Monday, May 20, 2019

5 Keys To Expanding Your Thinking And Raising Results

Image via Good Free Photos 
It’s time for more entrepreneurs to reset their focus, and shift their thinking to completely different ways of doing things. Everyone talks about innovation, but the majority of business plans I see still reflect linear thinking – one more social network with improved usability, one more wind-farm energy generator with a few more blades, or one more dating site with a new dimension of compatibility. Serious changes and great successes don’t come from linear thinking.

In searching for ways to get this message out, a while back I came across a no excuse, no apology book by Brian Reich, called “Shift and Reset,” which makes some excellent points on ways to increase the range of change in a person’s thinking, or an organization’s results. Here are some of the key principles that he espouses, and I support:
  1. Force and expect change. Everyone knows change is hard and messy, and occasionally painful. But unless we force ourselves to change, innovate, and experiment with different ways of addressing serious issues, we won’t find solutions that are needed. Major innovation won’t happen without real commitment, sacrifice, and hard work.
  1. Measure ability and results, not experience. Move to a model where people are measured on their deliverables, not how hard they are working, or how many years of experience they have. For entrepreneurs, this may mean more learning from experiments, and for organizations it may mean dumping a stagnant team to start over.
  1. Don’t settle, demand the best. If you want to perform at the highest possible level, you need to hire the best people, who have produced consistent exceptional results. More energy needs to be spent on how the teams are organized and how the individuals work together. Leading an organization or a movement requires skills not taught in school.
  1. Launch fast, fail quick, and learn more. Indeed, even the most capable, passionate, and well-supported entrepreneur will succeed only if he or she has a clear plan to follow. But don’t believe that any plan will develop and must remain unchanged throughout the execution process. Plan in your plan for constant change, with learning.
  1. The time is now to think bigger. Great new ideas are emerging from the massive and frenetic coordination of people online and through connections. Let’s make sure they aren’t lost or ignored as we head into the future. Now is the time when smaller, yet dedicated groups can communicate and work to bring together disparate ideas.
Reich makes the point that everyone has a role to play in solving major issues, and driving greater innovation. The Internet and social media facilitates cooperation and collaboration, which is what we need to shift our thinking, then reset our goals and ways of attaining them. It’s much easier to challenge everything we know, and turn them on their sides.

Especially for change in serious social issues and infrastructures, it’s now easier to motivate people to care enough and take action. We will never innovate quickly by following the same, old, tired patterns. We need to realize what being connected really means, and makes possible. Now is the time to change.

Innovation begins with knowing your customer, so that’s always the first place to focus. The shift and reset in thinking applies to finding the solution, more than in defining the problem. Linear thinking on the solution can doom a startup or an entrepreneur. A good step in the right direction is to build a team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

This helps break linear thinking, and greatly reduces the probability that you’ll solve a problem in the same old way, or just like your competitors. Another approach is to bring in team members from outside your domain to challenge your thinking. You as an entrepreneur can either take the lead to make real change happen, watch it happen, or wonder what happened. You decide.

Marty Zwilling
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Sunday, May 19, 2019

6 Marketing Tips To Attract Customers To Your Rollout

Image via Flickr by jardenberg 
Your marketing launch is the most important element of startup success these days, to get customer attention in this world of information overload. Yet it is the one element that too many entrepreneurs focus on only as an afterthought. Everyone assumes their product or service is so great that “word-of-mouth” will carry the day for them.

Even great products need great marketing “content” to fuel the ascent of their online message. A couple of years ago, I saw a classic primer on the key elements of great online content that I like, in “Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition,” by Michael Stelzner, founder of SocialMediaExaminer.com.

Michael delivers field-tested guidance on how to create the core elements of great content for your announcement, your webinars, blog posts, Facebook contests, newsletters, Internet TV, and other initiatives. It’s all about content that will bring the masses to your business:
  1. Highly relevant. To get to the core of what’s relevant to customers, you need to know them well. Use your content as a way to make a connection between your business and things that matter to them. The more frequently you can deliver content that meets the needs and desires of your customers, the more relevant you will become to them.
  1. Educational. Helping customers discover new ways to solve common problems can quickly build you a loyal following. Your content must continue to deliver new ideas. In simple terms, this is where you share your knowledge, as well as the guidance from other experts, for free.
  1. Easy to digest. A conversational tone should be the basis for all of your content. Highly relevant and educational content if irrelevant if you can’t make it easy for people to understand. Common approaches include the use of metaphors, tell stories, and always stay on topic.
  1. Visually appealing. The eye is just as important as the mind when it comes to customers. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is still alive and relevant. Make sure your paragraphs are short. Use callouts and bullets to help the reader speed through your content.
  1. Conversation inviting. Great content is conversation. If you want to connect with customers, put aside your writing formalities. Your language doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s pretty simple to do. Simply speak out loud. Then write it down. The message should spark a side conversation between friends, and a follow-up comment to you.
  1. Lacks a sales angle. Great content shouldn’t have any obvious marketing messages or sales pitches embedded inside of it. If your content is about your specific product or service, that’s not great content; it’s marketing collateral. People won’t flock to marketing materials.

Creating these core elements is a lot easier if you can team with outside experts to help you. They have what your readers seek – important, worthwhile knowledge, and some experts already have a large following of their own. They are a shortcut that can put you far ahead of your competition.

Some experts are so instrumental that they are called “fire starters.” These are people who have so much influence that their endorsement can ignite your efforts nearly overnight. The best potential fire starters have the eyes and ears of people who closely match your ideal base. Nurture these relationships, and provide generous value to them in return.

Every marketer throws around the word “content,” but few have mastered the art and science of creating useful, thought-provoking, and viral content. Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Start early in your planning, build your own skills, or find the best expertise you can afford. There is nothing more devastating than a good business that fails to launch.

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, May 18, 2019

10 Entrepreneur Attributes That Will Make You A Star


Elon Musk via Flickr by TED Conference 
To be successful as an entrepreneur, you don’t have to be a fabulous person, but it helps. Some people, and some entrepreneurs, have that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, like Ryan Seacrest is searching for on American Idol. But the entrepreneurs that have it, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, seem to be able to effortlessly get team members, investors, and customers to follow them anywhere.

In her classic book on this subject, “The Essentials of Fabulous,” Ellen Lubin-Sherman, who has been tracking fabulous people most of her life as a writer and journalist, tried to net it out. She identifies less than a dozen primary qualities for fabulous people in general, and I have honed and tuned these to ten that apply especially to entrepreneurs, in my experience:
  1. Be passionate about life, as well as your business. Entrepreneurs who have passion in business, as well as their life, may drive us all batty, but there is never a dull moment. These moments are always being transformed into options to be explored. They make life interesting and an adventure, and everyone loves an adventure.
  1. Be delightfully authentic and honest. Authentic entrepreneurs are destined and determined to have fun, as well as move forward in business. They have an unerring confidence that’s inspiring yet attainable. They savor relationships, and are generous with themselves and their smarts, so they attract a savvy following.
  1. Be revered for an amazing positive attitude. Rather than cave when things get tough, optimistic entrepreneurs go analytic, looking for pivots that keep their goals in sight. They are disciplined, upbeat thinkers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and know how and when to laugh it off. A negative attitude takes everyone down.
  1. Be warm and completely accessible. Warmth comes from your smile, and facial expressions that indicate genuine interest. Investors and partners look for entrepreneurs that will look them straight in the eye when speaking, and give their full and undivided attention while you’re speaking. Everyone looks for “rapport talk” rather than “report talk.”
  1. Have impeccable manners and flair. Entrepreneurs who are always looking for opportunities to be gracious and considerate are going to be liked, admired, sought after, and trusted. In business, that means staying connected, showing up on time, with no signs of boredom or preoccupation. It’s not always about you, so dress and talk for them.
  1. Be competent and confident. Competent people accomplish more in business because they’re driven by a pronounced sense of purpose. They are willing to put themselves on the line, and have confidently done their homework to know what it takes. They are reliably consistent, and unafraid to ask for help.
  1. Able to just “get it.” Entrepreneurs who “get it” are emotionally attuned to peers and customers, so that their gut-level instincts become informed judgments that move the business forward. “With-it”-ness takes work, like reading the right blogs every day, challenging yourself to stay abreast of the latest technology, and social media marketing.
  1. Have a big bandwidth. Can you talk, with equal engagement and respect, to your company’s CFO and the guy who pumps your gas? Look for opportunities to praise and nurture the people with diversity. Get comfortable out of your circle of interest and expertise. Go for that black belt in networking.
  1. Be vivid virtually. Developing a superior virtual presence requires a mastery of several mediums – phone, email, text messaging, as well as handwritten notes – but the payoff is undeniable. But don’t overuse virtual communication to the exclusion of face-to-face time In all cases, don’t forget your sense of aplomb, mastery of tone, and the spell-checker.
  1. Attract a superstar board of advisors. The right board is a group of individuals who may not know one another, but know you, and know your business domain. Plus, they need to be willing to put their brains and their expertise at your disposal as long as you need it. No entrepreneur is an island, so take the initiative to build an advisory board.
Paying attention to all these things is how you become a fabulous entrepreneur, another entrepreneur idol. I’m sorry, but there is no magic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, it will never happen if you don’t start or don’t believe. But it’s worth the effort, unless you have something better to do?

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, May 17, 2019

5 Exciting Technologies That Need Your Execution Help


DNA image via Wikipedia 
As a business advisor and technologist, I often think about the large array of opportunities for entrepreneurs as technology seems to be evolving faster and faster. Yet I still too often hear the question, “Can you give me a really sure-fire idea for starting my own business?” My standard answer is that ideas are a dime a dozen, and success is all about smart execution, not ideas.

Yet from time to time, I try to step back and look for some of the most promising and exciting technologies that I see coming down the pike. In that context, I recommend the classic book, “Driver in the Driverless Car,” by Vivek Wadhwa with Alex Salkever, which categorizes many of the leading ones that everyone, both entrepreneurs and consumers, should be thinking about:
  1. Self-driving cars, trucks, drones, and planes. The opportunities to capitalize on these vehicles are huge, ranging from control software, hardware design, support facilities, to entirely new applications. The challenge, according to a survey from a couple of years ago, is that just one in five people today would entrust their life to a driverless vehicle. Execution won’t be easy.
  1. Artificial intelligence (machine learning). According to experts, computers with more power than the human brain are mere seven to fourteen years away. Artificial intelligence is still young, but already embedded in our everyday lives, through decision support, navigation routing, and much more. Future opportunities for entrepreneurs are endless.
  1. Personalized genomics and healthcare. Advances in the understanding of the genome of an individual is leading to personalized medicine, also termed precision medicine. The next step is manipulation of these genomes to fix and even prevent many disorders, totally change the efficacy of healthcare, and extend and improve your life.
  1. The Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, vehicles, homes, offices, and public places. These sensors talk to each other, and to us, via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or our smartphones, to help us manage our environment and live a richer life.
  1. Merging of man and machine (robotics and biology). Amazing progress is being made in underlying hardware and software, and costs have plummeted. Siri and her compatriots will soon be able to converse with you in more physical and emotional ways. The mental distinction between humans and machines will become almost imperceptible.
There are many more, but these are ones high on my priority list for entrepreneurs looking for a place to start. Yet with these, as with any other opportunity, there are many risks and implications, pointed out by Wadhwa in his book, for every entrepreneur to consider with each idea. He and I suggest that you always ask yourself the following three questions before starting:
  • Does your idea have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Many technology advances have negative implications for certain industries and segments of society. Your market may be limited to the top one percent of income owners, or may imply values that are unacceptable to the mass market. Consider the societal big picture before jumping in.
  • Does it promote autonomy or dependence? Customers don’t want new technologies to be like recreational drugs that they become dependent on. We all want greater autonomy – the freedom to live our lives the way we wish to and to fulfill our potentials. Entrepreneurs need to focus on ideas that lead to customer autonomy, not dependence.
  • What are the higher-level risks and rewards? Beyond the normal risks of starting a new business, many new technologies have the potential for moral and environmental risks. What if you mess up and create monsters or destroy the environment? Look at the potential side effects and long-term consequences of an idea, before making a legacy commitment to that business.
For me, and for most technologists in business, the future is both very exciting and a bit hair-raising. I certainly see no shortage of ideas and opportunities, but I recommend that every entrepreneur, and every consumer, take a hard look at the broader implications of each new technology. There is plenty of room for good, so select wisely and execute well. The quality of all our lives depend on it.

Marty Zwilling



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Wednesday, May 15, 2019

“Nail It Then Scale It” - The New Mantra For Startups

Steve Blank via Flickr by jdlasica 
I see more and more entrepreneurs who seem to have everything going for them – vision, motivation, passion, even a good business plan, product, and money, and yet they can’t close customers. Maybe it’s time to look harder at the mantra of a new breed of gurus and successful entrepreneurs, including Steve Blank and Eric Ries, called “nail it then scale it” (NISI).

You can review all the specifics of this approach in the classic book by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom, appropriately titled “Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation,” but I will net it out here. I found their five phases of the process to be compelling, based on my own years of experience mentoring startups:
  1. Nail the pain. Great businesses begin with a customer problem that has a big and monetizable pain point. Avoid the three big mistakes, of guessing but not testing the pain (on real customers), selecting a low customer pain (solution is only nice to have), or selecting a narrow customer pain (small number of customers willing or able to pay).
  1. Nail the solution. Neither breakthrough technology nor maximum features will assure that “if we build it, they will come.” In fact, NISI recommends starting with the minimum focused set of features and technology that will drive a customer purchase. Success demands testing the solution early and quickly in the market, then iterating to get it right.
  1. Nail the go-to-market strategy. In parallel with nailing the solution, you need an in-depth understanding of your target customer’s buying process, the job they are trying to get done, the market infrastructure, and a stable of serious pilot customers. Do real tests with real pricing to see if customers will pay you, without being pushed.
  1. Nail the business model. Leverage your customer conversations to predict and validate your business model. For example, when you think about distribution channels, revenue streams, or the relationship with the customer, ask customers what they expect. Don’t forget a viable financial model of costs, margins, customer acquisition, and break-even.
  1. Scale it. Don’t attempt to scale it until you have a proven repeatable business model that predictably generates revenue. Only then is it time to focus on the get-big-fast strategy, and the transformation of three key areas from startup to a managed growth company. These areas include market, process, and team transitions.
These pragmatics and points of focus can effectively counter three core myths which trap too many enterprising and capable entrepreneurs today:
  • Hero myth: Why believing in your product leads to failure. All too often, founders fall in love with their products or technology, ignore negative feedback from customers, and spend years building a product based on a vision that no one else shares.
  • Process myth: Why building a product leads to failure. Conventional wisdom is that after a great idea, the next steps are raise some money, build a product, then go sell the product. This doesn’t work when attacking unknown problems with untested solutions.
  • Money myth: Why having too much money leads to failure. The old saying that “it takes money to make money” isn’t so simple. Money allows entrepreneurs to execute a flawed business plan far too long, rather than stay focused on the market and adapt.
At the heart of it, to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be totally customer centric, and learn to change and adapt as fast as the market. The pace of change in the marketplace is escalating, so entrepreneurs have to improve their ability to deal with change.

At the same time, more entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray, and less money is available from investors. It’s time for a new startup model. In my view, savvy “super angel” investors such as Mike Maples, Jr., and leading incubators such as Y Combinator, are already on this one. How far behind is your startup?

Marty Zwilling
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Monday, May 13, 2019

5 Steps To A Winning Assault On The Army Of Investors

Image via Flickr by lumaxart 
Don’t charge the hill until you are “ready.” This probably seems obvious to military types, but I see entrepreneurs violating this rule all the time. They approach key potential investors way too early, trying to talk their way up the hill, with no supporting business plan, and before they have a support team around them. Needless to say, they usually get shot down, and get no second chance.

The first rule is to separate your advisors from your investors. Perhaps a close personal friend can be both (the earliest stage and first tier investors should be “friends and family”). But for angel investors and venture capital investors, just remember that investors are not on your team (yet). You only get once chance to make a great first impression.

Continuing with my military analogy, here are some logistics, suggested ammunition, and an assault strategy (the bold points apply to every aspect of building the business):
  1. Do your reconnaissance first. Before you meet a potential investor, check them out on the Internet and through your advisors. You need to know exactly what the investor has done before, what he is doing now, and what will interest him If you walk into his office cold, and can’t convince him you meet his interests, you will walk out cold.
  1. Coordinate and brief your support team. Make sure all your advisors and team members know exactly what your mission is, and if possible, have at least one of them make prior contact to set the stage. If the investor thinks you are coming to ask for domain advice, and you ask for money, your success probabilities are shot.
  1. Fully prepare for the assault. Don’t try to talk and demo your way up the hill. Talk bounces off and won’t stop any bullets. Lead with your two-page executive summary, be prepared to give a ten-slide investor presentation. Keep your big guns, the business plan and financial model, in your holster but visible for backup.
  1. Put your ear to the ground before charging ahead. Offer to give your executive presentation, but he may want just the elevator pitch. Listen, and follow his lead with confidence and enthusiasm. Don’t insist on a product demo – he is buying the business, not the product. If you have an hour, use no more than 20 minutes for presentation.
  1. Follow-up to assess progress or casualties. Have someone else, if possible, follow up with the investor the next day, to find out what really happened. If you didn’t learn anything from the meeting, you weren’t listening. Most VCs won’t volunteer to the Founder what they think, because that limits their options later.
By now, you are probably saying that this is “old school;” when going to Sand Hill Road offices was like going to the principal’s office. There you were ushered into a gorgeously appointed conference room for a precise amount of time with a serious-looking partner. Now some VCs and angels actually hold court in a nearby Starbucks or Paradise Bakery.

But believe me, investors are, if anything, tougher now than then. Don’t be fooled by the informality. Preparation, professional image, confidence, and strategy are just as important as they ever were. The strategy of “I’ll talk to him informally and early, find out what he doesn’t like, and then I’ll fix it,” is pure folly. Napkins don’t really work as your business plan.

Some of the most prepared “teams” I have seen are essentially one person, with a few part-time advisors, who seem to overcome all obstacles. One person can look like an army charging the hill, if they use all the networking facilities of the Internet, all the tools available to build business plans, financial models, and product prototype.

Don’t be afraid to use some mercenaries to back you up (outsourcing, consultants). All the shortcuts up the hill are rigged with minefields. Better safe than sorry. This is serious business.

Marty Zwilling
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Sunday, May 12, 2019

6 Keys To Making Timely Changes To Save Your Business


Image via Wikipedia 
Change is about the only thing constant in the world of startups. Despite their own focus on changing the world, they often forget that they too have to change rapidly and often as the market evolves. Too many find that out too late, and are left chasing a rabbit that is long gone.

The solution is to establish and maintain a culture and processes that don’t view change as a discrete event to be spotted and managed, but as an ongoing opportunity to improve competitiveness. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in a classic HBR article on change readiness for large companies, define it as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Since the startup environment is usually more volatile, the challenge there in balancing advantage, risk, and performance, is more critical than in big companies. The following initiatives that Chris and Tammie define for large companies apply just as directly to startups:
  1. Improve change awareness. How good are you and everyone on your team at proactively scanning the environment for opportunities, emerging trends, and customer feedback? This contextual focus is critical to innovation and survival – the right product at the right time.
  1. Increase change agility. Change agility represents a startup’s ability to immediately and effectively engage everyone in pending changes and innovations. It starts at the top with the founder and CEO, but has to extend quickly to the bottom of the organization. This requires leadership, teamwork, and trust at all levels.
  1. Expedite change reaction. This is the ability to appropriately analyze problems, assess risks, and take responsibility for problem-dictated and market-dictated changes, while still sustaining the day-to-day business activities. It’s called the management of unplanned changes, or how well your startup reacts to crises.
  1. Implement change mechanisms. Every organization needs to have specific mechanisms in place to facilitate change, including regular effective communication, reward systems that reinforce desired change behavior, and accountability for results. These won’t work in an autocratic or dysfunctional management environment.
  1. Build a change readiness culture. Change readiness is hard work, and requires creativity sometimes in conflict with task orientation. People have to have the right attitude, and make the choice from the beginning to be ready to change at any time. They need a sense of urgency to handle change, and confidence in their leaders.
  1. Imbue customer change focus. The more everyone in the startup is obsessed with satisfying customer needs and providing better customer service, the more effective the startup will be in adapting to change. Provide direct customer contact to everyone, as well as training.
Experts say that we live in a world where the pace of change is accelerating at the fastest rate in recorded history. On the other hand, change management practices seem to be changing very slowly, resulting in a 70% failure rate of change initiatives. Failure rates this high demand a new mindset and startups are the logical place for this to happen.

For starters, the whole team needs to be constantly trained and encouraged to develop their skills. Relevant skills include continuous improvement of existing methods, processes and devices against a set of quality metrics. The ultimate skills, which lead to innovation and totally new processes, usually come from experimentation and special studies.

In summary, change will happen. If your people and your startup do not change, statistics say you won’t survive. It’s up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make things happen in your startup, rather than let things happen to your business.

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, May 11, 2019

6 Ways To Prepare Your Company For The Future Of Work

Image via Pixabay 
It’s time to take the drudgery and dread out of work at your business. You don’t like it, millennials won’t put up with it, and current productivity levels at work continue to decline. Only 32 percent of American workers are even engaged at work today. Most workers are still rushing to retirement, where they hope to escape to more stimulating activities with a real sense of accomplishment.

In my view as a long-time business advisor, this problem is driving a new entrepreneur age, with the lure of doing what you love, and loving what you do. Yet most startups soon degrade into the negative work environments of more mature businesses, unless they know how to change their approach right from the beginning, and continually focus on the key pillars of work transformation.

I found these pillars, and the first principles behind them, pulled together well in a classic book, “Embracing Progress: Next Steps For The Future Of Work,” by A. Sophie Wade. She has lived and worked in five countries, and consulted with major corporations, as well as startups, in transforming their workplaces to be more productive as well as more satisfying. The pillars of change she details include the following:
  1. Embracing and adapting to technology. Technology is not the solution per se, but it provides the key enablement, drivers, and support for the required flexibility, integration, communication, metrics, and affordability that are required in the workplace today. More people as a substitute for technology is not a solution. No one is happy or satisfied.
  1. Build engagement through culture and mindset. Employee engagement is a measure of emotional commitment, leading to work focus, which translates to productivity, satisfaction and happiness. It starts with a mindset, but requires a like-minded community and culture to survive. Leaders must embrace respect, reciprocity, and recognition.
  1. Show leadership, transparency, and empathy. For leaders today, the success factors include a progressive, open attitude to new ideas and processes, wherever they may come from. The goal must be to eliminate organization silos, flatten hierarchies, and empower employees within projects. Make sure roles match interests and capabilities.
  1. Coach for productivity, performance, and creativity. The traditional once-yearly look-backward performance paradigm has to be replaced by daily or weekly coaching focused on a career roadmap ahead. Leaders at all levels need personal engagement with employees, to understand their interests, skills, and match to roles needed in the future.
  1. Focus on values, cultural impact, and environment. There has to be more to your business today than making money, to get employee engagement and satisfaction. Company values must include respect for the environment and social good. The costs of these elements will be more than repaid by employee engagement and customer loyalty.
  1. Treat freelancers and contractors as employees. Today your talent pool is worldwide, including salary as well as contract arrangements. All must feel that they are committed to the same goals, and part of the same team – not second-class citizens. They all need the same feedback, respect for their input, and coaching to maximize their engagement.
As obvious as many of these principles may seem, the reality I see is that most organizations and most business leaders have not embraced them yet. I believe this is largely because the traditional “command-and-control” management practices are long-established habits, and it’s hard to find the time to really engage with your team, and be sensitive to individual interests.

Recent studies reveal that highly-engaged organizations are experiencing double the success rate of less engaged ones. And there is nothing like success to put fun and satisfaction back into your work, and the work of your employees. When was the last time you saw members of your team happily working well past required hours? Maybe it’s time for you to break some old habits.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, May 10, 2019

7 Keys To Using Social Media to Kickstart Your Brand

Image via Pixabay 
After a frustrating meeting with a small business client recently who didn’t “have time” for social media, I was surprised to find evidence on the Internet that up to one quarter of small business owners are still hesitant to invest time, money, and effort into a social media strategy.

They don’t realize that they are missing out on a great opportunity for “free” promotion, as well as taking a great risk by not listening to what customers are saying, and not monitoring or responding to undeserved challenges to their reputation.

The classic example from several years ago was United Airlines not staying tuned in to social media, resulting in a unrecoverable customer problem causing great damage to their reputation, escalating to countless articles, and even a book, “United Breaks Guitars.” On a more positive note, there is a wealth of evidence that social media has resulted in some big paybacks.

Of course, nothing is totally free, and I have heard the horror stories of relatively small companies finding thirty or more employees spending most of their time scanning and using social media for promotions, or engaging high-priced consultants who never seem to be able to show any real return for all of their efforts.

I recommend the following steps as a start for maximizing your own return. I recognize that some of these may seem, well, basic to our social media-savvy readers, but based on my own recent experience in the real world, there are still plenty of people looking for a place to start:
  1. Research the use of social media by your customers. If your customers are consumers, especially on the upscale and younger side, social media is likely their number one source for brand decisions. On the other hand, if your business is selling commodities to government entities, social media may rightly be at the bottom of your list.

  2. Choose the best social media platform for your domain. If your interest is in reaching business professionals, LinkedIn has by far the greatest potential. Snapchat is almost exclusively a young person’s hangout, but you will likely find consumers of all ages on Facebook and Twitter. For B2B environments, consider who makes the buy decisions.

  3. Approach influencers and key stakeholders appropriately. Social media is not all about being social, or treating everyone casually. For serious customers and investors, treat them with respect and stick to topics that are interesting and relevant to them. Viral videos, personal anecdotes, and informal surveys would likely be counterproductive.

  4. Integrate social media into your overall marketing strategy. Just like ignoring social media is not smart, relying on it totally is likely not an optimal strategy. Most businesses need a mix of offline and online marketing, promotions, loyalty programs, and community involvement. This required mix must be reviewed and updated as your brand matures.

  5. Pay special attention to attract a strong first impression. It definitely pays to get some help with your first step into social media, since first impressions often become lasting ones. Jumping in haphazardly with poorly a focused message is definitely non-productive, and may harm your business. Do your homework before you begin.

  6. Use business metrics and tools to tune your efforts. More social media activity doesn’t mean a higher return on investment. Start by getting familiar with social media analysis tools, such as Google Analytics, Snaplytics, and SproutSocial. Always gauge progress by business indicators, like customer acquisition cost and customer satisfaction.

  7. Demand professional business skills and customer advocacy. The people who lead and deliver your social media content need to fully understand your business, and be able to make real decisions on behalf of your customers and your business. Customers today rate will your business by the quality of your social media listening and response.
Too many business owners still consider social media a fad for chatting with your friends, or keeping up with the news. In fact, it’s much more than that today, and has become one of the most important tools for every business to keep in touch with customers, and build a brand. As with any business tool, you need to use it correctly, and measure the cost against the return.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/25/2019 ***
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Wednesday, May 8, 2019

5 Key Drivers For Creating A Board For Your Startup

Image via Flickr by MDGovpics 
Many entrepreneurs I know are confused by definition and need for an Advisory Board versus a Board of Directors. Some view both of these as a waste of time and burden on the CEO, while other founders surround themselves with insiders and cronies in an attempt to expedite and add credibility to their own interests. I suggest a few simple considerations will clarify the alternatives.

By definition, Advisory Boards are voluntary and have no fiduciary responsibility. Yet I suggest a small one has value for every startup, starting at inception, prior to a major investor or key business scaling initiative. This Advisory Board is a good test drive for the more formal Board of Directors required later, when going public (IPO) or the entrance of venture capital investors.

In all cases, board members should be selected individually for their ability to independently add value to the expertise and experience of the management team, with no obligation or intent to add weight to internal views. The details of these considerations are outlined in a classic book, “The Board Book,” by Board expert and founder of The Board Institute, Susan F. Shultz.

Shultz provides a set of considerations that I recommend to every entrepreneur for deciding when and how to create the board that has the most value to a specific CEO and a specific business. These considerations include the following:
  1. Are you looking for advice or a boss? Most founders and CEOs will not voluntarily establish a formal Board of Directors, unless they are trying to attract a major investor, preparing for an IPO, or planning for an acquisition. As an alternative, every CEO needs an Advisory Board to help them grow, which they can ignore or fire at their pleasure.
  1. How much are you willing to spend on your board? Advisory Board members often serve for a nominal retainer, or one percent of the equity, whereas Directors for even a small company would expect at least a five-digit retainer, plus meeting expenses. Also expect that much more of your time will be required to sustain a Board of Directors.
  1. What role do you want in selecting board members? Board of Directors members must be formally elected by stockholder votes for a stated term. Obviously, a CEO can recommend directors, but CEOs directly select Advisors, and they are replaced as interests and needs change. Legally, Directors are accountable for corporate conduct.
  1. Do you expect involvement in company operations? Advisory Board members rarely get involved in operational roles versus strategic issues, while specific Directors often spend much time on executive compensation, processes to satisfy regulatory requirements, and reviews of budgets, acquisition proposals, and major policy changes.
  1. How many board members need you work with? A Board of Directors must represent all constituents, so it often grows to ten or even twenty members, although I recommend keeping the numbers uneven (to eliminate tie votes), and less than ten. For Advisory Boards, I recommend three to five as max, to limit costs and time spent for support.
The challenge is to avoid the mistakes that can compromise any Board, advisory or formal, in its independence or effectiveness to the business. Shultz discusses many of these, but here are a few which are the most common in my experience:
  • Failure to focus strategically rather than tactically. Most stockholders think only about the next quarter, and most CEOs worry about short-term survival. Since Boards are a function of both of these, it’s hard to find boards able and willing to keep a proactive focus on strategy. They tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
  • Too many beholding insiders, friends, and family. Insiders will tell you what you want to hear. Their allegiance, sensitivity to rank, and familial biases make open discussions difficult, and interlocking directorships set up too many situations where directors work for favors from each other, or work against each other due to non-business issues.
  • Lack of involvement and leadership by the CEO. Even with all the right people on the Board, it’s still the CEO who sets the culture, drives the focus, and makes the difference. The best CEOs balance the focus between strategy and selected current issues. They stay in touch, transparently provide info, and make Board recommendations happen.
Thus, it is my view that every entrepreneur and every business needs at least a couple of outside advisors, if not a formal Board of Directors. As an angel investor, I judge readiness for investment by their presence or absence, by the CEO’s relationship with them, and by the quality of the advisors. It’s a resource that you can’t afford to ignore if you intend to stay competitive today.

Marty Zwilling
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Monday, May 6, 2019

7 Problem Solving Mistakes To Avoid In Your Business

Image via Flickr by Fortune Conferences 
In every business, especially new ones, quick and effective problem solving is a critical skill. The problems you face are more complex and moving faster than ever before, and the consequences of a poor or incomplete solution can be costly to your business, and well as to your community, human health, and the environment. What we learn in school hasn’t kept up with the demands.

For example, there is no question that Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes faced a host of complex problems in their drive to offer a comprehensive blood test from just a finger stick and a single drop of blood. Yet few would have believed that problems could have brought down such a promising solution, as well as the reputation of the founder, despite a $9 billion valuation.

I found some real insights into today’s problem solving challenge in a new book, “Bulletproof Problem Solving,” by Charles Conn and Robert McLean. These authors have more than thirty years of experience in complex problem solving, including solution approaches, in McKinsey & Company, start-up companies, and many social and environmental organizations.

Based on my own thirty years of experience in large and small business, and advisory roles with new businesses, I support their summary of the common pitfalls that many business leaders experience in facing the problem solving challenges in the marketplace today:
  1. Settle for weak problem statements, without root cause. Rushing into analysis with a vague problem statement is a clear formula for long hours and frustrated customers. You need clarity around the decision-making criteria and constraints, the time frame required, and an indication of action that will occur when the problem is solved, or not solved.

  2. Asserting the answer based on bias, ego, or passion. Asserting any solution without proper validation in this complex world is a recipe for disaster. No matter what your conviction or experience (“I’ve seen this before”), the stakes are too high to try to force an answer. In this age of instant and total communication, you can’t fool customers.

  3. Failure to break the problem into component parts. Only by first finding all the cleaving points that allow you to dissect the problem, will you likely find the most serious crux of the issue. Elizabeth Holmes never focused on how many false positive blood tests were sending people to the hospital, or she might not have minimized the problem.

  4. Neglecting divergent views and team culture norms. Groupthink amongst a team of managers with similar backgrounds and traditional hierarchy makes it hard for anyone to see the real alternatives clearly. Every leader needs to make sure and listen to people with a diversity of experiences, who are open-minded, and have no ulterior motives.

  5. Rely on an incomplete or outdated analytic tool set. Some issues can be resolved with “back of the envelope” calculations, while complex modern issues may demand more time and sophisticated new tools. For example, sometimes no amount of regression analysis is a substitute for a well-designed real world experiment with “big data” analysis.

  6. Failure to link conclusions to a compelling action plan. Analytically oriented teams often say, “We’re done” when a solution is found, but don’t follow-through with a plan to communicate complex concepts to diverse audiences, and sell their action plan to stakeholders. Effective solutions capture the total audience with compelling actions.

  7. Assuming each problem can be solved once and for all. Rarely is a problem solved totally the first time. Complex problems have a messiness about them that takes you back and forth between hypotheses, analysis, and conclusions, each time deepening your understanding. Expect your problem solving to be iterative and a learning process.
Every leader needs to adopt a systematic approach to problem solving and continually hone their skills. The authors present a seven-step approach that works for them, and has been proven across multiple business arenas. I recommend that you do your homework to find a system that works for you and avoids the pitfalls outlined here. The longevity of your business today totally depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/21/2019 ***
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Sunday, May 5, 2019

8 Steps For Developing Employees To Generate Loyalty

Image via Flickr by University of the Fraser 
It’s a whole new world out there in the workplace. Millennials want work that matters, and don’t care for hierarchies. Boomers are coming back to work, but because of their experience, they may be insulted by constant feedback. All prefer more flexible hours, the chance to work from home, and the traditions of lifetime loyalty to one company no longer apply.

Loyalty to a given company now has to be inspired rather than assumed. These challenges, with recommendations for addressing them, were detailed nicely for me in the classic book, “The Boomerang Principle,” by Lee Caraher, who has built several companies, and has helped many others manage Millennials, reduce turnover, and improve satisfaction and the return hire rate.

She and I both offer the following insights on how to green your own pasture by helping employees find and use their strengths, and inspiring them to be more satisfied and productive, on your side of the fence, and even happily return if they do wander in their career advancement:
  1. Provide a structured approach to mentorship. Mentoring is the number one request by Millennials in the workplace. They are used to, and appreciate, relationships with older people who will help them navigate their way. Coincidentally, Boomers love to share their guidance to bridge the generation gap. Thus mentoring inspires loyalty all around.
  1. Create a culture of specific and timely feedback. Everyone needs feedback, but they dislike just the annual performance reviews. Employees today expect a culture where feedback, both positive and corrective, is natural, timely, and constructive. Adjusting your style so that each employee hears you is the mark of a leader who generates loyalty.
  1. Focus on the next step, as well as the current role. Employees need to feel that their role today in your team will be beneficial to their career tomorrow, and what opportunities you might see for them. If you match that with commensurate training and professional development coaching, you will see their commitment, productivity, and loyalty in return.
  1. Allowance for today’s work flexibility needs. Today, it’s not only caring for children, but also caring for elderly parents or relatives. Real work flexibility also caters to personal preferences regarding the time and location of work, not just fixed options. With our new devices and pervasive Internet access, almost any work can be done from anywhere.
  1. Define work deadlines rather than work hours. Flexible work requires inflexible deadlines that are specific – time, date, time zone – and consistently met. Measuring attendance-only from nine-to-five is not satisfying or productive for the company or the team. Overt planning takes into consideration each team member’s preferred schedule.
  1. Adjust salary practices as careers progress. The old standard practice of three percent raises every year, for people in their early career, basically ensures that your younger talent will look elsewhere quickly. For good performers, larger increases early (10-15 percent) generate loyalty. Ensure that all employees are paid at market rates.
  1. Create an expectation of happiness at work. Happiness and loyalty tend to go hand in hand. Unhappy team members are a drag on everyone’s performance as well as loyalty. Unhappiness comes most often from under-appreciation, lack of understanding of what is required, and resentment of punishment for mistakes. Don’t let these happen.
  1. Expect career transitions and plan for them. No employee today stays forever, because they need career broadening. Your company also benefits from a regular infusion of new ideas, skills, and experience, so treat transitions as mindful and positive. Employee loyalty includes what they say to peers, and their potential to return later.
Make your company a good place to be from, as well as a good place to work. No one will say it’s easy, or you shouldn’t have high expectations from every team member. The longer you keep non-performers, energy suckers, or toxic people on your team, the more likely you are to lose the good people. However, always set a high bar for your behavior on the way out for anyone.

Just because someone isn’t right now doesn’t mean he won’t be right later. The best companies create cultures to which employees want to return, which provide both short-term and long-term benefits. That’s the new lifetime loyalty, and it serves everyone better than the old model of the same employees forever. Is your company there yet?

Marty Zwilling
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Saturday, May 4, 2019

8 Keys To Introducing Truly Life-Changing Innovations

Image via Flickr by UC Davis 
What sparks paradigm-shifting innovation in any business? It’s a special mix of entrepreneur and company, regular in every respect except for having the courage and foresight to make an idea happen that was supposed to be impossible. As an entrepreneur in a startup, how do you know if you have this potential, and what are the steps to get from an innovation to a revolution?

The first step is to meditate on the examples set by others, like Steve Jobs of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, or Thomas Edison with the electric light. There are many others, like the classic book about Ratan Tata bringing out the Nano car in 2009 in India for less than $2,500. Even though the car was not a success for production reasons, the book “Nanovation,” by Kevin & Jackie Freiberg, still makes some great points.

These authors have studied many such examples, and summarize my own perspective on the characteristics of entrepreneurs they call “nanovators,” that produce true, life-changing innovations:
  1. Get wired for innovation. We all agree that innovation is an adventure into the unknown. If you want people to follow, you need to be able to convince them of three things: (1) your mission is worth supporting, (2) you have the competence to build a critical mass, and (3) you have integrity to look out for their best interests along the way.
  1. Lead the revolution. Innovators have more than the vision; they have the drive to lead, and the focus to stay on target. They are wired to win. Organizations don’t produce game-changing innovations; people do. They allow a leap of faith in their own ideas, as well as in the ideas and capabilities of their team.
  1. Build a culture of innovation. You need a culture where restlessness is tolerated, curiosity is encouraged, passion is inspired, creativity is expected, and people are always talking about what’s next. Ultimately, the mind-set changes so significantly that innovation is natural, and no one is conscious of it.
  1. Question the unquestionable. Outsiders ask a lot of questions because they don’t presume to know why something is done a certain way. Make your insiders think like outsiders. Provocative questions like “What if?”, “Why not?”, or “So what?” can help to get everyone outside the box.
  1. Look beyond customer imagination. First-of-a-kind products empower customers to do things they didn’t even know they wanted to do, and now can’t live without them. The computer mouse, Tivo, and Teflon are examples. Listen to customers, but remember that they can’t always tell you what they don’t know.
  1. Go to the intersection of trends. Innovators pay close attention to the early warning signs that precede major cultural, societal, and market shifts. Where most people see an isolated trend, innovators connect the dots by relating one trend to several others. They focus on next practices, versus best practices.
  1. Solve a problem that matters. The key here is to resist the temptation to pay more attention to the technology solution than the problem. Some people create brilliant solutions to non-existent problems, like maybe Segway and satellite phones. These solutions may be nice to have, but won’t ignite a revolution to get there.
  1. Risk more, fail faster, and bounce back stronger. When you pursue a creative idea that takes you beyond, fear tempts you to make compromises. If you can push through this fear and doubt, or bounce back intelligently from initial setbacks, you often arrive at something that has truly never been seen before.
Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric argues that the next big thing could well be from “reverse innovation,” where instead of industrialized nations adapting their products for emerging markets, innovation in emerging markets will bring new paradigms to home markets. In any case, the future is defined by what we put off until tomorrow, so don’t wait too long to get started.

Marty Zwilling
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Friday, May 3, 2019

5 Ways To Kickstart Your Business Coaching Reputation

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I’ve always been a bit confused about the difference in a business context between a coach and a mentor. According to many pundits, a mentor shows you the right way based on experience, while a coach brings out the best in you, then let’s you find your own way. Based on my own experience on both sides of the fence, we can all benefit from either, and need the best of both.

As examples, even famous billionaire business leaders, including Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates, have admitted to having mentors (Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett). Many more, as detailed in a new book, “Trillion Dollar Coach,” by Google executives Eric Schmidt, Alan Eagle, and Jonathan Rosenberg, tout the value of self-proclaimed coach Bill Campbell in Silicon Valley.

Based on their eighty interviews with people that Bill Campbell worked with before he passed away a couple of years ago, these authors offer five specific lessons and action steps which I believe can help every entrepreneur and aspiring business leader, even if you don’t have time or access to a world-class coach every time you sorely need one:
  1. Value people and make people feel valued. Bill urged leaders to get to know their people as people – with lives beyond work. Trying to develop that personal connection might not come easily for some of us, but in time it becomes natural. Plus, in my first manager role, I was even cautioned to avoid personal relationships with team members.

    Later in my career, I learned from a real coach that getting to know people outside of work was a great way to find what really motivated them – allowing me to better match their assignments to their interests, increasing productivity as well as satisfaction.

  2. Give people the room to debate differences. Rather than settling for a consensus, the lesson from Bill is to strive for the best idea – starting with ensuring all ideas get heard, especially ones counter to your own thinking. Sit back and let people talk through options, intervening only to reinforce first principles and, if needed, to break a decision-making tie.

    One way to do this is to ensure that everyone in staff and team meetings has to voice a position on key issues, without interruption, followed by group debates without judgment. The leader assumes the role of moderator and supporter, rather than edicting a decision.

  3. Build an envelope of mutual trust. Always establish your trust by being open, asking questions, listening to the answers, and giving candid feedback. A coach will honor people’s trust with loyalty and discretion, and demonstrate trust in people’s ability to succeed. Always set the bar high and push people to exceed their self-expectations.

    Of course, coaching only works with people that are coachable. The traits that make a person coachable include honesty and humility, the willingness to persevere and work hard, and a constant openness to learning. Build your team first with only these people.

  4. Reinforce a “team-first” mindset. First and foremost, Bill proclaimed to be a coach of teams, not individuals. Peer relationships are critical, at all levels, and often overlooked. Seek opportunities to pair people on projects or decisions. With well-paired teams and peers, you get a great multiplier effect that is the key to staying ahead of the crowd.

  5. When faced with a problem or opportunity, the first step is to ensure the right team is in place and working on it. Then you lead the team to identify the biggest element of the problem, the “elephant in the room,” bring it to the front, and get to the bottom of it.

  6. Build community, inside and outside of work. The lesson here is to tap into the power of love. Love in this context simply means caring about the people around you, fiercely and genuinely. Invest in creating real, emotional bonds between people. All teams and the company are much stronger when people and their leaders are connected.

    Community building is similar to team building, but with a wider constituency. Examples would include sponsoring or orchestrating community events, sports, or travel. Bill was the example for all who knew him in helping people and sharing for the common good.
My conclusion is that Bill Campbell was both a coach and a mentor, and he understood which was required for each person he worked with. Every entrepreneur and every manager should strive to develop that same insight, and I assure you, it will make you the leader you need to be.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/19/2019 ***

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Wednesday, May 1, 2019

8 Key Disciplines Are Essential To Scale Any Business

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As a mentor to many small business owners, I always caution them that you can never relax completely, just because your initial solution or product set appears to be getting traction, and the market buzz is positive. Unfortunately, your next stage of scaling the business is fraught with potential oversights that can lead to the downfall of even the best-laid business plans.

For example, one of the first home grocery delivery companies, Webvan, was so enamored with early traction in Silicon Valley, it raised and spent nearly a billion dollars and went public, before filing for bankruptcy three years later. After a big rollout, Pets.com loved initial traffic, so they spent $80 million dollars expanding before the bubble burst and they too were forced to close.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s always great to see that first surge of customers, but that’s just the beginning of your work. With the real data from that surge, you need to take a hard look at business model realities, cost of customer acquisition, inventory costs, and other key metrics. Here is my summary of the key focus activities of that challenge for every business owner:
  1. Manage cash flow daily and plot a plan to profitability. That initial customer surge may loosen the purse strings of investors, so it’s easy to forget how quickly cash can be burned and how fast the spigot can be turned off. Even huge valuation increases will evaporate overnight when profitability is nowhere in sight, and you run out of money.

  2. Control costs and adjust prices to maintain your margin. As transaction volume increases, delivery costs go up, returns increase, and quality problems can cost you plenty. Suddenly you face new overhead, with hiring, office space, benefits, and new advertising campaigns. Tight margins may get you in business, but no margin will kill you.

  3. Follow-up on receivables and watch the terms of big orders. Too many startups I know have celebrated the success of big orders to Walmart or Home Depot, only to find they suffer from the long payment schedules and up-front inventory costs. Other customers routinely pay late, or only after they receive one or more prompts from you.

  4. Document processes and metrics for economies of scale. As your business grows, you need employees who can execute quickly and consistently, with minimal training. That means written processes and measurements to maximize quality and productivity. Key metrics for scaling, such as customer loyalty, are very important after initial rollout.

  5. Convert to working “on the business” vs “in the business.” Working on the business includes expansion strategy and planning, hiring, training, and managing employees. You can’t afford to close every sale, or handle every customer complaint. It’s time to build relationships with advisors, be visible in industry forums, and be a community leader.

  6. Seek out strategic partners to expedite business growth. Organic growth takes time, and can only take you so far. Look for potential partners who are at about your size and growth level to complement your business strengths, and bring new customers sets, create production efficiencies, and share corporate responsibilities, or vice versa.

  7. Ramp up your communication efforts and vehicles. If you want scaling to be a success, communication to all constituents must be done consistently and often. Calling everyone together for a weekly town-hall meeting won’t work as your business expands in size and around the world. It’s time to really focus on social media, videos, and email.

  8. Start working on the next generation of your own product. It’s never too early to start figuring out how to obsolete your own product, before someone else does, and customers stop coming. It’s amazing how fast copycat competitors can spring up, as you attempt to scale, and how fast customers will switch to new innovations and lower prices.
Completing the initial product and generating that first surge of business are necessary, but not sufficient to build and sustain a long-lasting business. With that first wave of customers comes a whole set of additional demands on your time and energy. Change, hard work, and learning should be nothing new to you, so don’t let these new demands of scaling be your downfall.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/15/2019 ***
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