Wednesday, February 27, 2019

9 Strategies For Winning As A Freelancer Or Employee

freelance-employee-winA big trend in business these days is hiring freelancers or contract personnel for the duration of a project, rather than permanent staff. According to a recent poll, contractors and freelancers could make up half of the American workforce within a decade. Yet I find that few of today’s workers realize that succeeding as a freelancer requires a whole new focus on “marketing” yourself.

In essence, as a contractor, you are a consultant who is competing regularly for new work, and you constantly have to differentiate your offering from other candidates, including price. In addition, like an entrepreneur with a new business, you have to factor in all the indirect costs previously covered by employers, including training, health care, and time off for vacations.

In fact, thinking like an entrepreneur is a good strategy today for success, even if you are currently in a long-term employment situation. As you know, things can change quickly, as businesses try to survive and adapt to an evolving market, so it’s better to be prepared than caught off guard. Here are some key strategies that I recommend to every worker today:

  1. Develop and highlight your competitive differentiation. Every entrepreneur and every startup needs to have a clear “elevator pitch,” which identifies a unique strength and value they bring to the table. Internally in a career, you need to do the same thing to solidify your position among peers, and prepare for either promotion or freelancing.

  2. Drive your role and direction, rather than let the job drive you. You can’t win doing something you don’t like to do, or don’t know how to do, so focus on your passion and strengths today, and make that come alive in the delivery of everything you do. Pick your niche, and continually invest in improving your expertise and keeping up with trends.

  3. Build relationships to attract future business or roles. Too many employees count on their managers to get them promotions, or count on a resume to get the next job. Today, customers and future managers put a higher value on relationships, and expect to know you from industry conferences, social media, or recommendations from peers.

  4. Market yourself both inside and outside your current job. Use blogging, outside publication, and speaking or mentoring opportunities to establish credibility and stand out above peers. The days of being somehow found as a hardworking introvert in the back room are gone. It’s time to learn how to do marketing, and apply it to yourself.

  5. Start today thinking at least one job ahead. As a business, you should always be looking for your next customer, as well as satisfying your current one. That means regularly scanning LinkedIn and job sites for roles and opportunities that you may quality for, and honing your skills and connections to be sure you are competitive.

  6. Be an advocate for change in your current role. Keeping a low profile, or fighting change, will not serve you well as a freelancer or an employee. Focus on the ultimate customer, and find a way to improve satisfaction, grow revenue, or cut costs. If you find yourself playing it safe, or not willing to take a risk, it’s time to think again.

  7. Walk away from a bad role or customer. You can’t please everyone all the time, so don’t kill yourself trying to satisfy a bad boss or an overly demanding customer. Real entrepreneurs are quick to make the tough decisions, with proper respect, to minimize frustration, resource drain, and reputation loss. Develop the courage to move on.

  8. Write down some target objectives and milestones. Every employee and certainly every freelancer needs to have a clear set of objectives as a “business plan,” just like every startup. If these aren’t written down, reviewed regularly, and measured, then your career sounds more like a hobby than a serious commitment.

  9. Prepare financially. As a contractor, you'll need to get your finances in order. This means having enough savings to get you through slow periods and when you may be without work. Also, don't forget you can write off business expenses like office supplies/equipment, part of your mortgage (if you work from home) and maybe even your car and car insurance. Learn what changes for your tax wise and seek counsel from an accountant if you need it.

With these strategies, I believe you will be well prepared for the new age of freelancers and contractors, and you will be a more successful employee in your current job. I have found that the delivery of my special expertise in professional services is one of the most satisfying and fulfilling roles I have ever experienced.

It’s great fun to build relationships with clients, see directly your impact on the world, and get paid for your real value. That’s the definition of success in any business or career.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 02/12/2019 ***



Monday, February 25, 2019

If Your Passion Is Saving The Environment, Start Here

saving-the-environmentAlthough I hear more and more about “global warming,” and the many ways we are destroying our environment, I still don’t see many global business winners in this space, comparable to Facebook and Amazon. Al Gore, by just talking about it, still seems to be leading the way in monetization, having amassed an estimated net worth reported recently as around $300 million.

The ideas are endless, but we need more smart entrepreneurs to implement them. There are plenty of smaller success examples, including Impossible Foods, Inc., Choose Energy, and others highlighted in this recent Investopedia article. I still see a big opportunity to capitalize on sustainability, attract investors, be the next unicorn, and leave a legacy you can be proud of.

Based on my experience with founders in the “cleantech” and “green” space, I sense that many others are interested, but may be missing the best targets. Thus I offer some practical strategies if you are looking for direction or the best place to start:

  1. Look for opportunities to increase recycling and reuse. The EPA estimates that 75 percent of the American waste stream is recyclable, but we only recycle about 30 percent of it. The percentage is even lower in many other countries. It’s also time to make more products recyclable, by designing them as a natural loop from creation to reuse.

    Another approach is simply repurposing used items, or simply passing them down to less demanding users, like the ecoATM story with used cell phones, tablets and MP3 players. This approach is more valuable than just reusing a chip, or extracting the gold and silver.

  2. Reduce waste from new production automation. Entrepreneurs with an eye on the environment can readily spot examples of inefficient material, water, or energy usage. This starts with closed loop manufacturing systems, but extends into efficient inventory management, avoiding hazardous materials, and reducing packaging materials.

    Rework is another common form of waste, when something goes wrong, and you have to discard partial products, and do the work again. It’s a problem that can be minimized with better automation, training, and the use of machine learning on the factory floor.

  3. Find alternate components for limited natural resources. In this new technology age, smart entrepreneurs are starting to be able to deliver higher-performance components at lower cost, such as composites in lieu of aluminum or steel. Many of these provide the opportunity to save energy and weight, as well as improve the environment.

    From a different angle, solar and other alternative power generation companies, such as BrightSource Energy, have been able reduce environmental impact by capitalizing on the wealth of non-polluting natural resources, including sunlight, wind, and thermal vents.

  4. Improve current product utilization, efficiency, and sharing. Today, statistics find that big trucks are sitting idle or deadheading empty as much as 50 percent of the time. Auto utilization is even lower. Uber and Lyft have jumped into the gap, but there is still plenty of opportunity for digital tracking, sharing, and scheduling to improve the situation.

    This new sharing economy is still picking up steam, with other winners already including Airbnb (rooms), Mobike (bicycles), and Chegg (books). If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, it’s easy to see a wealth of additional opportunities in this space.

  5. Replace physical products with energy-saving digital ones. Whole products and industries have already been replaced, including film cameras by digital ones, and movie DVDs and packaging by streaming digital downloads. This not only reduces pollution, but it makes things much better in the process, and adds value to every customer.

    For example, internet digital sensors and devices, now called the Internet of Things (IoT), are already appearing to enhance common physical devices, including appliances, vehicles, and homes to help us manage the environment. The potential here is still huge.

Overall, despite all these opportunities, the environment that I’m most concerned about is the entrepreneurial one. We need change, and passionate and educated entrepreneurs are still one of the most critical “natural resources” in the world today. Thus I’m committed to helping where I can on both the idea and execution sides of the new venture equation. But it all starts with you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 02/07/2019 ***



Friday, February 22, 2019

7 Job Qualifications For Intrapreneurs In Any Company

Intrapreneurship-qualificationsEvery mature company I know is looking for more innovation from within. They are painfully aware that tenure on the list of S&P companies is shrinking – from thirty-three years back in 1964, down to twenty-four in 2016, and predicted to be just twelve by 2027. They need inside intrapreneurs who think and act like the outside entrepreneurs who are disrupting their business.

I have seen this happening firsthand from my years of experience in several big-name companies, including IBM and Fujitsu. In my view, success starts with nurturing and bringing in the right people to make it happen, or being one of the right people from within if you want your career to blossom.

I just completed a new book on this challenge, “Disrupt-It-Yourself,” by Simone Bhan Ahuja, which includes a great summary of the required attributes to maximize your success potential in this area. I don’t believe that any of these requires a birthright, and all can be adopted or learned by anyone, so I encourage you to take a hard look at your own interests and key team members:

  1. Action trumps ideas and more analysis every time. Real change comes from people who are obsessed with action, not ideas. Thinking and analysis without execution feels like zero cost to existing organizations, but it actually ignores the opportunity cost lost. If you act, you learn from other people, especially customers, and you build momentum.

  2. Focused on progress rather than process. Most entrepreneurs realize that for early stage startups, process is the enemy of progress, slowing you down when you're trying to move forward. But more mature companies have learned that scaling a business requires process, so the focus changes. Intrapreneurs have to always think like entrepreneurs.

  3. Relishes the opportunity to learn from problems. Corporate environments tend to treat problems as failures, rather than opportunities. People are trained to avoid change, and stick with the safer status quo. True entrepreneurs, like Thomas Edison, realize that the biggest innovations come from solving problems, such as failing light bulb filaments.

  4. Loves to “hack” new outcomes from existing systems. In software, hackers love the intellectual challenge of confronting a system designed to do one thing and cleverly exploit it to achieve something different. That’s the essence of innovation, and good intrapreneurs need to find new opportunities by bending existing strengths in new ways.

  5. Reach out across the aisle for complementary talent. Smart intrapreneurs know they can’t do it alone, and know how to enlist the help they need by making it clear “what’s in it” for others. They enjoy engaging in informal partnering and co-design solutions with other stakeholders, while making the total opportunity as much possible about others.

  6. Married to a mission, but not just to one way to do it. The people you desire know the “what” and the “why,” but don’t want to be told “how.” They are always looking for gaps and misalignments, and thrive on changes, even radical changes, so the organization performs better. In this context, strategy deviations can keep the company on track.

  7. Frugal by nature, and don’t ask for much to proceed. Even though they see huge budgets all around, they prefer to start on the cheap (like an entrepreneur), reusing existing resources, working on the side, and employing messy, make-do methods over expensive sanctioned systems that have long approval cycles and much oversight.

Because fostering entrepreneurship internally is hard, many companies have now shifted their innovation focus to acquisitions and partnerships. All have found that this approach can be equally difficult, due to the integration of multiple corporate cultures, processes, supplier dependencies, and management styles.

Thus, I continue to assert that effectively harnessing and building of internal talent to drive innovation from within will continue to be one of the single most important factors for your company’s long-term success. It starts with a mindset that disrupting your business regularly is necessary, before your competition and new startups do it to you. Start your tenure from today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 02-07-2019 ***



Monday, February 18, 2019

5 Indications That Your Work Culture Needs Attention

toxic-office-environmentWhether your company is a startup or a mature business, the last thing you need in the office is a toxic work culture. Yet, according to a recent study, more than half of tech employees see their current office culture as toxic. That can’t possibly be healthy for employee morale, productivity, or customer focus. The sad part is that many executives still don’t know how to recognize the signs.

I saw some excellent guidance for all of us along these lines in a new book, “Cultural Brilliance,” by Claudette Rowley, who has been helping both big and small companies recognize and fix their cultural problems for almost 20 years. In my own consulting career, I have observed examples of each of her five key signs that your business work culture is not operating in a state of brilliance:

  1. People are punished for telling the truth. In broken cultures, people are marginalized and ignored when they tell the truth, or get passed over for a well-deserved promotion, when they try to point out flaws in the current system. In a healthy work culture, telling the truth is encouraged, and new ideas are considered vital to the success of the business.

    As an executive, I found that the first step toward fixing this is actively listening to people, and not being defensive in responses. It’s fair to ask for positive suggestions and actions to fix problems, as well as more details to get to the source of the problem.

  2. Leaders ask for data and do nothing about the problem. When leaders ask for more data, and don’t respond with a credible action plan, they are communicating a lack of courage, or are unwilling to confront reality. They may be more concerned with their own power or comfort than they are with positively impacting the culture around them.

    Even healthy organizations face regular problems, so if you aren’t hearing anything, it probably means that people have given up, or are afraid to bring up issues. Maybe it’s time to leave your office door open, or follow-up and communicate more regularly.

  3. Your culture generates a high turnover rate. You may have a revolving door as people recognize the truth, burn out, and depart. If you find yourself losing your best people, then it’s certainly time to take a hard look at the culture. Healthy cultures thrive on career development and promotions, and don’t wait for people to leave due to frustration.

    If you don’t regularly invest in employees through training and mentoring, they won’t invest in you by stretching themselves, and tackling risky but critical business change challenges. They need to trust and respect you, as well as peer team members.

  4. People are jammed into open spaces or crowded offices. This may not sound like a cultural issue, but people won’t collaborate or focus well in crowded, hectic, and noisy environments. You may be saving money on facilities, but losing more in productivity and lack of commitment. Friendly and comfortable work places lead to positive cultures.

    One of the reasons that Google has consistently been ranked as one of the best company cultures is that they customize their office environments to the people and the role, to make them enjoyable and comfortable, rather than regimented and cold.

  5. Your culture tolerates unacceptable behaviors. Too many organizations tolerate anti-social or even bullying activities from a few employees, under the false notion that these people or so valuable or hard to replace that the cost is a net positive. It’s time to look at the indirect costs, including lost clients, other worker turnover, and overall productivity.

    Remember also that your employees expect the same professionalism and respect from you that you expect from them. I’ve personally been in more than one organization where the manager is more the problem than the solution. A great culture must extend all the way to the top.

Remember, you can’t fix something that you don’t recognize as broken, or don’t know how it’s supposed to work. Since change is always hard, it’s also smart to work on getting your culture right the first time as you build your startup, rather than trying to recover later after it turns toxic. A great culture can save your business, but don’t wait for success to save your culture.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 02-04-2019 ***



Friday, February 8, 2019

5 Keys To Mitigating New Venture Tax And Legal Issues

tax-lawA frequent concern I hear from aspiring entrepreneurs is “I have invented a great product, but I have no idea where to start in setting up a company, to avoid all the tax and legal problems I hear about on the news.” In fact, this is a complex question, with answers that are different all around the world, but I have some general rules of thumb that apply here in the USA to get you started:

  1. Create a business entity early to encapsulate your venture. To avoid the tax implications of co-mingling personal and business funds and assets, create your business entity before you hire anyone or spend money building the product. Don’t wait for that first investor or prototype. The primary business entity options include a sole proprietorship, Limited Liability Company (LLC), or a Corporation (B-Corp, C-Corp, or S-Corp). I recommend starting with the simplest, quickest, and the least expensive – the LLC. It can be done online, without a lawyer, often for less than $100.

    Worried you won’t choose the right business structure? Since you can upgrade your business entity later as required, and you can’t foresee where your business is headed, don’t worry about whether you’re choosing the perfect structure today. Just focus on protecting yourself now by selecting the structure that makes the most sense for your present circumstances.

  2. File founder stock election so no taxes are due until exit. File an 83(b) election with the IRS within 30 days of founding the company, while the market value of your startup is essentially zero. Failing to file or waiting to incorporate until a first investor arrives could lead to a nasty tax bill in the middle of startup rollout when you can least afford it.

    Even though the initial stock has no value or market, it is imperative that you document the division of ownership immediately between co-founders commensurate with their investment, contribution, and role. Proper documentation will minimize later legal claims and issues.

  3. Set up a separate records system for your new business. Many entrepreneurs follow old shoebox habits in managing expenses until the company launches. For legal and tax purposes, I recommend a formal system, like Intuit or FreshBooks, for the new venture. You’ll also need to save tax records, bank statements, canceled checks, and contracts.

    Proper record keeping is especially important if you have employees and contractors, as you’ll need to manage W-2s, Form 1099s, employment agreements, attendance records, termination letters, and any settlement or ownership documents with former employees.

  4. Don’t overlook business tax filing requirements and dates. For corporations in the US, the annual tax return due date is a month earlier than for individual tax filings, so be prepared. In addition, many corporations have quarterly filing requirements, or even monthly ones if you have payroll taxes, sales taxes, or state filing requirements.

    Also remember that your tax entity election doesn’t have to match the legal entity. For example, any LLC or S-Corp can elect to be treated for tax purposes as a sole proprietorship (Schedule C), partnership (Schedule K), or as an S-Corp (Form 2553).

  5. Upgrade your legal business entity to meet growth needs. You may start as an LLC but find that a potentially high-value investor insists on having preferred stock, which is only available with a C-Corp. Also, mergers, acquisitions, and alliances with other companies almost always drive the need to modify your organizational entity for legal or operational purposes.

    Additionally, I recommend that you review and update co-founder ownership agreements annually. In these cases, you will typically use a business attorney to upgrade your corporate platform or modify contracts, as appropriate. You’ll likely need a business attorney on a regular basis. Consider vetting attorneys early on before you need one to find counsel that understands your type of business. This way you will have an established relationship with an attorney you trust when the time comes to get help.

If you need help in the beginning or along the way, I recommend a visit to your nearest Small Business Development Center (SBDC), your local SCORE office, or your local attorney. In addition, you can find a wealth of information online via the Internet, from tax experts and industry associations. But remember that the responsibility for legal and tax considerations is all yours.

All these organizational and operational considerations are one of the main reasons that an innovative solution alone does not assure a successful business. If you don’t feel that you have the ability to address them, I recommend that you find a co-founder who can complement your skills and balance the equation, as it frequently takes a well-rounded team rather than a solo owner to run a great business.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 01/20/2019 ***



Monday, February 4, 2019

5 Unique Elements Make A Winning Selling Proposition

If you are looking for funding and customers for your new business, you need to identify your “unique selling proposition” (USP) right up front, in 30 seconds or less, to differentiate yourself in today’s information overload. That may sound obvious, but as a new venture investor, I rarely see it happening. Investor and customer attention spans are short, and both will write you off quickly.

A winning USP example is the FedEx lead “When it absolutely, positively has to be there overnight.” This statement leaves no confusion in the minds of investors, or customers, of what the company does and how it is different (and better) than the competition. Now we are ready to listen longer to hear all the details and decide if the potential sounds real and doable to anyone.

Of course, now that you have investor attention, the devil is in the details. Every investor and banker I know looks for a few more key elements in the plan and pitch that will ultimately make or break the deal, including the following:

  1. The target customer segment definition and size. Will you be selling to businesses or consumers, or both? Investors realize that the resources and risk required to hit both markets concurrently are great, so they will likely look for focus, or a staged approach. Of course, we all prefer billion dollar opportunities, with double-digit growth rates.

    A niche market sizing or a shrinking opportunity may make a good family business, but is likely not of interest to investors. Even large opportunities may already be highly saturated (more than 10 existing players), making another “me too” player not exciting.

  2. Problem or need uniquely addressed by your solution. Great products solve painful real problems, and are not just “nice to have” or “easier to use.” Ideally the solution embodies intellectual property that you own, giving you a sustainable competitive advantage. You need evidence or a prototype to prove feasibility with credibility.

    For example, everyone would agree that a cure for cancer is a worthy solution, if you can show evidence that it works, and can be replicated and sold for a rational cost and price in the market today. A new easier to use social network may not get anyone excited.

  3. Educated customers ready and able to pay for the solution. Truly disruptive technology solutions are suspect, since many fear change and are not motivated to move away from current approaches. Investors know that extra time and money are required to educate the market to whole new things, like the move from horses to automobiles.

    Witness the difficulty even today to find success with alternative transportation platforms, including Segway, electric bicycles, automobiles that fly, and even electric cars. Another investment barrier is good social solutions which appeal only to people with little money.

  4. The net value of this solution from the customer’s perspective. Value is perceived only in the eyes of the customer. If you see the solution as very valuable, but the target customer doesn’t, there is no foundation for investing. Also, the benefit of the solution must be offset against the cost of all other options available to the customer.

    Even if your USP is a cost reduction (10 percent) for an existing commodity, success is not assured. In my experience, existing customer habits and loyalty will minimize customer movement to a new offering which offers a net savings of 20 percent or less.

  5. The qualifications of you and your team to build a business. Building a product is not the same as building a business. Investors look for new venture founders who have strong business skills or experience within their team, as well as expertise in the product or business domain. I recommend a co-founder or team to complement your strengths.

    For example, I had the pleasure of working with Bill Gates and Steve Ballmer, when Microsoft was just a startup. These two were perfect co-founders, with Bill having the technical expertise, and Steve bringing business experience from Procter and Gamble.

In reality, these five elements constitute your unique selling proposition to investors, after they hear and believe your USP for customers. Even if you don’t need external investors, and intend to bootstrap the new venture yourself, you may use the points here to assess your own investment. Life is too short to endure the pain of starting any business with the odds stacked against you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 01-22-2019 ***



Friday, February 1, 2019

10 Keys To Innovative Branding For A Great Solution

In today’s world of constant change and information overload via the Internet, content marketing and branding are often more important to success than product quality or technology. Contrary to a popular myth, word-of-mouth and viral marketing are not a substitute for more basic branding activities. The challenge is that many new business owners still don’t know where to start.

The right strategy for branding these days is to create a most memorable total customer experience for customers, rather than a focus on hyping the product and the company name. Innovation is key in setting your company apart from the onslaught of promotional media out there today, including email blasts, banner ads on the Internet, and pervasive television spots.

The new generation of consumers know what they want, and expect to get it when they want it, from the source of their choice. Here are some key recommendations for building your branding plan:

  1. Find out who your customers are through social media. Traditionally, branding meant targeting a customer segment, and hoping your guess was right. Now you can get direct contact and real insights by testing innovative messages through social media even before you rollout the product, and can tune both your message and the product.

  2. Actively lead conversations, as well as real listening. Customers today want relationships with their preferred sources, not just a good transaction. That means they want to see you as a leader, with innovative ideas and a real point of view. They need a reason to keep coming back, and a conviction that you really care about them personally.

  3. Tell a story with your brand, and make it memorable. People remember and become loyal to a passionate or emotional story they can relate to. They will have a short memory and no loyalty to “lowest prices” or “easiest to use.” These days they like to see a connection to a higher purpose, such as helping a societal or environmental problem.

  4. Engage customers with a contest, event, or give-away. Use engagement to drive home your value proposition, not just as an unrelated diversion. Allow them to contribute to your message, and ask them to spread the message to friends. The target objective must always be to lead them to the final step in making a buy decision, and come back.

  5. Capitalize on the massive trend and power of mobile. Highlight how your brand supports mobile, for shopping, purchase transactions, usage, and support. Mobile is far more powerful than print, broadcast, or billboards as a delivery vehicle, with its instant capability for establishing a relationship, initiating a transaction, or providing feedback.

  6. Position your products as delivery for on-demand services. Characterize your brand as one that builds relationships through personalized products that provide service. For example, rather than selling shoes, you could be selling a walking comfort service by digitally measuring feet and personalizing the fit to each customers’ unique requirement.

  7. Focus on product differentiation and setting yourself apart. You can’t win by being “just another” company that sells on price. Use insight, intelligence, and innovation to get your brand heard in a world that is bombarded with similar messages. Do the research to find your best competitive advantage, and then highlight and live the differentiation.

  8. Use personized smart advertising to target your customers. Today online advertising technology can target individual customers, based on location, personal interests, and past purchasing behavior, as well as age and gender. The challenge is to do this in a natural way that adds value, rather than being perceived as invasive or annoying.

  9. Pay serious attention to packaging and delivery. For too many companies, packaging and delivery are an afterthought, but they shouldn’t be. Steve Jobs was a master at this with his attention to detail and style in packaging, and he made Apple a premium brand. For e-commerce solutions, people remember your brand when they see instant delivery.

  10. Use analytics to assess your efforts and your competition. These days, developing branding by gut feel alone is not effective. There are many tools out there to gauge the impact of each new initiative, including Google Analytics and SimilarWeb. These also keep you abreast of competitor efforts. Focus on the branding elements that work for you.

It’s a major failure today to attempt a rollout of an innovative product or solution without an equally innovative digital branding strategy and plan. Even the best products won’t sell or be remembered if they can’t be found or differentiated by customers. Don’t rely on traditional branding techniques for your innovative solutions. The success of your business depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 01/15/2019 ***