Wednesday, December 30, 2020

6 Lessons Most Entrepreneurs Only Learn On The Street

New York bull statueIn my role as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I find that most have the technical challenges well understood, but many are a bit short on some basic street smarts, or basic business realities. Thus I often recommend that before you kick off your own business, you join another startup or existing business to see how things really work. Even the best college degree is not a substitute.

For certain, passionately chasing a big financial opportunity in an area you have little street experience is a recipe for disappointment. I will certainly admit that starting and running a business is not rocket science, and you can learn many of the basics in any business school, but here are key additional business realities from my own experience that can lead to downfall:

  1. You can start a business, but it takes a team to grow it. You alone will never find enough hours in a day to keep with all the challenges of sales, support, and scaling the business, in addition to developing and delivering your solution. Actually, building and nurturing the right team is the hard part, requiring communication, hiring, and leadership.

    Jeff Bezos readily admits that his first career in a Wall Street-based investment banking firm gave him some keen insights into business realities, before a fear of regret and a personal passion led him to create Amazon, now the largest ecommerce site in the world.

  2. Your leadership skills do not develop without effort. Unless you have a proven track record from a prior career, or experience leading teams in some other context, you can expect stumbles and a long learning curve to lead a team. It starts with documenting and communicating a real purpose and mission in terms everyone can get excited about.

  3. Intellectual property is required for a competitive edge. You may think that patents and copyrights are not required, since your products are so innovative, but you will find that competitors are quick to copy your idea if you don’t protect it. In addition, most investors won’t give you money for scaling if you don’t have a strong property base.

    Although Elon Musk doesn’t talk about it very much, he owns over 350 patents through Tesla, just one of his many companies. In addition to locking in his leadership position in electric vehicles, he has also used his patents to negotiate faster growth in his market.

  4. Strategic planning is a required ongoing investment. If you wait for a growth crisis to kick off your next step, it’s probably too late. Planning for the future must be a regular activity, not just an early-stage or once-a-year event. Change happens every day, and it takes time and effort to prepare you for the next step. Survival requires regular updates.

  5. Even the best solutions require marketing to survive. With information overload due to the Internet, you need to find your customers, rather than assume they will find you. That first burst of customers via word-of-mouth or a viral video won’t sustain your growth. Start with a range of platforms, including social media, advertising, and a great website.

    Most investors I know have heard many passionate entrepreneurs chanting “If we build it, they will come” in lieu of a credible marketing plan. Let me assure you that companies without marketing plans don’t get the attention of either investors or customers.

  6. Don’t under-estimate or ignore your competitors. As an angel investor myself, I’ve often heard the argument that your solution has no competition. My answer is that no competitors means no market, or you haven’t looked. Neither is good. I want to hear how your offering stands out, and how you have a plan to stay ahead of the crowd.

    Having an innovative solution is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition for starting and succeeding in business. You also need the required skills for leadership, planning, operations, and growth, many of which are best acquired from business experience, rather than academia.

These street smarts, if you acquire them early, can save you a lifetime of pain. It pays to build relationships with an advisor or mentor, or work in the real business world for a while, before you strike out on your own journey. It’s more fun to enjoy and see positive results from your efforts, than to spend your life trying to catch up.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 12/15/2020 ***

*** Bulgarian translation provided by Zlatan Dimitrov ***



Monday, December 28, 2020

8 Business Lessons You Need To Learn Before Repeating

chasing-a-dreamHow many entrepreneurs do you know that “almost” made it big? Startups are very risky, and most fail. Yet entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing trends in business today. Surveys show that entrepreneurs are among the happiest people in the world, despite the challenges. Yet it would pay real dividends to know at the start what separates the “also-rans” from the winners.

As an advisor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I’m always looking for early signs that usually lead to an “almost” success, but I have found them hard to pin down. Maybe that’s the reason I was intrigued by the classic book, “Almost: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream,” from Hap Klopp and Brian Tarcy. It’s a true story of “almost” at Ardica Technologies in Silicon Valley.

Even startups with a cast of gifted geniuses and seasoned entrepreneurs can easily fall victim to these malaises. Here are the key lessons from this story and my experience that I believe every entrepreneur should take to heart:

  1. Invention without commercialization is not a business. Your technology may be amazing and the opportunity huge, but these alone don’t ensure a business success. It still requires solution delivery, a team working together, and customers with money to spend. Make sure you are building what customers want, rather than what you can build.
  1. Running short on money often leads to bad decisions. Vendors and most people on your team need to keep getting paid, or their loyalty quickly shifts to retribution. Crisis survival decisions can easily be counter-strategic and lead to product and people credibility gaps. Soliciting timely and adequate funding is more critical than development.

  1. Multiple cultures cannot co-exist in a single company. Culture is simply “the way we do things around here,” and it trumps strategy every time. Everyone on the team must share the same purpose, values, and goals. Culture clash can be some people driven by technology and others by customers. The founder sets the culture by words and actions.
  1. Startup leaders must exhibit trust and transparency. Successful entrepreneurs must create and maintain an environment of team trust to build loyalty and commitment. They need to focus on people behaviors, rather than personalities, to engender trust. Then they “say what they mean and mean what they say” all the time every time to prove it.
  1. Team conflict that turns into friction will slow you down. The best startup teams don’t shy away from healthy debates between team members or founders. That’s the way smart people with innovative insights make real change happen. But heated debates can generate so much emotion and friction that the entire team becomes dysfunctional.
  1. No amount of passion will save a solution that is not ready. If you solution doesn’t work, or exhibits quality problems in the marketplace, no amount of determination or expertise will save you. For high technology solutions, almost working is failing. Founders need to be realists, to understand when to pivot and when to fall back in recovery mode.
  1. Get rich quick is not a viable startup strategy. Entrepreneurs driven primarily by money are usually disappointed, which can cause them to give up too early or set poor goals. Seth Godin once said that overnight success in startups takes about six years, and Seth is an optimist. Make sure you enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
  1. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Like the old refrain, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else. If you don’t formally communicate a plan, everyone will follow their own default, killing the teamwork and productivity you need to survive. No startup is so simple that everyone knows what is in your head.

These are all crucial business lessons that are best learned by reading, not repeating. If you see the symptoms in your own startup, there still may be time for recovery, or it may be time to jump ship before disaster strikes. If it’s too late for you, then at least take consolation in the fact that failure in a startup is not a career-ending disgrace, and should be worn as a badge of honor.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, December 27, 2020

9 Ways To Make Innovation Happen In This Time Of Need

business-innovationOne of the biggest challenges in any business, large or small, is overcoming the natural human preference for status quo, or fear of change. It means that most team members and executives alike have a natural tendency to prefer killing innovations rather than implementing them. Even customers, while they all want the next big thing, want it to happen with minimal new learning.

These fears and how every business can counter innovation assassination are explored in a classic book, “Robert's Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation,” by Robert F. Brands, who brings decades of experience implementing innovation as the founder of InnovationCoach®. His goal is to teach us how to drive a culture of continuous innovation into every work environment.

Brands book is based on the implementation of nine principles of innovation originally developed by Google way back in 2008 by Marissa Mayer. I believe these principles, paraphrased here, should be adopted by every entrepreneur struggling to accomplish innovation in a startup in any market:

  1. Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization. Entrepreneurs should look for ideas from anyone, inside the organization or outside, top down or bottoms up, but the implementation responsibility is all yours. Startup leadership and survival is all about execution. That culture has to come from the top down, by your actions and messages.
  1. Focus on customer needs rather than profits. When innovations are implemented that have clear value and acceptance by customers, business success will follow. That’s the win-win equation we are all looking for. It also propagates back inside your company, via happier and more motivated employees, and far outside as societal advancements.
  1. Target factor of ten improvements, not 10 percent. Some experts have long felt it is easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. It’s called radical innovation versus incremental improvement. It forces one to step from existing assumptions and tools, and lean instead on creativity and thinking outside the box.
  1. Let new technical insights drive innovative products. For Google, this has led to self-driving cars, based on work with Google maps and artificial intelligence. Every startup technical team has unique insights, which should become new innovations. All too often, these insights are ignored by the company, and developers leave to become competitors.
  1. Ship and iterate, don’t expect instant perfection. Too many innovations get caught in analysis paralysis, and die an expensive death. No technical analysis has the power of real-time user and market feedback. Perfection is impossible in today’s rapidly changing market, and iterations are part of educating the market as well as your team.
  1. Spend twenty percent of work time on innovation. Everyone in a company should be encouraged to spend fully one-fifth of their time pursuing ideas for positive change, even if it is outside the core job or core mission of the company. This approach works best if you start with a focus on hiring change agents, and incentive programs for innovation.
  1. Set your default to sharing rather than proprietary. Information sharing and open source facilitates collaboration on a huge scale, and can bring in as many innovations as are sent out. It also increases market acceptance of innovations, by allowing concurrent work on integration, standardization, and support structures outside your company.
  1. Tolerate no negativity attached to failure. Stigmas and penalties for failing are among the largest gates to innovation. Like Thomas Edison famously said, failure is simply learning what doesn’t work. Failing well to Google means failing fast and failing cheap, all very positive attributes in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive world.
  1. Instill a mission and purpose that matters. People think harder if they really believe their innovations will impact millions of people in a positive way. Work can be more than a job when it stands for something people care about, and involves giving more than taking. Entrepreneurs are seeing huge premiums these days for giving back generously.

The current pandemic brings new challenges which need to be addressed. There is no more time for excuses, no reasons to postpone, ignore, or otherwise assassinate innovation in your organization. Whether you manage an entrepreneurial startup or a multinational conglomerate, the pressures are unprecedented. Are you now unleashing your team’s full execution abilities?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, December 26, 2020

5 Ways Crowdfunding Is Not A Panacea For New Ventures

crowdfunding-new-ideaAs an advisor to many entrepreneurs, I still hear frequently the irrational exuberance that crowdfunding is the quick alternative for startups that are passed over by overly demanding angels or venture capital investors. In reality, crowdfunding has become a major startup funding vehicle, expected to reach $114 billion globally by 2021, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I refer back to the classic book, “A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide,” by Jamey Stegmaier, one of the biggest thought leaders on crowdfunding, and who has also run several successful Kickstarter projects, that together have raised many millions of dollars. He starts out by outlining five reality checks for the uninitiated who are too quick to jump in with both feet:

  1. Community building has to happen before collecting cash. He points out that the word crowd precedes funding in crowdfunding. Entrepreneurs who don’t focus on what people really want and need to know, before trying to collect money, are unlikely to be successful. Startups need to build a large passionate group of fans before the campaign.
  1. It’s not easy money, so expect to work harder than you ever have. Don’t expect to run a crowdfunding campaign in your free time. Stegmaier recommends that you start by writing a regular blog, joining a few related campaigns, building a high-quality video, and completing up to a hundred additional lessons before you even launch your own project.
  1. You need a polished, tested concept, not just an idea. If you want money, rather than just feedback, you need to actually design, develop, and prove that you have something worth people’s hard-earned funds before you launch your campaign. Crowdfunding to gauge demand is not recommended, since failed campaigns don’t usually recover later.
  1. Making something awesome will cost more than you expect. Don’t assume that any money collected from a winning campaign will go into your pocket. It usually takes more than you can collect just to build and deliver the product. Startup revenues come later. Of course, if the campaign does not meet or exceed the funding objective, you get nothing.
  1. Crowdfunding is just the beginning of your business launch. Crowdfunding success does not mean business success. Many successful crowdfunding campaigns, just like many startups funded by angels and VCs, fail miserably due to normal business challenges, including inventory buildup, marketing, competition, and customer support.

Thus crowdfunding is clearly not the panacea for funding and success that many entrepreneurs envision. According to recent stats from Kickstarter, only 38 percent of projects meet their funding goal. Of roughly 312,000 unsuccessful projects, nearly 260,000 failed to reach even 20 percent of their goal. There is no substitute for validating your solution before launching your campaign.

The biggest surge in expectations occurred back in 2015, when the SEC “democratized” everyday citizens (non-accredited investors) to participate in equity crowdfunding. This means that instead of getting a memento or pre-order for a funding contribution, people can now get a portion of the business ownership, which may someday be worth millions for the next Facebook.

At this point, equity crowdfunding is still surrounded by many rules and restrictions on how much one person can invest, and what every startup must document and disclose to protect equity investors. Non-accredited investors can contribute a maximum of only 10 percent of their income, so they can’t lose it all on a single startup. We still have no experience on how well this will work.

Despite the unknowns, I’m definitely a proponent of crowdfunding, to support the upswing in the number of entrepreneurs and startups, and a new focus on entrepreneurship in every university and every community development organization. I don’t see crowdfunding replacing or crowding out angels and VCs in the near future, as there is never enough money to feed the startup beast.

The ultimate truth is that it takes about the same amount of effort and discipline to present a convincing story to investors, whether they be angels, venture capitalists, or ordinary members of the crowd. The odds of crowdfunding success are as low as the alternatives, despite what you hear about the response to Pebble Watch, and the Oculus Rift acquisition by Facebook for $2B. There are no shortcuts to success.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, December 25, 2020

8 Mental Strategies To Keep Your Mind Clear And Calm

happy-holidays-christmasEvery entrepreneur and most professionals wish there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These holidays, with all the new technology, including smartphones and social media, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or phone call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to the classic book, “One Second Ahead,” by noted authority on training the mind, Rasmus Hougaard, there are some basic rules that can really help you manage your focus and awareness in all work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being.

The top two rules, which he calls mindfulness, include a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own extended career in business and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

  1. Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task. Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness. It means always paying full attention to the people, objects, and ideas around you. Practice by making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present with a team member, with a client, at a meeting, or at home.
  1. Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions. This requires patience, or the ability to endure some discomfort and stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

  1. Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback. Show kindness. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Practice by incorporating kindness in every interaction with people, by showing attention, respect, understanding, and acceptance. You will improve everyone’s productivity, and make yourself happier as well.
  1. Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind. Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.
  1. Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve. Acceptance is the realization that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration or anger won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle, when you have exhausted all reasonable efforts.
  1. Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work. Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, such as email and texting, versus tougher tasks, maybe including customer complaints or confronting coworkers. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.
  1. Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day. Most of us are “always on,” always connected, and always running, all day. The key to cultivating joy is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find joy in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation. Others find an occasion to smile or laugh every day.
  1. Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions. Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head, or frequent distractions, such as a new email or text message. Practice by periodically relaxing and breathing to refocus your thoughts.

Without these mindfulness initiatives, most people will find their ability to focus at work declining. We all face the same information overload, increased pressure to move fast, and highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, leading to fewer results. Have you noticed an impact on your productivity, health, and happiness? Now may be the time to increase your focus.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, December 23, 2020

6 Principles For Creating Great Customer Experiences

IPhone_Fashion_ValleyToday’s customers demand more than a good product; they expect a great customer experience. A few companies are leading the way, including Apple with their iPad and iPhone, offering irresistible stores with friendly experts, elegant packaging, and customer service that never ends. People love Apple’s whole customer experience, and willingly pay a premium for the product.

Much has been written about product design, but designing the total experience from the front rarely happens yet. In the classic book, “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design,” Brian Solis details how to design the whole experience, rather than just the product. Solis is a globally recognized thought leader in this area, and he asserts that the experience is now the product.

Every entrepreneur needs to learn how to do this by starting with the six principles of User-Centered Design (UCD), as outlined by Solis in his book, and already adopted by key International standards organizations:

  1. Apply multidisciplinary skills and perspectives. The total experience design begins with a common vision, but then must cross the borders between product, packaging, marketing, customer support, and many other disciplines. Human-experience design always supplements technology-driven design, and environmentally sustainable design.
  1. Explicitly integrate customers, tasks, and environments. Designers must factor in people behaviors, context, preferences, as well as customer goals and aspirations. The objective is to build a sustainable relationship between the product and customer. This requires people on your team who have real-world experience, as well as design training.
  1. Insist on customer engagement and user-centered evaluation. With the advent of interactive social media, as well as high-bandwidth video tools, there is no excuse for not involving real customers, and prospects who fit the desired demographic. With these, you apply common tools, such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews.
  1. Include the total user experience from shopping to support. Experience using the product is only one stage. Others include the marketing awareness and education stage, online and in-store shopping stage, setup stage, support, and upgrade considerations. While there are many models for the design process, every stage should be included.

  1. Keep users engaged throughout design and development. Don’t assume that early input is adequate. In today’s fast paced market, trends and user needs evolve. Results show that when users are engaged throughout the development process, a number of key system requirements are identified that would otherwise be entirely missed.
  1. Make user-centered design processes iterative. Early testing of conceptual models and design ideas often suggests a complete overhaul and rethinking of the design. In all cases, designs can be refined and improved by iteration. Full customer experience use cases are key because they help identify interactions between stages of design work.

Customer experience should be one of the biggest priorities in startups right now, but I still don’t see it happening. Technologists focus on building a product that works, marketing people try to build a story around the result, and support people figure out how to deal with customer feedback on shortcomings. Good customer experiences happen only by accident, rather than by design.

Most new customers are now mobile or digital first as a result of the devices and apps that shape their lives. These products with their pinch, swipe, zoom, and instant delivery have reshaped customer preferences and decision making. A great customer experience today requires an acceptance of these engagement models and building on them, rather than ignoring them.

If you are looking for a competitive advantage, creating a positive total user experience is the place to start. Too many existing companies have evolved into silos of expertise, which make user-centered design and delivery difficult, if not impossible. As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to take the lead, and become the world’s next super-brand. Now is the time to do it.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, December 21, 2020

8 Work Relationships That Regulate Your Future Impact

Enrique_Peña_Nieto_y_Bill_GatesMost entrepreneurs, and members of any small team, naively assume that the key to their success is hard work, dedication, and long hours in the business. In reality, their effectiveness is usually more related to how well they develop their work relationships with peers and business leaders. First they need to decipher correctly every relationship as a workship, friendship, or foe.

Workships, according to workplace expert Dr. Jan Yager, refers to those workplace relationships that haven’t yet developed into full-blown friendships, but are closer than mere acquaintances. In her classic book on this subject, “Who’s That Sitting at My Desk?” she explains the importance of mastering work relationships, and provides specific guidance on building the right ones.

It behooves all entrepreneurs and team members to recognize the positives and negatives of each type of relationship. More importantly, we all need to develop the right relationships, and actively avoid those types that are not right for the business, or not right for our career at a particular point in time. Here are the key ones I have experienced, as paraphrased from her book:

  1. Acquaintanceship. Every business relationship, peer-to-peer, or inside to outside, starts as an introduction and formal recognition of roles. Too many relationships never advance beyond this stage, resulting in poor communication, no cooperation, low trust, and low shared productivity. Moving forward to a workship is critical to the business.
  1. Workship - Mentor. This is a productive working relationship where one party, more knowledgeable and/or experienced, takes an active role in fostering the advance of the other. When both parties contribute, it’s a powerful and positive relationship that benefits both careers, as well as the business.
  1. Workship - Advocate. Unlike the mentor, who is a coach and teacher, the advocate inspires you to be the best that you can be. The best advocates do this because they care about you as a person, not because of personal aspirations. Your business will benefit from the increased productivity, high morale, and skill growth.
  1. Workship - Trailblazer. The trailblazer is not overly competitive, but always is a few steps ahead and enjoys setting an example that you are inspired by, or motivated to follow. As a result, you are incented to be a trailblazer for others, which leads to stronger relationships throughout the team, and a stronger startup.
  1. Workship - Communicator. The communicator is always researching the latest info, and keeps you in the loop on what’s happening in the business and why. Unlike the office gossip, information is always shared in a positive way, thus helping you to do your best at work and in your career. What goes around almost always comes around.
  1. Friendship. There are three conditions that accompany the transition from a workship to a more intimate friendship; a shared wish to move to the next level, expanding the work-based relationship to non-work experiences; and sharing on issues requiring trust and discretion. Contrary to popular opinion, friendships are not inherently bad for business.
  1. Romantic. When the relationship is appropriate, condoned by the company, and welcomed by both parties, it can be positive from a personal and even a work perspective. On the other hand, it can cause enormous emotional and legal problems, not to mention pain, suffering, and business failure. Proceed to this level with caution.
  1. Foe. A foe relationship between two startup team members is always toxic to the business, so quick action from the top is required to save the business. Some foe relationships can be turned around to a productive workship or friendship, but all require first a shared wish by both parties to change. Workships and friendships can’t be forced.

In summary, entrepreneurs need to be especially perceptive and sensitive to business and personal relationships, since they normally work with small, closely-knit teams, on innovative and highly unstructured environments. The quality of relationships with customers, investors, partners, and suppliers can easily be their sustainable competitive advantage, or their death knell.

In my experience, even the best technology and business model won’t succeed without successful relationships. That’s why investors say they invest in people, not ideas. Starting from the top, make sure your startup has the right people, and the right relationships with each other. If you don’t, you too may soon find someone else sitting at your desk.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, December 20, 2020

8 Strategies For Going Above And Beyond Competitors

competition-above=and-beyondMore than ever before, people want to buy from, work for, and invest in companies that matter. Whether you are an entrepreneur starting a new business, or a corporate executive seeking to revitalize a mature business, the challenge is the same – to become the obvious choice within the hearts and minds of your customers, your employees, and your chosen communities.

It is no longer enough to just have a great product or service. Your company and team members have to be seen as going above and beyond to solve the problems of internal and external customers. How to do this right is illustrated well in a classic book, “Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice,” by Peter Sheahan and Julie Williamson, PhD. I can paraphrase their eight key recommendations here as follows:

  1. First define where you uniquely can add the most customer value. This is your edge of disruption, where your courage, capabilities, and optimism allow you to bring more value to key customer problems than any other company. Prioritize likely industry change and disruption over the next five years, and structure your business to lead the way.
  1. Assemble the best team to assimilate and design what is needed. Your company can’t be a leader without establishing an elevated perspective, based on realistic market needs, and demonstrating an ability to execute. These insights must come from tapping the right people inside and outside your organization, with real customer interaction.
  1. Be known for your expertise by broadly sharing the message. Every customer is looking for provocative thought leaders, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who are able to challenge the status quo with alternatives of substantive value. The willingness to share what you know even with potential competitors is critical for credibility and visibility.
  1. Seek out only the best potential partners and customer leaders. For real influence, you need to elevate your customer and partner relationships, focus on high-potential ones that meet your point of maximum value, and say no to others. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself in building the right relationships and eliminating misaligned behaviors.
  1. Build trusted and open partner relationships, with aligned incentives. This is engaging like you mean it, which is the only way to create mutually beneficial joint solutions to challenging problems. Start with a market segment that you need to understand more deeply, and invest in the success of your joint customers.
  1. Connect with the bigger picture of the market and society. Companies that matter focus beyond the buy/sell transaction view of the world. They recognize and contribute to the interconnectedness of all moving parts of the market as it evolves in real life. It’s about relationships, communication, thought leadership, and social value contribution.
  1. Be the disruptor, rather than a reactor and hindrance to change. It takes a degree of courage and commitment to convert perspective and relationships into impact. It requires that you lean into complexity to proactively align people, processes, and systems to deliver on new opportunities, often at the expense of current and comfortable ones.
  1. Live the role of a company that cares, aspiring to be one that matters. It is important to do work that inspires others to follow, that makes a difference, and contributes to more than your bottom line. Companies that matter take a long-term view, are extremely ambitious and optimistic about their future, and value the future of their customers.

If your company consistently finds ways to add more value and drive higher-order customer outcomes, it will become the obvious choice in your targeted markets. In addition, it will attract the best talent, the most customer loyalty, and provide greater personal satisfaction to you, the entrepreneur.

Thus it doesn’t matter whether your business is a startup or a mature operation, since the principles that make the difference don’t change with size. In fact, these principles are best implemented during the initial formative period of the business, rather than wait to be driven by a painful business transformation later. Too many businesses never survive the transition.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, December 19, 2020

7 Personal Productivity Tactics To Get More Work Done

productivity-get-work-doneIn business, the only thing that counts is results, not how hard people work or how many hours they put in. Have you noticed in your startup or around your office that some people are always at work and busy, but others seems to consistently get more done? Studies of software teams, for example, show differences as great as ten to one in productivity between working team members.

Much has been written about the external influences of office environments, motivation, and personal health impacts, but I see evidence that there are personal productivity tactics that contribute just as much. Along these lines, I was impressed with the classic book, “The Productivity Project,” by Chris Bailey, who conducted dozens of interesting personal productivity projects on himself.

His conclusions validated much of the conventional productivity data, but also highlighted several additional factors to increase productivity that may not be intuitive to most business professionals:

  1. Slow down and work more deliberately. For most people, trying to work faster means trying to do multiple things concurrently. Research shows the result of multitasking is a focus on what’s in front of us only 50 percent of the time. Constant task switching kills efficiency, and usually more than offsets the value of multitasking. Slow down and focus.
  1. Schedule less time for important tasks. When you limit how much time you spend on an important task, you create urgency around the task, overcome your urge to procrastinate, and dive in with more energy and focus. The result should also be fewer total hours at work, improved health, as well as improved productivity and attitude.
  1. Define more activities as unimportant. All business tasks are not created equal. Yet many business people continue to be distracted by the crisis of the moment or a peer request for help, rather than focus on work more critical to their success or the business. This classification of activities requires an overt effort, but pays back in productivity.
  1. Prioritize daily only the top three results required. Thinking in threes allows you to keep important activities on top of mind, and better manage your time, energy, and attention. Trying to create and manage a long list of priorities, in concert with daily distractions, leads to mental thrashing, fatigue, and lower productivity on all items.
  1. Strive for imperfection on key activities. Perfection is not an affordable target on most business tasks. Yet many people continue to work well beyond the point where they are “good enough.” The most productive follow the Pareto Principle, which asserts that 80 percent of the results comes from 20 percent of the effort. Don’t be a perfectionist.
  1. Keep potential distractions at least 20 seconds away. This 20 second rule, studied by psychologist Shawn Achor, asserts that if we move more than 20 seconds away from snacks, cell phones, or peer questions, our focus will remain on critical tasks and efficiency will increase. Distractions are the enemy of productivity. Move away from them.
  1. Eliminate unproductive procrastination. Productive procrastination is doing some lower priority activity to keep busy while avoiding what really needs doing. Unproductive procrastination is wasting time and effort, pretending to be busy, organizing your desk, checking email, surfing the internet, or taking another break. Reduce procrastination.

The value of increased productivity in business is self-evident. It reduces your costs, increases competitiveness, and generally improves the morale and payback to employees. For businesses that depend on people, high productivity can mean the difference between success and failure.

As a result, every entrepreneur and professional I’ve met in business wants and needs to be more productive, but finding the approach that works for them can be elusive. I think you will find the techniques presented here well worth adding to your work ethic.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, December 18, 2020

5 Keys to Ensuring Credibility, Trust, and Customers

Steve_Jobs_with_red_shawlAs a long-time business executive and adviser to entrepreneurs, I see a definitive shift away from customer trust in traditional business messages, and the executives who deliver them. Today’s digitally distracted consumer is led to trust only things that they see with their own eyes, senses, so they can render their own judgement. They want the raw data versus a polished message.

This distrust for the scripted message has led to a new demand for unfiltered marketing, and the emergence of business credibility heroes, like Elon Musk, with his bold statements about space travel, and sometime villains, such as Mark Zuckerberg defending Facebook privacy practices.

I just finished a new book, “Unfiltered Marketing,” by Stephen Denny and Paul Leinberger, which helped me put this digital communication transformation into perspective for all business owners. I believe that the sooner every entrepreneur and brand builder adapts to this emerging trend, the sooner they will find success. I summarize the key elements of the transformation as follows:

  1. Customers are seeking control in a run-away world. All of us are struggling to keep up in this age of technological acceleration, where we learn every day that we can’t trust links in our email, marketing guarantees, or phone requests from people we don’t know. We want to eliminate the intermediaries and trust our own eyes and ears, and raw data.

    In addition, I see consumers taking more control, using the technology to converse with each other, and assert their position through reviews and forums. The result is a shift from business-to-consumer (B2C) to a consumer-to-business (C2B) control trend.

  2. Unscripted communication builds trust and credibility. Unfiltered means first-person delivery without enhancement so you can apply your own experiences and point of view to what you are shown and hear, allowing you to use your judgment to form opinions. Brands and executives willing and able to do this become the most trusted and credible.

    Unscripted is the same concept, applied to a marketing communication. Customers these days are turned off by timeless safe messages, delivered repeatedly on traditional media. For trust, they look online to see how you handle real support and satisfaction issues.

  3. Real-time in-process updates vs after-the-fact stories. Every consumer today wants to be an insider and development contributor to the finished product, or at least feel connected to it throughout the process. This breeds loyalty, trust, and advocacy, as opposed to skepticism or downright distrust of everything you say or do.

    Back in 2016, when a fire at the Delta Airlines center took thirty servers offline, stranding thousands of customers around the world, CEO Ed Bastian built great credibility by using Twitter for frequent status updates. He didn’t wait for the well-crafted recovery story later.

  4. Experts and in-context facts substantiates credibility. Using recognized experts and social media influencers turns the marketing context into teaching as opposed to selling. Consumers today want the raw “how and why” behind what you say, so they can align their own emotional needs and interests with yours, generating trust and confidence.

    Many lifestyle and cosmetic brands have already learned that social media influencers are much more effective in building credibility than traditional marketing. Huda Kattan, an influential beauty expert, has 29 million followers for the makeup tutorials she puts out.

  5. Heroic credibility requires bold statements and values. Credibility and trust require values beyond “making money” and “shareholder return.” Align your values with your customers, and societal needs, without moralizing on issues on which you have no authority. Be bold, even to the point of being uncomfortable and showing vulnerability.

    Blake Mycoskie, for example, has built heroic credibility by giving away close to 100 million pairs of shoes since founding Toms in 2006. His buy-one-donate-one model has since been adopted by socially conscious imitators, and is a model for business success.

A related challenge in this age of information overload is simply to get people’s attention. You can’t get their credibility and trust if they don’t know you exist, or your message is lost because it sounds like all the rest. The principles outlined here will highlight your intention in a very real way, and help you stand out above the crowd.

I’m sure that all of you recognize that the technology available for marketing has changed. It is important to use it, including instant messaging, streaming video, and interactive real-time feedback, but success is not all about technology. It’s also about you, and your ability to take bold and innovative steps to provide the leadership we all desperately seek. Take your first step today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 12/03/2020 ***



Wednesday, December 16, 2020

7 Ways Successful Companies Stimulate Team Creativity

innovation-creativityIn my role as a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I find that many of you have your most creative ideas for your company’s first big bang, but often get bogged down with details as the company grows. You rely on your team for the continuing creativity required to thrive in a today’s rapidly changing business landscape. Yet building and maintaining a creative team is a tough challenge.

On your part, it takes a totally different focus and skill to foster a creative team, compared to designing and building that first innovative product or solution. But I believe the necessary skills can be learned, and it isn’t rocket science. If you are struggling to build and maintain a creative culture in your organization, I recommend an ongoing focus on the following key strategies:

  1. Keep your teams and infrastructure small. Small teams are inherently more agile, and tend to work in harmony, based on communication and direction from their leader, rather than second guess each other and play politics. You need hand-picked people who know and trust each other, and rely on individual complementary strengths to assure creativity.
  1. Incent the team to speak their mind and take risks. Send the message often that you want to hear what people really think, and they won’t be punished for disagreement or taking a risk. Then practice what you preach, by highlighting creative but risky proposals that worked, and emphasizing the value of learning from the ones that didn’t work.
  1. Reward ideas with peer recognition and praise. In a highly innovative culture, rewards come in many creative forms, as well as money. Public recognition and positive feedback in front of peers always works, but special perks, including travel to favorite events, support of employee causes, and career opportunities are long remembered.
  1. Promote team passion by pitching a strong purpose. With a fully engaged and passionate team, creativity and innovation makes work fun. Passion and engagement comes from having a higher purpose, beyond growing the business. Your task as a leader is to find that purpose, such as saving the environment or feeding the hungry.

    When Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia with creative outdoor products, he pitched also a purpose of helping the environment. By dedicating at least one percent of sales to environmental groups, he locked in engagement from both employees and customers.

  2. Extend trust to allow people to call their own shots. Granting autonomy only works if you first provide a clear message of what you need, and then get out of the way. They will not trust you, or be motivated to make decisions if the process is too complex, or you continually demonstrate that decisions are only made by you, or be often overridden.
  3. Jeff Bezos at Amazon talks often about how he has learned how to disagree and yet commit to a creative proposal brought forward by his team, due to trust and the level of confidence he has for the insight of his teams. He always gets their full commitment.

  4. Sponsor experiments, and celebrate the learning. Using the term “experiment” implies a test, with the opportunity to learn from failure. The alternative of giving creative projects high-sounding names makes people fear the stigma of something going wrong and retribution. The key is to flush out ideas quickly, and close in on the final solution.

    Thomas Edison was famous for experimenting, positive learning, and never giving up on his electric light bulb ideas. He is quoted as saying, “I have not failed. I've just found 10,000 ways that won't work.” Only when he had a proven solution did he market it.

  5. Create and capitalize on a diverse team culture. In almost every business, your customers are diverse, and you need to understand the world from their perspective. That won’t happen unless you have meaningful diversity in your own team. In addition, a diversity of experience and thought leads to more creative ideas and approaches.

In my experience, continuous creativity in business is the ultimate competitive advantage, and a lack of it is the quickest path to failure. You must build and sustain a team culture that does not tolerate standing still as the customer world around you moves on. If you can do it, and do it with discipline, the opportunities to succeed and have fun at the same time are endless.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 12/01/2020 ***



Monday, December 14, 2020

6 Keys To Driving Your Business Through Team Culture

team-cultureCreating the right company culture must be a top priority of every entrepreneur and business leader. Simply speaking, culture-driven businesses put their people first, and people make the business, rather than the other way around. Today’s business mantra must be “Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers.” Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

Most entrepreneurs start from a base of one or two co-founders, and their vision and focus is on developing an innovative solution, rather than developing people. When they need more team members, they tend to assume that these will come with the same passion and motivation that the founders feel. Moving these employees to first place, ahead of their solution focus, doesn’t happen automatically or easily.

Once a product-first, customer-second, and employee-last culture is set, it is extremely hard to change. Transforming an existing culture is even harder than setting it correctly at the start, as outlined in the classic book, “Cultural Transformations,” by leadership experts John Mattone and Nick Vaidya. They do believe it can be accomplished, with the six specific steps paraphrased here:

  1. Culture starts by thinking different and thinking big at the top. In the midst of daily crises and information overload, it takes a strong leader to develop and communicate regularly to employees the “big picture” of where the company is going and why that is a good thing from an employee perspective, as well as for customers and for society.

  1. Accept the vulnerability of confronting leadership mistakes. The best, most able entrepreneurs, look first at themselves and acknowledge that they make mistakes. They practice one of the most important leadership tenets from an employee perspective – humility. This is necessary to solidify the trust between leaders and team members.

  1. Communicate what greatness looks like in the roles you need. Team members will never create your desired culture if they don’t know what you expect of them. They need to understand and be rewarded for the desired attributes, competencies, and results. You need to paint a compelling future for your company that they can all connect with.

  1. Transform team member mindsets, behavior, and results. The more successes you can help them create, the more chances they will have to interpret these wins as permanent, pervasive, and personal. As they rack up – with your leadership – yet more and more positive reference points, they internalize the causes and consequences.

  1. Find, nurture, and reward talent in support of a compelling future. A key step is to push every talent lever in support of your compelling future. Make sure you are hiring, training, and promoting the future leaders who possess what it takes to create the organization you want. Be sure to differentiate compensation and rewards correctly.
  1. Measure and measure again, and be quick to course correct. You must have a passionate and diligent focus on key results and required pivots. Most importantly, you must measure the strength and vibrancy of your current culture. As well, you need to focus externally on getting feedback from customers, suppliers, and competitors.

In medicine, prescription before diagnosis is malpractice. In the world of cultural transformation, the same is true. Culture determines engagement levels, not the other way around. Don’t confuse engagement or satisfaction surveys with culture surveys.

According to the authors, a good culture survey will show you the relative strength of the five desired cultures in the organization: the “can do” culture; the “will do culture; the “must do” culture; and the “team performance” culture. All of these combine to determine the health and vibrancy of your overall business.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the business culture in your organization, and what has transpired or not been done to set or transform it to a higher competitive level. In any case, this effort is not a one-time shot or a sprint, but a marathon. Your long-term business success in today’s world depends on it.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, December 13, 2020

6 Keys To Enchanting Your Customers With Your Service

classic mercedes benz detailHaving the best solution is a good start these days, but a solution alone is no longer enough to keep customer attention and loyalty. They expect to be surprised and delighted as well by their pre-purchase experience and post-purchase interactions. The most memorable businesses, like Starbucks and Apple, no longer sell products, they sell ‘experiences’ with a product at the center.

The challenge is to transform and hardwire your entire team to think in these terms, rather than the default focus on distinct towers of product quality, closing the sale, or fixing a complaint. I remember the classic book, “Driven to Delight,” by Joseph A. Michelli, with inspiring stories on how one well-known company, Mercedes-Benz, made the transition and is profiting as a result.

It’s a tough transformation for an existing business, requiring a strong leader and lots of effort. For new entrepreneurs and startups, I recommend an initial focus on these six steps from the very beginning to set the right culture and save the tremendous cost of a transformation and risky competitive catch-up later:

  1. Start with an overriding top-down focus on customer experience. The right message must be delivered from the top, by your words and your actions. Start with feedback from real customers, set measurable objectives, and make sure rewards and incentives are tempered by customer experiences, rather than only internal thresholds.
  1. Find the best of the best models, and aim even higher. Look inside and outside your industry for role models, and apply some innovative thinking to put you ahead of the game tomorrow, rather than yesterday. Your competition is global, so today’s customers are demanding world-class service. Set the expectation for continuous improvement.
  1. Make sure the team understands the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ will follow. Since customer experience is not a fixed process, it’s most important to get buy-in on the ‘why’ first. The ‘how’ will follow as each team defines how their processes intersect with those of others. Your objective should be for everyone to look for opportunities to say yes rather than no.
  1. Tie customer experience to all compensation and recognition. Customer-driven compensation is now the norm in most industries, not just consumer-facing ones. You see the exceptions being ridiculed daily in online media – employees getting bonuses despite customer pain and bailouts. Strive for customer visibility on the positive side.
  1. Practice is better than training on what saying ‘yes’ looks like. Give your front-line people the mission and freedom to practice delighting customers. Providing scripts and reading manuals won’t do it. Ask key team members to step outside the company and record their experience as a customer looking in. Then let them apply their own input.
  1. Collect and publish compelling stories of customer delight. Real stories are inspiring and more powerful than any executive or marketing messages, both for team members and potential new customers. Stories illustrate concepts and evoke emotions in a way that even the best facts and figures can’t. They highlight the impact of ‘yes’ to all.

A culture of providing great customer experiences doesn’t happen by chance, and it requires more than just excellent operational procedures. Surprising and delighting customers as the new norm requires a backdrop of strong leadership, deliberate planning, and integrity in execution. It requires brand-building at its best.

According to a recent customer satisfaction survey, more than 70 percent of customers say they have spent more with a company and recommended it to friends because of a history of positive experiences. If you surveyed your customers today, what percent of your customers would put you in the winning category?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, December 12, 2020

5 Secrets That Make Jeff Bezos The Leader Of The Pack

Jeff_Bezos_at_Amazon_SpheresJeff Bezos is one of the world’s most admired entrepreneurs, primarily because of his humble style and his growth from a regular person background to a current net worth in the neighborhood of $200 billion dollars. He is the founder, CEO, and ten percent owner of Amazon, the world’s largest e-commerce retailer, with an estimated employee count now approaching one million.

We all want to know how he did it, so I was pleased to see him publish a new book, “Invent and Wander,” with an introduction by Walter Isaacson, that gives us a glimpse into how he thinks. As a business advisor, I was anxious to spot any new magic from him, but I found his key points consistent with what most of us preach every day, and too many entrepreneurs choose to ignore:

  1. Long-term thinking drives innovation and leadership. Significant inventions always take time, and involve failed experiments, causing negative short-term business results. Among Bezos’s strengths is his ability to stick to a strategy by being exuberantly patient and patiently exuberant. It allows investors to come into alignment with customers.

    For example, he continues to invest in space travel and energy harvesting (Blue Origin), even though we haven’t yet run out of energy, and we still have space for growth. Yet near-earth space colonies have big advantages compared to populating other planets.

  2. Focus relentlessly and passionately on the customer. Bezos asserts that the advantage of being customer focused is that customers are always dissatisfied. They always want more, so they pull you along. If you are competitor obsessed, and in the lead, you see everybody running behind you, and may slow down just a little too much.

    He repeatedly refers to what he calls "divinely discontented" customers. What a positive way to look at negative customer feedback as an opportunity, rather than an irritant. As a side benefit, Amazon has ranked as #1 for customer satisfaction for many years in a row.

  3. Avoid PowerPoint and graphic slide presentations. He, like Steve Jobs, believes the process of generating a short written narrative forces a clarity of thinking not found in visual slide presentations. These narratives are then studied at the beginning of each meeting, followed by more collaborative team discussion and decision making.

    It turns out that there is some real scientific evidence that replacing PowerPoint slides with "briefing documents" is a meeting time saver. It is also a huge productivity gain, to offset PowerPoint's infamous ability to reduce organizational intelligence.

  4. Focus on the big decisions that are irrevocable. His focus as a business leader is on making a small number of high-quality decisions, and to leave the thousands of daily decisions to highly qualified and decentralized team members. Leadership comes from thinking and planning two or three years in advance on important strategic issues.

    Steve Jobs was well known for his focus on making strategic decisions. When you're at a crossroads and not sure which direction to go or which decision is the best one, take some extra time and ask yourself this simple question: "What would Steve Jobs do?"

  5. Attract and retain a motivated employee base. When Bezos interviews people, he warns them, “You can work long, hard, and smart, but at you can’t choose two out of three.” Working at Amazon is not easy, and Bezos makes no apologies. Yet he has been able to build one of the most highly engaged teams on the planet.

    Most business people believe that more money is the key to attracting and retaining a motivated employee base. Yet he finds more and more evidence of additional keys to employees motivation and productivity, including peer recognition and real support.

In addition to all this, Bezos has already shown his dedication to a give-back purpose outside of business through his Bezos Day One Fund, by funding non-profits that help homeless families, and creating a network of tier-one preschools in low-income communities.

I believe that all of us can take a few lessons from his “Day 1” mindset, long-term thinking, customer obsession, employee culture, and drive for continuous innovation. I urge all of you to think of your company journey as a lifetime, rather than a sprint. Treat every day as the first day of your company's life, and you won’t have to think so much about all the ways it could end soon.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/28/2020 ***



Friday, December 11, 2020

7 Ways To Evaluate Your Future Career Fit In Business

career-potentialAs a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, and having graduated from a big company myself, I talk to many people who have spent years struggling up the corporate ladder who dream of jumping ship and becoming an entrepreneur. I typically suggest that the grass always looks greener on the other side, and the move from employee to entrepreneur is very risky and not for everyone.

In fact, in my experience, many current employees simply don’t have the attributes and mindset to be an entrepreneur. My challenge is to be more positive on who could make the leap. In that context, I was impressed with the specifics offered in the classic book, “Be Your Best Boss,” by William R. Seagraves, who has also successfully lived on both sides of the fence like me:

  1. You know how to play nice with others in business. People skills don’t come easily, especially if you are an introvert, have a big ego, or are prone to emotional outbursts. However, working in a corporate setting for years can smooth out highs and lows, shaping you into someone who’s comfortable dealing with new people and situations.
  1. You may be smarter than your boss. After surviving and learning from several corporate regimes, and managing a few yourself, you start to recognize the skills and knowledge required to run a business. If you can’t wait to control the results yourself, and avoid the dysfunctions above you, your employee to entrepreneur potential is high.
  1. You serve as a role model at work and home. If you are at a place in life where dependents and other employees already look up to you, it means that you have overcome the fear taking the lead in tackling obstacles and taking control of your life. Entrepreneurs must be the model of personal empowerment in their new venture.
  1. You’ve got the thick skin of a rhino. Wisdom also comes in the form of a tough skin. After years of learning not to take setbacks personally, you have managed to flourish with your ego on the line. You have learned to adapt, develop a backbone and the stamina to get through business hurdles, and accept how much work is needed for success.
  1. You’ve had practice managing money. At some point in your corporate career, you’ve likely had to create and manage a budget for a project, department, or division. The rules of accounting don’t change just because you’re the owner. You now understand the need to account for every dollar, and find ways to fund your spending before and after revenue.
  1. You have some savings you can leverage. A retirement fund or savings for a rainy day built from a corporate job puts you in an enviable position of starting a business without begging from friends and family. It’s also the only way to truly run your own business, rather than trying to satisfy hungry investors or friends who often change their mind.
  1. You have a passion that you would like to turn into cash. If you see your passions as mere hobbies, you could be missing the boat. These interests could be your ticket to a career of doing something that ignites a fire inside you every day, and makes money, versus a routine that you bores you to death. It’s your chance to build a legacy of love.

Everyone who feels stuck in a rut at work, is recently unemployed, or is hanging on to an existing job and sanity for dear life, needs to take a hard look at themselves relative to these potential positives. If you can’t find an enthusiastic yes for most of them, perhaps it’s time to appreciate the positives of a regular weekly corporate paycheck for predictable work you know how to do.

The old American dream, of plenty of challenging work and benefits for all, is gone. We can either lament the passing of the “way we were,” or we can slip into the new American dream, and view it as a blessing, before others steal your opportunity. You might even be able to make a difference, like feeding the poor, or cleaning up the environment.

Welcome to the age of the entrepreneur before it gets too crowded!

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, December 9, 2020

Adopt A Decision Process That Works For The Long Term

making-business-decisionsMost entrepreneurs are so overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenges of their business that they rarely take the time to work on longer-term strategy (they work in the business versus on the business). As a result, strategy decisions are made in the same ad-hoc crises style as operational decisions, and the business suffers. Gut reactions are rarely the optimal solution to any problem.

In reality, the discipline most often reserved by entrepreneurs just for strategic decisions should be used for all decisions, including operational ones. As detailed in the classic book, “Smart Decisions,” by Dr. Thomas N. Martin, decision makers need to develop and practice the art and science of strategic decision making early in their career to thrive in this complex business world.

I support his assertion that good ethical decisions are best made by applying the following ten steps to the analysis and decision process:

  1. Start with creativity to expand decision alternatives. The act of coming up with alternatives forces everyone to dig deeper and look at the problem from different angles. This will force you to step outside your normal patterns of thinking and come up with more innovative solutions. Decisions made without innovation lead to a stale business.
  1. Evaluate alternatives through a future-oriented lens. All decisions and actions have immediate as well as future consequences. For example, it is only from the perspective of future orientation that the decision to re-invest profits, versus distributing them, makes any sense. Decisions made for immediate relief feel good, but rarely add long-term value.
  1. Learn from previous results to eliminate repeat mistakes. Making a wrong decision once means you are willing to take risks, but repeating that same mistake a second time means you didn’t learn anything. Own your bad decisions, with no excuses, but wisdom is the accumulation of learning and experience and is required to succeed in business.
  1. Don’t try to satisfy everyone with every decision. Trying to please everyone can cause you to lose sight of your values and strategic goals. Certainly you must actively listen to the opinions, suggestions, and ideas of others, but the decision has to be yours, even in the face of second guessing from those with negative consequences.
  1. Test the quality of information available for analysis. If you're not using data to make decisions, you're flying blind, and gut decisions are based primarily on emotional data. To assess objective data quality, look for completeness, consistency, and timeliness, relative to the decision at hand. The best analysis done on bad data will still yield a bad decision.
  1. Ask open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking. The ability to ask and answer questions is central to both thinking and learning. The “5 Whys” is another iterative technique used to determine the root cause of a problem or stimulate creative and in-depth thinking. Every entrepreneur benefits from critical thinking and learning.
  1. Don’t allow information paralysis to delay reaching a decision. Analysis paralysis is the state of over-thinking a decision, to the point where a choice never gets made, or is made too slowly. Always identify your top objective for any specific decision, and use that to drive you in decision making. Timeliness must always be a top business objective.
  1. Factor in personal values, assumptions, and intuitions. These are valid and important in any decision, but need to be communicated effectively to all constituents in order to foster total understanding and support. Perceptions are as important as reality, and the wrong perception of your decision rationale can derail even the best effort.
  1. Always define one or more backup or contingent solutions. Contingency plans make sense in every case where you don’t have all the decision information you need, or there are factors involved that you can’t control, such as regulations, economic conditions, or market trends. They should never be used as a shortcut for not doing proper analysis.
  1. Communicate the primary solution to all, with implementation steps. Decisions without a viable implementation plan are counter-productive. Thus the best entrepreneurs map out an implementation plan, and make sure everyone understands what has to be done and how to do it. Finally, they monitor and manage the rollout, with required pivots.

In fact, the business decision-making steps and process have to be uniquely applied to three situational states – the current state, a future state, and the transitional state in between. The author defines a detailed framework and process that fits all three of these to make the best decision possible, whether it be strategic or operational.

It’s an art and a science that will make or break your business. How much of your time do you spend now working on your business?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, December 7, 2020

7 Ways Entrepreneurs Can Supercharge Team Engagement

maximum-team-engagementEvery business wants and needs top performers, but most entrepreneurs and executives assume that if they hire and train the smartest and most experienced people, they will get exceptional performance. They forget that top performance is a two-way street, requiring comparable initiative and responsiveness on the part of the leader, as well as contribution from each team member.

In other words, under-performing employees can be just as much a function of leaders not doing their job as employees not doing their job. In fact, there are initiatives that leaders can and must do to even enable high performance on their team. I saw the key ones outlined well in the classic book, “Creating High Performers,” by William Dann, a leading coach to experienced CEOs.

In my own role as advisor and mentor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I was struck by how relevant and critical these same initiatives are to even the earliest stage businesses. Thus, I have converted here Dann’s seven questions for direct reports, to responsibilities that every aspiring entrepreneur should keep high on their own personal priority list:

  1. Constantly communicate what is expected of the team as a whole. Only a few team members will ever be able to figure out what is expected of them on a regular basis. As the team grows, and the business pivots, communication of expectations becomes more and more critical. Your startup’s survival, as well as people performance, is at stake.
  1. Set the standards for good performance in each role. New team members in a new startup, coming from different backgrounds, may have quite different benchmarks of excellent performance. Your standards for product quality, sales growth, and customer satisfaction must be documented and reviewed prior to results and performance reviews.
  1. Provide regular feedback on results seen and measured. Inadequate feedback, good or bad, will result in lowered motivation and a decline in performance, even with the best people. Informal feedback should be provided weekly or daily, with more formal sessions scheduled at least semi-annually. Surprises are expensive for employees and leaders,
  1. Top performers need authority to carry out their responsibilities. Team members who lack sufficient authority tend to avoid responsibility rather than rising up to meet it, primarily due to fear of failure. Giving authority also implies patient coaching on early mistakes, letting go of control, and positive recognition of team member initiatives.
  1. Provide timely decisions in areas where they don’t have authority. People measure your responsiveness as a leader, just as you measure theirs. Top performers expect to be surrounded by top leaders, who monitor and supportively respond to situations that go beyond their domain. The goal is to have no employee action impeded by leader inaction.
  1. Make sure required data, resources, and tools are provided early. Top performance is more than skills and effort. It requires the right tools and information to get the job done. The leader’s responsibility is to anticipate these requirements, listen carefully to the needs of their team, and be responsive in providing these needs.
  1. Acknowledge and reward the results that you desire. Showing your appreciation on a person-to-person basis and in front of peer team members is usually more valuable than financial awards. Yet in the long run, you get what you pay for. Thus paying only for sales volume, when you desire high customer satisfaction, is not productive.

It’s only when leaders live up to their responsibilities outlined here, that entrepreneurs can separate the “can’t do” from the “won’t do” of team member performers. These initiatives on goal setting, coaching, providing resources, and supporting good results should eliminate the “can’t do.” The rest have to be dealt with more directly and moved out before they drag down everyone.

Don’t assume that traditional techniques for assessing performance, including the annual performance evaluation, will create top performers. They can actually do damage, primarily because they are tied to changes in compensation rather than changes in performance. Thus the major burden of your team’s performance is on you, the leader. Are you being the top performer you expect of everyone else?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, December 6, 2020

7 Keys To Prospering In Today’s Business Uncertainty

PredictionsWith all the uncertainty in the world today, its hard for any business owner or entrepreneur to stay positive. Based on my experience and a business advisor and mentor, this is the ideal time to get back to the basics of business leadership and innovation. There is no magic formula, but I’m certain one of the keys is to build and maintain a positive team culture, despite all the unknowns.

For example, I’ve always been impressed with how improvisational comedy never loses its positive impact, no matter how controversial the subject matter. It draws on the current social culture and harsh realities to make everyone approach a negative subject with a fresh look and innovative approaches. Here are some ways that same outlook can be applied to your business:

  1. Try new things, and keep the focus on learning. Make sure everyone on your team sees every new business experiment as a positive learning experience, even if it fails. You are the model here, so keep a smile on your face, provide positive feedback, and continue to think outside the box to find new approaches while minimizing risk.

    Elon Musk, as an example, is impressive in his broad knowledge and interest in electric vehicles, getting humans into space, and new energy technologies. He proclaims that constant learning is a key part of his success, as well as his motivation to work harder.

  2. Provide the resources and training to get the job done. Empower and facilitate your team in getting change done, with or without you. Don’t tolerate or play the blame game. Also, don’t be hesitant to remove those who refuse to stay current, or who undermine the remainder of the team through actions or attitude. Small teams are often most effective.

  3. Double your positive communication on the “why.” Team members can’t help you overcome any challenge if they don’t understand where you are coming from and why. Make it a positive message, and the team will line up with you to creatively deliver. The human response to no message, or a negative one, is to hide or jump ship in a crisis.

    These days, customers as well as team members, need to be able to relate to a higher purpose for your business, such as protecting the environment, or helping the disadvantaged. Toms Shoes, founded by Blake Mycoskie, has led the way in the why.

  4. Be persistent in your change implementation. Team members recognize and support business leaders tenacious in their implementation of change, rather than ones who quickly jump from one idea to another, with minimal follow-through or analysis. Be sure to tie changes back to the “why” – customer value, business objectives, and competition.

  5. Publicly reward risk taking and new ideas. Peer recognition is a powerful motivator, and is often more effective than monetary bonuses. Practice active listening and frequent feedback, but be sure to hold people accountable for follow-through. Through mentoring and coaching, you can build a culture of sharing and collaboration throughout the team.

    Sir Richard Branson, who now controls more than 400 companies in multiple industries, attributes much of his success to his focus on rewarding key people with the opportunity to run his new companies. He considers mentoring on of his most critical roles at work.

  6. Schedule regular brainstorming and practice sessions. You and your team need to be comfortable working together, and practice makes perfect. Sessions can be off-site to create a sense of entertainment, but need to be realistic in creating a sense of urgency and building a culture of thinking outside the box, and creating implementation plans.

  7. Make forecasting future business needs a way of life. All businesses are facing huge challenges in the world today, and that won’t be changing anytime soon. If you approach your present difficulties as a near-term problem only, your competition will outpace you. Set the model and send the message that you expect your team to think like futurists.

    Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, the world’s largest online marketplace, proclaims that his company has always taken a long-term view of change, assuming a five- to seven-year timeframe before a change idea is fully vetted and implemented.

Uncertainty has been the norm for startups and entrepreneurs for a long time, and I see no sign of it changing. Unfortunately, many business leaders have forgotten the principles that helped them to thrive and survive while the business was young, in favor of the apparent comfort of stable unchanging processes, and “the way things have always been done.”

Let this new age of uncertainty be a reminder of the challenges you once overcame, and the confidence and skills you already have to continue to prosper.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/22/2020 ***



Saturday, December 5, 2020

7 Thinking Strategies To Make You A Business Winner

business-winnerNo matter what people may proclaim, everyone in business is looking to achieve the highest possible level of satisfaction and financial success in their career. For best results, my advice is to think like an entrepreneur, even if you are a corporate employee. According to many studies, entrepreneurs tend to be happier, and over 80 percent of self-made millionaires are entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurial thinking in a corporate environment brings many positive career opportunities to the table, and many advantages to your company. I saw these highlighted well in a classic book, “Get Smart!” by prolific author and renowned business consultant Brian Tracy. He lays out seven thinking strategies for both entrepreneurs and employees that will make them business winners:

  1. Focus on the customers at all times. Corporate thinkers often become preoccupied with doing their jobs and following rules, not pleasing customers. Company people, whether employees, managers, or executives, can view customers either with disinterest or as problems. They don’t realize that customers are the source of all business payback.

  1. Committed to the success of the company. Many researchers conclude that more than 60 percent of employees at large corporations are not committed to their business. Entrepreneurial thinkers see themselves as self-employed and act as if they own the companies personally. They continually seek ways to be more valuable in this mission.

  1. Constant search for ways to increase sales and profitability. More sales are the only way to reach real business success. Entrepreneurial thinkers see their business mission as enriching the lives of customers, rather than being a better producer of products and services. Entrepreneurs relish change and new technology, which lead to new sales.

  1. Think like your ideal customer seeking value. Entrepreneurial thinkers describe their product or service in terms of the problem it solves and benefits to their customer, rather than more features and performance. The ideal customer is one who sees so much value that price is unimportant. Businesses fail when customers don’t see real solution value.

  1. Maintain a meaningful competitive advantage. For any company to be successful, it must dominate a market or niche. Corporate thinking is often focused on more products in more markets, with hope that the total impact will be greater than the sum of the parts. Entrepreneurial thinking is focused on dominating a segment of a competitive market.

  1. Continually evaluate the essential elements of the business model. In the corporate environment, the business model is a given, rather than a tool for tuning the business. Entrepreneurs continually review their model to reach new customers, optimize value received, improve marketing and sales, reallocate costs, and provide better service.
  1. More concerned with what’s right rather than who’s right. This is called zero-based thinking -- if we started over today, knowing what we know now, what would we do differently? Entrepreneurial thinking does not penalize mistakes and assumes learning. New ideas and methods for better results are embraced, no matter what the source.

At the very least, adopting these thinking initiatives in any company, corporate or startup, will allow you to grow in your career. Business leaders all understand the benefits of allowing their team members to take ownership of their roles. The risks they take, and successes, can be applied to processes throughout the business at a fraction of the cost of expert consulting.

The difference between an entrepreneur and an employee is really as simple as the way the person thinks about their work, and the degree to which they follow-up on that thinking. Adopt the entrepreneur mindset today to help you find your full potential, and it might even make you rich.

Marty Zwilling