effective. Always close stories with succinct lessons and recommended actions.

A compelling story is best used as a “grabber” to get people’s attention and make your venture and brand memorable, but it doesn’t replace any of the new venture basics, such as the business plan, investor deck, or financial model. It can be your competitive advantage over peers and existing players, and it is fun to do. How prepared are you to tell your best story?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 14, 2018

Businesses Need Employee Engagement More Than Process

engaged-employeeThe days of leadership without engagement are gone. With interactive social media and video everywhere, everyone needs to feel they have a relationship with their leaders, and every brand needs leader personification for customers to relate. Soon you won’t be able to name a business as one of your favorites if you can’t personally visualize and relate to company leadership.

In the same way, great entrepreneurs and company leaders should no longer rely on faceless and nameless processes to drive business strategy and innovation to stay competitive. The old way doesn’t work, and results more than ever in slow decision-making, lack of real connection with employees, and ignorance of what customers really want.

The new principles of engagement, as well as the dysfunctions of the old, are well illustrated in the insightful classic book, “Why Are There Snowblowers in Miami?” by Steven D. Goldstein. He speaks from a wealth of personal experience in private equity, as well as top executive positions at American Express, Sears, and Citigroup.

He found the dysfunctional engagement that sent snow blowers to his store in Miami every year. As a result of this incident and many others, he defined five key engagement principles which resonate with me as just as relevant for new business founders as mature business executives. Here is my adaptation of his engagement principles for all the aspiring entrepreneurs I advise:

  1. Learn to adopt an outsider’s perspective. Every entrepreneur, even though confident in his domain, needs to fight complacency in a world that changes almost daily. You need to look at everything through fresh eyes, continually ask questions not usually asked, and actively listen to contrary views. No change means you are falling behind as a leader.

  2. Interact with employees and customers on a regular basis. Authentic communication at all levels and encouraging feedback is how you find out what is really going on. More meetings in your conference room won’t get to the truth as well as simply talking to people who interact with customers directly. Never be too busy to talk to real customers.

  3. Focus on two or three pertinent metrics in any situation. Keeping it simple is the best course. No one can remember your top ten priorities and measurements. Unbundle projects into smaller elements, and personalize the top couple of metrics for each team. These simplified targets are crucial to motivating a team, and getting the focus you need.

  4. Help people know more, so they can do their job better. Knowledge is power, and good information flow and collection tools are of the utmost importance. Information that is relevant and timely needs to be shared widely and efficiently. It’s also important to share the evaluation insights, and to tie the next action steps directly to current results.

  5. Accept that whatever speed you are going is too slow. Time is the enemy in today’s global marketplace. Follow the guiding motto of Andy Grove at Intel, “Only the paranoid survive.” It’s vital to get quick wins, learn rapidly from failures, and get comfortable with constant change. Waiting is never an option, as competitors will always be moving.

In the same fashion, these engagement principles must be applied to customers. More and more, I see evidence that customers want to be pulled to your company by engagement, rather than feel that you are pushing yourself on them. There are a multitude of opportunities through social media to engage your customers, as well as getting out of your office into the marketplace.

Customer business leadership through brand icons, such as Ronald McDonald and Aunt Jemima, is fading fast. Customers as well as employees want to relate and engage with real people as leaders, and business leaders need to interact with real employees and customers to stay vital and current.

As an entrepreneur, you need to start this focus early, with the same passion you currently apply to your new idea and solution. Have you taken a hard look recently at where you are spending most of your time?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 13, 2018

7 Ways To Be A Great Manager And Leader For Your Team

i-am-the-bossOne of the things I’ve learned in working with aspiring entrepreneurs is that managing and leading a team is a scary venture into the unknown for many people, even if they have worked as a business professional for years. Having worked in my own career on both sides of the fence at various times, I recommend that everyone practice thinking like the boss in every role to prepare.

This will improve your effectiveness in your current role, and give you a head start towards a future role, such as startup founder, where you are the boss. You will find that the same key principles apply in both situations, and that every business professional has a boss, and should be a leader in their own domain to others with less experience and expertise.

I found some good insights and details on this approach in the classic book, “How To Be A Great Boss,” by Gino Wickman and RenĂ© Boer, who speak from years of experience working with leadership teams of both small and large companies. Here is my summary of their key principles on being a great boss, which I will characterize here as applying to any business professional:

  1. Surround yourself with great people. As an entrepreneur, executive, or team member, you are most impacted by the people you gather around you. The smartest team members and the smartest bosses spend more time with people who are smarter in the relevant domain than they are. Then when you have to hire people, you will pick the best.

  2. Make more effective use of your own time. We all know bosses and peers who are always too busy, but never seem to get much done. Make sure that person is not you. Free up time for others by eliminating low priority tasks, and delegating items to the right people. Work on habits that improve your productivity, and find better tools every day.

  3. Understand both leadership and management. In business, leadership consists of creating the vision and direction, while management is primarily about gaining traction to achieve it. You don’t have to be a boss to be a leader or a manager. You should be practicing both in every role, and there will be no surprises as your career evolves.

  4. Train yourself to follow leadership best practices. If you practice all the key elements of leadership in every role, you will make a great team member or a great boss. These elements include giving clear direction, providing tools and training to the right people, getting out of the way, walking your own talk, and reflecting regularly on the big picture.

  5. Focus on demonstrating accountability for your actions. Accountability is everyone’s obligation, to accept responsibility for their activities, and to disclose your results in a transparent manner. Accountability cannot be imposed on you by a boss or entrepreneur – it’s a practice that you must learn to impose on yourself to be effective and appreciated.

  6. Develop productive relationships with people around you. Effective relationships, inside your business and outside, are critical in every professional, management, and leadership role. The most productive people get things done by working in concert with others, not demanding actions and results, but by orchestrating win-win relationships.

  7. Learn to deal effectively with people who disappoint you. While highly productive relationships lead to success, dysfunctional relationships make you a poor employee and a bad boss. People issues cannot be solved by avoidance or edict. If you surface and manage relationship issues early with respect and minimum emotion, you will be seen as a good team member and a good boss.

Thus, putting yourself in your boss’s shoes to see what they see, and act as you would expect them to act, is the best way to assure success in your role today, or prepare you for the startup founder role you dream about. In fact, the best team members and managers I work with always see themselves as their own boss. Try it – you may find and train that great boss you never had.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 12, 2018

7 Tips To Test Your Idea As A Part-Time Entrepreneur

part-time-jobMany experts will tell you that you can’t succeed as a part-time entrepreneur, as any good startup will require a 100 percent commitment of your time and energy. But not many of us have enough savings to live for a year or more without a salary, fund the startup, and still feed the family. Thus I often recommend that entrepreneurs keep their day job until the startup is producing revenue.

Of course, if you have investors anxious to give you money, or a rich uncle to keep you afloat, there is nothing wrong with a dedicated and full commitment to the startup, with commensurate more aggressive milestones and growth expectations. We all understand the risk of competitors quickly closing in, and market factors changing before we can roll out our solution.

For those of you who do decide to keep your day job, here are some pragmatic recommendations I espouse on how to make the most progress in your startup, while simultaneously juggling your other critical family and employer roles. In fact, these suggestions have tremendous value, even if you are dedicated and committed full-time to your new startup:

  1. Find a co-founder who can keep you balanced. Two co-founders, both working part-time are actually better than one founder full-time. You both need the complementary skills, ability to debate alternatives, and the tendency to keep each other motivated, that neither could match working alone. One still needs to be the agreed final decision maker.

  2. Schedule fixed times and days for the startup, working with the team. Building a startup is hard work, and requires discipline to get it done. Working part-time doesn’t mean all working randomly alone. Commit to a regular weekend time and a couple of specific nights per week where you meet with the team and focus only on the startup.

  3. Get better at saying ‘no’ to your friends. Learning to manage your own time is critical. Everyone around you enjoys adding things to your schedule, and reducing their to-do list. The key is learning to say no without offering a long list of excuses, or whining about how busy you are. It’s never possible to satisfy everyone, so be true first to your own priorities.

  4. Set realistic milestones and take them seriously. It’s easy for part-timers to make excuses that other priorities caused you to miss milestones, but predictable results and metrics in this mode are even more critical than for full-time members. Use the 80/20 rule to maximize productivity – get 80 percent outcome from 20 percent of focused efforts.

  5. Select a business idea that has a longer runway. Some startup ideas are dependent on a rapidly emerging fad, or have many competitors fighting for a limited market. You can’t move fast enough on a part-time basis to win in these areas. On the other hand, if you have a new technology, with patent applied for, maybe you more time to get it right.

  6. Prepare yourself for a longer journey to success. Seth Godin is famous for saying that the average time for overnight success in a startup is six years, even working full-time. Like any startup solution, the first version will likely be wrong, and require one or more pivots. Learn to look for small indications of success to keep you motivated.

  7. Make learning your full-time vocation. No matter how many full-time, part-time, and family commitments you have, you always need to carve out time for learning new things. Learning is not stealing from any employer, and it prepares you for all your futures. Don’t wait for anyone to pay your way to class, or give you time off for training. It won’t happen.

The advantage of quitting your day job early is that it removes all excuses, and all qualms from you and others, that the new startup is only a hobby. There is nothing that drives an entrepreneur like being hungry, dependent on the outcome, and seeing mounting debt. Without self-discipline, many aspiring entrepreneurs find that a single focus is the only way anything ever gets done.

There is certainly additional risk associated with working a paying job during the day, and working on your startup nights and weekends. First is the risk to your health and family life, which if you lose these, all the business opportunity in the world doesn’t matter.

Then there is the risk of antagonizing your current employer by missing deadlines, reduced productivity, or even getting embroiled in a legal conflict of interest or intellectual property ownership rights. I suggest it’s best to be up-front with your employer, with an honest commitment that your startup work will not impact company commitments or results.

Potential conflict of interest issues with a current employer should be explored openly, and resulting agreement documented, to preclude the possibility that you might lose everything later as your startup succeeds. On the positive side, your employer may like what you have in mind, and become your first investor and biggest supporter.

If your conclusion after all these pros and cons is that the risk is too high for you, you probably need to keep your day-job long-term, and give your startup idea to someone else. There certainly isn’t anything wrong with a regular well-paid job and career, with health-care benefits, and a competitive retirement plan. But the entrepreneur lifestyle is still more fun, even part-time.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, October 10, 2018

10 Ways Entrepreneurs Find Money To Start A Business

money-to-start-a-businessOne of the most frequent questions I get as a mentor to entrepreneurs is “How do I find the money to start my business?” I always answer that there isn’t any magic, and contrary to the popular myth, nobody is waiting in the wings to throw money at you, just because you have a new and exciting business idea.

On the other hand, there are many additional creative options available for starting a business that you might not find for buying a car, home, or other major consumer item. If you have the urge to be an entrepreneur, I encourage you to think seriously about each of these, before you zero-in on one or two, and get totally discouraged if those don’t work for you.

Of course, every alternative has advantages and disadvantages, so any given one may not be available or attractive to you. For example, professional investors put great priority on your previous experience in building a business, and they expect to own a portion of the business equity and control for the funds they do provide. These are tough for a first-time entrepreneur.

Thus it is always a question of what you qualify for, and what you are willing to give up, to turn your dream idea into a viable business. Here is my list of the ten most common sources of funding today, in reverse priority sequence, with some rules of thumb to channel your focus:

  1. Seek a bank loan or credit-card line-of-credit. In general, this won’t happen for a new startup unless you have a good credit history, or existing assets that you are willing to put at-risk for collateral. In the US, you may find that the Small Business Administration (SBA) can get you infusions of cash without normal backup requirements.

  2. Trade equity or services for startup help. This is most often called bartering your skills or something you have for something you need. An example would be negotiating free office space by agreeing to support the computer systems for all the other office tenants. Another common example is exchanging equity for legal and accounting support.

  3. Negotiate an advance from a strategic partner or customer. Find a major customer, or a complimentary business, who sees such value in your idea that they are willing to give you an advance on royalty payments to complete your development. Variations on this theme include early licensing or white-labeling agreements.

  4. Join a startup incubator or accelerator. These organizations, like Y Combinator, are very popular these days, and are often associated with major universities, community development organizations, or even large companies. Most provide free resources to startups, including office facilities and consulting, but many provide seed funding as well.

  5. Solicit venture capital investors. These are professional investors, like Accel Partners, who invest institutional money in qualified startups, usually with a proven business model, ready to scale. They typically look for big opportunities, needing a couple of million dollars or more, with a proven team. Look for a warm introduction to make this work.

  6. Apply to local angel investor groups. Most metropolitan areas have groups of local high-net-worth individuals interested in supporting startups, and willing to syndicate amounts up to a million dollars for qualified startups. Use online platforms like Gust to find them, and local networking to find ones that relate to your industry and passion.

  7. Start a crowdfunding campaign online. This popular funding source, where anyone can participate, per the JOBS Act in the US, is exemplified by online sites like Kickstarter. Here people make online pledges to your startup during a campaign, to pre-buy the product for later delivery, give donations, or qualify for a reward, such as a tee-shirt.

  8. Request a small business grant. These are government funds allocated to support new technologies and important causes, like education, medicine, and social needs. A good place to start looking is Grants.gov, which is a searchable directory of more than 1,000 Federal grant programs. The process is long, but it doesn’t cost you any equity.

  9. Pitch your needs to friends and family. As a general rule, professional investors will expect that you have already have commitments from this source, to show your credibility. If your friends and family don’t believe in you, don’t expect outsiders to jump in. This is the primary source of non-personal funds for very early-stage startups.

  10. Fund your startup yourself. These days, the costs to start a business are at an all-time low, and over 80% of startups are self-funded (also called bootstrapping). It may take a bit longer, to save some money before you start, and grow organically, but the advantage is that you don’t have to give up any equity or control. Your business is yours alone.

You can see that all of these options require work and commitment on your part, so there is no magic or free money. Every funding decision is a complex tradeoff between near-term and longer-term costs and paybacks, as well as overall ownership and control. Yet with the many options available, there is no excuse for not living your dream, rather than dreaming about living.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 8, 2018

7 Strategies To Avoid the Curse of Business-As-Usual

business-as-usual-oxymoronAs a long-time advisor to entrepreneurs and business owners, I rarely find someone who doesn’t proclaim that the business world is changing rapidly, with new technology, new customer expectations, and new cultures. Yet, I’m still frustrated by the number of business owners that haven’t updated their business-as-usual practices. In my mind, these are killing their businesses.

For example, I still find businesses asking you to print, sign, and return documents by mail in lieu of digital signatures or email. Others still routinely have phone hold queues for customer contact that can last up to an hour, with no alternative options. Yet in my talks with these executives, they are unaware of the issues, or have no idea how to change processes at the rate of change today.

If you are one of these owners who wants to do the right thing to survive and delight your customers, but doesn’t know where to start, I am here to recommend some best practices that I see successful companies, and many startups, who have focused on this issue. Here is my prioritized list of best practices that I recommend to get you back on track:

  1. Focus on building an engaged and empowered team. It takes a well-rounded and motivated team to run a competitive business today. These are your eyes and ears, in daily contact with customers, who are as committed to delighting customers as you are. They have to be energized and able to adapt as the market and competitors demand.

  2. Define stretch goals and challenge your team to deliver. Traditional mission statements are not enough. You need to communicate quantified and updates goals quarterly, including the metrics to assess progress and success. For buy-in and commitment, make sure the team has an integral role in setting goals and rewards.

  3. Optimize your customer feedback and listening channels. These days, customers expect to be able to build a relationship with a business through two-way communication. Make sure your channels are open and responsive, through social media, websites, and easy access to executives. Use experiments with them to evaluate potential changes.

  4. Track competitors and influencers for trends and ideas. Even if your performance has improved dramatically, other businesses may be moving faster or tracking closer to cultural changes and market trends. One of the biggest justifications for business-as-usual is ignoring competitors and not comparing your processes to industry best-of-breed.

  5. Foster a learning and change culture in employees. The best companies have found that it’s important to constantly prepare team members for moving to the next level, through mentoring and training, rather than trying to keep them in their current role. The alternative is that the best leave, and your average skill level and motivation go down.

  6. Plan to upgrade all processes without waiting for a crisis. Waiting for a crisis, like a revenue shortfall, or customer dissatisfaction, is a sure way to disaster. Competitors are looking for a soft spot to step in, and customers have instant access to better alternatives through friends and reviews on the Internet. Once gone, customers won’t be back.

  7. Disrupt your own solutions before someone else does. Too many businesses have their “cash cows,” which they refuse to touch with pricing or new features until it is too late to recover. Intel’s Andy Grove famously argued that chip technology doubled every 18 months, so he planned on replacing his products on that schedule, despite sales.

Business as usual is an easy habit to fall into, and a hard one to change once it is entrenched. If you establish these recommended best practices early, and apply the necessary discipline to keep them going, your chances of success are good. You will also find your business to be a lot more satisfying and self-sufficient. That’s a win-win for both you and your customers.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/25/2018 ***

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Sunday, October 7, 2018

6 Powerful Drivers Shared By Successful Entrepreneurs

Steve-Jobs-StanfordIn my experience mentoring new entrepreneurs and aspiring business leaders, I see far too many who seem to be driven by all the wrong reasons. Everyone seems to espouse extrinsic motivations, such as getting rich, having power, and fulfilling parent dreams, when in fact a focus on satisfying internal interests and desires will likely lead to more success, as well as satisfaction.

I’ve had the pleasure of working with a couple of the best-known entrepreneurs of our time, and read about many more in the updated version of the classic book, “Discover Your True North,” by Harvard leadership expert and best-selling author Bill George. He makes a convincing argument that the best leaders and entrepreneurs follow their intrinsic rather than extrinsic motivations.

He emphasizes the value of finding a way to align your strengths with your intrinsic motivations, which he calls the sweet spot. Some of the most effective sweet spots and intrinsic motivations for today’s entrepreneurs would include the following:

  1. Making a difference in the world. When Bill Gates acted on his dream of putting a computer in every home and on every desk, he had no idea of the fortune it would bring to him, since he wanted only to make a difference. Extrinsic motivations often work against entrepreneurs by leading them to set unrealistic and overwhelming goals.

  2. Find personal meaning from building a business. In his book, “The Art of The Start 2.0,” Guy Kawasaki exhorts entrepreneurs to focus on making meaning, not money. He has said many times that if your vision for your company is to grow it just to flip it to a large company or to take it public and cash out, "you're doomed.” Do it for meaning.

  3. Satisfaction of doing something great. Steve Jobs summarized his intrinsic motivation in 2005 at Stanford in a talk titled “How to Live Before You Die.” He said, “Your work is going to fill a large part of your life, and the only way to be truly satisfied is to do what you believe is great work. And the only way to do great work is to love what you do.”

  4. Personal growth and accomplishment. To be a successful entrepreneur, one can never stand still. The best entrepreneurs enjoy the journey as much as the destination. They have a thirst for knowledge that helps them in their business, as well in their own personal growth. That synergy creates a sweet spot that maximizes their impact.

  5. Seeing the real value of one’s beliefs. When asked why he created Facebook, Mark Zuckerberg replied “It's not because of the amount of money. For me and my colleagues, the most important thing is that we create an open information flow for people. Having media corporations owned by conglomerates is just not an attractive idea to me."

  6. Helping others achieve their goals. If you want to achieve your goals, help others achieve theirs. Great entrepreneurs keep your eyes open for other businesses in a related space that can complement theirs. Elon Musk has opened up Tesla car battery patents for use by anyone, which obviously will benefit his business as well as theirs.

Most entrepreneurs will tell you that once they discovered the real purpose for their efforts, they found a new sense of commitment and leadership which allowed them to really inspire and empower others, as well as direct their own actions. At this point they can make the strategic decisions they need to really make a difference, enjoy satisfaction, and leave a lasting legacy.

Many have found that initial failure is one of the best teachers in this regard. I counsel new entrepreneurs to expect failure, and wear it as a badge of pride, rather than trying to hide it. In fact, most investors are wary of anyone who claims to have never failed, reading that claim as an indication of too much caution, or not able to face their own reality.

The primary message here is not to hide your real motivation from yourself, your team, or your investors. You can’t fool them all for very long, and you won’t be happy trying. If you can’t find any intrinsic motivations for what you are doing now, it’s probably time to take a hard look at your lifestyle and your future. Life is too short to be unhappy and unfulfilled for any part of it.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 6, 2018

10 Keys To Reducing The Risk The Second Time Around

business-riskEntrepreneurs who experience success with their first startup are often amazed to realize that the risks and fears of doing it right the second time go up, rather than down. Encores are tough, especially in the high-risk world of startups, yet every entrepreneur I know can’t wait to start over and do it again. Sometimes their haste or ego causes them to ignore basics, and they fall hard.

Every startup success is a function of great people, products, and profits. But there is no magic formula on how to bring these together a second time, but I did see some good insights on the parameters in a classic startup business parable, “Endless Encores,” by Ken Goldstein, who advises startups and has built corporations in technology, entertainment, media, and e-commerce.

I have pulled together here a few of our joint recommendations to every entrepreneur and startup that I advise. These work the first time, and are required every time for success:

  1. Seek extraordinary people and revere talent. In the heat of the battle, when you have the least time and money to attract the best, it’s easy for an entrepreneur to settle for who is available, rather than who can bring real value and innovation to the business. Repeat leaders think more about talent, while short-term leaders worry first about output today.

  2. Hire for character, competency, and compatibility. Hiring is the single most important thing you do as a leader, and firing is second. It’s more than filling an open slot on your team. You start with skills, but then you have to delve deeply into motivation, trust, ambition, chemistry, and experience.

  3. Diversity on your team expands thinking. Hiring people who are just like you may eliminate revolts, but it won’t get you outside your own box. Creativity requires constructive conflict, a willingness to collaborate, dealing with failure, and boundless iteration. Solution and business model innovation require pushing the limits.

  4. Self-demanding beats boss-demanding every time. Startup successes are never perfect. Too many entrepreneurs are their own worst enemy, trying to do everything right the next time. Remember to embrace pragmatic goals and solutions, and accept a little bit of luck and assistance along the way. Perfectionists never win in the startup business.

  5. Leapfrog products invent and reinvent markets. Incremental product ideas do not change markets. It takes a paradigm shift, like autos to airplanes. On the other hand, making the user experience easier, richer, and more pleasant, as Apple has done repeatedly, can reinvent existing markets. Focus on the customer for repeated success.

  6. Eat your own dog food. If you don’t, why should they? The basic premise is that if a startup expects paying customers to use its products or services, it should expect no less from its own team. There is no better way to get quick and honest feedback on strengths, weaknesses, and usability. Even encore startups should expect to pivot to get it right.

  7. A business model is not an after-thought. Passion and ego are no substitute for a business model that makes sense. Some entrepreneurs are so enamored by their first success that they inherently believe that their next idea will make even more money. If your solution is free, or you lose money on every sale, it’s hard to make it up in volume.

  8. Strategy is charting a course, not making a move. Implementing a strategy doesn’t force the answer you want, so it pays to map out the alternatives and envision the possible as well as the problematic. Markets change rapidly these days, so the strategy that brought you success the first time, may lead to your demise the second time.

  9. Recurring revenue is the foundation for growth. Everyone loves the subscription model, since transaction costs exclude the cost of acquiring a new customer. Investors love this and other recurring revenue models because they facilitate growth through scaling. Sometimes repeat entrepreneurs forget that they must acquire new customers.

  10. Use cash wisely, as if it were out of your own pocket. Every new startup has extensive cash flow out, before any flows in. Serial entrepreneurs, with new bigger ideas, often forget that part of the equation, and are caught short. Repeating successfully means the same focus and due diligence on cash you had the first time around.

Thus the path to repeat success in business is to utilize what you learned from your first experience, and subvert any illogical fear of being exposed as a fraud or a lucky accident. If you have been able to “bring the crowd to its feet” with the success of your first venture, the principles outlined here could bring you endless encores.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 5, 2018

How to Have a Winning Career, Despite Constant Change

business-careerMost young people who are completing their educational degree today think they will have learned all they need for their career ahead. Unfortunately, based on my own extensive experience in business, I have to tell them in my talks that most of what they know now will be obsolete in a few years. The most important thing you can learn in college today is how to learn.

The rules of business and technology are changing rapidly, and the pace of change is only accelerating. The facts, as well as what motivates your peers, customers, and business leaders are changing daily. For example, no one learned a couple of decades ago that the biggest opportunities ahead would include social media, ecommerce, and computers on our wrists.

Only those of us who learn to practice continuous learning will survive and flourish as we move forward into an unknown business world where more and more intelligent machines and software will do most of the work we know in business today. The question is how we develop our future role and potential, while satisfying all the business and personal demands on our time today.

I saw some good insights on this challenge in a new book, “The Expertise Economy,” by Kelly Palmer and David Blake. Their focus is on how the smartest companies today already create and use learning to engage, compete, and succeed. I believe these insights can and must be extended to you and your career, in line with the following guiding principles:

  1. Make your interest in learning your competitive advantage. Keeping your priority on learning is a mindset that we all need to build. It’s obvious to peers and employers when you have it, from your questions, proactive actions, and interests in new challenges. Smart employers look for these as they contemplate your competitiveness for new roles.

  2. Define personalized learning goals with a timetable. For example, an aggressive career-minded professional today likely needs to set a goal of advancing to a new role or new job every two years, rather than traditionally staying in the same role for a lifetime. You need a plan on how to train yourself, or be mentored, for each step along the way.

  3. Proactively prepare for your desired future roles. None of us can keep up on every new thing in this knowledge abundant world. Don’t wait for someone else to send you back to class, or push you to change. Only you know your strengths and learning preferences, from jobs, conferences, books, websites, and videos. Make the investment.

  4. Learn from peer relationships, examples, and feedback. Most people learn best from other people, yet we don’t always focus on how we can learn from our peers and tap into the knowledge and experience of those who have already mastered a skill we need. The key is active listening to others, asking questions, and acting on constructive feedback.

  5. Explore new technologies and innovative new approaches. Technology is making new things possible in learning and skill building. I understand that change can be difficult, because not everything works, but you never get anywhere unless you take a chance. Adopt the mindset of your children who have their most fun learning new things.

  6. Evaluate your skills regularly and update your inventory. Keep your skills inventory visible to yourself and everyone around you through modern online profiles, including LinkedIn and Facebook. If you haven’t updated your online profiles and resume for a year, you are definitely falling behind your peers and your future career aspirations.

  7. Constantly market your skills and expertise to employers. It’s always positive to document your expertise and accomplishments, in the context of needs that you see in your current company and position. Build a relationship with a career advisor or recruiter to check your fit for other alternatives. Don’t hide or wait to be found and appreciated.

If you are the employer, you need to realize that there are more tools, content, and technologies today than ever before to help your team members become the experts you need. You also need to change your company mindset, from always looking outside for change, to developing a culture of learning and career development for current employees. It’s a win-win situation for success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/20/2018 ***

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Wednesday, October 3, 2018

7 Steps To A Memorable New Venture Marketing Rollout

digital-marketing-rolloutEven with instant two-way communication via the Internet and mobile phones, your greatest new solution or service won’t found or properly recognized without marketing. The challenge is to rise above the clutter, and stand out in the rush of over 500,000 other new businesses that get started in the U.S. every month. I find that digital marketing is the most visible and effective place to start.

Even within the digital marketing arena, there are a thousand alternatives, vying for your limited budget. Should you be buying key words from search engines, building fabulous web content, blasting out e-mail campaigns, or putting all your efforts into viral videos or social media? In fact, the first challenge is to build a strategy, put together a budget, and define measurement metrics.

As an advisor to many entrepreneurs and small businesses, I often get asked where to start, and how to proceed. In that context I offer the following practical steps and priorities:

  1. Focus on a unique selling point (USP) for your offering. Digital marketing is all about establishing a voice and sending a message that customers can relate too, and makes you stand out. My advice is to keep it simple but memorable, and pick something you can highlight with pictures and videos. Put your customer at the top, rather than technology.

  2. Research the top digital channels for your business today. There is no one best channel for all businesses. For young consumers today, it may be Instagram or Snapchat, while B2B offerings should take a hard look at LinkedIn and other business forums. Prioritize the list by customer reach, effort required by you, as well as cost.

  3. Select no more than three that match your needs initially. You can’t do everything that you would like, even if you had the money. Resist the urge to try the latest “hot new channel,” just because all your friends are talking about it. Set specific objectives, budgets, and metrics for each one. Pick a theme and a team for each and get started.

  4. Start creating content to get visibility and build a following. Here is where you may need outside expert help to be effective. Traditional marketing hype won’t get you the attention you need. Today’s audience is looking for something more creative, more visual, engaging, and interactive. Here is where you have to think outside the box.

  5. Concentrate on building your brand image and message. Now is the time to integrate and solidify your brand across all the channels and platforms you have selected. You need to hone your design and tone, taking a strategic approach to establish brand recognition in your marketplace, all while keeping your target audience on top of mind.

  6. Expand marketing in channels that work and add others. Based on metrics, revenue growth, and customer feedback, it’s now time to prune digital channels that don’t work for you, experiment with new ones, and expand your efforts where you see success. Content that works should be relentlessly repurposed, from web site to social media, events, etc.

  7. Add elements of traditional marketing to maximize visibility. While non-digital marketing typically costs more money, it may be required to reach all elements of your audience. There are still customers who won’t give your brand total credibility until it appears on television ads, in newspapers, direct marketing, and at trade shows.

In every case, I have found that marketing is more important than ever for the growth and visibility of a new brand, and digital marketing is the most effective and the least expensive way to start. Yet it shouldn’t be done without careful planning and effort. Entrepreneurs who strike out randomly on every digital channel they know, using family and interns, are wasting their efforts.

Even less effective are those who still believe that “if we build it, they will come.” It’s time to be proactive in finding customers, engaging them in two-way conversations, and listening carefully to their message, as well as projecting yours. It’s not the size of your budget that makes you memorable – it’s the size of your connection with real customers who can multiply your efforts.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 09/18/2018 ***

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Monday, October 1, 2018

5 Steps To Strategy Tuning Through Machine Learning

artificial-intelligence-machine-learningConventional thinking in business has long been that strategy decisions are made by humans, while the focus of automation and machine learning should be on execution. With the speed of change and volume of market feedback today, as well as the advances in machine learning, Amazon, Alibaba, and others have proven the value of software driven strategy decisions.

For example, most e-commerce platforms today offer millions of products, with a changing mix daily and a changing market, such that it’s virtually impossible to manually predict a strategy for mapping customer demographics to products displayed online. Only smart software can plow through the volume of live data, recognizing trends, customers, and match offerings to reality.

Alibaba, today the counterpart in China to Amazon, Ebay, and Google here, has demonstrated leadership in this area, and provides guidance for all of us to learn from in a new book, “Smart Business,” by Ming Zeng. Ming is the former chief of staff and strategy advisor to co-founder Jack Ma for over a decade, and outlines five key steps for automating decisions today as follows:

  1. Log and use consumer behavior and product transaction data. In my work with small businesses and startups, I routinely find owners who rely on guessing at key customer drivers, and let their passion drive product focus, rather than data. They think they are saving costs by not using the latest technology to capture data, and minimizing storage.

    In China, even tiny bike sharing companies now have to digitally track every bike through GPS, and every mobile interaction between a bike and a rider to compete. No human or paper tracking systems are a competitive alternative. The days of manual reservations and receipts are behind us, whether it be with rides, clothing, meals, or entertainment.

  2. Configure every decision step into real-time software. Businesses must capture every business decision activity, including customer relations, in digital software so that decisions affecting the activities can be automated and optimized through machine learning. This is a new class of software that can adapt in real time to market changes.

    In the bike rental business, all operations and rental decisions are made completely by software, with no human intervention. The efficiency gain is tremendous. The software directs humans and trucks to balance the tide of idle bicycles to other areas of a city where the demand is higher at the moment, rather than humans directing software.

  3. Get data flowing, and machines talking to each other. With today’s technology, data flow and coordination are readily achieved through common Internet protocols and application programming interfaces (APIs). These allow applications to communicate automatically and almost instantly, even over long distances, to mobile and IoT devices.

    Way back in 2002, Jeff Bezos at Amazon issued an ultimatum to completely institute internal APIs within the company, and later to their millions of suppliers. Through this focus, Amazon has become one of the first trillion dollar companies, and continues to expand its reach beyond books, e-commerce, and now into groceries with Whole Foods.

  4. Record live data in full for all internal business elements. The opposite of live data is static data that is sampled or profiled for analysis at a later date. Live data also requires metrics and infrastructure that can interpret and evaluate the data, and smart businesses must develop these in the algorithms they use in their data-intelligence engines.

  5. Apply machine-learning for real-time software decisions. Intelligent real-time software decisions are quickly replacing after-the-fact analytics. Only with full live data, built-in metrics, and artificial intelligence to iteratively improve the decision process, can your business keep up with the pace of change, and unique markets around the world.

Uber’s algorithms match car and driver, minimizing wait times and making mapping calculations in ways that no human dispatcher could match. Google search rankings are updated many times a second, based on new info and your profile changes. If your business is not powered by an algorithm, you don’t have a competitive business today.

These steps lead to what Zeng defines as a customer-to-business (C2B) model, where every direct interaction with customers sets into motion a striking reorientation of all business activities, and builds a feedback loop from customers. This allows businesses to automate all decisions productively, to scale and compete effectively, in tune with trends and new marketplaces.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/17/2018 ***

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