Monday, April 29, 2019

8 Ways Blogging Can Supercharge Your Business Website

Image via Pixabay 
Now that the number of websites on the Internet worldwide approaches two billion, how do you expect anyone to find yours? Equally important, if someone does find your site, your content must stand out above all similar sites, to keep visitors engaged, close a sale, and get customers to return. I have found that publishing a regular blog can give you an edge in making all this happen.

Most business owners already believe they have the best offering, but based on my experience as a new business advisor, I find that a great solution is necessary, but not sufficient, to build a great business. Marketing is a critical element these days, and it can take many forms.

One of these is blogging, to let people know about your brand, provide links to supportive articles, and generate back-links to your content from other sites. It’s never too early to start marketing to define your brand. Thus I recommend that every business publish a website and start a blog even before they have a product to sell, enabling the following benefits:
  1. Get Google to work for you in highlighting your site. Through SEO (search engine optimization) techniques on your site, and help from good Content Marketing platforms such as “Link-able,” customers will be drawn to your site to expedite the building of your brand. Also you should post to industry and other popular sites for more visibility.

  2. Market your ideas and expertise early for customer feedback. After a few blogs about your idea, you will know from reader feedback, positive and negative, whether you really have something to offer, before you spend big money on it. Every business person should count on at least a couple of course corrections before they get it right.

  3. Build relationships with potential business partners. Blogs are a great way to establish credibility and meet future strategic partners and key vendors. Your reach with a blog will make you visible to key relationship-building channels, including LinkedIn, industry forums, and worldwide business executives. Let them find and appreciate you.

  4. Attract supportive team members and employees. Every business benefits from having employees who understand and support your mission. If they like the messages you are delivering in your blog, their efforts will more likely be complementary, committed, and more productive for your business. You need people who really want to work for you.

  5. Your blog followers will be your best customers. Good marketing is all about building excitement, suspense, and value in the mind of potential customers. These days, customers want two-way relationships, and people who follow your writing will feel this bond. Use it to find customer requirements, new revenue streams, and build your brand.

  6. Hone your writing style for all communication. Writing improves with practice, and real reader comments, so blogging is a valuable learning process or every business communication you need to do. I still see many marketing pitches, and even contracts, which ramble on without hitting key points. A good blog is short and tightly written.

  7. Blogging is a good hub for all your social media outreach. You will learn to promote your blog through Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other social media sites, and soon you will be able to assess which of these channels has the biggest return for you. It’s also a short step from blogging to podcasting, videos, Instagram, and others platforms.

  8. Establish your identity and control your reputation. The best way to build a positive reputation and identity is to do it yourself with positive blogging, before some random review strikes with a negative. When somebody finds you online, you want to make sure that they get an accurate and complete picture of who you are and what you’re all about.
All of this is possible on every small business budget, since all the major blogging platforms, including WordPress, Blogger (Google), and Tumbler are free. Obviously, blogging does require an investment of your time for the writing, but even that may be contracted out to someone you trust, or to one of the many blogging freelancers accessible via the web.

I do find that blogging is most effective as a “pull marketing” tool, meaning that people should be pulled to you via the value they receive from the blog, rather than pushed to your products. The resulting credibility and visibility will make you and your business stand out above your competitors, and open the way to exponential growth. That’s a win-win situation for everyone.

Marty Zwilling
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Sunday, April 28, 2019

6 Reasons To Overcome Your Fear of Talking Publicly

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As a mentor for aspiring and early-stage entrepreneurs, I talk to a fair number who may have a great vision and a strong engineering background, but have a negative interest in the role of public speaking in business. In fact, they often claim to be part of the survey group that fears public speaking more than death, but I’m not sure how anyone could validate that survey.

Beyond the fear, many really don’t get the value of being willing and able to communicate effectively with team members, investors, customers, and a myriad of other support people, both one-on-one and one-to-many. I’m not suggesting that all have to be on the professional speaker circuit to succeed, but let me assure you that public speaking is a required business skill.

Thus, if you are like me, with no real background or experience in public speaking, I encourage you to start early with some traditional training, like a Dale Carnegie course, or read a good book on the subject, like the classic one by successful businesswoman and speaker Jan Yager, Ph.D., “The Fast Track Guide to Speaking in Public.” After that it’s practice, practice, practice.

Dr. Yager outlines in her book just a few of the reasons why an entrepreneur needs to overcome the fear, and master the art of speaking in public, and I’ve taken the liberty of adding a few occasions from my own business experience:
  1. You need funding, and have to address a group of investors. As an investor, I sometimes see CEOs who negotiate to send their VP of Marketing to talk. Those requests will always be rejected, since investors invest in people, rather than ideas, and want to look the top decision maker in the eye and gauge their ability and conviction.

  2. You have the opportunity to appear on a panel of experts. As a startup, you as the entrepreneur are the brand, the brand builder, and the major lead generator. You can’t afford to turn down the honor of being visible and showing your expertise, no matter how small the forum or indirect the role.

  3. You are asked to explain your vision in a television interview. Believe me, talking in front of TV cameras requires all the skills of public speaking, and more. The implications to you and your company are also large, so be prepared. In her book, Jan devotes a whole chapter to speaking to the media, as a key aspect of public speaking.

  4. As your company grows, you have to host customer seminars. You may think it’s too early to worry about this requirement, or you can hire professionals for customer user group meetings, but even meeting with your first potential customer will likely have a better outcome if you handle yourself like a professional public speaker.

  5. You will be the key speaker at employee update and reward meetings. In a small startup, it may be cool to have a CEO who wears a hoodie and communicates via text messages. But it won’t be long before employees expect to hear and see their executives exercising the sensitivity and communication skills of other industry leaders.

  6. Need to represent your company at industry association events. How you speak in public is even more important outside your company than inside. Your skills will be implicitly critiqued by industry analysts, potential strategic partners, your competitors, and the media. Their perception will determine the reality of your company and your career.
Dr. Yager asserts that being able to speak in public is one of the five key business skills that can make or break your company, whether you are a new startup or an entrepreneur who's been around for many years. The other four are: new product development, writing, time management, and sales/marketing. Many would argue that Steve Jobs impact at Apple came more from his public speaking ability than the other four skills put together.

Fortunately, the ability to be an effective speaker is based on communication skills that can be taught. And with practice, you may find you are not just a good, but a terrific speaker. If you used to fear speaking, you may find yourself not just tolerating it but enjoying the experience as you understand the source of your fears and how to overcome those fears.

You can’t win as an entrepreneur working alone, and without speaking in public, just like you can’t build a business from your invention without good business skills. The good news is that both are learnable, so the earlier you start, the better prepared you will be when you need them most. For an entrepreneur, the need arises as soon as you have your initial idea. Are you there yet?

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, April 27, 2019

Why It Pays To Focus Your Business On A Narrow Niche

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Everyone in the business world has heard of the old bestseller by Geoffrey A. Moore titled “Crossing the Chasm,” but most entrepreneurs have no idea how it relates to them. In fact, it’s all about the “focus” required to get early stage technology products across the deadly chasm from early adopters to mainstream customers.

Most investors and startup professionals expand this concept of focus to apply to key issues of every aspect of strategic and tactical planning in a startup. Missions and products that are too broad confuse your team, your customers, and potential investors. There are other chasms out there just as deadly as the technology one, such as the ones below:
  1. Market requirements chasm. The first chasm is getting the customer requirements right, product or service, to satisfy a real need that a large number of customers will pay real money to satisfy. It takes focus to resist adding a long list of features that seem to make the opportunity larger, but dilute to focus of both you and potential customers.

  2. Product development chasm. Another common chasm is never-ending product development. Focus is required to resist adding a few more neat features, made possible by the new technology, which in fact make the product more complex to use, impossible to test, and very expensive in time and cost.

  3. Marketing and sales chasm. Lots of people still believe the major cost of a new product is development. These days, with all the clutter in the marketplace, the highest cost is usually marketing. Focus is required here to pick the low-hanging fruit, break through the clutter, and then move on to the next segment. Marketing costs can be a deep hole.

  4. Customer support chasm. Products that have features which are unfocused, or aimed at too broad an audience, can be almost impossible to support. Customers need lots of help with installation, or can’t make the product work the way they expect. The result is that customer satisfaction in unachievable or at least very expensive.
In his book, Moore limits his discussion to the transition between customers that are visionaries (early adopters) and customer pragmatists (early majority), in the context of high technology products that appear “disruptive,” meaning they move innovation in that arena to a new level.
Here are the five customer segments outlined in his analysis:
  • Innovators – they love the challenge of a new technology and expect problems
  • Early adopters - customer visionaries driven by technology who expect it to work
  • Early majority – pragmatists that buy only with peer review, references and support
  • Late majority – conservatives who wait until the product is no longer state-of-the-art
  • Laggards – skeptics who will only adopt when forced or the need is critical
The reason that his book was so popular, and is still studied in MBA programs and talked about by investors, is because his analysis has proven to be right so many times. There is a big gap between people who love to try new technologies, and the rest of us, who tend to be much more “technophobic.” Startups need to show real traction before attempting to cross the chasm.

I always recommend focus as the key to avoiding Moore’s chasm, as well as the others highlighted here. Start your business with a narrow niche and a focused strategy, but don’t stay there. As the company matures, and you learn more about your customers and your market, then it is time to go broader or deeper.

Build an overt strategy with feedback triggers to enhance the product to meet the needs of another segment of customers, and add more features to serve additional needs for the customers you already have. With this approach, you will find it a lot easier to jump all the chasms without crashing or breaking a leg.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, April 26, 2019

6 Settings When Ready-Aim-Fire May Doom Your Startup

Image via Flickr by Shawn Wolfe 
I know entrepreneurs who have suffered from premature execution often associated with the ready-fire-aim quick-to-market approach. Yet I believe that many more have benefited from this approach, especially in early startup stages. If your product is highly innovative, and speed to market is critical, you won’t get it right the first time anyway, no matter how cautiously you plan.

The ready-aim-fire traditional approach works best in more mature markets, where your strategy is to add features and value to competitive products, or address an underserved new segment of the marketplace. These are the environments where you really need extended planning to ensure proper positioning before launching the product.

But Lonnie L. Sciambi, in his classic book, “Secrets to Entrepreneurial Success,” reminds me that premature execution will doom even a good ready-aim-fire plan. This most often happens due to impatience, which is not typically an entrepreneurial virtue. It also happens due to overreaction to some market surprise, a last-minute input, or a squeeze on cash.

Even when a good plan is possible, I believe there are many circumstances where the ready-fire-aim approach is the best alternative, even though it may be counter-intuitive that one can fire without having aimed precisely. Here are the key parameters that can swing the pendulum:
  1. Engineers have an uncontrollable ability to add more features. Many good ideas never get off the ground, simply because the product or service is never “finished.” Some entrepreneurs don’t believe in the “minimum viable product (MVP)” approach, and they keep thinking they need to get the vision absolutely perfect before launching it.

  2. Entrepreneur confuses sense of urgency with sense of emergency. Urgency comes from an outbound purpose to get market returns quickly, while handling emergencies is a reactionary inward approach to saving ourselves from the daily crisis. It’s easy to be too busy to aim, so ready-fire can get you moving, but may generate the next emergency.

  3. Impossible to get adequate market information for any given plan. For innovative new products in a "fast-paced culture," entrepreneur leaders can’t count on conventional market research or expert consultants to give them the data to build a plan. After you've "fired" once, you have some actual data with which to adjust your aim.

  4. The target market is moving in unpredictable ways. Marketing is inherently a trial and error process in new and unknown environments. The ready-fire-aim approach works best here, but must be used with a plan to learn from misses and feedback, rather than random shots into the dark. Be prepared for pivots and mistakes.

  5. Planning cycle for determining certainty is too long. Too many entrepreneurs get bogged down in planning and thinking and never get to the point of action. This leads to another dreaded syndrome, called analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim...). If they don't fire before they aim, they may never take action at all.

  6. Cost of a planning cycle is greater than cost of an execution iteration. Start with a strategic plan that embodies an iterative launch cycle, with a minimum viable product to a focused and limited domain, and the cost of execution will be low. That limits the scope of your plan, makes is more measurable, and forces you to plan for change.
It was Tom Peters and Bob Waterman (“In Search of Excellence”) who first came up with the “ready-fire-aim” go-to-market strategy. I like it in many cases, since it is action-oriented, helps streamline and decrease product development time and costs, and focuses the product and the firm on customer needs rather than technology.

Of course, if you fire without aiming, there’s always a greater chance that you will shoot yourself in the foot. I’ve even seen some entrepreneurs who quickly reload, only to shoot themselves in the other foot. Making your business a game of Russian Roulette is not the way to success. If you can’t plan ahead, at least plan to learn from your mistakes.

Marty Zwilling
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Wednesday, April 24, 2019

7 Strategies For Brand Leadership Through Influencers

Jeff Bezos via Flickr by jdlasica 
These days, the influencers at the top of your business make your brand, rather than a brand making influencers of your leaders. Consider Jeff Bezos at the top of Amazon, or Howard Schultz at the top of Starbucks. They were influencers before they were a brand. You too can become an influencer through social media, videos and blogs, and people will follow you on what to buy, what causes to support, and who to vote for.

In this age of total visibility and instant communication via Twitter, Facebook, and smartphones, people assume that if they don’t know who you are, they can’t be influenced by you, and perhaps you don’t even exist. At the very least, big brands like IBM and McDonalds still take decades to achieve influence, whereas people have become influencers with only a few months of work.

The actions required to become an influencer today are all related to traditional leadership, but key elements need to be given a much higher priority in this age of the Internet and pervasive video. Based on my own experience in business over the years, and current coaching efforts, I recommend a focus on the following strategies and attributes:
  1. Make your customer the center of everything you do. I still see too many aspiring business leaders highlighting their technology, product features, and price, more than customer value and usability. They and their brand have a long road to becoming a key influencer in their arena. Customers need to believe that you have their interests at heart.

  2. Highlight your credibility by visibility and relationships. In the past, credibility came from a position title and the size of your business. Now customers judge you by your visibility to them at public forums, your writing, videos, and what other public figures say. Steve Jobs was always visible at industry forums, product pitches, and interviews.

  3. Take an active role in a higher cause or social reform. Leaders who are clearly committed to giving back, or improving the environment, become influencers because the rest of us feel the urge to reciprocate. Tony Hsieh, founder of Zappos, is recognized as an influencer in online retail, doubling sales annually, by giving away shoes to the needy.

  4. Demonstrate a willingness to take a stand and defend it. Influencers who started as bloggers demonstrated their view of parenting (“mommy bloggers”), cosmetics, or clothes, through constant interactions with interested potential customers, videos, and sometimes controversial perspectives. No business leader can be all things to all people.

  5. Appeal to people’s interest in exclusivity and uniqueness. Mark Zuckerberg became a major influencer of social networking by first allowing only students from Harvard on his platform, and highlighting the uniqueness of Facebook. Your influence level goes up when your offering is available for a limited time, or highly personalized to each customer.

  6. Be open, authentic, and willing to engage your followers. Influencers build trust by being transparent with their team and their customers on tough questions and issues. People want to connect with and learn from people like them – not from edicts, anonymous brand marketing material, and white papers that allow no interaction.

  7. Pick a niche and target audience to demonstrate commitment. Jeff Bezos revolutionized selling online, by proving his unique one-click customer-first focus and starting only with selling books to a specialized audience. After becoming a recognized influencer in that domain, he was able to quickly expand his business leadership.
Influencers are able to capitalize on the new less expensive form of marketing, called “pull” marketing, that draws customers to your solutions, rather than the more traditional “push” marketing, which tries to push customers to products based on features, value, and cost. “Word-of-mouth” is another form of influencer marketing, pulling in friends and new customers.

Staying invisible and counting on your innovations and traditional marketing to make your company a respected brand is a recipe for failure today. Certainly the steps I recommend here for becoming an influencer and leader involve risk, and take focused effort. If you haven’t done it yet, it’s time to change with the times and join the new wave of leaders and influencers out there.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/10/2019 ***
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Monday, April 22, 2019

8 Advantages of Leader Focus on People Versus Process

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Every business needs repeatable processes to grow and thrive, but modern business processes need the right people to make them efficient and productive. In addition, today’s customers judge a company by perceived people relationships through social media, phone conversations, and sales experiences. The right people make productive processes, not the other way around.

Thus I believe that business leaders and entrepreneurs need to focus first on people leadership, rather than process leadership. As a business advisor and investor in new startups, I see how difficult it is to make any process work, no matter how well designed, if the team is dysfunctional. On the other hand, I see teams with almost no process that are tremendously productive.

Of course, some balance is required. That’s why I was pleased to see the balance on people versus process in a classic book on how to fix your organization, “The Diamond Process,” by Mike J Diamond and Christopher R Harding. These authors highlight the importance of both in their guidance on becoming a complete leader. Processes without people leaders will still be chaos.

Thus I find that the best entrepreneurs and business leaders today are people-centric, but they never forget that efficient repeatable processes are required as the business scales up. There are many advantages to this focus today, including the following:
  1. It takes people to see the need and adapt to change. Today’s pace of change in the market and in technology is unprecedented. Business leaders who are people-centered understand that a learning culture, tolerance for mistakes, and innovative approaches are required to thrive. Process leadership focuses on repeatability and efficiency only.

  2. Customers demand more engagement and flexibility. People-centric leaders drive ownership and engagement down to their customer-facing team members. For this to work, team members must commit themselves and freely accept accountability for their actions. In the end, engagement drives customer retention, sales, growth and profit.

  3. Leaders need direct and open team communication. Effective communication in a rapidly changing environment must be two-way and continuous, from all levels of the organization. Leaders need to share their values and goals, as well as challenges, to get effective assistance and buy-in from team members delivering the company image.

  4. You need a team focused on the future as well as the present. Long-term business survival and success requires everyone taking calculated risks for future gains, rather than blindly following a hard-coded process that seems to work today, handed down from leaders on high. People-centric leaders encourage and reward thinking outside the box.

  5. Self-motivated people require less supervision and management. This means more time for leaders to concentrate on looking ahead and rewarding team progress, rather than managing corrective individual performance actions and motivational incentives. Self-motivated team members are known to be many times more productive than others.

  6. Priority is placed on employee mentoring and coaching. A primary focus on process leads to highly structured training classes, leaving little room for personal career development. Mentoring and coaching tend to improve commitment, motivation, decision making, and creative talents, which are required for a competitive business and career.

  7. Taking care of people generates a quid pro quo. What goes around, comes around. If you treat people as automatons who execute a process, your team will respond in kind. If you treat your team as peer business owners, they'll be there to support you as the business changes. Leaders who demonstrate trust and respect will gain that in return.

  8. People leave you a favorable legacy long after you are gone. The mark of a complete leader is the ability to leave on vacation, and be assured that all will proceed without change. The greatest legacy that any leader can leave is a team who remembers and continues to honor the right values and objectives, even after you are gone.
Whether you are building a new organization or fixing an old one, the leadership analysis and focus needs to start with the people, and extend from there through the level of process and productivity required by the size and scope of the organization. Process leadership is important, but it’s just not effective without people leadership first.

How much of your time as a manager or business leader today is spent on people versus process? Would everyone on your team agree and return the focus?

Marty Zwilling
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Sunday, April 21, 2019

5 Keys To Happiness, Even For New Business Founders

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Building a startup is hard work for low pay, it’s risky, and it requires total responsibility to make it work. Yet, many entrepreneurs are the happiest people I know. On the other hand, I know many unhappy individuals who are always partying, have minimal commitments, and little responsibility. I suspect the real parameters of happiness have eluded these people.

According to one of my favorite authors, Brian Tracy, in his classic book “The Power of Self-Discipline,” happiness is not even a goal that you can aim at and achieve in and of itself, but it is a by-product that comes to you when you are engaged in doing something you really enjoy while in the company of people you like and respect.

Tracy defines the five key ingredients of happiness that every potential and existing entrepreneur, including Mark Zuckerberg (and every non-entrepreneur), should evaluate relative to their own situation:
  1. Happy relationships. Fully 85 percent of your happiness – or unhappiness – will come from your relationships with other people. For entrepreneurs, that includes business colleagues, but it also still includes spouse, children and friends.

  2. Meaningful work. You must be doing things that you love and give you a sense of fulfillment, as well as making a contribution. Studies have shown that the three most motivating business factors include challenging work, opportunities for growth, and pleasant coworkers.

  3. Financial independence. The happiest of all people are those who have reached the point at which they no longer worry about money. That doesn’t mean unlimited funds, but enough that they don’t fear being destitute, without funds, or dependent on others.

  4. Health and energy. It is only when you enjoy high levels of pain-free health and a continuous flow of energy that you feel truly happy. For many, health is only a “deficiency need,” meaning you don’t think much about it until you are deprived of it.

  5. Self-actualization. This is the big one, the feeling that you are becoming everything you are capable of becoming. Before this can happen, you must first feel that all deficiency needs are satisfied, and you have achieved self-esteem:

    • Survival. Basic survival is the top deficiency need, meaning sufficient food, water, clothing, and shelter to preserve your life and well-being. You cannot be happy, and you will experience tremendous stress, until survival requirements are met.

    • Security. The second deficiency need encompasses financial, emotional, and physical security. You have to have enough money, security in your relationships, and physical security to assure that you are not in imminent jeopardy of any kind.

    • Belongingness. The final deficiency need reminds us that we are social people, and we need social relationships with others, both at home and at work. You need to be recognized and accepted by other people who count in your world.

    • Self-esteem. Your self-esteem is the core of your personality and largely determines how you feel about everything that happens to you. Are you liked and appreciated by peers, doing a good job and being recognized for it, and achieving your ideals?
According to Abraham Maslow, a noted psychologist, less than two percent of the population ever reaches this height of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. But the wonderful thing about self-actualization needs is that they never need to be completely satisfied. As you stretch yourself in this direction, you experience a steady flow of happiness and contentment.

In all of these areas, you need to exert self-discipline and willpower to overcome the tendency to take shortcuts. When you keep going in spite of all obstacles and hardships, you feel powerful. Your self-esteem and self-confidence increase, and then as you move, step by step, toward your ideals, you feel genuinely happy. Are you a satisfied entrepreneur?

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, April 20, 2019

5 Problems To Solve With Unlimited Startup Potential

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Potential startup founders are always looking for ideas to implement, when they should be looking for problems to solve. Customers pay for solutions, but there is no market for ideas. I’m often approached by people with a “million dollar idea,” but I haven’t seen anyone pay that for one yet.

Equally often, I see startups who are on the road to implementing an idea, but haven’t figured out what problem it solves – the business plan waxes on eloquently for 20 pages about how great this product and technology is, but never gets around to defining the problem (investors call this the “solution looking for a problem” syndrome).

A related “red flag” in a business plan is a missing competitive analysis section, or a short paragraph that essentially says, “this product has no competition.” My reaction is, if there is no competition, then there is no market demand for your product, so why are you building it?

Luckily, many startups are smart enough to keep morphing their idea, until it finally fits a real-world problem, and they can move forward in the marketplace. Unfortunately they could have saved themselves much lost time, money, and heartache if they had just focused on identifying the problem before they built a solution.

Smart startups also don’t forget that startup ideas are solutions for someone, and companies have to make money. The way to make money is to make something people or companies need (not necessarily what they want). Here are five solutions from a classic essay by Paul Graham on “Ideas for Startups” that I believe have even more potential in today’s fast changing environment:
  1. Automate a labor intensive process. This is the traditional realm of computers. Microsoft Excel applied it to accounting spreadsheets, and Google applied it to information mining on the Internet, but Henry Ford even applied this principle to auto manufacturing. There are still millions of these opportunities for startups out there.

  2. Fix something that’s broken. In business, it seems to me that the traditional banking business models are broken or at least no longer fit the purpose. On the other end of the spectrum, Internet dating sites don’t seem to work. There are new ones sprouting up every day, so they must be offering something people want. Yet they work horribly, according to most people who have tried one.

  3. Take a luxury and make it a commodity. People must want something if they pay a lot for it. Yet most products can be made dramatically cheaper as technologies improve. This opens the market opportunity, you sell more, and people start to use it in different ways. For example, once cell phones were so cheap that most people had one, people started adding functions and using them as cameras and Internet devices.

  4. Make something cheaper and easier to use. Making things cheaper means more volume and more profit. For a long time making things cheaper made them easier, but now even cheap things are too complicated. Computer applications today are cheap, but often still impossible to use.

  5. Take a current solution to the next level. Solve the currently intractable problems that impact all of us. Tackle the global warming problem, predict where earthquakes will occur, find alternative energy sources, cure cancer, and unlock the keys to aging. There is no shortage of opportunity here.
Combine these with the value of a good understanding of promising new technologies, and the value of having associates with complementary skills to extend your thinking. Problem solutions are the ingredients that startups are made of. Start solving a problem today that you can use as the basis for the “idea” for your next startup.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, April 19, 2019

6 Keys To Turning Your Failures Into Business Success

Mark Cuban image via Flickr by jdlasica 
We all have had setbacks in business – the challenge is learn from each one to improve skills and decision making, rather than let failures get you down and reduce your chances of ever achieving success. The best entrepreneurs and business owners have experienced failure multiple times before bouncing back to a level of achievement they only dreamed of.

For example, most people don’t realize many billionaires, including Mark Cuban, Jack Ma, and Richard Branson experienced multiple business failures before becoming recognized business leaders. According to the well-known motivational speaker and writer Steve Harvey, Warren Buffett said that he would not invest in any business where the owner hasn’t failed at least twice.

I found some real practical insights on how to turn your failures and fears into success in a new book, “Fail More: Embrace, Learn, and Adapt to Failure As a Way to Success,” by Bill Wooditch. For over 25 years, he has failed his way to success in his own businesses, and helped transform large and small companies along the way. I’ll paraphrase several of his guiding principles here:
  1. Recognize when fear is disguising itself as procrastination. Too often fear of failure is rationalized as waiting for the perfect opportunity, a better time, or less risky idea. Whether you are seeking to build a startup or advance in your career, you can’t succeed without starting, and you need to embrace failure as the key way to learn and adapt.

  2. Don’t let “fear-of-failing” inhibit your decision making. Fear can cause you to avoid making a decision, which more often results in lost options than better outcomes. Also by not making decisions, your decision-making abilities can never improve, causing every decision to increase self-doubt. Commit to learning from every decision, good or bad.

    In business, often the stakes are high, the information incomplete, and the environment volatile. In these cases, such as new product development, it helps to break down the big decision into smaller steps, and learn from success or failure on completing each step.

  3. Build relationships with advisors who see your blind spots. One of the best ways to improve as a decision maker and leader is to ask people you trust to analyze your failures, and guide your learning. Also you must accept feedback with humility and without defensiveness, with a commitment to find a pocket of success in every failure.

  4. Remember to approach “risk-of-failure” intelligently. Every time you make a choice in life, even non-choices, you are taking a risk. Use past failure experience to inform the present and positively influence the future. Start out with small steps that lean into your uncertainty and discomfort. Make uncertainty and discomfort your growth indicators.

    Carrying out small “experiments” is a great way to evaluate “risk-of-failure.” Test interest in a new product, before you spend money building it, by presenting it to the market in a blog or through crowd funding. If you see no interest, you can fail quickly at very low cost.

  5. Determine worst-case and best-case results before decisions. Failures teach you that you must understand the worst case, before you jump to a decision based on your best case assumption. Suppress your ego, and bring in advisors and experts to test your assumptions and improve your decision-making skills. Always manage the downside first.

  6. Use emotions, but don’t bypass logic, in making decisions. As a human, you will always feel emotions, both negative and positive, but they must be only one tool in a decision. You always have to move beyond emotions, to include logic in making successful decisions. Analyze and learn from failures, to separate logic from emotion.

    For example, I deal with aspiring entrepreneurs every day whose emotion is so strong for a new idea that they forget to evaluate the business viability. You may be positive you have a cure for world hunger, but don’t forget that hungry people rarely have any money.
Use these principles to capitalize on “failing more” as “trying more.” Experience is the residue of failure, more than success. Failing is the strategic way to collect and apply tactical knowledge and methods you can use for future benefit along the path to a more successful business, career, and life. Always celebrate your failures, as well as your successes.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/04/2019 ***
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Wednesday, April 17, 2019

How To Set A Balance Of User Growth Vs Profitability

Image via Max Pixel 
A question that I still hear debated often is whether a new startup growth strategy should focus on user count or profits. First of all, the glory days of “dot.coms” are gone, when investors “didn’t care” about profitability, and all the big money was focused on user count growth.

In the long run, everyone wants both profitability and user growth, but the question is which comes first. Most startups and investors I know don’t have unlimited funds, so the first question they should ask and do ask today, is “When is your company going to be profitable (self-sustaining)?”

Of course, growth is implied in that equation, and is also required for maintaining a sustainable competitive advantage. The challenge is not to undermine growth by a blind focus on profits. You might sell one of two of your widgets for $1 million each, entering profitability immediately, but then die because you can’t grow sales at that price.

I think you will find that most investors will relate to the following strategy for keeping the right perspective and getting the profit versus growth balance right:
  1. Pick an idea that has the potential to make money. That means it solves a real problem for real customers who are ready and able to spend real money. The number of current potential customers is large and growing. Solutions that may be viewed as “nice to have” or “satisfies a higher-level need” won’t get funded.

  2. Design a product or service that you can sell. Sure, you may need to give the product away for free to get traction, but assume you will have to sell something someday to get profitable and stay alive. MySpace, for example, launched in 2003 and boomed for five years without a revenue model. When their deep pockets went empty, Facebook stepped in, but demanded revenue from ads. MySpace wasn’t ready for this, and it soon faded. Don’t count on finding investors supporting growth alone on your new startup.

  3. Build a business plan for profitability in your lifetime. This simply means you need to be sensitive to costs, revenue projections, and a timeline, such that there is light at the end of the tunnel. Most Internet businesses should show profitability in two years, while new medicines may take ten years to pass FDA and other safety tests. Investors will look at competitors in your industry for the norms.

  4. Identify the total investment required for profitability. A very common mistake of early stage startups is to request a small investment to get started. They are usually thinking only of costs required to get “in business,” rather than the total costs of marketing, scaling up, and going international. Be ready to answer the investor question “Is that all you need to get profitable?”
So unless you are building a non-profit, I say focus on profit all the time, every time. Of course, growth is implied in every focus, and profit enables growth. But some of you will surely say “What about Facebook and Snapchat, who focused on growth first and are clearly successful?” So let’s take a look.

Facebook is indeed the largest growth site on the web, with well over two billion user accounts, all free. Yet it took almost six years to become profitable, with revenue only from advertising. What most people don’t realize is that the total outside funding to get it there is estimated at over $800 million, which is a bit more than you will get from any angel investor.

Yet I can’t argue their success in the value proposition, since they turned down a billion dollar offer from Yahoo way back in 2006, and their market cap today is around $400 billion. It has taken some very deep pockets to get to this point, so now you know why I smile when you tell me your plan emulates the Facebook model. Even Snapchat is now trying hard to generate revenue.

I’ve heard all the arguments that a push for early profits on new business models will lead a company to fall back to a lesser model that provides short-term results, but short-circuits risk-taking that could lead to more long-term value creation. That’s a great argument if you have unlimited funding, but if you are just one of the “rest of us,” I suggest you focus on getting to cash-flow positive first.

Marty Zwilling
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Monday, April 15, 2019

8 Positive Lessons From Facebook On Building Momentum

Image via Flickr by stockcatalog 
Many new business owners I know have learned the hard way that you can never be everything for everyone. As a startup, you need to use your limited resources to excel at a few core things for your best customers, in order to stand out and get the momentum going. Focus on a few key principles is the key to success, and it takes discipline and determination to make this happen.

I found some good lessons in this regard in a classic book, “Becoming Facebook,” by Mike Hoefflinger, the former Head of Global Business Marketing at Facebook. He talks in detail about ten of the key challenges that Facebook faced in their growth, to move from a tiny social media upstart to one of the most successful companies in the world.

Based on my experience advising new businesses, all of the principles that he outlines, including the following subset which I generalize here, should be taken to heart by every entrepreneur:
  1. Give customers fewer things that matter more. Your customers’ biggest need is not for more things. Your best strategy is to find more customers that fit the things you do best, rather than building more things. Too many choices confuse all customers, and make your job in marketing, distribution, and support much more difficult. Less is more.

  2. Pick a single metric that is the focus for all growth. Today’s world is full of metrics leading to business growth, including customer logins, revenue per customer, retention, and average solution price. Facebook’s winning strategy was a laser focus on increasing active user counts and time spent online. Revenue and competitive position followed.

  3. Speed is a key feature in every customer experience. Customers today have adapted to a fast-moving world, and they expect every business to keep up. They have no understanding or patience for extra steps and delays caused by bureaucratic processes, disengaged employees, complex networks, or software usability problems.

  4. Strive to cross the chasm from early adopters to mainstream. Many new companies become bogged down with the more vocal early adopters, who have an appetite for more function and new players. The mainstream majority want simplicity and base function, and we they get it they will come in droves, and be very reluctant to jump ship. Get there.

  5. Disrupt your own success before someone else does. In this age of technology, the advent of a better alternative is inevitable. To retain the initiative – especially when you’re winning – shape the disruption through your own moves instead of falling victim to those of others. Waiting for the crises of customers often means an impossible recovery effort.

  6. Maximize employee engagement by fitting roles to strengths. Employee engagement starts with looking beyond experience, to talent, determination, results, and a fit to your company values and culture. On an ongoing basis, engagement requires a focus on motivation, match to strengths and interests, and active career planning.

  7. Take care of business, but always play the long game. For many companies, the long game is choosing the right strategic partners and acquisitions. For others, including Facebook, it is penetrating China despite political constraints, and India, where only thirty percent of the population is on the Internet. But never take your eye off today’s customer.

  8. Getting acquired or going public should be a result, not an intent. A focus on looking good as an acquisition or IPO candidate has undermined many startups. Zuckerberg had so much confidence and determination to stay independent that he turned down an early $1 billion offer from Yahoo. Now Facebook’s market cap is nearly 500 times that number.
Facebook may seem like an overnight success, but in reality it faced the same challenges as any new business, including existing well-known social media competitors like MySpace and Friendster. Facebook competed against the model of free customer use paid by advertisers of Google, and the sophisticated data delivery infrastructures of YouTube and Netflix.

I’m convinced that the lessons outlined here can help you become the next Facebook or YouTube in your business domain. How many do you already practice today?

Marty Zwilling
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Sunday, April 14, 2019

7 Steps For Assuring Business Success And Fulfillment

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Is it possible to be successful in business and not fulfilled? The answer is a resounding yes today, and I’m convinced that it will be even more true tomorrow, as young idealistic entrepreneurs try to adapt to the long-standing business culture if success is only measured in the money you make for yourself and your business.

That isn’t very fulfilling to the growing number of entrepreneurs whose vision and satisfaction comes from making the world a better place, and enjoying a leisurely lifestyle with friends and family. In fact, it’s already a problem with more successful entrepreneurs than you know, based on the classic book by serial entrepreneur Brian Gast, “The Business of Wanting More.”

As I have also seen in entrepreneurs, he outlines how he and others have failed to move from success to fulfillment, and offers the following points as guidance to make sure you don’t follow in his footsteps. His perspective is from later in his career, so I’ve re-arranged these a bit for those of you at an earlier stage:
  1. Create a vision for your life early. To create a vision, you simply have to envision yourself enjoying the fruits of your dreams, goals, and principles. Write down the “what” of your vision, but let go of “how” it will be achieved; you can’t control the precise manner, form, or timing. Maintain some reality by listing vulnerabilities, risks, and costs.

  2. Draw a road map to the future you want. If you have no strategic plan, your emotions and opportunities of the moment, or someone else, will drive your decisions and actions. A truly fulfilled life means meeting the four core needs: acceptance, connection, purpose, and service. It’s vital to have a specific plan for meeting those needs.

  3. Take a fearless inventory of your life now. Fulfillment is a choice. After honestly assessing what’s working and not working now in your life, you have to take personal responsibility for all of it before you can empower yourself to effect change. Don’t wait for a personal crisis to highlight gaps – use your strengths now to focus on fulfillment.

  4. Burst your bubble. Your bubble is a lens through which you unconsciously interpret every experience, set by your background, family, and long-standing beliefs. It limits your view of opportunities and actions in yourself, and in others. To the degree that it’s inconsistent with your vision, you need to burst the bubble to act and think outside of your pre-set boundaries.

  5. Build your support team. Go-it-alone leaders are common in startups, but they often crash if they don’t build effective support along the way. Brian defines an effective Court of Support as one professional coach, one accountability partner, one mentor, and six to nine group members. Look for a mix of talent and balance in your support team.

  6. Methodically remove the barriers to fulfillment. Develop your inner CEO to make decisions informed by all areas of your life – not just your career and finances, but also your relationships, core needs, and the needs of others. Beware your shadow and the risk-averse side of your being, which cause you to overreact and behave in ways not conducive to fulfillment.

  7. Create a positive personal practices regimen. Being fulfilled, and staying fulfilled, takes work. It takes a personal regimen to create and sustain a life fortified against the distractions of a culture that relentlessly promotes material success. Focus on practices that help you stay open and have faith, but don’t force it. Don’t be afraid to take test drives.
Following these steps early and always in your career will allow you to be the entrepreneur you want to be with a whole-life view. You will be able to tap unused skills, create better ways to respond to high-stress situations, while still generating more powerful results. Most importantly, you will be able to stay on the road to fulfillment, as well as success.

The best evidence that you are on the road to fulfillment and success is that you love what you do. When you love what you do, it’s not just self-evident, it’s evident to others. You don’t think of your career as going to “work” every day. How many of you can say “I strive to do my best at what I love to do?” Fulfillment and success need not be mutually exclusive.

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, April 13, 2019

7 Keys To Optimizing Your Investment In Social Media

Image via Pixabay 
If you are a business owner today, and not using social media to promote your business, you are missing out on a huge opportunity. But, contrary to what most people preach, it isn’t entirely free. Most social media outlets don’t require a subscription charge, but they certainly always require an investment, sometimes large, in people, in technology, your reputation, and your time.

There are hundreds of consultants out there who will take your money for guidance in this area, but I recommend that you start with some free resources on the Internet, or one of the many recent books on this topic. One of the original classics, “How to Make Money with Social Media” by Jamie Turner and Reshma Shah, Ph.D., hits all the right points from my perspective:
  1. There are risks as well as benefits. As with many startup activities, you only have one chance for a great first impression. You can jump into social media with a poor brand definition, poorly focused content, unrealistic expectations of customer service, or be killed by malware or viruses.

  2. Assess social media relevance to your product or service. If your business is industrial B2B products, social media should be low on your list. Spend your time and money on other platforms. If you are selling to consumers, especially younger ones, your business won’t survive without an effective social media presence.

  3. Attracting key stakeholders requires sensitivity. For some customers and many investors, a heavy focus on social networks and viral marketing may be a negative, rather than a positive. A balance of conventional and social communication and marketing is always advised.

  4. Pick the right platform for your business. Within each of the platform categories defined above, there is a right one and a wrong one for your audience. For example, LinkedIn is attuned to business professionals, Facebook is dominated by the social and upwardly mobile crowd, and Instagram leads as the top social media app for teens.

  5. Communication and writing skills are required. Heavy texting experience is not a qualification for communicating via social media. In additional to strong journalistic writing and storytelling, you need business acumen, strategic thinking and planning, and the ability to do the right research. These days, video production is also a useful skill.

  6. Make social media an integrated part of an overall strategy. An integrated marketing strategy starts with an overall brand management strategy, delivered through online and offline communications, promotions, and customer engagement vehicles. Your Twitter and YouTube messages better match your print advertising message.

  7. Find the right tools to analyze the ROI. Return-On-Investment metrics are not new, but the tools are different. Get familiar with current social media tools, such as Google Analytics, Kissmetrics, and HootSuite analytics. Over time, put together the data you need to measure your progress on a weekly/monthly/yearly basis.
The key social media platforms today include communications (Wordpress blogs, Twitter), collaboration (Evernote, StumbleUpon), and multimedia (YouTube, Flickr). In looking ahead, don’t forget the mobile platforms (iPhone, Android), and location-based services (Foursquare, Curbside).

As with any resource or tool, you need to optimize your social media costs against a targeted return.
That means first setting a strategy and plan for what you want to achieve, then executing the plan efficiently, and measuring results. It’s not free, but it’s an investment that you can’t afford not to make.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, April 12, 2019

5 Startup Cost Realities Most Founders Underestimate

Image via Flickr by Phil Gyford 
Starting a new venture still costs real money, even though the entry price has come down dramatically in last few decades. For example, I come from a software background, and back in the early PC days, it could easily cost half a million dollars for a team of professionals to produce a commercial product. Now, with powerful high-level tools and open source software, winning smartphone apps can be built by a good hacker for a few thousand dollars.

Unfortunately, even today, building a good product doesn’t guarantee you a business. Most entrepreneurs realize and budget for the additional costs of incorporating a business, marketing, equipment costs, and manufacturing. Yet, in my experience as a small business advisor, they consistently tend to under-estimate or overlook a wealth of other costs that every business faces:
  1. Taxes and insurance payments. Even in your early days, before you break even and have to pay taxes on profits, various governmental organizations will be after you for payroll taxes, sales taxes, unemployment, and a host of fees, licenses, and permits.

    Then there is the need for liability insurance, workmen’s compensation, as well as life and health insurance for your key team members. These always seem to come when you are in your tightest cash-flow squeeze, if you haven’t budgeted adequately ahead of time.

  2. Ramp-up facilities and utilities required. It’s amazing how fast your startup will outgrow your garage or home office. You find that you need to be near major customers, or employee transportation hubs, where rents are higher than you ever anticipated.

    Depending on the size and location of your business, you could easily also end up paying thousands of dollars a month in internet costs and other utility expenses, including electricity, phone service, water, janitorial services and beak-room supplies. Your frugal role model of bringing your own lunch won’t be convincing to most employees.

  3. Staffing and people-management costs. Every smart entrepreneur I know thinks he can do everything personally, perhaps with a few interns or family members to help. As you scale up the business, you realize how many people you really need, including full-timers, managers, and hourly workers.

    Salary costs go up rapidly, as people require training, bonuses, expense reimbursals, and an office with a requisite support team and supplies. Just the process of hiring and interviewing takes critical time, recruiting fees, and expenses you never remembered.

  4. Subscription software and computer hardware. You find out that all your free software tools have paid professional versions that are required to manage a business that is rapidly growing, and all your employees need a copy, as well as a computer to run them on. Then you need an expensive server and network for sharing and remote access.

    These days, computer hardware also extends to smartphone subscriptions, iPads, and laptops as your employees and customers expect mobile operation. Then there is the need for more substantial business accounting, database, and social media monitoring.

  5. Unanticipated pivots, quality write-offs, and shrinkage. Every startup I know, in this changing world, has incurred delays and strategy pivots before they zero-in on the best customer solution and business model. New manufacturers and new technology are hard to get right the first time, so you will have unusable inventory and emergency repairs.
These are just a few of the expenses that will sneak up on you as an entrepreneur. No matter how well you plan your financials, there’s no way for you to account for all the unknowns. Obviously, the more detailed your business plan, the better. It helps to also have your plan reviewed and critiqued by an experienced advisor in the same industry.

Also to prepare for unanticipated business realities, I recommend that you buffer your budget calculations and funding expectations by 25 to 50 percent. This will give you some recovery room for unpredictable expenses and general emergencies. Remember the old saying that it takes money to make money. Don’t get caught short.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 03/28/2019 ***
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Wednesday, April 10, 2019

7 Whirlwind New Venture Partner Marriages To Avoid

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Most entrepreneurs who start a company alone soon come to the conclusion that two heads are better than one – someone to share the workload, the hard decisions, and the costs. In a moment of crisis, you may be tempted to take on the first person expressing interest as a co-founder. This would be a mistake, and could easily cost you your startup.

If you think about it, you should realize that not everyone is ‘ideal partner material.’ Most of us learn that fact from other partner relationships, like dating and marriage. First you have to be clear on who you are, and who you can co-exist with, what complementary skills and resources you need, and what decisions in the business you are willing to relegate.

Second, in your search for partners, you need to be aware of the many considerations that can make the difference between success and failure in the business, as well as your satisfaction with the relationship. Bringing money and connections is great, but other less tangible things can rip the business apart. If you catch yourself thinking any of these thoughts, it’s time to re-think:
  1. “We both have the same vision.” There is usually only room for one in a vision. Even if the endpoint is the same, there are many different roads to get there, and it’s hard for a startup to be on two roads at once. It works much better when one partner is the visionary, and the other is the pragmatic “get it done today” kind of person.

  2. “All decisions will be made jointly.” Two people making a decision need a tiebreaker, and three or more take too long. There is certainly no problem with each partner making decisions in his area of expertise and responsibility, but one has to be in charge. VCs routinely ask “Who is the final arbiter?” and the answer better not be ambiguous.

  3. “We are so alike, we finish each other’s sentences.” You really need a partner who is complementary, and can tackle the operational roles, like marketing, finance, and sales. A partner who is a carbon copy of you will likely mean two people working on every problem, rather than a natural separation of duties. Most startups can’t afford that.

  4. “Our work styles are different, but our goals are the same.” Some people are early risers and expect to tackle the tough problems early in the day. Others don’t get rolling until noon, and save the hard discussions for after dinner. No problem when things are going well, but in the hard times, emotions go up and communication goes down.

  5. “We have different values and ethics, but share a passion for this business.” Partners who don’t share a common regard for regulations and boundaries are doomed to high levels of stress and frustration. Some people like to live just over the limit, while others have a high sense of integrity and morality. It usually doesn’t work.

  6. “I’ll put in the money, if you put in the sweat equity.” I’m not suggesting that co-founders should be equal contributors on both sides, but the parameters for “equality” better be well understood and well documented. Things happen, memories change, and soon both sides feel under-appreciated and over-utilized.

  7. “Let’s keep it in the family.” On the surface, this seems like a great strategy, with a “share the pain, share the gain” outlook, or just cheap labor. In reality, the pressures of a relationship break up more startups, or vice versa, than running out of money. Investors routinely decline to fund co-founders who are siblings, or in a romantic relationship.
We all know of some relationships that seemed mismatched, but worked out well, so the real test is the test of time. Just as you should take some time to explore if your love interest would make good marriage material, I encourage you to take some time to explore if your fellow entrepreneur would make good 'partner' material. Avoid ‘whirlwind’ business partnerships.

In all cases, once you have decided that it’s time to seal the deal, be sure to establish in writing your working agreement, as well as ownership shares. Only then is it time to celebrate and look for angels on your way to heaven.

Marty Zwilling
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Monday, April 8, 2019

6 Tips to Boost Workforce Engagement and Motivation

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The challenge for all of us in business is to improve competitiveness by improving employee productivity and reducing costs. According to Gartner, one of the biggest drags on productivity is employee engagement, still hovering around 30 percent, and costing our businesses over $450 billion per year. I believe the only way to improve engagement is to make work more satisfying.

Unfortunately, work and satisfaction have become an oxymoron in many businesses. Yet based on my own years of experience in both large and small businesses, I’m convinced that it’s not that hard to create a workplace culture where people actually like to work, and I’m not talking about perks and privileges, such as foosball tables and gourmet meals, which alone only reduce pain.

I found many more helpful suggestions in a new book, “The Culture Question,” by Randy Grieser, Eric Stutzman, Wendy Loewen, and Michael Labun, who have spent years providing leadership and professional development training to companies around the world. Among many other recommendations, they offer some practical tips on how any organization can make their work culture more meaningful and satisfying:
  1. Match people to work that stimulates and challenges them. In fact, I have found that people are more likely to be engaged and thrive when their boundaries are pushed slightly beyond what they think they can do. Sometimes this means working on less defined tasks, raising their level of autonomy, or requiring the development of new skills.

    For example, I’m a problem solver by nature, and have worked in several support organizations, but I get bored when all the answers are already known. I loved it when my boss gave me the additional responsibility of mentoring others in solving tough problems.

  2. Focus on role enrichment, not more work. Attempting to make a job more challenging, as well as to improve productivity, managers may sometimes ask for higher outputs, such as 15 customer support calls per hour rather than 10. For an employee who enjoys direct people interaction, adding floor time with customers would better serve everyone.

  3. Ask for help in eliminating useless tasks. Each of us can remember a time when we prepared a report that no one read, or filed physical documents never used, and no one seemed to care. Regularly asking for insight, and then following up, to fix these wasted efforts, will improve job satisfaction, as well as productivity. No one likes useless work.

  4. Assign complete units of work, rather than tasks. People find it satisfying to finish things, and experience the end product. If you ask someone to prepare a pitch or report to management, you will get big dividends by assuring that they will at least be in the room to hear feedback or take credit for the effort, even if they can’t pitch personally.

    Where tasks are necessarily part of a much larger final product, it’s still important that employees are able to experience the product in some way. For example, you can share stories of customer satisfaction, and acknowledge people’s contributions to their peers.

  5. Proactively provide support and training. Desire and aptitude are not enough for employees to be engaged and productive at work. They need you looking ahead to anticipate what they will need, and providing it before the next crisis, before they must beg for help. Support means tools, training, budget, and the moral support to do the job.

    Of course, keeping up with the technology on tools is a never-ending task, and it costs money. But I think you will find the cost of innovative tools is more than offset by increases in employee engagement and satisfaction, as well as productivity.

  6. Promote professional growth and new roles. Most people like to learn new things, but may need your help and encouragement finding the right roles, and in taking the time to prepare for the next step. Make professional development a deliberate conversation and expectation within your business, and not a reaction to someone frustrated and leaving.

    These days, with easy access to online seminars and many industry conferences, there is no excuse for not attending one or two sessions a year on “futures,” both career and technology. Many companies also promote local mentoring and coaching opportunities.
All too often, building an energized and motivated workforce simply requires changing your traditional command and control structures to a culture that encourage employees to use their own judgment and exercise autonomy. Before you know it, you will have a workplace where people like to work, and a business that customers love to frequent.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/26/2019 ***
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Sunday, April 7, 2019

7 Lessons From A Long-Time Mentor On Value And Impact

Image via Flickr by World Economic Forum 
As a long-time mentor and advisor to new business owners, I can attest to both the need for mentoring, and the satisfaction that comes from watching an aspiring but tentative entrepreneur grow into someone capable of changing the world. Business is not rocket science, and one-on-one guidance face-to-face, with a real project, trumps the classroom and mistakes every time.

In addition, mentoring is one of the most productive roles I have found as a member of the 78 million Baby Boomers otherwise entering retirement age. I can’t think of a better way to empower experienced business professionals, whether they are executives, engineers, accountants, lawyers, or bankers. It’s a win-win situation for everyone in this new age of the entrepreneur.

I found additional guidance in the classic book, “Teach to Work: How a Mentor, a Mentee, and a Project Can Close the Skills Gap in America,” by Patty Alper, who has been mentoring for fifteen years. She provides a detailed guide on how to get started as a mentor, how to have the greatest impact, and enjoy the role at the same time. Here is a quick summary of the lessons she offers for all of us:
  1. It’s an opportunity for give-back and pay-forward. I have enjoyed some success in business, but I would hate to think that everyone has to make all the mistakes I did to get there. Every professional I know has plenty to contribute, and enjoys the give-back as much as the learning. Those who learned from others first really enjoy paying it forward.

  2. Everyone finds meaning in new win-win relationships. The new generations in business, and even the old ones, believe that relationships get things done, more than skills learned in school. Building relationships, and finding ways for a win-win, is what mentoring is about. Good business relationships make better teams and customers.

  3. Face-to-face mentoring generates more inspiration. Entrepreneurship and business leadership requires passion, confidence, and creativity. Working directly with a mentor provides a depth of communication, through body language as well as personal focus, that is much more likely to provide the required inspiration compared to classrooms.

  4. Real-life projects incent high learning and retention. Business is not predictable, and there are no answers in the back of the book for most situations. Real projects and actual ventures are the best way to incent thinking outside the box, teach that mistakes are just learning vehicles, and focus on problem solving and innovation as the keys to success.

  5. Mentoring pitches turns students into communicators. Mentoring is really a lesson in two-way communication, required for every business transaction. Aspiring entrepreneurs learn to talk in front of others, sell their ideas, and be judged. They learn resilience and confidence, as well as how to show respect for investors and customers.

  6. Smart companies use mentoring to find future talent. Today, leading companies including Starbucks, Zappos, and Ernst & Young, are finding that mentoring is a great corporate social responsibility focus, as well as a way to find and train future talent. It’s another example of win-win, for the business as well as the mentees.

  7. Mentors learn about culture changes and new generations. When I am mentoring, I’m always surprised at how much I learn about how people think today, and what I can do to work effectively with them as team members and customers. One of the challenges we all have is cross-generational understanding. It’s hard to learn that in school.
In my view, this type of mentoring is a missing link in our education system today between schools and businesses. It’s bringing back a bit of the paradigm of the master tradesman in the European guild system mentoring journeymen before they stepped out on their own. Today we need it to improve engagement, confidence, and work satisfaction for all business professionals.

We need to close the Gallup poll gap between the 98 percent of academic officials who are confident they are preparing students for success, versus the 11 percent of C-level business executives who strongly believe that college graduates have the skills they are looking for. Entrepreneurs are our next generation of C-level executives. Let’s make sure they are ready.

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, April 6, 2019

10 Wins From Driving Multiple Concurrent New Ventures

Image via Flickr by watsonsinelgin 
With the cost of entry at an all-time low, and the odds of success equally low, more and more entrepreneurs are starting multiple companies concurrently. This “parallel entrepreneur” idea has been around since at least the days of Thomas Edison, and for the new generation of entrepreneurs, who have been multi-tasking since birth, it’s probably not even a stretch.

Some entrepreneurs, like Paul Graham, co-founder of Y-Combinator, and Dave McClure, founder of 500 Startups, mask their focus on multiple startups by running an incubator or accelerator, and providing seed funding for a number of individual efforts. Other prolific entrepreneurs, like Richard Branson and Elon Musk, simply have several startups on the table at any given moment.

For entrepreneurs who really try to be the CEO of multiple early-stage startups concurrently, the hot new term for this practice is “multi-table” entrepreneurs. I suspect this term is derived from the common online gambling practice of playing multiple poker games at the same time. In fact, I think that’s a great analogy, since the odds in a poker game may be similar to those of a startup.

Yet there are clear advantages to the parallel approach, if you have the moxy, resources, energy bandwidth, and the ability to multi-task effectively:
  1. A portfolio approach versus all eggs in one basket. Investors have long argued the value of a portfolio to hedge and leverage the risk, so why shouldn’t entrepreneurs do the same? With the current low capital requirements for smartphone and Internet apps, and high market volatility, it makes sense to spread the risk around as much as possible.

  2. Optimize your advisers and investors. Advisors and mentors are busy people. In your weekly meetings, it’s as easy to cover multiple company issues as one. Investors building their portfolio love to hear about multiple startups in one sitting, to select the best fit. Investors look at the people first anyway, so a strong team is good common ground.

  3. Many entrepreneurs love investing in other startups. Most Angel investors I know have previously founded and run at least one startup. Both these roles require unique skills, but both can benefit from operating in the other mode. Multi-table investors are the norm, and the investment process is good training for multi-table entrepreneurs.

  4. Learn to manage resources like multi-divisional corporations. Allocating resources, financial and operational, between divisions has long been a strategy for conglomerates, and can work just as well for savvy entrepreneurs. Revenue from one startup can be “invested” in another, and assets like buildings and computers can be shared.

  5. Attract and share specialized talent and skills. It’s very hard to attract talented people to a single product startup, but much easier if the entrepreneur has a bigger vision, with several entities producing complementary products. Expensive “lean startup” specialists can see a career potential, work full-time, and drive multiple successes.

  6. Cross-fertilization from current market feedback. One thing that you learn in one company, at a given moment in time, is equally valuable or leveragable in a different way at your other companies. As your customer list grows in one, you own it for the second. The cost of finding new markets can now be split among multiple entities.

  7. Foster and enforce the art of delegation. For long-term success, every entrepreneur needs to know when to step in, and when to delegate. That’s a skill that may not get enough attention until too late by a single startup entrepreneur. With parallel startups, delegation is a requirement for entry, and a valuable skill for all environments.

  8. Multiply the pay-back. Many parallel entrepreneurs have already achieved financial security through earlier efforts. Now they may see a way to multiply pay-back and spread the risk by active involvement with multiple startups. Of course, it’s like a double-down in gambling as well, which can quickly turn into a double loss.

  9. Products need not be tied to a given company. With open-source tools and public APIs, every product is no longer owned by a given company. The company entity is now primarily used to allocate ownership, accountability, and tax consideration, and need not be bound to a given product or operational structure.

  10. Burns off high energy and bandwidth. Now we are back to the fact that there are people who love to multi-task, and anything less is simply boring. This is especially true of Gen-Y entrepreneurs, with fire in the belly to change the world. Some see startups as a lottery where more tickets mean a higher probability of winning.
Of course, there are huge risks when you try to ride multiple horses at one time. At the very least, you may not do either well, or won’t be fully there when the going gets tough. Even single entrepreneurs who maintain a day job, for a steady paycheck, feel the pain of juggling multiple initiatives.

The hard part is getting the management part right. Every startup has to have someone minding the store, and a clear path to “the buck stops here.” No one can be a full-time CEO and work “in” the business of multiple companies. Plus there is the challenge of making sure the multiple roles do not conflict, legally or otherwise. Tread carefully there.

The most common way people move into the parallel entrepreneur environment, if they are so inclined, is to start another one, while still exiting the current one. The risk here is that winding down one takes much longer than you would expect, and starting something new consumes more energy than anyone predicts.

Overall, for the first-time entrepreneur, my sense is that trying to focus on more than one equally exciting idea is a recipe for failure. But with the cost of entry going down, and the multi-tasking bandwidth of each new generation going up, I suspect parallel entrepreneurs may soon be the norm rather than the exception. Are you ready to step up to this table?

Marty Zwilling
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