Wednesday, August 31, 2022

10 Ways To Prepare Your Team For Business Leadership

leaderThe largest and most successful businesses of the past have been traditionally driven by autocratic and powerful leaders who managed a highly structured organization of subordinates. I see that model changing today to one of team collaboration and decision making, per companies such as Amazon, Google, and Zoom. Where do you see your fit in this leadership transformation?

In my role as a business mentor and advisor, I now always look for a culture and recommend team roles that nurture collaboration rather than contention, communities rather than silos, and transparent communication at all levels. If you are interested in advancing your leadership, and achieving more success in this new Internet age, here are some principles to guide your focus:

  1. Foster the trend to flat teams versus vertical organizations. With the multiple technologies of team videos, smartphones, email, and the pervasive Internet facilitating total communication, there is no need for the delay and information loss of multiple hierarchy levels in business. Horizontal teams are more effective as well as satisfying.

  2. Let collaborative leadership mitigate individual biases. Traditional command leadership allowed individual biases and ego to reduce team engagement and miss market changes and new competitors. Create a collaborative team agenda for every meeting, and make sure everyone contributes. I suggest a greater focus on relationships and listening.

  3. Reward innovation rather than “follow-the-process.” Modern companies like Amazon credit much of their growth and success to rewarding of change innovations, including failures. Jeff Bezos believes that if you double the number of innovation experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your agility, and thus outpace your competitors.

  4. Discourage internal team competition and silos. It is up to you as a leader to define and communicate the company shared values that pull a team together and allow them to disagree without fighting. This starts with instituting a hiring and training program that emphasizes collaboration, and rewards individual expression and empowerment.

  5. Capitalize on diversity to anticipate and meet change. Team members from different backgrounds and cultures will see the need for business change earlier, will make better decisions collaboratively, and you can learn new things from each of them. In this age of world-wide markets, you need all the help you can get to attract loyal customers.

  6. Simplify the feedback sharing process for you and them. Feedback is so critical for any business leader, both in how to give and receive it. Make feedback positive and informal, and not just about pointing out mistakes. You need to be a mentor and coach on a regular basis, rather than follow a formal appraisal process that everyone dreads.

  7. Look for opportunities to highlight individual strengths. We all have strengths and weaknesses, and we can’t work collaboratively if we don’t know how to capitalize on the strengths around us. Also, team members become unmotivated if their unique set of skills aren't being used. Don’t be hesitant to highlight the strengths and contributions of peers.

  8. Be a role model for leadership integrity and trust. You will find that team members also only collaborate with people they trust. If they see you as the competition or the enemy, you will never get winning results. I recommend that you start by getting to know every key team member in your realm on a personal level and find a common basis for sharing.

  9. Change team roles frequently to broaden perspectives. Don’t let your team members get tunnel vision by only seeing a tiny portion of the whole business. Let them learn from new challenges, which also will keep your business agile and the team collaborative in the face of constant change. You will find improved morale and satisfaction all around as well.

  10. Show respect in dealing with team member changes. Gone are the days when you could treat all employees as inanimate “assets.” Make sure each is a good cultural fit for your company and provide individual consideration for their needs in time off and training. Make changes for a better job fit often and quickly, but with empathy and a personal touch.

In my experience, more and more startups, as well as mature organizations, are relying on the team collaboration model for leadership, and are seeing more growth, agility, and long-term success. No matter where you are in your current organization, I recommend that you practice these principles to achieve an advantage in your current role, and prepare you for the future.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 8/17/2022 ***



Monday, August 29, 2022

8 Organizational Cultures Boost Output And Cut Costs

mature-office-workersThe new era of highly connected and interactive technology is changing not only how business employees interact with customers, but also how they interact with each other, and with their company. I am happy to see reports that young companies are leading the way in these trends, on both the customer and the employee side. Both are required to stay competitive.

Much has been written about the trends on the customer side, but I find less specific guidance on the changes which are impacting the way we interact with peers at work. An exception is the classic book by Alison Maitland and Peter Thomson, “Future Work: Changing Organizational Culture for the New World of Work,” which offers some real insight on this subject.

They point to several key trends in organizational cultures and working practices that can boost output, cut costs, and give employees more freedom. I have added my own insights, based on my experience advising and working with entrepreneurs and startups:

  1. Pay for results, rather than pay for work. Measuring results in itself is not new. What is new is the trend and mentality to just look for results and ignore other traditional management constraints, like the amount of time spent. When and where you do the work does not matter; producing the outcomes to the right quality on time does.

  1. Reward shorter hours of high productivity. People who get paid by results have every incentive to think up smarter ways of getting work done. Their reward is more free time for leisure, or more time for bonus objectives and stock options. It does not mean the culture is soft or lacks discipline. Peer pressure keeps productivity standards high.

  1. Encourage people to work where and when they are most productive. People concentrate better if they can work at least some of the time in a quieter location, or escape the stress of a long commute. Trusted to get on with the job, people tend to be more motivated to do so, especially if they gain more rewards as a result.

  1. Bring your own device to work (BYOD). An increasing number of startups are adopting a BYOD policy, realizing that individuals have their own preferences in the way they access data, collect emails or ‘chat’ to colleagues. Computers are no longer stand-alone dedicated devices, but are built into personal devices, like phones and tablets.

  1. Use of collaborative and other social media platforms. In startups, and even corporate environments, I see the spread of collaborative social platforms such as Slack and Trello. Customers and clients are already on LinkedIn and Facebook, so it makes sense to go where they are, rather than limit your team at work to internal systems.

  1. Explore benefits of employing “mature” workers. Classic surveys and case studies show that the more mature workers are just as productive as their younger counterparts, are just as successful in training, take less short-term time off, and offer better judgment based on years of experience. They are now actively recruited for many roles.

  1. Mobility and connecting to work via the ‘cloud.’ Virtually every collaboration platform and mainline business process today has a cloud-based deployment option. This follows the ‘work from anywhere with any device’ trend, gives everyone the freedom to work more productively, and not be forced into an outdated standardized solution.
  1. Trend to a ‘contingent’ workforce. Work is becoming more of a tradable commodity, rather than a job, with freelancers and independent contractors, according to recent data. In the U.S., 58 million workers identified themselves as freelancers in 2021, up 5 million since 2014. Freelancers now make up 36% of U.S. workers and earned over $1 trillion last year.

Certainly, there is still much work to be done in finding the balance between physical gatherings of team members in the same place at the same time, versus remote working and remote collaboration. The announcement by Yahoo way back in 2013, pulling home workers back into the office, triggered a debate on whether some new companies have gone too far.

Overall, as an entrepreneur, you just need to be aware that the notions of work are changing just as fast as the technology for products. It’s an opportunity for innovation that cannot be ignored as a success and competitor differentiator. When was the last time you applied real innovation to the work model in your business?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 28, 2022

5 Ways The Right Leadership Culture Benefits Business

carbonMany entrepreneurs still don’t understand that building a business culture today of doing good, like helping people (society) and planet (sustainability), is also a key to maximizing profit. Employees and customers alike are looking for meaning, not simply employment and commodity prices. Every company needs this focus to attract the best minds and loyalty in both categories.

In the classic book by Christoph Lueneburger, “A Culture Of Purpose,” he details how to build this new culture, and why it is becoming more instrumental in bringing about success, as well as sustainability, in organizations as diverse as Unilever and Walmart. He outlines a three-phase process to develop the necessary business culture of energy, resilience, and openness:

  • Nurture your current leadership strengths. Learn how to recognize, cultivate, and leverage the competencies of your current talent to develop your leadership team. Highlight leaders with business acumen as well as purpose as role models. Change leadership is a critical competency in the early stages of a transformation.
  • Hire the right team. Ask the right questions to identify the innate personality traits in potential new hires, regardless of level and function, to bring on board those most likely to succeed in and shape your organization. Employees with a purpose actually are easier to recruit and retain, and are likely to be more engaged. They also tend to stay longer with the organization, reducing costs.
  • Craft your culture into an actionable plan. Create an environment that unleashes these competencies and trains and pushes them to the fore. Shape how people relate to one another and collectively go for what would be out of reach to them individually. Success is people moving from a reactive to a proactive focus on doing good.

In all cases, the transformation starts with placing leaders with a purpose at the core, hiring talent with a purpose at the frontier, and then building and extending the culture of purpose both inside and outside the organization. I can think of at least five ways that this benefits the business, as well as customers:

  1. Products in a purpose culture more readily sell at a premium price. Evidence is growing that consumers are willing to pay at least a small premium for sustainability, and have started to demand a discount for “un-sustainability.” Companies can use this strategy to improve their profitability and competitive advantage.
  1. Doing good opens the door to a broader customer base. By adding to perceived value, a company attracts more sophisticated and demanding customers less expensively and more quickly. More and more customers choose a company based on their perceptions about the good that they do, as well as their price and service.
  1. Customer loyalty and trust go up for companies with a purpose culture. According to marketing surveys, 76 percent of global consumers believe it is acceptable for brands to support good causes and make money at the same time. We all know the cost of retaining customers is far less than the cost of new customers.
  1. Companies with a purpose culture have more productive teams. Doing business is a human process. Team members interact on a daily basis with the stakeholders of the company and the way they feel about the organization has a major and direct impact on how they perform their tasks and do their job at the end of the day.
  1. Investors like startups that foster planet and social responsibility. Investors believe these startups demonstrate more integrity and less risk, as well as being better positioned to deliver long-term, sustainable value to their stakeholders. Of course, investors still require a profitable business model, and the potential for high returns.

Thus doing good leads to doing very well, not less well. Lueneburger contends, and I agree, that the most effective and remembered leaders of our time, and the most successful companies, will be builders of cultures of purpose, which inspire the hearts and minds of people both inside and outside the organization. Is your personal leadership shining well or less well in this direction?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 27, 2022

4 Entrepreneur Categories Hunt For Market Innovations

WolfMost entrepreneurs believe they are “different,” but they can’t quite understand how. They usually explain it by insisting that they are driven to follow their passion, need to be their own boss, want to get rich quick, or want to change the world. I now believe that the roots of the difference may go back more than 10,000 years, when hunting and farming became two different lifestyles.

The classic book, “Hunting in a Farmer's World: Celebrating the Mind of an Entrepreneur,” by serial entrepreneur and business coach John F. Dini, tied together several threads I have often seen in my own experience of mentoring and helping aspiring entrepreneurs. Dini makes the case that entrepreneurs are hunters, while the rest of us (large majority) are farmers.

This is not a statement of good or bad, right or wrong, but just an explanation of why some people see and do things one way, and others do it another way.

In business, entrepreneurs hunt for new innovative solutions to problems, new ways of beating competitors, new markets, and new customers. Farmers are the management that comes after the hunt, to build repeatable processes, do seasonal planning, and make sure all employees are well-fed and trained.

All this made more sense to me as Dini defined the types of entrepreneurs into four categories. Within each of these types, I can easily highlight strengths and weaknesses that we both see every day in startups:

  1. Technicians. The good news is that technicians are entrepreneurs who have previously learned a skill or job so well that they can do it without a manager. The bad news is they may not be good at managing people, or even managing basic business. Technicians can become true hunters when they learn to provide for both employees and family.
  1. Inheritors. These are former employees who find themselves thrust into owning a business, due to family ties or evolution. Unfortunately, most inheritors have been farmers for too long, or never had hunting instincts. The best ones learn to be hunters, or revert to that mode, allowing their business to grow and change with the requirements.
  1. Acquirers. Entrepreneurs who are willing to acquire an existing business, and believe they can make it a better business than previous owners, are clearly hunters. Farmer acquirers, who want to manage a proven opportunity, with no change, buy a franchise. Hunter franchisees move on quickly, or end up owning the entire franchise system.

  1. Creators. These are the ultimate hunters. They build businesses as their lifestyle, not as a job. They love the continuous hunt, for investment capital, resources, talent, and new markets. Only a few of these slide into farming, as the company grows in employees and products. The remainder usually exit within five years, to start the process over again.

In addition to the right type, there are clearly traits that every aspiring entrepreneur should recognize as critical for business success and happiness:

  • Creativity. Hunters thrive on the challenge of the unknown. They look at every situation as a puzzle that has an answer. Success at any level always brings a new set of problems. Hunters live for solutions and change. Farmers live for repeatable processes, minimal risk, and predictable results to feed the family.
  • Tenacity. Hunters never quit. There are no defeats, only setbacks. Success is always just a little further down the road. “Never” is not an option. If a solution doesn’t work, there is always another, then another, and another. Farmers are easily frustrated by setbacks, and count on “leadership from the top” to give them new fields for growth.
  • Business sense. Hunters need “street smarts.” If you are looking to create a business, you better have a strong “gut feeling” or “third eye” for business that goes beyond the usual five senses. Farmers have a narrower view of what is required, to optimize quality production, customer satisfaction, or close a sale.

There once was a time in mankind’s history when almost everyone was a hunter, for survival. Our civilization has evolved now almost to the other extreme, where the vast majority of the people in business are farmers (managers and employees).

For those of you who have the hunter gene, or the yearning to learn, the time has never been riper to be an entrepreneur. How long has it been since you have taken a hard look in the mirror?

Marty Zwilling



Friday, August 26, 2022

10 Key Business Founder Checks Needed Before The Plan

Before-the-business-planMost business advisors I know will say that writing a business plan is the first step to starting your own business, but I believe that a better first step is to do a self-analysis of your real drivers, strengths, and assumptions before committing to this lifestyle. As a result, you may tune your plan, or decide that running your own business is really not the dream you thought it might be.

For example, if you see starting a business as a get-rich-quick solution, or you are trying to escape having a boss, or hate taking risks, you probably don’t need the stress of writing and trying to sell a business plan to tell you to seek other alternatives. Consider the following principles and how they apply to you as you do your own reality check:

  1. Identify your passion first, and list alternatives to get there. For an inventor, the product is everything, and managing cash flow in a business may be the least satisfying part. Working for a well-funded existing company, or pursuing your dream as a hobby, may be more satisfying and productive. You can’t really succeed in life if you are not happy.

  2. Assess your own resources as well as funding sources. You may dream of developing a new silicon chip technology, but a bit of research should tell you that most disruptive solutions take billions in investment, and more time than you can afford for acceptance. Perhaps you should find a satisfying challenge that is more affordable and less painful.

  3. Lead from your strengths and interests rather than hearsay. People are quick to point out easy opportunities for you, but sounding attractive and being attractive are two different things. Trust your own insights, and if you have to ask for business ideas from others, I recommend that you stay where you are until you’re certain of your own idea and solution.

  4. Evaluate whether your desired opportunity is new or old. If an opportunity has been around for a long time, then it has probably been tackled many times, with bad results. I recommend that you look for new or emerging opportunities in new markets. Time is of the essence in business, so responding quickly with a solution always improves your odds.

  5. Calibrate your ability to rise above competitors and copycats. In business, there will always be someone out there with more money, a better location, or more resources, ready to take your idea and squeeze you out. You need intellectual property, such as a patent, trade secret, or process expertise that will be a barrier that you can defend.

  6. Assess your connections, both social media and financial. If you have no followers on social media, or connections to influencers, or business advisors, you will be unlikely to get support for a new business plan. More important than a business plan may be early networking, a web site and blog, and building relationships with key industry experts.

  7. Test a prototype solution before you build a business plan. Successful businesses are built around solutions that work, have a market, and are scalable. Many of the business plans I see are built around a dream, with idealistic costs, margins, and customer demand. Temper your passion with feedback on a minimum viable product before committing.

  8. Check your tolerance for risk, uncertainty, and change. Starting and growing a business requires that you be comfortable, even excited, by the challenges of the unknown. If you see a business plan as a way to remove uncertainty, then you should not create one, as it will be obsolete almost immediately. Every business is a work in progress.

  9. Calculate your need to acquire missing required skills. Every successful business requires a focus on providing solutions, business management, and customer service. It is possible to partner with others to complement your skills, but you should consider taking time now to gain experience in these areas, or further education before starting a plan.

  10. Test your physical, mental, and emotional stability for the journey. New business creators often defeat themselves by neglecting their physical, mental, and emotional health. You need to be confident that you can withstand the mental and emotional stress, find time for the family, and find a balance of non-work social and physical activities.

In reality, a business plan is best used to validate and solidify the principles and assumptions outlined here for your situation, as well as to communicate these to investors, your team, and other constituents. The thinking and writing involved is best done by you, rather than an expert third party. Starting and running a business is a very personal thing, so make sure you are ready.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 8/11/2022 ***



Wednesday, August 24, 2022

7 Key Factors Obscure Your Customer Acquisition Costs

digital_marketingAs a business consultant and angel investor, I often ask for your own assessment of marketing ROI, or customer acquisition cost (CAC). While I realize that a high level of certainty in these numbers is an elusive goal, the value of doing the work, and benchmarking your business against competitors is well worth the effort. Are you making the proper investment, and is it paying off?

As I recently watched an episode of “Shark Tank,” I realized that the shark investors focus on your responses to these questions is also a credibility test on your business savvy, as it leads to other relevant questions on margins, channels, and your understanding of key customer forces.

Thus I was pleased to see this subject, and related strategy decisions, covered well in a recent book, “Brand Vision,” by Jim Everhart. Mr. Everhart distills his leadership insights from many decades in one of the largest business-to-business marketing agencies, working with companies across the country. I paraphrase here the key challenges he identifies, adding my own insights:

  1. Marketing ROI requires cross-enterprise information. Leaders and investors need to know if you have and are tapping into your key sources of relevant data, including web analytics, sales management data, and customer relationship management (CRM) software. We want to make sure you can break down the silos and manage to results.

    The current term for all these activities and results online is “content marketing.” It encompasses your marketing strategy used to attract, engage, and retain customers by creating and sharing relevant articles, videos, podcasts, and other media. Don’t forget it.

  2. Turf wars between people complicate assessment. If you think it’s hard to get the technical systems to talk to each other, I have found that it’s even harder to bridge the gulf between the various professionals who interpret them. You must have a strong Chief Marketing Officer (CMO) with a clear strategy for spending, and metrics to gauge results.

    Cultural or ideological differences cause the turf wars, which can destroy a company by creating political battlegrounds to make ROI and every cross-enterprise effort impossible. Your job here is to create and nurture a positive culture eliminating these difficulties.

  3. Rarely is there alignment between sales and marketing. In my experience, your biggest challenge will be to rationalize the disparate input from your sales and marketing organizations, who each want more resources and more credit for ROI. Here there is no substitute for independent analysis from experts outside the organizations involved.

    In addition, research shows that companies that fail to align their marketing and sales departments have less ROI, and lose 10% or more of their revenues per year. Your priority must always be to offer the right content with the right contacts along the way.

  4. Buyer behavior is difficult to predict and quantify. In all cases, you have to deal with a host of market intangibles, including brand identity and buyer preferences. I assure you of the need to really listen to customer feedback, both proactively in market studies, as well as after-the-sale reviews. Use these to set probability limits on apparent ROI results.

  5. Outside partners and channel impacts are complex. Of course, you need work with partners and channel to quantity their costs and contributions and normalize total results. In general, I have found that channel partnerships with value-added resellers are a great way to reduce CAC, as well as boost retention, and improve return on investment.

  6. Multiple marketing tactics seek to share attribution. What if someone sees an ad, visits a web page, watches a video, downloads a brochure, responds to an e-mail, and finally buys a product? You have to determine how to share these costs and credit. Here I recommend the use an outside consultant report periodically to avoid internal turf wars.

  7. Long sales cycles obscure beginning and end of costs. More empowered buyers have resulted in longer sales cycles. People no longer go straight to the source to make purchase decisions. With the internet at our fingertips, even B2B customers research and compare solutions, completing 50-90% of the work before a sales rep is contacted.

Sure, in some cases the ROI is simple, like spending $30,000 for a trade show to get 100 sales leads. That’s $300 a lead. Unfortunately, this fails to account for ongoing marketing efforts, so it’s up to you as a business leader to factor in all the complexities, both positive and negative. Your credibility and your business success is at stake, so I urge you to always be ready with specifics.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 8/10/2022 ***



Monday, August 22, 2022

10 Leadership Actions To Drive Effective Team Results

leadership-for-accountabilityGetting things done effectively in a startup requires total individual and team accountability. You can’t afford excuses and multiple people doing the same job. In my view, “taking responsibility” is the core element behind accountability. Many people hear responsibility as an obligation, but I hear it as “the ability to respond.”

Unfortunately many people don’t have the ability to respond, because they lack confidence in themselves, or simply don’t have the skills required. Therefore an entrepreneur’s first requirement is to hire or team only with people who are accountable (already have the confidence and skills you need) – training them on the job is prohibitively expensive when you have minimal income.

Even with the best people, accountability must be nurtured, since it can be killed more quickly than it can be grown. Here are some characteristics of current business leaders, including Richard Branson, who foster responsibility and accountability, and keep it growing:

  1. You need to walk the talk. Above all else, you as the founder or executive have to be a role model of accountability. You need to exemplify the “buck stops here,” and never play the blame game. Reward accountability consistently and often.
  1. Communicate continuously. You need to make sure that your team members understand your expectations, and you need to proactively listen and understand the expectations of all stakeholders. Frequent and consistent communications, both verbal and in written processes, are required. Take away the “I didn’t understand” excuse.
  1. Measure objectively. Goals and objectives must be unchanging and measurable, based on results, with benchmarks for comparisons. Accountability assessments must be based on facts, not distorted by opinions, politics, and desire for power. Frequently changing expectations does not lead to accountability.
  1. Give control before expecting accountability. A sense of responsibility and accountability requires a sense of control. If several levels of approvals are needed for a specific decision, no one will feel accountable, and no one can be held accountable. Real delegation is required.
  1. Align functional groups with business goals. If key inputs are not under the control of the proper group, then they will cede accountability as well. If your sales group is measured on profitability, but is required to process leads from outside sources paid by volume, you have a conflict where everyone loses.
  1. Manage up the line and support your team. You need to be the sponsor and the advocate for every member of your team. Team members who take risks through accountability need to see your overt support up the line, with no blame and no scapegoats.
  1. Provide timely feedback on performance. High performance teams need immediate and useful information on how to improve, as well as regular full performance reviews, individually and as a group. Help people, including yourself, look in the mirror and see reality.
  1. Conduct humiliation-free problem analyses. Getting to the source and fixing problems should never be a “name and shame” game. Leaders need to provide safe havens where difficult issues can be discussed without assigning blame. The goal should always be to solve problems, not hurl accusations.
  1. Provide tools to support accountability. No tools and no data lead to total subjectivity and biased interpretations. Absolute dependence on tools leads to abdication of personal responsibility. Provide adequate tools, but trust the people.
  1. Differentiate accountability from entitlement. Accountability is hard, so no one is entitled to be right every time. Don’t punish people for making a mistake, but make it clear the mistakes have consequences, sometimes painful ones, that we all have to live with. Higher responsibility means more work and more skills needed.

Many executives subscribe to the misguided notion that you can hold people accountable. This is usually a ploy to control others and hand off responsibility, without being accountable yourself. People need to make themselves accountable, and accept the consequences of their actions. Remember that you are the model, and what goes around, comes around.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 21, 2022

8 Ways To Create Balance Between Logic And Creativity

right-brain-left-brainTraditionally, the majority of entrepreneurs have been logical thinkers, problem solvers, with full attention to details. These are the stereotypical left-brain engineers. Yet I see a big shift from the knowledge age, with its left-brain foundation, to a critical focus today on visualization, creativity, relationships, and collaboration, which are more in the domain of right-brainers.

Of course, the best solution would be a new wave of so-called whole-brain thinkers, but this term is usually reserved for Einstein and Picasso, and no entrepreneurs that I can name. Even right- brain dominant adults are hard to find, according to many expert views. They say most children start out this way, but after their years in school, less than ten percent retain their high creativity.

That means we need all the help we can get to bring out the right-brain attributes we need to be the best entrepreneurs in this challenging new age. Fortunately, there are resources available to help, like the classic book by right-brain entrepreneur Jennifer Lee, “Building Your Business The Right-Brain Way,” which teaches you to capitalize on these strengths, and still build a business.

Obviously, there are places for right-brain thinking as well as left-brain thinking, as it relates to starting and building a business. Lee offers the following guiding principles to right-brain thinkers who need to balance their focus, but I’m convinced that the same principles apply to every entrepreneur-minded person:

  1. Be uniquely you and embrace your creativity. Creativity is the key word here. Engineering creativity, like innovate low-cost solutions, needs to be combined with marketing creativity, like viral social media campaigns, to build a sustainable competitive advantage today. Be visual and imaginative, but don’t forget the business details.
  1. Dream big but start small. Don’t be seduced by the bigness of your right-brain vision and expect everyone to follow, based on the strength of your passion alone. Challenge your left-brain side to break things down into manageable pieces and structure a practical plan to unfold things over time. It doesn’t all have to happen at the same time.
  1. Keep it simple and focused. Opt for easy, broad strokes instead of detailed, complicated solutions. The advantage goes to right-brain thinking on this one. Too many entrepreneurs (engineers) I know define the ultimate system and processes that even a large company can’t afford, and no startup has the money or time to execute.
  1. Take action, make it real, and tweak as you go. Be willing to take action and put yourself out there, even when you don’t feel ready and even if your idea is not yet perfect. You’ll actually learn more and gain more clarity the more you interact with your idea and get feedback. Neither right-brain nor left-brain entrepreneurs will success without action.

  1. Look for the learning and repeat what works. Always have your eyes peeled for valuable new insights to help you continuously improve. Then, when you find something that works, keep doing it until it doesn’t work anymore. Don’t be afraid of using your intuition and feelings to guide you with customers, but don’t ignore real data.

  1. Consider where you are headed and don’t get ahead of yourself. Stay ahead of the curve but don’t advance so fast that you overwhelm yourself. Make sure you have a solid foundation first to support your future vision. Left-brain logical and sequential thinking usually has the edge on this one. Some creative people are always working in the future.

  1. Recognize where you’ve come from. Even as you move forward, also acknowledge how far you’ve come, and celebrate each step of the way. Recognizing past achievements and reflecting on your success helps keep your circuitous progress in perspective. Thomas Edison found his best learning was from his failures.

  1. Know thyself. Building a business is a journey accompanied by personal growth. Understand what makes you tick, and be willing to courageously move past your comfort zone. When you transform yourself, you transform your business. Success in business is often about knowing when and who to ask for help.

As you can see, it’s hard for most of us to be adequately right-brained and left-brained at the same time. Thus I always recommend that two heads are better than one, meaning seek a co-founder who supplements your natural skills and tendencies. It’s hard to beat entrepreneur teams like Bill Gates (engineer) and Steve Ballmer (marketing) in the early days at Microsoft.

So my conclusion is that while the opportunities are growing for right-brain thinkers, the ideal entrepreneur is still a team that can work together to accomplish whole-brain thinking, and whole-team execution. Have you assessed the thinking-balance and the effectiveness of your team and yourself in your own business lately?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 20, 2022

10 Principles Define You As A Design Thinking Leader

design-thinking-leadershipAs a business advisor, I strongly believe that continuous innovation and design thinking are the keys to long-term viability and success. A classic survey of design professionals shows strong agreement, but 92 percent expressed some lack of confidence in their organization’s design vision. They are always on the lookout for ways to prepare current and future design leaders.

“Design thinking” is a methodology used to solve complex challenges, such as the ones faced by every business in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive environment. A design mindset is not product-focused - it’s solution focused and action oriented towards creating better customer experiences and value. In businesses, this requires a new internal culture and leadership.

Probably the most recognized design thinking business leader was Steve Jobs at Apple, as he drove the company from personal computers to new markets, including the iPhone and iPad. Yet I believe the role and requirements continue to evolve, as detailed in the book, “Innovation by Design,” by Thomas Lockwood and Edgar Papke, based on their studies.

I support their list of key requirements for you as an aspiring design thinking leader or entrepreneur. I’ll paraphrase and outline the top ten from my perspective:

  1. Use empathy to understand the experiences of others. By understanding experiences, you will better understand the needs of people around you, including your customers and partners. That leads to trust, motivation, and a greater ability to convince them of your point of view, and follow you despite the pain of change and innovation.
  1. Focus on creating a benefit for the customer. Keeping the focus on the customer creates a shared understanding and alignment for all to the intended outcome, and a move toward greater levels of innovation. This focus also allows your team to better manage disagreement and conflict by reminding everyone of the shared intent.
  1. Listen with mutual respect and fearless exploration. Using design thinking as a framework not only increases your ability to listen, but also develops your inquiry and conflict resolution skills. You are able to reframe difficult questions in a way that allows your team to identify root cause challenges and execute more powerful solutions.
  1. Openly express ideas and what you think, see, and feel. Giving and receiving feedback isn’t easy, especially considering that people can quickly fall into defensive modes of behavior and feel ill at ease. Design thinking leaders make it safe to critique ideas, but keep the focus on the process and work, rather than personal views.
  1. Pursue knowledge by being curious and asking questions. Rather than being authoritarian, design thinkers are explorers. You learn by asking hard questions and listening fearlessly to the answers you receive. This facilitates the dialogue and the mindset in all participants to find the right solution, without undue emotion and conflict.
  1. Demonstrate the ability to be vulnerable. Everyone recognizes that vulnerability requires a higher level of strength and courage, including an ability to accept your own mistakes and weaknesses. Leaders demonstrating this ability are more trusted and convincing in their roles as design thinkers. They become the model for their followers.
  1. Coach others, rather than competing with others. Coaching is helping a person increase self-awareness and adjust their role to take better advantage of their greatest strengths, rather than highlighting and critiquing their weaknesses. As a leader, this fosters constructive contribution of design ideas, rather than protective debate.
  1. Rely on the knowledge and insight of others. Leaders who are fostering innovation as a culture in their organization cannot afford to act as the lone genius. Other members of the team have unique customer access and insights, as well as their own perspectives. Only through collaboration can a leader achieve the force multipliers to compete.
  1. Use curious confrontation to manage disagreement and conflict. Curious confrontation is simply facing differing ideas with the desire to investigate and learn. This is a key precept of design thinking, and leaders in this arena must be the models for the rest of their team. They keep business conflict constructive and embrace it in steering through the innovation and change that must be part of every successful business
  1. Align personal purpose with the organization’s mission. Purpose-driven design is more than branding – it is the catalyst that aligns an organization's actions, character and culture with its purpose. The best leaders are able to align their own vision and power of choice with the organization mission for maximum credibility and impact.

Whether you are looking to further your career as a business professional, or plan to take a leadership position in your own business, developing these key attributes will pay big dividends. None of these are a birthright or require advanced degrees – they can be learned by anyone.

They all play directly into another megatrend I see in business – moving from a single bottom line of economic value, to the triple bottom line of economic, social, and environmental value. Be there with innovation and design thinking, or plan to get pushed aside quickly.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, August 19, 2022

7 Risks Of Not Leveraging Team Member Data Analytics

Stressed-employee-drinking-coffeeEven after many years mentoring entrepreneurs and advising businesses, I continue to be surprised by the primary focus on products and processes, and the often incidental attention to hiring and nurturing the right people. Employees are still too often thought of as a commodity, to be acquired “just in time” for the lowest cost, and managed as a disposable asset.

All this despite continuing evidence that the right people make a business succeed, rather than the other way around. Further, based on results from the Sierra-Cedar HR Systems Survey, businesses that use data and tools in their people management, rather than traditional manual processes, see a 79% higher return than other organizations, suggesting the time is ripe for relying on data and analytics.

With the latest advances in software technology, it’s no longer cost-prohibitive for business entrepreneurs, who can’t yet afford a human resources department, to take advantage of analytics tools. Almost any startup can start with Excel, and move to open-source data analysis tools, including Python or RStudio. Bigger organizations should invest in the new “big data” tools.

For a hands-on guide in developing data-driven people strategies, I found some practical techniques in the classic book, “The Data Driven Leader,” by Jenny Dearborn and David Swanson. Based on many years of HR leadership at SAP and elsewhere, these authors start by highlighting the risks of not leveraging data analytics. I have added my own observations to theirs as follows:

  1. People decision making by gut, more than data. Common sense and emotionally driven decisions are sub- optimal in assessing team members. Data, however, removes guesswork, biases, and anecdotal reasoning that can throw decision efforts off course. It’s the same for customers and products, where analytics have long proven their value.
  1. Working on the wrong problem or assumption. Data helps avoid predetermined (and often erroneous) approaches to solving your people problems. Don’t let one incident, observation, rumor, or misunderstanding cause a rush to judgement, or hiring mistake. Make sure subjective feedback is buttressed by objective data before making decisions.
  1. Measuring efficiency rather than effectiveness. Efficiency in the workplace is the time it takes to do something, but it can ignore work quality and customer impact. Employees are often ineffective because they don’t care about their work or because they don’t possess the skills to contribute. Use data analysis and metrics to measure for results.
  1. Subjectively measuring employee engagement. Manually assessing engagement clearly isn’t working. According to Gallup’s often quoted global engagement survey, only 21 percent of workers are now fully engaged in their job, which is hugely expensive in productivity. With data and analytics, you can gauge employee engagement accurately.
  1. Underestimating absenteeism and accident costs. Many businesses still ignore the magnitude of the problem of employee absenteeism and accidents. They look only at historical data, and lump it all under "the cost of doing business." The best leaders use data and analytics to identify key offenders to continually reduce these problems.
  1. Failure to factor in new employee ‘time-to-performance’. Based on statistical data, it typically takes eight months for a newly hired employee to reach full productivity, and that doesn’t include hiring. Through analytics on current employees, you will be able to predict re-training requirements and minimize employee turnover.
  1. Waiting to hire until the business is in crisis mode. It’s easy for entrepreneurs to fall into the trap of focusing only on what’s urgent and leaving aside what seems merely important. The solution is to plan ahead by using data analysis tools with predictive indicators. Trying to hurry the hiring process is a key reason for bad hires in business.

Most companies I know will claim to be busy collecting and analyzing data, but very few actually use it to drive people management. Integrating the analytics of people management with business results is key to driving a winning strategy and long-term sustainability in today’s competitive and rapidly changing environment. These should not be seen as two separate efforts.

I often have to remind entrepreneurs that good products are built with the best technology, but good businesses are built with the best people. Great business leaders have figured out how to apply the right attention, time, and tools to both. Where are you along this spectrum?

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, August 17, 2022

10 Tips On Self-Promotion To Solidify Your Leadership

megaphone_loud_speakerDuring my many years of mentoring professionals and entrepreneurs in business, I more often see people focusing on how to get their ideas heard, than how to promote themselves. I’m convinced that great results are better than great ideas, and a great perception of you as a person is better than both ideas and results. Your first priority should always be to sell yourself.

Of course, how you do this effectively is critical. No one is impressed by braggadocio and a huge ego, or constantly taking credit for the accomplishments of others. On the other hand, don’t expect others to automatically recognize your talents, results, and contributions to the success of others around you. Your challenge is to fully promote your value in contexts like the following:

  1. Start with quantifying your results before ideas. You need to recognize that businesses thrive and grow based on results, and results imply ideas, but ideas do not imply results. Take the initiative to communicate effectively to key players how you contributed to results, without emotion, while giving full credit to others as appropriate.

  2. Constantly focus on improving interpersonal skills. Technical skills are important, but your ability to build and nurture relationships with others is more important for leadership growth and career advancement today. Take full advantage of every mentoring and coaching opportunity, and network with peers both inside and outside the company.

  3. Actively build trust and integrity into every relationship. A person without a positive reputation will never be given a high value, no matter what the title or skill level. Building trust requires that you let people get to know you, be transparent in your communication, and display a clear set of values and priorities. You have to respect others to get respect.

  4. Capitalize on your strengths, and focus on a niche. You can’t be everything to everybody, so don’t spread yourself too thin, or accept assignments that you can’t do well. Learn how to say “no” with a smile on your face, and don’t hesitate to recommend someone better. Build and advertise yourself as a “brand” that is the best at what they do.

  5. Make your non-verbal communication speak for you. Evidence has shown that 60 to 90 percent of our image and value communication with others is non-verbal, which includes body language. Focus on always sitting up straight, making eye contact, keeping arms uncrossed, offer a firm handshake, and avoid talking with your hands excessively.

  6. Manage your whole image, both private and public. With today’s pervasive Internet and social networks, people can see how you act outside of work, as well as inside. Your career and leadership value can be greatly enhanced, or greatly hampered, by your participation, or lack of it, in industry forums, the local community, and global issues.

  7. Make rational and positive contributions on social media. Use social media to show a positive presence, communicate with people in similar positions, and build relationships with people who can help you. I see too many otherwise smart professionals and leaders who see social media as a pulpit where they can attack other groups and causes.

  8. Recognize the need to appeal to a diverse audience. Businesses today include an increasing diversity of team members, as well as customers, due to remote work and a global market. New generations of workers have different values, and communicate differently. You need to sell yourself and your value to all these, considering their needs.

  9. Increase the scope and credibility of your connections. In these days of rapid change, your impact may be more about who you know than what you learned in school. Good connections, inside and outside the company, can dramatically increase your results, as well as your image. Use ongoing networking as a way to improve connections.

  10. Don’t count on others to recognize and sell your value. Your career or startup future is in your hands, not those of your boss, your mentor, or investors. Be accountable for it, and don’t look for excuses. Always be on the lookout for ways to grow, new learning opportunities, and win-win business relationships. Help people, and they will help you.

Promoting yourself doesn’t come easy for many people, and you don’t want it happen all at once. I recommend that you concentrate on doing one new thing per day, like adding a new relationship, or highlighting your contribution to the latest project. Over time, you will feel more confident and successful, and both your peers and you will appreciate the value you bring.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 8/2/2022 ***



Monday, August 15, 2022

6 Information Surges Raise Huge Startup Opportunities

HomeA tidal wave of valuable data is surging from the Internet and connected devices today, and the volume is growing exponentially each year. It’s enough to drown any business which tries to fight it or ignore it, and it’s an opportunity to ride higher and faster than even the successes of Google and Facebook, for those startups that use it as their driving force.

Per a recent study by networking giant Cisco, the world’s yearly mobile data traffic has grown 17-fold over the past 5 years, reaching 11.5 exabytes per month at the end of 2017, of which more than half was video. According to the classic book “Data Crush,” by Christopher Surdak, data in all formats will soon be the largest source of new opportunities for startups, or death.

According to what I see, as outlined by Surdak, this data surge is being driven by the following six technological and social trends:

  1. Mobility: smartphones, tablets, and the “Internet of things.” Cellphone penetration in the U.S. exceeds 97 percent of all mobile phone owners, and smartphones generate more data from their non-phone functions than voice. In addition, more people own cell phones than toothbrushes. All devices are becoming self-aware and Internet connected.
  1. Virtual living: the rise and growing dominance of social media. Facebook has created an environment where millions of people can hold billions of conversations with people and companies, transforming how people expect to interact with each other and the world. For startups, this is an engagement opportunity worth billions of dollars.
  1. Digital commerce: infinite options for buying goods and services online. Data-enabled shopping has completely changed our purchasing experience, has undermined some of the greatest brand names, and has created some new brands, like Amazon, that now dominate. There is still infinite room for new startup sales modes and models.
  1. Online entertainment: millions of channels, billions of actors. With the adoption of the Internet, digital entertainment has rocketed across the world, changing how people entertain themselves. YouTube is now the 800-pound gorilla of entertainment. Online gaming has moved from the geeks to the mainstream. The audience is now the actors.

  1. Cloud computing: the death of dedicated infrastructure. More and more company and personal services are being virtualized to the Cloud. Many companies are already seeing their computing costs drop by thirty percent as they move in this direction, providing new startup opportunities with the Everything as a Service (EaaS) trend.

  1. “Big data:” learning from the flood. Big data is mining the storage for knowledge. This gives rise to the personalization and customization that we all want. Analytics will soon drive nearly all business decisions for any company that wants to remain relevant to its customers. Startups are in the best position to provide the analytics, and use them first.

As an entrepreneur, what steps can you take to help your business not only survive the data hurricane, but to thrive under these new and challenging conditions? Surdak emphasizes that the goal is to either mitigate some of the pressure caused by data growth or to put that pressure to work for you in growing your startup and remaining competitive:

  • Focus: play to your strengths. Determine your core business strategy and resolve to remain true to it. Make strategic versus opportunistic decisions.
  • Accelerate: speed is life in this new world. Look for and reward quantum changes, like cutting cycle time in half, in your processes, products, and services.
  • Data enable: use metrics and measurements. Extend data metrics into non-traditional channels, such as email, internal social media, and customer collaboration platforms.
  • Quantification: big data, bigger results, and controls. Startups should seek to continually improve performance through statistical analysis and predictive monitoring.
  • Gamify: engagement to get what you pay for. Use internal collaboration platforms, then extend to online customers through your website, blogs, and social media.
  • Crowdsource: putting your audience to work beyond customers. Look beyond today’s requirements for entire new market opportunities.

You need to start now to understand the trends and specifics of the information tidal wave that is building up in front of us. Use the steps outlined here to stay ahead of it, and use its power to propel your startup into the future, ahead of your competition. The possibilities are endless, but the downside will be painful.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 14, 2022

10 Tactics For Driving Disruptive Startup Innovations

TechCrunchHow is it that only a few business leaders and entrepreneurs seem to drive exceptional results and disruptive innovation in this rapidly changing market economy (marketquake)? These few seem more adept at executing market and technology turns, not just incremental evolution. They consistently take bold steps to stay ahead of the curve, often contrary to conventional wisdom.

Steve Jobs of Apple may have been the most visible example of this ability to “see around the corner,” but others often mentioned include Richard Branson (Virgin Group), and Elon Musk (SpaceX). Most of you could suggest one more, but not many.

While searching for some structure that could facilitate learning the process, I came across a classic book by G. Shawn Hunter, “Out Think,” which offers a step-by-step outline for executives to achieve this stage of creativity. It suggests that they need to shed outmoded management and organizational biases, to foster an atmosphere where disruptive innovation becomes the norm.

Here is my summary and interpretation of the ten strategies that he outlines for driving the disruptive innovations that entrepreneurs and startups all dream about:

  1. Establish the engine of leadership. People Development Magazine recently listed inspirational leadership (trust) as one of the top three characteristics business leaders must have today. These are about being true, honest, and teaming with others, inside and outside the company. Without trust, no one will ever follow even the best innovators.

  1. Provoke with questions, not answers (inquiry). Peter Drucker once said “The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong question.” Exceptional outcomes don’t come from standard answers to pre-defined questions by conventional leaders.

  1. Mine the organization for expertise (exploration). Identify individuals within the organization who have led innovation over many years, as well as newer employees that share the same vision. Just as importantly, you have to deal quickly with innovation blockers, including bureaucrats, power mongers, and skeptics.

  1. Dream well – you may find yourself there (aspiration). Aspiring to greatness requires uncovering and exploring truths – including hidden truths – and sharing them with others. The most innovative leaders expect the best of everyone, and develop the guru in others. Emulating perceived heroes and role models can lead to realizing your own aspirations.

  1. Embrace new kinds of risk (edge). Finding the “edge” is similar to “finding flow,” being “in the zone,” or being “in the groove.” These are states conducive to heightened engagement, accelerated learning, and creativity. These states allow deep curiosity, exploration, and highly focused activity to occur, leading to disruptive innovation.
  1. Collaborate to innovate (connection). To create a culture of innovation, leaders must first create a culture of collaboration. That means engaging and inspiring the creative talents of others, respecting employees’ ideas, and bringing new insights into group decisions. With collaboration, differences add up to more than the sum of the parts.
  1. Borrow prior and current brilliance (mash-up). By constantly mashing up prior ideas, applications, and outcomes, powerful new combinations emerge that have value to customers. Find people who deviate positively from the norm, intentionally destabilizing the work environment, and foster moderate creative tension that can spark innovation.
  1. Get moving or accept the consequences (action). Action counts – not words – especially when that action is novel and unique. Once you are in motion, actually producing something, people will respond, contribute, collaborate, and spread the word, driving energy and awareness your way. Innovation does not come without action.
  1. Make it your own (signature). A signature innovative solution is born of the core identity of those who have joined in the innovation journey, executed with the unique personalities of participants. Signature innovation is not easily copied or pirated, because it comes out of a truly unique cultural identity within a team.
  1. Connect with “why” (purpose). In any endeavor, there must be a purpose behind it if we are to receive maximum enjoyment, fulfillment, and a deeper sense of our own role in its achievement. Many companies and leaders now reinforce and demonstrate a commitment to responsible behavior that goes way beyond profit and individual gain.

Exceptional innovation or “seeing around the corner” does not come from closing your eyes and jumping into the unknown. It comes from a focus on learning and following the processes proven by other great entrepreneurs and leaders.

Even creativity alone is not enough to deliver real innovation, unless it is teamed with the tendency and tenacity to execute. How well are you executing on the drive to exceptional outcomes in your business?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 13, 2022

For Many New Ventures, Location Is The Key To Success

location-location-locationEven in this age of globalization and virtualization, the geographic area where you choose to live and work can still make or break your startup business. I still have to tell some entrepreneurs that even with the best idea, they have to move to Silicon Valley to find the investors they need, or they need to move to the U.S. get the attention of the market they choose.

For example, if you are working on a great social networking idea to replace Facebook, and need funding, you probably won’t find any interested and focused VCs or angel investors in Arizona, where I live. Also, investors from the super-hubs (Silicon Valley, New York, or Boston), probably won’t assume anyone outside their domain has the savvy and resources to make it happen.

On the other hand, if you are into solar technologies, there is probably an advantage to being in Arizona or a similar location. Having a great idea in the wrong place won’t get you the funding you need, the experienced domain experts you want, or the pilot market results you need for survival. You need to move to right location and get connected before you ask for help.

Of course, there are always exceptions, but how much added risk do you need for your startup? Maxwell Wessel, in a classic article in the Harvard Business Review on this subject, points out the exception successes of Zappos in Las Vegas, Sendgrid’s massive growth in Colorado, and RightNow’s $1.5 billion dollar sale to Oracle from Bozeman, Montana.

For your own startup location positioning, I recommend his four key questions that every entrepreneur should contemplate before resigning themselves to failure, or deciding where to move to improve their odds of success:

  1. What’s your city’s advantage? Today, Silicon Valley is the consumer and enterprise software capital of the world. Finance has homes in New York, Hong Kong, and London. Energy is still the domain of Houston and Dubai. The list goes on and on. Most cities have something that they are particularly good at. Find yours if you want to stay home.
  1. How can you get exposure? Finding talent and financing isn’t the only hurdle to overcome on the road to startup success. It’s just the first of many. Exposure is another key ingredient. Exposure to customers, incumbents, and competitors all drive success. Exposure instills the fear and urgency you need to deliver the right competitive solution.
  1. What will set your business apart? No one can tell you what to do to create your edge, but it is important that you figure out how you can. Being in the right location helps you to maintain pace because of access to skilled and experienced people. Being close to your customers, your vendors, or even your competitors can make all the difference.
  1. Are you sure you can’t move? Moving might not be easy. But it is one of the simplest things you can do to improve the odds that your business takes off. If you’re about to devote your professional life to building a business, and ready to sacrifice the blood, sweat, and tears it requires, seriously consider this question. It’s very important.

Wessel also summarizes the costs and potential impacts of creating and building your startup in secondary markets, usually meaning not in Silicon Valley or one of the other super-hubs:

  • It takes longer to raise money. Raising capital isn’t the be-all and end-all of startup success. But it is an important metric for firms in pursuit of explosive growth. Raising capital is a necessary step, and survival time without it grows short, or interminably long. That extra two months spent traveling to fundraise is two months falling behind.
  • It decreases your odds of being bought. When it comes to the technology ecosystem, clusters are vital. Wessel measures a 39% acquisition advantage to being in-state. Tech companies see engineers move frequently, integrate their products tightly, and often find themselves acquiring or merging with counterparts. Personal relationships do count.
  • It decreases your odds of success. If you judge entrepreneurial success as surviving or selling (including raising follow-on funding, being bought, or successfully IPO’ing) as no doubt your investors do, then your odds of success are 10-15% higher inside the realm of the super-hubs. That’s not a big margin, but every little bit counts in this space.

But this measurable difference in outcomes, however significant, is not stopping aspiring entrepreneurs from building businesses where they live today. There are many good reasons to do so. Entrepreneurs cite family roots, a sense of neighborhood responsibility, existing professional networks, and more.

In fact, according to Wessel, following the last recession, startups have mushroomed everywhere. Since 2006, the number of startups founded and funded outside of California, Massachusetts, and New York, has grown by more than 65 percent. So don’t let location hold you back, but you need to go in with your eyes open. It takes more than a dream and passion to build a business.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, August 12, 2022

6 Secrets To Making Your Pitch To Investors Stand Out

Mauricio_MacriIn my role as a mentor to entrepreneurs and an angel investor, I find that too many are stuck in this myth that a good pitch, and good marketing content, should consist of more product features, and more hype on customer benefits. Naturally, these are important, but real winning content has to start with a story that excites people’s imagination, and pulls them in emotionally.

Whether you are addressing potential investors, your company’s board, business partners, or your customers, if you plan on becoming a person of influence, you need a collection of stories to weave into your message. In fact, the same is true in your private live, or as you move up in your professional business career, or even if you are interviewing for your first job.

I found some excellent specifics on the magic of storytelling in a classic book, “The Compass Solution: A Guide to Winning Your Career,” by Tim Cole. He shares his insights from three decades in business, growing billion-dollar portfolios, and managing thousands of people. I will paraphrase his key tenets here, based on my focus on entrepreneurs and new businesses:

  1. People want you to excite their passions. You grab any audience, even logical left-brain executives, in the first 60 seconds, or you lose them forever. The hook is everything, and a story fragment to clutch their hearts is the key to holding their minds. Exciting their passion to better the world or themselves is far better than saving a dollar.
  1. We all want to be entertained. With the current data overload, we remember someone who does more than inform us. We yearn for things that engage our senses, and give us hope. That’s why gamification is so effective, why celebrities are effective marketers, and why you need that amazing story that goes viral. We need more than facts to convince.
  1. No story resonates without a struggle. Struggle engages us – it compels us to want to listen and participate. That’s why I recommend every solution pitch must start with a painful problem, not just “nice-to-have.” That’s why most successful new businesses highlight a higher cause, i.e., world hunger, environmental sustainability, or equality.
  1. Avoid the use of wordy visuals in telling your story. Today is the age of images to make a point, including videos and sound. These engage your senses and cross all cultures and languages. PowerPoint pitches crammed with words will bury your message and yourself. Make sure the words you do use convey feelings, as well as facts.
  1. Every story needs a hero who comes to the rescue. That hero may be an idea, it may be an individual, it may be an initiative, but without the struggle and the knight on the white horse that comes to the rescue, there is no story, and the audience will not listen. In business, the “bad guy” can easily be an existing painful problem, or a key competitor.
  1. Logic may set the stage but it is emotion that wins the day. Even the most analytical of us responds to a story that engages the senses and appeals to our souls and sense of well-being. Think of the popularity and power of social media – the average daily usage worldwide is now up to 136 minutes per day. People don’t spend that much time on facts.

Your ability to weave stories and your heart into how you communicate with others in business, as well as your personal life, is far more important than most people realize. Examples of business leaders who are great storytellers include Richard Branson of Virgin Group, Howard Schultz of Starbucks, and Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook. Emulate them rather than envy them.

These leaders always make extensive use of metaphors and similes, as well as their collection of human experiences, to more vividly communicate important messages. They engage the often misunderstood creative right brain of their audience to amplify the point and make it stick. Their ability is not a birthright – it can be learned through practice and attention to your own emotions.

Just remember that business is about people, more than products and solutions. Investors invest in the jockey, more than the horse. Customers buy from people they trust, respect, and admire. Don’t forget to make people part of your business story.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, August 10, 2022

5 Business Growth Drivers Facilitated By A Co-Founder

Aneel_BhusriIn my experience, some of the best businesses have multiple partners, with complementary strengths. Starting and running a business requires many different skills and interests, and not many of us have all of them. For example, I’m an introverted product guy who doesn’t care so much about building the personnel relationships needed to keep a motivated team.

Thus, in my mentoring of potential technical entrepreneurs who have a real passion for their technology, I often recommend that they find a co-founder who can manage the marketing and execution elements of the new venture. In the restaurant business, I often see great cooks fail to succeed by not having a partner or the right level of focus on the financial side of the equation.

However, finding the right and compatible partner is a tough challenge, just like finding a spouse. The relationship has to work, and there has to be trust at all levels. My advice is to build the relationship first through networking, and find some common values and passion, before assuming that money and experience will solve all potential partner differences.

As you start, it’s important to take a hard look at your own drivers, matched against the critical success elements I see in every business, no matter what the domain. Here are some key ones I have learned in my years of experience:

  1. Business success requires focus and execution. Many smart people I know fall into the category of “idea” people. You may never be at a loss for new ideas, and ways to broaden the appeal of your business. Or you may be easily bored by the needed focus on key objectives, or the day-to-day challenges of driving results that balance the books.

    No matter how strong your passion, a business requires results to succeed. Sometimes it takes a trusted partner or co-founder to create a winning strategy, and make the hard decisions to implement the changes or pivots to get to the finish line, rather than give up.

  2. Balance of passion with reality and customer feedback. A strong vision and deep insight may get your business off the ground, but long-term success requires constant data analysis, metrics, and attention to your customer feedback. If tracking the market and reality checking are not your thing, you may need a partner who can fill that gap.

    Today, customer loyalty is based on the “total customer experience,” as opposed to price or service alone. Their experience is their end-to-end journey with you, starting with how their friends see you, shopping fun, through service and delivery. Pay attention to all.

  3. Ability to organize and motivate individuals into teams. Some business leaders I know still like the old autocratic approach, where they provide all the decisions and direction from behind the closed door of their corner office. Today’s teams expect to drive their own processes, with visible leadership support and communication from everyone.

    According to consistent feedback over the past several years, team engagement is still a critical success factor, and it seems to be stuck at an all-time low of less than 40 percent "fully engaged.” If you do it right, you have a huge opportunity for long-term success.

  4. Relentlessly drive improvement, change, and growth. No matter how strong your solution is today, it will change tomorrow. The competition will improve, the market will change, and your customers will demand more. You, or your partner, must be constantly focused on these needs, as well as the need to optimize repeatable processes.

    The challenge is to proactively stay ahead of change in the market, rather than wait and react to the next crisis. This requires you or your partner to actively listen to customers, seek out economic and social trends, and keep abreast of the latest technologies.

  5. Build business relationships and a personal brand. For long-term success and share growth, you or a partner need to do ongoing networking for mentoring, and take an active role in industry conferences to build your personal brand and leadership skills. In business, it is evident to me that who you know is as important than what you know.

    I have found that even the biggest brand leaders, including Bill Gates of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Twitter, find time to spend with their mentors and peers. These relationships, especially across industries, force them to expand their own thinking.

I’m a believer in capitalizing on your strengths, and using partners or co-founders to shore up weaknesses. I recommend that you use your strong suit early to attract the right partner or partners, and not wait until your business is in jeopardy, or the stress level gets too high. Start today and enjoy the learning.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 7/27/2022 ***



Monday, August 8, 2022

10 Creativity Mistakes Jeopardize Long-Term Survival

business-innovation-mistakesSuccess in any business these days requires a constant flow of new and innovative solutions, to keep up with changes in the market, competition, and to attract new customers. Yet in my role as a small business advisor, I still see a singular focus on achieving repeatable processes and “cookie-cutter” manufacturing. I don’t believe these two objectives have to be mutually exclusive.

The best entrepreneurs, and the best executives in mature businesses, have learned how to foster both high efficiency and high creativity, in a balance that keeps their business ahead of the pack on both sides of the equation. These business leaders are constantly on the prowl for mistakes to avoid and opportunities to improve their impact.

I saw some good insights on the most common mistakes that crush creativity, in the classic book, “Lateral Thinking Skills,” by Paul Sloane. Sloane is well recognized for his work on innovation and lateral thinking (new ways of looking at a problem rather than proceeding by logical steps). Here is my summary of the ten top creativity mistakes we both still see too often:

  1. Criticize any new idea or employee suggestion. A natural human reaction to any new idea is to point out potential weaknesses. New ideas tend to not be fully thought through, so it is easy to reject them as ‘bad.’ This only discourages the person from making any future suggestions. You must praise creative thinking, and evaluate results later.
  1. Avoid brainstorming sessions to find solutions. Brainstorming is still seen by many as old-fashioned and passé. Recent evidence is that brainstorming, done right, is still one of the best ways of generating fresh ideas from people at all levels. Keep brainstorming sessions short, non-judgmental, high energy, and chaired by an enthusiastic facilitator.
  1. Escalate all problems upward to senior management. In fact, people lower in the organization are often closer to the customer and have more insight into what works and what doesn’t. Avoid the macho concept that only top management can solve problems or address strategic challenges. Decisions made lower down always get more buy-in.
  1. Pervasive focus on efficiency rather than innovation. There is nothing wrong with a focus on making the current business model work better. Yet ‘better’ sometimes requires ‘different’ (innovation), rather than just more efficient (faster or cheaper). An exclusive focus on efficiency is a dangerous and limiting to long-term growth.
  1. Promote the belief that hard work will solve all problems. Often we need to find a different way of solving a problem than just to work harder at the old way of doing things. Every working day needs time for some fun, some lateral thinking, some wild ideas, and some testing of new initiatives. Make sure people take time to look for new opportunities.
  1. Plan in great detail and avoid things not in the budget. Markets and needs change so quickly these days that the view we had last week can be out of date today. Business plans should be loose frameworks to be used as guidelines rather than detailed route maps. Budgets must be reviewed monthly for adjustments to accommodate innovations.
  1. Create a culture of finding blame for every failure. Many innovation projects will fail, but are still worthwhile, because only by trying them can you determine whether a promising idea is a dud or a winner. If people fear they will be blamed for failures, they will quickly avoid attempting something new. Encourage an entrepreneurial culture.
  1. Provide bonuses for volumes, not milestones. Typical incentives give percentages of quarterly revenues and contribution as rewards for success. You need different rewards for a team running an innovation project, such as reaching agreed milestones. An even better alternative could be stock options, linked to the long-term success of the company.
  1. Always promote from within rather than seek fresh blood. Promoting from within is generally a good thing, but should not be used exclusively. For real creativity and innovation, an outsider not bound by your company cultural assumptions and beliefs, and bringing a new set of experiences to the table, will see and fight for new opportunities.
  1. Assign innovation projects to production organizations. Existing production teams are generally too busy meeting monthly deadlines and targets to give new innovations the attention they need. It is better to put new products or services into a new or special department, sometimes known as an innovation incubator, to get the focus they require.

Creativity and innovation are fragile business elements, and they can be easily starved, smothered, and trampled by the larger daily operational demands and old ways of doing things. Business leaders, and every member of their team, need to proactively use lateral thinking skills to develop and nurture creativity and innovation. Your long-term business survival depends on it.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 7, 2022

Practice The Art Of The Pivot Before The Next Crisis

reinventing-the-businessYou will be pivoting your business in your lifetime, whether you are a new startup, or a mature company like Motorola or IBM. You can count on it and plan for it, or you wait for the next survival crisis brought your way by this rapidly changing world. You can even give it a more elegant name, like “market-focused reinvention,” but it won’t be graceful if you don’t take the lead.

“Pivoting” is changing a fundamental part of your business model. It happens on the front end for startups to get traction, and then again later for every company as the economy, competition, and culture changes around them. The pivot can be as simple as changing the pricing model, or as complex as moving from a product business to a services business.

In all cases, it’s more effective and less painful to do it as a planned process, rather than a crash course in survival. The classic book “Resurgence: The Four Stages of Market-Focused Reinvention,” by top Kellogg School of Management faculty members Gregory S. Carpenter, Gary F. Gebhardt, and John F. Sherry, Jr., outlines the required steps I see as follows:

  1. Recognize the need for change. This is often the most difficult step, either due to startup passion, or due to past success and the instilled cultural norms of established companies. Resurgence begins when entrepreneurs and top executives stop trusting only themselves, and build a coalition with customers to see what is and isn’t working.

  1. Reinvent the vision for change. Doing more of the same to stop the bleeding doesn’t work. Real change demands new goals based on new market realities. That means market-focused, rather than marketing-focused. For startups, it means adjusting your new dream to reality; for mature companies it means walking the talk of new realities.

  1. Formalize change through structure and rewards. Symbols of the new market coalition have to permeate every communication, formal process documentation, and the reward system for everyone. Formalizing change involves distributing authority to make important decisions to the team members most able to add direct customer value.

  1. Team, market, and cultural maintenance. Entrepreneurs and team members are quick to forget why change was needed in the first place. The antidote is to establish ongoing processes for staying connected with the market, like social media, customer visits, and focus groups. Only then can successful startups and resurgent firms avoid the next crisis.

There are no shortcuts to becoming market-focused, and for staying there to avoid crisis pivots in the future. The change takes time, effort, and commitment. But the benefits are worth it. The gains are personal as well as financial. They can make your startup an inspiring place to work, and help your team see their role in achieving something substantial and good, as well as fun.

Even if you are certain that your startup or enterprise is already market-focused, what are the warning signs to watch for that signal a need for change? Here are a few of the key ones:

  • Financial results plateau or show a growth slowdown.
  • Struggling to meet industry growth projections.
  • Competitors are surpassing your own results.
  • Your market segment has lost its luster.
  • The excitement of leading is gone.

When Eric Ries first made the term “pivot” a part of the business vernacular in his best-seller for entrepreneurs, “The Lean Startup,” many years ago, he wasn’t focused on the challenges of larger companies to re-invent themselves on a regular basis to maintain their synchronization with the market. But in my view, pivot is a more natural and less intimidating term than business re-invention.

For all businesses, the art of the pivot is all about changing course as required in pursuit of the original business goal. If you weave this capability into your business processes from the very beginning, the change can indeed be a graceful and fulfilling part of the business journey, rather than a near-death experience. Don’t wait for the descending darkness before you start.

Marty Zwilling