Friday, October 30, 2020

9 Success Principles To Propel Your Next New Venture

new-business-successEvery aspiring entrepreneur I know is talking about the fact that there are over 2,000 billionaires in the world today, and how their innovative idea could make them one of the next ones. Most of you prefer to ignore the feedback from analysts that your chances of creating the next unicorn startup may be as low as one in five million. The big question is how you can beat these odds.

Based on my own experience in working with many successful, and some not so successful, entrepreneurs and business owners, I suggest that you start with an assessment of your own personal goals and interests, other than making money. Becoming an entrepreneur is actually a commitment to a new lifestyle, certainly very exciting, but also facing many unknowns and risks.

To help you focus, I have prioritized the following list of success principles, too often overlooked by otherwise smart people, blinded by dollar signs, who jump in before they consider the consequences and alternatives:

  1. Find a unique niche you love which adds real value. Offering one more social media site (over 200 already exist on Wikipedia) probably won’t work. I suggest looking for painful problems to solve, rather than “easier to use” or “nice to have” solutions, for customers with money. Look for needs that have a global appeal to a wide demographic.

  2. Highlight your credentials as an insider or influencer. Customers line up to believe and buy from people who are viewed as leaders or experts relative to a specific solution. Don’t forget to market yourself before, during, and after your initial idea, through social media, websites, and events. Get support from credible industry groups and partners.

  3. Focus on a solution that is scalable world-wide. Products that can be easily produced and sold via multiple channels, including the Internet, are more easily scaled world-wide. Global considerations include culture differences and translation. Specialized services, such as accounting, require skilled people, training, and tools, and do not scale well.

  4. Collaborate with customers to tune your solution. Customer feedback, including blog comments, usability reviews, and early user testimonials, build relationships and provide credible marketing to the broader customer community. Your solution must have value for every customer. Strive to make real customers your best advocates for the initial rollout.

  5. Minimize one-time sales in your business model. You need a stable customer base with an automatically renewing revenue stream, such as the subscription model. This reduces the cost of customer acquisition, allows easy upgrades for service and new features, and improves customer loyalty in the face of new competitors in the market.

  6. Facilitate rapid growth through contracted resources. Minimize permanent hiring and customized operational facilities. In this age of the gig-economy, you can more quickly hire and manage freelancers, contract workers, and contract operations. Every new business has unexpected pivots and adjustments, and outsourcing is easier to manage.

  7. Take advantage of low-cost modern tools and automation. Use open-source e-commerce and website software, including web-chat software and PayPal, rather than building expensive customized solutions. On the hardware side, look for high-volume manufacturing and direct ship solutions, rather than final assembly in your garage.

  8. Develop a product line and add alternate channels. Diversifying sooner rather than later grows your opportunity with existing customers, and increases your brand visibility outside of the market you already own. New channels, such as adding brick-and-mortar distributors to supplement your online sales, also can multiply your rate of growth.

  9. Prioritize mergers and acquisitions early. Most entrepreneurs consider mergers and acquisitions as a later follow-on, unless they are in real trouble, or if they have already saturated their base market. Smart startups explore mergers early to solidify their image in the marketplace, eliminate competitors, allow rapid scaling, or resolve resource gaps.

You probably already intend to follow one or more of these principles, but leading billionaires, like Jeff Bezos, could validly claim every one of these and others, and have used them to drive Amazon to the trillion dollar level (one thousand billion).

Yet, even by following all these principles, don’t expect it to be easy. The odds are still stacked against you, and the volatility of new markets make it even more challenging. But for those of you who are a real match for the entrepreneur lifestyle, that’s what makes it fun.

You will enjoy the learning and problem solving that comes from these challenges, and you may even step into the ranks of the billionaires as a final accolade. It’s a big step, but you can do it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 10/15/2020 ***



Wednesday, October 28, 2020

5 Steps To A Winning Strategic Plan Execution Process

strategic-plan-processIn my years of advising business leaders, from entrepreneurs to enterprise executives, I often hear a passion for strategic change planning, but seldom see the same commitment to strategic execution. I fully understand that real change is hard, but I’m convinced that more focus on the execution is required to overcome the current 70 percent failure rate for strategic transformations.

While pulling together my thoughts on how to better implement change initiatives, I was happy to see some specific guidance in a new book, “Ruthless Consistency,” by Michael Canic, PhD. He brings a wealth of experience to the table, based on years of consulting work with middle market companies around the world. I support his summary of five key steps to get beyond the planning:

  1. First check your view of the reality of your situation. If you start with a distorted or biased view of what your company needs, no execution is likely to achieve the results that win. Also, if you are not totally committed in spirit, as well as resources, to a strategic change, it probably won’t happen. Doing what it takes to win involves risk and sacrifice.

    Another reality is that sending mixed messages to your team will kill your change effort quickly. If a change initiative is “highest priority” today, but another takes its place next week, people will not take you seriously. Consistency and attention to detail are critical.

  2. Replace strategic planning with a change process. Strategy must be a process, with an implementation system behind it, rather than just a periodic event. The process must focus not only on the “what,” but the “how.” This must include metrics and tracking, with the necessary systems and resources to act, recalibrate, and iterate as required.

    A change process gives you and your team a structure for execution, and clears the desk of non-value-added activities to focus on the strategic work. It means applying rigor to the execution, and being prepared to pivot the initiative in an ever-changing marketplace.

  3. Create the environment and equip people to succeed. Strategic execution requires a business environment where everyone is on board, and able to complete their part of the process. Team members must be engaged and enabled to do the job – that means aligned, equipped, coached, supported, and valued for the work and changes ahead.

    Communicate with people, not at people, before during and after you develop any strategic initiative. Validate everything you do from their perspective, as well as yours. Give primary attention to those who are promoters of change, not the recalcitrant few.

  4. Be selective in recruiting and building the right team. Look for people with a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset that may be hard to change. Give special attention to traits that fit your specific customer context, or a higher purpose you espouse, such as a focus on the environment. Beware of biases that can work against strategic initiatives.

    It is very important to regularly assess your selection process, and all new team members, at the end of each period. Team members who don’t meet expectations must receive special coaching or be replaced before they negate other team member efforts.

  5. Personalize your commitment and lead the initiative. Don’t allow you to be the enemy, by letting external distractions take priority, being selectively inaccessible, or not making timely decisions. Control your ego, and practice being vulnerable at the right time to maintain their respect. Your team commitment must be evident and actions consistent.

    Jeff Bezos, the legendary founder of Amazon, believes his commitment to his team is his key to sustained strategic leadership. He admits that he still has to sell his team on many of his biggest, boldest ideas, and he is indebted to them in keeping ahead of competitors.

In business, there are no guarantees of success, but the requirements for strategic change are certain. Whether you give only lip service to this requirement through strategic planning, or implement a formal business infrastructure to attack these challenges consistently, is up to you.

In my experience, the steps outlined here will definitely increase your odds of success and survival. Also remember that what you do and feel is not enough – execution depends on team selection, engagement, and commitment. It’s up to you to align their hearts and minds on winning. Winning together is more fun anyway.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 10/13/2020 ***



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 on 10/08/2020 ***



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 on 10/02/2020 ***



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 on 09/24/2020 ***



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 on 09/23/2020 ***