Saturday, April 10, 2021

10 Ways Leaders Must Change As The Business Matures

business-leaders-matureEntrepreneurs often have formidable technical expertise, key to developing a new product or service, but a great naïveté in management skills. They run into difficulty when their business reaches the $1-2 million annual sales range, or their employee count exceeds 5-10. It’s here that entrepreneurs must shift their thinking from tactical and operational, to strategic and managerial.

I’m convinced that management is a learnable skill. It can come from experience, or from training in a prior company, and it can even be self-taught from the Internet by smart entrepreneurs, just like they learned the skill of establishing a company, negotiating a contract, or filing a patent.

There are also many books on this subject, including this classic from the master on management, Brian Tracy, “Full Engagement!: Inspire, Motivate, and Bring Out the Best in Your People.” In it, he outlines a long list of key management principles for success. I’ve extracted here some key ones relevant to startups entering the growth stage:

  1. Communication clarity is essential. Management is “getting results through others,” not doing it yourself with the assistance of others. That means your chief responsibility is to communicate clearly about what you need done, and who has the responsibility to do it. Your growing team doesn’t automatically know what you are thinking.
  1. Planning has priority over doing. Planning is one of key learning areas, in moving from an entrepreneur to a manager. Your ability to plan, to think through what needs to be done, in advance, on paper, is a critical skill that largely determines your entire future. Your job moves to determining what is to be done, instead of how it is to be done.
  1. Organize your work before you begin. Most startups begin first, and think about organization later. Organizing means bringing together the necessary resources, and assembling the right people, then assigning work to specific people to be accomplished at specific times to specific standards of performance.
  1. Delegate effectively and often. Delegation doesn’t work when you are creating your startup. ‘Not delegating’ doesn’t work when you are growing it later. Remember that delegation is not abdication. It’s still your company, so you have to follow-up, step in for disaster recovery, and keep the interplay between tasks and organizations working.
  1. Staff properly at every level. This is not the same as finding a partner with complementary skills to start your business. It means not only hiring, but training and measuring performance. It means mentoring less experienced team members, and quickly replacing incompetent staff members. These are all skills you can learn.
  1. Focus on high productivity. For growth and success, you need to continually look for ways to increase output, while lowering costs. That’s a big step from one product for one customer. The three R’s for attaining higher productivity are reorganization, reengineering, and restructuring. No entrepreneur is born with these skills.
  1. Set the standard with visible actions. You can only lead by example, and set equally high standards for the people around you. You learn and gain credibility by committing to excellence, and asking customers and team members for feedback and ideas.
  1. Concentrate on the important tasks. All successful managers never forget to concentrate on their most important task and stay with it until it is done. As a startup grows, it’s easy to try to do too many things at once, while doing nothing particularly well.
  1. Identify constraints and their source. Between you and any goal is a constraint setting the speed at which you achieve that goal. The best managers are the most creative in overcoming constraints. Constraints follow the 80/20 rule – eighty percent are from inside, and 20 percent are from the outside. You need to tell the difference.
  1. Concentrate on continuous improvement. No company that is static can grow or survive. Continuous improvement requires strategic planning to set new objectives and work toward them. Every growth company needs to innovate continually, maybe spending 20 percent of your revenues on research and development.

Some entrepreneurs, on seeing all this, will decide they have no interest in being a manager. They should voluntarily bow out early, to start another business. Others will get pushed out, with some pain, by investors who see the need for a new team to lead the growth stage. Even more painfully, too many others won’t bother to change their style, resulting in everyone being unhappy, and a business that stagnates, or even fails.

Things that great entrepreneurs have in common with great managers are that both are results-oriented and action-oriented. They have a sense of urgency, and move quickly. Thus it should be easy to apply those attributes to the learning required for the next stage of your company. Just start now, and do it!

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, April 9, 2021

6 Keys To Finding The Right People For A Winning Team

Winning Team CartoonIf you are a new business owner or entrepreneur, you are likely to be creative and willing to take a risk, and you probably assume that most potential team members have the same mindset. Unfortunately, the reality is that not everyone has that mindset, and one of your toughest jobs is to find the right hires to make your business a success.

In these days of rapid change, the pandemic, and worldwide competition, you need to make sure your entire team is customer-focused, innovative, and always looking around the corner for the next big thing. From my own experience hiring and managing people in large companies as well as small, here are the key characteristics to seek and nurture in new team members:

  1. Look for people who exude energy and passion. It's really not that hard to recognize when potential team members come alive when describing their skills, accomplishments, and aspirations. After joining, these are the ones who are always looking to expand their domain, are willing to tackle new challenges, and are not afraid to suggest improvements.

  2. Beware of perennial critics and lone wolves. Every successful business is a collaboration of people with complementary skills, who are willing and excited to work together. You don't need team members with a highly specialized focus, who tend to be critical of the needs of others, or would prefer to be isolated from most business issues.

    On the other hand, that doesn't mean that you should not provide critical feedback to team members. People who are anxious to improve, or reluctant to take an initiative, really need your direct guidance and coaching to learn what they need to do.

  3. The right people will recognize the big picture. These are the ones who are not afraid to ask the "why" question, as well as "how," even when there may not be any easy answers. One of the most successful strategies for new startups today is to lead with their "higher purpose," such as a focus on the environment or helping the disadvantaged.

    Recent articles report that companies where everyone is focused on the big picture can increase their returns by up to 400 percent. That level of impact is enough reason for you to spend the time up front, and along the way, to select the right people.

  4. Find folks who are customer-centric and sensitive to competition. This means always looking outside the company first, rather than inside, and being willing to challenge the assumption that things have "always been done this way." Listening to customers requires your help in rewarding rather than penalizing that activity, and being the role model to follow.

    As an example, customer-centric may mean interacting on social media, or actively taking the customer's position in a dispute, rather than the company position. It always means people not being defensive when addressing competitor activity or initiatives.

  5. Find people who enjoy being problem solvers. Anyone can do a job when everything runs perfectly, but that rarely happens in any business. Real problem solvers just make it look like everything is working, and you as the owner are not forced to close all problems yourself. Your best people will solve their problems better and quicker than you can.

    They have the specialized skills you hired them for, and are usually much closer to all the details and ramifications. Thus, it is important that you don't become part of the problem by micromanaging these people or jumping in with your own biased solution.

  6. Pay special attention to people who show leadership. You desperately need people on your team who can be the next leaders, may eventually replace you, and are willing to push for the innovations that can keep your business ahead of competitors. Look for accomplishments in prior roles, and a willingness to accept coaching and mentoring.

Remember that agility, innovation, and customer-focus are at the heart of every successful business today. Hopefully, you already embody these attributes, so your primary mission must be to extend your impact by surrounding yourself with passionate and creative team members.

Together, your team will win in the marketplace, and make this world a better place for all of us.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/26/2021 ***

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Wednesday, April 7, 2021

7 Ways To Keep All Players Centered On What Matters

business-partners-centeredEvery entrepreneur’s first priority should be the alignment of interests across the range of constituents required for success – partners, investors, customers, vendors, and employees. The best are ones quickest and most willing to do the realignment on a continuous basis these days, as the market changes, customer interests change, and you learn from experience.

Alignment means everyone has complementary objectives, and everyone is executing on their objectives. These things change so fast these days that the primary role of the entrepreneur as CEO is to be the Master of Realignment. My perspective on this role is outlined in the classic book “Rapid Realignment,” by the experts in this space, George Labovitz and Victor Rosansky.

The basic alignment framework of strategy, customers, people, and processes hasn’t changed, but the pace of technological, competitive, and social change has increased at an amazing rate. Most entrepreneurs recognize the need to pivot on a regular basis, but many forget that pivoting usually requires a realignment effort to get all the players back in sync.

At the highest level, startups must remember what Jim Barksdale of Netscape and FedEx famously said, “The main thing is to keep the Main Thing the main thing.” That means keeping all the players and all the organizations centered on what matters amid the crosscurrents of change. There are several key principles to follow along these lines:

  1. Move slow, fast, faster. The experts advise taking your time initially to listen, learn, and gather data. Then it’s time to speed up with a set of ambitious initiatives, and finally going all out to engage all the constituents in enduring change. False starts or obvious mis-steps will derail even the best pivots.
  1. Revisit your startup vision and values. Make sure the inspiration that launched your vision isn’t lost in the course of a pivot or market change. Of course, you may need to realign that vision to your team, your investors, and all the other players. Without that realignment, many may be left with confusion.
  1. Realign all elements of the plan. All too often I talk to startups which still don’t have a social media plan even though most of their customers now use social media as a key part of their buying decision. If you have had to pivot from the consumer market to enterprise customers, that requires new pricing models and new sales channels.
  1. Communicate, communicate, communicate. If you want effective team collaboration, you have to communicate effectively. When I was an executive, a common complaint was “Why didn’t someone tell me about the change?” A rule of thumb is that you need to put out an important message four times, in different ways, before everyone hears it.

  1. Change out team members as required. Entrepreneurs need to understand that realigning a team often means replacing members who are unable to change. It certainly is likely that you will have to get new strategic partners, and market to a new segment of customers. These changes may cost more than product changes.
  1. Update delivery systems and processes. Re-evaluate processes as they are today and set metrics to better represent the new sales, operational, and service needs. Then you have to face the reality that it’s time for new systems, software, or vendor contracts. Building a culture of continuous improvement is great for facilitating realignment.
  1. Pay particular attention to investor alignment. For inexperienced entrepreneurs, pivots and realignments often lead to some of the biggest disagreements and tension with investors, whether they be family, Angels, or VCs. These can easily result in CEO/Founder replacement or funding freezes if not handled openly and above-board.

Quite simply, rapid realignment is required for long-term survival in today’s startup world. Entrepreneurs need to realize that they can’t accomplish the alignment alone – they need to get engagement from all the members of the team, and the extended team. Make sure it hasn’t been pushed too far down on your priority list.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, April 5, 2021

6 Ways To Improve Your Chances Of New Venture Success

passion-trap-successEvery entrepreneur wants to know how they can improve their odds on the road to success, and why some entrepreneurs seem to be able to squeeze success out of even a marginal business case. Most experts agree that is has lot to do with your level of passion, determination, and innovation, modulated by a strong focus on reality, common sense, and street smarts.

John Bradberry, in his classic book “6 Secrets To Startup Success” explores many of these attributes, especially passion, and defines some useful principles to help enthusiastic entrepreneurs squeeze the most out of their passion, while not being trapped by it. Every existing and budding entrepreneur should internalize these reality principles:

  1. Ready yourself as a founder. Too often, passionate entrepreneurs leap head first into a venture before thinking it through. To improve your readiness to succeed as a startup founder, take an honest look at yourself as a founder before leaping. Reality-check your goals, then focus on ways to leverage your skills, assets, resources, and relationships.
  1. Attach to the market, not your idea. Passion is an inner phenomenon, but all healthy businesses are rooted outside the founder, in the marketplace. To turn your passion into profits, emphasize the market, and always think about your business relative to the customers you serve. Know your markets and execute on your market opportunity by placing a priority on your customer’s experience and perception of value.
  1. Ensure that your passion adds up. Passionate entrepreneurs tend to develop rose-colored plans, over-estimating early sales and underestimating costs. To convert your passion into tangible business value, write a business plan that makes financial sense for the needs and future goals of your startup, and have it checked by an expert.
  1. Execute with focused flexibility. No amount of startup planning can accurately predict the unexpected twists and turns imposed by reality. To succeed, a new venture needs both iteration and agility. Establish an ongoing process for translating ideas into actions and results, followed by evaluation.
  1. Cultivate integrity of communication. Passionate commitment to an idea can breed reality distortion. That is, aspiring entrepreneurs often see only what they want to see and rely on “feeling good” about their venture as their only measure of success. Commit to building the skills essential for high-integrity communication: curiosity, humility, candor, and scrutiny.
  1. Build stamina and staying power. Contributing factors aside, most startups fail because they run out of money or time. To lengthen and strengthen your venture’s runway, aim to launch close to the customer and raise more money than you’ll think you need. Focus on building personal staying power, maximize learning, and improvements.

These principles will help keep you from falling into the passion trap. Bradberry defines this trap as a self-reinforcing spiral of beliefs, choices, and actions that lead to critical miscalculations and missteps which result in rigidly adhering to a failing strategy until it’s too late to recover. Entrepreneurs who fall into this trap usually don’t even see it coming.

According to Small Business Association figures, about six million Americans a year make the bold leap onto the startup path, with many more worldwide, and many have no corporate safety net to fall back on. Unfortunately, less than half of these new ventures survive beyond a few years. Too many of these have fallen into the passion trap.

Of course, passion is what real entrepreneurs live for, and they sometimes assume it can take them anywhere they want to go. But those who continually temper their passion with reality principles, and adjust their course, are much more likely to see success in getting there. Like the line from a country song, “if you don’t where you’re going, you might end up somewhere else.”

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, April 4, 2021

10 Strategies For Boosting Your Productivity At Work

healthy_work_cultureEvery startup founder feels the pressure of the thousands of things that need to get done, all seemingly at the same time. There is just not enough time! The real solution is better productivity and less procrastination, to put you back in control of your business. You need to spend time on important things, as well as the urgent.

Many entrepreneurs waste too much time on low-priority administrative tasks, procrastinating on higher priority but tougher tasks, resulting in last minute crises, and failure to complete the critical work that people are really expecting of them. We all know people who profess to be stressed out and “so busy” that they never have time for anything – yet they never seem to get things done.

Dr. Jan Yager, a recognized expert on the subject of time management, addressed this issue in the classic edition of her book, “Work Less, Do More: The 14-Day Productivity Makeover.” Among other things, she identified ten general productivity principles to give you a competitive edge, which I have adapted here for entrepreneurs:

  1. Control yourself well, but don’t try to control others. The key problem you need to solve first is “distractionitis.” This is the pain of the endless stream of email, phone calls, and daily crises which prevent any really important accomplishments, like closing customers. Being a good role model is productive, but trying to control others is fruitless.
  1. Don’t try to do everything, or you may accomplish very little. Pareto’s law says you get 80% of your results from 20% of your efforts. Figure out what deserves your 20%, and focus on that. Start each day with the highest priority task you need done that day, and leave the emails and phone calls till the end of the day, if you have time.
  1. Making the time to organize yourself will save you time. One of the top productivity killers is disorganization and wasting time trying to find something. Take the time to build a database of contacts, and structure your online filing system to include a total search capability. Hire an expert, if required, to automate repetitive tasks.
  1. Aim for achieving excellence, but reject perfectionism. By definition, no human or any business is perfect, so achieving perfection is unrealistic and doomed to failure. The aim for excellence is laudable, but if translated to perfectionism, it becomes self-defeating and non-productive.
  1. Understand and overcome procrastination. Fear of success and fear of failure are at the root of most acts of procrastination. Psychologists assert that procrastinators actually sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their productivity, and limit their success in business. Avoid these.
  1. Pacing yourself will take you further than non-stop working. Rest makes you more productive. Get enough sleep so you can remain active throughout the day and evening. Build in “breaks” to your day, like scheduling lunch away from your desk, and going outside for a breath of fresh air every couple of hours.
  1. Use your listening skills to become more efficient and effective. Maximize your own productivity by listening to what your team and your customers tell you they need and giving it to them. But still make the time to set high-level business strategy and objectives. Don’t waste time on nice-to-haves.
  1. Productivity is a relative concept. Perception is reality in business. The most productive team members are the ones who consistently over-deliver, even though they have promised less. Productivity is perceived value per unit of time, and is not related to actual hours spent working, or working intensity. Productivity is quantifiable results.
  1. Have clear measures of your productivity. If you can’t or don’t measure results, you can’t manage any activity or run a business. An entrepreneur’s ultimate task is to define success in term of results desired – number of customers, revenue, and profit. Without goals, there is no productivity to measure.
  1. Delegate tasks, not relationships. Delegation of tasks to others who can do the work faster or cheaper is a productivity multiplier. But maintain the communication relationship with all key constituents. If you’re not talking to your key clients, customers, or vendors, you don’t have the relationships needed to manage productivity.

For entrepreneurs, after the idea, success is all about execution. Success in execution is all about productivity – more time, more money, more customers, and more satisfaction. If you find yourself working more, enjoying it less, and getting less done, it’s time for you to implement these new mantras for productivity.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, April 3, 2021

5 Perceptions On How Many Business Friends Are Enough

people-friendsThe Internet and social media have totally destroyed the meaning of the word “friend” and even changed it from a noun to a verb. On Twitter and Facebook, many young people follow hundreds of friends before age twenty, all without ever having physically said or heard a word from most of them. Facebook users with “whale” status (5,000 friends), are not even rare any more.

On the other hand, we shouldn’t confuse online friends with real friendships. Real friends help each other. In my experience, many of the people who “friend” me online today have only their interests in mind, and they aren’t interested in knowing me or helping me at all. Businesses ask customers and other businesses to “Like” them and “friend” them. Are these real friends?

According to most dictionary definitions, a friend is a person whom one knows, likes, and trusts. This definition seems totally lost on many people today. In my opinion, it’s impossible to know, like, and trust someone you have never met. Maybe that’s why so many people are hurt or defrauded every day by someone they assumed was their “friend” on the Internet.

So how many friends are enough for people? I did some scouting through the Internet to find any academic studies on the subject, and here are a few tidbits:

  1. Everyone needs at least one friend. Most psychologists agree that starting from a very young age, a friend is critical to the building of social skills, and help develop a balanced view of morality, integrity, and right versus wrong. That’s why good parents play an active role in selecting others for their children to interact with as friends.
  1. Limits of the human brain. Robin Dunbar, Oxford professor and anthropologist has posed a theory that the number of friends is limited by the size of the human brain, specifically the neocortex. “Dunbar’s number,” as this hypothesis has become known, is 150. Facebook cuts you off now if you try to exceed 5,000.

  1. With age, count becomes less important than quality. By the time we reach 30 years of age, our desire to socialize and maintain friendships already is shrinking, according to an old study by psychologists at the Institute for Social Research (ISR). Fewer friends are often viewed as a good thing, and good friends are the real value.
  1. Trusted friends are on the decline in our society. According to a more recent article, Americans’ belief that most other people could be trusted dropped from 77 percent to 37 percent in the last 30 years. My guess is this is more a statement of a decline in overall values, rather than people not needing trusted friends.
  1. Although total friends are up, the number of confidants is down. Only trusted friends can become confidants. In the same survey above, people also admitted that confidants are down even more than trusted friends, by almost a third. To me, this follows from earlier points – it hard to have confidants when you don’t have friendships.

In these days of social networking and business networking, it seems that all cultural pressures point to more friends as being better. Yet lots of people like me, who are not so gregarious, find that real friendships take lots of energy. One is probably enough, and I can only handle a few comfortably. More leads to stress and drama.

With business clients and even peers that you believe are friends, you also have to remember not to break the first rule of business relationships, which is to quickly spill your troubles. In a business context in the real world, this is usually taken as a sign of weakness. Expose yourself to family and real friends; otherwise keep on your happy face.

So one of these days, when you are texting your “bff” (best friend forever), that you have never met, think about the meaning as well as the words you use. I fear that real friendships may be slipping from our grasp, and that is sad.

Friendship is the glue of meaningful personal relationships, and the lubrication that expedites business transactions. It’s not the number of friends, but the quality of the friendship that makes the difference. If you don’t want to be alone despite many friends, spend more time on quality, and less time counting.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, April 2, 2021

7 Reasons Many Owners Fail To Focus On Systemization

business-overworkedIn my experience, one of the biggest mistakes I see you make as a startup or new business owner is to create a business that is totally dependent on you. That means you are the only one who knows how the business works, you make all decisions, and progress grinds to a halt when you are away. That may make sense on day one, but it will kill you and the business over time.

The alternative is to create systems and processes, starting before the first customer arrives, and providing the resources, documentation, and training to every team member as they come on board. This may seem obvious, but I find that most owners let time and a thousand other startup distractions get in the way. In addition, they have heard all the myths of systemization gone bad.

Thus I was pleased to see a new book, “SYSTEMology,” by David Jenyns, who was trained by the master in business strategy, Michael E. Gerber. In his book, Jenyns provides a step-by-step guide for systemizing your business that is powerful, practical, and simple. He also debunks the seven most common myths that I hear, which keep many owners from tackling this critical task:

  1. Every business needs hundreds of systems to start. The reality is there are only a few processes that are key to every small business, like the sale, delivery, and support for your primary solution. Remember the 80/20 rule to keep your priorities clear. By defining a few key processes, you will find that you have a business that can be scaled.

  2. Only the business owner can create processes. In fact, you as the owner may not even be the best person for the job. Too many owners are micro-managers, and reluctant to delegate. Every business needs a team with a range of skills to thrive, so your focus must first be on building the right team. By assignment, they can create the processes.

  3. Creating systems is time and energy consuming.. By extracting the needed system data from the responsible and experienced people on your team, you will more likely get it right the first time, and also minimize the learning and thinking time that you would have to invest. At least if you work together in two-person teams, it will only take half as long.

  4. Systems require expensive and complex software. In reality, the best approach is always to keep it simple. Don’t fall for the old software sales pitch that more features (that you don’t need now) make it better. Start with the less complex tools to get organized, understanding they can be upgraded as your needs grow, and technology changes.

  5. Your team will ignore systems already in place. People hate complex systems they don’t understand, and will find a way around them. This is all the more reason to keep things simple, and well integrated. Integration is the key to providing real value to your business as it grows, as well as the team. Manage via the systems, and everyone wins.

  6. Processes and automation destroy creativity. You won’t get much creativity from a team of overworked people manually trying to deal with more cases. Good systems will give them the space to look ahead and inspire them to scale the business. You need that creativity to address new growth opportunities, not find more ways to do the same thing.

  7. Systems don’t pay back until they are optimized. Optimizing processes always has value, but don’t make that your top priority. Providing consistency and measurability is the major contribution of a good process, so you don’t need perfection. Build a dashboard to measure performance, and listen to the needs of the business for new requirements.

Some franchising business, such as McDonald’s, have taken their systemization to the Olympic level as a key to their competitiveness in a highly saturated market. Unless you are in a similar domain, I suggest that you don’t need perfect systems in order to thrive.

The real challenge for every business is to keep up with changes in the market, and to maintain growth through new and repeat customers. Ignore the myths often associated with processes and systemization, to allow these to give you the time and energy to focus on building your business, rather than day-to-day operations and survival. You may even find time to take a vacation.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/19/2021 ***

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Wednesday, March 31, 2021

5 Benefits Of Business Leadership By Asking Questions

İllustration of Man With Question MarkI’m a big fan of the old adage "There are no stupid questions, only stupid answers." We have all heard questions that begin, "This may be a dumb question, but …" used effectively by smart people who are not afraid of risking ridicule by challenging a questionable assertion from an intimidating speaker.

Most people in business seem to expect their leaders just to give orders. According to Gary B. Cohen in his classic book, “Just Ask Leadership: Why Great Managers Always Ask the Right Questions,” as leaders advance, they tend to oblige by asking fewer questions and providing more answers. This is precisely the wrong approach.

Entrepreneurs and business executives have to keep reign over a very broad domain. They need to ask the right questions in the right contexts to stay ahead of the game, and to empower coworkers to find solutions, embrace responsibility, and become accountable.

Cohen provides specific insights to seek in particular situations, while also explaining how to create a culture of question-based leadership. I agree with his outline of five critical areas:

  1. Improving vision. Good vision requires insight from all levels of the organization. Forward-leaning questions can illuminate the values of both the leader and the team. This, in turn, will enable employee buy-in, and good choices with regard to interacting with customers and future goals.
  1. Ensuring accountability. Having coworkers solve their own problems is critical to building their accountability, and it increases team performance. When job descriptions are clear and people are encouraged to act in good-faith, it’s easier to see who made the mistakes and who’s to blame. Failure must be used as an opportunity for learning, not an excuse for punishment.
  1. Building unity and cooperation. It’s important to listen respectfully to coworkers’ questions and opinions since they’re all a part of the team. This creates a culture of trust. It requires asking good and fair questions – not “gotcha” questions. Getting everyone to participate isn’t always easy, but when coworkers realize their ideas have value and the organization is receptive to them, they’re more apt to share.
  1. Creating better decisions. Most leaders make too many decisions, and fall into the trap of doing others’ work. The best decisions are often made by those down the chain of command, not up. Get the right answers by asking the right questions. In order to avoid the blame game, it’s important to know who is responsible for specific problems.
  1. Motivating to action. “Because I said so,” is not a phrase that will inspire the team. Ask for success. Create a sense of urgency, appeal to people’s desire to be remembered, and energize coworkers by using shared responses – such as asking a group to say, “Agree,” after consensus is reached.

If you tell coworkers how to do their jobs, you are essentially limiting their options and stifling their initiative, says Cohen. You are not leading. Asking questions isn’t just about not knowing the answers – these questions lead to fresh ideas, committed action, and the creation of a new rank of leaders.

Socrates was the early master of asking the right question, He taught that when you ask questions, you show respect, and you are respected in turn. Of course, even the best question is moot if you don’t listen to the answer. Ask. Listen. Learn. Lead.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, March 29, 2021

5 New Marketing Rules For Today’s Customer Generation

Jason_Derulo_Fans_marketingAs a business consultant, I often have to remind small business owners that their marketing needs to be more interactive, versus the traditional “push” model, where you broadcast your message to as many people as possible. New generations of customers respond better to the “participative” approach, where they get to provide input via social media and the Internet.

It started a few years ago with the advent of email satisfaction surveys after an online purchase, but now includes interactive Internet ads, as well as custom requests for input on the design of future products and influencers on social media. It seems that everyone these days wants an experience and a relationship, and is willing to become your best advocate via word-of-mouth.

Some call it a move from always “hunting” for new customers in the wild, to “gardening” or nurturing loyalty and value from the ones you already have. In any case, the new approach is important to all businesses, and I have learned that it embodies some new marketing rules which you need to focus on and learn:

  1. Make your marketing exploratory and dynamic. The days of big-bang long-term campaigns that never change are over. You should be constantly trying new approaches via social media and online, and asking for feedback and input from influencers and customers. Scale quickly on good feedback, and move on if you get little engagement.

    A step in the right direction is to take advantage of the new tools available at a very low cost, including sponsored podcasts, blogs, visibility in online communities, and Twitter influencer support. Sometimes it’s as simple as updating your website format and videos.

  2. Use experiments versus designing the ideal ad. Trends and customer interests change quickly, so use small experiments to find something that works today, and use innovation to push the envelope, before your competitors can copy and overrun you. The key is to be able to measure your return, adapt quickly, and learn from your efforts.

    According to the Harvard Business Review, E-commerce companies that conducted ad experiments saw two to three percent better performance per experiment run. An advertiser that ran 15 experiments in a given year saw a 30% higher ad performance.

  3. Motivate customers to participate and engage. Reward customers for their advocacy and engagement with discounts and coupons, keep the interaction dynamic, and incent their return. This requires a sense of urgency on the part of your team, and a culture of accountability and focus on the customer. Marketing must be everyone’s top priority.

    For example, Dunkin’ Donuts did this through a photo contest, rewarding with discounts those who submitted a photo with the brand's handle and hashtag. Others highlight live experience and happy videos, submitted by customers, on their website and promotions.

  4. Partner with others to create blended offerings. A very successful marketing effort created by a restaurant near me during the pandemic offered a carry-out from multiple sources – to combine flowers with food and drinks, all from different establishments, packaged creatively together. Everybody wins, and it spread quickly on social media.

    People remember and endorse you as the primary brand, who created the blended offering, as well as the other “endorsed” brands. The hybrid approach is also effective as an experiment if you are exploring ways to expand your own brand into new segments.

  5. Market solutions as an experience or an event. Advertising more features, or even a lower price, is not as memorable to customers today as a great experience, or a unique event. These may be live, or immersive online experiences. Use social media to build anticipation and highlight successes, to get people talking and coming back for more.

The message here is that big blockbuster campaigns, and big marketing budgets, are no longer the key to results in new customer environment, where participation and relationships are key. Now is the time to ask your customers and partners for participative ideas, do some experiments, and scale up the ones that work. Be prepared to make frequent updates as trends change.

Marketing is no longer a one-way conversation, whether you are a startup or a legacy business. How long has it been since you changed your marketing strategy? Are your costs going up, and the returns going down? Try listening and learning, more than talking and pushing.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/15/2021 ***

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Sunday, March 28, 2021

In Your Business, You Can’t Learn If You Don’t Listen

announcement-business-peopleWhen you are not presenting to investors or your team, try to spend more time listening than talking. You can’t learn anything new while you’re talking, yet many entrepreneurs seem to never stop. It’s a sad spiral, since the more you talk, the less people really hear, meaning they don’t learn anything either. If someone left this article on your desk, read extra carefully.

Building a business is all about building relationships, and one of the most important elements of a relationship is effective communication. Communication doesn’t happen unless both parties practice the art of effective listening. Check to see if you are practicing the key disciplines of listening, as outlined by Brian Tracy in his classic book “No Excuses: the Power of Self-Discipline”:

  • Listen attentively. Listen as though the other person is about to reveal a great secret or the winning lottery number and you will hear it only once. Since you always pay attention to what you most value, when you pay close attention to another person, you tell that person that they are of great value to you. You will be remembered.
  • Pause before replying. When you pause, you avoid the risk of interrupting the other person if they are reformulating their thoughts. It also enables you to hear not only what was said, but what was not said. Then you can respond with greater awareness and sensitivity.
  • Ask for clarification. Never assume that you automatically know what the other person is thinking or feeling. It is when you ask questions and seek clarity that you demonstrate that you really care about what he or she is saying, and that you are genuinely interested in understanding how he or she thinks and feels.
  • Feed it back. The acid test of listening is to see if you can paraphrase what you heard in your own words. It is only when you can repeat back what the other person has just said, in your own words, that you prove you are really listening, and understood the message. For all feedback, be sure to mirror the other person's pace and communication style.

Even good communicators average only about half their time listening. Yet experts assert that most people listen with only about 25 percent of their attention, hear about 25 percent of what is said, and after two months, remember only half of that. That’s not effective communication.

There are also things you can do to encourage others to listen to you, when you do speak, to improve the overall communication:

  • Lower voice, no emotion. This causes the other party to listen more carefully, and facilitates a more pleasant and more effective conversation.
  • Adapt to listener interests. Use analogies and terminology that are easy for the other person to relate to, and they will respond with attention and higher comprehension.
  • Choose the right environment. Wait for the right opportunity, when you can be easily heard and understood, and the listener is in the right mood.
  • Address people by name. This gets their attention and focus. Sometimes it helps to bring others into the conversation to support your input.

In business, you need to always be listening – to customers, to advisors, to investors, and to your team members. When you do talk, concentrate on making it effective. You don’t have the time to have things repeated to you four times before you really hear and understand them. Outbound marketing is all talking, and no listening.

Responsible, effective listening is a rare skill that will give you a sustainable competitive advantage over your peers and your competitors. It’s also a skill that can be developed with practice. You can never know enough in business, so even top entrepreneurs find time to listen. Are you learning anything these days?

Marty Zwilling

*** Kazakh translation provided by Alana Kerimova ***

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Saturday, March 27, 2021

6 Ways Dedicated New Ventures Have Mastered Hardship

entrepreneur-business-mastered-adversityWe all know entrepreneurs who have overcome adversity, like the current pandemic or personal setbacks, and achieved success. There are famous people like Walt Disney and Nelson Rockefeller, who overcame learning disabilities, and people like J. C. Penney and J. K Rowling who struggled through personal bad times before finding their true legacy.

I’ve always been interested in how this works, and why it’s true. I’ve listened to several speakers with personal stories of overcoming adversity, and the message is always that tough times can make you stronger, wiser, and better. I’ve seen real examples, so I believe it, but the how and why are more elusive.

In the classic book I read a while back, titled “The Power of Adversity,” Al Weatherhead details his personal story of overcoming family and personal obstacles, including alcoholism, heart disease, and serious arthritis, to become an inventor, a wealthy entrepreneur, and active philanthropist. For most, I think it starts with having the survivor instinct, rather than accepting the victim role.

Beyond that, Al outlines his techniques for mastering adversity, which I believe can add value for every entrepreneur out there. Hopefully, your adversities are not as disastrous as his, but applying the same principles should still have a strengthening effect:

  1. Use the power of positive attitude and mindset. Developing a positive attitude about adversity seems essential to tapping its power to enhance and improve your life. A wise man once said, "Adversity has the effect of eliciting talents, which, in prosperous circumstances, would have lain dormant."
  1. Meditation is the art of letting go. Practicing meditation creates and sustains your positive mindset. Don’t think of meditation in the classic Zen sense, as exercising or swimming daily is also a way of letting your mind go. You may realize that adversity is just another name for the series of choices called life.
  1. Communicate your goals and desires. A great gift of adversity is coming to understand that you can only resolve your problems when you share your life with others. You simply must reach out to others, or you will never overcome adversity.
  1. Practice sharing, not controlling. Don’t confuse the need to control with connection. As you truly connect with others – revealing, extending, and expressing yourself – the layers of adversity will peel away like an onion. Surround yourself with strong people who can help you get through the tough times.
  1. Acceptance is the key. Adversity at some point in your life is inevitable. The more you refuse to accept it and deal with it, the more you will lose. Denial and running away never helps. Those who choose to be strong, rather than choose to suffer, will overcome it and may actually thrive.
  1. Embrace the bounce. In business and your personal life, it’s all about being resilient. That means look beyond the challenges of the moment, and identify and integrate the new insights and convictions that adversity so often presents.

Your challenge, like Al’s, is to turn adversity into success. He believes that you have to be both creative and patient to discover the multiple solutions that will unravel the knots of your adversity. In these ways, you will move ever closer to mastering it, and be that much more at peace.

But even with all this, I’m still not sure that I understand why this works. I’m sure many of you out there have been through more adversity than me (my life has been a walk in the park, compared to Al). Help me understand what worked for you and why.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, March 26, 2021

5 Key Success Attributes For An Aspiring Entrepreneur

successful-entrepreneurAs an entrepreneur mentor, my mission is to foster the attributes in you as a startup founder that I believe will lead to success. I know from experience that my friends who are angel investors are looking for the same indications, although none of us has a scorecard, or even know exactly what we are looking for. Sometimes good things are easy to see in others, but hard to see in yourself.

For example, I worked with an entrepreneur a while back who was clearly intelligent, had a great idea, and communicated well. Yet I was often disappointed by his habit of committing to a specific deliverable, but then not delivering. He always had a plausible excuse, such as an unexpected problem, or family conflict, but the frequency left me with low confidence in his ultimate success.

If you are having trouble finding an investor, or not attracting some key team members that you need, I encourage you to do a self-assessment against the following key characteristics, from an outsider’s perspective, to make sure you generate positive success vibes in each of the following:

  1. After the idea, your focus must be all on execution. I sometimes find entrepreneurs who highlight that their strength is “ideas.” Unfortunately for them, building a business is all about implementation. Idea people must surround themselves with people who build momentum and get things done, including production, marketing, finance, and sales.

    As an example, I worked with Bill Gates early on, but I fear he may have failed without partners Steve Ballmer and Paul Allen. Gates was a software developer genius, but Ballmer upheld the marketing and business side. Paul Allen was the idea visionary.

  2. You set goals and targets, and build a plan from these. Investors are not impressed when targets and plan are not focused, or seem to change with the wind. You will find that your team, partners, and vendors feel the same way. People expect goals to be hit more than missed, and you be willing to pivot as required, or take timely corrective action.

    Unless you sold your last startup for a billion dollars, the days are gone when you can just scratch your idea on the back of a napkin, and investors will throw money at you. They now expect a solid documented plan, with specific goals and targets based on data.

  3. The ability to make timely and fact-based decisions. Some entrepreneurs have an abundance of passion, but are short on the realities of customer needs, market trends, and financial constraints. I expect decision making to be a rational process, decentralized as much as possible, and based on data, as well as sensitive to competitors and others.

  4. Your organization, process, and team are in harmony. It’s amazing how much I can learn by spending a day at your office. I expect to find a positive and supportive team, with advisors, and just the right amount of process and structure, to get the job done. It must be evident that they all understand their role, and are aligned on the same agenda.

  5. Employees are engaged, committed, and accountable. Technical entrepreneurs, in particular, who build an innovative product, often don’t realize that building a successful business requires an equal focus on hiring the right people, providing the right tools and resources, and communicating effectively. Business success requires buy-in from all.

As an aspiring entrepreneur, I recognize that you won’t have all these attributes on day one. That’s why you need to get used to hearing the standard rejection from investors – “I love your idea, but come back when you have more traction.” It’s never too early to take a hard look at yourself in the mirror, and focus on those attributes that you may be still developing.

A little farther down the road, the challenge is to retain these attributes for the long haul to success. During scaling, many entrepreneurs get complacent, and forget that focus on innovation, fast decision making, and a supportive team culture. They soon find that the market and competitors are changing faster than they are.

Business success is an elusive target. – every one of us needs to keep growing and learning how to make it happen. Start today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/11/2021 ***

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Thursday, March 25, 2021

7 Tough Leadership Challenges Gauge Your CEO Ability

business-leadership-candidatesAs a business advisor, I often talk to business professionals who are critical of their CEO, and are convinced that they could do the job better. Yet I suspect that few of you have seriously thought about the scope of problems that every CEO must face, and what capabilities are the key to success, whether your company is a small startup, or a multi-billion multi-national conglomerate.

I have my own views on what it takes to be an effective leader at the top, based on many years as an executive in large companies as well as small, but I was impressed with the solid points in a new book, “The CEO Test,” by Adam Bryant and Kevin Sharer. These authors bring far more experience to the table, as well as the results of interviews with 500 CEOs and other leaders.

To check your own potential as a leader, I offer you insights on their self assessment to better understand how to be more effective and successful leaders, and respond to key challenges faced by every professional in business, based on the authors and my own real-life experiences. You can project the results by assessing how well you might handle these seven key objectives:

  1. Develop a simple plan for your complex strategy. Simplifying complexity and being ready to implement a solution are key. I have found that many people are great critics, or can study a problem forever. Far fewer are adept at getting to the heart of a challenge, and offering a simple strategy and plan. If this is your forte, you could be the next CEO.

  2. Walk the talk to create a winning company culture. Every company talks about their culture these days, but in many places it is still messy and political. Only the best leaders and CEOs pay real attention to how and when people commit, how employees accept accountability, and how they win. If your focus is on an effective culture, you are a leader.

  3. Build teams that work together to drive strategy. Teams that work together are ones that build trust, and have each other’s back, all while engaging with their leaders, and following a commonly developed strategy. CEOs who make this happen start by hiring the right people, communicating a strategy, and being the role model for collaboration.

  4. Provide leadership to drive a transformation. There is no more dangerous position in business than clinging to the status quo. The challenge of reinventing almost every aspect of a company on an ongoing basis can be overwhelming to everyone, so you are expected to provide the passion, framework, and incentives for continuous innovation.

  5. Really listen for danger signals and bad news. Too many CEOs today like to talk, trust their gut, but fail to listen to their team or the customer. They overlook danger signals, and make excuses for bad news. Great CEOs humbly invest the time and energy to walk the halls, travel to customers, and hold regular employee meetings, with real listening.

  6. Avoid predictable mistakes in handling a crisis. Real leaders don’t run and hide, or try to deflect blame, when a crisis hits. You have to be visible, show a sense of urgency, and communicate a plan, with regular status, to everyone. Stay calm and project confidence, while marshalling your team to understand and attack the root cause of the problem.

  7. Manage the conflicting demands of leadership. True leaders are expected to be optimistic, yet realistic; compassionate, yet demanding; create freedom with structure, and make unpopular calls, while keeping your ego in check. You have to appreciate the long-term rewards of a positive legacy, bringing out the best in others, and new learning.

So before you become a critic, take the time to do an honest assessment of your own capabilities and tendencies against these tough challenges. The business world needs more leaders and effective CEOs, to better serve their customers, their employees, and their company. Every day is a good day to start honing your skills. I’ll be watching, and I want to be your biggest advocate.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/10/2021 ***

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Monday, March 22, 2021

How To Scale Your Startup Far Beyond Organic Growth

merger-and-acquisitionsEvery entrepreneur tries to maximize his startup growth by building and selling more product and services for the widest geographic area that he can support. This strategy is called “organic growth,” yet it alone may yield only a fraction of the potential you could achieve, unless you add the additional strategies of partnerships and M&A (mergers and acquisitions).

Many entrepreneurs are paranoid about the partnership approach, and think that M&A is only an alternative for large companies who are flush with cash. Both of these qualms are wrong and shortsighted. Laurence Capron and Will Mitchell explain why in their classic book, “Build, Borrow, or Buy: Solving the Growth Dilemma.” I like their recommended framework for emerging firms, as well as large multinationals, to help build an optimal growth strategy for your company:

  1. Evaluate internal development versus external sourcing. Building through internal development, or organic growth, makes the most sense when you have a core set of skilled internal resources. Use external sourcing to fill in the non-critical gaps.
  1. Add basic partner contracts or alliances. Using contracts with partners for growth resources (“borrowing”) is best when you can both define the resources clearly and protect them with effective contractual terms. Don’t use alliances for core competencies.
  1. Invest in selective strategic alliances. Borrowing by way of a more engaged alliance helps you obtain targeted resources when you and a partner collaborate through limited points of contact and have complementary goals for your joint activities.

  1. Actively pursue mergers and acquisitions. M&A is “buying” resources for growth. This makes sense when you anticipate needing the freedom and control to make major changes to enhance growth, with a credible integration path while retaining key people.

The real challenge here is balance. Too much emphasis on organic growth can become a straightjacket that leads only to incremental innovation and limited horizons. Too much reliance on growth via contracts and alliances makes you vulnerable to partners’ actions and conflicts of interest. Overreliance on acquisitions drains resources and de-motivates internal teams.

In every startup, as well as in mature companies, there is no substitute for constantly maintaining a pipeline of alternatives. This requires constant focus, as well as maintaining the skill set to do things like the following:

  • Locating and not losing knowledge from within. Startups often find it difficult to retain key personnel and to control proprietary ideas. Rather than push non-compete agreements on your superstars, it’s more productive to create incentive systems and creative ways for them to work more independently, just for you.
  • External scanning for resources. Startups can’t usually afford a business development team, so that effort is just one of the measurements that should fall on every CTO and CEO. Here is also an ideal opportunity to use your external advisors and Board to help identify external resources, potential partnerships, and acquisition opportunities.
  • Partial acquisition. Budget relatively small “educational investments” at early stages, to learn from a target firm without a full commitment, or without leading either partner astray. These can reinforce the operational and financial linkages through licensing or alliance agreements, and allow the relationship to develop prior to an acquisition commitment.
  • Spin-ins. This is a transaction whereby two firms agree on a set of milestones that would trigger a partnership or acquisition, if the innovator achieves the specified goals. The initiator funds the innovators’ development activities and gives them the flexibility to work independently.

There is no question that startups which manage the broadest alternatives for growth will gain competitive advantages. This selection capability is a skill and a discipline that every entrepreneur needs to nurture and develop over time. The world and current economic environments have changed. The past can be a deadly rear-view mirror. Look for new horizons.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, March 21, 2021

7 Key Startup Activities Where Follow-Up Is Critical

Remember Follow Up drawingWhen someone introduces me to an “idea person,” I automatically jump to the down-side conclusion that this person doesn’t do follow-up. Of course there are people who are great at getting things done, but haven’t had an original idea in their life. Great entrepreneurs, like Bill Gates, are great at both.

I was with IBM in the early PC days when Bill worked with us to provide PC DOS and other software. He was relentless in his focus on getting a project done, and he always assigned himself the toughest tasks. At the same time, he was always pushing the limits of our business relationship with new ideas.

That’s the bar you should aspire to. I can think of several related aspects of starting and running a business where follow-up, or lack of it, can make or break your startup. Here are a few:

  1. Business networking. For entrepreneurs, effective networking is required to find investors, partners, and customers. It doesn’t work if you don’t follow up on networking opportunities, networking referrals, and ongoing networking relationships.
  1. Investor negotiations. Serious investors expect founders to have their homework done before the first interaction – documented executive summary, business plan, and financial model. They expect prompt formal follow-up to questions. Too many entrepreneurs try to talk their way through all of these.
  1. Product development. For a great idea person, the product details keep changing for the better, but nothing ever gets finished. Lists of project milestones and technical issues are created, but nothing happens on time, because follow-up on issues is missing.
  1. Time management. Some struggling entrepreneurs are totally event driven. They are too busy with the “crisis of the moment” to focus on follow-ups that may save a major customer, close a partner deal, or solidify a process that isn’t working well.
  1. Effective marketing. Guerrilla marketing preaches the importance of prospect follow-up if you even hope to succeed in business. If you collect business cards at a trade show, make sure all have follow-up within 72 hours, and at least three more times after that.
  1. Customer retention. More customers are lost to apathy after the sale than poor service or quality. Many experts suggest it costs six times more to sell something to a new customer than to an existing customer. A numbing 68% of all business lost in America is lost due to lack of follow-up after the sale.
  1. Professional relationships. How many people do you know who have a thousand emails in their inbox, or just a few awaiting follow-up for over a week from people who matter? These procrastinations jeopardize your integrity and your relationships.

Everyone likes to be pursued, rather than the pursuer. There’s a reason that many people say that the fortune is in the follow up. When you follow up properly with people, your reputation will benefit, your business will benefit, and eventually your pocketbook will benefit as well.

As an aside, I would suggest that you should never aspire to be a manager or an executive if you don’t do follow-up. You won’t be happy, and you won’t do a good job, because that’s what they do most of the time. The idea time for most executives is in the shower, or during other non-work activities.

So which is the most important, the idea or the follow-up? If you intend to be a great entrepreneur, you need both. But I know some very good ones built on great follow-up with incremental improvements to existing products. On the other hand, a great idea without a business plan is a non-starter.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, March 20, 2021

9 Steps To Overcoming Your Biggest Startup Challenges

confused-digital-nomadCreating a startup, or managing any business, is all about problem solving. Some people are good at it and some are not – independent of their IQ or their book smarts (there may even be an inverse relationship here). Yet I’m convinced that problem solving is a learnable trait, rather than just a birthright.

Entrepreneurs who are great problem solvers within any business are the best prepared to solve their customers’ needs effectively as well. In fact, every business is about solutions to customer problems – no problems, no business. Problems are an everyday part of every business and personal environment.

Thus it behooves all of us to work on mastering the discipline of problem solving. Here is a formula from Brian Tracy, in his classic book “No Excuses! The Power of Self-Discipline” that I believe will help entrepreneurs move up a notch in this category:

  1. Take the time to define the problem clearly. Many entrepreneurs like to jump into solution mode immediately, even before they understand the issue. In some cases, a small problem can become a big one if you attack with inappropriate actions. In all cases, real clarity will expedite the path ahead.
  1. Pursue alternate paths on “facts of life” and opportunities. Remember, there are some things that you can do nothing about. They’re not problems; they are merely facts of life, like natural disasters. Often, what appears to be a problem is actually an opportunity in disguise.
  1. Challenge the definition from all angles. Beware of any problem for which there is only one definition. The more ways you can define a problem, the more likely it is that you will find the best solution. For example, “sales are too low” may mean strong competitors, ineffective advertising, or a poor sales process.
  1. Iteratively question the cause of the problem. This is all about finding the root cause, rather than treating a symptom. If you don’t get to the root, the problem will likely recur, perhaps with different symptoms. Don’t waste time re-solving the same problem.
  1. Identify multiple possible solutions. The more possible solutions you develop, the more likely you will come up with the right one. The quality of the solution seems to be in direct proportion to the quantity of solutions considered in problem solving.

  1. Prioritize potential solutions. An acceptable solution, doable now, is usually superior to an excellent solution with higher complexity, longer timeframe, and higher cost. There is a rule that says that every large problem was once a small problem that could have been solved easily at that time.
  1. Make a decision. Select a solution, any solution, and then decide on a course of action. The longer you put off deciding on what to do, the higher the cost, and the larger the impact. Your objective should be to deal with 80% of all problems immediately. At the very least, set a specific deadline for making a decision and stick to it.
  1. Assign responsibility. Who exactly is going to carry out the solution or the different elements of the solution? Otherwise nothing will happen, and you have no recourse but to implement all solutions yourself.
  1. Set a measure for the solution. Otherwise you will have no way of knowing when and whether the problem was solved. Problem solutions in a complex system often have unintended side effects which can be worse than the original problem.

People who are good at problem solving are some of the most valuable and respected people in every area. In fact, success if often defined as “the ability to solve problems.” In many cultures, this is called “street smarts,” and it’s valued even more than “book smarts.” The best entrepreneurs have both.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, March 19, 2021

8 Ways Your Values And Results Make A Trusted Leader

personal-values-and-resultsAs an angel investor in new startups, I’ve long believed that investors invest in people, not ideas. But the magic that makes one entrepreneur stand out over others is hard to quantify – yet we all recognize it when we see it. In my view, it starts with your communication of real personal values, and ends your focus on results. In fact, these same attributes also bound your leadership skills.

As a mentor, my mission is to recommend actions that can strengthen your image with investors and peers, as well as help you get the startup job done. I believe all of us in business need to practice these actions to improve our effectiveness and leadership, to overcome the tough challenges, including funding and leadership, that we all face:

  1. Identify a “higher purpose” that embodies your values. The most respected business leaders today or those who balance business growth objectives in the context of making the world a better place, through addressing social or environmental issues. Of course, these must always be balanced with winning business practices for maximum value.

    An example of a good balance is clearly Whole Foods, whose focus on healthy foods and a sustainable environment is legendary. Their mix of business success and a higher purpose is credited as the major factor in attracting Amazon with a $13.7 billion buyout.

  2. Focus on customers and people over profits and ego. Especially in these modern times, both your customers and your team are looking for personal relationships to incent their engagement and loyalty. Practice being humble and demonstrating transparency in your communication of needs and challenges. Their support will make you a leader.

  3. Use your values to lead people, not push them. The days of “push” marketing and autocratic control are gone. Use active listening to learn from your team, your customers, and investors. Provide solutions they want today, not something they could appreciate tomorrow, or is “nice to have” from your perspective. Be a role model for humility.

  4. Practice logic and discipline rather than random walks. With discipline, people will see you as a leader who can overcome the tough challenges of business, rather than someone on an unpredictable or emotional roller coaster. Your values will help you build trust with team members and customers, increase your productivity, and inspire others.

  5. Demonstrate persistence and stability in all challenges. The market may not yet recognize the value of your solution, so investors and peers are watching and analyzing your initiatives and pivots. While I recognize that you may be your toughest critic, there is no substitute for actions versus excuses, and the best actions come from strong values.

  6. Highlight your values when discussing needs and decisions. All too often, I sense or hear “fear of failure” as the driver for help requests, and the answer to tough challenges. You need to show courage and a vision for overcoming fear, and discuss specific actions, rather than look for someone to provide an easy way out. There are no easy answers.

  7. Calmly accept responsibility for failures and success. We all know that your plan is full of personal choices, and what you do with them, based on your values, governs your reality and success. Don’t play the blame game. Accepting responsibility for things is key to building relationships, effective communications, and creating loyal advocates.

  8. Define and use real metrics to measure progress. Set quantitative goals for your business based on your values, and avoid the assessment of progress based on feelings. A vision and a dream are not a viable strategy for success. Take advantage of the latest tools for gathering data and tracking progress. Manual assessment is not productive.

So before you pitch your next idea to investors, or your next request to peers and customers, take a few moments to check the alignment with your personal values and how well these have been communicated to your audience. If you think that passion alone, or your other emotions, will get the message across - think again. Your leadership and success in business today depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/05/2021 ***

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Wednesday, March 17, 2021

5 Ways To Be Successful In Business Despite Bad Luck

business-luck-to-successIf you have had some success in a business, I’m sure you bristle just like I do when someone says “You were just lucky…” I’m a strong believer that we all make our own luck, which means that the harder we work, the luckier we get. In reality, “hard work” is just a catch-all term for a list of principles that good entrepreneurs follow, allowing them to work smarter and improve their odds of success.

A short list of these “hard work” principles, published a decade ago by Anthony Tjan in the Harvard Business Review summarizes them as heart, smarts, and guts. I agree with these, and most people recognize them when they see them in others, but the terms are still a bit abstract for learning purposes.

Even earlier, other experts, like professors Alex Rovira and Fernando Trias de Bes, authors of “Good Luck: Create the Conditions for Success in Life & Business,” identified five more definitive principles that seemingly lucky and successful entrepreneurs have in common:

  1. Accept responsibility for your actions. Business owners who feel that they have had good luck also feel responsible for their own actions. When things go wrong or the outcome of any given situation is other than intended, they never point the finger of blame at external factors or other individuals. Instead, they look to themselves and ask, "What have I done for this to occur?" Then they act accordingly to solve the problem.
  1. Learning from mistakes. Creators of good luck don't see a mistake as a failure. Instead, a mistake is an opportunity for learning. Thomas Edison is the classic example. The very first light bulb was invented by Sir Joseph Wilson Swan, who demonstrated the theoretical concept but gave up trying to develop a practical application after only three attempts. By contrast, Edison made his own good luck and designed a working light bulb after over 1,000 failures.
  1. Perseverance on all goals. Creators of good luck don't give up or postpone. When a problem or situation arises, they act immediately to either solve it without delay, delegate, or forget about it. This enables their energy to be fully focused on their work and avoid conscious or unconscious distractions, which only generate inefficiency.
  1. Confidence in yourself and others. The most powerful principle is often the most overlooked. Confidence in yourself is essential, and those who create their own good luck have high degrees of assertiveness and self-esteem. Closely linked to assertiveness and self-esteem is trust in others and respect for them, seeing other people as major sources of opportunity.
  1. Cooperation with others in your network. Synergy is key. Trust in others leads to a solid network of work colleagues and friends, which, in turn, provides more resources to carry out projects than if they were managed alone. Think cooperation rather than competitiveness. At the most basic level, any project or undertaking takes place in the context of the broader group, and everyone should have the chance to emerge a winner.

With these attributes and the right attitude, I believe that most of "business luck" can be meaningfully influenced. That lucky attitude, according to Tjan, is a combination of three traits – humility, intellectual curiosity, and optimism.

Therefore, the basic equation of developing the right lucky attitude is quite simple. It starts with having the humility to be self-aware of your own limitations, followed by the intellectual curiosity to ask the right questions and actively listen to input, and concluding with the belief and optimism that something better is always possible.

Any entrepreneur can have this mindset if they just believe that luck is not random. They need to realize that they alone are the creators of the conditions that foster the achievement of specific, visualized goals. Then, having seen it work, they will know how to repeat the success. Overall, that really is “hard work.” Are you doing the right hard work to get lucky in your business?

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, March 15, 2021

7 Ways to Convince Other People To Take A Risk On You

fundable-entrepreneursAs a member of an angel investment group for years, I’m sometimes surprised to see founders with a good technical business case get rejected for funding, while others seem to have a hidden quality that gives them credibility to be fundable despite some missing elements. Investors often chalk this up to inbred charisma or charm, but I’ve often wondered if could be a learned skill.

I just finished a new book, “Backable,” by Suneel Gupta with Carlye Adler, which solidifies my belief than anyone can learn to be perceived as more credible and persuasive, and it’s a skill that every entrepreneur and business professional needs to master. Here are seven key steps which both Gupta and I agree are necessary for success:

  1. Persuade yourself before you try to convince others. Passion and energy are key indicators that you believe strongly in what you are proposing. Just because someone else tells you that you can make money with this idea, doesn’t mean you can sell it. Do the research to fully commit to the how and why before you try to persuade others.

  2. Put yourself in a story that makes your case memorable. Facts and figures can only go so far in convincing investors that your solution is a good one. People listen and remember a personal story and impact more than a large chart of facts. Highlight a personal anecdote and keep it in sight to make your message hit home and become real.

    For example, I know from experience that it is hard to turn down a funding request from an entrepreneur whose solution has rescued him from a health crisis, and now he wants to offer it to a large population of others facing the same challenge. I can easily relate.

  3. Highlight some key info that goes beyond normal sources. People give real credibility to fresh insights that could not have come from Google search. Do something more, like assembling a group of potential customers, and convey unique insights you learned. This indicates your extra effort, and communicates your results already evident.

  4. Show momentum that makes your vision inevitable. Show evidence that your vision is already underway, and appeal to the natural fear of every investor – the fear of missing out (FOMO). An example is the shift to working from home, caused by the pandemic. We already see momentum on new video tools, and there are many more opportunities.

    Elon Musk used this approach with Tesla, capitalizing on the growing momentum of electric engines, and a strategic mistake by GM which antagonized owners. His new technology and strategy was convincing, and now is a new benchmark for transportation.

  5. Draw people into your story to make them insiders. This emphasizes the value of networking with potential investors so they have inside knowledge on your proposal, rather than a cold first look when you are asking for money. Pre-pitch discussions and warm introductions are a key practice for drawing people in, and building advocacy.

  6. Adjust based on feedback from many practice rounds. Entrepreneurs who think they can “wing-it” with investors through natural salesmanship are rarely successful. There is no substitute for practice, practice, and more practice, with active listening. Ask people to explain back to you what they heard, and then make improvements with each iteration.

    Gupta reminds us of the “Rule of 21,” meaning success comes after twenty-one practice rounds, which keynote speakers and highly backable people easily relate to. In the world of new entrepreneurs, giving your pitch twenty-one times before success is not unusual.

  7. Don’t let your ego show and make people defensive. Smart business people are quick to detect fake smiles, acting, and bravado. Practice being humble, yet confident and sincere, based on knowing your proposal inside out. Find a few sponsors and advocates to support your position, and don’t hesitate to bring them into the discussion.

I’m sure that you can see that none of these steps requires a super-human effort or special attributes from birth. These same initiatives apply not only to entrepreneurs seeking funding, but also to anyone seeking career changes, or re-entering the workforce after a life-changing event. You too can have that “it factor” that will make people take a chance on you when it really counts.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 03/01/2021 ***

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Sunday, March 14, 2021

10 Strategies To Keep Ahead Of Market Changes Today

drive-lessI’m a very logical guy, so I still fondly remember when new solutions and technologies started trends on the basis of their logical strengths. In today’s world, it seems that emotion, not logic, sparks the new trends that become culture, and drives our devotion or disappointment in new products and brands. How does an entrepreneur best deal with that environment?

I saw some real insights in the classic book by Jeremy D. Holden, “Second That Emotion: How Decisions, Trends, and Movements Are Shaped.” He is a branding and research strategist who outlines how social contracts cause culture shifts, illustrates how they are created by emotion, and clarifies ways that they can make or break a new product, as well as a career.

Jeremy applies his culture shift tenants to political and generic social issues, but I have adapted them here more specifically to the business realm of entrepreneurs and startups:

  1. Establish a social contract. Today consumers reveal themselves online, with pictures, opinions, ratings and reviews, interests and locations, and expect businesses to adapt to them, and honor the implied relationship contract. Businesses which ignore this contract are excluded from consideration, despite maybe having a logically better product or price.

  2. Enlist disciples and a congregation. Social relationships are built around zealots and their disciples who ultimately engage a wider congregation and perpetrate the culture shift. Emotion, rather than logic, drives disciples. “Viral marketing” and “word-of-mouth” are tools of disciples in business today. Don’t underestimate their value and potential.

  3. Create and leverage a chief disciple. Every startup needs a visible chief disciple today. The days of a new website and product with no personalization are gone. By default, the Founder is the chief disciple who displays the qualities to build the required social contracts. People today need a zealot, like Steve Jobs, to drive the desired culture shift.

  4. Embrace illogical leaps. Culture shifts are usually illogical leaps. You can use projective techniques to unlock the unconscious or hidden motivations that are shaping people’s belief systems, leading to these leaps. Build a connection to your product, and leverage the momentum into more social contracts and bigger congregations.

  5. Use social media to generate emotion. Social media is central to the creation of a social contract because it serves as an emotional beacon, and helps to fuel the invention of illogical leaps. Of course, its primary role is still to allow people to connect, organize, and engage, as well as provide startups with rich insights they might otherwise miss.

  6. Deliver emotional certainty. No matter how illogical it may appear, we strive for certainty in all of our choices and affiliations. Social contracts give customers the feeling of self-affirmation that they are smart and knowledgeable enough to make informed selections. Inevitably, they feel more connected to the companies that give them this peace of mind.

  7. Protect your principal symbols. Whatever tangible form your brand or message takes, it becomes the encapsulating beacon for a culture shift as well as an emotional conduit for a shift’s goals and beliefs. If the symbol changes, brands may see an erosion of their social contract, and it can feel as you’ve interfered with something deeply personal in their lives.

  8. Avoid a breach. There is no such thing as reward without risk, and the emotional nature of people’s commitment to a culture shift means that any misstep, betrayal, or overt contradiction can be fatal. Disciples and ultimately the congregation decide if you have broken the social contract for the culture shift, so you had better understand their terms.

  9. Ride your luck. When circumstances conspire to give your efforts unexpected momentum, it’s essential to be able to respond quickly and ride your luck, rather than remain strictly wedded to a plan or a strategy that hadn’t accounted for the new dynamic.

  10. Timing is everything. Luck and timing are inevitably less certain than product build schedules or marketing programs. Be prepared to capitalize on the emotion of competitor missteps, changes in the economy, and other world events to drive new social contracts, new disciples, and broaden your congregation. Culture shifts are usually not planned.

Not all businesses or startups are dependent on a culture shift to be successful. But culture shifts have created most of the great recent companies, such as Apple, Amazon, Google, and Facebook. As much as it pains the logical me to admit it, if you want your startup to be the next one, it’s time to adapt to the “age of illogic.”

Marty Zwilling<

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