Monday, November 30, 2020

6 Reasons To Ease Into The Entrepreneur Startup Dream

browsing-business-cafe-computerThere has long been a big debate about the best approach to starting a new business. Some argue the only way to start is to drop everything and jump in with both feet, while others recommend an overlapped approach to the lifestyle, including not quitting your day job until you have revenue and a proven business model. I’m definitely a proponent of this latter approach.

Billionaire entrepreneur and "Shark Tank" co-host Mark Cuban is an outspoken proponent of the all-in early approach in a video interview, and made it clear that he gives no credibility and low odds to founders seeking funding who have not fully committed their time and efforts to their cause. Obviously his approach of absolute focus, getting up early, staying up late has worked for him.

On the other hand, I just finished a classic book, “The 10% Entrepreneur: Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job,” by Patrick J. McGinnis, a well-known venture capitalist and private equity investor. He makes some good points in the book for the overlapped entrepreneur approach that I espouse:

  1. One job is not enough these days. The smartest people I know these days always have several things going concurrently – and more in the queue. With the rapid pace of change and all the unknowns in the world, everyone should be working on multiple options, including a conventional paying job as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity.
  1. The early entrepreneur lifestyle is not much fun. Even with high passion and a good cause, early startup efforts are stressful, lonely, and things always take longer than expected. I see no reason not to balance these frustrations with the satisfaction of more conventional work accomplishments and the people relationships we all need to thrive.
  1. Startups cost money but don’t pay a salary before revenue. Most entrepreneurs don’t get the satisfaction of a salary for the first couple of years, even if their startup is well funded by investors. Living off credit cards and borrowed money, instead of other work income, can ruin your personal finances and kill your startup motivation far too early.
  1. Maintain the status and affirmation of an existing job. Not all friends and family will see your entrepreneurial efforts as visionary and prestigious. You can choose to keep your startup efforts “below the radar” to keep peace in the family until your business has the momentum and visibility to overcome the qualms of skeptics important to you.
  1. Make sure you have the right idea before risking all. I very much respect the passion and enthusiasm of a new entrepreneur, but I’m seen enough as a startup advisor to know that more time and effort is often required as a reality check. Reality checks are best before you have put everything on the line, essentially eliminating the ability to back out.
  1. Odds are you are going to fail before you succeed. Historical and current statistics still show the chances of failure on any given startup are better than even. The good news is that you can learn from that failure, improving future odds. Having another job is more good news, since it improves the financial, emotional, and social ability to try again.

In my view, entrepreneurship is an endurance sport, rather than a quick dash to success. When you are starting a new venture, raising capital, and landing those initial customers, the obstacles keep coming, so you need all the flexibility and resilience you can muster. It pays to be able to step into a more familiar role from time to time to clear you mind and hone your strategy.

Over time, I do find that the entrepreneurial lifestyle is more addictive and usually more fulfilling than more conventional business roles. As a result, I know many successful entrepreneurs, including Mark Cuban, who can’t resist starting or investing in a second or third business concurrently, or even hundreds. That’s another variation of a part-time entrepreneur.

As a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I often advise them to start with another alternative, of working for an existing startup, before or while starting their own. I recognize that everyone is unique, with different levels of risk tolerance, energy, and motivation. Thus I encourage you to take a hard look in the mirror, and you’ll know when you are ready to be a full-time entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 29, 2020

7 Tips For Surviving Your Tough Business Challenges

frustrated-businessman-challengesIt’s easy for an entrepreneur or a CEO to feel like a leader when things are going well, but the challenge is to keep that confidence and drive in the face of economic downturns, business turnarounds, and stressful personnel situations. Working twenty hours a day, losing your cool, and falling back to a no-risk strategy are not conducive to long-term success.

I saw some practical tips for business leaders under pressure a while back in the book “The Outside the Box Executive,” by Richard Lindenmuth, a seasoned interim CEO, who has stepped in and revitalized more than his share of struggling companies. I’m convinced that his advice is equally relevant to early startups, where the challenges are legion and the path is far from clear.

I agree with Lindenmuth that emotional intelligence and stability is a must in these environments. He calls it strategic empathy, which is sincerely focusing on the individual, but always with the big picture of the business as top of mind:

  1. Expect anxiety on the team and deal with it directly. When things are not going well, or when the future is clouded with unknowns, expect to find people on the team who are scared and angry. You have to act quickly to communicate strategy, be the role model for calm, and stand up to outliers before the whole team becomes dysfunctional.
  1. Let them say no, and actively listen to team input. Of course, no leader wants to hear negative views, but it’s important to show empathy and reach everyone on an emotional level, while containing your own emotions. People need to know that it’s safe to express their opinions. Once you get beyond the negatives, most people have real contributions.
  1. Focus on team members who will tell it like it is. In any organization you will find people who will tell you what you want to hear, or who are fighting for their own survival. Although you must listen at every level, the best leaders look carefully for that middle ground or middle manager that can see the big picture and effectively implement change.
  1. Don’t send a representative in lieu of direct contact. Lack of your physical presence is read as detachment, or lack of leadership. Direct contact, to people at every level, is the best way to generate trust, respect, support, and action. A recipe for failure is assuming that you can deliver a message once, and get it passed down by subordinates.
  1. If you see something broken, fix it now. Decisive action inspires confidence. People’s perception of your leadership and trustworthiness is directly related to your word-action alignment and behavioral integrity. Show them what you expect, and people will follow your example. If everyone is fixing problems with confidence, the business will prosper.
  1. Everyone has to pull their weight in the same boat. Create an environment that encourages and rewards participation and progress, with no penalties for missteps. Define a common goal, such as improving the customer experience, and eliminate any contention between the internal towers of development, marketing, and sales.
  1. Practice the eight out of ten rule. Generally, out of ten ideas, eight are not usable, but that’s the only way to get to those two good ones. So welcome all suggestions and praise every attempt, which will encourage more ideas. This may also be stated as the Pareto principle, where 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the efforts.

When the business is struggling, it also makes sense to bring in outside help for a fresh perspective. This could be a peer, or independent business advisor, ideally one who has been through a similar kind of struggle in their business. The best leaders put aside their pride and emotion, and listen carefully to guidance from outside the organization.

When real change is required in business, a unilateral top-down business leadership strategy is rarely effective. Successful CEOs and entrepreneurs instead listen, learn, empathize and include everyone in the challenge. With their leadership, and everyone invested in the company’s survival, the odds of success go up dramatically. Are you ready for that really tough challenge?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 28, 2020

8 Tips For Getting Your Startup Right The First Time

Cabin-Spacey6In my view, starting a new business has never been easier, and according to reports from the Kauffman Foundation, the numbers are here to show it. The rate of new entrepreneurs increased between 2013 and 2019, from 280 out of 100,000 to 310 out of 100,000 of the adult population. Over 600,000 new businesses were created in the last year, or over one per minute of every day.

Of course, that’s both the good news and the bad news for aspiring entrepreneurs, since it means more competition, and the business landscape is changing faster than ever. But for founders who do their homework, the cost of entry is lower and the opportunity is higher than ever. Who would not want to join the unicorns (recent startups with a current valuation of over $1 billion)?

Even the homework is easier, with free access to more opportunity details and competitor data on your mobile device from anywhere in the world. Excellent detailed resources are everywhere, including a classic book, “The Startup Checklist,” by serial entrepreneur and founder of the New York Angels, David S. Rose. He nails the current key startup parameters, including the following:

  1. Crafting a lean business plan as your road map. The days of lengthy, text-heavy, business plan documents prepared by expensive experts are behind us. Investors and partners now look only for a framework of your business essentials, within the context of your opportunity, solution, and financials. Just make sure you can fill in all the details.
  1. Building a minimum viable product, with customer validation. Years ago, it cost a million dollars for a new e-commerce site, one that you can now create for almost nothing with current tools and technology. Minimum viable products (MVPs) are recommended for validating the market, with iterative enhancement to quickly meet market feedback.
  1. Incorporating a business entity early through online services. Before you bring on partners, develop intellectual property, raise capital, or generate revenues, you need to establish an official business entity. These days you can create a C-corporation online quickly at a low cost, which will serve you well, without waiting for an outside attorney.
  1. Establishing your brand with interactive social media. Building your public image and presence should start even before product development, through your website, logo, and blogging. Early customer feedback will position your solution, and help you make pivots before critical time and money are lost. The cost of social media done well is low.
  1. Using new tools for recruiting key players and advisors. Networking no longer is primarily a face-to-face serial activity. Online “dating” assistance, including Founder Dating Playbook, StartupWeekend, and CoFoundersLab, as well as LinkedIn and Facebook, give access to the people and skills you need, without the time and cost of travel and small talk.
  1. Rounding out the team with employees and freelancers. With the Internet and modern video communication tools, including Skype and Google Hangout, you can find the people you need, from anywhere in the world, and sign them up quickly. Successful startup teams today have a mix of remote employees, freelancers, and contractors.
  1. Fundraising through online platforms and crowdfunding. Professional investors now look for startups through popular online platforms, including Gust and InvestorHunt. Non-professional investors now use crowdfunding sites, like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, for similar access. Angel groups, accelerators, and incubators are pervasive. Use them.
  1. Measuring progress with big data and analytics. You don’t have to be a heavily funded later stage startup to get access to “big data,” customer analytics, and metrics dashboards. Remember that early and consistent measurement is the first step leading to better control and quicker improvements. Set milestones and manage to those targets.

While these tips, and many others from experts like David Rose, may seem like common sense, it has been my experience as a startup advisor that perhaps two thirds of the startups I see are built initially on creaky foundations. Later cleanup can double your costs and risks. It’s a lot more fun to do it right the first time, making it easier for you, and tougher on your competition.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 27, 2020

6 Business Practices That Will Verify You As A Leader

Gates_FoundationIn these difficult days of the pandemic, the visibility of leadership in business, as well as politics, seems to be at an all-time low. In my view as a business advisor, it’s an ideal time for aspiring entrepreneurs and small business owners to get ahead of the crowd by driving an innovative solution to a painful problem with the passion, perseverance, and work ethic I see every day.

Some people are convinced that leadership is a character trait that you must be born with, but I see it more as a mindset and a set of skills that you can develop and learn from experiences and relationships in business, both positive and negative. Here is my list of the most critical skills that I look for in entrepreneurs who are likely to lead their businesses, and themselves, to success:

  1. Focus on change and learning as a key to leadership. People I meet who think they have all the answers usually fail at leadership. We all live in a world of constant change, and “the way things have always worked” probably won’t work tomorrow. I’m convinced that the most important thing you can learn in school, or any job, is to learn how to learn.

    Successful entrepreneur leaders, including Bill Gates and Elon Musk, are noted for taking deep dives into new technologies, and reading new books every week, to stretch their minds, even though they already have a range of knowledge far beyond their peers.

  2. Pay attention to the words and actions of your team. Real listening is a leadership skill that’s more valuable than being a great orator. Without listening, you can never learn from your team and others, and by talking too quickly or too much, you will shut down positive contributions before you ever hear them, and never see real innovations.

    The keys to being a good listener and observer include letting other know that you are listening through facial expressions and acknowledgement, not interrupting or trying to talk when others are speaking, and repeating back clearly what you have been told.

  3. Tell people where you want to go, not how to get there. In business, this is called “communication,” rather than giving orders. It’s not a difficult skill to learn, but takes practice and discipline to do it often and effectively. Often, it helps to use storytelling to make the message more memorable, or allow others to relate your and their needs.

    It has to start with people understanding your vision and values, seeing through your actions that you are committed to the same, and transparently asking them to help get you there. Giving orders does not build trust or commitment, and precipitates pushback.

  4. Sustain motivation and loyalty by giving credit to others. Recognition of internal contributions can be as simple as a public “thank-you,” or as formal as a promotion or equity sharing. It does require sensitivity and engagement with the people around you, as well as your customers. Don’t be reluctant to seek and recognize help from others.

    External customer loyalty and motivation used to be as simple as good customer service, but today’s customers expect more. They look for a memorable total experience, from a quality product, a positive shopping experience, to an easy return or exchange policy.

  5. Recognize that negotiation is an art as well as a skill. Learn how to make every negotiation a win-win, rather than a win-lose event. Make sure your negotiations are never perceived as manipulating, but about explaining to the other party the benefits of your proposal to both of you. This can be learned by imagining yourself in their shoes.

    In the business world, we all win some battles and lose others. We all must learn to deal with the frustration and discouragement associated with the lost battles, and learn to prioritize the important ones, to become more effective in all our negotiation efforts.

  6. Spend more time coaching and mentoring your team. If people really believe that your success as a leader is tied to their own success, they will follow you anywhere. They must be inspired by your coaching to create a better future for everyone. Effective coaching always involves helping make new connections, for relationships and learning.

In my view, starting and growing a business is the ideal place to learn and practice leadership. The same principles can then be applied and extended to make you a leader in your community, industry organizations, or government politics.

Today, more than ever, we need more leaders and fewer critics. You are all well positioned to make an impact. It’s a lot more satisfying then following the crowd.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/13/2020 ***



Wednesday, November 25, 2020

5 Equity Crowdfunding Reflections Before You Sign Up

Crowd-Funding_FTA_&_OLPCWith the advent and growth of crowdfunding over the past few years, many entrepreneurs have predicted the demise of those demanding angel investment groups and venture capital organizations. In fact, the latest figures show that crowdfunding globally is expected to reach $114 billion by 2021, exceeding the amounts contributed by either angel groups or VCs alone.

Early crowdfunding successes have been undeniable. Way back in 2015, the Kickstarter Pebble smartwatch raised $20.3 million, smashing the prior Kickstarter record of $13.3 million. Worldwide, almost fifty campaigns since then have exceeded the $10 million dollar mark, despite targets as low as $20K.

But don’t be misled – these are just the cream of the crop. According to more recent statistics, fewer than a quarter of all crowdfunding operations end up being successful, and the rest have to return anything they do collect. That’s not as high as the failure rate with professional investors, but it should convince entrepreneurs that crowdfunding is still no panacea for funding.

Most of the experience so far has been cash versus the equity feature defined by the JOBS Act – Equity Crowdfunding (Title III), introduced back in 2016 with 685 pages of rules. Now there are dozens of online equity portals, including WeFunder and Microventures, already geared up to help regular people buy equity in a startup, without qualifying as an accredited investor.

Have you ever wondered what professional startup investors think about all this? As an accredited angel investor, I claim to be one of those professionals, and I’ve talked to many more. I’ve also perused much of the published material on equity crowdfunding, including a detailed book, “The Crowdfunding Handbook,” by former Wall Street lawyer, Cliff Ennico.

I would summarize the qualms and feedback from professional investors as the following:

  1. Crowdfunding platform costs trickle down to angel groups. The new audit, due diligence, and liability requirements from the JOBS Act, now levied on equity crowdfunding portals, could dramatically increase the costs and restrictions on angel groups. These groups are now largely run by volunteers at no cost to entrepreneurs.
  1. Lack of checks and balances on startup valuations. A startup that is listed on a crowdfunding platform gets no formal pushback or negotiation on its declared valuation. Unreasonably high early valuations hurt the entrepreneurs, as well as professional investors, later when a second round becomes a down round or can’t be negotiated.
  1. Investors cannot verify accountability or governance. In equity crowdfunding, no investor is representing their own interest. Board seats can’t be negotiated, and even informal mentoring in decision and governance processes is unlikely. This means less capability to ensure that invested funds are spent wisely or as planned. Risk is increased.
  1. Later funding rounds can’t deal with a thousand shareholders. Very few successful startups need only one funding round, and venture firm offerings, as well as the IPO process, will go up in cost, complexity, and risk, as the number of current investors goes up. Even if the additional rounds are also crowdfunded, the same considerations apply.
  1. The impact of “dumb money” versus “smart money.” By definition, investors from the crowd have less experience and differing motivations from professional investors. This can hurt the company, and jeopardize all investors. Most public company executives today decry the short-term focus of conventional shareholders on profits versus strategy.

At the same time, we all recognize that that there is never enough money to satisfy the needs of entrepreneurs, so more sources are always welcome. Smart angels and venture funds have already begun to integrate equity crowdfunding as a step in their investment strategy. Increasingly I’m seeing startups in talks with bigger investors after a successful crowdfunding campaign, as fund managers scout platforms for interesting ideas and teams.

Crowdfunding is here to stay, with the major types focusing on pre-orders, rewards, goodwill, and equity. If you are an entrepreneur, I recommend you find the right platform, a good handbook, and go for it. Your options for funding just increased, or at least you have a new way to get some real market feedback on the demand for your solution.

As a professional investor, I recommend continuing to capitalize on business experience and financial acumen. It shouldn’t be that hard to stay ahead of the crowd.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, November 23, 2020

6 Tips To Avoid Being Blindsided By A New Competitor

ahead-of-the-pack-businessmenEvery entrepreneur and business executive knows that continuous innovation is required to survive, but most struggle with this more than any other challenge they face. They know they need to act proactively, but still are often blindsided by a new competitor coming out of the blue with a future they never imagined. Innovation driven by the next crisis is not leadership.

I remember the classic book, “The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation,” by Vijay Govindarajan, one of the world’s leading experts on strategy and innovation. He succinctly outlines the key behaviors that I believe every business leader must focus on, to drive innovation without waiting for the next competitive crisis:

  1. Avoid the assumption that current gifts will keep on giving. This is a trap of the past to be avoided at all costs. The best leaders selectively forget the past, and are constantly on the lookout for the future’s raw material of new ideas. They overtly set out to create the future as a mission distinctly separate from their performance engine of today.
  1. Be alert to “weak signals” of non-linear shifts and trends. To do this, leaders must eliminate the noise of obsolete ideas and activities, by creating protective structures, including dedicated teams focused on innovation. They need to regularly listen to a few mavericks and outsiders who routinely generate nonlinear ideas and trends.
  1. Create the future as a day-to-day business process. The future needs to be treated as today by a team and a process that is insulated from interference, but empowered to draw on necessary performance engine resources. The trick is not to sweep everything aside, but to balance relevant aspects of now while making room for what is new.
  1. Sponsor experiments and measure like new investments. Experiments on today’s revenue engine necessarily focus on short-term financial goals. Experiments on future ideas should be measured like investments, and judged on longer-term potential, allowed to iterate, and focused on learning and adapting quickly. Both are always recommended.
  1. Constantly build new skills to be resilient in the face of change. Ensure your firm’s fitness to act on new opportunities, and develop an evolving sense of where the future lies. A business that relies on static skill replacement is falling behind, and ripe for the next competitive crisis. Build a process also for divesting those who have lost their value.
  1. Invest more energy in the “horse you can control.” Most executives admit to spending huge amounts of time and energy on issues they can’t control, including the economy, regulatory changes, and competitor moves. The best leaders spend more time on their own processes, skills, and hard decisions on what to keep and what to divest.

Govindarajan recommends a simple and practical “three box” framework for allocating time, energy, and behaviors in the proper balance to foster continuous innovation. These three boxes include managing the present, escaping the traps of the past, and generating breakthrough ideas. This is the only way to exploit change and let go of old ideas, while still profiting from the present.

He relates actual examples of how major companies, including GE, Hasbro, and IBM, have used this framework and strategy to selectively let go of the past and remake themselves on a regular basis to stay vital and competitive. On the other end of the spectrum, technology startups also really need this mentality, since the rate of change there is rapid, and competition is so intense.

Thus, I believe the approach actually works and applies to leaders at all levels – from a small team startup entrepreneur, to a business unit leader in a larger organization, to the chief executive of a multi-national conglomerate. It allows any leader to actively invent the future, rather than consistently be reacting to it. How much of your time is currently spent in crisis reaction mode?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 22, 2020

6 Tips On Where And When To Look For Startup Funding

gold-money-dollar-currencyOne of the biggest myths I have found in the entrepreneur community is that every startup needs one or more outside investors for credibility and success, and perhaps is even entitled to at least one. They don’t realize that according to statistics from, almost 60 percent are funded with personal savings and credit, and another 25 percent get their money from friends and family.

That leaves only about fifteen percent that actually get their funding from investors, through crowdfunding, banks, angels, and venture capitalists. Of course, if you want to be in that number, or you want that number to go up, you have to know how to locate potential investors who fit your profile, requirements, and expectations.

I saw a good summary of the most effective ways to source prospective investors in a classic book, “The Art of Startup Fundraising,” by Alejandro Cremades, who has been there and done that, both as an entrepreneur and an investor. The first step is to set your criteria, including a match for your sector type and stage, and then proactively seek out and contact the best candidates:

  1. Review profiles on professional social media sites. Searching LinkedIn, for example, is a must for contemporary entrepreneurs. It clearly identifies potential investors who meet your profile, and provides contact information. But don’t wait for them to contact you. Draw up a list of the best prospects, and put together your best story for follow-up.
  1. Identify customer executives who need your solution. Many savvy entrepreneurs are able to convince high-potential customers that investing early in a high-value solution, perhaps through an advance on royalties, is in their best interest. Customers benefit from early solution access, priority input on requirements, and personalized customer service.
  1. Reach out to your biggest fans for investor leads. Strong believers in your solution can be your best salesforce to find investors, and some of them may be open to investing as well. Any one of them might find an interested rich uncle, or give you a warm introduction to that professional investor that you have been trying to attract.
  1. Ask your business advisors for warm introductions. There is a good chance that business advisors and mentors also have access to investment capital, or know someone who does. In my experience, an introduction to an investor from a mutual friend or business associate will double or triple your odds of closing a deal.
  1. Talk to thought leaders at relevant industry events. Getting to know leaders at these events will get you visibility and credibility, as well as valuable feedback on your strategy and solution. Industry leaders are a prime source of leads to companies and individuals that may invest. In addition, it’s always better to be friends before you are a competitor.
  1. Review current crowdsourcing sites for a good fit. By using a service such as Onevest, you can also place your startup in the right shop window and let investors come to you. Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming the key source for finding investors outside the mainstream. It works best for solutions that have social value and mass appeal.

While exploring all these alternatives, don’t forget that the right investor in a majority of cases may be you, through bootstrapping and personal credit. The advantages are many, including avoiding all the cost, pain, and distractions of finding and managing external investors, allowing you to retain full control and all your hard-earned equity for yourself.

The right investor also changes as you move through the different startup stages. Friends and family are key at the idea and early development stages, when you have minimal business valuation. Angel investors typically provide early-stage rollout funding, while venture capital firms won’t be interested until you have real traction and revenue during scaling.

Looking in the right place for the wrong investor won’t help you. But operating in stealth mode, or waiting for that perfect investor to find you, or feeling entitled, is even less effective. The most successful entrepreneurs know where to look and when to look for funding, and the rules are always changing. Maybe it’s time to rethink your startup funding strategy.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 21, 2020

6 Tips For Combining Passion And Purpose To Stand Out

Yvon_Chouinard_by_Tom_FrostFinding your sweet spot as an entrepreneur needs to start with a meaningful personal purpose that is also a business opportunity. Some people are so passionate about a cause that they forget to consider the lack of business potential, while others are so enamored with profit that they jeopardize their ethics. Both ends of this spectrum fail to bring long-term satisfaction or success.

Many entrepreneurs are finding their “secret sauce” these days by combining a strong purpose with a good business opportunity. For example, the handmade-item platform Etsy sponsors free entrepreneurship courses for underemployed and unemployed people, including assistance in setting up a store on Etsy, thus adding more artists and artisan sellers to their platform.

Patagonia, a successful outdoor products company, combines building safe high-quality products with philanthropic efforts to help the environment. In the name of this cause, the company donates time, services, and at least one percent of their sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups around the world. Purpose must not be perceived as just a gimmick.

So the question is how do you find a personal purpose and a business purpose that are in sync, to be the driver of business success, as well as your own happiness? I remember a classic book, “The Purpose Effect,” by renowned author Dan Pontefract, that provides a good framework and background or doing just that. I recommend his tips for creating and maintaining that sweet spot:

  1. Define a personal declaration of purpose. Deciphering one’s personal purpose should be priority one. Keys to this must include how you want to operate your life, and how you incorporate your strengths, interests, and core attributes. Write it down, make it specific, expressive, yet succinct and jargon-free. Then take ownership and make it happen.
  1. Don’t stop believing, learning, and developing. If one stops growing and experiencing, personal purpose will be inhibited. We all change as we mature, and we all need to keep changing. To find new work you love, it helps to do job shadowing or short term rotation. Outside of work, it’s important to join a club, do volunteer work, and help at local events.
  1. Establish a team-defined declaration of purpose. By constructing with the team a purpose-first strategic direction with a role-based mindset, a business will have far greater buy-in from its team to achieve its mission and objectives. When every team member sees purpose in their role, the benefits begin to accrue quickly for all.
  1. Set specific targets for serving all stakeholders. The challenge of every business is to create a win-win relationship between business owners, partners, team members, customers, and the community at large. By setting specific targets, you can apply measurements to chart progress and be able to celebrate successes along the way.
  1. Delight and deliver value to your customers. Without customers, there is no business. Thus even purpose-driven entrepreneurs need to maintain a “customer-first” perspective. When the customer is put first, the team will rally around that focus. When the customers are delighted, they become your best advocates of your purpose and your business.

  1. Create an engaging and ethical workplace. Prioritizing an ethical culture is a critical step to gaining the respect of customers, team members, and the community in the pursuit of becoming a purpose-based organization. Factors which increase engagement include more manager face-time, flexible work rules, and better recognition opportunities.

In the long run, both purpose and business are all about people. Neither of these can be static, and still stay vital. Both should be thought of as in perpetual motion, so finding your sweet spot is not a one-time event. You and your business are on a journey, by way of new experiences, insights, and knowledge, requiring constant attention, or the sweet spot will be lost.

That should convince you that finding and maintaining your sweet spot in business will not be easy. It takes hard work and requires hard choices be made, which can be painful. In the difficult early stages of any business, it can also seem like you are leaving some things for others that should be in your pocket. But you will soon find that the joys of giving far outweigh the taking.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 20, 2020

8 Networking Strategies Pay Big Dividends In Business

Global-Business-Networking-EnhancedThere is no skill more vital to an entrepreneur than effective networking. You can’t build your business alone, and networking is the best way to open doors, professionally and personally. For introverts like me, it’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone and meet new people, but if you approach the challenge correctly, I have found that it can actually be fun as well as productive.

This was illustrated well in the classic book, “Hopping Over The Rabbit Hole,” by Anthony Scaramucci, a well-known entrepreneur, financier, and television co-host of Wall Street Week. He highlights the value and “how-to” of business networking strategy in eight key bullets which resonate with me, and I believe every aspiring entrepreneur practice these early:

  1. Push yourself to take the initiative, rather than wait to be found. If you wait for people to come up to you, they likely won’t be the right people. It pays to do your homework ahead of time on people you expect to find, or people you need to know. Otherwise listen to conversations around you, and join in ones where you can contribute.
  1. Try to find common ground outside of business. In business networking settings, it’s not very memorable to talk only about business. Remember that personal relationships are the ones that set you apart and will grow and last. Look for common family experiences, academic connections, or sports activities. Common interests lead to trust.
  1. Put yourself in a positive state of mind beforehand. Everyone is impressed with people who smile and exude authentic positive energy. Psych yourself up for this, if necessary, before you enter a room. Be the visual image of the people you need to meet, and the right people will gravitate toward you and view you as an influencer.
  1. Exchange connection info and follow up within two days. If you have interest in a real relationship, don’t let the initial connection fade. The follow-up should be simple and to the point, such as a quick email suggesting an opportunity to continue the discussion. Skip the hard sell here, and don’t be afraid to follow-up again in a few weeks if required.
  1. Networking and relationship building should be fun. Learn to relax and enjoy the process, but keep a clear head and remember to save your heated debates for one-on-one discussions in a more private setting. While the ultimate purpose of networking is to advance your career or business, don’t treat it with the formality or structure of work.
  1. Be prepared to give as much as you get from networking. If you start pumping someone you have just met for funding or referrals, he or she will realize that your intentions are shallow. Everyone has something to give to a relationship, no matter what your credentials. Open up and share what you can, before expecting anything in return.
  1. Never be intimidated by business titles and wealth. Successful business people are still people, like the rest of us. They have weathered hard times and failures, and love to talk and offer advice, if you are interested and willing to listen. No matter how shy you are, you must look the other person in the eye, and sincerely get to know them.
  1. Don’t try to be someone you are not, socially, or in business. Networking pretenses almost always lead to disaster. Integrity and trust are required before a new relationship can be productive. No matter how insecure you are, artificial efforts to bolster your image are not recommended. If you humbly treat people as equals, relationships will work.

Of course, business networking is just the beginning of your journey into entrepreneurship, In his book, Scaramucci offers much more – a firsthand, introspective, and candid account of his own failures, successes, and insights that led him to business and financial success. He offers inspiration and a concrete blueprint for achieving your dreams, despite unexpected adversity.

I’ve focused here on the how and why of business networking because I find that technical entrepreneurs, in particular, are often quick to discount and ignore the value of business relationships, in favor of technical conferences and peer experts.

As a technologist myself, I had to learn the hard way that while solutions can be built by a person or two, it takes a network to build a business. How robust is yours today?

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, November 18, 2020

5 Rules For Every Business In The New Sharing Economy

sharing-econmy-platformsNow that you can find anything on a moment’s notice via the Internet, people have found that a temporarily unused expensive asset, such as a room in your house, or your car sitting idle, is a new business opportunity. Thus the rise of the “sharing economy,” with collaborative and peer-to-peer (P2P) platforms, including Lyft (rides), Airbnb (lodging), and WeWork (workspace).

As an advisor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I tell people that these platforms are an easy and low risk way to test your fit for the entrepreneur lifestyle, without jumping off the cliff. There are always opportunities to participate in existing platforms, such as becoming an Uber driver, or to start your own platform sharing your favorite hobby. Here are some key principles to consider in every case:

  1. Solve a significant problem for customers with money. Just because you love to share things you cook with the hungry, doesn’t mean you can make it a business. Every sustainable business model has to attract paying customers and revenue, as well as provide something with significant economic or emotional value.

    A specific example of a platform failure in this space, Neighborrow, enabled sharing of relatively low-value items (like power tools, bikes, and kitchenware), where the money saved was often offset by the inconvenience of pickup and delivery. It didn’t scale well.

  2. Look for assets that have no “shelf-life” or idle value. We all know that we can’t profit from lost time, or collect revenue from unused assets. Thus if you have a penchant for collecting clothes, pets, or “stuff,” there may be value in a sharing platform. Unused assets, as well as your free time, have no value on the shelf, and should be marketed.

    The Uber platform capitalized on the fact that people with expensive vehicles, and time on their hands, were willing to provide rides at a lower cost that taxi companies who had to support a fleet of cars. They also offered an app to make the whole process simpler.

  3. Your assets need to be visible, real, and marketed online. If your potential customers can’t find you, or you don’t find them, no sharing will happen and no business model will succeed. Establishing a brand, providing service with trust and a reputation for value, is critical. Don’t expect to rely totally on social media, word of mouth, or a personal web site.

    Airbnb drove its success by a relentless focus on marketing, highlighting top destinations, listening carefully to its user community, and continually testing new ways to improve service and user loyalty. It created a trustworthy brand that scaled well around the world.

  4. You need to foster a new culture, relationships, and loyalty. A business requires a community of advocates and customers who share the same interests and attributes. You have to find or build that engaged community to facilitate a sharing business, which goes well beyond the requirements for an ecommerce or brick-and-mortar business.

    Remember too that “sharing” still strikes many as the opposite of the traditional American dream. Our culture grew up on the idea of having our own private car, home, and our things equate to identity and status. People are changing, but your challenge is real.

  5. Minimize any accountability and privacy concerns. For owners and customers to be willing to collaborate and share assets, they need to trust that your platform and process will protect them from intentional or unintentional incidents that might put them at risk. Be sure to provide assurances, processes, and insurance to eliminate these liabilities.

Although the pervasiveness of the Internet and the sharing economy are far from new, I believe the opportunities out there are still large. The current pandemic has already highlighted new things that can be shared online, including access to healthcare facilities, education resources, and even entertainment venues. New business models are changing the rules of business.

Certainly these new rules will impact existing businesses as well as new startups. The trend in the newer generations is to own less and share more. You need to be thinking about how you can capitalize on sharing in your business area, and adding new business models and services to facilitate these changes. Integrate the principles outlined above, and you too will reap the rewards.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/04/2020 ***



Monday, November 16, 2020

8 Business Work Principles That Cannot Be Compromised

future-workAs a business advisor and advocate for entrepreneurs, I find myself almost always talking and writing about change. Yet there are many things about business and work that haven’t changed for a long time, and don’t need to change anytime soon. I’m always surprised when someone doesn’t seem to grasp these basics, or thinks it’s fine to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I was reminded of a number of these by a classic book, “The Thing About Work: Showing Up and Other Important Matters,” by Richard A. Moran. With a bit of humor, he provides some serious guidelines for struggling career professionals looking to move up, and new entrepreneurs looking to build a company. Moran seems to speak directly from my long-time personal business career.

He points out that “There are lots of things – some big, some not – that we can all do to improve our lives at work.” He manages to highlight a couple of hundred of these with colorful vignettes, but here are eight key ones I found particularly useful for new business professionals:

  1. You can’t win if you don’t show up consistently. Showing up still matters. This is not about clocking in to work. It’s about colleagues, managers, and clients knowing that you care, and know how to find you when they need you. You need to really get to know your team mates and treat work relationships seriously. Someone is always taking attendance.
  1. Peers and customers alike still expect responsiveness. Today it is rare to find people answering phones at work, much less proactively following-up. Yet peers and customers notice phone calls and e-mails not returned in twenty-four hours or less. They expect the same response you give to your best friends. Anything less makes you non-competitive.
  1. Making a to-do list is not the same as getting things done. Everyone is “too busy” these days, but only the best always can demonstrate their list of results. If your list of results includes all the meetings you attended and all the phone calls you made, it’s time to ask yourself “What did I really do today?” Businesses only move forward on results.
  1. Networking effectiveness is a measure of your potential. Productive networking traffic does not happen by default. It takes effort to get out there, do your homework on the best traffic lanes, and follow-up on potentially valuable relationships to make them productive. Networking relationships still drive most promotions, jobs, and new clients.
  1. Work-life balance is not about equity, but about escape. The battle between work and life is no contest – work still wins. If you are committed to devices, work is always at the top of the screen. Yet successful people find an escape to the “life” part of the world. It could be a family, sports, hobby, or TV. All business brains need time to rejuvenate.
  1. Don’t count on job descriptions to define your role. “That’s not my job” has never been a successful excuse in business. Especially as an entrepreneur, every job in the business is yours. Your willingness and your ability to tackle any challenge are the only things that customers, peers, and managers appreciate. Business is not rocket science.
  1. Not finishing things you start kills careers and businesses. Entrepreneurs who claim to be big thinkers are routinely dismissed by investors, in favor of others who execute. Thinkers, and people at work who never say no, accept and start task after task, but they rarely finish one. Crossing the finish line is the milestone in a project that really counts.
  1. The most important skill you need is project management. The person who can demonstrate that he or she can effectively manage a project can write their own ticket for success. That means starting the project, keeping people engaged, and bringing it to a positive completion. If you can manage any tough project, you can probably build a business.

Of course, there are many more work expectations that haven’t changed, but the 80-20 rule still applies. If you are good on the ones listed here, you probably can hold your own on all the rest. You probably already understand why successful entrepreneurs keep starting new companies, even after they sell their first unicorn, and why retirees miss work as soon as they stop doing it.

Are you spending as much time at work focusing on the things that don’t change as you are on the things that must change? I call that the work-work balance. Keep it up, or you may not have a life at work.

Marty Zwilling

*** Bosnian translation provided by Amina Dugalić ***



Sunday, November 15, 2020

6 Observations On Key Challenges Facing Every Startup

growth-business-challengesWhen entrepreneurs introduce new products to the market, their passion and conviction often leads them to assume that every potential customer will see the immediate need and value, and will quickly adopt the solution. They are devastated when their business growth never starts or stalls, and they have no idea how to get it moving again.

As an advisor to many startups, I often spend hours with business owners helping them anticipate every possible obstacle to the adoption of their solution, and developing a rollout plan to include antidotes. I remember a classic book, “Jobs to Be Done,” by Stephen Wunker, Jessica Wattman, and David Forber, which details well my perspective on these challenges and counter strategies.

While the authors mission is broader in intent, to provide a roadmap for customer-centered innovation, they definitely codify the principles I espouse in anticipating the primary obstacles to new solution adoption. Here is a summary of their key observations, with our joint specifics on what to expect, and how to overcome these obstacles:

  1. Customers don’t buy what they don’t know and understand. In today’s information overload, marketing is everything. Word-of-mouth is great, but it’s not a launch strategy that stands alone. The more revolutionary the solution, the more important it is to educate customers on a solution’s existence and value. Use every marketing channel available.
  1. Getting people to change behavior can be difficult. If your solution alleviates a high level of existing pain, customers more readily change. Yet most of the startups I see these days are providing a solution that is easier to use, more fun, or more productive. In these cases, you need testimonials, usage details, and return-on-investment examples.
  1. Multiple decision makers required to close a sale. Many healthcare solutions, for example, may appear to have great value to patients, but require doctors to feel safe, and insurance companies to approve. Entrepreneurs need to focus on selling each of the constituents in the chain, recognizing that more time and money are required for growth.
  1. Direct and indirect costs of the solution seem high. The most elegant products have the highest price tags, thus limiting market size. Every customer has a sense of what a solution should cost, based on competition, and the cost of doing nothing. A good tack is to sell exclusivity, or provide case studies to show return on investment and productivity.
  1. Solution brings risk to the customer, or high cost of failure. These days, people worry about the liability potential, or making a dramatic move that may be very expensive to recover from. These fears need to be offset by good marketing, education on benefits, and successful case studies. Expert testimonials and excellent support are essential.
  1. Products so innovative that they define a new category. Consider the Internet of Things (IoT) – a network of connected devices and sensors in a home or facility to allow control or access to almost everything. Just the concept requires learning, acceptance, and understanding value. Your business may die before all these elements come together and customers buy your offering.

Then comes a second set of longer-term obstacles to consider – things that cause customer sales to decline after an initial burst, or to stop usage after initial adoption. Here are the most common issues which cause this obstacle to growth:

  • Solution requires lagging support infrastructure. For example, electric vehicles offer attractive benefits for drivers and the environment, but they also need charging stations and government regulations to facilitate broad usage.
  • Adoption creates new pain points. Many new products sound great, but customers find them overly complex or difficult to use. Other new products are plagued with compatibility or performance problems, and customers quickly defer to new competitors.
  • The luster wears off cool new products. Sometimes cool doesn’t mean better. Very quickly, customers start to look for that usability, improvement in productivity or return on investment. Marketing alone cannot make a product great.
  • Products incorrectly targeted or not targeted. Initial hype can generate a sales spurt, but long-term growth requires a clear fit. The right market is the one that feels the most pain, and has money to spend. Nice-to-have for consumers with no money won’t work.

According to most experts, inadequate attention to these obstacles is the primary reason that more than 50 percent of newly launched products fall short of growth and revenue projections, and only 1 in 100 new products even covers its development costs.

Innovative solutions alone won’t make your business a success. You have to target and appeal to the right customers, and the right jobs that they need done. Is your business properly customer-centric?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 14, 2020

5 Keys To A Startup Team That Can Develop Any Market

motivated-marketing-team“If we build it, they will come.” I heard it again recently from a technical entrepreneur who should know better than to believe the old “Field of Dreams” sports fantasy movie theme in today’s Internet information overload environment. These days, building a new business is all about visibility and marketing, no matter how great or innovative a solution you bring to the table.

In fact, having one marketing guru on the team alone won’t get you very far. You need to make sure that everyone on the team, from the clerical assistant to the chief financial officer, knows your vision and product, and doesn’t hesitate to actively engage and be an effective proponent with anyone who might be of value to the business.

I recall a good summary of how to motivate and train a team to accomplish this in the classic book, “The Business of Creativity: How to Build the Right Team for Success,” by Keith Granet. The author’s focus is the world of architecture and design, but I’m convinced that the principles and strategy outlined are equally important to every new business or entrepreneurial effort:

  1. Instill pride. This is a positive culture created by an atmosphere of trust and confidence in the solution, as well as other members of the team. People are proud to represent their business when they feel that they have a voice and a recognized contribution to the effort. The best way to do this is to share and celebrate small wins, together and often.
  1. Empower engagement. The best startups give everyone business cards and encourage team members to talk about the business with anyone who should be interested. That means rewarding feedback from outside, both good and bad, rather than being closed. It also helps to create office events for family members and local community groups.
  1. Encourage networking. Team members need time, and your support, to attend conferences and professional organizations to stay in touch with colleagues and peers. They need incentives to investigate market trends and competitive actions, as well as continuous communication of the bigger picture of the business and current objectives.
  1. Give credit. It doesn’t take a huge marketing budget to provide public recognition in team meetings for individual initiatives that can benefit the company. These might include anyone bringing in a new customer, representing the company in a good social cause, or participating in a video or social media campaign on their own time.
  1. Reward success. The best executives make it clear by example that all team members who help the business expand will be compensated, by awards, special bonuses, or career advancement. Team members who see others rewarded for their “marketing” efforts will be motivated to consider what they can do to share the wealth.

This approach, with you leading the effort, and everyone empowered to advance the visibility and message of the business, also has the great advantage of minimizing the size of the dedicated internal team for marketing and public relations. A single marketing coordinator can accelerate your efforts by being the coach and mentoring key members of the team on soft marketing.

If you have a diverse team, the value is even greater, since each member can use their contacts and perspective to spread the word effectively, and attract the attention you need for success. The common focus on marketing across the varied interests of your team also has the potential of improving peer communication, comradery, and improving working relationships.

The most effective teams, through sharing and common interests, develop leaders at all levels. The most senior leaders then become coaches and mentors, rather than the source of all decisions. The emergent leaders are not hesitant to take charge when they see business growth opportunities, thus multiplying your visibility and impact.

Thus, even if the value of your solution is universally obvious in your field of dreams, don’t count on customer initiatives to find it amongst the thousands of alternatives fighting for visibility on the Internet. Mobilize the total power of your team to not only build the product, but also build the market.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 13, 2020

6 Steps For Advancing New Venture Ideas Into Results

steps-new-startup-resultsMany aspiring entrepreneurs I mentor can talk at length about their innovative ideas and passions, and ask lots of good questions, but never make much progress in building a real business. In my experience, building a business is much more about getting things done than having great ideas. The challenge is to move from ideas to specific goals, to delivered solutions.

In fact, I realized a while back that the challenge is the same in every aspect of your life – moving from dreams to specific goals to accomplishments achieved. Once you learn how to make things happen in your own life, starting a business is easy. For an inspiring story full of specifics on how to achieve goals, I recommend the classic book, “Three Points of Contact,” by Gregory Q. Cheek.

He found his way to entrepreneurial and personal success, after a tough battle with cancer, by applying the same principles and strategy to his business efforts that pulled him out of a personal life-and-death health struggle. I was most impressed with the steps he outlined for turning ideas into goals into results, which I paraphrase here for aspiring entrepreneurs:

  1. Write down your goals or your dreams. Writing something down is the first step toward moving forward and making it real. Always start your goals with “I,” and put yourself as responsible for each goal. Write all goals in the future tense, be as specific as possible, and make an effort to raise each goal one level higher to set you above your competition.
  1. Establish a clear visual picture of each goal. You must be able to see it to achieve it. He recommends the following four ways to fully imprint it on your mind – visualize it as often as possible, hold that visualization as long as you can, make your goal statement crystal clear, and maintain it with a calm intensity over an extended period of time.
  1. List items to achieve the goal, and network now. Brainstorm required activities, order, and prioritize them relative to your goals. It’s time to get the help you need. Ideas can come from one person, but businesses can’t be built alone. The reality is that everyone wants to help – friends, investors, even customers, but you have to take the initiative.
  1. Set specific milestones with target dates. Grab a calendar, pick a business rollout date, and work backward setting milestones and dates for interim steps. Be as detailed and specific as you can, such that everyone involved can see and understand the path ahead. Post your milestone list in a common spot so you can renew commitment daily.
  1. Take action now on an item and cross it off. Every small action and achieving a milestone builds momentum. Momentum will drive you and the team toward completing your goal. Celebrate each success, and check off all your milestones to invigorate the team as you move forward. Don’t be afraid to pivot and add new actions as you learn.
  1. Follow up and finish something every day. Most entrepreneurs work hard, but many don’t follow up often to check for completion. They spend their time on the crisis of the day, rather than the important tasks on the goal list. They eventually lose focus or burn out before crossing the finish line. The best entrepreneurs finish something every day.

Don’t let any of the popular myths about goal setting derail your efforts – vague wishes are not goals, you don’t need goals to win, my goals are all in my mind, goal setting requires special skills, and I have no control anyway. The reality is if you are not working on your own goals, then someone else is keeping you busy on theirs. That approach is not very satisfying in the long term.

Statistics have shown that only three percent of the population have well-defined, clear written goals. This three percent with written goals will earn as much as ten times more than the ninety-seven percent without documented goals. That correlates well with my experience on how many aspiring entrepreneurs ever get beyond the idea stage, and achieve some level of success.

For entrepreneurs, ideas are not goals, and they are not businesses, without the author’s three points of contact – optimism, visualization, and action. With these, I’m confident that anyone can improve their happiness, health, and positivity, and maybe even change the world at the same time. Why not start now?

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, November 11, 2020

7 Entrepreneur Stages Help You Assess Your Progress

Liddell_with_Satya_Nadella_and_Jeff_BezosThe road to becoming an entrepreneur is a journey, and it’s not a short trip. In my efforts of assist aspiring business owners like you, I find that too many see it as a short sprint to get over that one hurdle, like finding that innovative idea, or attracting an investor. In reality, I find that there are multiple stages to the process, each requiring a unique mindset and focused effort along the way.

I was pleased to find a new book, “The Entrepreneur’s Faces,” by Johnathan Littman and Susanna Camp, which outlines the key stages and provides examples of real people making the transformation from one stage to the next. Here is my interpretation of the seven key stages that most new venture owner experience, with recommendations from my own experience:

  1. The awakening – realization that you have new insights. Every entrepreneur starts by accepting the reality that you have a rare mindset of joy of discovery, with an intense curiosity about how certain things or people work, or why a new technology hasn’t yet been accepted. Perhaps there is the realization that there is something more to life.

    Many well-known entrepreneurs, including Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, worked for years in bigger businesses and Wall Street before they had their awakening to untapped opportunities. He saw the potential of e-commerce, and drove Amazon to success.

  2. The shift – break away from dreaming to action. This stage is where I see the most people stuck. It’s hard to make that first step from talking to actually doing. Often people need some outside approval of their idea, someone like me to hone their focus, validate their thinking, or just challenge them to get down to the specifics of starting a business.

    Others struggle for years at this stage, and then just give up for a variety of sad reasons, including fear of failure, lack of confidence in their execution ability, or being surrounded by negative people. The world moves fast today, so don’t let this stage slow you down.

  3. The place – finding a community where you can thrive. Everyone needs a place with the right people, connections, and environment to nourish your dreams. An occasional discussion with a mentor won’t do it. You need to feel the passion of others in the same stage. This place is often called an incubator or accelerator, or just a group of peers.

    One of the most successful incubators is Y Combinator in Silicon Valley. Their claim to fame is simply one of good mentorship and a sustainable, co-dependent ecosystem. You can find other good ones these days in almost every community and university campus.

  4. The launch – deep dive into building a great team. This is the stage where you move from building a product or solution, to building a business. Here you need a team, people with disparate but complementary skills bonded by your leadership, to ship product and go live. Here is where you learn to listen and communicate with people and customers.

    A few years ago, Google went on a quest to understand how the right teams lead to success. What they found was that what really mattered was less about who was on the team, and more about how the team worked together. The right culture is the key.

  5. The money – secure the backing and support to get real. Building a business requires funding – for inventory, marketing, and operations. Landing investments and backing requires a new level of confidence, communication, and risk. Maybe you are more comfortable going slow, with limited resources, or aiming high and giving up equity.

  6. The test – iterate and pivot, based on market feedback. Commitment, tenacity, and agility are key in this stage. You have to be willing to make changes to remove barriers, bottlenecks, and risk. Some people call this failing faster to succeed sooner. Others call it pushing boundaries and rising to the challenges of the market and competitors.

  7. The scale - expand to reach your full potential. Scaling is the holy grail of every new venture – from local to global, from online to brick-and-mortar to partners to mergers and acquisitions, from a private company to a public company, from cash-flow-positive to the next unicorn. This stage of your new venture positions your legacy as well as your exit.

Every one of these stages is critical to success, so maybe you can understand why I and most other advisors and investors don’t get that excited just hearing about your great new idea. We look for evidence of all the other required mindsets, and your execution and leadership skills, to make a successful business journey happen.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 10/28/2020 ***



Monday, November 9, 2020

8 Priorities For Venture Founders Who Aim For The Top

entrepreneurs-aim-for-the-topOne of the biggest challenges in changing your lifestyle from an employee to starting your own business, is focusing on the right ownership elements, versus having a boss who sets the business goals, and provides performance feedback. Most entrepreneurs relish being their own boss, but find the transition to “ownership thinking” to be more difficult than anticipated.

Even if you were an “A-Player” in your previous organization (top 10-percent performer, high integrity, exceeds on commitments), you had peers and executives around you to provide coaching and keep you centered. Incidentally, if you never thought of yourself as being an A-Player employee, you probably will struggle even more in the competitive entrepreneur world.

I’ve spent many years in each of these business worlds, but I never made the A-Player entrepreneur connection until I read the classic book, “The A Player,” by Rick Crossland, who comes from almost 30 years of experience developing, recruiting, and leading high performance cultures in bigger companies. I now believe that every entrepreneur needs to think like an A-Player.

Crossland outlines the elements and perspectives every A-Player needs for ownership-thinking. These look exactly like the strategies I have been recommending to every entrepreneur for growing their business, versus developing a solution. Here are eight of the key ones that I often prioritize for startups:

  1. Align all actions to the purpose of the business. Every entrepreneur needs to start with a purpose for the business which goes beyond making money, or working on your own schedule, just like employees seeking to be A-Players need to look above their immediate tasks. Every business purpose must be customer-centric and even altruistic.

  1. Spend time working on the business as well as in the business. Most entrepreneurs, whether they be technologists or restaurant owners, spend too much time working in the business, rather than planning their next best move on the business. Employees can be much more productive if they fully understand strategic issues and focus correspondingly.

  1. Understand the need for an investment well before results. Unfortunately we all live in an age of instant gratification, where we expect immediate payment for every effort. Entrepreneurs need to evaluate investment size and cycles for future payoffs, while employees need to realize that promotions require investment in learning and skills.

  1. Quantify the return on investment before taking action. In startups, I see technical entrepreneurs who build things just because they can. Comparably, in larger businesses, I see employees who work hard on things that have little return, for them or the business. Both need to first evaluate the value equation for the business, to become A-Players.

  1. Accept personal growth as directly related to business growth. In any business, it’s hard to be an A-Player in a business that is not healthy. In this highly competitive world, no growth means falling behind, as a business or in your career. Great entrepreneurs are always focused on the growth dimensions of more revenue, change impact, and profit.

  1. Recognize business growth means attracting more customers. Employees and startups need to focus on the two dimensions of customer pipeline – how many people need what you are selling, and what percent will actually buy, based on your actions. Everyone needs to see their actions as part of solving customer problems and selling.
  1. Increase ownership thinking on business efficiency. As an A-Player or an entrepreneur, the focus of work must not be on hours spent, but time and cost savings without micro-management. Everyone wins when more efficient work on the right items results in higher customer satisfaction, lower prices, and more profit per employee.

  1. Enhance team engagement and business culture. In every business, large or small, there must be no “us versus them.” Team success requires all members be engaged and working together. Business success requires employees, executives, partners, and customers not fighting for advantage through a business culture of win-win relationships.

Thus if you are contemplating a future as an entrepreneur, now is the time to hone your focus and skills that relate to ownership thinking. It you do it well, you will win by being an A-Player in your current role, and your odds of success in the startup world are much greater. That’s the definition of a win-win opportunity.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 8, 2020

8 Tactics For Moving From A Startup Dream To Results

Startup companyAs an advisor to early-stage entrepreneurs, I see a lot of dreams, but not so many business results. I’m always excited by the dream, and disappointed by what I perceive as a lack of courage in many people to take the actions required to realize the dream. I’ve always wished I had a magic metaphor to motivate the best dreamers to become the best entrepreneurs.

That’s why I’m impressed with the classic book, “All Dreams on Deck: Charting the Course for Your Life and Work,” by Jeremy Cage. He is an experienced business executive, who now leads a consulting initiative which focuses on unleashing the full potential of businesses and people. In his book, he couches his guidance in a real-life metaphor of his sailing trip around the world.

I’m confident this will work for many of you, but since not all of us are sailors, I have tried to reframe his key points here into the business context that I can better relate to. Hopefully, between the two of us, more of you with big business dreams will follow the leads and generate more successful business results:

  1. Start by getting your hands dirty. All glory comes from daring to begin, and that seems to be the hardest part. You are destined to die full of potential if you do not have the courage to make your dream come alive with a prototype, a business plan, and an implementation team. A business entity has to be created and real resources applied.

  2. Venture where no business has gone before. There is no cookie-cutter route to success as an entrepreneur. The business world doesn’t thrive with yet another social media or dating site – it’s begging for paradigm shifts in the technology or business model. Innovative dreams, when implemented, are the ones that change the world.

  3. Never give up in the face of adversity. Turning dreams into reality is never easy. One of the biggest causes of startup failure is simply giving up too early. The best entrepreneurs relish the challenges, and get great satisfaction from overcoming and learning from adversity. They enjoy the journey, as well as the destination.

  4. Ask for help from advisors and mentor your team. People don’t usually need to ask for help with their dreams, but no entrepreneur I know has built a successful business alone. Don’t let your pride or fear keep you from seeking the help that you need. As you gather your team, recognize that they will need your help and coaching as well.

  5. Summon the courage stay optimistic, yet humble. Successful entrepreneurs aren’t just dreamers, they are doers. They wake up each day re-energized and positive, with the courage to take on the next challenge, and always committed to getting things done. In the business world, it is the humble leader that has the greatest influence on results.

  6. Trust yourself and your team in making decisions. As an aspiring entrepreneur, you can dream, but it takes a team to deliver. Yet running a new company cannot always be a consensus-driven process, so you need to trust yourself in making the hard decisions. Your team also has to trust you, or they won’t deliver the alternatives you need.

  7. Practice active listening, and accept reality quickly. In business and in life, you don’t learn much while you are talking. Dreams can be static, but the real world constantly changes. Thus you need to listen and learn the current reality from your customers, your team, advisors, and experts. Good listening leads to timely innovations and pivots.

  8. Make your dreams the shared dreams of everyone. In business, to get from dreams to reality, it takes effective communication with many others, including your team, customers, investors, and partners. Only with effective communication can your dreams become theirs, and theirs become a reality. You can’t impose your dream on anyone.

It’s true that dreams are always fraught with risk, but the ultimate risk is doing nothing at all. My goal is to make your dream come true, and you can’t do that without executing. The time to get started is now. Otherwise your dream will die, no matter what the potential.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 7, 2020

7 Strategies To Thrive On The Challenges Of A Startup

advance-analysis-business-graph-dataWe all face pressure in our lives, but there’s nothing like that of an entrepreneur facing customer crises and the competitive challenges of a new business. Don’t believe the myth that all you have to do to get rich is bring up an ecommerce website, and the money rolls in while you sleep. Most successful business leaders have learned how to reframe pressure situations into opportunities.

Reframing enables you to see any difficult situation in a different light so you can deal with it effectively. The science and human factors behind this approach are explained in a classic book, Crunch Time: How to Be Your Best When It Matters Most,” by Rick Peterson and Judd Hoekstra. Peterson comes from professional sports, while Hoekstra is a business leadership consultant.

Based on my years as a business executive and mentoring entrepreneurs, I’m convinced that the principles of reframing can be learned, and apply equally well to any domain, certainly including business. Thus, here is my own reframing of the authors generalized rules into some specifics for an entrepreneur or business leader:

  1. Reframe competitive threats to opportunities. When a competitor appears, you can react with fear and anger, or you can learn from what they offer, and set a goal that converts that threat into an opportunity for you. Don’t focus too narrowly. For example, Steve Jobs and Apple moved computer technology to phones to counter falling revenue.

  2. Reframe from fighting harder to changing the game. When you find yourself saying, “I need to keep lowering my prices,” you just put more pressure on yourself. It’s more satisfying and fun to say “It’s time to add my new innovation for real value.” Your best performance will always come by playing from your strengths, not your weaknesses.

  3. Reframe from tension to humor in your approach. Humor has been proven to provide numerous business benefits, including customer loyalty, productivity, and reduced absenteeism. If your team is feeling intimidated by impossible deadlines, it may be time for an event with a fun skit to break the tension and get everyone working productively.

  4. Reframe from anxiety to taking control. When the job ahead looks overwhelming, you feel threatened. An effective strategy is to break the task into bite-sized chunks, and conquer them one at a time. This puts you back in control, with success feedback at every step. That’s the value of a complete business plan, with milestones along the way.

  5. Reframe from doubt to confidence and skill. Many entrepreneurs find themselves in a downward spiral of doubt, when their first customers come slowly. It pays to have passion and confidence to fall back on, as well as in-depth skills, to turn the tide to growth and success. It also pays to have the confidence to ask for help from your advisors.

  6. Reframe from failures to learning moments. Using different words with your team enables them to think differently. When things go wrong, refrain from harping on mistakes – rather talk about the lessons learned that make everyone stronger. Thomas Edison had many learning moments before he found great success with the incandescent light bulb.

  7. Reframe from barely-prepared to over-prepared. In business, there is no substitute for doing great homework. Many entrepreneurs don’t really study competitors, skip financial projections, or don’t have a backup plan, so feel stress with every new setback. Great business leaders never stop preparing, and always have alternative plans when pressed.

When times are tough, the first battle always fought is in your mind. If you can’t win that battle, and lose faith in yourself, you are unlikely to triumph in any business challenge. The reframing strategy is really about overcoming that primal human fear reflex when you are being threatened, to see the threat as an opportunity, or see it in a context where you have the advantage.

In fact, the best business leaders I know thrive on the challenges and the pressures of their business, rather than fear them. They actually avoid the alternatives of boredom and “business as usual” as more threatening to their sense of self and well-being. There is nothing more satisfying in business than being your best when it matters most.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 6, 2020

7 Advantages That Local Small Business Owners Enjoy

local-small-business-ownersIt seems that most of you entrepreneurs I meet in my role as business advisor are convinced that starting a new business requires equity investors, exponential growth, and a plan to go public via IPO. I often recommend a less painful alternative, called the lifestyle entrepreneur approach, where your focus is on making a living and a work-life balance, rather than changing the world.

According to recent statistics from the Small Business Administration (SBA), this approach still accounts for 99 percent the businesses out there today. Of course, every lifestyle entrepreneur wants their business to be “successful,” but I find that the definition of success and the expectations along the way differs from that usually associated with what I call “growth startups.”

Here are some of the key indications that you might be a good match for a lifestyle business, for you to compare and consider against your own objectives and strengths:

  1. Enjoy interacting with customers and products every day. Growth entrepreneurs quickly find themselves removed from day-to-day operations, and become more and more occupied by transactions with lawyers, investors, and potential acquisition partners. If your passion is customers, you definitely will be happier as a lifestyle entrepreneur.

    In one stage of my own career, as an executive with a large corporation, I found myself almost totally occupied with managing personnel and organizational issues, including hiring and firing, which kept me away from the products and customers that I loved.

  2. You want to be your own boss, and do things your way. Once you accept equity investor money, or go public with stockholders, you won’t believe the things they demand, and the legal rules you have follow. As the total owner of your own small business, you have maximum control of where and how to spend your time and money.

  3. Take pride in your leadership role in the local environment. Most lifestyle business owners are proud to be recognized as leaders in the local business, education, and civic organizations. They enjoy not being on the road most of time, and able to balance their activities and leadership roles between work and family, sports, or recreation.

    With a focus oriented toward your local community, you might even take an active leadership position in a key environmental or political issue, without fear of how it could hurt your business in another geography or culture. Use flexibility to match your lifestyle.

  4. Personal income is related to operations versus equity. With major investors, your equity and return is diluted and delayed. With most small businesses set up as sole proprietorships or LLCs (Limited Liability Corporations), net income flows more directly into your personal income. You get to enjoy directly the results of your efforts.

    In addition, your income and how you spend it won’t be part of the published record associated with public corporations. For those of you who value your privacy, and want flexibility to live your own lifestyle without continuous scrutiny, this is a major advantage.

  5. Freedom to maintain creative “hands-on” control. A lifestyle business assumes that you will be able to put your ideas and skills to use in implementation as the business evolves, while working directly with customers as well as your own team. This can be a key source of personal satisfaction, as well as the ultimate success factor and legacy.

  6. Lifestyle businesses offer personal tax advantages. Tax laws in most countries are more flexible for small businesses, giving the owner more choices. Thus, owners can often benefit personally from tax-related business deductions, such as vehicle expenses, facilities alternatives, entertainment events, and gains and losses from real estate.

  7. Ability to keep the business in the family until retirement. With a lifestyle business, you plan your exit rather than have the Board of Directors do it for you. You make the decision, if you like, to keep it in the family, sell it, or simply close it down when you retire. Lifestyle businesses can change to match their owner’s interests and long-term desires.

In my experience, the costs and risks of a lifestyle business continue to come down, as websites, social media, smartphone apps, open source tools, and customers via the Internet become more and more the norm. Also more women have been jumping into business ownership, and they have long fought to have more integration of their work with family lives.

Certainly, choosing the path of a lifestyle entrepreneur should be a point of pride, in doing what you really want, instead of just chasing the almighty dollar. Let business success be your definition of satisfaction and happiness, rather than some arbitrary monetary statistic.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 10/23/2020 ***