Monday, November 29, 2021

7 Keys To Building And Keeping A Business Innovative

Creative-office-cultureWithin the startup realm, there is a big difference between having an innovative product versus an innovative business. Some startups have a new technology, but stick to a tried-and-true business model. Others take an existing product, and give it new life with a creative business model. The most competitive startups do both, all the time and every time.

In today’s competitive world, with its accelerating rate of change, no competitive advantage lasts long. According to Josh Linkner, in his classic book “Disciplined Dreaming,” we have entered the Age of Creativity, in which each incremental gain is zeroed out as global competitors quickly copy and adapt. The only sustainable competitive advantage is creativity.

He makes the case, and I agree, that creativity in a company, large or small, doesn’t just happen – it requires a culture. If you want to build and maintain a creative culture in your organization, you need to make sure your operation is guided by these seven critical strategies:

  1. Fuel passion. Every great invention, every medical breakthrough, every advance of humankind began with passion: a passion for change and for making a difference. With a team full of passion, you can accomplish just about anything. To promote passion, you need to develop a sense of purpose, promote collaboration, and have fun.
  1. Celebrate ideas. Many businesses give lip service to their celebration of innovation, but punish, rather than reward, risk-taking and creativity. In a creative culture, rewards come in many forms: money, yes, but great businesses also celebrate creativity through praise (both public and private), career opportunities, and perks.
  1. Foster autonomy. People and teams that can call their own shots are better able to produce valuable creative output, since requiring approval at every step kills the creative process. Granting of autonomy first requires extending trust. The key is to provide a clear message of what you are looking for, and then get out of the way.
  1. Encourage courage. Netflix, which is known for its creative culture, tells employees to “Say what you think, even if it is controversial. Make tough decisions without excessive agonizing. Take smart risks. Question actions inconsistent with our values.” Encourage team members to take creative risks without fear.
  1. Fail forward. Rather than characterizing something that doesn’t work immediately as a “failure,” position it as an experiment. These experiments can be called “failing forward,” because each one leads you one step closer to the perfect solution. The key is to fail quickly. Flush out ideas and let go of the ones that fail.
  1. Think small. When you want to foster big ideas, it’s important to have a strong sense of urgency, be nimble, and not afraid to embrace change. It’s easier to accomplish this in a small team, in a small local environment, before you try to extend it a much larger infrastructure. You will see results sooner, and be more able to overcome opposition.
  1. Maximize diversity. A diversity of thought and perspective fuels creativity and builds creative cultures. To connect with customers, for example, you need to understand the world from their perspective, not yours – this is one area where a diverse culture can make a huge difference.

Fostering creativity doesn’t mean that you don’t need a business plan, or must forgo all discipline in running your business. A successful business is still all about execution, so you still need clear milestones, checkpoints, and metrics to keep you on track.

Creativity is the ultimate competitive advantage. Not just one innovation, but a culture that assures that you are never standing still on the technology or the business model. Make it the priority we are all looking for. No investor wants to bet on a “one-trick pony.”

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 28, 2021

10 Signs That You Should Avoid Starting A New Venture

unhappy-business-ownerPeople who get stressed managing their own lives don’t make good entrepreneurs. Small businesses require multi-tasking, work prioritization, and decision-making, with no assistants or help from specialists. That’s why Fortune 500 executives usually don’t survive as startup CEOs.

First you have to learn to accept total responsibility for things that happen to your business, just like you are responsible for everything in your personal life. Maybe you are comfortable with having a spouse in control of your personal life, but couples running a business are high risk.

If you recognize yourself in these clues below, you probably won’t have as much fun running a startup as Sir Richard Branson always seems to be having. You don’t even have to try the entrepreneur lifestyle to know if these points are likely to be a problem for you:

  1. You often feel overwhelmed and out of control. There is always more to do than time to do it. Usually the stress people feel does not really come from having too much to do, but from having to make decisions on what to do first, and not setting reasonable targets.
  1. Starting many things, but completing few. Productivity is all about the ability to complete tasks. It requires tradeoffs and decisions, to declare that something is finished. Get in the habit of finishing what you start. Perfectionists need not apply.
  1. You like to defer big things until later. If you catch yourself deferring important tasks, in favor of smaller easy things, that’s a management problem. Adopt a “do it now” motto, and tackle your to-do list in priority order, rather than crisis order.
  1. Over-thinking and second-guessing yourself. If you spend more time thinking and worrying about a task, than doing the task, then you are not managing yourself. Don’t waste your precious creative energy. Finish items, and get them off your mind.
  1. You get defensive at the slightest criticism. Some people feel pain and high stress with any negative feedback or suggestions for improvement. They react quickly and emotionally with rationalizations and justifications for their actions, and find active listening very difficult. You need a thick skin to be an entrepreneur.
  1. Avoiding new opportunities due to fear of failure. Real entrepreneurs look at every new opportunity as an exciting and new-life experience. They are energized by the risk, and learn from every failure.
  1. Always counting your weaknesses. Good business leaders never criticize themselves for their weaknesses. Smart ones recognize their undeveloped skills and higher potential, but they are confident that they can change, and constantly work at it.
  1. Lack of confidence and enthusiasm. If you have a “downer” day at least once a week, and can’t remember the last time you were truly enthusiastic about something in your life or work, you are not ready to manage a business. Self-confidence is key to success.
  1. You like to work alone. Every business and every relationship is a team effort. Loners hide from others because they don’t want anyone to see that they are not in control. Make an effort to network with others to stay informed and contribute, but not dominate.
  1. Admit to being a control freak. Believe it or not, many people who don’t manage themselves very well are control freaks, when it comes to their business and other people. Practice the art of delegating and the joy of being spontaneous.

Managing yourself effectively is the best preparation for managing a new business. It means you understand yourself, and are likely able to read other people and understand them, leading to a trusting relationship with your team and your customers.

More importantly, managing yourself gives you a deeper understanding of what you value and how you define success. It means that you can make the hard choices about your real goals in business, and help you reach those goals. Above all, you will be able to truly enjoy your successes.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 27, 2021

6 Reasons Your Business Needs A Web Presence To Start

Hollie-branding-sessionThese days, if your startup does not have an Internet home base up and running, you are not ready for business or potential investors. Customers go there to check on the details of your offerings and verify that you are not a scam, investors look there to check out your management and sales approach, and suppliers expect to find contact information.

There should be no doubt that an Internet presence is as basic to success in business today, as brick and mortar was a hundred years ago. Yet I am amazed to see from recent data that nearly 28 percent of small businesses today still have no web presence at all. These are soon to be the walking dead, and the competitors you can beat today.

In fact, you need to have at least a prototype web site published several weeks before you expect anyone to find yours, since it takes that amount of time for the web search engine “spiders” to find you and index your content. I still remember my disappointment the first time I published my website, did an immediate Google search on the name, and it said my company didn’t exist.

There are many practical reasons for going to work early on your web site. Here are a few:

  1. Register domain name and set up hosting. I’ve said many times that the Internet domain name should be reserved at the same time you incorporate your company name – they need to be the same, or highly related. Yet I still hear stories of companies being well down the road on products and collateral with a given name, only to find out that everything has to be changed because of a domain name conflict or availability problem.
  1. Websites do take time to get done right. I’ve also known startups who have worked for months on the infrastructure of their business – front office, manufacturing, product design, marketing, personnel, and sales – then started work on a web site in parallel with their “grand opening.” Two months later they still didn’t have a web site, and didn’t have a customer. You should allow three months for the design, building, and rollout of your first site, and you can actually build it yourself these days.
  1. Finalizing the web site validates your product plan and sales strategy. Many founders find that building the web site forced them to commit on the product design, set final pricing, define ordering and delivery procedures, and actually schedule and staff the marketing events that they had in mind.
  1. Viral marketing needs a website. Everyone knows that word-of-mouth advertising is an effective and important part of any small business. But word-of-mouth and viral marketing doesn’t work without a web site. On the other hand, don’t assume that viral marketing is the only marketing you will need.
  1. The website can be a source of revenue. If your business and product are as attractive as you believe, the traffic to your web site will build quickly. Now you should monetize that aspect of your business through the use of Google AdSense to display ads for related products and businesses, and get paid for the “click-throughs.”
  1. Your web site will promote your business 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Like you probably do, many people search for products and services on the weekends and in the evening. They are busy business people and very often this is the best time for them to concentrate on researching a new product or service. As a business owner, there is nothing more satisfying than having several orders and email inquiries waiting for you when you get up in the morning!

In fact, you can set up a web presence these days on social media alone, by creating a company page on Facebook, company profile on LinkedIn, or a free blog with static pages on WordPress. These may not have the globally recognized domain name, but will certainly put you in touch with the new Internet generation.

I’ve heard all the excuses for not stepping up to this requirement - like I don’t have the time, skills, or money. But believe me, the costs these days are trivial, compared to the benefits. For the first time you have at your disposal the whole world market for whatever product or service you happen to provide. It’s time to turn the light on, and let the world know you exist.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 26, 2021

10 Ways to Ensure Creative Ideas and Results at Work

creative-results-in-businessCreativity in business is the key to innovation, and in this era of rapid change, can mean the difference between your long-term business success and failure. Unfortunately, in my role as a business advisor, I still find too many owners who fall into the rut of rejecting creativity to minimize change and keep costs down. They don’t realize that it may be keeping revenues down as well.

Every business I know needs to be on a constant lookout for new ideas, both in what they offer to customers, and in their internal operations, to stay competitive. Fortunately, there are ways to nurture the creation and capture of new ideas. I recently saw some excellent guidance on this in a new version of the classic book, “Why didn’t I Think of That,” by Roger L. Firestien, Ph.D.

Roger outlines ten basic rules for enhancing your business creativity process, which I support and paraphrase here, adding my own insights:

  1. Record new ideas immediately, or you will lose many. Sometimes great ideas come when we aren’t looking for them, but they can slip away just as fast. Just make a note to follow up later, as required, to discuss it with other team members or relevant experts. Believe me, it’s no fun to see a competitor implement a good idea that slipped your mind.

  2. Openly ask for new ideas from your team and others. Remember that communication is body language and listening, as well as the words you use. You need to be the model for the right mindset, rather than a perennial critic, or someone who seems to take all the credit for the insights and successes of others. Always give credit where credit is due.

  3. Redefine every problem from multiple perspectives. Creative ideas are most often generated in the context of a specific problem, rather than occurring at random. Thus it behooves all of us to tackle every problem from every relevant perspective. In business, this means taking a customer view, vendor view, as well as your internal process view.

  4. Look for problem connections to other disciplines. It is amazing to me how often a problem gets solved in one environment, but years go by before the implications are recognized in other disciplines. For example, wine makers long ago learned to personalize their brand for added value, while other products still suffer as a commodity.

  5. Develop habits that increase creativity. A key habit to develop is one of asking multiple questions that push the limits of your thinking, rather than taking the first idea that comes to mind and running with it. Another is consistently trying new things, and overcoming your fear of failure. Finally be sure to reward yourself and celebrate all your successes.

  6. Separate imaginative thinking from judgmental thinking. That means stop being so immediately critical of yours and other peoples’ ideas. Collect a range of ideas first, before trying to evaluate any of them. All ideas have some positive, and some not-so-positive elements. The key is to build on the positive elements to make the idea stronger.

  7. Evaluate ideas for pluses, potential, and concerns (PPC). Save the concerns until last, and then strive to address your concerns with a creative question. This way your mind will immediately begin to look for ways to overcome the concerns, instead of killing the entire idea. We never want to discourage team members from sharing ideas with us.

  8. To solve a problem, set a target of at least 40 ideas. To get new ideas, you have to stretch beyond the first seemingly obvious solution to a question or issue. The more ways you can find for accomplishing your goal, the greater are you chances of doing it with creativity and innovation. Be sure to look for solutions from others, as well as yourself.

  9. Accept that creativity, like any skill, requires practice. Don’t give up quickly if your creativity skills seem awkward or contrived at first. This is a normal human reaction the first few times any person plays the piano, or throws a baseball. In fact, we are all inherently creative in different and valuable ways. Encourage team practice as well.

  10. Strive to see new problems as new opportunities. Every new problem is just the sign of a gap from where you are, to where you need to be. That is a good thing in business, since it leads to the creativity that is necessary for continued and future success. Also, by keeping you positive, it reduces the burden of stress that usually accompanies problems.

In my experience, the best changes in business are brought about by people who believe in and practice creativity. They hone their skills daily to envision the future, not just in an abstract daydreaming way, but with the interest and capability to achieve it. You too can join that team.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/12/2021 ***



Wednesday, November 24, 2021

6 Ways To Expand Your Thinking To The Next Big Thing

next-big-thing-summitMany of the startup investors I know are disappointed that so few of the startup ideas they see are really innovative or disruptive. Most of us are incremental or linear thinkers, and we miss the really big opportunities, like the next smartphone or space travel. That ability to “see around the next corner” seems to be limited to a very few entrepreneurs, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk.

Of course, one key reason for incremental thinking is to limit the risk, and also perhaps get something going with less initial investment. Yet I’m convinced that we all need to expand the scope of our thinking and learning to envision and drive more disruption innovations, and increase the potential opportunities. I recommend the following strategies as a start:

  1. Surround yourself with smart people and collaborate. Collaboration takes effort, and requires you to swallow your ego. Too many entrepreneurs I know surround themselves with “yes” people, or they are simply convinced that working alone gives them the best answers. You need to create a culture of trust and collaboration around you, and listen.

  2. Look for parallels to breakthroughs in other industries. For example, it may seem obvious now, but early computers were all about linear processor speed, rather than the highly parallel processing we see today. Look to other disciplines, experts, and cultures to expand your mind with sea-change possibilities that you can apply to your domain.

    Many pundits are convinced that artificial intelligence, which has led breakthroughs in gaming and industry, has seen little traction in the healthcare sector. They see many applications offering alternative diagnoses, chatbots, and data interpretation in our future.

  3. Stop thinking and get moving on a creative idea. How often have you heard, “I had that idea first,” as someone else achieved success on an innovative idea? We all have much to learn from experiments, prototypes, and minimum viable products (MVP). The real innovation blockers are usually lack of infrastructure and consumer fear of change.

    Jeff Bezos credits much of Amazon’s continued success to his support of disruptive change “experiments.” He believes that if you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your probability of pulling people around the next corner.

  4. Don’t give up on your dream after the first setback. I really believe that the biggest cause of startup failure is entrepreneurs who give up too soon. The path to success for breakthrough innovations is a long journey with many challenges, rather than an easy sprint. You need to foster determination and motivation to succeed across your team.

    The most determined entrepreneurs take every setback as a new insight to success, pivots to a better alternative, and moves on. Seth Godin has asserted that it takes about six years of hard work to become an overnight success, so don’t give up too quickly.

  5. Practice inspirational leadership and communication. Starting an innovative new business is not a one-person show. You need to assemble the right team, and inspire all of them to go beyond their comfort zone. Effective and frequent communication of goals, progress, and feedback is key to engagement and motivation of everyone on the team.

  6. Highlight and support a higher purpose as well as profit. Finding a compelling sense of purpose, such as saving the environment or helping the disadvantaged, has proven to be an extra motivator for both the entrepreneur and the customer to adopt a disruptive innovation. This must be something that matches your personal values and strengths.

    Tesla was the first company to break through with totally electric cars, and gives much of the credit to it’s mission is to accelerate the world's transition to sustainable energy, and provide transportation at an affordable price. The transition has been a long time coming.

Exceptional creativity alone is never enough to successfully get your customers to follow you “around the corner” to the new world that you imagine. You need to learn and adopt the supplemental strategies outlined here to make your dream a reality. Then you too can join the ranks of entrepreneurs who not only see the future, but can make it a key part of their legacy.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/10/2021 ***



Monday, November 22, 2021

Don’t Let Daily Business Challenges Turn You Negative

don't-be-a-downerA “downer” is defined here as someone who seems to dwell on the negatives of every business challenge, and loves to highlight bad news or potential problems. No matter how smart or experienced this person may otherwise be, things must change or they will kill your startup.

I’m not talking about someone who has an occasional bad day, but rather people who when asked, “How are things?” will proceed to give you a 20-minute dissertation on their latest health symptoms, the latest company problem, and the sad state of the world in general.

This brings down the mood of everyone around them, and often leads to a self-fulfilling prophecy. We all know this kind of person, but they never seem to recognize themselves. So here are a few clues that you can look for in yourself, to see if you slipping into this abyss:

  • “It’s just another long day at work.” You can’t remember the last time you were positively excited by something you did at work, or even in your personal life. Your brain has leveled all events and activities into a desert of sand dunes, where just getting from one to another is a struggle, and there is nothing new to see over the next hill.

  • “I’m always tired or stressed out.” You may know this, but you assume that it’s not obvious to anyone else. Yet, think of your own office, you noticed on the first day those people that speak slowly in a low monotone, walk or sit with their head down most of the time, and rarely contribute anything without being asked.

  • “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it.” This can happen to business executives, once able leaders, who have spent too many years doing the same job. They know their processes and team aren’t perfect, but they no longer notice these imperfections. They are bored, or no longer interested in improvement opportunities.

If you recognize yourself in these points, or you feel yourself slipping in that direction, what can you do to turn yourself around before the company pushes you out, or a competitor pushes your company out? Here are a few suggestions:

  • Get a medical checkup. You may be fighting a health problem that can be easily solved by proper treatment or medication. Even more severe medical problems, like chronic depression, can be mitigated once they are recognized and understood.
  • Change your environment. Ask for a new assignment at work, or look for a new job before you are fired from this one. Make a concerted effort to wake yourself up to the positives, and re-engage in processes that once excited you. Start a log on your efforts and progress. Measurable progress is itself exciting.
  • Ask a mentor for support. Choose a friend or mentor (not your spouse) whom you trust to tell you the truth, and ask for help. Then listen to the recommendations. These people can’t change you, but you can change yourself. Focus on identifying strengths, and capitalizing on them.

Let me assure you, every startup faces more challenges than any other business – unproven product, new processes, new management, and unpredictable customers. This is not the place for downers. If you are a downer, find a new place to work. If you run the startup, and you don’t deal with this issue quickly, your fledgling business is in jeopardy.

As I’m writing this, I’m thinking that these points are so obvious that they don’t need to be reiterated here. Yet I still find this to be one of the most common drags on startup productivity, as well as employee satisfaction. Remember that being a downer is not something that someone did to you; it’s something that you did to yourself. Therefore, it’s up to you to fix it.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 21, 2021

7 Steps To Develop A Team With A Long-Term Advantage

meeting-informal-business-teamEvery business founder knows the need for a culture that promotes continuous innovation, an entrepreneurial spirit, and one that creates sustainable value across all functions in the business. Yet most don’t really know how to create that environment, or assess when they have achieved it. They only know in retrospect too late when they don’t have it, and the business is in crisis mode.

This topic was well addressed in the classic book, “The Invisible Advantage: How to Create a Culture of Innovation,” by Soren Kaplan, who lays out the key steps to assess, disrupt, and reshape the existing culture of a company to get more innovation. Kaplan is a leading expert in building innovation cultures, and speaks from his real-world experience with many companies, as well as academic study.

In my own work as an advisor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I see many who are focused on that single big disruptive innovation that will change the world. It’s a good start, but that’s not the continuous flow of smaller innovations required to survive, thrive, and win in today’s rapidly changing world. Thus I recommend Kaplan’s steps, which I will paraphrase here:

  1. Make your innovation marching orders clear. Frame the way you want to change the world, and make it about the customer. Start with defining and publishing innovation goals at the company level, and then ask for specific objectives from every organization. Ask teams for a breakdown into incremental, sustaining, and disruptive innovations.
  1. Take time to create a structure for innovation. If you don’t take time early to set the culture, you will get a crisis when you need innovation. It can start by setting aside twenty minutes in a weekly meeting to explore new ideas for making things better, and then following through. Carve out unstructured time for team members to focus on ideas.
  1. Decide what to measure and create metrics. You only get what you measure. Ideas are the beginning. Make sure your measurements are customer-oriented, as well as focused on internal processes. What you measure must reinforce your goals, values, and best practices around innovation. Promote very specific actions and behaviors.
  1. Reward with recognition over financial incentives. An annual bonus or award is just not enough to catalyze a culture of innovation. Frequent and informal recognition with peers is the most powerful incentive to innovate and change the culture. Symbols that reinforce your desired intent can make innovation a reality that becomes everyone’s job.
  1. Practice leadership actions that shape the culture. Little things can have a big impact when it comes to creating a culture of innovation. Avoid comments like “We can’t do anything until we have more data,” or “We tried that before and it failed.” Watch the unintended facial expressions, practices that get rewarded, and how failures are handled.
  1. Assess your innovation culture regularly. In a large organization, online surveys and questionnaires are helpful. It’s always valuable and symbolic to take the time to speak with real live people, both informally and in executive interviews. Count the innovation success stories published internally, or visibly rewarded in each organization.
  1. Design your invisible competitive advantage. Your culture of innovation should be largely invisible to competitors, but it better be clear to all your teams. Every company has different strengths and goals, yet each can publish internally their innovation canvas of technology, leadership, people, structure, rewards, and metrics that sets them apart.

The most important step is simply to get started. You can use the toolkit provided by Kaplan, or assemble your leadership team and make sure they understand that a culture of innovation is a strategic imperative. Then create an action plan to implement the required steps, follow-up on assessment, and iterate on a regular basis to sustain that invisible advantage.

Remember that every specific competitive advantage is temporary – every product or service becomes a commodity over time. The only sustainable advantage is a culture that results in continuous reinvention, providing ongoing memorable customer experiences. What has your business done lately to excite your existing customers and keep them loyal?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 20, 2021

How And Where To Connect To The Entrepreneur Universe

Universe-Start-Entrepreneur-PathI often recommend business networking as the most effective way for a startup founder to find investors, advisors, and even key executive candidates. But what if you are an introvert, or new to this game, and don’t know where or how to start?

The answer is still the same, but I have learned over the years that there is an etiquette to this process, just like there is for social networking. Here are a few of the “do’s”:

  • Post your profile on LinkedIn and Twitter, and join in startup discussions. There are other social networks in the list of 300 “major sites” recognized by Wikipedia that entrepreneurs use for networking, depending on where you are in the world, like Viadeo, Ryze, and Sina Weibo, but talking to friends on Facebook probably won’t help you.
  • Join and actively participate in local business organizations. Business groups like TiE-The Indus Entrepreneurs and EO-Entrepreneurs Organization are places to meet people you can help, as well as people who can help you. Remember it helps to give a little to get something back. Another place to start is the local Chamber of Commerce.
  • Get introductions from existing business contacts. Start with the people you know, who know your work, and would recommend you to others. It isn't always the first introduction, but the friend of a friend that may be the one that pays dividends.
  • Volunteer to help out with entrepreneur activities at your local university. All universities love and need to get help from people in the “real world” for coaching and judging activities in their Entrepreneurship and MBA programs. In return, you will meet or be connected to many people who can help you.
  • Attend an investment conference. These events are swarming with potential investors, and this is the forum where they are actively soliciting new opportunities, so don’t be shy about handing out your business card at breaks, lunch, mixers, or scheduled activities.

Join a local investment group. If you can meet the SEC “accredited investor” criteria ($1M net worth or $200K annual income), this is a great way to be seen by potential investors as peers before you need money. Plus you will see how the process really works from the other side of the table – the best preparation you could have for your own approach later. In most cases, these groups don’t require that you invest in others, as a condition of membership.

If all of these are obvious to you, then you are already on the right track, and you probably wouldn’t consider doing any of the “don’ts.”

  • Don’t do cold calls or email blasts of your resume and business plan to potential investors.
  • Don’t corner and barrage that heavy hitter you heard about with your life history at a social gathering.
  • Don’t send your unfinished business plan unsolicited to every VC or investment group you can find on the Internet, just to see if they like the concept.
  • Don’t hand out your business cards to everyone in the room, in hopes that one will be impressed with how unique and expensive it looks.
  • On LinkedIn, don’t complain to everyone that you are limited to only 3000 invitations, and request them to send you an invitation to become friends.

Back on the positive side, I like to say, especially for us introverts, that networking is more about listening that it is about talking. Believe it or not, most successful investors have big egos, and will probably remember you better if they do most of the talking at first.

Nevertheless, have your elevator pitch honed, and don’t be shy about giving it. Don’t forget your enthusiasm, and have fun, but remember your manners!

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 19, 2021

10 Keys To Adapting Quickly To A New Venture Culture

Computer casteAs an entrepreneur, you have to improvise and adapt quickly to survive and thrive in the face of the unpredictable challenges of the market. But this improvisation a not a comedy, although there are some distinct correlations, in relation to reacting, adapting, and communicating. In business and in comedy, you win most often with “Yes, and …” instead of “Yes, but ….”

I definitely learned a few things about how to improvise effectively in business from the classic book, “Getting to ‘Yes And’: The Art of Business Improv,” by Bob Kulhan, who is a master of the art in both comedy and business. Kulhan is a professor at the Duke University School of Business, but was trained in improvisation by some comedy greats, including Tina Fey and Amy Poehler.

He draws on cognitive and social psychology as well as behavioral economics to show the rest of us in business how to think on our feet, and approach business challenges with fresh eyes and mental agility. From my own perspective of many years as an executive and startup advisor, I recommend his improvisational keys to improving the culture of your business:

  1. Don’t be afraid to try, and fail, before you succeed. You can’t learn and adapt quickly to the changing needs of your customers and the marketplace if you are afraid of failure. As in comedy, you have to take risks, think outside the box, and be willing to face some brutal feedback, to find the path that works, all with a smile on your face.
  1. Tell you team what you want, plus why and how. Be explicit on your intent. Team members can’t help you change if they don’t clearly understand where they need to go and how to get there. There is no set formula for change in business, so you need to improvise with a positive message. Everyone is turned off by a “Yes, but …” response.
  1. Always acknowledge ideas and add to them. This “Yes, and …” phrase is an improvisational technique long used to move people forward. Make sure everyone understands the power of this phrase when sharing opinions and suggestions, and in holding people accountable. Teach them how to actively observe and listen to input.
  1. Get buy-in through participation and feedback. By openly requesting and rewarding feedback, you are demonstrating that you value employee input and you want to include everyone in the decision process. Team involvement encourages everyone to buy-in, in spite of the work it entails, because they feel personal ownership in the business.
  1. Build team trust through shared experiences. Teams need to bond, and that can start with an off-site structured event. The key is not only to have everyone in the same place, but to have them share a memorable experience in a place that will connect them further in the future. Bonding is always enhanced through team recognition and awards.
  1. Routinely schedule team exercises and challenges. The message here is that practice makes perfect. We see this in the Olympics and professional sports. You and your team need to be well-oiled, and able to work together automatically, before you can hope to react quickly to changes in the marketplace. Improvisation does require training.
  1. Leaders must be the example. Entrepreneurs need to walk the talk, be consistent, passionate, and accountable for their actions. No matter what happens, you must be the model of the “Yes, and …” approach – always communicating the need for change, and leading the charge to listen, learn, and adapt. Business culture is set by leader actions.
  1. Empower your team to initiate the change process. Ownership is essential in creating an inclusive environment. Empower your team to help you create and protect this culture. Don’t let blame rear its ugly head. Make sure they have the resources and the education to get change done with you, or without you. They need a level of comfort to improvise.
  1. Remove those who refuse, or undermine the team. A smaller team working well together is much more effective than a larger dysfunctional team, just as it would be in a comedy troupe. Often, it’s in the best interest of the team, the company, and certainly the employee to part ways or move to a new team before permanent damage is done.
  1. Be tenacious to make required change happen. The leader who is a tenacious implementer of change will always follow-up on the initiatives started. You can cause “change fatigue” by jumping randomly from one idea to another, with no follow-through. All change needs to tie back to basic principles, values, and objectives of the business.

Who would have guessed that the techniques practiced by comedy troupes would have such applicability to businesses? It’s just another example of the value of thinking outside the box, and reframing of disciplines from one domain to another. Are you using that level of thinking in your business? The future of your business may depend on it.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, November 17, 2021

10 Startup Prospects That Multiply If You Look Ahead

advance-analysis-businessTraditional business intelligence (and data mining) software does a very good job of showing you where you’ve been. By contrast, predictive analytics uses data patterns to make forward-looking predictions that guide you to where you should go next. This is a whole new world for small businesses seeking enterprise application opportunities, as well social media trend challenges.

According to Eric Siegel in the updated version of his classic book “Predictive Analytics,” it’s the power to predict who will click, buy, lie, or die. He calls his book a primer, but his real-life examples illustrate well how predictive analytics unleashes the power of data, and how “big data” embodies an extraordinary wealth of experience from which to learn.

Eric provides many examples of potential and real application areas that are ripe for predictive analytics, but my view is that smart entrepreneurs can extrapolate these to hundreds more, just waiting to be tapped. Here are ten examples to get your creative juices flowing:

  1. Targeted direct marketing. The challenge is to increase response rates and propagate a single view of the customer, by integrating customer data from multiple Web and social media interactions. Then companies can determine promotional effectiveness by narrowly defined customer segments, by location, or by delivery channel.
  1. Predictive advertisement targeting. Online, everyone wants to know which ad each customer is most likely to click. Then they can display the best ad, based on the likelihood of a click, as well as the bounty paid by its sponsor. Everyone wins, since consumers hate being presented with ads that are irrelevant to them.
  1. Fraud detection. We all want to know which transactions or applications for credit, benefits, reimbursements, refunds, and so on, are fraudulent. On the other side of the table, businesses need to minimize false insurance claims, inaccurate credit applications, and false identities.
  1. Investment risk management. Whether you are contemplating an investment in your favorite startup, or a little-known stock on a public exchange, there is “big data” out there that can’t possibly be evaluated by you without predictive analytics. Companies need the same service on partner and acquisition candidates, even vendors.
  1. Customer retention with churn modeling. Every business wants to predict which customers are about to leave, and for what reasons, so they can target their retention efforts. New one-time customers may be incented to return. Without predictive targeting, a retention campaign may cost more than it gains.
  1. Movie recommendations. Movies are selected, or recommended to customers, based on past reviews, related interests, or analysis of Twitter comments. On the movie production side, it’s time to start doing analyses on movie scripts, based on reaction to similar movies, to predict box office revenue and cities to hit.
  1. Education – guided studying for targeted learning. Every quiz show aficionado would like some guidance on which question areas need more study, and every student needs help on how to spend his limited study hours more effectively. Schools need the same analysis to provide more effective teaching media and techniques.
  1. Political campaigning with voter persuasion modeling. I’m sure every campaign would love to know which voters will be positively persuaded by specific contacts, such as a phone call, door knock, flier, or TV ad. The rest of us would rather not be annoyed by the multiple contacts of the wrong type.
  1. Clinical decision support systems. With costs escalating in healthcare today, it’s more important than ever to determine which patients are at risk of developing certain conditions, like diabetes, asthma, heart disease, and other lifetime illnesses. Additionally, predictive analytics can help make the best medical decision at the point of care.
  1. Insurance and mortgage underwriting. Predictive analytics will allow auto insurance companies to accurately determine a reasonable premium to cover each automobile and driver, which helps their bottom line, as well as ours. A financial entity needs the same ability to more accurately assess a borrower's ability to pay before granting a mortgage.

Some experts group predictive analytics in the new term “business analytics” intending to define an umbrella group including data warehousing, business intelligence, enterprise information management, enterprise performance management, and analytic applications. But whatever the name, the opportunity is still there, and it’s large.

According to a Markets and Markets report, the predictive analytics market is growing at a compound rate of 22.1%, and is expected to reach $12.41 billion by 2022. Despite all this, the best opportunity for you is still the one you love and know the best, and one that no one else has recognized. The possibilities are endless, so why haven’t you started yet?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, November 15, 2021

5 Strategies To Make You A Top Performer In Business

top-performer-at-workIn my role as business advisor, I’m hearing more and more about workers who seem to be doing less and demanding more. The current pandemic, which has driven more dependence on remote employees, makes it even harder for business owners, as well as aspiring new business leaders, to recognize and demonstrate exemplary performance in the workplace.

Top performers want to know how to stand out, and business leaders need to know how to better recognize and mentor aspiring superstars before they burn out, or move on to new opportunities. I agree with some excellent guidance on both fronts from a new book, “Impact Players,” by Liz Wiseman, an experienced advisor who teaches leadership to executives around the world:

  1. Look broadly to do the job that needs to be done. We all recognize that most employees take a narrow view of their role, while future leaders and top performers look beyond their assigned role and tackle the real job that needs to be done. They build a reputation of being a flexible utility player, with the agility to adapt to changing needs.

    One of the best ways to incent this is to be a good communicator, both by letting people know what is happening, and really listening to other people. The days of hiding in your office and working in isolation are gone. You will soon be out of touch and out of time.

  2. While others wait for direction, step up and lead. Top performers don’t wait to be asked; they get things started and involve others, even when they’re not officially in charge. They lead or follow, on demand rather than by command. They don’t assume that other people are in charge who will tell them when they are needed and what to do.

    In leadership circles, this is often called “leadership from behind.” Every business needs a collective leadership culture today, where anyone can step up to lead based on their unique knowledge, without fear of retribution. Don’t confuse assertiveness for leadership.

  3. Focus on moving things across the finish line. Look for completion freaks, rather than workers who measure their contribution by hours worked. Too many average workers operate on an avoidance mindset, taking responsible action, but when things get tough, they stall out or escalate issues up the management chain rather than taking ownership.

    In my experience working with investors, I find their assessment of value in a business, and an entrepreneur, is all about results, rather than the idea or the technology. The best business leaders and business professionals are also ones who produce more results.

  4. See change as an opportunity to learn and adapt. Many employees interpret change as annoying, unfair, or threatening to their stability. Top performers interpret new targets and new rules as a need to recalibrate and refocus their efforts, as well as the business. The result is a culture of innovation, keeping the organization relevant and responsive.

    Of course, you need to support this culture by providing continuous opportunities for training and industry updates, and coaching as well as feedback sessions. Show a real interest in their personal goals and aspirations, and make sure work goals are aligned.

  5. Make heavy demands lighter - don’t add to the load. The best players provide a lift, not by taking on other people’s work, but by being easy to work with. They bring a sense of equanimity that reduces drama, politics, and stress, and promotes a positive and collaborative work environment for everyone. They offer to help, rather than seeking help.

In other words, you need mentally strong people in your organization, who are not prone to be victims, and look for positives rather than negatives. When your mind is strong, you can handle the ups and downs of the any business role, and that strength carries others.

Finally, a key part of my message is that leaders need to learn how to recognize and mentor top performers before it is too late, and team members leave in frustration. Top performers are not always the ones with flashy degrees, or the most knowledge and experience. They just need the proper mindset, work ethic, and focus to get more results in a rapidly changing business world.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 11/1/2021 ***



Sunday, November 14, 2021

10 Disciplines Every Entrepreneur Needs To Practice

Chris Anderson at TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: James Duncan DavidsonInnovation is the key to long-term business success, both in startups as well as established organizations. Yet every business and every entrepreneur I know struggles with this challenge, focused on hiring the right people and implementing the right process. Yet, in my experience the key seems to be more a discipline of innovative thinking from everyone, driven from the top.

I was happy to see my own view reinforced in the classic book, “Innovation Thinking Methods for the Modern Entrepreneur,” by long-time entrepreneur and innovation expert Osama A. Hashmi. He provides dozens of ideas and examples to illustrate how this discipline can work, and the power it brings to any organization. Here are ten key lessons from his book that we can all learn from:

  1. Utilize first principles thinking. The idea is to seek fundamental truths that will always remain true, after you remove all the things that don’t necessarily have to remain true. Then, when you are unable to remove more layers, you can build up to the fastest and most efficient way of getting that base thing done. Elon Musk recommends this approach.
  1. Practice the one-sentence method. Distilling a field of work down to a single sentence describing the core elements helps to innovate and keep ahead of the curve. If you keep fixated on that core essence, and figure out the rest along the way, you have a better chance of innovating and trying out new things. That’s how an industry reinvents itself.
  1. The future history assessment approach. Start the product design process by thinking about what a historian in the future would look back on as the one big thing that changed everything. This idea helps to distill down the most important things to make or sell in a product. Amazon uses this technique internally for all new product design efforts.
  1. Challenge the fundamental assumption. Ferret out the fundamental assumptions that everyone keeps making whenever they make a product of this type. Brainstorm with the intent of changing these assumptions, and radical innovation will follow. An example is the evolution of computer control to screen touches and gestures, versus keys and mice.
  1. Outsource services back to the customer. Pervasive access to the Internet and social media have allowed customers to take an active role in helping other customers, with customer support, requirements definition, and open source development. This has facilitated innovation in responsiveness, as well as profitability. The trend has only begun.
  1. Re-analyze the context of the last change. We tend to view present and future solutions in today’s context, rather than the context of the last change. Market dynamics change rapidly, so thinking back to why things changed in a previous time can generate new and innovative approaches, based on the new market context and technologies.
  1. Force original intent thinking. When people live in a certain status quo long enough, they start to forget what they originally set out to do. “It has always been this way” becomes the way of thinking and stalls innovation. When you provide a solution that gets customers closer to their original intent, they’ll be quick to drop current lessor solutions.
  1. Force the innovator’s dilemma on competitors. This is the concept that successful competitors have a hard time investing in new products that will cannibalize their existing core business. Focus thinking on what you can innovate, and how you can position it in the market to make it impossible for incumbents to follow without killing themselves.
  1. Explore the negative space of possibility. For innovation-thinking, what people are doing today or even wanting today may not be an interesting-enough question. What’s more interesting is what people are not doing today, or what they should be using to make their lives drastically better. Don’t just chase the space that already exists.
  1. Pick an impossible target and get mad about it. The obsession of solving a problem once and for all frames a certain type of thinking – one where you start to feel that no other product or company in that market gets it, and no one else has been able to crack it because all the solutions are awful. Now you have the right mindset to break barriers.

There are many more existing innovation-thinking methods, and more to be discovered, but this selection should be adequate to get you started. As an entrepreneur, it’s your responsibility and your challenge to be the leader and role model in fostering and rewarding innovation-thinking in your business. Your long-term survival and satisfaction depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

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



Saturday, November 13, 2021

5 Reasons For Monetizing The Idle Resources Of Others

Sky Harbor Airport ParkingThe pervasive ability and need to communicate constantly and globally through the Internet and smartphones is incenting everyone to get more out of their own assets and time, and capitalize on the idle resources of others. This sharing economy is rapidly becoming the new business of sharing, with major winners already including Airbnb (rooms), Uber (rides), and Chegg (books).

If you are an aspiring entrepreneur, or an existing business, and haven’t yet sized any of these opportunities, you may be already late to the game. Until I read the classic book “The Business of Sharing,” by Alex Stephany, who founded JustPark (current valuation estimated at £80M), I too had no idea of the scope of opportunities, and the 300 or more players already out there.

The business tenants of the sharing economy, with alternative names including collaborative consumption, peer-to-peer economy, or “we-conomy,” always imply these five basic principles and assumptions:

  1. Sharing economy platforms create reciprocal economic value. Usually these are revenue-generating e-commerce sites, or have the potential to be revenue-generating. Even if the goods and services are changing hands as gifts, or the revenue motive exists only to make services sustainable, the economic value is evident.
  1. There is value in the “idling capacity” of all assets. Idling capacity is a notion that was first systematically studied and measured in the context of industrial processes. The sharing economy applies the same ruthless logic of how best fully utilize our clothes, bicycles, driveways, computers, pets, and free time.
  1. For utilization to increase, assets need to be made accessible. These days, accessible starts with being visibly listed online, in lieu of the now old-fashioned rental sites and swap-meets. It can mean selling through peer-to-peer e-commerce (eBay), renting (Vrbo), gifting (GiftCrowd), or even swapping (Swapz).
  1. Assets need to move in a community of engaged users. Community means more than supply and demand. Often these communities are built around special interest groups, where the members interact through social media, help each other, and trust each other, and the relationships go well beyond the transactions.
  1. Access to assets in a community leads to a reduced need to own. One consequence of the new sharing business model is that goods become services. The Zipcar sharing service is said to take 17 other cars off the road, as opposed to Hertz car rental, which only adds more vehicles into every community.

Where and when is all this leading? I believe that we have only seen the beginning. Certainly change happens more slowly in areas encumbered by political systems, long-standing cultures, and large dominant brands. Although the sharing economy isn’t really new, here are a few of the arenas that Stephany and I believe are still ripe for disruption:

  • Education. With US student debt at over one trillion dollars, startups like Skillshare and Udemy provide top-class vocational training for the price of a Harvard hoodie.
  • Insurance. An example is Berlin-based startup Friendsurance connecting people to create a private insurance pool for payout on household and consumer electronic claims.
  • Healthcare. Cohealo is now allowing hospitals to share medical equipment. Fertility can be helped by less restrictive ways for people to share their sperm and eggs.
  • Restaurants. In Cuba today, there are over 1,000 restaurants in people’s homes, known as paladares. Chefs are beginning to offer peer-to-peer dining platforms or cooperatives.
  • Financing. With crowdfunding, entrepreneurs and artists no longer need to wait for family money or venture capital. In the US, we are still waiting for equity crowdfunding, but the rewards, donation, pre-order, and debt-funding models are already working.

Yes, the sharing economy is changing the rules of business, and opening a wealth of opportunity for innovative entrepreneurs around the world. Those that recognize it early still have time to ride the wave, and those that don’t will lose out on a lucrative way of doing business. It’s time to start caring about sharing.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 12, 2021

7 Ways To Promote Your Services Business By Blogging

blog-services-businessBlogging has come a long way in the past few years, from a social release for narcissists, to today’s required vehicle for promoting your consulting business and gaining valuable online exposure. Even with product businesses, it’s the ultimate way to build your brand credibility, bring in customer leads, and get feedback from your target market.

Let me be clear – a product or consulting startup today without a blog, even with a static website, risks not being competitive in cost and time to reach and hold that critical mass of online customers. If you can’t justify both a web site and a blog, skip the old-fashioned web site, and make your blog do double duty as described below.

The challenge, as with all new technologies, is to make it work effectively, and avoid wasted effort and expensive mistakes. Here are some tips I’ve gleaned from experience:

  1. Lead with your blog. You should start blogging about your business before you have a product, to test interest and establish your credibility. Several free blog platforms, like WordPress, are so flexible that you can configure them as a website, as well as your blog, without separate hosting.
  1. Add content regularly. Every business wants their web site to appear on the first page of search engine results from a relevant search (Search Engine Optimization). Blogs help because sites that update data frequently get higher SEO rankings. When you post to a blog multiple times each week, you content is constantly changing and growing.
  1. Anchor the blog in your domain name. If you do have a separate web domain name, like ‘’, then your blog name should be the domain name suffix ‘/blog’ or ‘’. Otherwise, your blog content will be indexed separately from your web site content, resulting in a lower overall Google rank.
  1. Conversational style. Search the Internet for blogs in your industry and do a little research before you start. Studying other people’s blogs will help you identify what you like and don’t like, and how you want yours to look and feel. An informal writing style is generally recommended.
  1. Add outgoing links. For example, if you mention an article you read in XYZ magazine, make sure to include a hyperlink to the article. Your readers will appreciate the option to view the sites you reference, and having links pointing to other sites will further improve your search engine rankings.
  1. Create incoming links. Promote your blog by including your blog link in your e-mail signature, on your website, in social networking profiles, and by providing signed comments to other blogs on a daily basis. You should also submit your blog name to directories such as Blogarama and Best of the Web Blogs.
  1. Leverage blog content. It doesn’t take long to build up a sizable amount of blog content. You can repurpose your posts into articles, books and reports. Many bloggers have found publishing success and Google ads revenue from the blog to be a substantial source of revenue to bolster their mainline business.

Finally, if you don’t have the time, energy, or skills to write a blog, it may be a good investment to hire a ghost writer, or hand the job over to your marketing executive. Don’t be shy, I don’t know many CEOs today that write their own speeches and marketing materials. Focus on what you do best, and let professionals do the rest for you.

To be successful, you have to get your message out there, and make your company stand out above all the clutter. Use the social networks, like Twitter, to ‘pull’ in the business. Be a blogger today, and trump your competitors tomorrow.

Marty Zwilling>



Wednesday, November 10, 2021

7 Practices To Enhance Accountability In Your Startup

responsibility-in-businessIf you are frustrated by a lack of accountability in your workplace, you are not alone. The real question is what you can do to improve it, as a manager, or even as a concerned team member. Accountability is all about taking responsibility for getting things done as expected, without excuses. Low accountability leads to mistrust, low morale, and a toxic office culture.

Based on my own many years in the workplace, as a professional, manager, and executive, I believe most accountability issues stem from a lack of individual confidence in themselves, or a lack of necessary skills. Thus there are some key things that we can do as a leader to improve people’s self confidence and ability to deliver, as well as be a better example for others:

  1. Practice what you preach on accountability. First of all, you need to be a role model for accountability. That means full transparency and no excuses for issues and activities that are obviously in your domain. It also means recognizing, supporting, and rewarding someone who has assumed full responsibility, and not penalizing unexpected results.

    For example, Starbucks' chief executive officer, Kevin R. Johnson, was quick to accept accountability for a racial profiling incident a few years ago, rather than claim a field team member was at fault. He closed stores for a day to update employee racial-bias training.

  2. Effective communication of your expectations. Too many managers “assume” that team members know what you expect from them, and only go into detail when you fail. Always use multiple methods, including verbal and written, for defining an assignment, including accountability, with checkpoints and follow-up from you along the way.

  3. Provide assessments based wholly on facts. Accountability can easily become an emotional issue, complicated by politics and opinions. Make sure that metrics and goals are set up front, and not modified as the project progresses. Feedback and assistance should always be provided along the way, rather than given as a surprise at the end.

    Unfortunately, many business professionals and executives I know tend to make decisions and accountability assessments based on gut instinct. The result is a loss of trust by your team, increased volatility, and lower productivity by all members of the team.

  4. Delegate control commensurate with accountability. If you demand accountability, but expect to make every decision, both of you will fail. Delegating control means having the right information, the right tools, and the right training to make the right decisions. Where multiple unpredictable levels of approval are required, no one can be accountable.

    The answer is to empower your teams, but not micromanage. To optimize the delegation process, and still ensure accountability, Google has implemented a seven-step process which they believe optimizes ownership, motivation, and accountability in the ranks.

  5. Align accountability with organizational objectives. Unfortunately, I often see goal misalignments with teams, such as marketing measured on sales volume, or sales measured on customer retention. If key metrics and expectations rely on results from another group, then you have a conflict which prevents accountability from either group.

    It’s also important to seek alignment of your personal goals with your work. Doing so will increase both your personal life accountability, as well as your business satisfaction. In similar fashion, you should also regularly check your goal alignment with your manager.

  6. Be an advocate and promoter for team members. Team members who are willing to assume responsibility need to feel your support and assistance up and down the line. This will generate trust, loyalty, and continued accountability within the organization. They need advocates to support their position or request additional training and expertise.

  7. Provide a safe haven for difficult issue discussion. The goal should always be coaching to solve problems, not blame assignment or negative feedback. In many cases you and they both need an unbiased third-party perspective, or someone who can bring in outside experts to confirm your findings and build your self-confidence.

Your objective is a team culture where people hold themselves accountable, rather than have a false accountability attempt forced on them. The result will be enhanced productivity and agility in the face of today’s pace of change, leading to individual as well as business growth and success. Make accountability something that you are proud of, rather than driven by fear of repercussion.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 10/27/2021 ***



Monday, November 8, 2021

8 Expectations To Check Your Entrepreneur Motivation

entrepreneur-chasing-moneyUntil the recession a decade ago, market research indicated that as many as 90 percent of the roughly 20 million American small business owners were motivated more by lifestyle than growth and money. More recently, the desire for extra income has become the key driver in new startups, according to the popular press. It seems that more people are focused on money today.

Being called a lifestyle entrepreneur should be a point of pride, not an insult. The term applies to anyone who places passion before profit, and intends to combine personal interests and talent with the ability to earn a living. This usually means not taking money from equity investors, since investors want fast growth, high profits, and an exit event, to allow investments to be recouped.

Of course, even lifestyle entrepreneurs want to be happy, and want their business to be “successful.” According to William R. Cobb and M. L. Johnson in their classic book, “Business Alchemy: Turning Ideas Into Gold,” these different success expectations are what separates a lifestyle entrepreneur from a growth entrepreneur:

  1. Owner is the only one “in charge.” Every lifestyle entrepreneur starts their business to be their own boss and follow their passion, so they don’t even think about having investors, a board of directors, or going public. If you think corporate bosses are tough, wait till you start spending investor money, or try satisfying Wall Street and stockholders.
  1. Insist on being engaged at the transaction level. If you are living your passion, you want to interact with customers, and “touch and feel” the product every day. Growth entrepreneurs find that this fun world quickly changes to managing personnel problems, tuning organizational structures, and dealing with testy investors.
  1. Income generated is part of the owner’s personal income. The legal structure of these startups is usually a sole proprietorship, a Limited Liability Corporation (LLC), or a sub-chapter “S” Corporation. Under all of these, net income flows easily into your personal income. Corporate versus personal growth really becomes a lifestyle decision.
  1. Startup funding comes from personal savings and family. There is no free lunch for money. Non-equity funding has to come from personal sources, or government grants, or bank loans. Of course, that doesn’t dilute the owner’s equity, but it may well limit you to organic growth, versus international rollouts and acquisition options.
  1. Business model to maintain lifestyle is the primary driver. The lifestyle entrepreneur chooses a business model to make a long-term, sustainable and viable living, working in a field where they have a particular interest, passion, and talent. They operate the business to sustain a minimal level of cash flow necessary to support the lifestyle.
  1. Maximizes owner personal tax privileges. This means that owners can look for every opportunity to get a personal tax advantage from the business, like charging vehicle operating costs to the business, renting facilities from themselves, or managing business and personal travel.
  1. Enjoy being visible and active in the local community. Lifestyle business owners usually benefit and enjoy being a part of the local Chamber of Commerce, Rotary, and other civic organizations. These can become part of balancing your lifestyle, rather than part of the stress of business-driven networking.
  1. No exit planned until retirement. A lifestyle business becomes an integral part of an entrepreneur’s identity and their life. If, and when, the time should come to “exit” from the business, they will often seek to transfer it to a family member, or simply close it down.

In my view, lifestyle entrepreneurship should be growing in popularity, rather than shrinking, as technology provides startups with the cheap digital platforms needed to reach a large global market. Also, more women have been jumping into entrepreneurship, and they have long wanted to make their business and personal lives and aspirations work more in harmony.

Younger Gen-Y entrepreneurs also tend to be more passionate, idealistic and not driven by money, so I would expect to see them trend up in lifestyle entrepreneurship. I’m told that Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook started out as a lifestyle entrepreneur. I wonder if his billions today have changed his mind?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, November 7, 2021

10 Tips On Due Diligence On Any Startup Funding Offer

funding-due-diligenceSome aspiring entrepreneurs are so desperate for funding, or naïve, that they ignore the obvious signs of scams and rip-offs on the Internet, praying for a windfall. One would think that with all the sad stories and tools published over the past twenty years, this problem would be behind us. But people are still begging for more technology or laws, often to protect them from themselves.

As examples, I present my list of ten of the most common ways entrepreneurs can be victimized by ignorance or greed, based on questions and stories I get from entrepreneurs and associates. Most of these are easy to avoid if you do your homework up front, but can cost you dearly if you get sucked in. Use the common sense suggestions to avoid the pain:

  1. Decoy investor scam. Here someone who is not a registered financial broker contacts you on the Internet, tells you about all the people they know with money, then turns around to ask for a “retainer” or fee to cover their time and efforts. No real investor or venture capital firm asks for money from the company they are intending to invest in.
  1. Off-shore unsolicited investor offers. Unsolicited foreign investors that contact you on the Internet need extra scrutiny. If you feel confused by conflicting time zones, differing currencies, and up-front costs, it’s time to run the other way. The SEC and local law enforcement agencies can’t help you much with foreign scams.
  1. Deposit required to hold your terms. In this scam, you are offered a very attractive term sheet due to close in 90 days or so, with a deposit required to hold your position while due diligence is being conducted. Don’t count on ever passing due diligence, or even getting that deposit back. Professional investors don’t work this way.
  1. Loan offer in lieu of investment. Watch out for unsolicited loan offers via the phone or Internet that seem to offer quick approval, but require mandatory “premium fees” or “processing fees” up front, payable by money order or electronic transfer. Even if you pay the fees, you probably won’t see the money and won’t find the lender.
  1. Phantom fund investors. These solicitations, usually via the Internet, claim to represent a large fund that they can’t disclose, until you have been “qualified” for the investment. They promise to provide all the info at the time of close, after you sign a non-disclosure agreement. The close will never happen, but you will be stuck with large services fees.
  1. Pump and dump stock schemes. Don’t fall for claims from “insiders” who offer stock that you can turn around quickly. It’s usually stock that has been artificially pumped up by their big buy, who take their gain when you buy, and leave you with a big loss on their dump. A variation is “short and distort”, where their profit comes from short selling.
  1. Work at home to fund your startup. Beware of any offer that asks you to spend money before you can make money, to buy a starter kit, education, or tools. For more details, see this article from the The Penny Hoarder outlining the most common pitches to avoid.
  1. Cash transfer assistance funding. I continue to be amazed that some government agency reportedly still gets 100 calls per day from victims of the Nigerian unclaimed cash scam alone. People who fall for this one must be really greedy. The best answer is the age-old wisdom that if it sounds too good to be true, it’s not true. Delete the message.
  1. Chain emails leading to a windfall. This is the classic pyramid scheme where you get an email with a list of names, asked to send a few dollars to the person at the top of the list, add your own name, and forward the updated list to a number of other people, resulting in a huge return to you. You risk being charged with fraud if you participate.
  1. Won the lottery. How can you win a lottery you never entered, usually in another country? A simple inquiry or response to one of these emails will get you permanently tagged as a prime scam candidate, meaning a flood of new deals. Delete these quickly.

Beyond the cases mentioned here, if the message or approach sounds suspicious, I recommend you visit, a website detailing thousands of known scams and hoaxes. With this website, and about 75 others like it, I find it hard to believe that user naïveté is the problem.

If people could get past their greed, hubris, sense of entitlement, and use common sense on the Internet, these problems would fade away due to lack of return. I’d much rather see your entrepreneur resources and energy focused on real opportunities to improve the world we live in.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, November 6, 2021

Why Communication Skills Are Key To Leading A Startup

MarkZuckerberg-communiationsEffective communication is an absolute requirement for successfully starting a business, but it doesn’t come naturally to many entrepreneurs. Communication is considered a social skill, and inventors and engineers, for example, are not known to be social butterflies.

Founders have to communicate their ideas and products to investors, business partners, and the rest of the team. Then, hopefully, come customers, distribution channels, and going public or merging with an attractive buy-out candidate. Communication is not just talking, but also writing, body language, and “actions speak louder than words.”

John Spence, in his classic book “Awesomely Simple” says that the single biggest problem he has to deal with in client companies worldwide is the lack of open, honest, robust, and courageous communication. He narrows down the problem to the following six aspects of communication, and I agree:

  1. Honesty. This element is without question the most important in building strong communication in a startup. The implementation is simple – just tell the truth all the time, every time. It’s a lot easier than trying to remember what you said the last time, and people notice quickly. Build a culture of truth, and others will follow your lead.
  1. Empathy. It is one thing to be honest; it is another thing to be brutally honest. Tell the truth in a frank and direct, yet respectful and empathetic, way. Shoot straight with people, but don’t shoot them between the eyes. Body language and sincerity are important here.
  1. Courage. You need the courage to put even the most difficult and challenging subjects on the table and lead the discussion. Don’t wait until tomorrow, hoping the problem will go away. Courageous means that team members have the nerve and confidence to question authority, rather than dutifully fall in line behind a bad direction.
  1. Safety. If you want people to tell the truth, you have to make it safe for them. Here is where your actions speak louder than your words, and louder than any written policies. If you obliterate someone for telling you the truth, you will never hear the truth again. If you are caught in a lie once, you will never be believed again.
  1. Intellectual rigor. Although people should be safe, ideas should not be. In an intellectually rigorous culture, theories are tested, and people welcome, even encourage, critical examination of ideas and information, regardless of the source. The goal is for only the strongest ideas to survive.
  1. Transparency. The hallmark of great leaders and organizations is that they share as much information with all of their stakeholders as often as they possibly can, in multiple contexts. Yet many leaders will tell me that they are continually amazed to hear the common complaint “why didn’t anybody tell me this was happening”.

Spence says that the best way to improve your organizational communication levels is to improve your own interpersonal communication skills. Luckily, these are skills that can be taught and learned. It takes practice and hard work, but with time, it is possible to greatly improve.

The key skills for superior interpersonal communications are effective use of body language, focused listening, expert questioning, using multiple sensory modes, providing both logical and emotional arguments, and listening for ambiguous or emotionally loaded words. But these are subjects for another day.

If you are one of those entrepreneurs who struggles with every email you write, take heed of the importance of the basic principles above, and take inspiration from the fact that you can and will improve your skills, if you are willing to work at it. But make no mistake about it, being an entrepreneur who does not communicate is not an option. Start today, and do it every day.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, November 5, 2021

10 Ways To Get Tagged As High-Potential In A Startup

high-potential-employeeEveryone knows that startups are risky, but they also expect that the job will be exciting and potentially very lucrative (think early employees at Facebook and Google). Yet we have all heard stories about the high turnover, unstructured work environment, lower base pay, and unpredictable expectations from the top.

Assuming you are lucky enough to get hired, what can you do to survive, and even stand out above the rest in this environment? Here are some tips from a classic book by Harvey Mackay, “Use Your Head to Get Your Foot in the Door,” which work even better in a startup than they do in a bigger company:

  1. Make yourself indispensable. The truly indispensable person in a startup is a problem solver, because every startup has plenty of problems. Very few people are willing and able to take on any challenge, and make it work. You can’t outsource that one.
  1. Volunteer. This is related to the first item, but more specifically means the willingness to take on tasks that others could and should do, but hate to do. There will always be a place in this world for the person who says, “I’ll take care of it.” And then does it.
  1. Stick out and shine. Many employees like to keep a low profile, thinking that will minimize their workload, but it also maximizes their risk. It pays to be visible in any way that’s positive for the company. It could be managing the company picnic, or being the office “go-to” person for computer questions.
  1. Don’t hang out with gloom and doom. Some people love to gripe about management, the pay scale, and career opportunities. Even if you never utter a negative word, don’t tag along with this bunch, or you will be written off as a silent sympathizer.
  1. Be a builder … and a rebuilder. When the organization changes, be the first to help the new organization work, even when it costs extra hours and sweat. If you see a customer service problem hurting the company, step up proactively with a proposal to fix it. Need to expedite responses? Integrate new help desk software. Phone prompts need to be clearer? Overhaul the phone system. Be the one that makes these problems, and solutions, known.
  1. Always position yourself as number two to your next career opportunity. Initiate activities that improve your chances of being the chief’s backup. Then focus on ideas that will likely get your boss promoted. You will likely be the dark horse that fills the slot.
  1. Persevere. In a struggling economy, it’s so easy to throw in the towel. Executives always have their eye out for people who do the opposite and engage in tough challenges. These are the ones who stick with finding a solution even after many reversals.
  1. Educate yourself one notch up. Study the resumes of managers on the next level and do your best to match or even surpass their career credentials. Not just degrees, but loading up on books, business journals, and blogs that your top executive favors.
  1. Pay attention to your image. You attitude and the clothes you wear assert your authority to subordinates, peers, the media, and customers. Your company is spending real money on its image, so make your own personal “brand” an asset to the company.
  1. Think big picture. Some issues aren’t worth winning. You can win the battle and lose the war. If your boss takes credit for one of your ideas, use it as an opportunity to point out how you think alike, rather than berating him in public for the lack of attribution.

In the real big picture, if your prime focus is keeping your current job, you are already in trouble. You should be thinking about your promotion to the next level in this company, the next level in the next company, and then on to starting your own company. The satisfaction of creating jobs is a lot greater than keeping this one.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, November 3, 2021

6 Leadership Skills Every Entrepreneur Must Acquire

Chris Anderson at TEDGlobal 2013 in Edinburgh, Scotland. June 12-15, 2013. Photo: James Duncan DavidsonStarting and building a company is all about leadership – formulating an idea, building a unique plan based on vision and experience, and forging a path over and through all obstacles. Yet the image of leadership in business is at an all-time low, according to national leadership experts, considering the political debacles, recent business scandals, and executive fraud cases.

If the country is to recover financially and politically, new leaders will have to emerge to fill the leadership deficit – new leaders who understand that leadership is a privilege, not an entitlement, according to executive coach Michael Schutzler in his classic book “Inspiring Excellence – A Path to Exceptional Leadership.

Entrepreneurs are well positioned to become the new leaders, because they perceive problems as opportunities, and have the mental mindset to innovate and execute. They have the required passion, perseverance, and work ethic. What they don’t have by default are the skills required, or the relationships. These don’t come automatically with the CEO title.

Schutzler’s view of leadership is different than many academics and executive coaches, who feel that leadership is an innate character trait. He urges people to focus on developing a few key relationship skills, and I agree. Here are some key conclusions:

  1. See leadership is a learned behavior, not a character trait. Good judgment, for example, is certainly a hallmark of exceptional leadership, but it isn’t something you are born with. “More than anything, good judgment comes from listening,” he says. It also comes from paying very close attention to every situation, and learning from it.

  1. Listening is the most important skill for a leader. We need to pay attention to the words and actions of others while suspending judgment long enough to allow your intellect to catch up with your instincts. Why? Because as leaders, if we speak too soon, we shut off creation. We shut off contribution. We force the adoption of our ideas.
  1. Communicating and storytelling. This is not a skill everyone is born with, but it’s a skill we can all develop. People on your team want to believe! They want to believe you know where we are going, or you will get us there even if you aren’t sure of the exact path at this moment. They want stories that compare what they are doing with others.
  1. Acknowledging contribution. This is necessary to sustain motivation during the hard times. It’s not hard to do and doesn’t require a lot of effort or expensive gifts. A thank-you note or peer recognition is enough most of the time.
  1. Negotiation is a practical skill for every leader. Negotiation is often misunderstood to be the domain of clever deal makers. It’s actually really simple. Make very clear requests for a promise. Understand exactly what the promise is - what is being done, when, and what the standard of excellence is, and then check up on the status to make it happen.

  1. Inspire others rather than focus on personal ambition. He believes that we need leaders who use power as a tool for inspiring others to create a better future, not as a tool for retaining their position or perks.

The middle four points are the essential skills for great leadership, inspiring excellence, and building a successful business. They are easily practiced, and serve as the foundation for successfully attracting talent, reaching consensus, making tough choices, and harnessing ambition.

In this fashion the general leadership deficit is really an “opportunity” for new aspiring entrepreneurs in business. So practice the leadership skills needed, and step in when you are ready. Now is your golden opportunity – let’s see how many of you are up to the challenge. We need you all.

Marty Zwilling