Wednesday, June 29, 2022

5 Unfair Advantages To Help You Succeed In Business

unfair-advantagesOne of the things I’ve learned over my years as a business mentor and investor is that life isn’t fair when it comes to succeeding in business. You may think that passion and hard work are all you need, but I believe we all have unique strengths, and you need to recognize yours, and capitalize on them above all else, in order to get the advantage you need to win in business.

In this context, I’m convinced that most of you already have, or can acquire, what it takes to succeed in business. I see a good discussion of the relevant strengths and issues in a new book, “The Unfair Advantage,” by Ash Ali and Hasan Kubba. These authors speak from their own wealth of experience in creating and growing technology startups, marketing, and fundraising.

Here are the key elements of the strengths framework they have developed, with my own insights and experience added for your consideration:

  1. Money: the capital you have, or can easily raise. While it is indeed honorable and impressive to run your business on a shoestring, there is no argument that having access to more money, or relevant assets, is a strength you should take advantage of. It can expedite growth, acquire competitors, cushion mistakes, and lengthen your runway.

    In the business world, your ability to raise money is often paramount to your success. In that environment, you need to look broadly and work effectively on all the available sources of capital, including friends and family, angel investors, and strategic partners.

  2. Intelligence and insight: book and street smarts. Book smarts represent your current depth of understanding of technology and business concepts. The more you have, the greater your potential. Street smarts are largely about people skills, which require emotional insights. Use friends and mentors with extensive experience to gauge both.

    In my experience, emotional intelligence (EI) is a better predictor of business success than IQ. EI rates a person's ability to recognize emotions, to understand their effect, and to use that information to guide your next move. Fortunately, you can develop this skill.

  3. Location and luck: right place at the right time. I’m a proponent of the old adage that you make your own luck in business. If you need venture capital, maybe you need to spend more time in Silicon Valley or Boston. If you like your current location, tackle an opportunity that is big there, rather than trying to solve a problem elsewhere in the world.

    I always recommend to every business professional that they have a goal, and then be willing to maneuver. This is called the serendipity mindset. What seems like the wrong place or a chance meeting might be the start of an important partnership or opportunity.

  4. Education and expertise: formal and self-learning. Don’t believe the myth that a formal education is not an advantage – it teaches you how to learn effectively. Not many of us are self-learners by default, and experience and failures take a long time. The key is to keep learning, from mentors, books, and online. Focus on business as an expertise.

    In any career, an advanced degree, such as an MBA or PhD, will at least give you entrée into more opportunities. From that point forward, results and creativity are the drivers. In my view, going back to school midway in your career will likely make you a better leader.

  5. Status: network, connections, and personal brand. To prepare you to build outer status advantages, you need to develop and demonstrate first an inner status advantage of confidence and self-esteem. Motivation and recognition are usually tied to increasing our status, and people around you will unconsciously look for and react to your status.

    Personal branding is how we market ourselves to others, and is very important in this Internet age. The days are gone when you could hide behind the company brand. I recommend that you get more visible at industry conferences and on social media.

After reviewing these strengths and recommendations, you may find that you already have what it takes to succeed, but haven’t been using it effectively. Now is the time to assess your own position, get input from constituents and mentors, and focus on improving your position where you can. Only then can you enjoy the advantages you deserve, and have more fun as well.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/15/2022 ***



Monday, June 27, 2022

10 Indications That It’s Time To Ask For Help At Work

business-man_ask-for-helpIf an entrepreneur doesn’t find themselves in over their head at least 20% of the time, they are probably not pushing the limits, not taking enough risk, and probably not working on an idea that’s worth doing. The challenge in to know when and how to ask for help, and not let bravado and ego mask anxieties. The best people know when they don’t know, and know how to find the right help.

Unfortunately, too many entrepreneurs I know are terrible at finding and accepting help. Perhaps it’s because they jumped into this lifestyle because they are passionate and stubborn about following their own vision, and they enjoy being their own boss. Too often they are also hesitant, inexperienced, and fearful of hiring people or finding a mentor to be the partner they need.

In the spirit of mentoring and helping entrepreneurs recognize their own weaknesses, here are ten key indications from my experience that you as an entrepreneur may be nearly broken, and it’s time to look for some help:

  1. You start seeing every business problem as a personal affront. Your business is not all about what is best for you, but what is best for your customers. In reality, your customers care more about your product and service, so feedback on product shortcomings or service glitches are meant to help your business, not hurt you.
  1. Startup challenges become more depressing than energizing. The best entrepreneurs thrive on being able to push the limits, and tackling the tough challenges that ultimately result in real innovation which can change the world. If you find yourself dragging in to work, and dreading the next surprise, you may be in over your head.
  1. You have no idea how to pivot with the latest market trends. Successful entrepreneurs pride themselves on always having more ideas than can possibly be explored, so they are never at a loss for new alternatives to explore. If you don’t see a new trend as a new opportunity, you may be in over your head. Seek help or get out.
  1. You are completely surprised by a negative event you should have foreseen. At the end of a given month, you suddenly are totally out of cash. You know you should have been tracking the burn rate, or inventory requirements, or late receivables, but have found yourself totally distracted by a flock of emergency daily issues.

  1. You know what is required, but you continue to procrastinate. Sometimes it’s obvious that closing a deal requires some tough negotiation or sales calls at the top, but these are not your forte, so you can never find the time or energy to get them done. Maybe it’s time to find an advisor, or a board member with the right connections.

  1. Angry outbursts become more common than real leadership. Too many executives revert to bullying and micromanaging when they are in over their heads. In the long run, this tactic does not work, and your business suffers, as well as all those around you. If you catch yourself acting out in anger, get some help before more damage is done.

  1. You start playing the blame game. We all know entrepreneurs that are quick with an excuse for every problem, like we were too early for the market, the vendor let me down, the economy took a downturn, or my competitor is cutthroat. Every startup founder has to remember that the buck stops with them, and they must learn from every mistake.
  1. Living in a state of denial, and misrepresenting the truth. When an entrepreneur is in over their head, they can’t face the hard facts of business losses and missed customer commitments, and they can’t face their team. Thus they find themselves communicating less and less, and downright lying to people, while rationalizing that this causes less pain.

  1. Jeopardizing your integrity to hide shortcomings. If you catch yourself saying things and doing things that violate your own sense of ethics, you are likely in over your head. These could include cutting quality corners, shorting vendor payments, and sabotaging team members. Now is the time to get help before you destroy yourself and your startup.

  1. Letting a sense of entitlement show through. It’s easy for an entrepreneur in over his head, and frustrated with all the challenges, to convince themselves that they are entitled to that fancy sports car or a six-figure salary once the first investor money rolls in. They let the burn rate go up too fast, and the business burns down before it really starts.

As a serious entrepreneur, you need to differentiate these symptoms from the plateaus we all feel from time to time as we jump from one learning curve to the next. In most cases, if you focus for a couple of months, you will find yourself happily afloat at the new level. That is just getting in over your head in a healthy way, rather than an unhealthy one.

According to Whitney Johnson in a Harvard Business Review article on this subject, the smart recovery is to send out an SOS (stop, organize, secure) before you drown, when you find yourself really in over your head. As an entrepreneur, you are expected to swim in unexplored waters, so there is no shame in accepting life preservers, as long as you learn from the waves.

So remember, none of us is perfect, and almost no entrepreneur gets it right the first time. If you never make mistakes, you are not taking enough risk to win in today’s market. But always be self-aware, and not be afraid to take a hard look in the mirror. Do you like what you see, and are you willing to change it?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, June 26, 2022

The Pros And Cons Of A Secret Business Relationship

secret-business-romanceWe all have to communicate and collaborate with other people at work, but most of us start out instinctively trying to maintain an emotional distance from others in the work environment. In fact, most employee training courses recommend the distance if the work relationship crosses management levels, and most management policies strictly forbid fraternizing with the team.

Yet the 2019 Office Romance Survey by Vault, Inc. found in polling more than 700 professionals at companies nationwide, that 58 percent had participated in an office romance, and almost three-quarters of those who’ve had relationships said they’d be willing to engage in another one. So recently I started looking for some expert guidance on the pros and cons on this issue.

One source I like is the classic book “Who’s That Sitting At My Desk?” by Jan Yager, who has a Ph.D. in sociology, and is a coach and speaker on work issues and friendship. She outlines the potential benefits of “workships” (work relationships) evolving into friendships and romances as follows:

  • Improve communication and productivity. Even casual friends at work are more likely to understand your requests, be convinced of the value of your ideas, and more likely to work in concert with you on projects. That’s a win-win situation for both sides as more positive things happen more quickly. Warm feelings also make the work seem easier.
  • Offer support through tough times. Positive workplace relationships can help balance some difficult issues you are facing outside of work. Even at work, if you are struggling with a difficult project, getting some help and support from friends there can easily make the difference between success and failure. We all learn more from people we trust.
  • Aid in self-esteem. Work places provide that day-to-day interaction opportunity that is a key to self-esteem for many. Friends are more likely to provide the positive feedback and accolades that we all need from time to time. Friends are also less likely to exhibit aggression and rudeness, which can lower the self-esteem of any receiver.
  • Can be a competitive advantage. Despite accusations of favoritism, if your friendship with the boss is one of many factors in why you get promoted, that friendship may be a big plus for you at work. If you easily make friends with people at work, it means that you have good relationships skills, which is a key requirement as you move up the ladder.

Of course there can be negative consequences to close friendships and romances at work as well:

  • Work-related betrayal. According to most experts, romantic betrayals are the most frequent type of friendship betrayals, with work-related issues a close second. Betrayals at work run the gamut from telling lies, coloring the truth, plagiarizing work, to saying negative things to the boss. Of course, all these things can happen in any workship.
  • More vulnerable emotionally. Through friendship you open yourself up to acceptance, being liked, admired, respected, trusted, and appreciated. You also open yourself up, as do others when they befriend you, to the greater possibility of disappointment, rejection, and misunderstandings. Success is the best antidote to emotional vulnerability.

  • Competition over salary, promotions, and position. Sometimes friends share too many details on salary levels, work habits, and promotion expectations. This can cause feelings of unfairness, and initiate emotionally competitive efforts. The result can be a loss of friendship, and even loss of any working relationship.
  • Hard to keep work-related disagreements separate from personal relationship. Work-related disagreements break up many romantic relationships, and broken personal friendships break up many businesses. In this new age of collaboration, unemotional different perspectives and disagreements have been proven to lead to better decisions.

If you are contemplating a transition from a workship to a more intimate relationship, according to Yager, you should make sure that it satisfies the following three conditions:

  1. Make sure the move is a shared wish. There are three distinct kinds of friends: casual, close, and best. A fourth category is more intimately romantic relationships. None of these four work well if they are "one-sided,” meaning only one of the parties is committed.
  1. Be ready to reveal and involve your non-work experience. Some people find that they have much in common in workplace duties and perspectives, but have nothing in common outside of work. Or they really don’t want to share their personal life details.

  1. Expect increased pressures from trust and discretion issues. All relationships bring increased demands for your time, and bring expectations and pressures during any changes in your life, or at work. Make sure you both have the shared values in your personal life, as well as at work.

In my view and experience, the benefits of more friendship at work far outweigh the disadvantages. Socializing at work today, contrary to a couple of decades ago, is considered collaborative and productive, rather than a waste of time. Today the trend is to “open” office spaces, even for executives, versus the private and quiet offices of yesterday.

Going further in the friendship direction, to a romantic relationship, is still almost always a negative at work, because the emotional ties and tolls often override rational actions. As an example, I find that most Angel investors still decline to fund startup founders that are romantically involved, citing the high risk of breakup.

Work relationships are in vogue, inside a company for collaboration and teamwork, and outside to customers and partners through social media for loyalty and interactive marketing. But all good things can be overdone. Are you maintaining the right balance in your work relationships?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, June 25, 2022

10 Questions To Ask Yourself Before Every New Venture

questions-entrepreneurDeciding to be an entrepreneur is a lifestyle move, and should be part of a long-term strategic plan. You shouldn’t be making this decision just because you are mad at your boss, or you would like to be rich, or someone else thinks you have a good idea. In these changing times, if you already have a startup, with no plan, maybe it’s time to think ahead for a change.

Formally, that’s called developing and maintaining a strategic plan. Usually that means writing something down, since it’s hard to maintain something, or track yourself against it, if it’s not written down. From my experience, and the experience of other entrepreneurs, here are the key elements you should think about as part of the process:

  1. Personal interests and aspirations. Do you love managing your own schedule, overcoming obstacles, starting a new adventure, facing financial risk, and relish the opportunity to change the world? Money should not be the big driver here.
  1. Right idea at the right time. Do you believe that you have an idea for a company that you can implement better than anyone, and maintain a competitive advantage? If you are thinking nonprofit (social entrepreneur), can you rally the world around your cause?
  1. Take inventory of what you have. Look critically at yourself and your existing organization for strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats (SWOT). What resources do you have, skills and functions, and what do you do best?
  1. Assess customer demand. Do customers really need what you want to do, or might they see it as “nice to have?” In the relevant market large enough, and growing fast enough, to make it a profitable opportunity?
  1. Providing minimal resources. One of the biggest stumbling blocks for all entrepreneurs is time and money for the ramp-up period. Do you have money saved, or available from friends, or current employment to support the transition?
  1. Visualize the future. What do you envision your business looking like in five to ten years? Is your mind full of ideas for repeating the experience, or are you looking to build a family business that you make your legacy?
  1. Manage existing relationships. How important to you is the balance between family, outside relationships, and work? Do you have dependents that must be factored into every career and lifestyle equation? What personal support resources are available?
  1. Education and training roadblocks. Does your dream require additional time and money for training or academic credentials? If so, can these be done concurrently with an entrepreneurial rollout plan? What other roadblocks exist?
  1. Location, location, location. Most entrepreneurial efforts can best be done, or can only be done, in a specific geography or country. Are you willing to relocate as part of your strategic plan? Can you start where you are and relocate later?
  1. Willing and able to measure. Can you define measurable milestones to help you track progress and provide feedback? Strategic plans that cannot be measured will never be accomplished. Are you committed to achieving milestones and measuring progress?

I’m not suggesting here that a strategic plan is a one-time set-in-stone effort. In fact, quite the opposite, every plan must be improved and adapted as you learn more and the world changes around you.

On the other hand, if your way of doing business might be described as fire first and aim later, to seize today’s opportunity, you are charging into the future on only a wish and a prayer. The crash landings can be tough, and definitely won’t feel good as a long-term strategy.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, June 24, 2022

7 Ways To Find And Nurture Future Leaders In Business

future-business-leadersEvery business owner I know wishes that all team members were leaders, to proactively tackle the challenges of growth, interact effectively with customers on their needs, and eventually step into your role. Yet you know that real leaders are hard to find, and often remain hidden just below the surface of your team. Are you sure you know what to look for, or how to develop potential?

In fact, our natural human tendency is to see all team members as followers, or to continually view them as they appeared on the day they joined the business. My objective as a business advisor is to incent you to take a fresh look at everyone on a regular basis, and recognize the behaviors of team members who are beginning to display the leadership attributes you need:

  1. Look for a commitment and ability to deliver results. Most often this means a focus on the objectives of the business as a whole, and taking the initiative to drive results, rather than just work hard. You need to look for higher team collaboration and productivity around this hidden leader, as well as high individual performance.

    Effective collaboration with other people, as well as leadership, requires a high level of emotional intelligence, which is the ability to understand, interpret, and respond to the emotions of others. Some people have a high IQ, but can’t leverage that into leadership.

  2. Focus on team members who develop relationships. I’m not talking about the social butterflies, but people who always seem to engage with the right people to help get the job done, both upward and downward. These people are never hesitant to give credit to others, and thrive by delivering win-win solutions, rather than win-lose outcomes.

    Relationships outside your business can be just as valuable as relationships within. The best potential leaders are always seeking new connections at industry conferences, in community relations, and by communicating with key customers and influencers.

  3. Notice people who always take a customer perspective. Many people on your team will seem to focus on internal processes, or are willing to take shortcuts to optimize costs and profits. You need leaders who focus on delivering value to the market and dealing with competitors, addressing customer and competitive needs now and in the long-term.

    It’s no secret today that customers are more demanding than ever. In addition to good customer service, they are now expecting a total memorable experience, from quality, to shopping, and delivery. No team member leader can afford to ignore customer views.

  4. Recognize those with consistent individual integrity. Your team members with high integrity demonstrate sound moral and ethical principles and always do the right thing, no matter who's watching. Of course, that assumes that you nurture a culture that rewards integrity. Look for team members that learn from their mistakes and don’t blame others.

    Team members with integrity are people you can trust. Look around you, to single out for leadership opportunities those key people that you give your toughest challenges, with confidence that they will resolve it without embarrassing either you or the business.

  5. Increase your individual communication practices. You won’t recognize hidden leaders by observation alone. You need to be proactive in regularly communicating to team members one-on-one, understanding their needs and aspirations, and making sure they understand your strategy and goals. Mentoring and coaching are also important.

  6. Foster a culture that rewards risk taking and innovation. By default, most team members hesitate to take the risks of leadership, due to fear of your penalties, or lack of support. You need to be positive about the need for constant change and innovation in your business, support their efforts, and reward people for all initiatives and learning.

  7. Increase your delegation and review practices. In my experience, business managers that have the most trouble finding hidden leaders are ones who are reluctant to delegate real responsibility to others, and insist on micro-managing. You have to be the role model for leadership and delegation, and let your people learn to deal with issues themselves.

You may be the single leader that initiated your business or organization, but you will find that many more leaders are required to keep it healthy and growing. Thus a key part of every leader’s job is finding and nurturing those hidden leaders in every organization, and recruiting new ones from the outside. You can’t be successful in your business long-term, or career, without this task.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/10/2022 ***



Wednesday, June 22, 2022

6 Keys To Transforming Yourself Into A Startup Leader

business-startup-leaderMost people I know in business begin by capitalizing on technical strength or passion for change, such as engineering, or focus on saving the environment. They don’t realize that it takes more to succeed in business or a career – it takes leadership skills to get people to follow you, including peers, a team, business partners, and customers. Luckily, you can learn needed leadership skills.

Of course, you can always ride on someone’s coattail, and let them do the leadership, while you do the hard work in the shadows. But I suspect you won’t find that very satisfying in the long-term, and you may never reach your ultimate goals. I recommend a proactive approach to get you thinking and acting like a leader today, starting with a focus on these key strategies:

  1. Push back on your fear of taking a leadership position. Start now in building a vision of your future self as a leader, rather than a follower. Intentionally step outside your comfort zone often enough until the fear and discomfort goes away, and you develop a new mindset of enjoying the act of attracting others to follow your lead in new directions.

    In my experience, the most common qualm of business professionals is fear of failure. Yet every successful leader will tell you that some failure is normal along the way and necessary for learning and growth. Own your mistakes and don’t make excuses.

  2. Set achievement goals outside your current strengths. We all tend to focus on goals around what we already do well, rather than ones that will force new learning, such as how to be a better leader. I urge you to force yourself to be a regular new learner, by tackling new problems, listening to expert mentors, and finding time for leadership books.

    Also, it’s possible to turn your weaknesses into strengths by getting guidance from peers you trust who have complementary skills, hiring people with the expertise you lack, and overcompensating with excellent preparation. Count on the people around you to help.

  3. Celebrate small successes in your leadership efforts. Becoming a leader takes time, so it’s important that you recognize that it won’t happen all at once. You need to take credit for every small step in the right direction, and use that as motivation for tackling the next plateau. Don’t be afraid to ask peers and friends for feedback and progress reports.

    Sometimes aspiring leaders forget to break their big goals into a set of smaller ones for the short-term, so they see no progress along the way. As a result, I'm convinced that many of you will never see that magic moment when you finally feel success as a leader.

  4. Accept leadership roles in safer non-business roles. There is always a need for someone to take the lead in your favorite charity, community service, or family event planning. These will raise your confidence, assist your learning, and give you practice in improving your leadership skills that you can bring back to the office or business.

    As another example, many entrepreneurs I know enhance their leadership skills by taking on roles mentoring college students and younger peers. Soon they find themselves more confident in building and leading a team in their own business or career.

  5. Actively broaden your business network to new domains. Take the initiative to meet new leaders in your domain and related ones, at business conferences and networking events. New people will give you new perspectives and challenge your own. Look for leaders that can be your role models for areas that are not your current strength.

  6. Redefine your job as leadership versus delivering results. As your business or career matures, you need to progress from doing the job to a focus on strategy and leading. In reality, only you can make this happen. Many business professionals remain stuck in their current role, and wonder why they are never perceived as leaders.

I find that many business professionals and entrepreneurs are jealous of others in leadership roles, but are hesitant to make the step into that domain themselves. Hopefully, with the initiatives outlined here, you can allay your fears, and sharpen your leadership skills, to be able to achieve your potential as a leader. You too can achieve your dreams of business and personal success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/8/2022 ***



Monday, June 20, 2022

8 Signals That It’s Time for Change In Your Business

change-in-businessWhen the economy struggles as it is doing now, that’s a strong signal that things have to change, and it’s hard to miss. But most of us in business have to deal most of the time with weak signals, or change that is happening in a far more subtle way. These changes can be cultural, like the increasing need to be social, spawning Facebook and a hundred others, or technological, like the explosion of mobile devices around the world.

No business or startup wants to be the next Myspace, or even the next RIM (BlackBerry), where changes in the marketplace were subtle. Recognizing and interpreting weak signals into timely decision making is critical to your business, and it takes skill and focus.

The challenge is knowing what to look for, and how to react. I saw some real guidance in the classic book by Loc de Brabandere and Alan Iny, “Thinking in New Boxes.” While the focus of the book is really on business creativity, the following triggers were outlined as weak signals which should not be overlooked in your efforts to think outside the box, or think in a new box:

  1. A changing value proposition. For example, if it’s getting harder to charge a price premium for the product you’re marketing, or others are offering your subscription service for free, it may be time to start thinking in a new box. Another example is seeing substitute versions of a product, like eBooks, for a low price displacing hardcover books.
  1. New unmet consumer or customer needs. Perhaps you own a consumer products store and see that following the introduction of a new iPad model, there are no attractive protective cases for them yet available. Or you notice that people are getting overnight delivery from Amazon, but your retail store offers no home delivery options.
  1. The entry of new competitors and new suppliers. You are selling several successful computer video games, but notice more and more new ones popping up on smartphones. Or you notice that your line of high quality tools is being undercut by cheap knockoffs manufactured in other countries.

  1. The advent of new breakthrough technologies. You are still providing conventional digital wristwatches while Apple and others are delivering high-tech new versions that sync with your smartphone. Or you are still delivering coupons via the local newspaper, while new entrants are loading them onto your loyalty card or smartphone.
  1. Changes in your organization’s core performance metrics. For example, quarterly sales on one of your most important products suddenly decreases, or your inventory across a whole category has surged. If one metric changes, it may not be significant, but someone needs to monitor whole categories for fluctuations that may be a weak signal.
  1. Unfulfilled business and other potential opportunities. Sometimes you might be astonished to notice something that has not yet occurred, and therefore signals to you an opportunity, like new transportation alternatives. Taxi or bus companies are often slow to recognize a new popular travel location based on population shifts or resort communities.
  1. Broad disruptive events. Everyone notes macro changes, but the weak or secondary implications are often overlooked. Look hard for unanticipated consequences of events like new government regulations on financial processes, changes in environmental patterns, or sociological changes in other countries. First responders are the winners.

  1. Premonitions, anxieties, and/or intuitions. Weak signals may be even more subtle or insidious. Perhaps your assistant mentions that your phone has been ringing much less lately. Or you sense that some of your best people are getting bored. Such inklings and realizations can be valuable warnings of significant impending change.

All weak signals need to be treated with a continuous innovation mindset and urgency, to stay competitive and current. Here is the recommended five-step approach to thinking in new boxes:

  • Doubting everything you think you know.

  • Probing the possible issues to fully understand what is happening.

  • Divergent thinking to create many new boxes, concepts, and hypotheses.

  • Convergence through testing and validating back to a small number of viable changes.

  • Re-evaluating relentlessly for the agility to survive.

New entrepreneurs are notoriously great at capitalizing on new opportunities, both weak and strong. But nurturing this ability after the first burst of creativity, to accomplish the necessary pivots, and keep from getting seduced by their own initial success, is a more rare commodity, even in the startup community.

If you aren’t reacting to weak signals almost every day in this era of fast-paced change, then you are missing opportunities and falling behind. What new boxes are you implementing these days?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, June 19, 2022

10 Strategies For Reducing Your Business Load At Work

stress-colourOne of the most common complaints I hear from entrepreneurs is that they are overwhelmed by the workload and stress of starting their company. Then there are the additional challenges of balancing the demands of family and friends. Having too much on your plate can turn your dream into a nightmare.

Some people will tell you to just get a bigger plate, meaning hire some help. But with the pressures of the economy, and limited access to outside funding, we all know this isn’t always possible or appropriate. I recommend the opposite, or getting things off your plate that shouldn’t be there in the first place.

In reality, many entrepreneurs are their own worst enemy, trying to do everything, working inefficiently, and imagining things that need doing which will never happen. Here are some tips on how to look at work, make some hard decisions, and keep your health and sanity:

  1. Maintain a big picture perspective. It’s easy to be overwhelmed by day-to-day details, to the degree that they all seem like big items, driving up your imagined workload. Take a few minutes each day to reflect on your real goals, and eliminate items which don’t relate.

  1. Set realistic deadlines. The more your workload grows, the greater is your temptation to set unrealistic deadlines for yourself. This results in poor quality work, which generates more work to fix previous efforts. Allow some buffer on every item.

  1. Prioritize the work items. Relentlessly reprioritize your list and complete them in order, resisting the urge to skip over the tough ones. The longer that high-priority items stay on your list, the more stress you will feel, and consequences will add new items.
  1. Keep a written to-do list. Most people can’t manage more than five items in their head, and when your list gets longer, it seems infinite. Write it down, but even then, keep it to the top ten priority items or less. Multiple pages of work items won’t get done anyway.

  1. Block out time for priority work items. Don’t allow your day to be monopolized by distractions and the crisis of the moment. Close your door, or move to another location where you will not be interrupted so that you will complete the top item on your list today.
  1. Count the completions. At the end of each day, check off, count, and celebrate your positives. A sense of progress is important here. Look positively at your progress as a glass half full, rather than half empty.
  1. Take a break to recharge. Even a few minutes each hour to relax will re-energize you. Regular non-work breaks, like a trip to the gym, or time with family will be ultimately more productive than slugging it out all night on a given problem. Get a good night’s sleep.
  1. Discuss the tough ones with a mentor. Don’t be afraid to discuss your challenges with a trusted friend, or business advisor. This will clarify the issue in your own mind, and let you see it from other angles. You need to stop and regroup when you hit a brick wall.
  1. Stay in control of your emotions. Stress is a normal part of life. Don’t let it lead to anger and frustration, or loss of productivity. We can choose how we handle tough situations, and the best approach is always to stay calm and in control.
  1. Eliminate phantom work items. These are items that you never intend to do, and probably don’t need, but you carry them on your list because of guilt or direction from someone else. You can’t complete an item that you don’t understand.

Wearing all the hats required to initiate a startup is tough in the best of situations. Then your business really starts to take off, and it gets even more challenging. As an entrepreneur, you need to seriously apply the discipline of these principles early and always to survive, and hopefully even enjoy the journey.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, June 18, 2022

5 Keys To Taking An Idea From A Vision To A Solution

vision to a solutionA popular approach for aspiring entrepreneurs these days seems to be to corner anyone who will listen, with a pitch on their current “million dollar idea.” The initial monologue usually ends with the question “How much money do you think this is worth?” In my opinion, ideas are a commodity, and are really not worth much, outside the context of a visionary leader who can execute.

Over the past couple of decades, experts have perfected the art of brainstorming and other idea-generation techniques. Executives and investors are now increasingly exposed to a wealth of ideas. The result is that ideas are no longer in short supply, and no longer a differentiator in competition.

Visionary execution, on the other hand, is not so common. A visionary is someone who can make sense out of the wealth of ideas, and weave together a plan for implementation that will make a difference in the world. Elon Musk, for example, likely receives thousands of ideas from friends, but he has been able to focus a few of these into initiatives that demonstrate real innovation.

What separates an idea person from a visionary leader? Most experts agree that a visionary leader not only has ideas, but also has a vision of where these ideas can lead, with strong core values, key relationships, and demonstrates innovative actions, as follows:

  1. Commitment to core values. Visionary leaders radiate a sense of energy, strong will, and personal integrity. This usually results in a focus on multiple related ideas, leading to real innovation, rather than bouncing from one idea to the next, looking for the Holy Grail.
  1. Positive inspirational communication. People with vision usually start by communicating an inspirational picture of the future, and then integrating individual innovative ideas into this fabric, and show how to get there. The best ones can make the impossible look easy, so everyone, including investors, line up to commit.
  1. Build strong relationships with strong people. Great relationships are key to every leader. They see people as their greatest asset, and listen as well as talk. Theirs is not the autocratic style of leadership, which tells people what to do and dominates them, but a style which treats partners, investors, and customers as family.
  1. Willing to take bold actions. These actions somehow always seem to embody a balance of rational (right brain) and intuitive (left brain) functions. Visionaries are often “outside the box” of conventional approaches and move toward long-term change and innovation. They are proactive and anticipate business change, rather than reactive to events.
  1. Radiate charisma. People with a real vision can communicate ideas with almost a spiritual charisma that energizes people around them to go a step beyond normal boundaries, to solve a technical problem, sign on as a team member, or invest resources, when conventional wisdom would suggest otherwise.

Every investor wants to fund the true visionary leader, but the truth is that these people often don’t need funding, or don’t ask for it. The best investor pitch, then, is to sell the vision with such conviction that people want to be a part of it, with their money, their skills, or whatever they can bring to the table.

But not every entrepreneur has to be a visionary. There is still plenty of room for incremental improvements, and creativity in providing solutions to short-term problems. This is really the realm of bootstrapped startups, and a small segment of the angel investor community that is looking for a “quick hit” with a quick return.

So my message to entrepreneurs is to tune your approach and your expectations accordingly. I’m always impressed with entrepreneurs who pitch how they plan to bootstrap an idea, but if you need a million dollars, you better be able to communicate and lead with a vision.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, June 17, 2022

10 Ways To Make Your Own Luck Driving Startup Success

luck-business-successMany business professionals and entrepreneurs I know are quick to attribute success of a peer to luck, rather than any recognition of a unique strategy or personal attributes. Over my many years as a business advisor and angel investor, I have become a firm believer in the opposite position, that you make your own luck, which drives business success, rather than the other way around.

As with most investors and advisors, I always look first at some key personal characteristics and leadership strategies that I find often make you a more likely survivor and winner in the highly competitive world of businesses, both new and mature. Here is my list of those practices that I recommend to increase your own luck in the complex business world of today:

  1. Acknowledge reality, but exude confidence and optimism. Passion is great, but it must be backed by data, confirming a real problem and customers willing and able to pay for your solution. Demonstrate that you understand the roadblocks ahead, and why you are uniquely qualified to overcome them. Be positive, but don’t count on luck to save you.

  2. Highlight your persistence in achieving results in key goals. In my view, too many businesses fail, simply because founders give up too early. You should be ready with your personal anecdotes on achieving success through persistence, from non-business efforts as well as business. Having an unlimited number of ideas is not a substitute.

  3. Show a focus on a single objective, rather than many. Starting many initiatives, and hoping that one will stick, is not a formula for success. Demonstrate how one key objective addresses your long-term, as well as short-term goals. Don’t be afraid to admit to pivots for cause, as you learn from your experiences. Recognize limited resources.

  4. Demonstrate a willingness to take real risks. Every business initiative with great potential has big risks, including environmental, political, and cultural changes. I believe in the old axiom, “no risk means no reward.” You need to acknowledge the risk factors you expect, including competition, and identify your efforts to mitigate these risks.

  5. Surround yourself with a competent team and advisors. Building a successful business takes more than one person. You need other people with skills that complement yours, are not “yes” people, and have relevant experience rather than a low price-tag. The ability to build a team, as well as the intelligence to ask for help, is a huge bit of luck.

  6. Be an effective persuader, using both logic and emotion. Some people believe negotiation and persuasion are driven by logic, while others rely on emotion. Successful business leaders combine the power of both, in conjunction with credibility and a shared purpose, to make every situation a win-win success opportunity rather than win-lose.

  7. Be a leader role model, with strong communication skills. Too many business people let the daily challenges cause them to revert to emotional and autocratic demands, failure to communicate, and inability to coach and mentor team members. Bosses, investors and business partners will see negative tendencies quickly, and will thwart your success.

  8. Maintain your health and well-balanced lifestyle. Successful business people normally have high energy levels, and work hard toward their objectives. Yet no human body and mind can sustain the stress of constant work, with no time off for a personal life and non-business activities. I expect to see evidence of a healthy lifestyle, with outside interests.

  9. Show gratitude to the team and celebrate successes. Everyone in business needs to feel some recognition for their efforts, in order to face the next challenge and maintain their loyalty. Great leaders are ones who share credit for successes, as well as failures. To keep energy high, they celebrate even small successes, and appreciate each other.

  10. Able to maintain customer trust and team confidence. I look for an intent and an ability to generate trust by delighting customers, as well as your team. That means asking for and really listening to feedback, and being transparent about issues of interest. For team members, it means being available, and showing empathy for their concerns.

With these strategies making your own luck, I’m convinced that you will find more and more success in business coming your way, and your personal image and satisfaction will also increase. That’s how to make your business lifestyle more enjoyable in the long run, just as you expected.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 6/2/2022 ***



Wednesday, June 15, 2022

8 Initiatives To Form Your Confidence And Self-Esteem

self_confidence_self_esteemIn my years of mentoring entrepreneurs, a problem I have seen too often is low self-esteem, and over-compensating through arrogance and ego. These entrepreneurs find it hard to respect customers or team members, and their ventures usually fail. As a team member, low self-esteem leads to low confidence, poor productivity, and no job satisfaction. Fortunately, both can be fixed.

Organizational change expert Paul Meshanko, in his classic book “The Respect Effect,” explores the human science behind these issues, confirming that people with a healthy self-esteem perform at their best and treat others with respect, getting their best. All of us shut down when disrespected. He assures us that anyone can train themselves to get on track to stay on track.

With my insights to focus on entrepreneurs, I like Meshanko’s eight steps to help build business self-esteem and avoid the ego trap, which support a broad range of attitudes and behaviors that are individually and organizationally beneficial to startups as well as mature companies:

  1. Identify the qualities and skills most closely linked to your idea of success. Current research is conclusive that self-esteem is linked to our sense of competence in the areas that are important to us. As you look at your entrepreneur goals, make sure you are following your own definition of success that gives you pride and passion in its pursuit.

  1. Identify your current strengths and establish plans for improving. Once you have clarified your personal definition of startup success, examine where you currently are relative to where you want to be. Whatever your goals, there are few things more esteeming than knowing you’re making progress toward your picture of success.

  1. Be on the lookout for new opportunities to grow your talents and experiences. Part of our sense of self-worth comes from the belief and confidence that we have the ability to grow the business both today and in the future. Entrepreneurs have a natural base for adventure and curiosity, and should relish trying new things each day to stretch them.

  1. Identify and redirect unhealthy competition and comparisons. Make you the base, not others. Your sense of worth should not be determined by other startups, or what you think peers expect of you. Competition sabotages teamwork and leaves feelings of isolation and alienation. Use others as a source of inspiration, rather than envy.
  1. Forgive yourself for past mistakes and poor decisions. From a rational point of view, berating ourselves for past startup failures makes no sense. Free up your energy to be spent on more productive activities, and learn from past efforts. The great entrepreneur Thomas Edison said that every wrong attempt discarded is another step forward.
  1. Hold yourself completely accountable for your actions, decisions, and outcomes. The legitimate place for short-term guilt and remorse is making these lead to some type of behavior change. Failing to hold yourself accountable sends subtle messages that may damage others self-esteem, and it doesn’t promote lasting confidence or competence.
  1. Develop a pattern of self-talk that validates your worth and abilities. Each of us has developed a way of interpreting and explaining the business world around us. It’s important that our stories neither damage us nor free us from blame. We should continue to feel worthy, accountable, and capable, with a mindset that allows us to continue to follow our entrepreneurial passion.
  1. Focus on what you can control, not what you can’t. Our short-term destiny is not always in our control. What we can do is make a commitment to do our best in whatever entrepreneurial environment we find ourselves. We can also make sure we build strong relationships with successful business leaders in advance of our needing their wisdom.

For every entrepreneur, a healthy self-esteem, leading to self-confidence, is critical to a constrained ego and more success, since every startup is entering uncharted territory, and must take risks to seize a new opportunity. Not all entrepreneurs have a background to start from a position of strength in this area, but all have the ability to learn and the passion to succeed.

In my experience, the most common cause of entrepreneur failure is giving up too early, rather than running out of money. Are you selling yourself short on your own potential, and not working on your own self-esteem, thus jeopardizing your business success and job satisfaction?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, June 13, 2022

10 Classes We All Should Take To Prepare For Business

company-training-collegeI’m sure that every one of us who has been out in the business world for a few years can look back with perfect hindsight and name a few college courses that we should have taken. What’s more disconcerting to me is that I can name a few that aren’t usually even offered, resulting in more than a few students graduating ill-prepared for the real business world!

I won’t even try to cover here the ones you didn’t find for your personal life, like managing personal finances and credit. But on the business side, here is my list of useful courses that we wish existed, but as far as I know, still aren’t generally available:

  1. Basic Office Politics. Office politics involves the complex network of power and status that exists within every business, large and small. Don’t you wish that someone had prepped you on how to read the body language, interpret office gossip, and when to hit the delete key on your email rather than the send key?
  1. Business Email and Texting. Writing in business is not the same as in an academic environment. In school, you're taught to stretch weak ideas to reach your document page limit. The business world expects exactly the opposite. The challenge is to communicate your idea in one page, and close the deal quickly. As for business texting – use sparingly.
  1. Touch-Typing for Business. How many hours a day does the average professional and executive today spend hunched over a computer keyboard “hunting and pecking”? Throughout a career lifetime, just think of the return on that investment. Any symbols you can’t find on a typewriter, like smiley faces, should never be used in business.
  1. Business Dress for Success. “You are what you wear” works in business, just like it did in high school. But no one tells you the business norms, so some continue to come to work in jeans, baseball caps, tattoos, flip-flops and expect to be treated as executives. A basic benchmark is to dress better than the executives who hold the positions you want.
  1. Demystifying Employee Logic. Another term for this is how to be a skeptic. Understand the ways people can mislead deliberately or accidentally with numbers, bad logic and rhetoric. There's some untruth hidden in 99 percent of everything you're told. Can you find it, and do you know how to respond?
  1. Business Budgets and Benefits. The focus here would be on the actual nuts and bolts of how things get budgeted and financed in business. This will pay big dividends in getting your favorite project funded, or justifying your own salary, or negotiating a bonus. The tenets of entitlement do not apply.
  1. The Art of Selling and Closing Business. We can find tons of "marketing' courses in colleges and universities but everyone must think that “selling” is intuitively obvious. The art of selling is complex blend of relationships, persuasion techniques, negotiation, and knowledge. Follow-up and persistence are a rare natural phenomenon.
  1. Root-Cause Problem Analysis. Business professionals need to analyze problems from a big picture perspective. Most classes in college focus on a narrow area of interest, which just teach students to focus on problems through one lens. That's how unforeseen consequences stay unforeseen, and happen repeatedly in business.
  1. Maximizing Business Productivity. In the office world there is always far more work than there is time to do it. You need to be able to figure out what not to do, and how to not do it, by organizing and prioritizing, and still impress your boss with your thoroughness. Productivity is much more than doing everything faster.
  1. Job Hunting Basics. People need realistic expectations about how much effort and time it takes to get just about any job. Atrocious resumes and social network antics will kill your career. The difference between job descriptions and accomplishments seems to elude most business professionals.

The real problem for many of these, I suspect, is finding qualified instructors to teach. Until then, the best alternative I can recommend is to sign up for job internships at every opportunity, while still in school. You might find on-the-job experiences more valuable than all your other courses, or you might change your major.

Amazingly, it seems that people in business are more highly educated these days, but less well prepared than ever before. What’s another course that you wish you had taken in school, but didn’t realize was missing until too late? There’s another generation right behind us that needs to know.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, June 12, 2022

Welcome To The New Wave Of Opportunities And Startups

Gen-Z-entrepreneursLarge corporations and conglomerates, the engines of growth and vitality in the twentieth century, have lost their edge and their image. They have proven themselves unable to innovate, and they have lost more jobs than they create. My friends who “grew up” with lifetime careers in General Motors, Exxon Mobil, or even IBM, are now often too embarrassed to even mention it.

On the other hand, everyone wants to be an entrepreneur. We can all aspire to grow companies like TikTok, Facebook, and Apple, which have the aura of fun, while still improving your lifestyle and offering the dream of untold riches.

In his classic book “The 3rd American Dream,” thought leader Suresh Sharma summarizes the large corporate accomplishments of the 19th and 20th centuries, and then lays out the potential of a new entrepreneurial business ecosystem for the 21st century. His focus is on entrepreneurs in America, but what he says applies to every other country as well.

I agree with Sharma that it’s time to move on to a new way of thinking, living, and doing business, especially after the recent demoralizing pandemic impacts. This next frontier lies in building enterprises as an entrepreneur, rather than waiting for innovation and opportunity from large corporations. They have become a by-product of innovation rather than the cause of it:

  1. Conglomerates grew from industrialization, not innovation. Most of their new claims to innovation are acquired through mergers and acquisitions from the entrepreneurial pipeline. Internal corporate processes thwart innovation due to inherent inefficiencies of scale, high overhead, and the risk of impact on the corporate bottom line.
  1. Existing technologies have been “commoditized” globally. Many countries have learned to make products cheaper and better. Competitive advantages are rapidly vaporizing on these. Having only a large capital base and distribution channels, with no innovation, is not a sustainable business model.

  1. Large corporations no longer create jobs in their home location. There is no shortage of data to support the assertion that the old large corporations have lost more jobs than they’ve created at home. Outsourcing and manufacturing “offshore” have become the norm. Entrepreneurs growing companies create more value and more jobs.
  1. Non-industrial large organizations cling to outdated business models. Financial institutions, for example, count on pure capital plays without innovation that can disappear quickly. Government bail-outs do not promote innovation. These companies usually end up going extinct, like Lehman Brothers, WorldCom, and Enron.

The new corporate model is a distributed entrepreneurial model. Customers today demand products and services personalized or tailored to local needs with embedded quality of life services. Scaling is done first by customer alliances through social media, and later by distributed joint ventures and coopetition. We need the new wave of entrepreneurs to facilitate:

  1. A new era for manufacturing enterprises. New emerging manufacturing technologies (e.g., robots and artificial intelligence) in small shops or a town’s industrial and innovation hub can bring manufacturing back home. The new twenty-first century corporation can be born virtually anywhere. Single-node factories may be home-based with a global market.
  1. New goldmine of innovations and technology. Universities and other R&D groups have created a large number of new inventions and innovations, mostly lying dormant on the shelves of our researchers and labs, waiting to be commercialized by aspiring entrepreneurs, with minimal up-front costs for licensing.

  1. Next wave of economic expansion. The time is ripe for the new entrepreneurial dream. People are emerging from recent economic disasters with a new appetite for change, and making the world a better place. Gen-Z is approaching the business world with more solid personal goals, and expect to create something that is creative, fun, and rewarding.

  1. The cost of entrepreneur entry is at an all-time low. With e-commerce, Internet, and smartphone apps, anyone can be an entrepreneur today for a few hundred dollars, without a huge investment, bank loans, venture capitalists, or angels. With the global market, the growth opportunity is huge, starting local and scaling at any pace.

If you are already in the entrepreneur lifestyle, you probably realize that it’s hard work and very risky. Nobody said it would be easy, but nothing that is easy satisfies for long. The days of easy and safe jobs in the large corporate world are over, and certainly not very satisfying either.

We need this new generation of entrepreneurs who relish the challenge and the opportunity of rebuilding our business engine to fit the culture and the global needs of the twenty-first century. What’s holding you back from jumping on the wave?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, June 11, 2022

6 Realistic Tactics For Funding Charitable Businesses

nonprofit-fundingAngel investors and venture capitalists don’t make equity investments in nonprofit good causes. The simple reason is that it’s impossible to make money for investors when the goal of the company is to not make money. Yet as an active angel investor, I still get this question on a regular basis, so I’ll try to outline the considerations in common-sense terms.

A nonprofit organization is generally defined as an organization that does not distribute its surplus funds to owners or shareholders, but instead uses them to help pursue its goals. Examples include charitable organizations, trade unions, and public arts organizations. In the US, a nonprofit is technically any company who qualifies as tax exempt through IRS Section 501(c).

Obviously, these companies still need money to get started, or finance growth, just like a for-profit company. What options do they have available to them, since they can’t sell a share of the company (no equity investment)?

  1. Individual and institutional philanthropy. For a nonprofit, bootstrapping is self-funding from donations and fund-raising. The advantage is no time and effort is spent searching and preparing for the other alternatives, and no repayment terms or collateral are required. There is no discussion of equity, or return on investment.
  1. Loans from a bank or other financial institution. Non-profits can apply for a bank loan or line-of-credit, just like any other individual or company. However, like anyone else, they will first need some collateral, or someone to guarantee the loan, and some evidence of a viable business, like receivables and inventory.
  1. Personal loans from individuals, employees and board members. Personal loans are certainly an option, but should be avoided if possible. As in any company, they can lead to employee problems, or messy legal issues. A nonprofit can also issue bonds to board members and members as a way of borrowing funds from those same people.
  1. Government grants. The grant source often gets overlooked, but it should be a major focus these days when relevant due to the Obama administration initiatives on alternative energy and healthcare. The down side here is that real work is required to put in a winning application, and the award may be a long time in coming.
  1. Private endowments. This is a funding source for nonprofits that is made up of gifts and bequests subject to a requirement that the principal be maintained intact and invested to create a source of income for an organization. Endowments are usually limited to a specific area of interest by a philanthropist, and have many qualifications, so be careful.
  1. Bartering services. Bartering occurs when you exchange goods or services without exchanging money. An example would be getting free office space by agreeing to be the property manager for the owner. This could work to get you legal or accounting services, but won’t get you cash to pay employee salaries.

Hopefully you can see from this list that the people and processes involved in financing a nonprofit have little in common with angel investors, or the venture capital process. You still start the process with a business plan, but then you look for a philanthropist rather than an investor.

Some nonprofit entrepreneurs think they can skip the whole plan, rather than just the sections on valuation, equity offered, and exit strategy. All other sections, starting with a definition of the problem and the solution, opportunity sizing, business model, competition, executive team, and financial projections, are just as critical for nonprofits as for-profits.

A nonprofit is still a business, maybe even tougher than for-profit to run successfully, so the best angel is a great entrepreneur at the helm for fund-raising, as well as operations. In addition, the best nonprofits turn out to be the angel, rather than require one. That’s a higher calling.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, June 10, 2022

8 Traits Of The Most Highly Creative Startup Founders

highly-creative-entrepreneursAn entrepreneur is literally “one who creates a new business.” The best new businesses are ones that have never been done before, so mastering creativity and recognizing creativity are key skills and mindsets. But how does one recognize and nurture creativity in a person or team?

In researching this question, I reviewed a classic book by Bryan Mattimore, “Idea Stormers: How to Lead and Inspire Creative Breakthroughs,” which details eight attributes of the most creative people, which seem to match the mindsets of some of the best entrepreneurs I know. Investors like me look for these in the people they fund, and you should be looking for them in yourself:

  1. Forever curious. Endless curiosity is the number one indication of the creative mindset. It allows entrepreneurs to challenge what is already “known” to extrapolate that to an original idea. Curiosity infuses you with the determination needed to figure out or learn how to turn an original or innovative idea into a reality.

  2. Always open to new things. Thinking this way can be viewed as quieting the opinions of the judgmental mind long enough to allow the creative mind the time and space it needs to generate interesting insights, associations, and connections. This opens creative possibilities, rather than categorizing new things into self-limited dead-ends.

  3. Embrace ambiguity. This is the capacity to entertain contradictory or incomplete information without discomfort and anxiety. To the creative mindset, contradictions are an invitation to more focused creative thought, to resolve the paradox, and derive a new un-ambiguous potentially great idea.

  4. Finding and transferring principles. There are two parts to this mindset. First is the mental habit or discipline of continually identifying the creative principles inherent in an idea in a given context. The second part is adapting the principle to another context to create a new idea. It’s the ability to work from the specific to the general.

  5. Searching for integrity. This is the desire to discover, and the belief that there exists, an insight or connection that will unite seemingly disparate elements into a single integrated whole. When it happens, it’s exciting and magical, and it feels absolutely, positively, and completely right. Integrity doesn’t need to explain itself.

  6. Knowing you can solve the problem. This is the confidence that you can tackle the difficult, even seemingly impossible challenges, with inevitable dead-ends, to make a creative breakthrough. As with a success mentality, knowingness is the persistence to make creativity a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  7. Able to visualize other worlds. This is the most imaginative mindset, with the ability to visualize whole new worlds and everything in them. It’s the province of game designers and creators of new social media platforms. It’s imagining original themes, people with new roles, and things with unique designs.

  8. Think the opposite. Some of the most creative entrepreneurs (and teenagers) always seem jump to opposite end of the spectrum from conventional wisdom. But many times, to think differently and creatively, you have to think illogically. Logic and common sense have a habit of leading us to the same conclusions.

Of course, it normally takes more than the right mindset to master the creative mind. Smart entrepreneurs leverage their startup creativity with techniques like involving everyone early and often, ideation, and attending to the details. Professional facilitation also helps. Most often, it’s a long hard road from a good idea to successful innovation.

The most creative entrepreneurs create more value and wealth, not only in physical products and services, but also in their intangible assets such as their brand, reputation, network and intellectual property. Of course, they are always looking to free up time and money for their next big idea. That’s really the best indication of a true entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, June 8, 2022

8 Ways To Heighten Your Image As A Great Communicator

great-communicatorIn my work with entrepreneurs and business leaders, a common question I get is how to be a better communicator. In the rush of daily activities, it’s hard to find time to carefully craft the right messages to all your constituents, route them through all the right channels, and have any insight that they have been heard and understood. It’s even harder to find time to actively listen to input.

Yet I assure you that there should be no higher priority for any business leader than effective communication, if you want to improve your impact and effectiveness. Great business leaders, including Richard Branson, who oversees over 400 companies controlled by the Virgin Group, believe that poor communication can and has cost large organizations millions or more per year.

In my experience, there are many factors other than time spent talking and listening that are key to effective communication. Here are some of the key ones for you own self-assessment and focus:

  1. Really listen to some input before you produce output. Communication is much more than disseminating information and giving orders. Active listeners tend to give more accurate and relevant info, and people’s perception of your communication is more positive and effective. My recommendation is to listen more and talk less.

    Some people I know in business talk too much, and they count that as communication. Sometimes this is out of nervousness or insecurity, or you just like to show that you are in control. I recommend you listen to several perspectives before you share your own.

  2. Focus on the future rather than rationalizing the past. Everyone discounts defensive explanations of events, needs to know the next step forward, and what their role in that step might be. If your message is too general, such that no one can relate, it will be totally ineffectual. Your challenge is to paint a picture that each receiver personally can relate to.

    In addition, the allure of future potential is normally greater than today’s issues. This is especially true for growth opportunities, motivation, and the process changes. Consider how you can package any message as positive for the future, rather than a problem now.

  3. Keep your key messages short and straightforward. Recipients automatically assume that long and complex messages are suspect, or they discount or ignore them. Asking people to alter their view or accept a new direction requires clear and convincing words, without a long justification. Use several short messages, rather than single long one.

  4. Tune the message to show empathy for the recipients. Practice your active listening to understand first the factual and emotional perspective of others, before crafting any sensitive message. Make sure your own perspective or possible biases do not come out as a key driver. Communication with constituents should not appear to be a debate.

    Showing more empathy definitely requires that you focus on increasing your emotional intelligence, or EQ. This can be learned, and rates a person's ability to recognize emotions, to understand their effect, and to use that information to guide communication.

  5. Appeal to multiple recipient senses and channels. With today’s multimedia tools, there is little excuse for only text or words in your communication. Don’t hesitate to add pictures, short videos, or sound-bytes to solidify your message and impact, both logical as well as emotional. People expect to see supporting evidence and multiple angles.

  6. Highlight collaboration with relevant groups and experts. You always increase the credibility of your message, if you can show it is the result of collaborative agreement between relevant groups and experts. Often it helps to ask for additional collaboration through questions, to show that you value others’ input in deciding a course of action.

  7. Show optimism, confidence, and competence to gain trust. Your appearance and the way you deliver a message is very important. People tend to believe and accept messages quickly from people they trust. Message wording and body language must be positive and credible, and consistent with the best leadership image you can display.

  8. Speak from your personal identity rather than any business title. People in your organization, and customers, want to hear from another person, not someone hiding behind a business name or inanimate role. This fosters real engagement and emotional commitment, and distinguishes your message from advertising and other propaganda.

A business leader’s time demands never end – it’s impossible to focus on every request with the same urgency. However, communication is one of those tasks that, if done in exemplary fashion, has the potential for a huge payback in productivity, team engagement, and success; or if done poorly, can sink your business. Now is always a good time for an investment in your own future.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 5/25/2022 ***



Monday, June 6, 2022

10 Recommendations For Aspiring New Venture Investors

Brandery Demo Day // Photo by Zackariah ColeInvesting in entrepreneurs and startups is a fun but different world from investing in conventional stocks, bonds, and commodities. First of all, it’s more of an investment in people than in a business, since the startup is usually an idea barely half-baked when they need your money. Secondly, the risk is very high, since as many as 90 percent of startups fail within a few years.

On the plus side, it’s an opportunity to get in early and really help make things happen that will change an industry, or change the world. It’s an opportunity for that “big bang” return of 10X to 100 times your initial investment, like early investors in Google, Microsoft, and Apple. Finally, it’s an opportunity to “give back” what you have learned in your own career for the next generation.

Today most startup investors still register with the SEC as “accredited” investors before they buy any startup equity in the U.S. This requires a simple signature that you have a net worth of at least $1M or have made at least $200K each year for the last two years. These requirements for equity investing have been relaxed only a bit, with caveats, with relevant crowdfunding changes.

With all these considerations, I recommend the following steps and strategies for any investors newly interested in startups:

  1. Build a balanced investment portfolio. Just like a seasoned stock investor would never put all his investible resources into a single stock, don’t put all your money into startups. Begin with perhaps 5-10 percent of your total investment base, and be prepared to lose it all. The growth target should be 5-10 times your initial investment in five years.

  2. Start in a business domain you know well. Since there are no bellwethers like Apple or IBM in the startup arena, your best bet is to pick one in a business area you know well. Don’t be fooled by thinking that dating sites are hot, so you should invest in the next startup you see in that realm. Remember that 9 out of 10 startups fail in every realm.

  3. Fund an entrepreneur you know and trust. In the business, this is called investing at the first tier for startups - “Friends, Family, and Fools (FFF).” Most entrepreneurs start asking for money from this tier, when they have very little more than an idea. Here you are definitely betting on the person, rather than the idea, but the upside potential is huge.

  4. Join an existing angel investor group. This is the second tier of startup investors, and offers the comfort of working with more experienced investors with similar interests, to help gather and vet startup investment proposals. Some of these groups also offer you the option of putting your money into a multiple-startup fund to spread your risk.

  5. Diversify your total investment across several startups. Angel investment amounts per startup per investor usually range from $25K to $250K. These may be aggregated by an angel group up to about $1M for an angel round. If a startup needs more than this in a single round, they should talk to venture capitalists, who invest institutional money rather than their own personal money.

  6. Use the surge of crowdfunding sites for small amounts. The hottest new way of investing in startups to go to popular online sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo. There you can get in for as little as $20, or even less. Typically these are used only for non-equity rewards or pre-orders, but the crowdfunding implementation does allow equity investments with many restrictions.

  7. Participate as a mentor in local startup incubators. Incubators are a great place to learn about potentially great startups, and participating as a mentor helps you learn which ones are a good fit for you. The best known ones, like YCombinator, started by Paul Graham in Silicon Valley, and TechStars, located in Boston, provide excellent networking to investors, and on-site technical leadership, which can make your investment less risky.

  8. Do your homework before investing. Public companies with stock usually have industry analysts and SEC filings to give investors a quick view of the company stock value. Startups are private companies with no common document filing requirements. Thus it is incumbent on every potential startup investor to ask for and read their business plans, current financial statements, and investor presentations.

  9. Invest locally and take an active role. Most angel investors only invest in companies and people local to their geography. Skip international and other opportunities you can’t touch and feel. Many negotiate a board seat for themselves as part of the investment term sheet. This allows them to ask for and get regular updates from the company, and allows them to have a say on how their money is used.

  10. Think long-term. It’s a lot easier to buy stock in a startup than it is to sell it. Once invested, you should expect no return until the first “liquidity” event in 3-5 years, maybe longer. Liquidity events include merger or acquisition (M&A), or Initial Public Offering (IPO) when the stock goes public. There is no “startup stock exchange,” so you can’t sell the stock at will.

In summary, investing in startups can be very rewarding, both financially, and in your ability to really help someone who needs help. But it’s always a risky proposition, probably well beyond the risk of the commodities market, since there are so many unknowns and few controls.

My advice to new startup investors is to start slowly, stick to business areas that you know well, and put more weight on your assessment of the entrepreneur and the team, than on the idea. Successful startups are all about the execution. You don’t want to end up on the wrong side of that equation, but you do want a bite of the next Apple.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, June 5, 2022

5 Keys to Developing Trust and Leadership In A Crisis

crisis-trust-and-leadershipEvery business leader expects to encounter one or more crises eventually. The challenge for each of you is to get it handled quickly and effectively, without losing the trust of constituents, as well as customers. In my role as business advisor, I see leaders who handle it well instinctively, and others who fall apart under the stress, or let their emotions and biases lead them astray.

In my experience, there are only a few basics to remember and practice. I saw these summarized clearly in a new book, “BUILD,” by a well-known entrepreneur and technologist from Silicon Valley, Tony Fadell. He assures us that these apply to an external crisis that you have no control over, or an internal screwup, or just the kinds of growing pains that hit every company:

  1. Keep your focus on how to fix the problem. Forget about assigning blame until later, since that will only complicate matters and make it an emotional battle. What is needed first is your strong leadership, or even a leadership team, to build a plan, assign the right people, and monitor the steps to resolution. Provide tools and resources as required.

    Especially when distractions and emotions are high, it will help your focus to break down large challenges and crises into smaller elements to get things started and give you a sense of progress along the way. Map out some dedicated time for every serious issue.

  2. Don’t hesitate to micro-manage initially in a crisis. Your people need to know who to follow, what to do, and how to do it. However, very quickly after everyone has their assignment as is actively working, you need to let them do their jobs without questioning every step. Micro-management at a later stage only increases stress and slows progress.

    I have found that micro-management can be especially productive if you are working with a first-time or unique situation, or working with a new team with little experience. The challenge for many bosses is to recognize when their team should be coaching them.

  3. Get advice before jumping to conclusions. Don’t try to solve the problem or build a plan alone, especially if you have no relevant experience. Look for a mentor, or expert in this area, and ask their advice. You need to understand potential misconceptions, and ferret out any rumors which complicate the situation and lead to the wrong conclusion.

    Primarily for these reasons, I always recommend that new entrepreneurs and startups assemble a qualified Advisory Board or Board of Directors early in their lifecycle. The passion of a new CEO, in conjunction with crisis inexperience, often leads them astray.

  4. Over-communicate and really listen to feedback. When you sense a crisis, you need to communicate and listen carefully with urgency, transparency, and empathy. A tone of urgency encourages people to mitigate impact, and transparency builds trust in you as a leader. Showing empathy fosters resilience in facing the challenges directly and acting.

    A key challenge with communication in a crisis is to get ahead of the issue. Don't wait until a media inquiry or a government agency puts you on the defensive, and makes all of your efforts look like too little, too late. Daily updates on a crisis are often appropriate.

  5. Always be prepared to accept responsibility. It doesn’t matter if the impending crisis was caused by your mistake, or your team, or was a fluke accident, you win trust by accepting responsibility for how it has affected customers and apologize. Conversely, the quickest and surest way to lose all trust is by blaming others entirely for the situation.

    Some business leaders I know have used their "original intent" as a way of defending themselves, shying away from accountability or admitting fault. Unfortunately, good intentions won’t get you very far in a crisis where people may have been wronged.

If you as a business leader can weather one or two crises, using these recommendations, you will find your brand image and personal image rising, as well as your satisfaction with the role increasing. Prepare now to make your next crisis a leadership event, rather than a loss of trust event, for all to see.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 5/22/2022 ***