Wednesday, September 30, 2020

8 Steps For Moving From A Business Dream To Results

business-dream-to-realityAs a business advisor, I listen to many of you entrepreneurs talking about achieving your dreams, but too few of you have structured that dream, and can express it in a set of specific goals, with a timeline for getting there. You all hope I have some magic formula for success, but the reality is that only you can pick the goals that match your passion, work ethic, and desired outcome.

I believe part of the problem is a fear of failure, or hesitancy to commit, perhaps due to a lack of self-confidence, or a habit of waiting for someone else to tell you what to do. I can’t help you get into the right mindset, but I can offer some proven specific steps for translating a business dream into reality, based on my own years of experience working at all levels in the business world:

  1. Narrow your focus, to identify your major business goal. As Yogi Berra once said, “If you don't know where you're going, you'll end up someplace else.” Without a measurable objective, you will be constantly frustrated by not seeing progress, and you will never feel success satisfaction. Avoid fuzzy goals, like making big money or being a market leader.

  2. Develop an “elevator pitch” as an initial path to your goal. An elevator pitch is a problem-solution summary that anyone can understand in a sixty-second ride up to their office in an elevator. It has to embody enough passion and reality to convince yourself, as well as a rational business person, that you have moved beyond the dream stage.

  3. Create a timeline to success, with quantifiable steps. You can break any reasonable business dream into at least ten smaller milestones, to be completed in one to two years. It’s fair to be optimistic and aggressive, but don’t be afraid to get help from advisors and domain experts to make sure your assumptions are realistic in today’s business world.

  4. Populate each step with actions required for success. You probably already know the key challenges to complete each step, but it helps to write them down, review them with peers, and have a written list to update as you learn more. If necessary, break big steps into smaller ones, since most can only accomplish a big goal as a series of small steps.

  5. Prioritize the activities and execution within each step. Remember the old 80-20 rule, that 80% of the value typically comes from 20% of the actions. Do the most important things first and celebrate each small success. By the way, you now have an viable business plan – which puts you well on your way from a dream to business success.

  6. Stop talking and writing, and start executing the plan. Completing that first step is now a well-defined action, rather than a nebulous step into the unknown. The market changes quickly these days, so the slower you move, the more likely that changes will be required in your plan, and that competitors will pass you by. Celebrate your successes.

  7. Network to find inspiring and needed team members. Building a business is not a solo operation. You must surround yourself with team members and partners with complimentary skills and dreams that mesh with yours. Don’t be too busy to attend industry conferences, mingle with experts, and negotiate partner relationships to fill gaps.

  8. Register what you learn each day, and update the plan. No business plan can win by remaining static, so take advantage of what you learn each day to improve your plan. The result is that tasks become easier and more satisfying. New momentum will be energizing and inspiring, rather than stressful and discouraging. Keep track of every progress step.

In my experience, visualizing a dream is a necessary, but not sufficient step in achieving success in business. In fact, a much different mindset is required for the focus required to plot a set of execution steps, and manage them through to success. As an advisor, I concentrate on the proper outline and measurement of these steps, since activities are common for all businesses.

So don’t give up your dreams. The challenge is to apply the same passion and energy to the next stage of business execution that is required for dreams to come to fruition. There are many resources out there to help you make it happen, including incubators, accelerators, advisors, mentors, and even investors. Now is the perfect time to take that next step.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 09/17/2020 ***



Friday, September 25, 2020

5 Ways To Focus Your Strategy On Delighting Customers

my-tesla-arrivedThe world keeps changing, and visible business strategies that worked well in the past, including being the premium brand or low price producer, simply don’t get the customer loyalty they once did. Today, customers are looking for real relationships, a memorable shopping experience, and satisfaction of a higher purpose. They follow leaders who live and promote these strategies.

For example, Tesla and Elon Musk have capitalized on the environmental benefits of electric vehicles, coupled with a more memorable shopping experience by eliminating dealers. Other companies, including Ritz-Carlton, now incent their employees to build real relationships with guests, by authorizing them to spend up to $2,000 per guest to solve an individual concern.

Of course, these new customer-facing strategies shouldn’t preclude you from focusing behind the scenes on reducing costs and broadening your product line to supersede competitors. Amazon and Jeff Bezos have managed to do this well, with customers only remembering the fun and ease of shopping online, seemingly instant no-cost delivery, and no-hassle returns or replacements.

If you are rolling out a new business, or focusing on a revamp for your existing one, here is a summary of the key elements I recommend as a long-time business advisor for a winning customer-centric strategy today:

  1. Demonstrate a commitment to purpose and vision. What you say in your mission statement means nothing unless customers see you and your team living it every day. They need to see results in the form of sponsored events, social media, and feedback from influencers and customers that your mission is more than the low-cost producer.

    Whole Foods, for example, have continuously demonstrated their commitment to natural and organic foods, and have amassed an large and intensely loyal customer following for their 475 stores. As a result, they recently were acquired by Amazon for $13.5 billion.

  2. Highly focused customer segment targeting. This has to start with doing the customer interaction work to isolate the needs and drivers in the market you intend to serve. Trying to be everything to everyone doesn’t work any more. You need your team to be engaged with customers, finding what gets them excited, and tuning your message and offerings.

    In addition to their focus on purpose, Whole Foods continues to target high-income, educated city-dwellers who are health- or eco-conscious. This approach may not have worked in the startup days of traditional grocery stores, but it fits today’s urban reality.

  3. Dominate your industry before expanding to others. Many businesses are too quick in their efforts to become a conglomerate like General Electric, rather than globally dominating the one they are best suited for. Today, scaling an existing business in a large interconnected environment is generally easier than growing a disparate portfolio.

    Apple, as an example, have consistently focused on consumer electronics, since their early days with personal computers. They now dominate that industry, and achieved massive growth, loyalty, and credibility, without trying to move into enterprise solutions.

  4. Align employee incentives with customer values. Many companies still measure and reward employee productivity on internal processes, such as service calls closed per hour or revenue generated, rather than delighted customers. Results in the short-term may be optimized at the expense of repeat business, customer advocates, and loyalty.

  5. Seek opportunities to leverage competitor shortcomings. Make sure that everyone in your business understands your competitive advantage from a customer perspective, and continually seeks to optimize it. This requires continuous communication up front, agility in adapting to change, and continuous innovation improving satisfaction and experience.

Above all, continuing success requires a constant focus on strategy, and an agility to move quickly with the latest trends and innovation. Too many existing business become complacent, and the world changes around them, including former growth leaders Radio Shack, Nokia, and Enron. All too quickly, customers move on to other players that address their changing needs.

If your business strategy today doesn’t reflect one or more of the elements outlined here, your time for change may be past due. Winning customers in business is a lot more fun than the alternatives.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 09/10/2020 ***



Wednesday, September 23, 2020

6 Drivers For Aspiring Entrepreneurs To Finish School

finish-schoolA continuing question I hear from young entrepreneurs is whether a university degree is important to startup success, or just a distraction in achieving their purpose in the world. They are quick to point out that many of today’s top entrepreneurs, including Evan Williams (Twitter), Bill Gates (Microsoft), and Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook), dropped out of school to get on with their dreams.

I certainly agree that you won’t learn all you need in school to run an innovative and successful startup, but I don’t believe that universities and entrepreneurial efforts have to be mutually exclusive or serial paths. In fact, I think the evidence is clear that many entrepreneurs started their journey while still in college, and capitalized on all the resources there, before moving on:

  1. Extend your technology focus with business basics. Most colleges have now added classes in entrepreneurship to include the necessary business focus to technical majors that usually drive innovative ideas. Contrary to a popular myth, a great invention and passion alone won’t drive a great business. Good business basics are not intuitive.

    Mark Zuckerberg, while still in school, tested the viability of his “FaceMash” technology as a business by rolling it out to other students at Harvard as customers. He learned quickly that several pivots were required for business, legal, and customer acceptance reasons.

  2. Take advantage of free startup programs and mentors. Every school recognizes the power of “hands-on” work to help you develop your own ideas into a business. They provide peer group organizations, usually called incubators, with free resources, practice environments, and outside mentoring that can help you learn and pivot with minimal cost.

    For example, I do business mentoring at nearby Arizona State University and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University. Both provide entrepreneurial “head start” programs for aspiring entrepreneurs, free legal guidance, and access to experienced staff members.

  3. Initiate networking to find peer partners and investors. Universities have the links you need to patent attorneys, prototyping companies, investment groups, as well as a wealth of peer talent to round out your team and share the work. Startups are not a solo operation, so the sooner you find the right connections and partners, the faster you move.

    For most young entrepreneurs, the best networking you can do is to pitch and discuss your startup idea with peers in a school-sponsored “startup weekend” or competition judged by outside investors, where everyone wins with minimal cost and no jeopardy.

  4. Write a business plan and pitch deck for learning. Many real entrepreneurs don’t get beyond the passionate talking stage until later, and then find that building business plans is costly and time consuming. School mentors, professors, and peers will give you the critical feedback without passing judgment. Learning by doing is the only way to go.

    It may seem strange, but I find that entrepreneurs still in school procrastinate less and are less intimidated by the process of writing their plan. Unfortunately most people can’t tell a consistent story and fill in the gaps until after they have a written plan and pitch.

  5. Build a web site and incorporate while in school. These tasks are not rocket science, but there is no better way to learn than to start doing the real job, while you are still in a supportive and risk tolerant environment. Your experience will put you well ahead of most of your competitors, and familiarize you with the issues of contracts, insurance and taxes.
  6. Find employment connections with other startups. If you are not absolutely confident in your own startup idea, it pays to work first for another startup to solidify your view of the skills and resources required, to assess your own risk tolerance, leadership interests, and generate some required funding. Make a summer internship your best learning class.

In the entrepreneur world, all the facts you might have memorized in school change quickly and will be of minimal value. The real value of schooling is learning how to learn, and building a broad base of processes and connections to keep you ahead of your competitors. Rather than focus on academic credentials, keep your focus on getting business results, and investors will find you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 09/08/2020 ***



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 on 08/26/2020 ***



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 on 08/20/2020 ***



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 on 08/18/2020 ***