Monday, April 27, 2020

5 Tips To Keep Your Startup Productive, Not Just Busy

busy-business-executiveIf you want to make a great first impression on a startup investor or an advisor like me, don’t try to convince me or show me how busy you are. For some reason, too many aspiring entrepreneurs I know seem to focus on “actions” rather than “results.” Based on my experience, survival and success are both about doing the right things, and not about doing everything.

I’m sure you all know someone who always seems to be overworked, but often comes up short on the delivery side. These are not the entrepreneurs that I want to support, since I’m well aware that running a startup is far more complex, albeit more satisfying, than most conventional roles in established enterprises.

Here are some key principles that I recommend to keep you on a track to maximum business results in the shortest period of time, in the unstructured world of startups:

  1. Don’t do “easy” tasks before “challenging” ones. You may see this as a quick way to shorten your task list, but it usually means that important things don’t get done on time. Good entrepreneurs learn to delegate the easy tasks, and spend their time on critical ones, including honing your business plan, strategic direction, and growth initiatives.

    For example, you may feel you are saving money by doing all your own administrative work and monitoring social media feedback. Yet if that leaves you with no documented business plan or unclear strategy, most investors and even customers will walk away.

  2. Prioritize your tasks ahead of helping others with theirs. I’m a total believer in servant leadership and mentoring others, but nobody wins when you are in charge as an entrepreneur, and the business fails because you didn’t do your job. Most often, smart scheduling and delegation is more effective help than instantly dropping your own work.<

    I once worked with a cohort who prided himself on his effectiveness in helping other members of the team, even though his efforts often led to late or non-delivery on his own assignments. As a result, he missed opportunities, and the whole organization suffered.

  3. Use technology and tools, but don’t let them sink you. As an entrepreneur starting a new business, you have a lot to learn. There are complex processes, like filing a patent, and financial tools that may be new to you, including Excel and Quickbooks. It’s important to get help with these tools, rather than struggle for days using them the wrong way.<

    These days, it’s easy to find comprehensive videos and online courses on the Internet to get you up to speed, but I find many entrepreneurs who are too independent and proud to look or ask for help. Don’t forget the wealth of “gig” experts for outsourcing at a low cost.

  4. Commit to business excellence, but reject perfectionism. Building an innovative startup is normally an iterative process, so don’t plan on making everything perfect the first time. Remember the concept of minimum viable product (MVP), which is designed to test viability and interest before you burn through too much of your energy and resources.

    I find that many of the most passionate and committed entrepreneurs are also perfectionists, and they often hurt their own case by being unduly focused on detailed product plans, long presentations, and covering every possible contingency.

  5. Take care of your health, and keep your life in balance. I understand that every entrepreneur is highly motivated, but passion alone isn’t a substitute for proper eating, sleeping, and change-of-pace activities. Your productivity can be severely compromised by lack of balance, making you ineffective in managing key tasks and people around you.

    In my experience as an angel investor, it was an accepted axiom that we invested in people, even more than the product. I can remember several pitches where the entrepreneur looked and acted out of balance, thus terminating their funding opportunity.

Remember, as an entrepreneur you don’t get paid (or funded) by how many hours you work. The reality is often the opposite. If you can convince an investor, and customers, that your value proposition is intuitively obvious, and your justification work was easy, then people will be quick to support you and get on your bandwagon.

That’s why successful entrepreneurs, including Richard Branson and Elon Musk always look and act like they are having fun, and always talk about their accomplishments rather than all the painful work. But behind the scenes, you can bet they know and use the techniques listed here for getting maximum results in record time.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 04/13/2020 ***



Monday, April 20, 2020

5 Keys to Results in the Current Marketing Revolution

marketing-revolutionMost small businesses I advise still rely on traditional advertising models, assuming they can create enough media “noise” to get customers attention and sway them. You don’t realize that person-to-person noise now dominates all channels through social media, effectively hiding business marketing messages. You now need a personal context in your marketing to get results.

For example, the company GoPro makes cameras, yet now rarely ever talks about cameras in its marketing. Instead, it publishes actual customer “Photos of the Day,” highlighting the customer’s thrill of adventure purpose. This cuts through the competitor marketing noise, as well as social media messages and creates deeper, more contextual customer relationships.

The challenges of traditional marketing, and the key elements of the new marketing approach are highlighted well in the new book, “The Context Marketing Revolution,” by Mathew Sweezey, who has lived in both of these worlds as Director of Marketing Strategy for Salesforce. He points out, and I agree, that people now look for experiences rather than noise or product features:

  1. An experience must be available in the moment. Rather than just reaching the largest number of people possible, the new context marketing must aim to make a single, human-to-human connection at the most opportune moment for the customer. People have to feel they found it on their own, rather than thinking that it was forced on them.

    For example, the brand Oreo implemented automated “listening” for relevant words in customer social media posts, and automatically “liked” the post and sometimes wrote a friendly comment to the author of the post. These engagements well accepted by all.

  2. People more readily engage with things they have asked for. This is technically called “permissioned,” and it comes in two forms: implicit and explicit. Implicit permission occurs when an individual contacts your brand first, such as through a Google search. Explicit permission involves an overt action, such as following, friending, or subscribing.

    Even without direct contact or pinpointing an individual name, brands can use targeted demographic data from other sources to suggest that the person on your website right now is forty-five, ready to engage, and looking to buy an SUV in the next sixty days.

  3. Tailor your brand experience to the individual person. The personal element encompasses every effort you make to tailor your brand experience to an individual person. This may result from customers providing personal data, to an experience that enlists your employees, fans, and advocates to become your platoon of brand extenders.

    Starbucks personalizes its brand experience through its free mobile app, which integrates the brand’s rewards system with the ability to customize and order drinks. It then makes use of information, such as purchase history and location, to get as personal as possible.

  4. Make the experience genuine, original, and authentic. This usually boils down to satisfying an expectation: Is the experience using the right voice? Is it empathic with the audience? Are consumers seeing a brand experience congruent with the media channel they are using. Your brand experience must deliver on all three of these measures.

    Besides getting the voce right and communication empathy for your audience, delivering an authentic brand experience means aligning it with the media channel where people expect to find it. Don’t make the mistake of publishing the same content on all channels.

  5. Converse on topics of purpose, not just products or service. Purposeful experiences range from corporate social responsibility to themes motivating customers to engage and participate in a shared activity, such as an event or a food drive. These create deeper, more contextual customer relationships, and incent customers to spread your message.

    Patagonia, maker of outdoor clothing for decades, was one of the first brands to win big by putting a “save the environment purpose” first. Founder Yvon Chouinard has said that making a profit is not the goal, but profits happen "when you do everything else right.”

Even if the traditional marketing models still seem to be working for you, remember that the world out there is changing fast. Thus I recommend that it’s time for you to proactively rethink your model, along the lines of the five initiatives outlined here, for this demand-attention era, before the market flags you as irrelevant. Brands can lose their luster quickly, and are a lot harder to rebuild.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 04/06/2020 ***



Wednesday, April 15, 2020

6 Habits to Become a More Empathetic Business Leader

business-leader-officeIn my experience as a business and entrepreneur advisor over many years, I’m convinced that the days of the “command and control” business leader are gone. Your employees have higher expectations of you than just defining their job – they want inspiration, motivation, and purpose. They respond with trust and commitment if they sense empathy for their needs and feelings.

A premier example of the “old-school” command-and-control leadership was Jack Welch in his leadership at GE. He measured you totally by your results in growing the business, and eliminated the lower performers without empathy. This is in stark contrast with the leadership style practiced by respected leaders today, including Jeff Bezos and Howard Schultz.

I found many of the principles of the new leadership style outlined well in a new book, “Cracking the Leadership Code,” by Alain Hunkins, who has spent his career working with leaders in large companies, as well as small, studying the practices and skills that work best today. I support his recommendations on demonstrating empathy, by developing new habits, including the following:

  1. Seek understanding by listening rather than talking. The feeling of being listened to is a fast track to connection. With connection you get commitment and trust, and active following. You will also be surprised by what you can learn by offering employees your complete and undivided attention, and listening without interrupting or checking out.

    According to another great student of leadership, Stephen R. Covey, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand; they listen with the intent to reply." They're either speaking or preparing to speak. Your challenge is to break that paradigm and listen.

  2. Be more open to new ideas, feelings, and experiences. Start by being open with yourself – are you a leader who tends to control, drive your own agenda, and hide your feelings from others? The new you, over time, will be able to tune into the real needs and strengths of the people around you, enhancing both your productivity as well as theirs.

    Although Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is most certainly an idea guy himself, he attributes much success to being open to the ideas of his team. Even if he doesn't agree that an idea will work, he'll say so, but that doesn't necessarily mean he will shut it down.

  3. Cultivate curiosity as a means of getting more engaged. Empathic leaders are not hesitant to ask “why,” perhaps over and over, to gain more insight and get you both out of your comfort zone. This leads to new learning, focus on the real challenge at hand, and commitment to results that will be satisfying and effective for both of you.

    Elon Musk has been ranked the most inspirational leaders in tech, primarily because of his insatiable curiosity across multiple realms, including all-electric vehicles, space, and brain-machine interfaces. He gathers the experts around him and learns from them.

  4. Practice building empathy by engaging with strangers. This will help you improve the quality of all your conversations, and help you build relationships with team members. Recognized leadership today is more about your ability to work with people, than how many facts you know. Use networking events are an opportunity to practice empathy.

  5. Break existing habit patterns to see people in a new way. When you stop going through the motions and embrace novelty, your sense of connection to people, places, things, and events will be heightened. Your team will respond to you in kind, making your leadership more compelling, and their commitment to results more satisfying.

    For example, some executives I know assume that the reason that they have been put in charge is that they are smarter than everyone else. Thus when it comes to strategy, solving problems, or resolving issues, they see no need in involving anyone else.

  6. Build empathy by spending time in another person’s shoes. Ask others to show you how they work, and create opportunities to ride along or shadow them in their jobs. Be sure to use these as opportunities to learn and build relationships, not as a spy. Watch your previously held assumptions melt away, and your empathy for their role go up.

Changing the perspective on empathy from those you lead won’t happen overnight. It’s a process of establishing or rebuilding your image and your credibility. Overall, to be perceived as a strong leader today, a good connection has to be followed by great communication and collaboration. The challenge is a tough one, but the leverage of a good leader is worth it. Start today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/30/2020 ***



Saturday, April 4, 2020

5 Keys To The Startup Mindset Required For Breakthrus

startup-disruption-mindsetAs an entrepreneur advisor, I am surprised at how often I hear the same or very similar proposals of an incremental innovation to an existing process, versus a really new or breakthrough solution. If you are seriously looking to start the next billion-dollar startup, you need to get beyond the realm of enhancing a current solution. Investors are looking for breakthrough solutions to fund.

For example, I often hear proposals for new online social media or collaboration platforms, maybe more specifically tuned to inventors or artists, or easier to use, and populated by experts, to compete against Slack or Facebook. What I don’t see often are new solutions that force me to rethink how we work together, or really use AI to make the collaboration process more productive.

Today there are a wealth of disruptive technologies available, including the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), advanced virtual reality (VR), and high-function robotics. But we all know that these are not solutions by themselves, but require integration into an innovative framework to solve real customer problems.

That integration is the breakthrough that you should be looking for as an entrepreneur. I believe that creating these solutions is not rocket science, but it does require a mindset that is determined to look beyond what the rest of us can see. Here are some keys to that mindset that I have seen working for successful entrepreneurs:

  1. Think customer-centric rather than technology-centric. Rather than starting from a mindset of pushing the limits of technology, be determined to first find a customer need that can only be solved by the technology you know. Remember that your goal is to build a successful business, and customers are in control of making that happen.

    For example, Zappos led a revolution in online shoes and clothing, not because of any revolutionary shoe technology, but because they sensed a clothing customer obsession for customer service, including long phone conversations and unlimited free returns.

  2. Take a deeper dive into your idea before you declare. High-level ideas rarely make good business solutions. The deeper you dive into an idea, twisting and turning it to find novel ways of linking things together, the more likely you will find something even you haven’t thought of, to make your solution memorable to customers and investors alike.

    One of the ways to do a deeper dive into validating your solution is to build a campaign on a popular crowdfunding platform, like Kickstarter. From the work and feedback, you will learn much on how your solution will fare with customers, before building the product

  3. Tap expert sources in other domains for ideas. Many aspiring entrepreneurs are too paranoid to share ideas and learn what they need to turn an idea into a disruptive customer solution. Actively solicit insights from outside domain experts, and follow-up to expand your thinking relative to your own domain. Be forever curious and optimistic.

    Elon Musk, for example, admits to reading up to two books per day in various disciplines, including physics, engineering, product design, business, technology, and energy, to give him insights on new solutions and new opportunities, despite his large portfolio already.

  4. Build a prototype and experiment with real customers. I often hear entrepreneurs talking about ideas they have been honing in their head for years, or even a decade. Even years ago good entrepreneurs, like Thomas Edison, admitted they learned more from building mock-ups and prototypes, than from gut instincts and theory.

    Edison was famous for prototyping, staying positive, and never giving up on his electric light bulb ideas. He is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” He never talked about a solution until he had a working model.

  5. Nurture advocates and partners with complementary skills. Mentors and advocates will keep you focused and positive, and will develop your ability to speak to investors and customers with authenticity, credibility and confidence. Assimilate a team with the range of skills you need in your business, including development, operations, and marketing.

Even Google co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, while they had each other, and some advanced degrees from Stanford, still benefited from the help from other stars in business, including Eric Schmidt, Andy Bechtolsheim, and billionaire Ram Shriram.

If you are new to the entrepreneur lifestyle, it’s probably good to start with an idea that is an incremental innovation, to get your feet on the ground, and understand how the funding and business creation process works. But let me assure you, the real joy, satisfaction, and full potential comes from breakthroughs that change the world. Try that mindset next time!

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/19/2020 ***



Wednesday, April 1, 2020

8 Brand Models To Attract Your Perfect Fit Customer

target-report-profitAttracting the right customers is the key to success in business, whether you have a new startup or a mature enterprise. In my role as an advisor to entrepreneurs, I often see struggling businesses trying to be too many things for too many people, resulting in customer confusion, initiatives executed poorly, and high costs, few customers, and slow growth all around.

For example, Xerox tried to broaden the use of "xerox" as the standard term for "photocopying" to extend their existing customer segment into office automation and all kinds of computing. As they watched their market share dwindle instead, they realized too late that these segments were already defined, and they needed a new focused brand to attract customers from other segments.

These days, branding is less about products or solutions, and more about the overall customer experience and expectations. If the shopping process, delivery, and support level does not match their expectations, no innovative product features will compensate. The result will be less visibility, slower growth, with fewer delighted customers and little word-of-mouth marketing.

In my experience, the place to start is selecting your desired customer segment first, and then matching it with one of the following generic branding models, to best fit your desired customer segment. Then design your product, marketing, shopping environment, delivery model, and support around that model. Here are the common branding models I see working out there today:

  1. Premium or exclusive solution. Existing brands such as Tesla, Virgin Atlantic, Rolex, and Harvard University seek to appeal to an elite customer segment, implying prestige, exclusivity, and high customer personalization. The audience for this business model is limited, so make sure you can deliver to their expectations.

  2. Lowest-cost solution with minimal customization. At the other end of the spectrum, many startups and big companies, including Amazon and Walmart, expand their customer segment by being the most cost efficient, with low overhead and little customization. Don’t attempt this model without high automation and a big investment up front.

  3. Family local business everyone can trust. Many customers are highly attracted to a home-town business, where they may know the owner and always enjoy the warmth and intimacy of a personal customer experience. This is by far the most common brand out there, but without rebranding, it has very limited potential for growth and scaling.

  4. Tech-focused service that solves complex problems. Companies in this realm typically are thought of as services business, even though they may offer product components as well. The customer experience is a function of satisfaction with both the service, support, and usability of complex products. Examples would include ADT as well as IBM.

  5. Service businesses to find the best solution. Examples of this business model and brand would include Airbnb for finding places to stay, and Expedia for the best airline reservations. To be successful in this type of business, you need to satisfy two customer segments; one being the solution provider, and the other being the end-user customer.

  6. Recognized expert and specialist in one domain. Depth of focus is both the strength and the weakness of this type of brand – the message is easy to communicate, but there is always the temptation to move to a mass market for growth. You can find specialists in almost every industry, and their success is gated to customer experience and reviews.

  7. Purpose-driven rather than profit-driven. For some market segments, there is no greater attraction than a worthy cause, where business success is a byproduct of the company focus, rather than the primary objective. Examples include Patagonia’s commitment to sustainability while selling clothing, and Whole Foods, the organic grocer.

  8. Public utility required by all customer segments. Becoming a recognized brand as a public utility may be difficult and costly, since most of these positions are already occupied by large companies with long histories. You may be able to provide cheaper electrical power via solar, but bureaucratic regulations and credibility can be expensive.

In my experience with startups, brand positioning is often done last, after all the cost and quality tradeoffs, options, packaging, and support process are set. For example, technologists will try to build the best high-tech product, and then somehow expect to become the low-cost high-volume provider for the non-tech market segment. It’s a recipe for disaster.

Other companies try to change their branding when growth stalls somewhat later, without any changes to product or process, trying to attract an additional market segment for growth. This approach is equally fraught with peril. My message is to make branding an integral part of your solution design process, and keep it there.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 03/18/2020 ***