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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Monday, April 15, 2019

8 Positive Lessons From Facebook On Building Momentum

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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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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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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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Friday, April 5, 2019

How To Be A Leader When Machines Are Smarter Than You

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The majority of business professionals I meet these days accept that we are now deep in the digital age, where mountains of data are gathered on everything we do, online and offline. Yet most executives are struggling with how to harness this data with artificial intelligence and machine learning, and use it to hone their intuition and improve their business leadership.

In fact, I believe that to be a successful leader in this new era requires a different way of thinking and a different set of skills, to complement the gut instinct reliance of past leaders. Leaders today need to understand and utilize the algorithmic compute power of artificial intelligence that supports the hyper-personalization in everything from shopping to news delivery to dating today.

Some people call this the emergence and development of a new type of leader, called the algorithmic leader, who can steer the course through the world of big data, machine learning, and the constantly changing demands of new customers and social trends. I found some real insights on this direction in a new book, “The Algorithmic Leader,” by Mike Walsh.

Walsh is a global consultant and thought leader on designing companies for the 21st century, and he has listened and consulted with many leaders on how to thrive in this era of disruptive technological change. He offers a set of operating principles that I will subset here for aspiring future leaders who need to move from the past analog-era thinking to the new digital age:
  1. Work backward from the future. Only your human element can imagine what life might be like in ten years. Focus on experiences, not devices, as Steve Jobs did back in 2007 when he introduced the iPhone as a new experience, not a phone, then used technology to make it happen. He anticipated his future customers and what they might want.

  2. Aim for 10x gains, not 10 percent. Your job is thinking big enough about your future opportunities, and letting the data and machine learning do the incremental work. The challenge of being an algorithmic leader is to be brave enough to pursue opportunities that deliver results in multiples, not just margins, and continuous change to stay ahead.

  3. Leverage data and compute power for rapid growth. This requires computational thinking to formulate challenges and solutions in a form that can be effectively carried out by information processing systems, rather than leader intuition. If artificial intelligence can expedite gaming wins, think what it might do in healthcare and other complex arenas.

  4. Embrace uncertainty as the opportunity. In the analog era, uncertainty increased the risk and the cost of all change, and taking more time reduced the risk. Now you have the challenge of keeping ahead of competitors and trends, with more data, a probabilistic mindset, and rapid machine learning to give you the edge, if you use all of these wisely.

  5. Foster a culture of algorithmic teams. Rather than controlling people through process, reinforce the principles of the new era, and provide the autonomous environment that people need to leverage data and machine learning. Look for ways to collect data on how to work, and design ways for all to continually check for results and new approaches.

  6. Automate work and elevate people jobs. Make automation not only an opportunity to elevate your teams, but also an invitation to profoundly reimagine what people do. What things can you and they do that simply couldn’t be done without the new smarter algorithms? Find the new jobs inside the old ones, and invest in the skills required.

  7. Humanize, don’t standardize, the customer experience. The most successful organizations in the algorithmic age will embrace the complexity of human behavior and translate it into individualized, immersive experiences. Include human judgment to avoid errors, bias, or inhuman choices. Human relationships are still top priority for customers.

  8. Connect teams to a purpose, not just profit. People at work need a sense of identity and purpose, as well as material things. Don’t let algorithms manage more and more of your interactions with your teams. You as a leader must still be the role model for changing the way you work, and finding a personal connection to a purpose for work.
Overall, every aspiring leader in this new world must remember that artificial intelligence and algorithms are just tools. There are no robot overlords coming for your job, unless you choose to create some. For now at least, humans remain in the driver seat, and your customers are all humans, so keep that as top-of-mind as you lead new approaches in your business.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/22/2019 ***
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Monday, April 1, 2019

8 Career Advancement Principles Of Ownership Thinking

Image via Flickr by Lyncconf Games
Based on my own business experience of many years on both sides of the owner-employee role, I believe that one of the quickest ways to improve your employee career is to think like an owner. Conversely, the best owners are those who relate to the positions of their employees. I’m convinced that is why many great business leaders remember working their way up the ranks.

For example, Howard Schultz was not the founder of Starbucks, but started his career in one of their first 60 shops. After various roles in this one, he worked his way up the corporate ranks to run the organization of now almost 30,000 stores. Steve Jobs started his technical career creating circuit boards at Atari, before joining Steve Wozniak to build personal computers in his garage.

Both of these leaders, and countless others, practiced ownership thinking well before they were actually in an ownership position. Yet I find that most employees I know limit their scope of thinking to the specific role they are assigned, and rarely tune their thinking and results to the following key principles that every business owner can relate to:
  1. Connect every action to a business focus on customers. Many employees stay self-centered or focused on internal politics as they fight for change, new systems, or bigger budgets, rather than communicate how their interests are really aligned with helping customers and growing the business. Your career will only grow as the business grows.

  2. Don’t forget to work on the business as well as your role. If your job is processing transactions, you need to work on ways of enhancing transactions from a customer perspective and how to attract more business, rather than just counting transactions. Your boss will see more value in you, you will learn more, and have more fun.

  3. Be willing to invest in effort, before expecting results. Too many employees expect a raise or promotion before they accept new responsibility, rather than demonstrating their value, getting training and experience first. Every business owner understands the need for making an investment first, before realizing any return or instant gratification.

  4. Communicate the business justification for your efforts. Being busy or working long hours does not always mean a larger value to the business. Your help in quantifying the return to the business will solidify your career, make your requests for new assistance and new tools easier, and give you the insight to perhaps start your own business.

  5. Realize that your growth is related to business success. This starts with picking your roles carefully – to be in the right place at the right time. Get out of dead-end jobs, and don’t be afraid to move on to a new company if the current one is not healthy. I advise owners that they have to know when to give up a business, as well as when to buy one.

  6. Recognize career growth requires changing with the business. If you hate change or don’t see it as a new opportunity, you are not thinking like a business owner. Owners realize that customers and the market change rapidly these days, and innovative change is necessary to keep ahead of competition and survive. Accept and capitalize on change.

  7. Highlight your productivity and efficiency rather than workload. Quantify your results in terms of cost per transaction, higher customer satisfaction, lower prices, and profit per employee, rather than number of transactions or hours worked. Help your owner get beyond the misleading metrics of employee overtime and salary increases.

  8. Recommend ways to improve team engagement and culture. Owners know that their success requires that all team members be fully engaged and working together. They see top performers as employees who are the glue that makes this happen, by mentoring new employees, recommending improvements, and jumping in where help is needed.
Thinking like an owner in your current job is especially valuable if you are contemplating a future as an entrepreneur. But it works just as well if you are merely looking to advance in your own company, or simply want to improve your quality of life and satisfaction in an existing role.

Start today in overcoming any “we-versus-them” or “win-lose” mentality. Only you have the power to make your career a win-win opportunity.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/18/2019 ***
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