Monday, September 21, 2020

5 Basic Ingredients For A Startup Recipe For Success

cooking-for-successI realized a while back that creating a new company for the first time is a lot like whipping up a great dinner entrée for the first time – you need a recipe, even though it may look simple. You know the basic ingredients, and you can visualize the results you want. Yet you may not be so sure where to start, and how to put it all together.

In all cases, don’t skip the basic training. Any startup coach or business advisor will tell you that, on your way to being a great chef, you don't start your journey by inventing the ultimate entre. First you work in the kitchen for a while, learning some tools of the trade, experiment with a few recipes, and test on willing clients. Finally you create and document your recipe (business plan).

There are two parts to every recipe – the specific ingredients, and the instruction steps for putting the ingredients together. For a new business, you can provide unique ingredients, but the preparation steps in your business plan must follow a tried and true recipe for startup success:

  1. Identify a market with a real need. This means find some hungry people who would love a good dinner, and be willing to pay for it. If you can’t identify customer interest, it doesn’t matter how good your product is. (not a solution looking for a problem)
  1. Be sure you have a great team. You need a good cook, good marketing, and first-class service. Domain knowledge and experience is a huge success factor. All the investment money in the world won’t make your company succeed, if you have the wrong team. (investors invest in people, not ideas)
  1. Effective and timely go-to-market. Don’t be afraid to test your ultimate entree on customers. Make them “feel the love.” Be adaptable to cultural tastes, trends in the market, and economic realities. But don’t practice too long. If your startup is over a year old, and your business isn’t yet ready, you have a problem. (time-to-market is critical)
  1. Viable financial model. Have you set the right price for your entree, and correctly included all costs? Have you projected sales and marketing costs, cash flow, and capital requirements? Show return on investment, growth rates, and market penetration. (validate your business model)
  1. Continuous improvement. Don’t stand still. Emeril Lagasse is always ready to “kick it up a notch!” Companies and cooks who rest on their laurels don’t last. Develop metrics with which to measure yourself and use these to incrementally expand and improve your offering as fast as the market and capital will allow. (scale up the business)

If you are already a chef, and you have your own money, you can skip the instructions. You can vary the ingredients, change the formula, or add an extra pinch of salt, and your pasta salad will still be great. If it’s your first time, don’t try to get creative on the “how to” side just yet.

If you are already a celebrity chef like Emeril, meaning you have a record of success using your creativity despite the odds, you don’t even need your own money, and you only need to scratch your business plan on the back of a napkin to get funded.

For the rest of us, the business plan must be the complete recipe, combining ingredients with process. If you don’t have one, your chances of success are low, even if you are an experienced chef. Now you know why professionals and experienced investors are quick to toss an incomplete plan.

Follow the “how to” instructions above for combining the ingredients, combined with you own “special sauce” (competitive edge), and I’m sure you will deliver a tasty dish, on time and with a profit. You can look forward to being a celebrity chef later. For now, get cooking!

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 20, 2020

5 Business Relationships That Will Get You To The Top

Kathy_Ireland,_Warren_Buffett_and_Bill_GatesIn the world of entrepreneurs and startups, high level relationships are everything. You can’t start a business alone. You need partners, team members, investors, vendors, and customers. But people don’t realize that all relationships are not the same. There are people you only recognize on the street, business friends, and then close friends whom you can always count on to help.

Tommy Spaulding, in his classic book, “It’s Not Just Who You Know,” categorizes relationships into five levels, like floors of a building, and identifies the attributes of relationships at the different levels. More importantly, he talks about the actions required to build a network of contacts at the highest level. He also defines the five floors of relationships as follows:

  1. Meet and greet relationships (first floor). This is where most business relationships start and remain. You need something specific from the other person – a loan, or product order, or help solving a problem. After you get what you want, you move on, with no giving or commitment.
  1. Limited information sharing (second floor). But it’s very basic information, the type you dispense out of social obligation or because it’s a job requirement, not because you’re offering some insight into who we are. Many people call these “close” friends, but in reality there is no trust, feeling, or giving going on at this level.
  1. Emotional comfort level that goes beyond facts (third floor). You feel safe enough to voice opinions, discuss perspectives and share feelings in making decisions. In business, positional authority remains the primary guiding force at this level, and most business relationships stay at this level or below.
  1. Real same-page connection (fourth floor). This level allows for conflict and resolution with no hard feelings. Here you get the introduction of “netgiving” as well as networking. Friends to the end talk about what’s important to them and aren’t afraid to discuss private matters.
  1. Sharing the other person’s state of mind (top floor). They become confidants, advisers, and cheerleaders who understand each other’s needs and drives. Vulnerability, authenticity, trust, and loyalty are off the charts. It’s a relationship based more on giving than on getting. There’s only room for a few relationships at this level.

It’s often said, “it’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” In business, there is another dimension, the level of your relationship, and the level of trust and giving established. Of course, relationships seldom fit neatly into a given level. They’re far too dynamic, and may even move up and down floors like an elevator.

I recommend that you use the top floor as the reference point to think about your own business relationships. How many do you have at the top level, and what are you doing to actively develop more? Are your “close” business friends actually at the top floor, or merely at the second floor? Can you count on them for a real help or a big favor?

Tommy insists that building meaningful relationships, without sacrificing integrity or treating other people as a means to an end, will always help you achieve your goals and move beyond them, personally and professionally. These relationships must be based more on giving than on getting. That kind of giving gives you more than you could possibly imagine.

All relationships require hard work, patience, understanding, as well as tactics and strategies designed to make them blossom, just as you have tactics and strategies for marketing, selling, advertising, production, distribution, and customer service. Thus strong relationships are the basis for all the other keys to business success.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 19, 2020

How To Pull Customers To Your Website With Real Value

happy-customers-with-computersTraditional marketing says you have to “push” your message out to customers, over and over again, to get you remembered. A more effective approach in today’s Internet and interactive culture is to use “pull” technology to bring customers and clients to your story. You pull people in by providing new content with real value on your website at least every few days.

Guy Kawasaki, in his classic book “Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions” provides some in-depth recommendations on the “how to” of pull technology. Here are some of his recommendations for web sites and blogs that I particularly recommend to entrepreneurs and startups:

  1. Provide good content. This may seem obvious, but how many websites have you reviewed that are static and just plain dull? A website or blog without appealing or entertaining content for your market segment is not enchanting.

  1. Refresh it often. Ideally, you should update content at least every two or three days. Good content that doesn’t change isn’t good for long, and customers or clients will not return to your website or blog if you don’t regularly provide something new.
  1. Skip the Flash videos. You may think it’s cool that a sixty-second video plays when people enter your site, or pop-ups occur with every interaction. Most people come with a purpose, and if you won’t let them get to it immediately they won’t come back.
  1. Make it fast. It’s a shame when anyone can get right to your home page, but then has to wait for it to load. With today’s technology, there’s no excuse for a website that takes more than a few seconds to load.
  1. Sprinkle graphics and pictures. Graphics, pictures, and videos make a website or blog more interesting and enchanting. If you’re going to err, use them too much rather than too little, except for a Flash front-end and popups.
  1. Provide a “Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ)” page. People love FAQs because these cut to the chase. Figure out what the most common questions might be and answer them in one place to minimize hassle.
  1. Craft an “About” page. Visitors should never have to wonder what your organization does and why you do what you do. Provide all this information in an About page. Confusion and ignorance are the enemies of enchantment.
  1. Help visitors navigate. Enable people to search your website or blog to find what they are looking for. Also, a site map helps people understand the topology of your website. Forcing paging to complete a single message (to expose more ads) is not enchanting.
  1. Introduce the team. Few people these days wants to deal with a nameless, faceless, and location-less organization. A good “Who Are We?” page solves this problem, and is necessary to establish trust and expertise.
  1. Optimize visits for various devices. No matter what device people are using, your website and blog should look good. These days, 20% or more of your audience will be using smart phones or iPads, and they’re probably the most relevant customers.
  1. Provide multiple methods of access. Some folks like websites and blogs, and others prefer RSS feeds, email lists, Facebook pages, and Twitter feeds. Provide multiple methods to engage people and make these options easy to find.

Let’s face it, static websites are dead. You need a blog and social media interaction to keep your content fresh and responsive to the market. Interaction and repeated visits due to the pull of enchanting content will transform a potential customer transaction into a relationship. Everyone remembers a relationship.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 18, 2020

7 Keys To Being Willing To Risk Your Neck In Business

balance-risk-courage-riskyWillingness to take a risk is the hallmark of a serious entrepreneur. That’s why one of the first questions that potential investors ask is “How much of your own money, and friends and family, have you put into the new business?” If you won’t risk yours, you won’t get investors to risk theirs.

A few years ago I was impressed with the classic book “When Turtles Fly” by Nikki Stone, an Olympic champion, which explains this well. She provides many examples of success stories from entrepreneurs to Olympians. She proclaims that if you want to be successful, you need to be soft on the inside, have a hard shell, and willing to stick your neck out (“Turtle Effect”).

She goes on to outline seven basic lessons that are key to mastering the Turtle Effect, and I believe that you need to relate to every one of these before you can dare to even call yourself an entrepreneur:

  1. Find your passion. Entrepreneurs, like Olympians, tend to put a competitive spin on anything they find a passion for, and once they are snagged, they have to win. This passion, while it is your soft inside, is probably the single most important factor in achieving business success.
  1. Make sure you are focused. This is where many entrepreneurs fail. If you try to do too many things at once, you probably won’t do any of them well. All successes are best achieved from a root focal point, one step at a time, through focus on the questions and focus on the process.
  1. Get committed. No one truly understands how much they can accomplish until they develop their hard shell of commitment to a goal you really want. The commitment has to not be one day, or someday, but today. Nothing good comes without hard work. In business, that means first put it in writing with a business plan.
  1. Overcome your adversities. Adversities are the norm, not the exception. We all face them, and a few overcome them. Today it is the economy, tomorrow it could be your health. Successful people bounce back, plan for the unexpected, stop the downward spiral, and enjoy the rewards of a comeback.
  1. Believe in yourself. Confidence is not something that we are born with. It’s something we develop. Peter T. Mcintyre said, “Confidence comes not from always being right, but from not fearing to be wrong.” Focus on your own strengths. Pick a positive future goal, and visualize success. Then go for it.
  1. Take some risks. Be willing to stick your neck out. The best entrepreneurs always believe their startups will thrive despite the odds. Don’t worry if you feel some fear. Fear is a natural emotion, and fears can actually help us to be alert. Especially, you must not fear failure. People learn more from failure than from success.
  1. Use teamwork. No one in business gets to the top alone. The real genius is in recognizing where and when you need support. Finding support is the easy part. Using someone else for support may even allow you time to turn your attention toward more important issues.

Remember that there is no business without sticking your neck out, and no approach that will eliminate risk entirely, so learn to live with it and manage it. Most experts agree that entrepreneurship is more about reducing risk and managing failures, than it is about pure willingness to take risks.

So if you want to be an entrepreneur, you need to learn the secrets of successful people who know how to stick their neck out, but maintain a hard shell. Practice the seven lessons outlined above, and enjoy rather than suffer through the entrepreneurial adventure of a lifetime.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 16, 2020

6 Ways To Make Customers Remember You As Exceptional

ecstatic-customersFor decades, efforts to satisfy customers have been built around demographics – capitalizing on race, ethnicity, gender, income, and other attributes. Today, in this age of pervasive social media and two-way communication, the focus needs to get beyond demographics into personalities. Customer personalities define customer experience, and sets what they love, and what they hate.

Even businesses with highly specialized market segments will find it more effective and simpler to focus on who customers are as people, rather than the “what” of their demographic attributes. Customers today expect highly personalized and exceptional experiences to stay loyal and become advocates, rather than just conventionally “satisfied.” Satisfied is far from memorable.

The challenge for every entrepreneur and every business is to understand the pragmatics of identifying and reacting to what their customers love and what they hate. I found some excellent guidance on the specifics in the classic book, “What Customers Crave,” by Nicholas J. Webb. As a popular strategist in the areas of customer experience design and innovation, Webb knows.

He outlines six key steps in your journey from yesterday’s customer service to today’s required delivery of exceptional customer experiences:

  1. Define the whole customer experience versus service. Traditional customer service, focused on fixing bad transactions, is too little, too late. The total customer experience includes identifying with your company culture, the shopping experience, the customer-facing team and social media interaction, as well as resolution of any transaction glitches.
  1. Add the extra mile to make the experience exceptional. There is no one set of exceptional experiences that will work for all customers. That’s where you must know the personalities of your customers, to know what they love and what they hate. Ideally, you need to convince each customer that you have personalized the experience just for them.
  1. Display real customer value feedback versus value claims. Customers react poorly when they hear your value claims for them, and see more value to you (bottled water in your hotel room at a high price as a “convenience” to you). Customer value statements must come from customer feedback to other customers, rather than from your marketing.
  1. Build blended digital and non-digital experiences. Some businesses excel in customer-facing people, but have poor digital interfaces for feedback, shopping, or communication. Others have delivery silos, where one fragmented deficiency can override all other positives. Integrate and blend all elements of your customer experience.
  1. Train customer-facing team to collaborate with customers. Internal training and policies are not adequate to create great customer experiences. Employees must learn to develop relationships with real customers, and engage these customers to understand what each customer expects, and how to get customers to engage other customers.
  1. Assure exceptional commitment within your customer-facing team. Commitment means signing up willingly, showing up mentally, standing up for the customer, and never ever giving up. To get this, you need to find the best people for each role, give them the latitude to do their job, and reward them publicly and privately for achieving results.

Many business leaders still believe that exceptional experiences cost too much, and reduce profit margins and growth. In fact, just the opposite is true today, since more and more customers expect good feedback from others before they consider you, and decline to return if they don’t get a great first experience. The result is that an average business can spiral quickly into the ground.

If you are looking for a lasting competitive advantage, I recommend that you follow the steps outlined here to create experiences that your customers crave. It’s not only good for your business, but it will add meaning and joy to your customers, and will also enhance your personal satisfaction and well-being. That’s a win-win-win opportunity you can’t afford to miss.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, September 14, 2020

7 Types Of People Who Get Results With Minimal Motion

results-with-minimal-motionIsn’t it amazing that some people you know always seem to be working hard, but never seem to get anything done? As an entrepreneur, you need to avoid partnering with these people, or hiring them into your startup. The challenge is to find people who get things done, as well as work hard. LinkedIn profiles and resumes still focus too much on responsibilities rather than results.

The best entrepreneurs never confuse motion with results. It’s easy to find people in every organization rushing around from one meeting to the next, often working overtime to generate more work for themselves and other people, but rarely taking the action to close an issue or contract. We all need more people around us who make every motion mean something.

So how do you recognize those few people on your team who are getting things done, or even recognize ahead of time those who have that potential? Such people are different, but are not necessarily the smartest or the most skilled. But they do seem to have some common characteristics and approaches that you can look for:

  1. Possess street smarts, as well as skills and experience. People like this quickly figure out how businesses really work, and how to resolve the challenges in their business. They have a special ability to cut through the confusion, dodge any head-on collisions, and negotiate compromises leading to required actions and resolution.
  1. Able to avoid or navigate the politics of the organization. Understanding politics is not the same as being a politician, or using political clout. People who get things done don’t worry about building their own image, but they are politically astute enough to find alternate routes around the political and power bastions.
  1. Recognize what it takes to get power leverage, but don’t blatantly use it. The key is to be open and listen to recommendations from those who have to be moved, and find a way to create win-win situations, rather than win-lose. They get things done by using their power to get recognition for key players, rather than for themselves.
  1. Maintain a laser focus on narrowing the scope, rather than expanding it. This means effective negotiating to eliminate sidetracks, combat opinions with facts, and finding the glass half-full, not half-empty. It requires being able to accurately assess the position of others, find some common ground, and snapping people back to reality.
  1. Able to negotiate agreements without committing to future paybacks. People who get things done are driven by an insatiable desire to make progress and help others. They are not looking to build a cache of favors or special attention, and are not willing to make deals that compromise the solutions and can come back to haunt them.
  1. See every problem as an opportunity to innovate, rather than a chance to fail. Obstacles are seen as innovative and creative challenges, not barriers. All the reasons something can’t be done are replaced by better ways to get it done, quicker and at less cost. Nothing is immutable, even the culture of the organization or the business.
  1. Able to balance the paradoxes of highly effective leaders. People who know how to get things done can be analytical as well as intuitive, aggressive or patient as required, and confident and humble at the same time. They instinctively know when and how to escalate issues to the right level, without stubbornly entrenching their position.

To get things done more effectively, people need to really think about each element of their work before they make a move. By culture and habit, many of us expect most of our daily work and personal activities to be pre-defined, and we just go through the paces (the way it’s always been done). We need to practice overt thinking about desired outcomes, to make them a reality.

If your desired outcome is to move up in the organization, or just to get more satisfaction from your daily efforts, now is the time focus on the attributes listed above, and emulate the people on your team who get things done. If you are the entrepreneur or executive in the organization, make sure you are the role model in execution and in hiring. That’s the only way to win in the long run.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 13, 2020

A Fearless Leader’s Mindset Will Conquer Any Obstacle

car-in-space-muskThe cost of entry to the entrepreneur lifestyle is at an all-time low, but the challenge of winning and success is at an all-time high. Anyone can build a new web site, or publish a smartphone app for a few thousand dollars, but getting market penetration requires a lot more. Customers have come to expect disruptive change, so yet another social network is not the way to get traction.

As an angel investor, I quickly look behind the idea or solution, to gauge the mindset and the leadership capabilities of the entrepreneur. That’s why the classic book, “The Leader’s Mindset: How to Win In The Age Of Disruption,” resonated strongly with me. It was written by Terence Mauri, who has worked extensively with Sir Richard Branson and the London Business School.

Mauri offers some practical, actionable advice for entrepreneurs who want to develop a leader’s mindset, on how to spread the right message to potential customers, as well as investors. He outlines three shortcuts for simplifying how we think, how we act, and ultimately how we lead, which I have paraphrased and amplified here:

  1. Expand your mindset to think better by a factor of ten. Most entrepreneurs think about how they can improve cost or usability by ten or twenty percent. When was the last time you set a challenge for your team that pushed all of you to deliver more than you thought was humanly possible? People who shape the future, like Steve Jobs, did this.
  1. Push your mindset to tackle the seemingly insurmountable. A bold mindset excels at speed, creativity, and decisive action. Entrepreneurs in this category are real risk takers, such as Elon Musk. He recommends imagining creative solutions to a problem to “cut through the noise and focus on the signal.” Take a hard look at SpaceX or HyperLoop.
  1. Develop a learn-fast mindset to seek the latest and the future. Those who proactively seek knowledge and learn fast build knowledge pools and tap into the wisdom of mentors and industry leaders to raise their game. For them, adapting and stretching their limits is the norm. They learn from their mistakes, and collaborate with well-connected people.

Leadership on ideas is a start, but entrepreneurial leadership requires the ability to deliver on the new reality as well. The best entrepreneurs relish the opportunity to overcome the personal and team obstacles that challenge every team contemplating disruptive change, including the following:

  • Fear of failure, fear of the unknown, procrastination, and doubt. All these fears can cause flight or fight, freeze behaviors, or a hasty retreat from dreams, goals, and plans for disruptive change. Fear keeps your mindset locked in a state of helplessness and will stop you from reaching your goals.
  • Constrained by talent shortages and lack of commitment. A key requirement for every disruptive entrepreneur is to fuel the organization’s growth by attracting and nurturing the best and most committed talent. The best leaders find a team and every individual unique strength to do great work and make a difference beyond chasing profit.
  • Dragged down by excuses, inertia, and negative energy. A top priority of all entrepreneur leaders is to avoid falling victim to “somebody else’s problem (SEP).” Lack of accountability is a mindset that is diametrically opposed to the required leader’s mindset. Don’t let this contamination infect you, your team, or your disruptive venture.

Overall, the leader’s mindset begins with zero compromise on purpose. It demands that you believe in what you are doing from the heart, and that your contribution is essential to the future world you envision. This must be matched with the intellectual courage to change business models multiple times to remain viable, based on real-time feedback from the market.

Becoming an entrepreneur is easy, but winning is still tough. Do you have the leader’s mindset required to compete and win?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 12, 2020

8 Strategies To Satisfy Investors You Are Accountable

TEDxMidAtlantic 2011 - Arun MajumdarMaybe it’s just me, but I sometimes feel that accountability is a rare talent in business today. In big businesses, people are quick to defer with “that’s not my department,” and even startup founders too often blame failures on the economy or the lack of investors. As an investor and advisor to entrepreneurs, I see accountability, or lack of it, as an override to even the best idea.

I believe accountability is a personal decision that we all can make, largely driven by personal confidence and determination, and is certainly one that we can learn. It’s not baked into our DNA, and there are many resources available to direct improvement.

For example, quite a while back I found some great guidance to the how, why, and who of accountability in the “QBQ Workbook,” by John G. Miller and Kristin E. Lindeen. Miller is well-known for his classic bestseller on this subject, “QBQ! The Question Behind The Question.” His advice starts with a request to stop blaming, and start asking, “What can I do to improve this situation?”

Very refreshing. If you are an entrepreneur building a new business, there are many things along these lines that you can and must do to be seen as accountable, including the following:

  1. It’s up to you to be the model of accountability. Don’t expect your team to be accountable, if they often hear you complaining about the workload, competitors, or partners. Accountability is a culture that starts from the top, and is reinforced by your hiring of skilled and positive people, delegating responsibility, and rewarding results.
  1. Clarify and constantly reinforce expectations. Team members can’t be accountable unless they know what is expected of them, and they understand how to deliver. Communication must be ongoing, both written and spoken, followed by some active listening on your part, to understand the gaps. Remove the “I didn’t know” excuse.
  1. Set measurable goals and objectives, with benchmarks. Accountability assessments must be based on objective facts, not opinions, politics, or a desire for power. Setting expectations beyond the realm of possibility, or frequently changing them, does not lead to accountability. Provide the tools for team members to measure their own results.
  1. Align individual responsibilities with relevant business goals. Team accountability must be correlated to responsibility and relevancy. You can’t hold your sales team accountable for manufacturing quality, but they should be responsible for profitability and volume. When expectations are aligned with motivation and interests, everyone wins.
  1. Truly delegate responsibility and decisions. Accountability can’t happen without control. If your management style is to make all the decisions yourself, don’t expect any accountability from your team. If you find yourself buried in work, with no time off, and feeling indispensable, it may be time to ask direct reports to call you out on delegation.
  1. Accountable teams need timely and actionable feedback. Getting to the source of problems should never involve blame. Accountable people need safe havens where challenges and performance can be discussed, individually and as a group. The goal must be continuous improvement and learning, not accusations and penalties.
  1. Provide resources and training to enable accountability. Tools and data are necessary for accountability, but must not be allowed to be the absolute determinant of a response. Provide the tools, but trust the people. Other necessary resources include training, reasonable financial leeway, mentoring, and access to relevant executives.
  1. Accountability requires consequences, both positive and negative. People who demonstrate accountability must be rewarded (awards, acknowledgement, promotion). In the same context, team members who consistently make excuses must be moved out of the organization to minimize the impact on others. No consequences mean no learning.

The best part about a focus on accountability is that it leads to real change, learning, and action, and these are the keys to entrepreneurial survival. When a business stops changing and learning in today’s fast-moving world, it stops growing and thriving. Every business is really a set of people. Are you growing and thriving?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 11, 2020

Accelerators Have Resources To KickStart Your Startup

photo: © www.StefanoBorghi.comOne of the reasons that now is the time to be an entrepreneur is the explosion of startup assistance organizations, usually called incubators or accelerators. According to the International Business Innovation Association (InBIA ), there are over 2,200 of these locations worldwide, and new online versions springing up all over the place, like Founders Space in Silicon Valley.

Most of these are non-profits, set up by a university to commercialize new technologies, or a municipality to foster business development for the local economy. A few are still trying to make a profitable business out of nurturing startups, but it’s a challenge to make money when your customer startups don’t have many resources to give.

But there are notable examples of for-profit incubators that are thriving, including YCombinator, led by Paul Graham in Silicon Valley, and TechStars, led by David Cohen and located in several key cities around the country, that have an excellent reputation and track record. I believe their competitive advantage is their top on-site leadership, exclusivity, and connections to investors.

Variations on the incubator theme are sometimes called business accelerators, science parks, or the Small Business Administration's Small Business Development Centers (SBDCs) in almost every state in the U.S. Accelerators generally accept startups at a slightly later stage, and attempt to compress the timeline to commercialization into a few months, instead of a year or more.

Common resources provided by most of the incubators and accelerators today include the following:

  • Access to shared office facilities for multiple startup teams at a very low cost.
  • Shared business support services, including telephone answering, conference rooms, teleconferencing, administrative support, and a business mailing address.
  • Mentoring and technical assistance from volunteer or paid experts.
  • Direct seed funding, for a share of the equity, and introductions to investors.
  • Peer-to-peer networking with other startups and founders in the same stage.
  • Health, life, and other insurance at group rates.

If you don’t need these common resources, but need specialized technology services, you should look for technology parks and research facilities, often sponsored by leading companies in specific technologies, like Intel Capital and Google Ventures (GV). As well, these companies usually bring real new venture funding opportunities to the startups they sponsor.

To get started, go to the International Business Innovation Association web site, and use the lookup tool provided to see what’s available in your area. This association is definitely one of the world’s leading organization for advancing business incubation and entrepreneurship. Another good online approach is a simple Internet search for articles like the “The top 40 startup accelerators and incubators in North America in 2020

But don’t expect incubators to magically convert your pre-hatched idea into a successful company. The good incubators are highly selective, and expect you to demonstrate your commitment and a hard work ethic to meet expected milestones and show continuous progress. According to some recent feedback, YCombinator takes roughly 3 percent of applicants who apply to each batch cycle. Assuming 60 companies are accepted in a specific batch, that would mean around 2000 companies applied. That’s about the same ratio that angel investors claim.

I believe the real value of an incubator is in the relationships you can build there, with peers as well as domain experts, investors, and potential strategic partners. An incubator won’t help you if the market opportunity is small, the competitors are large, or your solution doesn’t address a real need.

As evidence that it does work, TechCrunch reported a new high of more than 200 companies in YCombinator’s Winter 2019 cohort, and many were scooped up by VCs even before the Demo Days. However, if you are looking to find an incubator like YCombinator for easy money and free services to hatch your startup, it probably won’t work.

Growing up and surviving in the entrepreneur world requires a fine balance between an independent determination to be self-sufficient, and a humble willingness and ability to listen to and learn from the best and the brightest startup mother-hens out there. Are you and your startup ready to make the cut?

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 9, 2020

7 Strategies To Solve Your Business Problems Faster

Office-Conference-ProblemsProblem solving is a full-time task in business. Whether you own the business, or have only a small role in daily operations, making decisions and solving problems is a key part of your job. The most effective people, and the happiest ones, are the ones who accept this reality, and even relish the challenges of overcoming the unknowns, rather than struggling and stressing with each.

If this doesn’t come naturally for you today, I assure you that it can be learned. In my own business career, many years as a business advisor, and mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I have validated the following strategies to practice and guide you. Each of these will help you in achieving success and satisfaction while tackling your toughest business issues:

  1. Stop attacking symptoms – dig first for the root cause. A broken process or a subtle quality issue can generate a flood of customer satisfaction problems, cost overruns, and loss of market share. The right first step for every issue is the old “ask why three times” strategy to get to the root of the problem. Don’t waste time fixing symptoms.

    Jeff Bezos is a huge proponent of root cause analysis, and believes it is what sets Amazon apart. Way back in 2004, he cared enough about an associate's injury to spend time investigating, and used the exercise to isolate a root cause without blaming anyone.

  2. Search for the multiple dimensions of a problem. Don’t oversimplify – most issues have a scope greater than one dimension. For example, your quality problem may well have both design as well as manufacturing elements. Fixing only one of these will only lead to more frustration. A better definition of a problem always leads to a better solution.

    This same principle can also be applied to solving problems that are new opportunities. Elon Musk often talks about identifying all the dimensions of a problem, such as lower cost battery technology, as the key to moving the electric vehicle industry ahead.

  3. Build and evaluate a list of alternative solutions. We are all prone to running with the initial solution that comes to mind, rather than comparing several to produce the best outcome. On tough issues, I recommend the use of brainstorming with colleagues, to expand your efforts, and develop a half-dozen alternatives. Then pick the best one.

    Of course, this all has to start with you having the confidence and conviction that there is at least one solution to every problem, and that you can find it. Without this mindset, and the determination to make a decision, nothing happens, and customers find alternatives.

  4. Build motivation through rewards and incentives. Team members, including yourself, who are not engaged or determined will ignore problems, or will give up too soon. All you will hear are excuses, or you won’t hear about the problem until it’s a crisis. Build that momentum by rewarding every team member for small successes and early surfacing.

  5. Hold the right people accountable for delivering results. Ultimately, every problem and every issue needs a decision and a solution, not more study. It’s your job as a business leader to accept and assign responsibility, and then track the process to completion. The most damaging issues are the ones that never seem to get resolved.

  6. Measure results to validate fixes and prevent recurrence. The positive impact of recognizing problems in a business is the clear indication that something more needs to be measured. Make sure that you implement a metric with each solution, to prevent the issue from recurring, and check for side effects and follow-on side effects.

  7. Provide training and tools to upgrade solution skills. As the market and technology changes, you and your team need to learn new skills, and how to use new tools. Even the best business professionals and leaders must concentrate on learning something new each day, through mentors, Internet resources, and studying competitors.

If you are looking for more satisfaction from your work, or seeking to advance your career, then more focus on problem solving, utilizing the strategies outlined here, will definitely pay big dividends. If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, then adopting these strategies is critical to surviving and thriving in the uncharted world of startups. Put the fun back into your work.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/26/2020 ***

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Monday, September 7, 2020

7 Startup Proposals That May Raise Investor Red Flags

worried-investorIf you aren’t willing to take some risk as an entrepreneur, then don’t expect any gain. Yet everyone has limits, and every investor implicitly has similar limits on what makes a startup investable, or one to avoid at all costs. If you need investors, it’s important that you understand their filters, and even if you are funding your own efforts, you need to recognize the red flags.

Of course, every risk level can be mitigated by a good plan that addresses the issue, offers a credible action plan, and will convince you, as well as investors and customers, that what looks like a risk to many is actually a sustainable competitive advantage for your startup.

Nevertheless, we can all benefit by understanding a collective view from investors on the high-risk elements that every new business has faced historically based on the team, as well as in the marketplace. Here is my perspective on the highest risk elements, from my years of working with investors and watching startups come and go:

  1. All the co-founders are first-time entrepreneurs. A strong team has one or more executives who have run a startup before in the current business domain. Even top big-company executives are considered high-risk in a startup environment. The challenges are as different for them as a jewelry store owner now building medical devices.

  1. Your startup is in a high-failure-rate business sector. These historically have included work-at-home, restaurants, telemarketing and social-service providers. On the Internet, I am wary of one more search engine provider, clones of existing social-media sites, and yet another new dating site. You need a big differentiator in these arenas.

  1. Products requiring changes to government regulations. Things such as driver-less cars and new medicines are far more than a technology challenge. They require exhaustive and money-consuming tests and trial periods, followed by bureaucratic approval cycles that can take forever. If you have deep pockets, these ultimately can be very lucrative.

  1. Huge ramp-up time and money required. For new car companies such as DeLorean and Fisker, designing and testing the product is only the beginning. Huge investments are also required to ramp up manufacturing, build a distribution network, and provide the support infrastructure. New drugs usually fall in this category, due to side-effect testing.

  1. Niche or low growth-rate businesses opportunities. Investors are looking for large opportunities (greater than a billion dollars) with double-digit growth rates. Others may indeed make good family businesses, but are usually deemed not worth investment. These are ones you need to bootstrap, crowdfund or pitch to friends and family.

  1. Marginal legality or poor public image. Don’t expect investors to line up for your new online gaming site, adult entertainment or quick sources of cash. Professional investors put great value in their integrity, so they won’t risk it by making investments that some would view as poor taste. These may traditionally have high returns, but are still high risk.

  1. Off-shore or foreign-country based. Every country has their own unique business requirements and customer culture. Thus investors in one country do not assume that they know what works in another country, even if it sounds good locally. If you want U.S. investors, for example, it may be worthwhile to set up an office in New York City or Silicon Valley.

No entrepreneur should consider any of these challenges as hard barriers, but they do need to be aware of higher risk perception, and include their mitigation strategy in their business plan for all to see. I encourage you to be proactive on these issues, rather than saying nothing unless questioned. Responding to a challenge will always make you look defensive, and many people will walk away without asking.

It’s also not smart to switch from a domain you know and love to a perceived lower-risk business that you know less about, or have no passion for, just because it may be more attractive to investors. Passion and commitment can overcome many risks, and these will also drive you to expand your scope of options for funding and implementation, leading to success.

If you are a true entrepreneur, you will find that a reasonable level of risk is necessary to incent you to go beyond the status quo of an existing problem. But in all cases, it pays to keep your eyes wide open, and do your homework on the pitfalls that others before you have faced. Only then can you enjoy the journey, as well as reach the destination.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 6, 2020

8 People And Process Talents Every Entrepreneur Needs

team-boss-staff-business-leaderIn my experience in large businesses as well as years of advising startups, I see far too much focus on product skills, and too little on people and process skills. In my view, this focus on the wrong skill set is the primary reason why over half of new businesses fail in the first five years, and only one out of a hundred startups get their requested funding from professional investors.

In fact, there is much evidence that the same principles separate success from mediocrity in most of the disciplines in business. I recognized this as I was reading the classic book, ”The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need,” by Anthony Iannarino, who is an international sales leader and expert on optimizing results. His focus is on sales, but I see the same skills needed for entrepreneurs.

His top eight required skill set elements for sales don’t even mention product skills, and match my view of the right skill set for successful entrepreneurs, with only a few priority changes:

  1. Creating and sharing a vision. Storytelling and projecting a vision are foundational skills that are required from the first moment in starting a business. The old myth that “if we build it, they will come” has not worked for a long time. The best visions begin in the future, describe how to get there together, touch on emotions, and work in your values.
  1. Diagnosing and understanding the customer problem. This means all business people, especially entrepreneurs, need to get beyond the presentations and the experts, to actively listen to real customers. They need to ask customers the difficult questions, and really understand costs versus benefits, as well as competitive alternatives.
  1. Opening relationships and creating opportunities. Whereas providers used to control information, the Internet has given customers access to more information and more choices than ever. They demand interactive relationships with you, and depend on the relationships you have with their friends. Relationships are the new keys to opportunities.
  1. Producing results with and through others. You can’t build a business or sell alone. You have to lead and motivate many others with the right skill set to make it happen. To do this, you call upon your storytelling, negotiating, and change-management skills, all the while demonstrating your unswerving accountability. It’s up to you to clear the way.
  1. Asking for and obtaining commitments. Building a company and selling are all about gaining commitments. While it’s true that you can go too far too fast when asking for funding or asking for an order, all too often fear and timidity keeps entrepreneurs from going far enough fast enough. Offering more value is the key to a quicker close.
  1. Negotiating and creating win-win deals. When dealing with customers or partners, only win-win deals make sense. It’s all about value for both parties, and good negotiation is highlighting value. Great entrepreneurs are able to think on their feet, and are always prepared. Highlight the points of agreement, rather than hammer on the differences.

  1. Understanding business essentials and creating value. Product leadership alone might have been enough in the past, but today people are looking at a bigger picture. They want a business that is ethical, understands sustainability, and provides leadership that goes beyond profitability for shareholders. Value is far more than cost versus price.
  1. Building consensus and helping others change. Consensus and change are hard. These require building a team that can work together, identify the obstacles to change, deal with conflicting interests, and overcome the challenges to change. Great entrepreneurs create and sell a compelling case for change, and lead that change.

Put simply, your personal and people skills are the difference that makes the difference, more so than the product or service you bring to the table. It takes discipline, initiative, a positive attitude, and the ability to communicate and be accountable to set your business apart from the million others that have equal access to your customers. Make them remember you and appreciate the added value.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 5, 2020

7 Negative Reactions To New Ideas And How To Prevail

sceptical-business-partnersIn business, and in your personal life, the ability to anticipate and overcome criticism is one of the biggest differentiators between leaders, who make things happen, and followers, who may have great ideas but never seem to get things to go their way. In fact, leaders are not remembered for their dreams, aspirations, or intentions – they are remembered because they achieved results.

In my role as an advisor to entrepreneurs, I often find founders who have such conviction and passion for their new idea, that they can’t believe anyone could challenge it. They bristle quickly when investors or even potential customers raise issues with real value, competition, risk, and sustainability. The reality is that good ideas are always challenged, so you need to expect it.

The best entrepreneurs and business professionals learn to anticipate these push-backs before they happen, and respond calmly and effectively. I like the specifics on how to do this in the classic book, “The Agenda Mover: When Your Good Idea Is Not Enough,” by leadership expert Samuel B. Bacharach, Cornell Professor and cofounder of the Bacharach Leadership Group.

Bacharach details seven possible criticisms that every leader with a good idea should anticipate, and provides guidance on how to overcome each. I’ll paraphrase a few of his key points here, with comments from my own experience in business:

  1. Your new idea is too risky. A new idea is a step into the unknown, and always represents some risk. Rather than arguing the level of risk, a better strategy is to highlight the size of the reward. Then mobilize your support for these rewards through testimonials, input from experts, and traction. Increasing your credibility will reduce the perceived risk by all.
  1. The idea will only make things worse. Resistors often make the argument that while the idea seems fine on the surface, something later is certain to turn things upside down. This usually means that your message needs clarification to offset generalized qualms. Narrow your focus through specific case studies and quantify value and results.
  1. This idea won’t change a thing. When faced with this type of “paternal” criticism, the best path is to again ground your case in very specific examples to show that while the idea might not be a total paradigm shift, it will at least represent a significant change in cost or return. Negotiate the time and resources to do a trial, and measure results.
  1. You don’t know the issues well enough. The main goal of this type of criticism is to challenge your ability to lead and question your credibility. The antidote to such criticism is usually less passion and more facts to show that you have done your homework, assembled expert validation, and are interested in full disclosure and opposing views.
  1. You’re doing it all wrong. “The way it’s always been done” may work well for routine repetitive tasks, but it never applies to new ideas. This argument is actually attacking your ability to execute, rather than the idea. To offset this criticism, you need to highlight your prior experience, the expertise of your team, and the quality of your advisors.

  1. It’s been done before. This sort of resistance is predicated on the assumption that there is historical knowledge or past experience that makes your idea irrelevant or doomed to failure. This can be countered best by a proactive comparison of specific elements of your new idea to past practice and experience. Burst the balloon of generalities.
  1. Someone has ulterior motives. This challenge is one of trust, implying some hidden agenda or self-serving motivation for you and your allies, such as huge financial rewards or positions of power. The best strategy here is to not to over-react or be defensive, and highlight specific value to customers. This is where real leaders let others do the talking for them.

In all cases, the key words for countering criticism and moving things forward are anticipate, mobilize, negotiate, and sustain. Anticipate the agenda of others, mobilize your resources, negotiate buy-in and support, and get things done to sustain momentum in your campaign.

Don’t allow yourself to get involved in an escalating competition of egos, which can make others think that your ego is more important than seeing your idea come to fruition. True leaders in business with million-dollar ideas, like Bill Gates and Elon Musk, don’t stop until they have billion-dollar results. Where do you fit in this spectrum?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 4, 2020

6 Ways To Make Your Business Presentations Stand Out

communicate-stories-to-tellAs an entrepreneur, I understand your passion when pitching your solution to investors and customers, but passion alone won’t make one more technology pitch stand out above all the rest. I can tell you from my own experience as an advisor and an investor, what everyone remembers is a good personal story. Thus it behooves you to highlight your message with a bit of storytelling.

I’m not talking here about trying to be a stand-up comic, or weaving theatrical tales. Storytelling in business just means personalizing your communication here and there with anecdotes to highlight important points, and make the message come alive to peers and constituents. Here are some key ways that personal stories can raise your message above the standard sales pitch:

  1. Show that you are authentic and deserve their trust. Investors tell me that they invest in people, more than products. That means that you must convince your constituents that you are a real person, trustworthy, and authentic. Story telling allows these people to see the real you, outside the context of a marketing pitch for a specific business or solution.

    In reality, sharing stories is the first step to building a real relationship with other people in business, as well as your personal life. Good relationships are the primary basis for trust in business, leading to supportive investors, loyal customers, and effective partnerships.

  2. Connect to people’s emotion as well as logic. Facts and figures are easily forgotten, but emotions are long remembered. Find a place in your message for a story about the positive emotions that your solutions can generate, or the negative ones it can eliminate. Your audience will not only remember these, but will assign them a large positive value.

    When it comes to the art and science of persuading others, you can never afford to forget the power of emotions. At least one study has shown that ninety percent of decisions are made based on emotion, but that people then go back to logic to justify their position.

  3. Relate when and where your passion started. In most cases, a new startup idea and plan was driven by a specific personal incident that left you with the conviction that you still have for this opportunity. Help me to feel that same insight or pain that you felt, and I will likely remember and understand your message for a long time.

    For the average angel or VC investor, who has heard about hundreds of disruptive technologies, many new ways to reduce costs and improve usability, the impact of your personal realization will stand out, and might even have an equal impact on them.

  4. Explain your contribution to a higher purpose. These days, it is popular to highlight how your solution contributes to a higher purpose, such as saving the environment or helping the less advantaged. You can make this point much more powerful by relating a story of your personal commitment to this cause, and your plan to use your solution.

    A stellar example is Blake Mycoskie, founder of shoe company Toms, who donates one-for-one a pair to dis-advantaged people in other countries, is never shy about sharing his personal stories of working directly in the field where the donated shoes are lifesavers.

  5. Weave a real person throughout your message. Unfortunately, most elevator pitches, product descriptions, and marketing messages are abstract, and include no characters at all. People remember people, with associated emotions, whether that main person is you, someone you know, or a customer you lost. No long background stories are appreciated.

  6. Highlight testimonials from specific people. Rather than just listing the innovative new features of your solution, as well as your commitment to quality and service, use feedback from named customers or beta users to make key points. Testimonials from these people, especially if they are recognized influencers, are much more memorable.

Of course, it is possible to overuse stories to the point of undermining your credibility or wasting people’s time. Don’t expect your storytelling to be a substitute for basic business plan content, including competitive analyses and financials. Providing the fundamentals in a more memorable context, and enhancing their impact, can give you that competitive edge you need for success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/20/2020 ***

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Wednesday, September 2, 2020

6 Motivations Shared By Most Satisfied Entrepreneurs

woman-happy-entrepreneurOut of curiosity, I often ask aspiring entrepreneurs like you, who come to me for help, what drives them to take on the workload and risk of a new startup. The most common answers I get are that they are driven by the opportunity to be their own boss, make a lot of money, and maybe fulfill a long held lifetime dream to do something they really enjoy, rather than just a more mundane job.

While these are quite reasonable, I find that the real superstars in the entrepreneurial world today, such as Bill Gates and Elon Musk, started with even bigger aspirations, including moving computer technology into every home, and establishing a human outpost on another planet. Thus I’m convinced that the size of scope of your initial drivers is a key factor in your ultimate success.

Of course, drivers have to be backed up by some realities, like necessary resources, adequate skills, relentless determination, and a market of people interested in supporting your dream. Yet I’m convinced these realities alone won’t make your dream happen. I ask every entrepreneur to first take a hard look inside for one or more of the following key intrinsic drivers, before they start:

  1. Satisfy a driving need to be in control of their life. I hear this one a lot, but find it elusive. Some people ache to be in control, but find it hard to make a decision, or venture into a risky unknown. Many entrepreneurs I know conclude they can never be in control, due to the constant and unpredictable need to satisfy investors, vendors, and customers.

    Great entrepreneurs are willing and anxious to tackle these control challenges, and get real satisfaction from their acceptance of the “buck-stops-here” position of a business owner. The result is a higher probability of success, and the true entrepreneur lifestyle.

  2. Desire to make the world a better place. In my experience, entrepreneurs with an overwhelming desire to save the environment, or feed the hungry, have a huge head start in building a business. In today’s parlance, this is called focusing on a higher purpose, above making a profit. Investors, as well as customers, pay a premium for this approach.

    An example of an entrepreneur who pioneered the success of this strategy many years ago was Yvon Chouinard when he founded Patagonia. His team has won big by putting their “purpose” of saving the environment first, and doing everything else right for profits.

  3. Satisfy your thirst for personal accomplishment. There are no challenges in life as hard, yet satisfying, as the ones you set for yourself. Unfortunately, many of us are driven primarily by others, including parents, spouses, investors, and bosses. If you are starting a business to satisfy someone else, the job gets harder, with a high probability of failure.

    In an old interview, before his success was evident, Elon Musk admitted that what excited him most about being an entrepreneur, was that it was like a series of poker games where he could measure his accomplishments by how many chips he could carry.

  4. Need to prove to the world that your idea is real. I was lucky enough to know Bill Gates in the early days of personal computers, when most people thought computers had no place outside of business. I’m certain he had no idea of the personal fortune that could accrue, but was driven by a need to prove through applications the value to the rest of us.

  5. Intent on helping others to help themselves. Facilitating others in achieving their goals can be a powerful driver for any entrepreneur. This is the genesis of all “customer-centric” thinking and marketing. If you focus on how your solution brings value to your customers, rather than just profit to you, you will have satisfied the basic equation of every business.

  6. Develop camaraderie with people you respect. Most people derive a great sense of satisfaction and accomplishment from developing relationships with people they trust and admire. Successful entrepreneurs, with proven solutions and large followings, find great personal returns from their ability to build mutual friendships with people they admire.

My intent here is only to get you to really think about why you want to tackle a startup. Don’t fool yourself into believing that the entrepreneur lifestyle is an easy one, or a get rich quick approach. The people around you, including your team, investors, and customers, will see through this quickly, and they will make your job even harder. We know your happiness and ours are related.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/18/2020 ***

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