Monday, September 30, 2019

Great Entrepreneurs Rush To Embrace The Right Risks

risk-versus-opportunityOutside of dreams, there is no real business opportunity without risk. Serious entrepreneurs know that, but too many “wannabes” still fall for that elusive get-rich-quick scheme with no risk. As an active angel investor, I still hear entrepreneurs asserting large opportunities with minimal risk and no competition. My conclusion either way is that they have no market, or haven’t looked.

According to the classic book by serial entrepreneur and former race car driver Tom Panaggio, “The Risk Advantage: Embracing the Entrepreneur's Unexpected Edge,” smart business owners embrace two essential risks to every opportunity – decision and change. First, they decide on a direction to jump, and then they make adjustments and innovations to keep going and growing.

In simple terms, the way you balance risk and opportunity is to look at both as two sides of the same coin. Obviously you are looking for the opportunity side to be bigger than the risk side. Great entrepreneurs have learned how to realistically assess and manage both sides of the coin in the following business opportunity and risk categories:

  1. Strategic. Visionary entrepreneurs tend to identify and map strategic new opportunities, rather than grow existing current ones, based on market insights emerging technology. The risks in new opportunities are usually not evident, so the challenge here is to reduce the probability that the assumed risks actually materialize and to improve the company’s ability to manage or contain the risk events, should they occur.

  1. Financial. Both risks and opportunities in this area can arise from many aspects of your startup, before and after product development. First you need to assess the risks and value of investor funding and carrying debt. Then you walk the delicate balance between burn rates, revenue flows versus expenses, investment in marketing, and employees.

  1. Operational. Once a business is operational, the opportunity can be maximized, and risk managed through best-of-breed processes, and a rules-based control model. Examples are the risks from employees’ unauthorized, illegal, unethical, or inappropriate actions and the risks from breakdowns in routine processes.

  1. Growth. The way you scale your business is a huge balancing act between risk and opportunity. You can grow organically, or stretch out with big capital investments for volume and reach. Grow too fast, and risk quality and delivery ability, or go slowly only to be overtaken by your competitors or a new technology. Find the balance.

For entrepreneurs, both Panaggio and I agree that the first step is adopting a winner’s mindset, and not become a prisoner of hope. When entrepreneurs become prisoners of hope, they look for others to solve their problem. After they decide to be a winner, the key is to embrace risk, rather than fight it, which gives you the real advantage:

  • Embrace the risk of failure. Every entrepreneur must realize that failure is not defeat, but a signal that it is necessary to invoke the two essential risks: decide that change is necessary, and change. Every investor believes that entrepreneurs learn more from failures than from successes. Short-term failures lead to long-term successes.
  • Embrace the risk of proactive marketing. Marketing is fraught with risk, but playing it safe or no marketing is the ultimate risk. Proactive marketing is a marketing strategy that focuses on one objective – to generate customers now. Look at marketing as an investment, not an expense. Risk being known for who you are, as well as what you sell.
  • Embrace the risk of standing in your own line. All entrepreneurs should face the risk of being one of their own customers, by using their own products and standing in their own customer service lines. Only shortsighted leaders assume that customers have unreasonable expectations, or their demands will increase once you have a relationship.

Embracing risk and learning from your mistakes really is an entrepreneur’s edge, since only startups and small businesses can afford to fail quickly, maybe multiple times, and all the while having the ability to pivot quickly to achieve success. In fact, these are the keys to balancing risks against the opportunities. When was the last time you felt your business was in balance?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 29, 2019

Base Your New Venture On These New Technology Trends

digifest-vrA common request I get while mentoring entrepreneurs is for a copy of the startup checklist they need to follow, in order to build a successful new business. I wish it was that easy. The challenge is that every new business needs to be innovative and different, in order to rise above the crowd, bring real change to the world, and give you the satisfaction you seek.

Nevertheless, there is nothing wrong with studying and learning from the wisdom and experience of others. So for those of you that love checklists, I saw some real value in the classic book by James M. Kerr, “The Executive Checklist: A Guide for Setting Direction and Managing Change.” His checklists cover everything from building a vision, to consistently delivering results, for entrepreneurs up to mature business executives.

Although I’m not an aficionado of checklists in general, I really appreciate one he has included for keeping up with the latest technological trends that are reshaping business strategies, which should be the driver for startups to fill in the gaps. I’m sure you can find some gaps, niches, or extensions for each of these technologies:

  1. Internet of Things. The physical world is quickly becoming Internet enabled, allowing it to be fused with the digital world. Everyday devices, like Internet soda vending, have an embedded computer allowing full remote reporting and control. Other examples include smart-home remote control, cell-phone tracking, and remote auto traffic sensors.

  1. Mobile Computing. From tablets to smart phones to the Apple watch, people are increasingly relying on their mobile devices to assist them in managing their lives. The next phase of evolution will demand device independence, enabling an uninterrupted computing experience as we move from device to device throughout our daily lives.

  1. Cloud Computing. This is a phrase used to describe a variety of computing technology concepts that involve a large number of computers connected through the Internet. There are already a variety of cloud computing solutions available for common business usage, including the following:

    • Software as a Service (SaaS). This is a software distribution and pricing model in which new applications are hosted by a service provider and made available to customers over a network, rather than requiring customer hardware. Upgrades and troubleshooting can normally be provided over the network, as well.

    • Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Data storage, hardware, and networking equipment are provided to the customer on a per-use basis by the IaaS vendor, who holds the equipment and is responsible for running, and maintaining it.

    • Platform as a Service (PaaS). This is a service delivery model that provides the capability to lease the hardware, operating systems, storage, and network capacity over the Internet. It allows startups to rent virtualized servers and associated services needed to develop, test, and run applications.

    • Business Process as a Service (BPaaS). Procurement, payment processing, and payroll are just a few of the business functions that can be supported through BPaaS provider, who delivers the necessary infrastructure so that organizations no longer need to staff and perform the activities in-house.

  1. Social Media. Social networks like Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn manage communities comprised of millions of people worldwide. The challenge for most businesses is determining how to best harness the potential. Every entrepreneur needs to leverage social media for better marketing, requirements, and customer service.
  1. Gamification. This refers to the use of game thinking and software design mechanics to make it more effective and friendly for people to engage with technology. Many businesses are already weaving gamification into their strategies to enhance loyalty programs, customer retention, productivity measurement, and training.

It is time for entrepreneurs and all executives to stop being intimidated by technology discussions and, instead, establish a foundation for understanding the basic constructs that are reshaping the ways in which organizations process information and conduct business.

If a checklist like this one helps you get it done, then by all means find one and use it. But don’t be bound by it. Success in business today really requires that you go beyond any known checklists, with vision, innovation, and determination. Are you driving the technology, or is it driving you?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 28, 2019

6 Ways The Business Social Media Players Are Changing

trend-social-mediaIsn’t it frustrating to think you finally understand something in business, like marketing with social media, only to realize that the landscape changed while you were looking at other priorities? For example, it used to be that marketing via social media meant banner ads on Facebook, buying search engine results, and sponsoring blog entries, but these don’t suffice anymore.

In a classic book on social media by Jim Tobin, “Earn It. Don’t Buy It,” he asserts that “earned” social engagement drives better business results than paid social exposure. Jim should know, since he is the president of Ignite Social Media, one of the best known social media marketing agencies. Here are a few bits of current wisdom from both of us along these lines:

  1. Nobody clicks on Facebook banner ads anymore. Banner ads routinely average a .1% click through rate and Facebook manages to be about half as good as that. That’s 99.96% of people not clicking on those ads. When the glass is only .04% full, you should start looking for a new container.
  1. Where are the young social media users going? They are going to Instagram, Tumblr, Pinterest, and Snapchat. Snapchat is currently the fastest growing social network, while Instagram is close behind with a bigger share globally of new sign-ups.

  1. You need influencers more than advocates. Brands need influencers working on their behalf because they provide the third-party credibility and social proof that validates their products. 92% of people trust “recommendations from people I know” and 70% trust “consumer opinions posted online.”
  1. Where did your friends go? While Pinterest and Tumbler have seen activity increases approaching 100%, The Verge reports that Facebook usage has declined in the U.S. by 15 million users since 2017, as young people ages 12 to 17 migrate to Snapchat and Instagram.
  1. Maybe they just don’t care. As far back as 2013, Pew Internet & American Life Project started reporting that their focus groups found “waning enthusiasm for Facebook” among teens, that Facebook has become a “social burden” for them, and that “users of sites other than Facebook express greater enthusiasm for their choice.”
  1. New can turn old very quickly. Friendster was a fad, Second Life was a fad, MySpace was a fad, and Facebook suddenly seems old school. Don’t connect the latest platform, which may be transient, with the larger phenomenon of digitally enabled social conversations. If you can figure out why people care about your product, you’ll have success regardless of the platform du jour.

Earning social media clout for your business, rather than buying it, seems to be all about engagement. Engagement occurs when customers and stakeholders become participants by sharing ideas with you, or talking to their friends about you, rather than merely viewing what you publish. Each participant becomes part of your marketing department, as other customers read their output, and become part of the conversation. It’s the principle underlying “viral marketing.”

So how do you facilitate engagement and conversation with your solution? According to an explanation I first saw on Social Fresh, it’s really a cycle consisting of three key phases:

  • User to product (engaged user base). This part isn’t new. In order to build any following, you need a solution that solves a real problem, not just technology that wows you, or great functionality with a painful learning curve. How engaged people are will depend on how much value they see, and how much they enjoy using the product.
  • User to brand (engaged audience). Once someone is engaged with your product, you’ll want to get them engaged with your brand. This happens today when you talk to people through social media and responsive customer service. Get in the habit of having genuine conversations with your engaged users to create an engaged audience.
  • User to user (engaged community). Now you have an engaged audience of people who feel an emotional connect with your brand and product. Time to start connecting them with each other. You can do so using conversation platforms like forums, Facebook groups or build something yourself.

So that’s how you earn customers through social media, rather than buying them with banner ads. But don’t be misled, social media marketing to get customers and brand recognition through engagement still costs money (and time and effort). There is no free lunch. But don’t spend your money on things that don’t work anymore. That won’t build any competitive advantage.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 27, 2019

6 Key Ideas For Moving Your Business Up Another Level

Progress-Graph-GrowthA theme I often hear from the entrepreneurs and startups I advise is that once they see that first surge of traction from customers, they can relax and enjoy life for a change. The reality could not be further from the truth. In today’s world of growing competition and customer evolution, holding your own, and growing to the next level is a constant challenge that can never be ignored.

Even companies with long-established and well-respected brands, such as Apple and Amazon, can’t afford to rest on their laurels. According to experts, as many as 50 percent of the existing S&P 500 companies will be pushed aside in the next 10 years, and the lifespan of successful companies is getting shorter and shorter. It’s time for new strategies for growth and survival.

In this context, I definitely agree with the need for new ideas and principles, as was expressed in a new book, “Wild Thinking: 25 Unconventional Ideas to Grow Your Brand and Your Business,” by branding though leaders Nick Liddell and Richard Buchanan. Here are a few of their key insights, with supporting comments from my own experience in businesses both large and small:

  1. Inspire your customers – don’t merely meet current needs. Most businesses have learned to ask their customers what they want, and then work diligently to provide it. Unfortunately, in these days of dynamic change, customers are not so good at projecting what they will need in the future. You have to excite them with new alternatives.

    Apple and Steve Jobs have been masters at this, convincing them of the need for, and inspiring them to want, a new category of products, as they introduced the iPad, iPhone, and Apple Watch. Uber and Airbnb did the same for shared transportation and hospitality.

  2. Treat employees like your most demanding customers. The reality is that a company that is loved by customers, but not respected by team members, is not sustainable in the long term. Very few organizations communicate internally with the same investment of thought and professionalism as when implementing their customer-obsessed strategies.

    Jeff Bezos at Amazon, for example, preaches that he is obsessed with customer needs, but also has demonstrated the same focus on employee engagement, by setting high standards, defining shared values, and constantly driving the culture to meet their needs.

  3. A great business purpose is better than a great product. A beautiful solution is one that goes beyond satisfying the specific needs that bring a customer to you. These days, most customers are also attuned to a higher purpose, such as saving the environment and improving society. Your challenge is to combine your solution with a great purpose.

    For example, Conscious Capitalism, a popular business movement exemplified by Whole Foods and Patagonia, with a large focus on a higher purpose, shows evidence that their average return and growth is much greater than other companies in their space.

  4. Learn to love risk and respect it in equal measure. In business, there is no reward without taking some risk. Your challenge is to manage and respect that risk, to maximize your return. Taking no risk, or huge risks, is not a viable strategy for business growth or success. Seek advisor help if you need it to find the balance to meet your objectives.

  5. Balance the act of competition with the art of collaboration. Building a business is not a solo act. You need collaboration with team members, partners, suppliers, and most of all with customers, to make it work competitively. Some of the best growth strategies, often overlooked, involve co-opetition with potential competitors, for a win-win-win result.

    Smart business owners can negotiate a deal to reduce costs of a common component, penetrate new markets, set industry standards, or share a sales channel. Just keep your customer’s best interest as your first priority, and resist the urge to kill every competitor.

  6. Complexity is the enemy of any new business model. Embrace simplicity to create the most easily understood and sold solution, and the most productive environment for employees. Be constantly on the lookout for best practices and tools to improve your strategy and execution. Complexity in any of these increases your cost and your risks.

Some of these insights may strike you as intuitive, but I assure you that I see them ignored or overlooked too many times, as I assess a business that is struggling to grow their brand, or find an investor. In my experience, the mark of a truly great business is its ability to excite curiosity and inspire strength of emotion – both internally and externally with customers and constituents.

Above all, remember that building your brand and business requires continuous and creative efforts. You can never relax, or allow your operation to become invisible, stale, or indifferent. There is always a next level of satisfaction for you, your team, and your customers. Don’t let your competitor get there first.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/13/2019 ***

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Wednesday, September 25, 2019

New Venture Equity As Compensation Is A Long-Term Bet

business-future-valueWouldn’t you like to be one of the lucky people who joined Google and Facebook when these were startups, and now be a multi-millionaire or better? So people ask me “How many shares should I ask for or expect when I join a startup today?” In reality, the number of shares doesn’t mean anything – it’s your percent of the total that you need to negotiate.

For example, 200,000 shares may sound like a lot, but if the startup has issued 20 million (a common starting point), that’s just 1% of the company. By the way, you will normally only be offered “options,” which vest over a 4-year period after a 1-year “cliff.” That means you will get none of these until after you work for one year, and the total only if you stay for four years.

Plus you have to remember that these 200,000 shares could still be worth nothing in four years, depending on the “strike price” today, compared to the market price four years from now. Many employees forget that there isn’t even a market for startup stock, until after the company has gone public, which hasn’t happened positively to many companies in the last few years.

Thus, options don’t “pay the mortgage” today, so to speak. Unless you have a sizable nest egg, or a working spouse with an income to support you, I would recommend that you consider any stock options as a “potential bonus,” rather than a key part of your compensation for joining a startup.

With all that said, here are some “rule of thumb” guidelines on what might be a reasonable offer, as summarized from a classic article by Guy Kawasaki, and based on discussions I hear rattling around the investor community.

  • CEO brought in to replace the founder, 5 - 10%
  • CTO, CFO, VP of Marketing or Sales, 1.5 - 3%
  • Chief Engineer or Architect, 1 - 1.5%
  • Advisory Board Member, 1%
  • Senior Engineer, .3 - .7%
  • Product Manager, .2 - .3%

If you are not on this list, just worry about getting whatever your peers are getting. It never hurts to ask in a job interview what stock options are available, and don’t fall for the offer which promises to “work out the equity terms later.”

Obviously, what you get will vary depending on what you bring to the company, and what the market will bear. The numbers I mentioned don’t have a level of precision that can be associated with a particular geography, or a particular business type. Offers near the high end of a range will likely come with a lower cash salary, maybe even 50% of the going rate.

Any offers of equity compensation before the first round of institutional capital should be considered purely speculative. You should also assume that your percentage will go down through dilution as the company raises additional rounds, and offer sizes will go down as the company grows.

Your compensation is the total package of stock plus salary plus benefits. At best, you should view stock as “deferred compensation” or a “bonus,” which has no value today, and a risk for the future that is much higher than mutual funds, or a conventional balanced public stock portfolio. Yet it has been a source of great wealth to a tiny percentage of people.

Couple all this with the fact that working at a startup is much tougher than working at bigger companies – despite all the hype you see about startups which provide free food, foosball tables, and totally flexible hours. Generally, less structure means more stress, and fewer people means higher expectations, longer hours, and a job that may be gone tomorrow.

The bottom line is that you shouldn’t even think about joining a startup, stock or no stock, unless you believe in it and are ready for the adventure of your life. It will always be a learning experience, but it may be a bumpy ride to nowhere. It’s a huge gamble. How many gamblers do you personally know that have won big?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, September 23, 2019

We Need Entrepreneurs Who Think Like Revolutionaries

Richard-Branson-revolutionaryThe realm of an entrepreneur is all about change, but in my experience as a mentor to business founders, I hear too much about incremental change, and not enough about revolutionary change. Adding a couple of new features to Facebook, and calling it something new, may seem less risky, but creating a whole new industry, such as smartphones, has far more potential.

Of course, many would argue that more fundamental innovations, or paradigm shifts, take a long time and cost more money, but from my perspective, these are what really move our society forward. We need more people who are willing to follow the mantra of business leader David McCourt in his new book, “Total Rethink: Why Entrepreneurs Should Act Like Revolutionaries.”

David is an award-winning entrepreneur, and often described as an early revolutionary in the telecom industry, based on early innovation in fiber networks, cable TV systems, and international communications. I was impressed with his many insights into what makes a world-class revolutionary entrepreneur, including the following:

  1. Never be afraid to think big – or to think young. Whenever you have a great idea, ask yourself why it couldn’t be made 10 times bigger, or even 100 times. Talk to everyone and think young. Too many people leave it to the younger generation to find answers to the problems of the future. Don’t be hamstrung by your biases or your past experiences.

    Today every small business can look big, via a modern website, visibility on social media, and taking an active role in popular causes. Uber and Airbnb are examples of startups that started the sharing movement, but quickly grew to challenge large conglomerates.

  2. The best are insatiably curious about everything. Some of the innovations with the biggest business opportunities, including the Internet of Things (IoT), are coming from technical advances in one industry applied to another. Great entrepreneurs cross industry boundaries to find synergies, and are constantly in learn mode on several fronts.

    Elon Musk, for example, not only runs Tesla and SpaceX, but has several seemingly unrelated other initiatives, including OpenAI, Neuralink, and The Boring Company. Sir Richard Branson has initiated over 200 companies, from airlines to music labels.

  3. Utilize the power shift from top-down to bottom-up. The top-down, centralized way we have been running the world for the last couple of centuries is no longer a viable model to follow. The shift is being caused by a combination of technology, social media, and the way people now absorb information, particularly the younger generations.

    When Uber met with opposition to their new model for transport, the company was able to harness the power of crowdsourcing and social media and use it to support a cause. The changes are happening because every individual can now make their voice heard.

  4. The power of diversity no longer requires immigration. With today’s world-wide instant communication and the internet, every new business is global by default, and distributed team members are spread across international boundaries without waiting for immigration. The diversity of ideas, cultures, and motivations is a powerful change agent.

    For example, Alibaba Group in China was able to become the world’s largest e-commerce company, serving millions of B2B customers around the world, by capitalizing on diverse cultural needs and strengths, both inside and outside the company.

  5. Achieving the impossible is within reach. Impossible has never been a fact, it’s an opinion and a mindset. These days, all of us have seen so many amazing changes, through new technologies, dramatic social change, and a better understanding of the universe, that we believe the impossible will be available just by persistent effort.

    A generation ago, who would have believed that we would soon have self-driving cars, robots with artificial intelligence, or people queueing up for a trip to Mars? As entrepreneurs adopt this new mindset, they are becoming fearless and more powerful.

Entrepreneurs thinking like revolutionaries, with the mindset outlined here, are the ones that will really reshape our future, and garner the biggest opportunities at the same time. The rest may see some short-term success, but face the greater risk of being trampled into extinction before their time. Which category do you want to be a part of?

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/10/2019 ***

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Sunday, September 22, 2019

Office Relationships Are Key, But Affairs Are Trouble

holding-handsWe all have to communicate and collaborate with other people at work, but most of us start out instinctively trying to maintain an emotional distance from others in the work environment. In fact, most employee training courses recommend the distance if the work relationship crosses management levels, and most management policies strictly forbid fraternizing with the team.

Yet the 2019 Office Romance Survey by Vault, Inc. found in polling more than 700 professionals at companies nationwide, that 58 percent had participated in an office romance, and almost three-quarters of those who’ve had relationships said they’d be willing to engage in another one. So recently I started looking for some expert guidance on the pros and cons on this issue.

One source I like is the classic book “Who’s That Sitting At My Desk?” by Jan Yager, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, and is a coach and speaker on work issues and friendship. She outlines the potential benefits of “workships” (work relationships) evolving into friendships and romances as follows:

  • Improve communication and productivity. Even casual friends at work are more likely to understand your requests, be convinced of the value of your ideas, and more likely to work in concert with you on projects. That’s a win-win situation for both sides as more positive things happen more quickly. Warm feelings also make the work seem easier.
  • Offer support through tough times. Positive workplace relationships can help balance some difficult issues you are facing outside of work. Even at work, if you are struggling with a difficult project, getting some help and support from friends there can easily make the difference between success and failure. We all learn more from people we trust.
  • Aid in self-esteem. Work places provide that day-to-day interaction opportunity that is a key to self-esteem for many. Friends are more likely to provide the positive feedback and accolades that we all need from time to time. Friends are also less likely to exhibit aggression and rudeness, which can lower the self-esteem of any receiver.
  • Can be a competitive advantage. Despite accusations of favoritism, if your friendship with the boss is one of many factors in why you get promoted, that friendship may be a big plus for you at work. If you easily make friends with people at work, it means that you have good relationships skills, which is a key requirement as you move up the ladder.

Of course there can be negative consequences to close friendships and romances at work as well:

  • Work-related betrayal. According to most experts, romantic betrayals are the most frequent type of friendship betrayals, with work-related issues a close second. Betrayals at work run the gamut from telling lies, coloring the truth, plagiarizing work, to saying negative things to the boss. Of course, all these things can happen in any workship.
  • More vulnerable emotionally. Through friendship you open yourself up to acceptance, being liked, admired, respected, trusted, and appreciated. You also open yourself up, as do others when they befriend you, to the greater possibility of disappointment, rejection, and misunderstandings. Success is the best antidote to emotional vulnerability.

  • Competition over salary, promotions, and position. Sometimes friends share too many details on salary levels, work habits, and promotion expectations. This can cause feelings of unfairness, and initiate emotionally competitive efforts. The result can be a loss of friendship, and even loss of any working relationship.
  • Hard to keep work-related disagreements separate from personal relationship. Work-related disagreements break up many romantic relationships, and broken personal friendships break up many businesses. In this new age of collaboration, unemotional different perspectives and disagreements have been proven to lead to better decisions.

If you are contemplating a transition from a workship to a more intimate relationship, according to Yager, you should make sure that it satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. Make sure the move is a shared wish. There are three distinct kinds of friends: casual, close, and best. A fourth category is more intimately romantic relationships. None of these four work well if they are "one-sided,” meaning only one of the parties is committed.
  1. Be ready to reveal and involve your non-work experience. Some people find that they have much in common in workplace duties and perspectives, but have nothing in common outside of work. Or they really don’t want to share their personal life details.

  1. Expect increased pressures from trust and discretion issues. All relationships bring increased demands for your time, and bring expectations and pressures during any changes in your life, or at work. Make sure you both have the shared values in your personal life, as well as at work.

In my view and experience, the benefits of more friendship at work far outweigh the disadvantages. Socializing at work today, contrary to a couple of decades ago, is considered collaborative and productive, rather than a waste of time. Today the trend is to “open” office spaces, even for executives, versus the private and quiet offices of yesterday.

Going further in the friendship direction, to a romantic relationship, is still almost always a negative at work, because the emotional ties and tolls often override rational actions. As an example, I find that most Angel investors still decline to fund startup founders that are romantically involved, citing the high risk of breakup.

Work relationships are in vogue, inside a company for collaboration and teamwork, and outside to customers and partners through social media for loyalty and interactive marketing. But all good things can be overdone. Are you maintaining the right balance in your work relationships?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 21, 2019

10 Symptoms Of An Entrepreneur Who Is Nearly Broken

Depressed-Somber-Male-ManIf an entrepreneur doesn’t find themselves in over their head at least 20% of the time, they are probably not pushing the limits, not taking enough risk, and probably not working on an idea that’s worth doing. The challenge in to know when and how to ask for help, and not let bravado and ego mask anxieties. The best people know when they don’t know, and know how to find the right help.

Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs I know are terrible at finding and accepting help. Perhaps it’s because they jumped into this lifestyle because they are passionate and stubborn about following their own vision, and they enjoy being their own boss. Too often they are also hesitant, inexperienced, and fearful of hiring people or finding a mentor to be the partner they need.

In the spirit of mentoring and helping entrepreneurs recognize their own weaknesses, here are ten key indications from my experience that you as an entrepreneur may be nearly broken, and it’s time to look for some help:

  1. You start seeing every business problem as a personal affront. Your business is not all about what is best for you, but what is best for your customers. In reality, your customers care more about your product and service, so feedback on product shortcomings or service glitches are meant to help your business, not hurt you.
  1. Startup challenges become more depressing than energizing. The best entrepreneurs thrive on being able to push the limits, and tackling the tough challenges that ultimately result in real innovation which can change the world. If you find yourself dragging in to work, and dreading the next surprise, you may be in over your head.
  1. You have no idea how to pivot with the latest market trends. Successful entrepreneurs pride themselves on always having more ideas than can possibly be explored, so they are never at a loss for new alternatives to explore. If you don’t see a new trend as a new opportunity, you may be in over your head. Seek help or get out.
  1. You are completely surprised by a negative event you should have foreseen. At the end of a given month, you suddenly are totally out of cash. You know you should have been tracking the burn rate, or inventory requirements, or late receivables, but have found yourself totally distracted by a flock of emergency daily issues.

  1. You know what is required, but you continue to procrastinate. Sometimes it’s obvious that closing a deal requires some tough negotiation or sales calls at the top, but these are not your forte, so you can never find the time or energy to get them done. Maybe it’s time to find an advisor, or a board member with the right connections.

  1. Angry outbursts become more common than real leadership. Too many executives revert to bullying and micromanaging when they are in over their heads. In the long run, this tactic does not work, and your business suffers, as well as all those around you. If you catch yourself acting out in anger, get some help before more damage is done.

  1. You start playing the blame game. We all know entrepreneurs that are quick with an excuse for every problem, like we were too early for the market, the vendor let me down, the economy took a downturn, or my competitor is cutthroat. Every startup founder has to remember that the buck stops with them, and they must learn from every mistake.
  1. Living in a state of denial, and misrepresenting the truth. When an entrepreneur is in over their head, they can’t face the hard facts of business losses and missed customer commitments, and they can’t face their team. Thus they find themselves communicating less and less, and downright lying to people, while rationalizing that this causes less pain.

  1. Jeopardizing your integrity to hide shortcomings. If you catch yourself saying things and doing things that violate your own sense of ethics, you are likely in over your head. These could include cutting quality corners, shorting vendor payments, and sabotaging team members. Now is the time to get help before you destroy yourself and your startup.

  1. Letting a sense of entitlement show through. It’s easy for an entrepreneur in over his head, and frustrated with all the challenges, to convince themselves that they are entitled to that fancy sports car or a six-figure salary once the first investor money rolls in. They let the burn rate go up too fast, and the business burns down before it really starts.

As a serious entrepreneur, you need to differentiate these symptoms from the plateaus we all feel from time to time as we jump from one learning curve to the next. In most cases, if you focus for a couple of months, you will find yourself happily afloat at the new level. That is just getting in over your head in a healthy way, rather than an unhealthy one.

According to Whitney Johnson in an old Harvard Business Review article on this subject, the smart recovery is to send out an SOS (stop, organize, secure) before you drown, when you find yourself really in over your head. As an entrepreneur, you are expected to swim in unexplored waters, so there is no shame in accepting life preservers, as long as you learn from the waves.

So remember, none of us is perfect, and almost no entrepreneur gets it right the first time. If you never make mistakes, you are not taking enough risk to win in today’s market. But always be self-aware, and not be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror. Do you like what you see, and are you willing to change it?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 20, 2019

8 Change Triggers Every Entrepreneur Must Spot Early

weak-change-signalsWhen the economy tanks as it did in the last recession, that’s a strong signal that things have to change, and it’s hard to miss. But most of us in business have to deal most of the time with weak signals, or change that is happening in a far more subtle way. These changes can be cultural, like the increasing need to be social, spawning Facebook and a hundred others, or technological, like the explosion of mobile devices around the world.

No business or startup wants to be the next Myspace, or even the next RIM (BlackBerry), where changes in the marketplace were subtle. Recognizing and interpreting weak signals into timely decision making is critical to your business, and it takes skill and focus.

The challenge is knowing what to look for, and how to react. I saw some real guidance in the classic book by Loc de Brabandere and Alan Iny, “Thinking in New Boxes.” While the focus of the book is really on business creativity, the following triggers were outlined as weak signals which should not be overlooked in your efforts to think outside the box, or think in a new box:

  1. A changing value proposition. For example, if it’s getting harder to charge a price premium for the product you’re marketing, or others are offering your subscription service for free, it may be time to start thinking in a new box. Another example is seeing substitute versions of a product, like eBooks, for a low price displacing hardcover books.
  1. New unmet consumer or customer needs. Perhaps you own a consumer products store and see that following the introduction of a new iPad model, there are no attractive protective cases for them yet available. Or you notice that people are getting overnight delivery from Amazon, but your retail store offers no home delivery options.
  1. The entry of new competitors and new suppliers. You are selling several successful computer video games, but notice more and more new ones popping up on smartphones. Or you notice that your line of high quality tools is being undercut by cheap knockoffs manufactured in other countries.

  1. The advent of new breakthrough technologies. You are still providing conventional digital wristwatches while Apple and others are delivering high-tech new versions that sync with your smartphone. Or you are still delivering coupons via the local newspaper, while new entrants are loading them onto your loyalty card or smartphone.
  1. Changes in your organization’s core performance metrics. For example, quarterly sales on one of your most important products suddenly decreases, or your inventory across a whole category has surged. If one metric changes, it may not be significant, but someone needs to monitor whole categories for fluctuations that may be a weak signal.
  1. Unfulfilled business and other potential opportunities. Sometimes you might be astonished to notice something that has not yet occurred, and therefore signals to you an opportunity, like new transportation alternatives. Taxi or bus companies are often slow to recognize a new popular travel location based on population shifts or resort communities.
  1. Broad disruptive events. Everyone notes macro changes, but the weak or secondary implications are often overlooked. Look hard for unanticipated consequences of events like new government regulations on financial processes, changes in environmental patterns, or sociological changes in other countries. First responders are the winners.

  1. Premonitions, anxieties, and/or intuitions. Weak signals may be even more subtle or insidious. Perhaps your assistant mentions that your phone has been ringing much less lately. Or you sense that some of your best people are getting bored. Such inklings and realizations can be valuable warnings of significant impending change.

All weak signals need to be treated with a continuous innovation mindset and urgency, to stay competitive and current. Here is the recommended five-step approach to thinking in new boxes:

  • Doubting everything you think you know.
  • Probing the possible issues to fully understand what is happening.
  • Divergent thinking to create many new boxes, concepts, and hypotheses.
  • Convergence through testing and validating back to a small number of viable changes.
  • Re-evaluating relentlessly for the agility to survive.

New entrepreneurs are notoriously great at capitalizing on new opportunities, both weak and strong. But nurturing this ability after the first burst of creativity, to accomplish the necessary pivots, and keep from getting seduced by their own initial success, is a more rare commodity, even in the startup community.

If you aren’t reacting to weak signals almost every day in this era of fast-paced change, then you are missing opportunities and falling behind. What new boxes are you implementing these days?

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 18, 2019

10 Key Components Of Every New Venture Strategic Plan

strategy-planning-meetingDeciding to be an entrepreneur is a lifestyle move, and should be part of a long-term strategic plan. You shouldn’t be making this decision just because you are mad at your boss, or you would like to be rich, or someone else thinks you have a good idea. In these changing times, if you already have a startup, with no plan, maybe it’s time to think ahead for a change.

Formally, that’s called developing and maintaining a strategic plan. Usually that means writing something down, since it’s hard to maintain something, or track yourself against it, if it’s not written down. From my experience, and the experience of other entrepreneurs, here are the key elements you should think about as part of the process:

  1. Personal interests and aspirations. Do you love managing your own schedule, overcoming obstacles, starting a new adventure, facing financial risk, and relish the opportunity to change the world? Money should not be the big driver here.
  1. Right idea at the right time. Do you believe that you have an idea for a company that you can implement better than anyone, and maintain a competitive advantage? If you are thinking nonprofit (social entrepreneur), can you rally the world around your cause?
  1. Take inventory of what you have. Look critically at yourself and your existing organization for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). What resources do you have, skills and functions, and what do you do best?
  1. Assess customer demand. Do customers really need what you want to do, or might they see it as “nice to have?” In the relevant market large enough, and growing fast enough, to make it a profitable opportunity?
  1. Providing minimal resources. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for all entrepreneurs is time and money for the ramp-up period. Do you have money saved, or available from friends, or current employment to support the transition?
  1. Visualize the future. What do you envision your business looking like in five to ten years? Is your mind full of ideas for repeating the experience, or are you looking to build a family business that you make your legacy?
  1. Manage existing relationships. How important to you is the balance between family, outside relationships, and work? Do you have dependents that must be factored into every career and lifestyle equation? What personal support resources are available?
  1. Education and training roadblocks. Does your dream require additional time and money for training or academic credentials? If so, can these be done concurrently with an entrepreneurial rollout plan? What other roadblocks exist?
  1. Location, location, location. Most entrepreneurial efforts can best be done, or can only be done, in a specific geography or country. Are you willing to relocate as part of your strategic plan? Can you start where you are and relocate later?
  1. Willing and able to measure. Can you define measurable milestones to help you track progress and provide feedback? Strategic plans that cannot be measured will never be accomplished. Are you committed to achieving milestones and measuring progress?

I’m not suggesting here that a strategic plan is a one-time set-in-stone effort. In fact, quite the opposite, every plan must be improved and adapted as you learn more and the world changes around you.

On the other hand, if your way of doing business might be described as fire first and aim later, to seize today’s opportunity, you are charging into the future on only a wish and a prayer. The crash landings can be tough, and definitely won’t feel good as a long-term strategy.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, September 16, 2019

How Idea People Can Transform Into Visionary Leaders

The_Summit_2013A popular approach for aspiring entrepreneurs these days seems to be to corner anyone who will listen, with a pitch on their current “million dollar idea.” The initial monologue usually ends with the question “How much money do you think this is worth?” In my opinion, ideas are a commodity, and are really not worth much, outside the context of a visionary leader who can execute.

Over the past couple of decades, experts have perfected the art of brainstorming and other idea-generation techniques. Executives and investors are now increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas. The result is that ideas are no longer in short supply, and no longer a differentiator in competition.

Visionary execution, on the other hand, is not so common. A visionary is someone who can make sense out of the wealth of ideas, and weave together a plan for implementation that will make a difference in the world. Elon Musk, for example, likely receives thousands of ideas from friends, but he has been able to focus a few of these into initiatives that demonstrate real innovation.

What separates an idea person from a visionary leader? Most experts agree that a visionary leader not only has ideas, but also has a vision of where these ideas can lead, with strong core values, key relationships, and demonstrates innovative actions, as follows:

  1. Commitment to core values. Visionary leaders radiate a sense of energy, strong will, and personal integrity. This usually results in a focus on multiple related ideas, leading to real innovation, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next, looking for the Holy Grail.
  1. Positive inspirational communication. People with vision usually start by communicating an inspirational picture of the future, and then integrating individual innovative ideas into this fabric, and show how to get there. The best ones can make the impossible look easy, so everyone, including investors, line up to commit.
  1. Build strong relationships with strong people. Great relationships are key to every leader. They see people as their greatest asset, and listen as well as talk. Theirs is not the autocratic style of leadership, which tells people what to do and dominates them, but a style which treats partners, investors, and customers as family.
  1. Willing to take bold actions. These actions somehow always seem to embody a balance of rational (right brain) and intuitive (left brain) functions. Visionaries are often “outside the box” of conventional approaches and move toward long-term change and innovation. They are proactive and anticipate business change, rather than reactive to events.
  1. Radiate charisma. People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.

Every investor wants to fund the true visionary leader, but the truth is that these people often don’t need funding, or don’t ask for it. The best investor pitch, then, is to sell the vision with such conviction that people want to be a part of it, with their money, their skills, or whatever they can bring to the table.

But not every entrepreneur has to be a visionary. There is still plenty of room for incremental improvements, and creativity in providing solutions to short-term problems. This is really the realm of bootstrapped startups, and a small segment of the angel investor community that is looking for a “quick hit” with a quick return.

So my message to entrepreneurs is to tune your approach and your expectations accordingly. I’m always impressed with entrepreneurs who pitch how they plan to bootstrap an idea, but if you need a million dollars, you better be able to communicate and lead with a vision.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 15, 2019

10 Tips On Managing An Overwhelming Business Workload

managing-business-workloadOne of the most common complaints I hear from entrepreneurs is that they are overwhelmed by the workload and stress of starting their company. Then there are the additional challenges of balancing the demands of family and friends. Having too much on your plate can turn your dream into a nightmare.

Some people will tell you to just get a bigger plate, meaning hire some help. But with the pressures of the economy, and limited access to outside funding, we all know this isn’t always possible or appropriate. I recommend the opposite, or getting things off your plate that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

In reality, many entrepreneurs are their own worst enemy, trying to do everything, working inefficiently, and imagining things that need doing which will never happen. Here are some tips on how to look at work, make some hard decisions, and keep your health and sanity:

  1. Maintain a big picture perspective. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by day-to-day details, to the degree that they all seem like big items, driving up your imagined workload. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your real goals, and eliminate items which don’t relate.

  1. Set realistic deadlines. The more your workload grows, the greater is your temptation to set unrealistic deadlines for yourself. This results in poor quality work, which generates more work to fix previous efforts. Allow some buffer on every item.

  1. Prioritize the work items. Relentlessly reprioritize your list and complete them in order, resisting the urge to skip over the tough ones. The longer that high-priority items stay on your list, the more stress you will feel, and consequences will add new items.
  1. Keep a written to-do list. Most people can’t manage more than five items in their head, and when your list gets longer, it seems infinite. Write it down, but even then, keep it to the top ten priority items or less. Multiple pages of work items won’t get done anyway.

  1. Block out time for priority work items. Don’t allow your day to be monopolized by distractions and the crisis of the moment. Close your door, or move to another location where you will not be interrupted so that you will complete the top item on your list today.
  1. Count the completions. At the end of each day, check off, count, and celebrate your positives. A sense of progress is important here. Look positively at your progress as a glass half full, rather than half empty.
  1. Take a break to recharge. Even a few minutes each hour to relax will re-energize you. Regular non-work breaks, like a trip to the gym, or time with family will be ultimately more productive than slugging it out all night on a given problem. Get a good night’s sleep.
  1. Discuss the tough ones with a mentor. Don’t be afraid to discuss your challenges with a trusted friend, or business advisor. This will clarify the issue in your own mind, and let you see it from other angles. You need to stop and regroup when you hit a brick wall.
  1. Stay in control of your emotions. Stress is a normal part of life. Don’t let it lead to anger and frustration, or loss of productivity. We can choose how we handle tough situations, and the best approach is always to stay calm and in control.
  1. Eliminate phantom work items. These are items that you never intend to do, and probably don’t need, but you carry them on your list because of guilt or direction from someone else. You can’t complete an item that you don’t understand.

Wearing all the hats required to initiate a startup is tough in the best of situations. Then your business really starts to take off, and it gets even more challenging. As an entrepreneur, you need to seriously apply the discipline of these principles early and always to survive, and hopefully even enjoy the journey.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 14, 2019

8 Strategies To Avoid The Entrepreneur Arrogance Trap

Cigarette-Man-SmokeIn my years of mentoring entrepreneurs, a problem I have seen too often is low self-esteem, and over-compensating through arrogance and ego. These entrepreneurs find it hard to respect customers or team members, and their ventures usually fail. As a team member, low self-esteem leads to low confidence, poor productivity, and no job satisfaction. Fortunately, both can be fixed.

Organizational change expert Paul Meshanko, in his classic book “The Respect Effect,” explores the human science behind these issues, confirming that people with a healthy self-esteem perform at their best and treat others with respect, getting their best. All of us shut down when disrespected. He assures us that anyone can train themselves to get on track to stay on track.

With my insights to focus on entrepreneurs, I like Meshanko’s eight steps to help build business self-esteem and avoid the ego trap, which support a broad range of attitudes and behaviors that are individually and organizationally beneficial to startups as well as mature companies:

  1. Identify the qualities and skills most closely linked to your idea of success. Current research is conclusive that self-esteem is linked to our sense of competence in the areas that are important to us. As you look at your entrepreneur goals, make sure you are following your own definition of success that gives you pride and passion in its pursuit.

  1. Identify your current strengths and establish plans for improving. Once you have clarified your personal definition of startup success, examine where you currently are relative to where you want to be. Whatever your goals, there are few things more esteeming than knowing you’re making progress toward your picture of success.

  1. Be on the lookout for new opportunities to grow your talents and experiences. Part of our sense of self-worth comes from the belief and confidence that we have the ability to grow the business both today and in the future. Entrepreneurs have a natural base for adventure and curiosity, and should relish trying new things each day to stretch them.

  1. Identify and redirect unhealthy competition and comparisons. Make you the base, not others. Your sense of worth should not be determined by other startups, or what you think peers expect of you. Competition sabotages teamwork and leaves feelings of isolation and alienation. Use others as a source of inspiration, rather than envy.
  1. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and poor decisions. From a rational point of view, berating ourselves for past startup failures makes no sense. Free up your energy to be spent on more productive activities, and learn from past efforts. The great entrepreneur Thomas Edison said that every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
  1. Hold yourself completely accountable for your actions, decisions, and outcomes. The legitimate place for short-term guilt and remorse is making these lead to some type of behavior change. Failing to hold yourself accountable sends subtle messages that may damage others self-esteem, and it doesn’t promote lasting confidence or competence.
  1. Develop a pattern of self-talk that validates your worth and abilities. Each of us has developed a way of interpreting and explaining the business world around us. It’s important that our stories neither damage us nor free us from blame. We should continue to feel worthy, accountable, and capable, with a mindset that allows us to continue to follow our entrepreneurial passion.
  1. Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Our short-term destiny is not always in our control. What we can do is make a commitment to do our best in whatever entrepreneurial environment we find ourselves. We can also make sure we build strong relationships with successful business leaders in advance of our needing their wisdom.

For every entrepreneur, a healthy self-esteem, leading to self-confidence, is critical to a constrained ego and more success, since every startup is entering uncharted territory, and must take risks to seize a new opportunity. Not all entrepreneurs have a background to start from a position of strength in this area, but all have the ability to learn and the passion to succeed.

In my experience, the most common cause of entrepreneur failure is giving up too early, rather than running out of money. Are you selling yourself short on your own potential, and not working on your own self-esteem, thus jeopardizing your business success and job satisfaction?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 13, 2019

10 Academic Courses To Kickstart Your Business Career

Harvard_University_Academic_HoodsI’m sure that every one of us who has been out in the business world for a few years can look back with perfect hindsight and name a few college courses that we should have taken. What’s more disconcerting to me is that I can name a few that aren’t usually even offered, resulting in more than a few students graduating ill-prepared for the real business world!

I won’t even try to cover here the ones you didn’t find for your personal life, like managing personal finances and credit. But on the business side, here is my list of useful courses that we wish existed, but as far as I know, still aren’t generally available:

  1. Basic Office Politics. Office politics involves the complex network of power and status that exists within every business, large and small. Don’t you wish that someone had prepped you on how to read the body language, interpret office gossip, and when to hit the delete key on your email rather than the send key?
  1. Business Email and Texting. Writing in business is not the same as in an academic environment. In school, you're taught to stretch weak ideas to reach your document page limit. The business world expects exactly the opposite. The challenge is to communicate your idea in one page, and close the deal quickly. As for business texting – use sparingly.
  1. Touch-Typing for Business. How many hours a day does the average professional and executive today spend hunched over a computer keyboard “hunting and pecking”? Throughout a career lifetime, just think of the return on that investment. Any symbols you can’t find on a typewriter, like smiley faces, should never be used in business.
  1. Business Dress for Success. “You are what you wear” works in business, just like it did in high school. But no one tells you the business norms, so some continue to come to work in jeans, baseball caps, tattoos, flip-flops and expect to be treated as executives. A basic benchmark is to dress better than the executives who hold the positions you want.
  1. Demystifying Employee Logic. Another term for this is how to be a skeptic. Understand the ways people can mislead deliberately or accidentally with numbers, bad logic and rhetoric. There's some untruth hidden in 99 percent of everything you're told. Can you find it, and do you know how to respond?
  1. Business Budgets and Benefits. The focus here would be on the actual nuts and bolts of how things get budgeted and financed in business. This will pay big dividends in getting your favorite project funded, or justifying your own salary, or negotiating a bonus. The tenets of entitlement do not apply.
  1. The Art of Selling and Closing Business. We can find tons of "marketing' courses in colleges and universities but everyone must think that “selling” is intuitively obvious. The art of selling is complex blend of relationships, persuasion techniques, negotiation, and knowledge. Follow-up and persistence are a rare natural phenomenon.
  1. Root-Cause Problem Analysis. Business professionals need to analyze problems from a big picture perspective. Most classes in college focus on a narrow area of interest, which just teach students to focus on problems through one lens. That's how unforeseen consequences stay unforeseen, and happen repeatedly in business.
  1. Maximizing Business Productivity. In the office world there is always far more work than there is time to do it. You need to be able to figure out what not to do, and how to not do it, by organizing and prioritizing, and still impress your boss with your thoroughness. Productivity is much more than doing everything faster.
  1. Job Hunting Basics. People need realistic expectations about how much effort and time it takes to get just about any job. Atrocious resumes and social network antics will kill your career. The difference between job descriptions and accomplishments seems to elude most business professionals.

The real problem for many of these, I suspect, is finding qualified instructors to teach. Until then, the best alternative I can recommend is to sign up for job internships at every opportunity, while still in school. You might find on-the-job experiences more valuable than all your other courses, or you might change your major.

Amazingly, it seems that people in business are more highly educated these days, but less well prepared than ever before. What’s another course that you wish you had taken in school, but didn’t realize was missing until too late? There’s another generation right behind us that needs to know.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 11, 2019

6 Founder Actions That Can Kill A Promising Business

founder's-syndromeIn my experience as an advisor to entrepreneurs, business startup founders most often point to a shortage of funds as the primary cause of their startup failure. Yet I often see evidence that points right back at the founder or business owner, attempting to maintain excessive power and influence over of the effort, leading to a wide range of problems and a dysfunctional team.

In fact, this problem is so common among business startups, that is has been tagged with the name “founder’s syndrome” or “founderitis.” I experienced a case of this firsthand a few years ago as a supporting executive in a promising startup that unfortunately didn’t survive. I’ll mask some specifics here to protect the people involved, but I suspect you will easily get the key indicators:

  1. Autocratic leader who sets arbitrary goals with no input. Every business founder needs to have a vision and ambitious objectives, but needs to elicit real validation and buy-in from the team before embarking on an high-risk journey. Key elements of every startup challenge include timeframes, costs, people required, and technical realities.

    For example, in our case we were all told that the product had to be developed in six months, with a large list of innovative features. The founder ignored multiple push-back efforts from key members of the team, and suggested more commitment as the solution.

  2. Co-founder and advisors are picked from loyal associates. Some founders seem more concerned about surrounding themselves with cheerleaders than people who have complementary skills, and the confidence to stand up and be heard. Prior friendship and a compatible personality for them are key attributes, rather than expertise or experience.

    In my situation, the founder brought with him a couple of loyal business associates from a prior business, into a new business arena, where they had no direct experience. Since he and they had been successful in the previous business, all assumed success in this one.

  3. Founder minimizes the focus on formal plans and reviews. This founder is an outspoken opponent of “bureaucracy” and prefers to be able to change priorities on a daily basis. He or she tends to rely on their gut and prior experience, and is skeptical of written plans and processes. Project reviews are “ad hoc,” based on the latest crisis.

    In our case, on a positive note, the founder did meet regularly with new potential customers. Unfortunately, each visit raised at least one new requirement for the product, which resulted in required feature additions, development reviews, and new priorities.

  4. Weekly staff meetings become working crisis sessions. Rather than getting status reports on plan progress and jointly developing near-term strategy, the founder is more interested in deep dives into perceived bottlenecks and rallying the troops to get back on schedule. Top managers grow accustomed to getting their marching orders for the week.

  5. Founder gets more defensive, talking more than listening. A successful startup requires a strong leader who listens, questions, and learns from the team. It’s hard to learn anything while talking and defending your position. A clear symptom of founder’s syndrome is more excuses, more demands, and more direction without input.

    At this point the organization becomes more and more dysfunctional, as team members lose their drive and motivation, frustrated by apparently not being heard or appreciated. The level of productivity goes down, people stop communicating, and more crises occur.

  6. Leaders become more and more frustrated and paranoid. Defensive talk and excuses start to become personal, questioning the motives of staff members, advisors, and investors. Loyalty and commitment disintegrate, and key members of the team begin to desert the ship in mentally and physically. The startup is now doomed to failure.

In many cases, a founder with this syndrome is not evident in the beginning. Most founders start with a sincere intent to be a great leader and communicator, but the pressures of running an emerging business can bring out a whole new set of traits, despite his or her best efforts.

Therefore, if you are looking to join a startup, or invest in one, I recommend that you beyond a quick inspirational interview or two with the founder, before making a decision. Look at past history, and talk to peers and other advisors who may have seen this founder under stress.

If you are a founder, and find this article taped to your desk chair, it might be time to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror. Your team can’t change you, but you can change yourself, and become the founder of the thriving startup you always dreamed about.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/28/2019 ***

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Monday, September 9, 2019

New Entrepreneurs Are Rebuilding Our Business Engine

business-millennialsLarge corporations and conglomerates, the engines of growth and vitality in the twentieth century, have lost their edge and their image. They have proven themselves unable to innovate, and they have lost more jobs than they create. My friends who “grew up” with lifetime careers in General Motors, Exxon Mobil, or even IBM, are now often too embarrassed to even mention it.

On the other hand, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. We can all aspire to grow companies like Google, Facebook, and Apple, which have the aura of fun, while still improving your lifestyle and offering the dream of untold riches.

In his classic book “The 3rd American Dream,” thought leader Suresh Sharma summarizes the large corporate accomplishments of the 19th and 20th centuries, and then lays out the potential of a new entrepreneurial business ecosystem for the 21st century. His focus is on entrepreneurs in America, but what he says applies to every other country as well.

I agree with Sharma that it’s time to move on to a new way of thinking, living, and doing business, especially after the relatively recent demoralizing recessionary times. This next frontier lies in building enterprises as an entrepreneur, rather than waiting for innovation and opportunity from large corporations. They have become a by-product of innovation rather than the cause of it:

  1. Conglomerates grew from industrialization, not innovation. Most of their new claims to innovation are acquired through mergers and acquisitions from the entrepreneurial pipeline. Internal corporate processes thwart innovation due to inherent inefficiencies of scale, high overhead, and the risk of impact on the corporate bottom line.
  1. Existing technologies have been “commoditized” globally. Many countries have learned to make products cheaper and better. Competitive advantages are rapidly vaporizing on these. Having only a large capital base and distribution channels, with no innovation, is not a sustainable business model.

  1. Large corporations no longer create jobs in their home location. There is no shortage of data to support the assertion that the old large corporations have lost more jobs than they’ve created at home. Outsourcing and manufacturing “offshore” have become the norm. Entrepreneurs growing companies create more value and more jobs.
  1. Non-industrial large organizations cling to outdated business models. Financial institutions, for example, count on pure capital plays without innovation that can disappear quickly. Government bail-outs do not promote innovation. These companies usually end up going extinct, like Lehman Brothers, WorldCom, and Enron.

The new corporate model is a distributed entrepreneurial model. Customers today demand products and services personalized or tailored to local needs with embedded quality of life services. Scaling is done first by customer alliances through social media, and later by distributed joint ventures and coopetition. We need the new wave of entrepreneurs to facilitate:

  1. A new era for manufacturing enterprises. New emerging manufacturing technologies (e.g., digital and 3D printing) in small shops or a town’s industrial and innovation hub can bring manufacturing back home. The new twenty-first century corporation can be born virtually anywhere. Single-node factories may be home-based with a global market.
  1. New goldmine of innovations and technology. Universities and other R&D groups have created a large number of new inventions and innovations, mostly lying dormant on the shelves of our researchers and labs, waiting to be commercialized by aspiring entrepreneurs, with minimal up-front costs for licensing.

  1. Next wave of economic expansion. The time is ripe for the new entrepreneurial dream. People are emerging from recent economic disasters with a new appetite for change, and making the world a better place. Gen-Y is approaching the business world with solid personal goals, and expect to create something that is creative, fun, and rewarding.

  1. The cost of entrepreneur entry is at an all-time low. With e-commerce, Internet, and smartphone apps, anyone can be an entrepreneur today for a few hundred dollars, without a huge investment, bank loans, venture capitalists, or Angels. With the global market, the growth opportunity is huge, starting local and scaling at any pace.

If you are already in the entrepreneur lifestyle, you probably realize that it’s hard work and very risky. Nobody said it would be easy, but nothing that is easy satisfies for long. The days of easy and safe jobs in the large corporate world are over, and certainly not very satisfying either.

We need this new generation of entrepreneurs who relish the challenge and the opportunity of rebuilding our business engine to fit the culture and the global needs of the twenty-first century. What’s holding you back from jumping on the wave?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 8, 2019

Some Good Startups Don’t Qualify For Equity Investors

Bill_and_Melinda_GatesAngel investors and venture capitalists don’t make equity investments in nonprofit good causes. The simple reason is that it’s impossible to make money for investors when the goal of the company is to not make money. Yet as an active angel investor, I still get this question on a regular basis, so I’ll try to outline the considerations in common-sense terms.

A nonprofit organization is generally defined as an organization that does not distribute its surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but instead uses them to help pursue its goals. Examples include charitable organizations, trade unions, and public arts organizations. In the US, a nonprofit is technically any company who qualifies as tax exempt through IRS Section 501(c).

Obviously, these companies still need money to get started, or finance growth, just like a for-profit company. What options do they have available to them, since they can’t sell a share of the company (no equity investment)?

  1. Individual and institutional philanthropy. For a nonprofit, bootstrapping is self-funding from donations and fund-raising. The advantage is no time and effort is spent searching and preparing for the other alternatives, and no repayment terms or collateral are required. There is no discussion of equity, or return on investment.
  1. Loans from a bank or other financial institution. Non-profits can apply for a bank loan or line-of-credit, just like any other individual or company. However, like anyone else, they will first need some collateral, or someone to guarantee the loan, and some evidence of a viable business, like receivables and inventory.
  1. Personal loans from individuals, employees and board members. Personal loans are certainly an option, but should be avoided if possible. As in any company, they can lead to employee problems, or messy legal issues. A nonprofit can also issue bonds to board members and members as a way of borrowing funds from those same people.
  1. Government grants. The grant source often gets overlooked, but it should be a major focus these days when relevant due to the Obama administration initiatives on alternative energy and healthcare. The down side here is that real work is required to put in a winning application, and the award may be a long time in coming.
  1. Private endowments. This is a funding source for nonprofits that is made up of gifts and bequests subject to a requirement that the principal be maintained intact and invested to create a source of income for an organization. Endowments are usually limited to a specific area of interest by a philanthropist, and have many qualifications, so be careful.
  1. Bartering services. Bartering occurs when you exchange goods or services without exchanging money. An example would be getting free office space by agreeing to be the property manager for the owner. This could work to get you legal or accounting services, but won’t get you cash to pay employee salaries.

Hopefully you can see from this list that the people and processes involved in financing a nonprofit have little in common with angel investors, or the venture capital process. You still start the process with a business plan, but then you look for a philanthropist rather than an investor.

Some nonprofit entrepreneurs think they can skip the whole plan, rather than just the sections on valuation, equity offered, and exit strategy. All other sections, starting with a definition of the problem and the solution, opportunity sizing, business model, competition, executive team, and financial projections, are just as critical for nonprofits as for-profits.

A nonprofit is still a business, maybe even tougher than for-profit to run successfully, so the best angel is a great entrepreneur at the helm for fund-raising, as well as operations. In addition, the best nonprofits turn out to be the angel, rather than require one. That’s a higher calling.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 7, 2019

8 Indications Of An Entrepreneur Sought By Investors

entrepreneur-sought-by-investorsAn entrepreneur is literally “one who creates a new business.” The best new businesses are ones that have never been done before, so mastering creativity and recognizing creativity are key skills and mindsets. But how does one recognize and nurture creativity in a person or team?

In researching this question, I reviewed a classic book by Bryan Mattimore, “Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs,” which details eight attributes of the most creative people, which seem to match the mindsets of some of the best entrepreneurs I know. Investors like me look for these in the people they fund, and you should be looking for them in yourself:

  1. Forever curious. Endless curiosity is the number one indication of the creative mindset. It allows entrepreneurs to challenge what is already “known” to extrapolate that to an original idea. Curiosity infuses you with the determination needed to figure out or learn how to turn an original or innovative idea into a reality.

  2. Always open to new things. Thinking this way can be viewed as quieting the opinions of the judgmental mind long enough to allow the creative mind the time and space it needs to generate interesting insights, associations, and connections. This opens creative possibilities, rather than categorizing new things into self-limited dead-ends.

  3. Embrace ambiguity. This is the capacity to entertain contradictory or incomplete information without discomfort and anxiety. To the creative mindset, contradictions are an invitation to more focused creative thought, to resolve the paradox, and derive a new un-ambiguous potentially great idea.

  4. Finding and transferring principles. There are two parts to this mindset. First is the mental habit or discipline of continually identifying the creative principles inherent in an idea in a given context. The second part is adapting the principle to another context to create a new idea. It’s the ability to work from the specific to the general.

  5. Searching for integrity. This is the desire to discover, and the belief that there exists, an insight or connection that will unite seemingly disparate elements into a single integrated whole. When it happens, it’s exciting and magical, and it feels absolutely, positively, and completely right. Integrity doesn’t need to explain itself.

  6. Knowing you can solve the problem. This is the confidence that you can tackle the difficult, even seemingly impossible challenges, with inevitable dead-ends, to make a creative breakthrough. As with a success mentality, knowingness is the persistence to make creativity a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  7. Able to visualize other worlds. This is the most imaginative mindset, with the ability to visualize whole new worlds and everything in them. It’s the province of game designers and creators of new social media platforms. It’s imagining original themes, people with new roles, and things with unique designs.

  8. Think the opposite. Some of the most creative entrepreneurs (and teenagers) always seem jump to opposite end of the spectrum from conventional wisdom. But many times, to think differently and creatively, you have to think illogically. Logic and common sense have a habit of leading us to the same conclusions.

Of course, it normally takes more than the right mindset to master the creative mind. Smart entrepreneurs leverage their startup creativity with techniques like involving everyone early and often, ideation, and attending to the details. Professional facilitation also helps. Most often, it’s a long hard road from a good idea to successful innovation.

The most creative entrepreneurs create more value and wealth, not only in physical products and services, but also in their intangible assets such as their brand, reputation, network and intellectual property. Of course, they are always looking to free up time and money for their next big idea. That’s really the best indication of a true entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 6, 2019

10 Keys To Making Money By Investing In Entrepreneurs

making-money-puzzleInvesting in entrepreneurs and startups is a fun but different world from investing in conventional stocks, bonds, and commodities. First of all, it’s more of an investment in people than in a business, since the startup is usually an idea barely half-baked when they need your money. Secondly, the risk is very high, since as many as 90 percent of startups fail within a few years.

On the plus side, it’s an opportunity to get in early and really help make things happen that will change an industry, or change the world. It’s an opportunity for that “big bang” return of 10X to 100 times your initial investment, like early investors in Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Finally, it’s an opportunity to “give back” what you have learned in your own career for the next generation.

Today most startup investors still register with the SEC as “accredited” investors before they buy any startup equity in the U.S. This requires a simple signature that you have a net worth of at least $1M or have made at least $200K each year for the last two years. These requirements for equity investing have been relaxed only a bit, with caveats, with recent crowdfunding changes.

With all these considerations, I recommend the following steps and strategies for any investors newly interested in startups:

  1. Build a balanced investment portfolio. Just like a seasoned stock investor would never put all his investible resources into a single stock, don’t put all your money into startups. Begin with perhaps 5-10 percent of your total investment base, and be prepared to lose it all. The growth target should be 5-10 times your initial investment in five years.

  2. Start in a business domain you know well. Since there are no bellwethers like Apple or IBM in the startup arena, your best bet is to pick one in a business area you know well. Don’t be fooled by thinking that social networks are hot, so you should invest in the next startup you see in that realm. Remember that 9 out of 10 startups fail in every realm.

  3. Fund an entrepreneur you know and trust. In the business, this is called investing at the first tier for startups - “Friends, Family, and Fools (FFF).” Most entrepreneurs start asking for money from this tier, when they have very little more than an idea. Here you are definitely betting on the person, rather than the idea, but the upside potential is huge.

  4. Join an existing angel investor group. This is the second tier of startup investors, and offers the comfort of working with more experienced investors with similar interests, to help gather and vet startup investment proposals. Some of these groups also offer you the option of putting your money into a multiple-startup fund to spread your risk.

  5. Diversify your total investment across several startups. Angel investment amounts per startup per investor usually range from $25K to $250K. These may be aggregated by an angel group up to about $1M for an angel round. If a startup needs more than this in a single round, they should talk to venture capitalists, who invest institutional money rather than their own personal money.

  6. Use the surge of crowdfunding sites for small amounts. The hottest new way of investing in startups to go to popular online sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. There you can get in for as little as $20, or even less. Typically these are used only for non-equity rewards or pre-orders, but the crowdfunding implementation does allow equity investments with many restrictions.

  7. Participate as a mentor in local startup incubators. Incubators are a great place to learn about potentially great startups, and participating as a mentor helps you learn which ones are a good fit for you. The best known ones, like YCombinator, started by Paul Graham in Silicon Valley, and TechStars, located in Boston, provide excellent networking to investors, and on-site technical leadership, which can make your investment less risky.

  8. Do your homework before investing. Public companies with stock usually have industry analysts and SEC filings to give investors a quick view of the company stock value. Startups are private companies with no common document filing requirements. Thus it is incumbent on every potential startup investor to ask for and read their business plans, current financial statements, and investor presentations.

  9. Invest locally and take an active role. Most angel investors only invest in companies and people local to their geography. Skip international and other opportunities you can’t touch and feel. Many negotiate a board seat for themselves as part of the investment term sheet. This allows them to ask for and get regular updates from the company, and allows them to have a say on how their money is used.

  10. Think long-term. It’s a lot easier to buy stock in a startup than it is to sell it. Once invested, you should expect no return until the first “liquidity” event in 3-5 years, maybe longer. Liquidity events include merger or acquisition (M&A), or Initial Public Offering (IPO) when the stock goes public. There is no “startup stock exchange,” so you can’t sell the stock at will.

In summary, investing in startups can be very rewarding, both financially, and in your ability to really help someone who needs help. But it’s always a risky proposition, probably well beyond the risk of the commodities market, since there are so many unknowns and few controls.

My advice to new startup investors is to start slowly, stick to business areas that you know well, and put more weight on your assessment of the entrepreneur and the team, than on the idea. Successful startups are all about the execution. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of that equation, but you do want a bite of the next Apple.

Marty Zwilling

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