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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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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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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Wednesday, September 4, 2019

8 Keys To Business Success For Entrepreneur Introverts

Mark_ZuckerbergIt really is possible for an introvert to succeed as an entrepreneur, even though you can’t expect to start and build a business alone. You need to build business relationships with partners, team members, investors, and of course customers. In fact, all you need to do is follow the model of some famous self-proclaimed introverts, including Elon Musk, Mark Zuckerberg, and Bill Gates.

As an introvert myself, I remember worrying that I could never be comfortable giving a sales pitch, or networking to find clients. Yet I soon found that knowledge is power, and a little training and determination goes a long way toward removing the qualms. In fact, I’m now convinced that many extraverts rely too much on their “gift of gab” to hide a lack of depth. It doesn’t work in business.

Based on my recent experience as an angel investor, and advisor to new business owners, I now recommend that all entrepreneurs, especially introverts, learn and practice the discipline they need to build and nurture relationships with key constituents through the following activities:

  1. Formalize a mentoring relationship with someone you trust. Every entrepreneur, especially an introvert, can benefit from the perspective of another business person, ideally one who has prior experience in the domain you are about to enter. Asking someone to be your mentor is not a sign of weakness, and most mentors love to help.

  2. Turn existing connections into productive relationships. We all know some people through friends, family, and social connections. Do your homework to determine which of these might be able to help, and make a sincere effort to turn these connections into win-win business relationships. That means proactively finding common exchanges of value.

  3. Actively expand your business networking activities. This doesn’t mean randomly attending every networking event you can find, but it does mean joining and actively participating in a couple of entrepreneur groups in your area, such as a local business incubator, Entrepreneurs' Organization (EO), or The Indus Entrepreneurs (TiE).

  4. Increase your visibility and expertise in your domain. These days, by starting a blog or publishing on the Internet, you don’t have to be a social butterfly to get supporters and be recognized as an influencer. By helping others, and participating in online debates and industry events, you will find that productive relationships emerge naturally with peers.

  5. Develop and practice your business vision and story. This message, usually called your elevator pitch, should be a short and compelling description of your your startup, that can be delivered with conviction in the time it takes to ride up an elevator with a potential investor or partner. It should end by asking for the next step in the relationship.

  6. Use personal discipline to step outside your comfort zone. Entrepreneurs can’t be innovative or successful without taking business risks, so practice the discipline of stretching your personality, as well as business norms, on a regular basis. Speak out in meetings, or say what’s on your mind, even when it makes you feel uncomfortable.

  7. Capitalize on your strengths, and forget weaknesses. Many introverts are afraid to take the lead, knowing they have weaknesses. For example, you may be good at active listening, analyzing data, and making logical decisions. These and other strengths may actually give you a competitive edge over your more extroverted constituents.

  8. Surround yourself with allies who have complementary skills. In business, I always say that two heads (or more) are better than one. If your strength is technology, find a partner who can complement you with marketing and financial skills. Each of these allies will also bring their own network, growing yours, and multiplying your power and growth.

As a technologist at heart, I am particularly disheartened to see so many bright but introverted engineers who never get their business off the ground, due to pride or fear in getting the help they need, or not having the professional relationships with others to overcome business hurdles.

Now is the time to take a hard look your own personality and strengths, as well as the number and quality of your current business relationships. Don’t let any easy excuses keep you from achieving your full potential.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/20/2019 ***

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