Monday, February 28, 2022

7 Ways To Foster A Team Culture Responsive To Change

team-culture-growthMany startups and entrepreneurs I advise still default to growing their business via the traditional top-down, order-taking culture. I’m convinced that you can’t stay competitive that way with today’s customers, and today’s employees. It’s time to push decision making down into the organization –insisting that the people closest to the customer and the markets learn and make the decisions.

I saw strong validation for this approach in the classic book, “Sense & Respond,” by Jeff Gothelf and Josh Seiden. They argue that successful organizations spend more time building and maintaining a learning culture of listening to customers, enabling their team to make decisions, and creating new products continuously. Here are seven key elements of the culture we both espouse:

  1. Accept that you don’t know all the answers – show humility. Anything you or your team knows about the market today may change tomorrow. Don’t demand or assume immediate and certain answers. Foster a culture of constant dialog with customers, experimentation, and multiple pivots required to stay competitive and responsive.

  1. Give the team permission to fail, and learn as a result. Experiments are how we learn, but experiments, by nature, fail frequently. If failure is stigmatized, teams will take fewer and fewer risks, and your business will fall behind. Practice blameless post-mortems to honestly examine what went well, and what should not be continued.

  1. Foster self-direction and alignment to a greater mission. If your mission is clear, and the organization is aligned around it, self-direction takes root and delivers superior solutions. Team members will want to take personal responsibility for quality, creativity, collaboration, and learning. You just provide the environment and support for success.

  1. Promote the honest sharing of information – good or bad. Never shoot the messenger of bad news. Don’t forget to listen carefully to the total message before responding. Ask questions without undue emotion, and always focus on the positive or possible solutions. No one learns from no communication, or misrepresentation of data.

  1. Practice a bias toward action – not analysis paralysis. Constant debates and re-analysis of data are the enemy in a fast-moving and competitive marketplace. A thriving process culture today assumes that you will be making many small decisions, seeking feedback, evaluating the evidence, and then deciding once again how to move forward.
  1. Define customer value as the only path to business value. Customer empathy is required today to maintain a strong market position in the face of global competition. Everyone from the CEO to call-center representatives must have a sense of what your customers are trying to achieve, what’s getting in their way, and how you can help them.

  1. Build a team culture of collaboration, diversity, and trust. The best learning teams are smaller, diverse, and work in short, iterative cycles. There is no time today for lengthy, sequential work with hand-offs between specialists. People with different points of view, who trust each other due to social ties, collaborate well to positive results.

With these culture elements, organizations today are emerging and thriving, based on their improved capacity to sense and respond instantly to customer and employee behaviors. The alternative is another Eastman Kodak, who failed to keep up with the transition from film to digital cameras, or another Blockbuster Video, overrun by Netflix and streaming videos on the Internet.

More successful examples include Facebook, which continues to change and lead today, despite assaults from Twitter, Instagram, and others; and Tesla Motors, still leading the electric car market, despite repeated initiatives from the major auto manufacturers and other upstarts. We will soon see if they can hold that lead in the coming era of totally autonomous vehicles.

These winners, and almost every successful new startup, have successfully established a learning culture that customers, as well as employees, are flocking toward. But a cultural transformation doesn’t happen by default; it must be led, even though employees and customers want to work in the new way. Are you an active agent of this change in your company, or a continuing obstacle?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, February 27, 2022

10 Ways To Highlight Your Startup Leadership Ability

business-leadership-abilityBased on my years of experience as a new business advisor, I always find leadership to be more important to business success than any new technology or innovative solution. The challenge is to adequately define leadership in terms of everyday activities. Most entrepreneurs believe they are leaders, even though the feedback I get from their team and partners may indicate otherwise.

Thus I’m always looking for more practical guidance on the right activities to be perceived as a business leader. I found some great specifics in a classic book, “The Leadership Challenge,” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. These authors bring a wealth of experience in this domain from their workshops, writing, and lecturing on business leadership worldwide.

They have identified ten specific behaviors of exemplary business leaders that I believe every entrepreneur and business professional must focus on to improve their leadership abilities, as well as the perception of others around them as a leader:

  1. Clarify values by communicating shared values. Being viewed as an exemplary leader requires first that you find your voice on your own deeply held values – beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals. Then strive to understand the same for your constituents. Affirming all shared values is the way to building productive and working relationships.
  1. Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. People listen to what you say, but they follow what you do. How you spend your time is the clearest indicator to all what’s important to you. Your questions determine the path people will follow and focus their search for answers. Show that you actively listen to feedback and model the values.
  1. Envision the future by imagining the possibilities. Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to spend considerable time reading, thinking, and talking about the long-term view. Leaders today need to express passion for doing something significant no one else has yet achieved, including society and environment.
  1. Enlist others by appealing to shared aspirations. Enlisting others is all about igniting passion for a purpose and moving people to persist against great odds. You have to engage the hearts and minds of your constituents. To foster team spirit, breed optimism, promote resilience, and renew faith and confidence, real leaders look on the bright side.
  1. Seize the initiative with innovative ways to improve. Leadership is inextricably linked with the process of innovation, of bringing new ideas, methods, and solutions into use. This means making things happen where others don’t, and rewarding initiative in others. It means looking outside your experience, and promoting diverse perspectives.
  1. Experiment to generate small wins and learning. Leaders break down big problems into small, doable actions and initiate experiments that don’t paralyze others with major risks. This creates a climate for learning and winning, to build resilience and grit, as well as incremental progress toward goals. It also builds personal fulfillment, rather than fear.
  1. Foster collaboration by building trusting relationships. Without trust, you can’t lead. You can’t get people to believe in you or each other. Trust is the key to productive relationships, and relationships with peers, constituents and customers are key to great businesses. Building trust requires showing concern for others, and open sharing.
  1. Strengthen others by developing their competence. A well-recognized paradox of leadership is that you become more powerful when you give your power away. The best leaders spend more time supporting and mentoring their constituents to develop their competence and confidence, and then delegate effectively with accountability.
  1. Show appreciation for individual excellence. The best leaders are clear about the goals and rules, expect the best, always provide feedback, and personalize recognition for results. One of the most powerful recognitions is a simple “thank you” delivered in a timely manner. Find out the types of encouragement that make the most difference.
  1. Celebrate victories and a spirit of community. Fun isn’t a luxury at work. Smart leaders find and create occasions to bring people together to publicly celebrate accomplishments and build community. Get personally involved in as many recognitions and celebrations as possible. Show you care by being visible in the tough times.

Exemplary leadership behaviors like these will always make a profound positive difference in people’s commitment and motivation, their work performance, and the success of their company. Especially if you are don’t yet carry an executive role or title, now is the time to start practicing these activities. The most effective and satisfying leadership comes without a title to lean on.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, February 26, 2022

8 Tips For Startups Preparing For The Media Spotlight

media-spotlightNot so long ago, training to meet the press and television reporters was a realm reserved for top business executives only. Now, even the earliest stage startup can rise to visibility or be forever lost by their first media spotlight, so it behooves us all to know the rules early. Most entrepreneurs I know admit to a poor first media interaction, and many are still waiting for the instant replay.

On the social media side, the stakes are just as great. Ask Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, who raised over $10 million on the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform for his relatively low-tech wristwatch with programmed clock faces. Kickstarter may take a bit of the credit for this, but they admit the majority of projects without media attention don’t even approach their funding goals.

There are lots of expensive public and media relations firms out there who can give you the full treatment, but I recommend starting with a good book on the subject, like the classic by media training expert Brad Phillips, “The Media Training Bible.” He provides 101 two-page lessons divided into eight learning categories that I like as follows:

  1. Learn the ground rules for traditional media. Few of us have the background to know when to turn down an interview request, or never use the “no comment” approach, or when it’s more effective to comment “off the record.” Even practical issues, like understanding reporter deadlines, and your own editing rights, are critical.
  1. Craft messages and message supports. A message is a one-sentence statement that incorporates two things: one of your most important points and one of your audience’s most important needs or values, with a call to action. Message supports are stories, statistics, and sound bites that reinforce your message. Both need to be clear and direct.
  1. Make every interview memorable. The key to any effective interview is to articulate a message or message support in almost every answer you ever give. Speak in complete sentences, aimed at the 12-year-old language level, and skip the acronyms. Avoid tentative phrases like “We’re trying” in favor of the stronger “We are doing.”
  1. Answer the tough questions. You must answer every question, every time, or risk appearing evasive, online or on camera. Yet quickly transition back to the message and supports. In all cases, you must stay cool, avoiding anger, sarcasm, or the urge to walk away. Never offer an answer unless you know it’s true – it’s better to say “I don’t know.”
  1. Use appropriate body language and attire. The main impression you leave with an audience may have little to do with your words. Show energy, eye contact, and gestures to enhance the impact of your words. Wear solid colors, and make your look true to your brand and yourself. People judge you and your company in the first few seconds.
  1. Handling different media formats. These days the media formats range from email, phone, radio, television, to social media. Social media includes blogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites. With social media, you are always “on the record” and once you say it, it’s out there forever. All the lessons from traditional media apply, and more.
  1. How to respond to media in a crisis. A crisis is an event, precipitated by a specific incident, that attracts critical media attention and lasts for a definite period of time. It could be a product quality problem, or a major customer complaint on Twitter. The challenge is to be prepared, and communicate quickly and effectively until it’s over.
  1. Prepare, prepare, prepare for every media event. Even the most experienced executives write down what they need to say, and practice for every event. Steve Jobs was a master at this, even though he had years of experience. The result was that every interview or event, online or live, came off naturally and positive. Why do many entrepreneurs think they can “wing it” and get the same results?

Every entrepreneur in this new era of shrinking attention spans, social media overload, and sensationalized reporting needs to know how to create positive messages, cut through the noise, and motivate audiences with multiple media. Don’t wait for a reputation-destroying disaster to start your learning. You won’t get a second chance for a great first impression.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, February 25, 2022

6 Demands Of Today’s Me-Centric Customers On Startups

me-centric-customersI’m sure you have all noticed how today’s customers have changed the way they shop, but I still find, as an advisor and consultant, that many of you aren’t sure how to deal with the new mode, or are still waiting for things to get back to the old normal. I’m convinced you need to face reality – success with customers now requires developing a whole new relationship with your customers.

The relationships are online, with influencers other than your advertising and promotions setting the trends, customers deciding where to buy, and how much they’re willing to pay. It’s a radical power shift, which I found outlined well in a new book, “The Metail Economy,” by renowned international retail consultant Joel Bines.

He suggests, and I agree, that connecting with customers these days requires a total rethinking of your strategy and actions. The focus must now be on “ME as the customer,” each embodied in individualized, highly fragmented, and fluid clusters. You don’t tell them what they like – you must let them tell you, along the lines of six key parameters outlined here:

  1. Cost – now customers define and find the bargains. Everyone has their own view of the price-value equation, they listen only to other customers like them, and they have an instant world-wide view of the alternatives. This view can change quickly by location, or time of day, and your challenge is listen to their needs and be there at the right time.

    Customers skip over your ads, and easily find the real best deals through “best value” sites on the Internet. Also, research from Hawk Incentives found that 40 percent of the surveyed consumers say it makes them "feel smarter" when they can find better deals.

  2. Convenience – make the experience memorable for me. Convenience is in the eye of the customer, not your company. It means making your customers believe that you will do whatever it takes to make their lives easier, perhaps even ordering from a competitor if you are out of stock. Customers expect to feel good about the whole experience.

    For example, at every Ritz-Carlton, employees are empowered to spend up to $2,000 per guest to overcome any negatives and make a stay more memorable. The initiative has paid big dividends in customer loyalty and advocacy, as well as employee team spirit.

  3. Category expert – show me that you know what I need. It’s not enough to have everything in a given category. You have to audaciously cultivate a following, to make your business the first place customers think of when they have a relevant problem. That means investing in people, and building trust in your expertise and information provided.

    A positive result of being a recognized category expert is that it gives you the credibility to broaden demand and start new trends, instead of waiting for outside influencers and other customers. Naturally, you then get the lion's share of that increase in demand.

  4. Customization – convince me it was made-for-me. Me’s don’t want to feel like part of the herd. If you can do mass-customization through technology, that is a good start. Then you have to add a personalized experience to make it feel like one at a time. It’s a careful balancing act between investment and the costs you are able to pass on to the customer.

  5. Curation – customers expect a chosen-for-me feeling. “Me” customers become loyal when you to know them so well that you recommend things they wish they had picked. You can use their historical purchase patterns, plus trends from influencers to anticipate future wants. It takes intense attention to detail to create and sustain that special feeling.

  6. Community – make me feel part of something bigger. There are few things more effective at making customers today feel good about themselves and your brand than giving. It’s less about the stuff you sell than the big idea that surrounds it. Work hard and smart to create a space that consistently makes your customers feel they belong.

Of course, it always pays to adapt these evolving customer principles to your own strengths, to cater to the ever more sophisticated, powerful, and demanding consumer. The key to remember is that they are now in charge, not you, and that is not likely to change. But don’t let that keep you from capitalizing on your innovations, your team, and your intelligence to reap the big rewards.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 2/10/2022 ***



Wednesday, February 23, 2022

5 Ways To Break Out Of Linear Thinking And Leap Ahead

business-leap-aheadIt’s time for more entrepreneurs to reset their focus, and shift their thinking to completely different ways of doing things. Everyone talks about innovation, but the majority of business plans I see still reflect linear thinking – one more social network with improved usability, one more wind-farm energy generator with a few more blades, or one more dating site with a new dimension of compatibility. Serious changes and great successes don’t come from linear thinking.

In searching for ways to get this message out, a few years back I came across a no excuse, no apology book by Brian Reich, called “Shift and Reset,” which makes some excellent points on ways to increase the range of change in a person’s thinking, or an organization’s results. Here are some of the key principles that he espouses, and I support:

  1. Force and expect change. Everyone knows change is hard and messy, and occasionally painful. But unless we force ourselves to change, innovate, and experiment with different ways of addressing serious issues, we won’t find solutions that are needed. Major innovation won’t happen without real commitment, sacrifice, and hard work.
  1. Measure ability and results, not experience. Move to a model where people are measured on their deliverables, not how hard they are working, or how many years of experience they have. For entrepreneurs, this may mean more learning from experiments, and for organizations it may mean dumping a stagnant team to start over.
  1. Don’t settle, demand the best. If you want to perform at the highest possible level, you need to hire the best people, who have produced consistent exceptional results. More energy needs to be spent on how the teams are organized and how the individuals work together. Leading an organization or a movement requires skills not taught in school.
  1. Launch fast, fail quick, and learn more. Indeed, even the most capable, passionate, and well-supported entrepreneur will succeed only if he or she has a clear plan to follow. But don’t believe that any plan will develop and must remain unchanged throughout the execution process. Plan in your plan for constant change, with learning.
  1. The time is now to think bigger. Great new ideas are emerging from the massive and frenetic coordination of people online and through connections. Let’s make sure they aren’t lost or ignored as we head into the future. Now is the time when smaller, yet dedicated groups can communicate and work to bring together disparate ideas.

Reich makes the point that everyone has a role to play in solving major issues, and driving greater innovation. The Internet and social media facilitates cooperation and collaboration, which is what we need to shift our thinking, then reset our goals and ways of attaining them. It’s much easier to challenge everything we know, and turn them on their sides.

Especially for change in serious social issues and infrastructures, it’s now easier to motivate people to care enough and take action. We will never innovate quickly by following the same, old, tired patterns. We need to realize what being connected really means, and makes possible. Now is the time to change.

Innovation begins with knowing your customer, so that’s always the first place to focus. The shift and reset in thinking applies to finding the solution, more than in defining the problem. Linear thinking on the solution can doom a startup or an entrepreneur. A good step in the right direction is to build a team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.

This helps break linear thinking, and greatly reduces the probability that you’ll solve a problem in the same old way, or just like your competitors. Another approach is to bring in team members from outside your domain to challenge your thinking. You as an entrepreneur can either take the lead to make real change happen, watch it happen, or wonder what happened. You decide.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, February 21, 2022

6 Ways To Reinforce Team Behavior For Startup Success

praise-business-team-membersIn my consulting work, when I ask team members in startups and small businesses how they know whether they are doing a good job, the typical response I get is “Nobody has yelled at me today,” or “No news is good news.” This means you are missing the positive impact of catching people doing things right and reinforcing that performance with timely praise and support.

Worse yet, you may be practicing what leadership expert Ken Blanchard calls “seagull management,” where you set goals with people and disappear until something goes wrong. Then you fly in, make a lot of noise, dump on everybody, and fly out. I can relate to this and other insights in his new book, “Simple Truths of Leadership,” with co-author Randy Conley.

In my experience on both sides of the business management aisle, I see the value of these authors’ focus on the power of effective and timely praise in reinforcing behavior that moves people closer to their goals and yours:

  1. Praise people immediately for doing something right. Time is of the essence here. Don’t wait for the next performance appraisal, or for an accumulation of good events. In fact, it’s more impactful to give the praise in public, as long as it doesn’t negate the role of others, or cause political strife. A little competition for results is always a good thing.

    One mistake to avoid in all cases is to dress up praise as a comparison to others, such as “You were the best speaker today.” When you praise one at another's expense, you're lifting someone up with one hand, but swatting someone else down with another.

  2. Be specific on the behavior you want to reinforce. As obvious as it may be to you, you can’t afford any mis-interpretation on your perspective. I often find large disconnects between your goals and objectives, versus those perceived by your team members, due to lack of clear communication, and the personal or situational biases of every individual.

    Even better, you can assist and support the desired behavior, as outlined by many sources on servant leadership. Servant leaders educate through words and actions, and they encourage their people to set aside self-serving behaviors in favor of serving others.

  3. Tell them why it is important and how good you feel. To get full engagement, everyone on your team needs to understand the “why” as well as “what” they are expected to do. Your team members need the “why” to extrapolate their behavior and good performance to the next level. Feelings are a large part of that extension process.

    You also need to be sensitive that today’s team typically crosses multiple generations of workers, and each generation is motivated by different feelings. It’s your responsibility to relate to each, and integrate them into a cohesive culture for your organization.

  4. Give a person time to feel good in your presence. After you offer praise, a pause is the ideal time to get positive feedback on things learned, and work remaining to be done. A quick exit may send the wrong message, and will always leave your team member with qualms about your sincerity, or your real understanding of the work accomplished.

  5. Encourage them to do more of the same. We all need more time to focus on positive results, rather than hear coaching only on things gone wrong. This is your chance to outline career growth paths for your employee, and suggest ways to take on more responsibility. Encouragement is always a more powerful motivator than reprimands.

  6. Show confidence in their progress and future. It is always important to take an active role in employee development, and that starts by recognizing and reinforcing good behavior and results. The next step is to provide mentoring and training, as well as your support and confidence to take on more challenging assignments and responsibilities.

I’m confident that you will find timely praise to be a better motivator for your team members than annual performance reviews, and certainly better than frequent critiques of their performance. When praise is combined with positive mentoring and support, you may find a new team focus on engagement and results that will drive your business as well as their career to a whole new level.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 2/3/2022 ***



Sunday, February 20, 2022

6 Essential Elements For Kickstarting Your Business

marketing-kickstartYour marketing launch is the most important element of startup success these days, to get customer attention in this world of information overload. Yet it is the one element that too many entrepreneurs focus on only as an afterthought. Every entrepreneur assumes their product or service is so great that “word-of-mouth” will carry the day for them.

Even great products need great marketing “content” to fuel the ascent of their online message. A few years ago, I saw a classic primer on the key elements of great online content that I like, in “Launch: How to Quickly Propel Your Business Beyond the Competition,” by Michael Stelzner, founder of

Michael delivers field-tested guidance on how to create the core elements of great content for your announcement, your webinars, blog posts, Facebook contests, newsletters, Internet TV, and other initiatives. It’s all about content that will bring the masses to your business:

  1. Highly relevant. To get to the core of what’s relevant to customers, you need to know them well. Use your content as a way to make a connection between your business and things that matter to them. The more frequently you can deliver content that meets the needs and desires of your customers, the more relevant you will become to them.

  1. Educational. Helping customers discover new ways to solve common problems can quickly build you a loyal following. Your content must continue to deliver new ideas. In simple terms, this is where you share your knowledge, as well as the guidance from other experts, for free.

  1. Easy to digest. A conversational tone should be the basis for all of your content. Highly relevant and educational content if irrelevant if you can’t make it easy for people to understand. Common approaches include the use of metaphors, tell stories, and always stay on topic.

  1. Visually appealing. The eye is just as important as the mind when it comes to customers. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is still alive and relevant. Make sure your paragraphs are short. Use callouts and bullets to help the reader speed through your content.

  1. Conversation inviting. Great content is conversation. If you want to connect with customers, put aside your writing formalities. Your language doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s pretty simple to do. Simply speak out loud. Then write it down. The message should spark a side conversation between friends, and a follow-up comment to you.

  1. Lacks a sales angle. Great content shouldn’t have any obvious marketing messages or sales pitches embedded inside of it. If your content is about your specific product or service, that’s not great content; it’s marketing collateral. People won’t flock to marketing materials.

Creating these core elements is a lot easier if you can team with outside experts to help you. They have what your readers seek – important, worthwhile knowledge, and some influencers already have a large following of their own. They are a shortcut that can put you far ahead of your competition.

Some experts are so instrumental that they are called “fire starters.” These are people who have so much influence that their endorsement can ignite your efforts nearly overnight. The best potential fire starters have the eyes and ears of people who closely match your ideal base. Nurture these relationships, and provide generous value to them in return.

Every marketer throws around the word “content,” but few have mastered the art and science of creating useful, thought-provoking, and viral content. Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Start early in your planning, build your own skills, or find the best expertise you can afford. There is nothing more devastating than a good business that fails to launch.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, February 19, 2022

10 Qualities That Will Make You Stand Out In Business

Standing-Whole-Human-Qualities-ManTo be successful starting a business, you don’t have to be a fabulous person, but it helps. Some people, and some entrepreneurs, have that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, like the judges are searching for on American Idol. But the entrepreneurs that have it, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, seem to be able to effortlessly get team members, investors, and customers to follow them anywhere.

In her classic book on this subject, “The Essentials of Fabulous,” Ellen Lubin-Sherman, who has been tracking fabulous people most of her life as a writer and journalist, tried to net it out. She identifies less than a dozen primary qualities for fabulous people in general, and I have honed and tuned these to ten that apply especially to entrepreneurs, in my experience:

  1. Be passionate about life, as well as your business. Entrepreneurs who have passion in business, as well as their life, may drive us all batty, but there is never a dull moment. These moments are always being transformed into options to be explored. They make life interesting and an adventure, and everyone loves an adventure.
  1. Be delightfully authentic and honest. Authentic entrepreneurs are destined and determined to have fun, as well as move forward in business. They have an unerring confidence that’s inspiring yet attainable. They savor relationships, and are generous with themselves and their smarts, so they attract a savvy following.
  1. Be revered for an amazing positive attitude. Rather than cave when things get tough, optimistic entrepreneurs go analytic, looking for pivots that keep their goals in sight. They are disciplined, upbeat thinkers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and know how and when to laugh it off. A negative attitude takes everyone down.
  1. Be warm and completely accessible. Warmth comes from your smile, and facial expressions that indicate genuine interest. Investors and partners look for entrepreneurs that will look them straight in the eye when speaking, and give their full and undivided attention while you’re speaking. Everyone looks for “rapport talk” rather than “report talk.”
  1. Have impeccable manners and flair. Entrepreneurs who are always looking for opportunities to be gracious and considerate are going to be liked, admired, sought after, and trusted. In business, that means staying connected, showing up on time, with no signs of boredom or preoccupation. It’s not always about you, so dress and talk for them.
  1. Be competent and confident. Competent people accomplish more in business because they’re driven by a pronounced sense of purpose. They are willing to put themselves on the line, and have confidently done their homework to know what it takes. They are reliably consistent, and unafraid to ask for help.

  1. Able to just “get it.” Entrepreneurs who “get it” are emotionally attuned to peers and customers, so that their gut-level instincts become informed judgments that move the business forward. “With-it”-ness takes work, like reading the right blogs every day, challenging yourself to stay abreast of the latest technology, and social media marketing.
  1. Have a big bandwidth. Can you talk, with equal engagement and respect, to your company’s CFO and the guy who pumps your gas? Look for opportunities to praise and nurture the people with diversity. Get comfortable out of your circle of interest and expertise. Go for that black belt in networking.
  1. Be vivid virtually. Developing a superior virtual presence requires a mastery of several mediums – phone, email, text messaging, as well as handwritten notes – but the payoff is undeniable. But don’t overuse virtual communication to the exclusion of face-to-face time In all cases, don’t forget your sense of aplomb, mastery of tone, and the spell-checker.

  1. Attract a superstar board of advisors. The right board is a group of individuals who may not know one another, but know you, and know your business domain. Plus, they need to be willing to put their brains and their expertise at your disposal as long as you need it. No entrepreneur is an island, so take the initiative to build an advisory board.

Paying attention to all these things is how you become a fabulous entrepreneur, another entrepreneur idol. I’m sorry, but there is no magic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, it will never happen if you don’t start or don’t believe. But it’s worth the effort, unless you have something better to do?

Marty Zwilling



Friday, February 18, 2022

7 Ways To Solidify The Confidence You Need To Succeed

business_woman_confidentYou can’t win as an entrepreneur or business owner without full confidence in your own ability, as well as in your solution and business model. As an angel investor in startups, I always look for this self-confidence, no matter how innovative the solution. Of course, you can be overly confident or unrealistic in your expectations, without the skills or plans to run a business.

Unfortunately, I have seen more great business ideas sabotaged by founders with self-doubt, fear of failure, and uncertainty, than by over-confidence. I found the power of self-confidence, and how to build it, confirmed in a new book, “The Confident Mind,” by Dr. Nate Zinsser. Dr. Zinsser is a renowned psychology expert on the power of confidence and mental toughness in performance.

He outlines what I have often seen as the elements that undermine the confidence that all of us must have in ourselves. He highlights the ways, and I agree, that you can resist these confidence killers, choose to think differently from most people, and dramatically boost your own ability to win in business, or whatever domain you choose in life:

  1. First, convince yourself what you want most in life. Then let your brain and body focus on going after it. Every step forward and small success will be recognized as joy and excitement, drowning out stress and fear. Failures will become learning experiences and confidence builders, rather than mistakes that lead to a spiral into the ground.

    I often hear entrepreneurs talk about wanting to get rich quickly, when I know that money is not usually the key to satisfaction or happiness. Perhaps you are more like Blake Mycoskie of Toms Shoes, whose real goal has always been to help the needy in society.

  2. Always be your own best (and most honest) friend. You must always stick up for yourself, just like you would for your best friend. I have found that very few of you have compassion for yourselves in moments of pain and difficulty, as you would for your best friend. Use acceptance, forgiveness, and compassion, to keep up your confidence.

    In my experience, honest and self-confident people don't obsess over what others think of them. They don't go looking for fights, but they also aren't afraid to speak their mind, and yet they are trusted by peers. I urge you to be more true to yourself every day.

  3. Use both logic and fantasy to create a new reality. Sometimes you have to turn off your careful analytical mind to just “look and do … sense and react.” This is especially true when you are stepping into the unknown, as an entrepreneur. Use realism when making hour-by-hour decisions, but be creative when setting your long-term horizons.

    For example, there are many cases where science fiction has been used as a force to drive innovation. Elon Musk, in his drive to put people on Mars through SpaceX, has already created new reusable spaceship technologies and many other new products.

  4. Gather more knowledge and consistently apply it. Find your core strengths, and apply them consistently. Trying to do all things better at the same time is not a confidence builder. I find that entrepreneurs are either idea persons, or business builders, but rarely both. In these cases, it may be better to find a co-founder with complementary strengths.

  5. Beliefs produce behavior, so build confidence first. Confidence provides the energy, drive, motivation, and awareness to develop real competence. You will never know just how capable you can be until you act with full confidence. Look for that succession of small steps forward, rather than behavior modifications, to build your confidence.

  6. Believe that every competitor is human and beatable. Resist the hype, rumor, and gossip that our media-saturated world provides on competitors and reluctant customers. Do your own reality check and recognize that each is no better than you, with fears, doubts, and imperfections. You will then convince yourself that every case is winnable.

  7. Above all else, always play to win. Never let yourself worry about the mistakes you have made, or might make in the future. These erode confidence rather than build it. Instead celebrate all your successes, and the positive moments along the way. Don’t try to conform to the crowd, but think differently to capitalize on your special insights.

The notion that confidence and faith in yourself only comes from genes, or a sudden flash of illumination, is a comforting excuse for failure and giving up in business. I see confidence coming more often from determination, long-haul hard work, and practice, practice, practice. It’s a habit that you should cultivate, nurture, and perfect, even during the worst days of your life. Start now.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 2/3/2022 ***



Wednesday, February 16, 2022

5 Sure-Fire Ideas Just Pending The Right Entrepreneur

Businesswoman-Entrepreneur-IdeasAs a business advisor and technologist, I often think about the large array of opportunities for entrepreneurs as technology seems to be evolving faster and faster. Yet I still too often hear the question, “Can you give me a really sure-fire idea for starting my own business?” My standard answer is that ideas are a dime a dozen, and success is all about smart execution, not ideas.

Yet from time to time, I try to step back and look for some of the most promising and exciting technologies that I see coming down the pike. In that context, I recommend the classic book, “Driver in the Driverless Car,” by Vivek Wadhwa with Alex Salkever, which categorizes many of the leading ones that everyone, both entrepreneurs and consumers, should be thinking about:

  1. Self-driving cars, trucks, drones, and planes. The opportunities to capitalize on these vehicles are huge, ranging from control software, hardware design, support facilities, to entirely new applications. The challenge, according to a survey from a few years ago, is that just one in five people today would entrust their life to a driverless vehicle. Execution won’t be easy.
  1. Artificial intelligence (machine learning). According to experts, computers with more power than the human brain are a mere seven to fourteen years away. Artificial intelligence is still young, but already embedded in our everyday lives, through decision support, navigation routing, and much more. Future opportunities for entrepreneurs are endless.
  1. Personalized genomics and healthcare. Advances in the understanding of the genome of an individual is leading to personalized medicine, also termed precision medicine. The next step is manipulation of these genomes to fix and even prevent many disorders, totally change the efficacy of healthcare, and extend and improve your life.
  1. The Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, vehicles, homes, offices, and public places. These sensors talk to each other, and to us, via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or our smartphones, to help us manage our environment and live a richer life.
  1. Merging of man and machine (robotics and biology). Amazing progress is being made in underlying hardware and software, and costs have plummeted. Siri and her compatriots will soon be able to converse with you in more physical and emotional ways. The mental distinction between humans and machines will become almost imperceptible.

There are many more, but these are ones high on my priority list for entrepreneurs looking for a place to start. Yet with these, as with any other opportunity, there are many risks and implications, pointed out by Wadhwa in his book, for every entrepreneur to consider with each idea. He and I suggest that you always ask yourself the following three questions before starting:

  • Does your idea have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Many technology advances have negative implications for certain industries and segments of society. Your market may be limited to the top one percent of income owners, or may imply values that are unacceptable to the mass market. Consider the societal big picture before jumping in.
  • Does it promote autonomy or dependence? Customers don’t want new technologies to be like recreational drugs that they become dependent on. We all want greater autonomy – the freedom to live our lives the way we wish to and to fulfill our potentials. Entrepreneurs need to focus on ideas that lead to customer autonomy, not dependence.
  • What are the higher-level risks and rewards? Beyond the normal risks of starting a new business, many new technologies have the potential for moral and environmental risks. What if you mess up and create monsters or destroy the environment? Look at the potential side effects and long-term consequences of an idea, before making a legacy commitment to that business.

For me, and for most technologists in business, the future is both very exciting and a bit hair-raising. I certainly see no shortage of ideas and opportunities, but I recommend that every entrepreneur, and every consumer, take a hard look at the broader implications of each new technology. There is plenty of room for good, so select wisely and execute well. The quality of all our lives depend on it.

Marty Zwilling



Monday, February 14, 2022

5 Key Points Of Focus For Every Scalable New Venture

IGE_UC_San_Diego_whiteboardI see more and more entrepreneurs who seem to have everything going for them – vision, motivation, passion, even a good business plan, product, and money, and yet they can’t close customers. Maybe it’s time to look harder at the mantra of a new breed of gurus and successful entrepreneurs, including Steve Blank and Eric Ries, called “nail it then scale it” (NISI).

You can review all the specifics of this approach in the classic book by Nathan Furr and Paul Ahlstrom, appropriately titled “Nail It then Scale It: The Entrepreneur's Guide to Creating and Managing Breakthrough Innovation,” but I will net it out here. I found their five phases of the process to be compelling, based on my own years of experience mentoring startups:

  1. Nail the pain. Great businesses begin with a customer problem that has a big and monetizable pain point. Avoid the three big mistakes, of guessing but not testing the pain (on real customers), selecting a low customer pain (solution is only nice to have), or selecting a narrow customer pain (small number of customers willing or able to pay).
  1. Nail the solution. Neither breakthrough technology nor maximum features will assure that “if we build it, they will come.” In fact, NISI recommends starting with the minimum focused set of features and technology that will drive a customer purchase. Success demands testing the solution early and quickly in the market, then iterating to get it right.
  1. Nail the go-to-market strategy. In parallel with nailing the solution, you need an in-depth understanding of your target customer’s buying process, the job they are trying to get done, the market infrastructure, and a stable of serious pilot customers. Do real tests with real pricing to see if customers will pay you, without being pushed.
  1. Nail the business model. Leverage your customer conversations to predict and validate your business model. For example, when you think about distribution channels, revenue streams, or the relationship with the customer, ask customers what they expect. Don’t forget a viable financial model of costs, margins, customer acquisition, and break-even.
  1. Scale it. Don’t attempt to scale it until you have a proven repeatable business model that predictably generates revenue. Only then is it time to focus on the get-big-fast strategy, and the transformation of three key areas from startup to a managed growth company. These areas include market, process, and team transitions.

These pragmatics and points of focus can effectively counter three core myths which trap too many enterprising and capable entrepreneurs today:

  • Hero myth: Why believing in your product leads to failure. All too often, founders fall in love with their products or technology, ignore negative feedback from customers, and spend years building a product based on a vision that no one else shares.
  • Process myth: Why building a product leads to failure. Conventional wisdom is that after a great idea, the next steps are raise some money, build a product, then go sell the product. This doesn’t work when attacking unknown problems with untested solutions.
  • Money myth: Why having too much money leads to failure. The old saying that “it takes money to make money” isn’t so simple. Money allows entrepreneurs to execute a flawed business plan far too long, rather than stay focused on the market and adapt.

At the heart of it, to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be totally customer centric, and learn to change and adapt as fast as the market. The pace of change in the marketplace is escalating, so entrepreneurs have to improve their ability to deal with change.

At the same time, more entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray, and less money is available from investors. It’s time for a new startup model. In my view, savvy “super angel” investors such as Mike Maples, Jr., and leading incubators such as Y Combinator, are already on this one. How far behind is your startup?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, February 13, 2022

5 Strategies From The Military For Tackling Investors

investor-assault-militaryDon’t charge the hill until you are “ready.” This probably seems obvious to military types, but I see entrepreneurs violating this rule all the time. They approach key potential investors way too early, trying to talk their way up the hill, with no supporting business plan, and before they have a support team around them. Needless to say, they usually get shot down, and get no second chance.

The first rule is to separate your advisors from your investors. Perhaps a close personal friend can be both (the earliest stage and first tier investors should be “friends and family”). But for angel investors and venture capital investors, just remember that investors are not on your team (yet). You only get once chance to make a great first impression.

Continuing with my military analogy, here are some logistics, suggested ammunition, and an assault strategy (the bold points apply to every aspect of building the business):

  1. Do your reconnaissance first. Before you meet a potential investor, check them out on the Internet and through your advisors. You need to know exactly what the investor has done before, what he is doing now, and what will interest him If you walk into his office cold, and can’t convince him you meet his interests, you will walk out cold.
  1. Coordinate and brief your support team. Make sure all your advisors and team members know exactly what your mission is, and if possible, have at least one of them make prior contact to set the stage. If the investor thinks you are coming to ask for domain advice, and you ask for money, your success probabilities are shot.
  1. Fully prepare for the assault. Don’t try to talk and demo your way up the hill. Talk bounces off and won’t stop any bullets. Lead with your two-page executive summary, be prepared to give a ten-slide investor presentation. Keep your big guns, the business plan and financial model, in your holster but visible for backup.
  1. Put your ear to the ground before charging ahead. Offer to give your executive presentation, but he may want just the elevator pitch. Listen, and follow his lead with confidence and enthusiasm. Don’t insist on a product demo – he is buying the business, not the product. If you have an hour, use no more than 20 minutes for presentation.
  1. Follow-up to assess progress or casualties. Have someone else, if possible, follow up with the investor the next day, to find out what really happened. If you didn’t learn anything from the meeting, you weren’t listening. Most VCs won’t volunteer to the Founder what they think, because that limits their options later.

By now, you are probably saying that this is “old school;” when going to Sand Hill Road offices was like going to the principal’s office. There you were ushered into a gorgeously appointed conference room for a precise amount of time with a serious-looking partner. Now some VCs and angels actually hold court in a nearby Starbucks or Paradise Bakery.

But believe me, investors are, if anything, tougher now than then. Don’t be fooled by the informality. Preparation, professional image, confidence, and strategy are just as important as they ever were. The strategy of “I’ll talk to him informally and early, find out what he doesn’t like, and then I’ll fix it,” is pure folly. Napkins don’t really work as your business plan.

Some of the most prepared “teams” I have seen are essentially one person, with a few part-time advisors, who seem to overcome all obstacles. One person can look like an army charging the hill, if they use all the networking facilities of the Internet, all the tools available to build business plans, financial models, and product prototype.

Don’t be afraid to use some mercenaries to back you up (outsourcing, consultants). All the shortcuts up the hill are rigged with minefields. Better safe than sorry. This is serious business.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, February 12, 2022

6 Initiatives To Prep Your Startup For The Road Ahead

Start-Change-BeginningChange is about the only thing constant in the world of startups. Despite their own focus on changing the world, they often forget that they too have to change rapidly and often as the market evolves. Too many find that out too late, and are left chasing a rabbit that is long gone.

The solution is to establish and maintain a culture and processes that don’t view change as a discrete event to be spotted and managed, but as an ongoing opportunity to improve competitiveness. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in a classic HBR article on change readiness for large companies, define it as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”

Since the startup environment is usually more volatile, the challenge there in balancing advantage, risk, and performance, is more critical than in big companies. The following initiatives that Chris and Tammie define for large companies apply just as directly to startups:

  1. Improve change awareness. How good are you and everyone on your team at proactively scanning the environment for opportunities, emerging trends, and customer feedback? This contextual focus is critical to innovation and survival – the right product at the right time.
  1. Increase change agility. Change agility represents a startup’s ability to immediately and effectively engage everyone in pending changes and innovations. It starts at the top with the founder and CEO, but has to extend quickly to the bottom of the organization. This requires leadership, teamwork, and trust at all levels.
  1. Expedite change reaction. This is the ability to appropriately analyze problems, assess risks, and take responsibility for problem-dictated and market-dictated changes, while still sustaining the day-to-day business activities. It’s called the management of unplanned changes, or how well your startup reacts to crises.
  1. Implement change mechanisms. Every organization needs to have specific mechanisms in place to facilitate change, including regular effective communication, reward systems that reinforce desired change behavior, and accountability for results. These won’t work in an autocratic or dysfunctional management environment.
  1. Build a change readiness culture. Change readiness is hard work, and requires creativity sometimes in conflict with task orientation. People have to have the right attitude, and make the choice from the beginning to be ready to change at any time. They need a sense of urgency to handle change, and confidence in their leaders.

  1. Imbue customer change focus. The more everyone in the startup is obsessed with satisfying customer needs and providing better customer service, the more effective the startup will be in adapting to change. Provide direct customer contact to everyone, as well as training.

Experts say that we live in a world where the pace of change is accelerating at the fastest rate in recorded history. On the other hand, change management practices seem to be changing very slowly, resulting in a 70% failure rate of change initiatives. Failure rates this high demand a new mindset and startups are the logical place for this to happen.

For starters, the whole team needs to be constantly trained and encouraged to develop their skills. Relevant skills include continuous improvement of existing methods, processes and devices against a set of quality metrics. The ultimate skills, which lead to innovation and totally new processes, usually come from experimentation and special studies.

In summary, change will happen. If your people and your startup do not change, statistics say you won’t survive. It’s up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make things happen in your startup, rather than let things happen to your business.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, February 11, 2022

6 Strategies For Removing Drudgery and Dread At Work

drudgery-and-dread-at-workIt’s time to take the drudgery and dread out of work at your business. You don’t like it, millennials won’t put up with it, and current productivity levels at work continue to decline. Only 34 percent of American workers are even engaged at work today. Most workers are still rushing to retirement, where they hope to escape to more stimulating activities with a real sense of accomplishment.

In my view as a long-time business advisor, this problem is driving a new entrepreneur age, with the lure of doing what you love, and loving what you do. Yet most startups soon degrade into the negative work environments of more mature businesses, unless they know how to change their approach right from the beginning, and continually focus on the key pillars of work transformation.

I found these pillars, and the first principles behind them, pulled together well in a classic book, “Embracing Progress: Next Steps For The Future Of Work,” by A. Sophie Wade. She has lived and worked in five countries, and consulted with major corporations, as well as startups, in transforming their workplaces to be more productive as well as more satisfying. The pillars of change she details include the following:

  1. Embracing and adapting to technology. Technology is not the solution per se, but it provides the key enablement, drivers, and support for the required flexibility, integration, communication, metrics, and affordability that are required in the workplace today. More people as a substitute for technology is not a solution. No one is happy or satisfied.
  1. Build engagement through culture and mindset. Employee engagement is a measure of emotional commitment, leading to work focus, which translates to productivity, satisfaction and happiness. It starts with a mindset, but requires a like-minded community and culture to survive. Leaders must embrace respect, reciprocity, and recognition.
  1. Show leadership, transparency, and empathy. For leaders today, the success factors include a progressive, open attitude to new ideas and processes, wherever they may come from. The goal must be to eliminate organization silos, flatten hierarchies, and empower employees within projects. Make sure roles match interests and capabilities.
  1. Coach for productivity, performance, and creativity. The traditional once-yearly look-backward performance paradigm has to be replaced by daily or weekly coaching focused on a career roadmap ahead. Leaders at all levels need personal engagement with employees, to understand their interests, skills, and match to roles needed in the future.
  1. Focus on values, cultural impact, and environment. There has to be more to your business today than making money, to get employee engagement and satisfaction. Company values must include respect for the environment and social good. The costs of these elements will be more than repaid by employee engagement and customer loyalty.
  1. Treat freelancers and contractors as employees. Today your talent pool is worldwide, including salary as well as contract arrangements. All must feel that they are committed to the same goals, and part of the same team – not second-class citizens. They all need the same feedback, respect for their input, and coaching to maximize their engagement.

As obvious as many of these principles may seem, the reality I see is that most organizations and most business leaders have not embraced them yet. I believe this is largely because the traditional “command-and-control” management practices are long-established habits, and it’s hard to find the time to really engage with your team, and be sensitive to individual interests.

Classic studies reveal that highly-engaged organizations are experiencing double the success rate of less engaged ones. And there is nothing like success to put fun and satisfaction back into your work, and the work of your employees. When was the last time you saw members of your team happily working well past required hours? Maybe it’s time for you to break some old habits.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, February 9, 2022

7 Leadership Opportunities Founders Must Never Ignore

burnout_business_businesswomanI hear too often from business owners and entrepreneurs that they are bombarded by so many requests and problems, that they have trouble sorting out the daily crises from opportunities with a major payback for the business. In other words, how do you recognize the challenges that really need your leadership, versus the less critical demands that seem to always bubble to the top?

In my experience of many years as a business founder, consultant, and executive, I offer the following list of situations that always imply a real need for people and business leadership, and have the potential for long-term positive impact to your bottom line and business success:

  1. Your business image is slipping in the eyes of customers. Customer feedback in the form of online reviews and poor customer service is often rationalized as unreasonable expectations or one or two crazy individuals. In fact, you need to carve out time every day for improving customer relationships. More happy customers is a major key to success.

    For example, Jeff Bezos of Amazon always finds time for his "divinely discontented" customers, as an opportunity, rather than an irritant. As a result, Amazon has ranked as #1 for customer satisfaction for many years in a row and has grown accordingly.

  2. You see more personal people conflicts in your team. Healthy debates and differences of opinion are good, and lead to needed change. But any time you see personal verbal attacks or lack of engagement, you need to drop all else and get to the bottom of the issue. A healthy team culture is another key driver for growth and winning.

    Studies show that a positive team culture in an organization can result in 26 percent fewer mistakes, 22 percent higher productivity, 41 percent lower absenteeism, and 30 percent stronger customer satisfaction. That’s a payback you can’t afford to ignore.

  3. Major vendor and partner relationships are suffering. Businesses succeed or fail based on good people relationships, more than great processes. Your job as a business leader is to get the right people in place early and provide ongoing communication and oversight, rather than trying to run all the relationships yourself of a growing business.

    As United Airlines found out a few years ago, delays in addressing customer or vendor problems can cost you more in a single day than many companies make in a year. You must never be too busy on daily issues to prepare for and handle these situations.

  4. You can’t find the time for coaching and mentoring. Even the busiest leaders find time for management by walking around, and actually listening to their people. Maybe now is the time to bring in outside coaching and motivational speakers, as well as more training. Be sure to take the time yourself to keep up with leadership trends and needs.

  5. Meetings with your team seem to be non-productive. If your team is not fully engaged, you need to take the lead in incenting participation, through positive motivation, better listening, or proactively asking for feedback. Positive team collaboration is a culture that you must foster to increase productivity and the ability to change with the market.

  6. Top employees are leaving for better opportunities. In my experience, employees usually leave if they are not satisfied with you, rather than a salary level or role definition. Your challenge is to proactively build a caring and positive relationship with key individuals, and show them that you are providing the career development they crave.

  7. You see evidence of ethical compromises in the team. Every business owner and entrepreneur has to be the role model for trust, a good moral compass, and ethics. You need to make sure you are sending the right signals, and you must communicate and act decisively to eliminate transgressions in this regard. Nothing can be a higher priority.

You can’t ever be too busy to watch for these opportunities, and prioritize the work on them into your schedule. Examples of entrepreneurs who practice this lesson include Jeff Bezos of Amazon, and Richard Branson, who oversees over 400 companies that are part of the Virgin Group. Now is the time to look at your own schedule, to see if you have the right priorities.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 1/26/2022 ***



Monday, February 7, 2022

6 Ways To Find Courage For Uncomfortable Discussions

adult_american_analyzing_business_peopleAs a mentor to many entrepreneurs and business owners, I find that many of you have a real fear of uncomfortable interaction situations with individuals on your team, and often delay these discussions endlessly until a crisis occurs. I am often asked for ways to reduce the stress of these impending confrontations, and build up your courage in tackling the inevitable negative conversations.

I’m sure that many of you have some good thoughts on how to deal with difficult situations, but I was very impressed with the summary of recommendations provided in the new book, “Compassionate Leadership,” by Rasmus Hougaard and Jacqueline Carter. Both of these authors come from leadership backgrounds, with much experience in management training and consulting.

Thus, I would like to offer the essence of their recommendations here, with my own perspective interjected. I find the key is learning how to manage your own fears first, and then building your courage while committing to stay positive and compassionate in your approach:

  1. Tackle at least one courageous situation per day. Don’t try to group your tough discussions all in one day. Make a habit of doing a bit every day, even if it’s no more than giving a kind piece of feedback to someone you don’t enjoy. This allows you to build your courage gradually, rather than all at once. Soon your fear will fade into the background.

    As an entrepreneur or business owner, you have to accept the fact that facing tough decisions, and uncomfortable discussions, comes with the territory. You must develop the courage to face them every day, whether they be personnel issues or business issues.

  2. Actively follow up on uncomfortable discussions. Make a note to come back an hour or a day or a week later, to ask how the other felt about your conversation You will see that most people are appreciating, or at least learning from, your courage and candor. If you listen carefully, you will also learn from them, diffusing your fear of confrontations.

    Experience has shown me that follow-up is required to make any discussions effective, whether it be coaching or networking. Don’t expect any discussion or relationship to be finalized by the initial interaction. Real results only come from cumulative interactions.

  3. Act on a timely basis – never delay a confrontation. Don’t leave people, or yourself, in suspense. Others know something is not right, even if it hasn’t been discussed. Nothing is as toxic as unacknowledged difficulties. So take the lead and move forward. The fear and the stress on both sides only gets worse over time, and trust and productivity suffer.

    In the same context, you should never delay positive recognition or feedback. In fact, you should always seek to offer positive feedback or encouragement before criticism. This will help strengthen your courage, and soften the impact and reaction to your total message.

  4. Trust your intuition when you feel discussion is needed. Push beyond the fearful part of yourself that says everything will be okay, if you just pretend that no problem exists. If you feel that something must be done, then you are probably right, and you need to act. At the same time, always base your feedback on facts rather than emotion.

  5. Share with a peer to find new and helpful ideas. Be honest about the fact that you find the situation or the person difficult, and ask for help in developing an approach. The fear that often holds you back increases when you keep it all inside. Sharing with others and getting their input will help you broaden your perspective and make you more effective.

  6. Handle tough situations like business change issues. Both may be often outside your comfort zone, and both require courage, but as a business leader, they are key parts of your role, so learn to take them in stride. It is normal that being courageous requires stamina and patience, so don’t get frustrated if you make some mistakes along the way.

In my view, you must always think beyond yourself to create a team culture of courage and positive communication in your business. If everyone in the company embraces this purpose, with a common set of values, then it creates the cultural pressure to have the level of engagement needed to do things in line with the best interests of the business. That’s a win-win for everyone.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 1/24/2022 ***



Sunday, February 6, 2022

5 Questions To Consider When Contemplating Advisors

business-advisors-meetingMany entrepreneurs I know are confused by the definition and need for an Advisory Board versus a Board of Directors. Some view both of these as a waste of time and burden on the CEO, while other founders surround themselves with insiders and cronies in an attempt to expedite and add credibility to their own interests. I suggest a few simple considerations will clarify the alternatives.

By definition, Advisory Boards are voluntary and have no fiduciary responsibility. Yet I suggest a small one has value for every startup, starting at inception, prior to a major investor or key business scaling initiative. This Advisory Board is a good test drive for the more formal Board of Directors required later, when going public (IPO) or the entrance of venture capital investors.

In all cases, board members should be selected individually for their ability to independently add value to the expertise and experience of the management team, with no obligation or intent to add weight to internal views. The details of these considerations are outlined in a classic book, “The Board Book,” by Board expert and founder of The Board Institute, Susan F. Shultz.

Shultz provides a set of considerations that I recommend to every entrepreneur for deciding when and how to create the board that has the most value to a specific CEO and a specific business. These considerations include the following:

  1. Are you looking for advice or a boss? Most founders and CEOs will not voluntarily establish a formal Board of Directors, unless they are trying to attract a major investor, preparing for an IPO, or planning for an acquisition. As an alternative, every CEO needs an Advisory Board to help them grow, which they can ignore or fire at their pleasure.

  1. How much are you willing to spend on your board? Advisory Board members often serve for a nominal retainer, or one percent of the equity, whereas Directors for even a small company would expect at least a five-digit retainer, plus meeting expenses. Also expect that much more of your time will be required to sustain a Board of Directors.

  1. What role do you want in selecting board members? Board of Directors members must be formally elected by stockholder votes for a stated term. Obviously, a CEO can recommend directors, but CEOs directly select Advisors, and they are replaced as interests and needs change. Legally, Directors are accountable for corporate conduct.

  1. Do you expect involvement in company operations? Advisory Board members rarely get involved in operational roles versus strategic issues, while specific Directors often spend much time on executive compensation, processes to satisfy regulatory requirements, and reviews of budgets, acquisition proposals, and major policy changes.

  1. How many board members need you work with? A Board of Directors must represent all constituents, so it often grows to ten or even twenty members, although I recommend keeping the numbers uneven (to eliminate tie votes), and less than ten. For Advisory Boards, I recommend three to five as max, to limit costs and time spent for support.

The challenge is to avoid the mistakes that can compromise any Board, advisory or formal, in its independence or effectiveness to the business. Shultz discusses many of these, but here are a few which are the most common in my experience:

  • Failure to focus strategically rather than tactically. Most stockholders think only about the next quarter, and most CEOs worry about short-term survival. Since Boards are a function of both of these, it’s hard to find boards able and willing to keep a proactive focus on strategy. They tell you what you need to hear, not what you want to hear.
  • Too many beholding insiders, friends, and family. Insiders will tell you what you want to hear. Their allegiance, sensitivity to rank, and familial biases make open discussions difficult, and interlocking directorships set up too many situations where directors work for favors from each other, or work against each other due to non-business issues.
  • Lack of involvement and leadership by the CEO. Even with all the right people on the Board, it’s still the CEO who sets the culture, drives the focus, and makes the difference. The best CEOs balance the focus between strategy and selected current issues. They stay in touch, transparently provide info, and make Board recommendations happen.

Thus, it is my view that every entrepreneur and every business needs at least a couple of outside advisors, if not a formal Board of Directors. As an angel investor, I judge readiness for investment by their presence or absence, by the CEO’s relationship with them, and by the quality of the advisors. It’s a resource that you can’t afford to ignore if you intend to stay competitive today.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, February 5, 2022

8 Keys To A Multi-Generation Team Culture That Works

multigenerational-business-teamIt’s a whole new world out there in the workplace. Millennials want work that matters, and don’t care for hierarchies. Boomers are coming back to work, but because of their experience, they may be insulted by constant feedback. All prefer more flexible hours, the chance to work from home, and the traditions of lifetime loyalty to one company no longer apply.

Loyalty to a given company now has to be inspired rather than assumed. These challenges, with recommendations for addressing them, were detailed nicely for me in the classic book, “The Boomerang Principle,” by Lee Caraher, who has built several companies, and has helped many others manage Millennials, reduce turnover, and improve satisfaction and the return hire rate.

She and I both offer the following insights on how to green your own pasture by helping employees find and use their strengths, and inspiring them to be more satisfied and productive, on your side of the fence, and even happily return if they do wander in their career advancement:

  1. Provide a structured approach to mentorship. Mentoring is the number one request by Millennials in the workplace. They are used to, and appreciate, relationships with older people who will help them navigate their way. Coincidentally, Boomers love to share their guidance to bridge the generation gap. Thus mentoring inspires loyalty all around.
  1. Create a culture of specific and timely feedback. Everyone needs feedback, but they dislike just the annual performance reviews. Employees today expect a culture where feedback, both positive and corrective, is natural, timely, and constructive. Adjusting your style so that each employee hears you is the mark of a leader who generates loyalty.
  1. Focus on the next step, as well as the current role. Employees need to feel that their role today in your team will be beneficial to their career tomorrow, and what opportunities you might see for them. If you match that with commensurate training and professional development coaching, you will see their commitment, productivity, and loyalty in return.
  1. Allowance for today’s work flexibility needs. Today, it’s not only caring for children, but also caring for elderly parents or relatives. Real work flexibility also caters to personal preferences regarding the time and location of work, not just fixed options. With our new devices and pervasive Internet access, almost any work can be done from anywhere.
  1. Define work deadlines rather than work hours. Flexible work requires inflexible deadlines that are specific – time, date, time zone – and consistently met. Measuring attendance-only from nine-to-five is not satisfying or productive for the company or the team. Overt planning takes into consideration each team member’s preferred schedule.
  1. Adjust salary practices as careers progress. The old standard practice of three percent raises every year, for people in their early career, basically ensures that your younger talent will look elsewhere quickly. For good performers, larger increases early (10-15 percent) generate loyalty. Ensure that all employees are paid at market rates.

  1. Create an expectation of happiness at work. Happiness and loyalty tend to go hand in hand. Unhappy team members are a drag on everyone’s performance as well as loyalty. Unhappiness comes most often from under-appreciation, lack of understanding of what is required, and resentment of punishment for mistakes. Don’t let these happen.
  1. Expect career transitions and plan for them. No employee today stays forever, because they need career broadening. Your company also benefits from a regular infusion of new ideas, skills, and experience, so treat transitions as mindful and positive. Employee loyalty includes what they say to peers, and their potential to return later.

Make your company a good place to be from, as well as a good place to work. No one will say it’s easy, or you shouldn’t have high expectations from every team member. The longer you keep non-performers, energy suckers, or toxic people on your team, the more likely you are to lose the good people. However, always set a high bar for your behavior on the way out for anyone.

Just because someone isn’t right now doesn’t mean he won’t be right later. The best companies create cultures to which employees want to return, which provide both short-term and long-term benefits. That’s the new lifetime loyalty, and it serves everyone better than the old model of the same employees forever. Is your company there yet?

Marty Zwilling



Friday, February 4, 2022

8 Ways Entrepreneurs Find Disruptive New Technologies

disruptive-new-technologiesWhat sparks paradigm-shifting and disruptive innovation in any business? It’s a special mix of entrepreneur and company, regular in every respect except for having the courage and foresight to make an idea happen that was supposed to be impossible. As an entrepreneur in a startup, how do you know if you have this potential, and what are the steps to get from an innovation to a revolution?

The first step is to meditate on the examples set by others, like Steve Jobs of Apple, Jeff Bezos of Amazon, or Thomas Edison with the electric light. There are many others, like the classic book about Ratan Tata bringing out the Nano car way back in 2009 in India for less than $2,500. Even though the car was not a success for production reasons, the book “Nanovation,” by Kevin & Jackie Freiberg, still makes some great points.

These authors have studied many such examples, and summarize my own perspective on the characteristics of entrepreneurs they call “nanovators,” that produce true, life-changing innovations:

  1. Get wired for innovation. We all agree that innovation is an adventure into the unknown. If you want people to follow, you need to be able to convince them of three things: (1) your mission is worth supporting, (2) you have the competence to build a critical mass, and (3) you have integrity to look out for their best interests along the way.

  1. Lead the revolution. Innovators have more than the vision; they have the drive to lead, and the focus to stay on target. They are wired to win. Organizations don’t produce game-changing innovations; people do. They allow a leap of faith in their own ideas, as well as in the ideas and capabilities of their team.
  1. Build a culture of innovation. You need a culture where restlessness is tolerated, curiosity is encouraged, passion is inspired, creativity is expected, and people are always talking about what’s next. Ultimately, the mind-set changes so significantly that innovation is natural, and no one is conscious of it.
  1. Question the unquestionable. Outsiders ask a lot of questions because they don’t presume to know why something is done a certain way. Make your insiders think like outsiders. Provocative questions like “What if?”, “Why not?”, or “So what?” can help to get everyone outside the box.
  1. Look beyond customer imagination. First-of-a-kind products empower customers to do things they didn’t even know they wanted to do, and now can’t live without them. The computer mouse, Tivo, and Teflon are examples. Listen to customers, but remember that they can’t always tell you what they don’t know.
  1. Go to the intersection of trends. Innovators pay close attention to the early warning signs that precede major cultural, societal, and market shifts. Where most people see an isolated trend, innovators connect the dots by relating one trend to several others. They focus on next practices, versus best practices.
  1. Solve a problem that matters. The key here is to resist the temptation to pay more attention to the technology solution than the problem. Some people create brilliant solutions to non-existent problems, like maybe Segway and satellite phones. These solutions may be nice to have, but won’t ignite a revolution to get there.
  1. Risk more, fail faster, and bounce back stronger. When you pursue a creative idea that takes you beyond, fear tempts you to make compromises. If you can push through this fear and doubt, or bounce back intelligently from initial setbacks, you often arrive at something that has truly never been seen before.

Jeffrey Immelt of General Electric argues that the next big thing could well be from “reverse innovation,” where instead of industrialized nations adapting their products for emerging markets, innovation in emerging markets will bring new paradigms to home markets. In any case, the future is defined by what we put off until tomorrow, so don’t wait too long to get started.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, February 2, 2022

5 Listening Practices That Ensure Team Understanding

listening-practices-businessIn my many years of consulting with business leaders and entrepreneurs, I have found that all of them realize the value of communication, in spreading the outbound message of mission and goals to their team and constituents. Yet, in their urgency to get things done, many forget to focus on really listening to input as an equally important part of their leadership role and image.

Recently, I was delighted to see an outline of actions constituting today’s best practices for listening in a new book, “The Double Bottom Line,” by Donato Tramuto with Tami Booth Corwin. Tramuto brings his experience from many decades of business leadership in healthcare, with a focus on how compassionate leaders listen better, captivate hearts, and deliver more results.

I fully support and add my own perspective to his short list of secrets to successful listening, paraphrased below. These are proactive things all of us can do to turn listening into understanding, strengthen relationships, facilitate engagement, and better decisions:

  1. Stay fully attentive, focused, and do not interrupt. Effective listening first requires that you carve out enough time for a real conversation, without trying to multi-task or rush the speaker. I find that good leaders are often the last to speak, and are proactive in giving the stage to other members of the group, to learn their opinion before offering yours.

    We all know people who are “passive listeners,” meaning they only pretend to listen while their mind is really somewhere else. This leads to a lot of missed information, and is certainly noticed as lack of interest and respect by the person speaking.

  2. Approach listening as an opportunity to learn. This normally means asking lots of questions to get clarity, better information, and a better understanding of other perspectives. Not only do the questions themselves yield information that can lead to better understanding, but also the process of asking them helps you be more engaged.

    For example, although Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, is most certainly an idea guy himself, he attributes much success to listening and learning from his team. He didn’t initially agree with many of their ideas, but supported them and saw real success.

  3. Listen with empathy to understand perspective. Empathy will always lead to better understanding for the listener, in addition to making the speaker feel understood. You perceive information through that person’s experience, in a more subjective manner. The result is a better relationship, trust, and a willingness to follow your leadership decision.

    Every brand, like Ferrari, needs listening empathy to understand who their customer is on a human level and what drives their behaviors. They need to put passion into a product they know resonates with the feeling, as well as content, a customer wants to experience.

  4. Note body language to hear non-verbal content. You can add immensely to your understanding of what is being said by watching a speaker’s non-verbal cues, their movement, and the way they look at you (or do not). This is a much greater level of engagement, because you are now watching someone as well as listening to their words.

    Research has shown that 60 to 90 percent of our communication with others is non-verbal, which means the body language you may be ignoring is extremely important. As a business leader, how can you make good decisions with less than half the real input?

  5. Summarize back what you have heard to confirm. If you fail to confirm, you may (and many leaders do) end up acting on incorrect assumptions or your own biases. You should never be embarrassed to admit you didn’t hear it right, since that admission will convince the speaker you have been actively listening, and willing to hear other input.

In all cases, you must focus on avoiding the common listening mistakes of pretending to listen while your mind is somewhere else, formulating a reply instead of listening, or applying your own views and biases while still listening. This is all part of today’s need to put people first, and maintaining a balance between strong financial results and a positive impact on community.

In my experience, the days of “command and control” business leaders are gone. Through the Internet and social media, all constituents know who you are, and how you operate. They quickly migrate to companies and leaders who show compassion and empathy, as well as results and the ability to change. It’s not too late to learn and adapt, and bring your team with you. Start now.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 1/19/2022 ***