Saturday, October 24, 2020

5 Factors Which Define The Scope Of Your Competition

five-forces-competitor-analysisAs the business economy is expected to rebound from the pandemic, many entrepreneurs are thinking that life will soon get easier, and their opportunity can only grow. In reality, the business world gets tougher every day, with new entrants, new technology, and competitors more easily entering the fray from around the globe.

Way back in 1979, Michael E. Porter proposed his Five Forces framework for analyzing the competitive environment which I think makes even more sense today. Every existing business, as well as every startup, needs to reassess their product or service in the context of these five forces:

  1. Intensity of competitive rivalry. This is where most current business plan analyses focus today. These plans just list a few key competitors out there now, compare feature richness, quality considerations, and pricing. This is an important first step, but it’s only the beginning.

  1. Threat of new competitors entry. Startups that target profitable and growing markets with high returns should realize that these will draw many new entrants. It will certainly also decrease profitability over time, as well as test your sustainable competitive advantage. That leads to switching costs, sunk costs, brand equity, and a host of other considerations, commonly called “barriers to entry.”
  1. Utility of alternative solutions. You are never the only alternative, hopefully just the best, in price, utility, and satisfaction. If you new vehicle costs too much, people take the bus. At some level of function, availability, and price performance, customers jump ship away from you. These elements are referred to as “barriers to exit.”
  1. Bargaining power of customers. This is the degree to which customers can put your company under pressure, or leverage prices, delivery, features, and quality (market of outputs). A key is your differential advantage from alternatives. Small differentials and more competitors give customers higher leverage.
  1. Bargaining power of suppliers. Suppliers of raw materials, components, labor, and services to you can be a source of power over your ability to compete (market of inputs). You need to identify substitute inputs, supplier concentrations, and employee solidarity (labor unions), which can limit you or give you the advantage.

A few years after Porter, Andrew Grove is credited with postulating a sixth force in the marketplace – government, pressure groups, and the public. This force adds the concept of “complementors,” and has led to the growth of partners and strategic alliances to balance the competitive environment.

These forces make up the micro environment of a company, which affect its ability to serve its customers and make a profit. A change in any of them should be your cue to re-assess the marketplace. All startups need to remember their core competences, business model, or network, which are the factors that allow them to maintain a competitive advantage.

One of the key sections of every entrepreneur’s business plan is the analysis of the competition. I especially love the ones that start and end by saying “We don’t have any competitors.” Investors take that to mean either 1) there is no market for your product, or 2) you don’t understand the concept of business and competition. Either way you lose.

I always remind startups that this section of the business plan should not be a negative one, merely listing competitors, with their advantages and head start. It’s your opportunity to highlight and emphasize your relative advantages, whether they be price, features, bargaining power, or any of the six forces outlined above.

On the other hand, there is more at stake for startups than enterprises because startups do not have the same financial capital of their bigger rivals. But with a clear understanding of where the power lies, you can take advantage of a position of strength, improve a situation of weakness, and avoid stepping into a pack of wolves with no protection. It’s a painful end.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 23, 2020

7 Keys To Moving Your Best Of Breed Odds Up A Notch

Bill-GatesEveryone who starts or owns a business expects to be the best of breed, but only a few achieve that status. As a startup mentor and advisor, I often contemplate what makes the difference between winners and losers. I’m convinced that it’s a lot more than the foibles of any specific market, availability of funding, and just luck of the draw. I believe the best make their own luck.

I’ve noticed that the top performers in business, as in most other professions, have a common set of traits in the way they think, as well as act. So if you aspire to be the next Jeff Bezos or Bill Gates in business, you might want to compare the following traits to your own, and focus on adopting the ones you don’t have, as much as you focus on your next idea to change the world:

  1. Figure out first what you most want to achieve in life. I find business people all around me who are working hard to make more money, when what they really want is a work-life balance that allows them to enjoy family and help others. I advise them to find their personal passion, rather than trying to achieve someone else’s view of success.

  2. Stop dreaming about your passion and start acting on it. Too many aspiring entrepreneurs I know are very quick to come up with new ideas, but are not so quick on the execution side. To be successful in business, you need a high focus on results, as well as thinking. Business implementation requires determination and never giving up.

  3. Constantly strive to learn new things and do things better. The best of you see yourselves as lifelong learners, and able to adapt to change, no matter what your age or level of experience. Always keep looking for ways to improve and grow, rather than ways to slow down and let the business run itself. In other words, stay hungry and humble.

  4. Face and conquer your fear of a step into the unknown. Average business people push their fears ahead of them, and never make the next big step. We all have fears of the unknown, but the best of you will document the challenges ahead of you, and tackle them one by one with a plan, getting the help and learning from each success and failure.

  5. Build relationships to complement your strengths. We all have strengths and weaknesses, so don’t be fooled by your ego. Starting and running a business is not a solo operation, so building the right relationships is key. Capitalize on these relationships by listening well and delegating well. Tap into the strengths of others to fill your gaps.

    The relationship between Bill Gates and Warren Buffett is a prime example. While they have always been in totally different businesses, both still give much credit to the other for their own success. They have long been good friends and learned from each other.

  6. Grow yourself by growing the people around you. The best business people are also the best mentors and coaches. They are not afraid of giving someone a lead or inspiring them to move on to bigger and better things. By helping others, you become stronger in your eyes as well as theirs. They may someday be able to come back and pull you along.

    Sir Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Atlantic and the Virgin Group, now controls more than 400 companies in various fields. He attributes much of his success to his focus on growing the best people, and giving them the opportunity to run his new companies.

  7. Strive to build a legacy as well as a business. Leaving a legacy larger than your business requires that you keep a focus on the bigger picture. The best business people not only build a successful business, but they change the world – perhaps by improving the environment, helping the less fortunate, or fostering a disruptive technology.

    According to many people who know him, Elon Musk has always put a higher purpose above making money. His focus on SpaceX, Tesla, Solar City, and other initiatives all have a large component of “shaping the future,” as well as meeting business objectives.

I believe these traits of proven top performers in business, as well as other professions, are the keys to success that you must emulate, even more than finding that unique innovation or huge untapped market opportunity. Above all, it’s important to move quickly from thinking to doing, learn from your mistakes, and recognize when it’s time to pivot as the world changes around you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 10/08/2020 ***

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Wednesday, October 21, 2020

5 Key Recovery Strategies Counter Economic Downturns

startup-economic-downturnEvery dark cloud has a silver lining. Driven by the current pandemic, smart entrepreneurs of all ages are jumping into the fray with new ideas, new recovery strategies, and discarding outmoded business models. I see it most in the newest generation of entrepreneurs (Gen-Y), who were shocked out of entitlement into action by an economic downturn.

Donna Fenn, in her book from the last decade, “Upstarts! How GenY Entrepreneurs are Rocking the World of Business,” was one of the first to predict that Gen-Y would lead the charge, bounce back from the recession at that time, and be big winners. She describes a new generation of entrepreneurs that is highly collaborative, quick and alert when it comes to new technologies, and hell-bent on changing the world in general.

Upstarts! examines and analyses this entrepreneurial revolution to reveal critical lessons every Gen-Y entrepreneur and marketer must learn. But the insights I see from her book and elsewhere are equally applicable to startup founders of all ages, and businesses of all ages. Here are five key recovery strategies that both of us recommend to all of you:

  1. Pursue repeat business. It's far less expensive to nail down repeat business from your existing customers than it is to land new ones. Now is the time to reap the benefits of those good customer relationships that you've been cultivating. Viral marketing campaigns to lure new customers will cost you big money.
  1. Focus on your core competency. Examine every cost center in your business. Maybe it’s time to outsource that call center operation, or complex manufacturing setup. Look for operations that are hogging resources without generating significant revenue. With a concentrated point of focus, your company might be well positioned for growth this year.
  1. Snap up top talent. Past layoffs at big companies usually means more great employees on the market now for newer companies. Examine your pool of higher-paid contractors and freelancers. Now is the time to bring on board those people who would have been inaccessible in a better economy.
  1. Respond rapidly to market shifts. The pandemic has almost certainly had a profound impact on your customers: they may have altered their purchasing habits, or found themselves with entirely different needs. It's your opportunity to respond to those shifts. These are chances to broaden your product line, change distribution, offer new services.
  1. Look for hidden sources of revenue. Sometimes your best source of new revenue is right under your nose, like services revenue in support of your products. One entrepreneur in Fenn’s book had a proprietary technology to efficiently manage vendors which works so well that she is now marketing it to other companies for a transaction fee.

Most companies I know agree that the pandemic has taught them the art of laser-like focus, and compelled them to make better decisions, to become more frugal, and to initiate systems and procedures that will help position them make an economic recovery. Simply deciding to lay low and “tough it out” was never a winning strategy.

I agree with Fenn that a recession or pandemic is actually a good “wake-up call” for many in the new generation – it has forced them to face the reality of hard knocks. Similarly, it should be a wake-up call for the rest of us, or we will be overrun by young entrepreneurs with their burning desire to control their own destinies.

But I’m convinced that you don’t need to be an “Upstart!” to capitalize on hard times. Use your experience and your expertise to lead the way, or you will be left in the dust. The first step is to execute your own recovery strategy. Or don’t you even have one?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 19, 2020

How The Reality That Entrepreneurs Face Is Not Fair

Guy KawasakiMost of the time, I’m all about providing encouragement and inspiration to entrepreneurs. They need it and they deserve it, because entrepreneurs are the lifeblood of our economy. But every so often, I try to give them a reality check, just to keep their feet on the ground and their nose to the grindstone.

A few years ago, I enjoyed one of Guy Kawasaki’s first books, “Reality Check: The Irreverent Guide to Outsmarting, Outmanaging, and Outmarketing Your Competition.” In his classical humorous and cynical style, he could reset your dreaming in a moment. Here is a sampling of ten themes from the book that I think are just as relevant today as they were then:

  1. The reality of starting. It’s not going to get better – it already is. Startup folks are like medieval monasteries: always convinced that paradise is just ahead or that things only recently got worse.

  1. The reality of raising money. The closest real-world analogy to raising money is speed dating. That’s right: In five minutes, people decide if they are interested in you, just as in bars and nightclubs. This isn’t right, and it isn’t fair, but it is reality.

  1. The reality of planning and executing. If you think raising money was the hard part, you’re in for a surprise. Raising money is easy and fun. The real work begins when you have to deliver the results you promised.

  1. The reality of innovating. Many people think that innovation is easy: You sit around with your buddies and magical ideas pop into your head. Or your customers tell you what they need. Dream on. Innovation is a hard, messy process with no shortcuts.

  1. The reality of marketing. Everybody wants to do the fun stuff: shuck and jive with the beautiful people, and create fun marketing campaigns. More accurately, marketing is the process of convincing people that they need your product. That’s not so easy or fun.

  1. The reality of communicating. Entrepreneurship is an outward-focused activity. It requires that you communicate with others in all the modern modes. Every one is a skill you need to master. All it takes is reading this book and practicing for twenty years.

  1. The reality of competing. If you don’t compete with anybody for very long, it may mean that you’re trying to serve a market that doesn’t exist. The question of defensibility is one of the toughest for an entrepreneur to answer. A good answer is not to stop moving.

  1. The reality of hiring and firing. These are black arts for most people. Few people are trained for either, and most depend on their gut. They believe they won’t make hiring mistakes, so will never have to fire anyone. Wrong; and mistakes hurt people and you.

  1. The reality of working. In the beginning, startups are like a clean sheet of paper: nothing but opportunity and upside with a chance to make meaning and change the world. Then the reality of work sets in. Building a success is hard – damn hard, actually.

  1. The reality of doing good. At the end of one’s life, you are measured not by how much money you made, but by how much you’ve made the world a better place. Successful entrepreneurs often switch to non-profits and social entrepreneurship for real impact.

Of course, there is much more, but I think you get the idea. I also hope these themes don’t send a totally negative message, because the book is funny as well as thought provoking. I do believe we all need reality checks to face our challenges head-on, so that we can deal with them and survive, rather than just float along in the clouds until our dreams evaporate.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 18, 2020

10 Principles For Surviving Hard Times In Any Startup

Devil-in-business“The devil in the details” is a quote that we have all heard, and clearly applies to startups, where success in the long run is all about execution. But for you as an entrepreneur trying to get started, the devil is really in your mind, where you must prevent drifting, and maintain that confidence, commitment, and passion, to achieve your business dream.

This is highlighted well in the classic book finally published just a few years ago, “Outwitting the Devil,” annotated by Sharon Lechter. It was written way back in 1938, by the famous author of “Think and Grow Rich,” Napoleon Hill. It was too controversial to publish then, due to religious connotations, but still has key lessons for every entrepreneur today.

The premise of the book is an interview with the Devil, where he admits that he dwells in idle minds, and finds it easy to control the minds of drifters. Drifters are people who do little or no thinking for themselves, and allow themselves to be influenced and controlled by other people and circumstances.

In an interview, the Devil confesses that all people need only follow some key principles to outwit him (adapted a bit here for entrepreneurs):

  1. Do your own thinking on all occasions. Pursue your own dreams and your own thinking. Listen to others input, but make your own decisions. For success, entrepreneurs have to overcome any human tendencies toward laziness and indifference, which lead to procrastination and drifting.
  1. Decide what you really want from your business. Set your goal, and create a plan for attaining it. Be willing to sacrifice everything else, if necessary, rather than accept permanent defeat. Drifters chase a business idea for all the wrong reasons, and then give up easily, like get rich quick, or to please someone else.
  1. Analyze temporary defeat, no matter of what nature or cause. Extract from it the seed of an equivalent advantage. In business, it’s commonly accepted that you can learn more from failure than from success, if you choose to learn.
  1. Be willing to give before you receive. Other entrepreneurs and investors will more readily help you, if you have helped them first. In addition, you dramatically increase your odds of success if you learn the business domain first, before you try to lead in it.
  1. Recognize that your brain is a receiving set. Curb your output, and be an active listener, by providing feedback, an optimistic attitude, motivation, and a concern for people. A key part of receiving input is listening to what is not said.
  1. Recognize that your greatest asset is time. This is the only thing except the power of thought which you own outright, and the one thing which can be shaped into whatever material things you want. Budget your time so none of it is wasted.
  1. Recognize that fear generally is a filler. Fear rushes in to occupy the unused portion of your mind. It is only a state of mind, which you can control by filling the space it occupies with confidence and passion in your ability to overcome obstacles.
  1. When you ask for help, do not beg. Take full responsibility, and don’t be the victim. Make sure you earn any help provided, and don’t forget to properly thank your benefactor. In a startup, there is no entitlement to funding, or to a second chance.
  1. Recognize that business is a cruel taskmaster. Either you master it or it masters you. There is no half-way or compromising point. Never accept from a business anything you do not want. You can refuse, in your own mind, to accept it and it will make way for the thing you do want.
  1. Remember that your dominating thoughts attract. To become the master of your destiny, you must learn to control the nature of your dominant, habitual thoughts. By doing so, you will be able to attract into your life anything you choose. Your thoughts create your reality.

I couldn’t help but think that these points are still so relevant today in our own pandemic recovering economy, even though they were written during a comparable challenge over 70 years ago. I guess we all should take comfort in the fact that even though we live in a world of constant change, some things about human nature will always be the same.

Can you outwit the Devil today to succeed in your dream?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 17, 2020

5 Generators Of Customer Pain Conducive To Startups

wildfires-in-CaliforniaOne of my favorite sayings is “Real change doesn’t happen until the pain level gets high enough.” There aren’t many of us who love change, just for the opportunity to learn something new, and even we won’t pay much for it. Entrepreneurs who search for real pain points, and build solutions around them, have the best chance of changing the world.

In my opinion, real pain points for most people do not include a new user interface for Facebook, a new programming platform for app development, or a new size smart phone. So why do I see some many funding requests for products along these lines?

As an alternative, if you are an entrepreneur looking for the next big thing, where should you look? Here are some key drivers that will likely lead you to a fundable idea:

  1. A business crisis. The impact of the current pandemic on small businesses and staffing is causing us all pain, and forcing new ways of thinking. Maybe we haven’t seen the results yet, but there are thousands of startup opportunities to offer new alternatives and services, to replace those destroyed by the crisis.

  1. Some kind of natural or man-made disaster. The hurricanes in the Gulf, the wildfires in California, and the monsoon floods around the world, all suggest that real opportunities for change are needed in climate control, forest management, and building design. Usually, people pay to relieve pain before buying luxury items.
  1. When the world gets smaller. When globalization or technology shrinks distances (Internet), painful missing needs become evident, and opportunities abound. Other countries can provide e-commerce with different business models, outsource manufacturing at low cost, and a huge market for new products.
  1. The impact of global instability. Unpredictable forces, such as unrest in the Middle East and China, can quickly change energy cost equations, or availability of critical products. Many of the current opportunities in alternative energy are the result of these forces, as well as the lack of effective government coalitions to conserve other resources.
  1. Truly “disruptive” technologies. I hear this term every day, wrongly applied to new social media site, or a new productivity tool. I’m looking for things like the next Internet, nuclear batteries, or a technology to cure cancer. Recent “paradigm shift” technologies, like the new electric vehicles, still spawn major opportunities.

Of course, there are caveats to every opportunity. Many of the biggest and most obvious ones have non-business and non-technical hurdles, including the following:

  • Government regulations. New medical initiatives and new energy alternative technologies can be delayed or bogged down for years by existing bureaucracies and irrelevant political agendas.
  • Existing infrastructure. Companies with huge existing install bases and infrastructures, such as oil companies or auto manufacturers, often present major roadblocks to the implementation of alternative solutions outside their control.
  • People are slow to accept change. Change is hard for most people. Therefore, it takes time, sometimes whole generations, of education, communication, and incremental proof to get momentum going and overcome old fears.

Professional investors know all of these too well, and are sometimes hesitant to fund any innovation that is deemed to be too disruptive. Of course, you can choose to play it safe with more incremental, modest innovations, There’s nothing wrong with modesty. That’s the great thing about being an entrepreneur. You get to choose your pain.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 16, 2020

9 Principles Especially Critical For A Micro-Business

home-micro-businessToo many of you business owners think success only means being the next Amazon, or you stress yourself out trying to be everything to every customer. In reality, the opportunities are greater for starting with a micro-business, ideally from your special expertise or passion, with fewer than five employees, and just enough sales to comfortably support you and your team.

This type of business has long been primarily run out of the home, well before COVID-19 made that a necessity, and it still works to keep the costs of operation down. In time, many businesses outgrow their meager beginnings, to become major enterprises, comparable to the current giants Amazon and Apple. These are proof that you don’t have to start with the mindset of a giant.

Yet my years of advising entrepreneurs and small businesses has taught me that you do have to follow some basic principles and operational strategies, even to get a micro business off the ground. Key ones in my mind include the following:

  1. Build your business around what you know and love. I still hear people determined to start a business as a path to an easier life, or a way to make some money on the side. From my experience, these drivers are fraught with risk and unhappiness. Think first about where you have a natural advantage, or a unique insight or critical purpose.

  2. Keep the initial scope within bootstrapping limits. Just because you want to start a business doesn’t mean you are entitled to outside equity, loans, or crowdfunding. These only make your startup riskier, and add stress you don’t need. By spending only within your means, and re-investing the money you make, you will more likely enjoy success.

  3. Meticulously manage cash inflow and outflow. Cash flow is the nemesis of every business, particularly small ones. Don’t delegate this task to another family member or accountant. Understand and write down every expense, and budget for required costs, especially initial inventory and accounts receivable delays. Details are important.

  4. Learn to use basic business financial tools. One of the most useful tools for any small business is Excel or Google spreadsheets, for monthly profit-loss statements and operational tracking. You need to see quickly both positive and negative trends, and understand whether the fluctuations are caused by customer or internal needs.

  5. Take advantage of bartering and less-than-new equipment. You don’t need the latest-and-greatest computers or office furniture to get the job done well. Put the message out that you are willing to trade a little extra work for something you really need. Be creative in negotiating work agreements with vendors and even initial customers.

  6. Limit the scope and focus of your initial offering. You must learn quickly when to say no, as well as when to say yes. Customers will always want to stretch your limits, and it’s tempting to agree to things which may be outside your realm of expertise. Attempting to deliver these can kill you, both in quality of your solution and time to completion.

  7. Get in the habit of documenting all agreements and terms. In my experience, this is what separates a business from a hobby. Hobbyists tend to work informally with like-minded people. Skip the complex contracts by lawyers, but at least use an email to confirm terms and conditions to all parties. It’s good communication and good business.

  8. Don’t forget to do continuous marketing and networking. There is an old saying in business that what you know is not as important as who you know, and who knows you. You have to find your customers, and people who can help you – they won’t find you. Count on spending 50 to 75 percent of your time marketing and networking.

  9. Pay attention to competitors, and differentiate your offering. The quickest way to fail is to be just “one more” consultant or assistant. Every business solution has competitors and alternatives. Define your “secret sauce” or intellectual property, and advertise it as well as protect it. Be prepared to update it regularly as customers and trends change.

Businesses that start in the home are becoming more and more the norm. The Small Business Administration reports that over 50 percent of small businesses are now home-based. Yet these can fail just as quickly as any other, if basic business principles such as the ones outlined here are not followed.

Make the effort to do it right, and you too can enjoy the journey as well as the destination.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 10/02/2020 ***

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Wednesday, October 14, 2020

10 Key Principles For Managing Your Time In Business

work-time-managementEvery startup founder feels the pressure of the thousands of things that need to get done, all seemingly at the same time. There is just not enough time! The real solution is better time management to put you back in control of your life.

We all know someone who always professes to be stressed out and “so busy” that they never have time for anything – yet they never seem to get things done. The real reason is that these people don’t manage their time well. They waste too much on low-priority busywork, procrastinating on higher priority but tougher tasks, resulting in last minute crises, and failure to complete the critical work that people are really expecting of them.

I still remember the classic book on this subject by Dr. Jan Yager, called “Creative Time Management for the New Millennium.” She preaches that “Managing your time well means managing your life well. People who handle their time well do it creatively. They practice creative time management by taking control of their time and therefore their life.”

Here are ten of her key principles and mine:

  1. Set goals. In business, this means create a business plan before you start. I’m still amazed by the number of entrepreneurs I meet who have no business plan, or who haven’t updated their plan for years. If you have no goals and milestones, you can’t measure progress.
  1. Be proactive, not just reactive. Doing things before the deadline is looming reduces stress and gives you a sense of being ahead of the game. For a startup, this means starting your networking before you need money, or building the website before the business is ready to open.
  1. Prioritize actions. The secret is to identify what really needs to be done in each day. If you look closely at how you spend your days you will probably find that there are many things that aren’t really that important, but take a lot of time. Skip those.

  1. Keep your focus. Everyday interruptions in your new business can be a key barrier to managing your time effectively and, ultimately, a barrier to your success. Close the door to your home office, or turn off the phone when you have work which needs to get done.

  1. Create realistic deadlines. A realistic schedule takes several things into account. You need to spend time working, eating, sleeping, doing chores, running errands, and spending time with family. Unrealistic deadlines create stress, rework, and unhappiness.

  1. Plan and delegate. Strive to understand the relevant capabilities of team members, and then deliberately schedule tasks, delegating to the right people to get tasks done within deadlines. Even an entrepreneur can’t do everything personally.
  1. Don’t procrastinate. Some entrepreneurs actually sabotage themselves by putting obstacles in their own path that take more of their precious time. They often choose paths that hurt their performance. This represents a profound problem of self-regulation.
  1. Be a pragmatist, not a perfectionist. A proven path to success in business is to get something out, and iteratively improve it. A new product or service will never be perfect in a rapidly changing world, so don’t delay.
  1. Balance your life. When life is busy, or all your energy is focused on a special project, it is all too easy to find yourself “off balance,” not paying enough attention to important areas of your life. This causes inefficiency and stress, and your work is not fun.
  1. Do it now. In my opinion, this is the most important element of time management. Too many people procrastinate, worry, and defer, rather than just do it. Divide and conquer what you have to do. Now, not tomorrow.

Take back control of your time and your life. We are not all endowed with brilliance, good looks, or lots of money, but we each get the same number of hours every day. Use them effectively to get your startup going, and have some fun in your life. Start with item #10.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, October 12, 2020

How To Find Support Resources For Your Startup Stage

photo: © www.StefanoBorghi.comSome entrepreneurs start polling venture capitalists for that multi-million dollar investment before they even have a business plan. That’s like trying to sell part of something to a stranger for big money when you haven’t fully defined it yet. It won’t work, it costs time and money, and hurts your credibility when you need them later.

Every entrepreneur needs help and support along the way, from developing the initial idea, to selling off the successful business (exit strategy). The challenge is finding and using qualified affordable support organizations for each stage. Don’t waste your resources on the wrong ones.

It’s helpful to think of startups as proceeding through several stages, which I have defined a long time ago from a funding perspective. Let’s take a look here some similar stages from a support perspective:

  • Idea stage. The first step toward a business with any idea is to write it down, and build a business plan around it. If you need help at this stage, look for a local university teaching online courses on entrepreneurship, or how to build a business plan.

    The alternative is to work with an innovation institute to evaluate your technology, or hire a consultant. If you need money now, is has to come from friends and family.

  • Early or embryonic stage. The most common support organization at this level is called a startup incubator or accelerator, and these exist in most countries, usually sponsored by a university, local government organization, or even local individuals. Usually these will not give you money, but will provide inexpensive expert mentoring and office services.

    Their real value is your access to senior advisors with experience, and other startups in the same stage. Sometimes these will ask for 5%-15% of your equity for their support services. They are not trying to make money, but simply to recoup their costs over time.

    Separately at this stage, you may look for small funding amounts from angel investors, called seed investments. Funding of $25,000-$250,000 may be available from angels, who are private individuals spending their own money. The incubator organization can help you find them, or show you how to apply for a government grant.

  • Funding or rollout stage. This is the time for you to step out on your own, find office space, and open your business. Once you have some traction, you can approach venture capital organizations, with funding amounts of $1-10 million for the real rollout, often referred to as the “A-round,” or first institutional funding.

    Support organizations at this stage are usually professional financial advisors, or investment banks, which have nurtured relationships with institutional investors. These usually charge you a fixed fee up front, and then perhaps a small percentage of the raise.

  • Growth and exit stage. Companies at this stage must have a large market, good traction, and be focused on scaling infrastructure and market adoption. This normally means more than 30 employees, and more than $1 million in revenue. Support organizations are investment banks, similar to the preceding stage.

As startups pass through each stage, they need to use support resources wisely to minimize costs, wasted time, and maintain credibility to support movement to the next stage. Typically, they must also change and tune their executive team, to keep up with the increasing demands of a growing company on process discipline and sustainable success.

Obviously, if you bootstrap your business, you can avoid all the investment implications, but you still need a business plan and professional support. Otherwise, not paying attention to the expectations associated with each stage will likely jeopardize your business success. Do it right and enjoy real progress in each step of the journey.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 11, 2020

It’s Time To Assess Your Leadership Style In Business

business-leaders-around-the-worldStartups provide leadership in the market. Entrepreneurs provide leadership to their startup. There are many styles of leadership, like dictatorial, laissez-faire, and democratic. One that I hear discussed more these days, in this age of relationships, is called “servant” leadership.

What is servant leadership? The servant leader serves the people they lead through mentoring, direct assistance, listening, and acting on their employees input. It’s the opposite of self-serving, domineering leadership, and makes those in charge think harder about how to respect, value and motivate people reporting to them.

The concept was developed by Robert K. Greenleaf way back in 1970. Servant leaders are felt to be effective because the needs of followers are so looked after that everyone reaches their full potential, hence perform at their best, individually and as a team.

Greenleaf says that Martin Luther King, Gandhi, and Jesus were good examples of servant leadership. What do you have in common with them? If you recognize yourself in most of the following questions, you may not be another Gandhi, but you are well on your way to becoming a servant leader:

  • Do team members believe that you want to hear their ideas and will value them?
  • Does your team believe that you have a strong awareness of what is going on and why?
  • Does everyone follow your direction because they want to, as opposed to because they “have to”?
  • Do others on your team communicate their ideas and vision for the organization when you are around?
  • Do people believe that you are committed to helping them develop and grow?
  • Do people come to you when the chips are down, or when something traumatic has happened in their lives?
  • Does everyone have confidence in your ability to anticipate the future and its consequences?
  • Does the team believe you are leading the organization to make a real difference in the world?
  • Do people believe that you are willing to sacrifice your own self-interest for the good of the team?
  • Does everyone feel a strong sense of community in the company you lead?

Some of the characteristics implied in these questions come more naturally to some people than others. Experts argue that some are inherent, and are difficult to learn. But characteristics such as listening, awareness, persuasion, and building community are all learnable skills.

You should reflect and thoughtfully assess the degree to which you have what it takes to be a servant leader. If you are committed to being the best servant leader than you can be, I urge you to continuously work to develop these characteristics.

For some executives, serving people's needs creates the image of being slavish or subservient, not a very positive image. In addition, leaders need to serve the needs of customers and stakeholders, as well as those of team members, so a sense of balance is required.

For comparison purposes, autocratic leaders tend to make decisions without consulting their teams. Laissez-faire and democratic leaders normally allow people within the team to make most of the decisions, based on consensus. In reality, the very best leaders are those who can use a variety of leadership styles effectively, and use the right style for each situation.

I encourage you to take a look in the mirror, and check your leadership style. Just to make sure you are not looking through rose-colored glasses, ask a few of your most trusted associates what they see. If the answers surprise you, it may be time to find a leadership mentor.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 10, 2020

5 Indications That A New Venture May Not Be For You

adult-angry-business-businessmanPeople with a victim mentality should never be entrepreneurs. We all know the role of starting and running a business is unpredictable, and has a high risk of failure. For people with a victim mentality, this fear of failure alone will almost certainly make it a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I’m sure you all know someone who is the perennial victim. The problem is that most of these people aren’t likely to accept your assessment, so it’s hard to help them. They don’t see themselves as others see them, and many simply refuse to accept the reality of the world in general.

According to a classic article by Karl Perera, called “Victim Mentality - You Don't Have to Suffer!” there are many indications of a victim mentality in a person’s thought process. Here are some key ones he mentioned, applied to the entrepreneurial environment:

  1. “When things don’t work, I secretly believe I’m the cause.” Victims act as though each business setback is a catastrophe and create stress for themselves. These people feel more importance and ego when relating problems rather than successes.
  2. A survivor believes that bad things are an anomaly to be brushed off, or just another challenge to overcome. In fact, they look forward to the challenges, and get their most satisfaction from declaring success.

  3. “When I talk to myself, I never have a positive discussion.” Second-guessing every decision affects mood, behavior, and happiness, and is likely to cause or intensify a victim mentality. If you are negative, you cannot see reality, leading to more bad decisions, confirming you are indeed a victim.
  4. Survivors continually relive their positives, and see themselves as miracle workers. They live in the present or the future, and rarely dwell on mistakes of the past. They have faith in themselves, and life as a whole.

  5. “When others put me down, I‘m wounded to the soul.” Negative comments from others are devastating to a victim. Offensive behavior towards you actually says more about the other person. But if you have a negative mentality you will just take what they say or do at face value, and believe that you deserve to be the victim.
  6. The survivor always stands up and fights negative comments, and usually turns the blame back on the deliverer. He is quick to counter with all his positives. He builds boundaries around negative or toxic people, and avoids them at all costs.

  7. “I believe in fate, even though it’s unfair.” If you succumb to fate, then you think you are responsible for all the bad things that happen to your business. The victim feels that he or she has been treated unfairly but is trapped. There seems to be no way out.
  8. Survivors believe that they can make things happen, rather than let things happen to them. They accept random turns in their life as new opportunities, rather than unfair punishment.

  9. “Everyone is punished for a reason.” Religious beliefs can have a positive or negative affect on your life. If you believe in a Supreme Being who is responsible for everything, it’s easy to believe that your pain and misery is punishment for something you did wrong.
  10. Survivors obviously take it the other way. They enjoy a personal relationship with the Supreme Being of their understanding, and feel a gratitude for everything positive in their life. They may ask their Supreme Being for help, but rely on themselves for results.

This victim mentality is not a good thing under any circumstances, but it’s particularly lethal when applied to an entrepreneur. If you would like to be an entrepreneur, remember that you don't have to be a victim. Take a hard look in the mirror. Truly the only one who makes you feel like one is the same person who can make you a survivor - you!

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 9, 2020

8 Keys To Attracting More Talent Than The Competition

business-talent-attractionDue to the pervasive Internet, the scope of most successful startup teams today has become global. Also, more people are only available to work remotely, especially with the current pandemic. The traditional model for hiring permanent employees who can grow their career with your company just doesn’t work, and can jeopardize your business before it even gets traction.

You need a faster and more flexible on-demand hiring strategy, based on the current gig-economy of remote freelancers, contract personnel, and specialists. According to recent reports, these come from all the way up and down the age and experience spectrum, including up to ninety percent of the current Baby Boomers, as well as Millennials.

Here are some key hiring strategies I have learned in my advisory role with new businesses that can make all the difference in your success today, in both the formative stages of your new business, as well as the long-term:

  1. Skip the career hires, focus for expertise needed now. That means starting your search through contract services sites, rather than conventional career hiring sites. Of course, as you work with contract players, explore the potential for a long-term relationship, and wait until your organization matures to pursue career positions.

  2. Focus on a very flat organization, with minimal hierarchy. Many entrepreneurs still believe they need a traditional multi-level organization to handle growth and scaling, so they start hiring career managers to populate it. By hiring contract experts, less oversight and coaching is needed. In addition, you need the flexibility to pivot quickly as required.

    Many successful new companies have moved more to self-management, or decentralizing the decision-making with few managers. Zappos, led by Tony Heish, has been a leader in this direction, and reports many advantages, as well as challenges.

  3. Prioritize demonstrated execution versus potential. Career hiring has traditionally focused on potential, but you need results now. Freelancers and consultants have to demonstrate results, without training and mentoring, so they can help you more quickly and probably at a lower total cost. This lets you evolve your strategy with the market.

  4. Seek expert talent based on the stage of your expansion. Early on, your scaling is probably within a known geography, but suddenly you may be ready for a global launch to multiple unknown cultures. You need the flexibility to quickly find specialists, rather than generalists, who have “been there and done that,” and live is these environments.

  5. Take advantage of world-wide sourcing of talent. Traditional career talent sourcing normally limits your geographic reach, or imposes large relocations costs and delays. Leveraging the global network will improve your odds of a highly skilled match, and bring diversity, as well as more innovative ideas and thinking to your team.

  6. Optimize staffing overhead and flexibility in a fluid market. Full-time employees require considerable overhead for facilities, training, severance, and benefits for performance. Today you need that budget for market fluxuations, pandemics, and product updates. In addition, these staffing issues are a major drain on your own time.

  7. Higher worker engagement and satisfaction. Most remote workers save two or more hours per day of travel by working from home, not to mention the improved flexibility and the reduction in time spent in meetings, and dealing with the politics and multiple bosses. Thus they feel more fulfilled, more productive, and more in control of their lives.

  8. Reduce your company’s impact on the environment. These days, employees are living farther and farther from your office, and their driving takes away from productive time, as well as contributing to toxic emissions. You can advertise your “greener” strategy, which today will get you greater customer loyalty and advocacy.

You all have to deal today primarily with on-demand customers in an on-demand economy. That means your company has to adapt quickly to rapidly changing needs, and new competitors world-wide. The traditional hiring model and career approach is becoming less and less effective in addressing these requirement. The alternative, involving more remote workers, is already here.

As an entrepreneur with a startup, you have the advantage of building a team from nothing, rather than trying to change a long-entrenched culture of many permanent employees who are reluctant to change. I urge you to start with today’s freelancer and remote worker approach, with an evolution to permanent employees and facilities over time. Your success and growth depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/24/2020 ***

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Wednesday, October 7, 2020

5 Ways To Get Beyond Early Adopters For Your Startup

early-adoptersI would guess that most of you are early adopters, just by the fact that you are interested enough to come here and see what’s new in the business world. Every entrepreneur and startup loves you, but too many forget that every potential customer is not like you. In fact, early adopters represent only a small percent of the total opportunity, and may derail your mainstream effort.

If you are a technical entrepreneur, you can count on early adopters to be first in line for your product, and they are quick to provide feedback on quality, and suggest even more features. Unfortunately many of their suggestions may actually increase the solution complexity for the larger segment of mainstream customers who come later and you really need for success.

Thus, as a business advisor to entrepreneurs, I recommend the following strategies to strike a balance between the needs and feedback of early adopters, and the requirement to satisfy the majority of mainstream customers, and even laggards who are notoriously slow to accept change:

  1. Survey a balance of customers for needs and feedback. Early adopters who find you may be the easiest to believe, but you need to reach out to other groups who are less proactive but larger in numbers. Independent survey organizations know how to do this, and can help you avoid a common entrepreneur misstep, called the confirmation bias.

    As an entrepreneur or a business owner, confirmation bias actually allows you to hear what you want to hear in feedback from customers, even though they may be telling you something totally different. Thus you need to know how to listen as well as who to ask.

  2. Spend as much time on ease of use as new function. For technical designers building innovative features, how to use them is obvious, and it’s very hard to see things as a first-time not-so-technical customer. Usability is often an afterthought. The solution is to actively engage people outside your perspective to design usability in from the beginning.

  3. All customer interfaces must be designed by Marketing. Even the most innovative solutions today won’t succeed without marketing. Although early adopters may not be deterred by complex interfaces, the rest of your customers will rate the solution by the wording, fonts, white space, and pictures, not by how many options you can fit on a page.

    Unfortunately, even today many engineers and product developers believe that marketing is just for advertisements. In fact, marketing is all about connecting your solution with the broadest possible customer set, and creating a relationship between the two of you.

  4. Offer a default simplified path as well as a detailed path. Engineers and early adopters always love more options, even if some are esoteric or rarely used. Average customers and beginners want things to default correctly, be remembered and not requested again, with extensive help and explanations included at every level.

    All the technical people I know laughed when Amazon patented their big red button for a “one-click-buy,” but many pundits now attribute their scaling success to this simplification for the average customer. Google and others have since emulated this feature.

  5. Aim for the global market, neutralizing any cultural bias. Even though it may be your intent to scale globally as a second phase, thinking globally will help you avoid the pitfalls that local early adopters suggest. This includes things like avoiding acronyms, technical terms, words unique to a specific culture or geography, and phrases that won’t translate.

    I’m sure Kentucky Fried Chicken (KFC) might have given a bit more thought to their tag line “finger licking good,” if they had realized that during a later scaling of the business to China, the marketing translation would come out as "eat your fingers off."

In addition to these strategies, I certainly recommend that you continue to court early adopters and rely on them to signal when you are on an attractive initial path. They are opinion leaders, so the challenge is to keep them excited with your technology and innovation, without intimidating the rest of us. They can be a strong market influencer for you, or a raging critic you don’t need.

Even a niche business has the same range of customer types – from innovators, to early adopters, the early majority, late majority, and laggards, as described by the great business author, Geoffrey A. Moore, many years ago. If you want a great business, you can’t ignore any of these customers. Your long-term satisfaction and business success depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/23/2020 ***

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Monday, October 5, 2020

Don’t Make Business Decisions Based Only On Intuition

Steve_Jobs_at_Apple_iPad_EventI still know some entrepreneurs who boast of simply following their gut instincts, rather than listen to anyone or any data, to make strategic decisions. We’ve all worked with autocratic leaders in large companies who seem to thrive in this mode. They all forget or ignore the high-profile failures that have resulted from some single-handed business decisions.

One of the biggest in this decade was the merger of America Online (AOL) with Time Warner, engineered in the early 2000’s by Time Warner CEO Gerald Levin and AOL CEO Steve Case for a whopping $164 billion. Levin famously prevailed on his board and ignored everyone, but later admitted that he had presided over perhaps the worst deal of the century. Time Warner was forced to take a $99 billion loss only two years after the merger, and Levin was forced out. It’s been downhill from there.

A classic book by Thomas H. Davenport and Brook Manville, “Judgment Calls: Twelve Stories of Big Decisions and the Teams That Got Them Right” helped me put some structure around the better alternatives available today. I like the authors’ outline of four major trends which shape the new pattern for making good business decisions:

  1. The recognition that “none of us is as smart as all of us.” There is so much positive feedback on the value of involving customers in product development, and the use of social media for crowd feedback, at a very low cost, that’s it hard to argue that one person could have more insight alone, and be right more often.

  1. New models for “collaborative leadership” in organizations. The support for “open source” software and Wikipedia have pioneered other business archetypes based on open innovation, collaborative decision making, and flat hierarchies. The art of collaboration is now taught as a key success skill at every level within organizations.
  1. The use of data and analytics to support and make decisions. Intuition should never be ignored, but it should be supplemented by the growing wealth of data and analytic power available. The evidence is overwhelming that systematic analysis, not paralysis, leads to better decisions than intuition alone.
  1. Technology moves to the realms of knowledge, insight, and judgment. Ever-improving information technology makes possible the timely results and analytical decision support above. It allows for rapid capture and distribution of the many forms of explicit and implicit knowledge, derived directly from the base transactions.

All of these lead to a new paradigm of organizational judgment and decision making, to add some repeatable process and quantification to your intuition:

  • Decision making as a participative problem-solving process. Making important decisions is like any other problem to be solved, and must be approached with discipline and fact-based analysis. Smart executives seek collaboration with multiple points of view, including contrarian ones and stakeholders, before jumping off the cliff.
  • The opportunities of new technology and analytics. Technology and business intelligence are no longer the rarified provenance of “the geeks downstairs,” but are integral to decision making and the overall judgment exercised by executives at every level, whatever the industry or sector.
  • The power of culture. Organizations that practice great judgment have the basics embedded in their culture, including respect for problem-solving and leaders as facilitators of decisions, rather than monarchs. The also reward cultural change as analytical processes and technology evolves.
  • Leaders doing the right thing and establishing the right context. The role of the leader in creating organizational judgment is often first about reframing decisions as not their own exclusively. It’s also about building a team with the right mind-set, and giving them the responsibility and accountability to stand up and be counted.

Even the legendary Steve Jobs at Apple admitted to some early gut decisions which came back to haunt him, most notably his hiring of John Sculley to help him, who ultimately “destroyed everything I spent 10 years working for, starting with me.” It is said that at his second stint at Apple, Jobs relied much more on others in key decisions, but never sacrificed his values.

In my view, the days are long gone when a lone wolf at the top can make these key decisions, based primarily on intuition. Yet I still see too many executives in that mode most the time, usually driven by extreme passion and a large ego. Maybe it’s time to take a hard look at your own organization, and a hard look in the mirror, before your golden gut comes back to bite you in the butt.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, October 4, 2020

5 Keys To Pushing Past The Mental Terror Of A Startup

man-pushing-against-wallOne of the biggest impediments to starting a new venture is the “terror barrier,” as popularized by Bob Proctor, a 85-year-old millionaire and world renowned entrepreneur. This is the imaginary barrier that always seems to appear at the critical point where we would step out ahead of peers or competitors, but fear causes us to stop short.

Everyone has a comfort zone, or level of risk, where they feel in control. The problem is that if you stay in that comfort zone too long, you don’t learn and achieve new objectives. According to Bob, all growth takes place outside that comfort zone, and the edge of that zone is called the terror barrier.

If you want to be an entrepreneur and start a new business, you must be willing and able to break through your terror barrier. If you hope to succeed with any real “new” opportunity, you must be willing to learn new skills, set high goals, and get out of your comfort zone.

Overcoming the terror barrier requires first a passion for the new dream, willingness to take a risk, and determination to never quit. In addition, it helps to have a few specific strategies, outlined by Ingunn Aursnes a while back, to help you push through:

  1. Reconfirm how you have dealt successfully before with terror barriers. Everyone has had to deal with terror barriers, since the day you were born. Convince yourself that this one is only incrementally larger, not a huge jump. Contemplate the things that have worked before for you, and things that cause you to go off track.

    Some people procrastinate, make excuses, or feel real fear. We all have our “security blanket,” like sessions with a trusted friend, classroom training, or prayers to reduce the pain and keep us moving forward.

  2. Set specific goals, rather than rely on a generic dream. Make the goal increments small, so you can see yourself making each step, rather than face a step the size of a mountain. Create a picture in your mind of you achieving your end result, like you getting a Nobel prize for curing cancer, or relaxing on a beach with no more money worries.

    Then write down and prioritize your goals. If they are not written down, they don’t exist and it’s easy to forget the real meaning behind them. But don’t be overwhelmed working out the details and all the steps required just now. Work on one step at a time.

  3. Take the first step toward your first goal. You never get anywhere until you start. It doesn’t have to be a big step, but it has to be in the right direction. Put a stake in the ground, and start measuring how far you have gone. Remember that everyone takes one step backward for every two steps forward, so setbacks are normal bumps.

    Everyone learns more from failures than from successes. Moving forward, accomplishing goals, is a process rather than a continuous motion. After the first step, the second is easier, and after the first goal gives you confidence, the second will be easier.

  4. Recognize the terror barrier and see it as a growth opportunity. Take satisfaction in widening your comfort zone, the opportunity to learn, and the progress toward your goals. Use your mentor or support organization to get you over the hurdle, and celebrate the success.

    For team members, don’t forget your responsibility to help other members over their terror barriers. Helping others is the best way to forget your own fears and build the satisfaction of leadership as well as learning.

  5. Iterate the process, picking up confidence and momentum along the way. The more you persevere and keep moving in the direction of your goal, the easier it will seem and the better the results you will achieve. Even if the terror barriers get tougher, they will seem easier as momentum helps you achieve more of your goals.

People who avoid facing the terror barrier, or who back away easily, are actually falling behind, and they will quickly become less confident, less determined, and less happy. You want the spiral to go the other way, toward greater levels of success, ability to achieve greater goals, and to be a successful entrepreneur. Follow these steps and put your terror barriers behind you.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, October 3, 2020

10 Key Elements Of An Open Leadership Framework Today

open-leadership-frameworkThe pervasiveness of social networking and the Internet has caused a new focus and value on “openness,” which leads to a new element of leadership, called “open leadership.” The mantra of open leadership is “Be Open, Be Transparent, and Be Authentic.” This is counter to the traditional business premise of “control,” so many companies are still pushing back.

Charlene Li, in her classic book “Open Leadership,” shows leaders how to tap into the power of the social technology revolution and use social media to be “open” while still maintaining control. I share her view of the ten key elements of the basic framework and vocabulary of open information sharing and open decision making:

  1. Explaining: creating buy-in. This element is sharing information through the new video, audio, and interactive media about, and the logic behind decisions, direction, or strategy with the goal of gaining buy-in to the idea so everyone is working toward the same goal.
  1. Updating: capturing knowledge and actions. New publishing tools, like blogs, collaboration platforms, and even Twitter provide updates that are easily available. These have the added benefit of being searchable and discoverable.
  1. Conversing: engaging in a dialogue with others. Employees can share best practices with customers on social network platforms and customers can help each other. When done well, an organization’s online community can become a competitive advantage.
  1. Open microphone: encouraging participation. Everyone and anyone is welcome to contribute through new collaborative tools with no preconditions. Search, combined with ratings and reviews become key in separating the useful from the rambling.
  1. Crowdsourcing: solving a specific problem together. The goal here is to grow the sources of new ideas and gather fresh thinking to create a new product or service. It can also be for solving everyday problems, like logo design or open source code.
  1. Platforms: setting standards and sharing data. EBay is an example of open standardizing on how items are listed and how transactions are handled, enabling millions of individual sellers. Common platforms enable open data access at any level.
  1. Centralized. The key challenge of making centralized decision making more open is to open up information sharing in both directions, so that those in power have the right information and also have the commitment to share it back out to the organization.
  1. Democratic. Increasingly, voting is used to allow people to choose from a set of equally viable options, with the result is that employees feel a greater sense of ownership in the process. This is also becoming prevalent in decisions with customers on products.
  1. Consensus. Social technology tools now allow this process to be done quickly and less chaotically, with tremendous buy-in from everyone affected. This process works well in today’s extremely flat and non-hierarchical startup organizations.
  1. Distributed. This is a hybrid of all the preceding decision processes, in that it pushes decisions away from the center to where information and knowledge actually reside, typically closer to the customer. This mode requires more discipline and planning.

I’m still waiting to see how all this works out in real life. The challenge is to be open without abdicating all control, or spiraling into chaos. Hopefully, by embracing social media rather than constraining it, leaders can transform their organizations to become more effective, decisive, and ultimately more profitable in this new era of openness in the marketplace. Are you there yet?

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, October 2, 2020

How To Learn From New Venture Trials And Tribulations

frustrated-businessmanEntrepreneurs seem more quickly frustrated these days when their “million-dollar idea” doesn’t turn into a sustainable business overnight. They don’t realize that it takes many skills to build a business under the best of circumstances, and today’s world of instant gratification doesn’t leave room for the patience and practice to develop these skills.

Successful sports figures and musicians have long understood the value of time and practice in perfecting their skills. So why do entrepreneurs think that building a business is intuitively obvious, and should happen overnight? Building a business is a complex task, like building the product or service, and requires the same focus, discipline, and practice to get it right. Even the revered Steve Jobs of Apple didn’t get it all right the first time.

In his classic book, “The Practicing Mind,” Thomas M. Sterner outlines how people learn the necessary skills for any aspect of life, from golfing to business. He emphasizes the importance of a practicing mindset, and provides some clues on how to offset our modern culture of habitual multitasking, short attention spans, and giving up quickly in the face of any setback.

He believes, and I agree, that creating the practicing mind, and acquiring any skill, without stress and futility, comes down to following a few simple disciplines:

  1. Keeping yourself process-oriented. As entrepreneurs, we have a very unhealthy habit of making the product or service the focus, instead of the process of “changing the world,” which was the big vision in the first place. When you focus on the process, and see progress and learning with each small step, all pressure drops away.
  1. Staying in the present. In business, the world of customers and competitors changes every minute, so you learn by iterating and listening, taking all feedback as positive progress, rather than delays and mistakes. Don’t lose touch with your original dream, but fixating on the “final” solution is not productive or satisfying.
  1. Making the learning process your goal. Use the original dream as a rudder to steer your efforts. Success in business comes to those who learn most quickly, and adapt their processes most effectively. Don’t get caught up in achieving the exact product or service of your entrepreneurial dream, because it’s almost always wrong anyway.
  1. Being deliberate, and keep a clear picture of your destination. A random walk does not lead to business success. Deliberate intention is focused on a destination, but realizing that every step need not be predicted. Being deliberate is making each iteration land nearer to the destination, focusing on positive thoughts and positive actions.

Most of the anxiety that entrepreneurs experience comes from the feeling that there is an end-point of perfection in every product and business. The reality is that there is no ultimate product or business, since each improvement or business growth increment brings a whole new set of challenges, requiring more learning, more practice, and more skills.

Practice is required to replace bad and unproductive habits, like too much multitasking, with desirable habits, like solving important challenges more often than the crisis of the moment. Building new good habits is important, since they allow you to do required things effortlessly and without overt planning each time.

Even this is a process that must be practiced. First you have to be self-aware, and decide on what you want to be a habit. Then set up triggers to help you remember the action and the time, and finally make sure you have clear motivation for the action. Practice is the required repetition on this action with patience, until it’s effective and automatic.

Entrepreneurs should not be afraid to use the terms failure and practice interchangeably, since investors usually conclude that startups learn more from failure than from success. Obviously, it’s to your advantage to make your practice steps small ones in time and cost. Successful professionals actually enjoy honing their skills through practice. Are you having fun yet?

Marty Zwilling

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