Wednesday, August 30, 2023

7 Keys To Focusing Only On Challenges You Can Control

frustrated-business-challengesMy consulting clients tell me the business challenges these days are greater than ever before, with the recent pandemic and current global political unrest. Rather than let all these drive you insane, I always try to recommend some practical strategies to make you stronger and more focused in your outlook. I’m fully convinced that success is all about you rather than the market.

In this context, I was impressed with the insights provided in a new book, “Stay Sane In An Insane World,” by peak performance coach Greg Harden. While Greg’s background and anecdotes come primarily from the world of professional sports, I’m convinced that the strategies he espouses apply equally well to the current rapidly changing business environment.

Here is my business interpretation of his seven key strategies to remember in controlling the controllables and thriving in a chaotic world:

  1. Become the greatest expert on yourself. We all have strengths and weaknesses. In business, these cover the gamut from vision, creativity, innovation, to sales, financial management, and negotiation. Listen to your team, mentors, and customers to recognize real successes and failures, and surround yourself with people who can fill in the gaps.

    Self-awareness involves the ability to see ourselves clearly, recognize how others see us, and understand how we fit into society and the world. People who have high self-awareness tend to have a deeper understanding of others as well as business issues.

  2. Focus only on controlling the controllables. In business, as in life, there are some things you can control and others you can't. You can't control government spending, for example, or global politics. Allocate your time and resources to customer expectations and competitor challenges. Celebrate even small wins to keep yourself motivated.

    It's important to make a conscious effort to let go of things you can’t control and prevent them from affecting your day-to-day work. Some business leaders can’t let go of any challenge, feeling the ultimate responsibility for solving every problem brought to them.

  3. Practice, train, and rehearse giving 100 percent. If you make this your mindset, then on your absolutely worst day, you’re still going to be better than the average person on their best day. In my experience as a startup investor, I have become convinced that the biggest reason for business failure is giving up too early. Always dig a level deeper.

    A key prerequisite to success by giving the max is setting specific and challenging goals. Research indicates this alone leads to higher performance much of the time. The more specific and challenging your goals, the higher your motivation toward hitting them.

  4. Commit, improve, and maintain your life balance. Poor work-life balance will leave you and your team working more hours but being less productive. Make your mantra one of job satisfaction and delivering customer value, rather than avoiding failure today. That requires a variety of activities and rest. Take time to charge your batteries regularly.

    In reality, maintaining a life balance requires a focus on others, as well as yourself. Think about what you can do to make life better for others that you care about, and you will find your own life enriched, as well as improving your ability to tackle business problems.

  5. Stop being afraid of taking any business risk. Some fear of risk-taking is healthy, and will help you evaluate business situations more effectively before you jump into unfamiliar territory. Build your confidence with successes that come from taking small risks. Start with smaller opportunities, where if you were to fail, the loss would be less significant.

  6. Practice self-confidence and trusting yourself. Self-confidence is not something you are born with — it's something you build over time, especially as the leader of a business. Confidence, like a muscle, grows stronger with increased use, and celebrating small wins will give you a real boost in your confidence. Practice by trusting your own insights.

  7. Become the very best friend to yourself always. Being your own best friend means non-judgmentally listening to your own views during business challenges. It doesn’t mean not listening to team members and mentors, but it does mean rationalizing these inputs with your own emotions and motivations and being comfortable with the resulting action.

Remember that progress and results are all about your mindset and your actions – not the world around you or anyone else. I recommend that you start today to take control of your own destiny in business with these seven strategies. You will feel and see the progress the next time you face your toughest competitor or unpredictable customer challenge with confidence and win.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/16/2023 ***



Monday, August 28, 2023

7 Entrepreneur Self-Assessment Attributes For Success

business-happy-entrepreneurAs a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, and having graduated from a big company myself, I talk to many people who have spent years struggling up the corporate ladder who dream of jumping ship and becoming an entrepreneur. I typically suggest that the grass always looks greener on the other side, and the move from employee to entrepreneur is very risky and not for everyone.

In fact, in my experience, many current employees simply don’t have the attributes and mindset to be an entrepreneur. My challenge is to be more positive on who could make the leap. In that context, I was impressed with the specifics offered in the classic book, “Be Your Best Boss,” by William R. Seagraves, who has also successfully lived on both sides of the fence like me:

  1. You know how to play nice with others in business. People skills don’t come easily, especially if you are an introvert, have a big ego, or are prone to emotional outbursts. However, working in a corporate setting for years can smooth out highs and lows, shaping you into someone who’s comfortable dealing with new people and situations.
  1. You may be smarter than your boss. After surviving and learning from several corporate regimes, and managing a few yourself, you start to recognize the skills and knowledge required to run a business. If you can’t wait to control the results yourself, and avoid the dysfunctions above you, your employee to entrepreneur potential is high.
  1. You serve as a role model at work and home. If you are at a place in life where dependents and other employees already look up to you, it means that you have overcome the fear taking the lead in tackling obstacles and taking control of your life. Entrepreneurs must be the model of personal empowerment in their new venture.
  1. You’ve got the thick skin of a rhino. Wisdom also comes in the form of a tough skin. After years of learning not to take setbacks personally, you have managed to flourish with your ego on the line. You have learned to adapt, develop a backbone and the stamina to get through business hurdles, and accept how much work is needed for success.
  1. You’ve had practice managing money. At some point in your corporate career, you’ve likely had to create and manage a budget for a project, department, or division. The rules of accounting don’t change just because you’re the owner. You now understand the need to account for every dollar, and find ways to fund your spending before and after revenue.
  1. You have some savings you can leverage. A retirement fund or savings for a rainy day built from a corporate job puts you in an enviable position of starting a business without begging from friends and family. It’s also the only way to truly run your own business, rather than trying to satisfy hungry investors or friends who often change their mind.
  1. You have a passion that you would like to turn into cash. If you see your passions as mere hobbies, you could be missing the boat. These interests could be your ticket to a career of doing something that ignites a fire inside you every day, and makes money, versus a routine that you bores you to death. It’s your chance to build a legacy of love.

Everyone who feels stuck in a rut at work, is recently unemployed, or is hanging on to an existing job and sanity for dear life, needs to take a hard look at themselves relative to these potential positives. If you can’t find an enthusiastic yes for most of them, perhaps it’s time to appreciate the positives of a regular weekly corporate paycheck for predictable work you know how to do.

The old American dream, of plenty of challenging work and benefits for all, is gone. We can either lament the passing of the “way we were,” or we can slip into the new American dream, and view it as a blessing, before others steal your opportunity. You might even be able to make a difference, like feeding the poor, or cleaning up the environment.

Welcome to the age of the entrepreneur before it gets too crowded!

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 27, 2023

7 Ways To Nurture A Winning Mindset In Business Today

Cobija Sunset CorporativaTo achieve success in your business despite today’s volatile global markets, you and your team must have a mindset that goes beyond the traditional strategies of repeatable processes and lower costs. Everyone in the company must adopt the principles of customer-first focus, agility in responding to change, and constant innovation to improve your processes as well as the solution.

In my experience as a business advisor, I often see these principles followed at the highest ranks of leadership, but find them negated by low engagement at the team level. As a leader, it is your challenge to communicate the right messages to motivate everyone. As a team member who also wants to get recognized and promoted, you must demonstrate by your actions the right mindset.

Here are the top seven key strategy elements that I believe will facilitate your achievement of a winning mindset, for you and for other future leaders on your team:

  1. Expect market changes and be quick to adapt. Change is the only constant in today’s chaotic environment, and for your business to prosper, you need to shift quickly with the times. Be proactive in anticipation of fashion and cultural trends, and nurture your ability to implement change quickly. Be bold in your decision making, and willing to take a risk.

    Most people in business are linear thinkers, and miss the really big opportunities or react only after the fact. That ability to anticipate change early is recognized as the ability to “see around corners” and seems to be limited to a very few leaders, such as Steve Jobs.

  2. Define and focus on a mission to add value. Of course, margin and profitability are important, but must be committed to adding more value to the lives of your clients, and making the world a better place. Measure progress through metrics on sales, revenue, and penetration. Seek customer feedback on ways to improve value and satisfaction.

    Some market leaders have found that adding a focus on a higher cause, like helping the needy or saving the environment, can magnify your value in the eyes of customers. For example, Toms shoes achieved success by donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold.

  3. Make customer experience your key priority. Much has been written about focus on cashflow and the need for repeatable processes to assure business growth and success. In fact, all of this is for naught if your customer experience is not memorable at every level. Make sure all team members feel the same way and send the same message.

    Remember that customer experience is much more than just customer service, because it encompasses all the customer touch points with your company. These start with your brand image, search visibility and process, and extend to the actual sales transaction.

  4. Seek to dominate your market over competitors. Success requires deep penetration of the core market, not just being a fringe player in a large opportunity. Look for more ways to demonstrate a competitive advantage, and partner with complementary organizations if you need strength in manufacturing, distribution, or customer support.

  5. Assure team members are always fully engaged. Productivity and results are a result of personal commitment and accountability, rather than hours worked. I recommend the servant leadership style of management, rather than command and control, to make sure teams have the tools and training they need, as well as an appreciation for the mission.

  6. Develop a mindset of improvement versus defense. Attacking competitors will never have the return of a positive focus on making your offering more compelling to more customers. As you look internally at your own team and processes, be sure to reward learning and new ideas, and always learn from mistakes rather than penalize failures.

  7. Look for every opportunity to scale the business. Explore new business models, additional market segments, and global channels to continually grow the business by reaching new customers, solving new problems, and increasing value. Success requires constant experimentation, proactive rather than reactive initiatives, and new learning.

Now is the time to learn and adopt these new ways of thinking, whether your business today is a startup or a corporate conglomerate. In both environments, success is dependent on how you think about your business, and the degree to which you are proactive in following-up on that thinking. Only the right mindset will allow you to enjoy the success that you want for your legacy.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/13/2023 ***



Saturday, August 26, 2023

6 Keys To Preparing Your Business Team For The Future

How To Make Quality Content By Using Google's E-A-T GuidelineMost companies I work with, like yours, are still reeling from the effects of COVID-19, the rise of inflation, and talent shortages. They are rightly thinking about a strategy to be better prepared for future challenges, recognizing that more are coming in this age of accelerating change and global competition. I’m always on the lookout for more practical insights and guidance to get started.

Thus I was pleased to see the specifics offered in a new book, “The Flexible Method,” by James Burstall. He brings his own many years of experience as the CEO of a struggling, yet successful company, where he addresses his own learning from challenges, as well as the successes and failures of many friends and competitors.

I will summarize here a subset of his many recommendations, with my own insights added:

  1. Insist on new collaboration and team connections. Crises rarely strike a single group or function, so don’t allow yourself or anyone to hunker down to solve the problem alone. Ask them to reach out to team connections and related teams to share intelligence and collaborate on solutions. Now is the time to find friends and allies in your own domain.

    In fact, I have found that the challenge is really to make work fun, as opposed to stressful isolation. By demonstrating positivity and mentoring, you can make collaboration and connecting with others a productive and enjoyable experience, rather than a burden.

  2. Act fast and lead with a strong calm purpose. Face the worst and don’t panic. Set achievable targets and pursue them fiercely to conclusion. Make each action part of an evolving narrative towards deadlines that everybody can understand and buy into.

    Start by creating and sharing the big picture. Engage your team in the planning process and seek their input at every pass. Constantly communicate to all team members what's expected of them and how their role fits into the team's larger purpose and priorities.

  3. Put your people first and leave no one behind. Caring for your staff is not only the right thing to do, it is in your own best interests. It leads to better team member retention and will ultimately give you a competitive advantage, more productivity, and fewer customer crises. Providing real feedback, active listening, and empathy are crucial.

    It’s also important to make sure they have the resources and training to do their job. One strategy, often overlooked, is cross-training, In the face of a crisis, you must leverage whatever assets you have to secure a solid foundation for your business. Prepare now.

  4. Seek non-financial outside help on new challenges. In a crisis, it is a positive strength to reach out for help rather than struggle alone. Analyze yourself and your team for core strengths, and don’t be hesitant about contacting government entities and clients for support and new alternatives. Show them that you are fighting to survive, not failing.

    I find that industry experts, and even non-direct competitors, are often willing to help to bring a new perspective to any problem. In addition, this pushes you and your team to be the best that you can be and brings credibility and additional resources to your challenge.

  5. Promote thinking, innovation, and experiments. When adapting is no longer enough, you need a wealth of new ideas. You need to instill the confidence in everyone to be bold in creativity, embrace risk, and pursuing new ideas with radical commitment. Don’t try to be perfect – just try something new, put it out there, and adapt as you learn and grow.

    Jeff Bezos at Amazon is a strong proponents of this approach, and asserts that if you double the number of experiments you do, you’re going to double your agility in response to business growth challenges. He also rewards every change proposal from his team.

  6. Take time to rest, reward, and review progress. Publicly thank and reward your team often for their tireless work and dedication. Make group celebrations a way of life. Assess what everyone did right and what you and they can do better next time. Commit to applying the lessons learned and emerge stronger and more resilient to future shocks.

I am certain that if you adopt these recommendations, you will come out on the other side of any crisis a better leader and a more resilient organization. Of course, it’s always important to be positive and optimistic about the future and look forward to sharing your journey to business success and personal satisfaction. Life is too short to spend it all under fear of the next challenge.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 07/25/2023 ***



Friday, August 25, 2023

8 Tasks To Prepare You For Starting Your Own Business

new-business-ownersIn the aftermath of the recent pandemic, which caused many businesses to close, a new raft of business workers and entrepreneurs are deciding to pursue their own dreams of being a new business owner, and controlling your own destiny. The cost of entry has never been lower, with new tools to create your own website, and free social media to get your message out everywhere.

Of course, starting and running your own business comes with financial and personal risks, so I always recommend that you do your homework first, and follow some tried and proven strategies to improve your odds of success. Based on my own experience as a mentor and angel investor, I find that as many as ninety percent of startups fail in the first five years, despite their best efforts.

To keep you out of this statistic, I recommend the following steps to all aspiring business owners as they step into this new and exciting world of managing your own business:

  1. Solidify your funding plan before you start spending. By far, the majority of new businesses I know are self-funding (bootstrapped) from your own savings and prior assets. The remainder use outside funding, including crowdfunding, friends and family, banks, and investors. Explore multiple sources based on your level of need and risk.

    The key is not to expect any magic or entitlement here. We all see reports of venture capitalists who invest millions in new businesses, but be assured that these investments come only after you have a proven base business, and have a case for scaling it quickly.

  2. Pick a name, location, and marketing strategy early. Names and taglines are critical to success. Make sure the name and trademarks you want are available, as well as web site address, social media tags, and any other intellectual property. These are necessary to attract customers, investors, and give you a line of defense with competitors.

    I can’t emphasize enough how important a name can be. Some of us can still remember notable costly mistakes, like the Chevy Nova, many years ago from GM. Pundits in Latino countries quickly pointed out that the name, ‘no va’ means ‘does not go’ in Spanish.

  3. Do a written business plan to validate your thinking. Even if your plan seems simple and intuitively obvious to you, writing it down and having it reviewed by experienced friends will moderate your passion and assure you that all key elements are addressed. Scribbled notes on the back of a napkin and talking louder won’t reduce the risk.

  4. Test your plan to get feedback from real customers. Use social media or reward target customers to volunteer for a feedback session. If an innovative solution is involved, prepare a minimum viable product or a video to demonstrate functionality and usability. It’s much easier to pivot before full production and much money has been spent.

  5. Establish a visible and positive public image and brand. Use social media, industry shows, expert contacts, and social media influencers to establish a memorable brand even before you roll out your business. It helps to advertise your new presence with a grand opening, viral video, and traditional advertising to highlight entry into the arena.

  6. Network extensively for partners, investors, and suppliers. These days, you can’t start and run a business alone. Utilize all the avenues for networking, including industry conferences, investor meetings, peer gatherings, and local civic organizations, to make your presence and value known. Giving is the best way to get the support you need.

  7. Build a capable team of skilled business professionals. Successful business teams today extend beyond face-to-face employees, to include freelancers and remote jobs. Do some real recruiting, excluding friends and family, to find the right players. Don’t forget online recruiting tools, as well as local colleges for applicants with the right skills for you.

  8. Define key metrics to measure progress and success. Set milestones and targets for revenue, profitability, and market share, and use these to manage the business, as opposed to hours worked and gut instinct. Take advantage of inexpensive tools to gather data and provide analytics. Use comparable metrics for managing team member results.

In my experience as a business advisor, I still see too many businesses started in the heat of the moment over career frustration or passion for a specific solution Be aware that running your own business can be equally frustrating, and failure consequences can be drastic. But if you do it right, the joys and satisfaction, as well as financial returns, of your success can’t be beat.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/08/2023 ***



Wednesday, August 23, 2023

6 Keys To Predicting The Performance Of Your Business

business-forecastEvery business owner and entrepreneur like you I work with wishes they could better predict product demand and sales, for managing inventory and long-term business planning. We all have our favorite metric and our passion, but keeping up with real-world changes and trends seems to be always just out of reach. The issues are people oriented, and require trust and teamwork.

I was impressed with the analysis and recommendation offered in a recent book, “Trust the Plan: Demand Management For Business Leaders,” by Greg Spira. Greg brings a wealth of experience based on his work with a wide range of industries, including packaging, chemicals, healthcare, and fashion. He is an expert on the people issues, and well as the process for predicting demand.

In my experience, these people and process issues are much the same for all business metrics, including sales and customer service, as well as planning for the future demand of your product or service offering. I am pleased to paraphrase here his top six recommendations for measuring and predicting future performance, with my own insights added:

  1. Demand management is not about blame or reward. Measuring performance should be thought of only as a way to continuously learn and improve. When your team sees rewards and punishment, they will tend to do what it takes to obtain the reward or to avoid the punishment even if it means applying poor judgement and risk management.

    In my experience, all business metrics are still used too often for people management and accountability, rather than business management. The key performance indicators (KPIs) that I recommend all relate directly to business and not personal performance.

  2. Embody the goals and objectives of the business. Make sure your future demand plan embodies a holistic view of the business, including achievement of strategic objectives, market share, efficiency and effectiveness of marketing activities, as well as plan revenue and margins. Accurate measurement of the wrong things is not helpful.

    Key strategic factors for every business should include profits, growth, and competition. The data for these should come from internal data analytics, and be compared to industry averages compiled by third-party analysts, published by many industry organizations.

  3. Assess your measurements for trustworthiness. The first key to trust is to make sure that everyone believes that all data used is accurate and relevant. Gather feedback regularly from your team and customers to check for market and perception changes. Of course, if you consistently override the data, or use it negatively, you will not garner trust.

    If you want trusted measurements and leadership, it's also crucial that you put the practice of transparency on the highest pedestal. Demonstrating transparency means sharing data and sources, the state of the union, and why you have made each decision.

  4. Use any knowledge of bias to make better decisions. Bias is defined as a plan that is consistently overly optimistic or overly pessimistic compared to actual. Every plan will have some degree of inaccuracy, but a believable plan should have minimal bias, and need minimal adjustment. Too much adjustment results in a loss of trustworthiness.

    In my view, every demand plan, even without any bias, will still have errors, and those errors will be impossible to predict by downstream users simply based on past results. Thus, there is no better option than to simply make decisions and rely on the plan as it is.

  5. Define an acceptable level of measurement error. An acceptable measurement error is really a statistical calculation, rather than an arbitrary dictate from management. Two main contributors to measurement errors include the size of the sample and the variation in the underlying population. Use statistical tools often to validate your assumptions.

    Most statisticians agree that for a good measurement system, the accuracy error should be within 5% and precision error should within 10%. But deciding what is accurate enough for your business must tie back to your own assessment of cost/benefit trade-offs

  6. Plan for the next measurement improvement. Make sure you know where you are today, what it will take to improve, and the expected impact of those improvements. Any improvement plan should consider the costs to achieve those improvements balanced against the benefits that will be realized by the different users of the specific metric.

With these priorities, I’m convinced that most of you can improve your overall planning process and business metrics to be more relevant and lead to greater accuracy and confidence in future results. The challenge for most of us as leaders is to spend more quality time working on the business, rather than in the business, to keep up with changes to assure long-term success.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on on 08/02/2023 ***



Monday, August 21, 2023

10 Steps To Unbeatable And Ethical Strategy Decisions

Tom Griffiths | TEDxSydney 2017Most entrepreneurs are so overwhelmed by the day-to-day challenges of their business that they rarely take the time to work on longer-term strategy (they work in the business versus on the business). As a result, strategy decisions are made in the same ad-hoc crises style as operational decisions, and the business suffers. Gut reactions are rarely the optimal solution to any problem.

In reality, the discipline most often reserved by entrepreneurs just for strategic decisions should be used for all decisions, including operational ones. As detailed in the classic book, “Smart Decisions,” by Dr. Thomas N. Martin, decision makers need to develop and practice the art and science of strategic decision making early in their career to thrive in this complex business world.

I support his assertion that good ethical decisions are best made by applying the following ten steps to the analysis and decision process:

  1. Start with creativity to expand decision alternatives. The act of coming up with alternatives forces everyone to dig deeper and look at the problem from different angles. This will force you to step outside your normal patterns of thinking and come up with more innovative solutions. Decisions made without innovation lead to a stale business.
  1. Evaluate alternatives through a future-oriented lens. All decisions and actions have immediate as well as future consequences. For example, it is only from the perspective of future orientation that the decision to re-invest profits, versus distributing them, makes any sense. Decisions made for immediate relief feel good, but rarely add long-term value.
  1. Learn from previous results to eliminate repeat mistakes. Making a wrong decision once means you are willing to take risks, but repeating that same mistake a second time means you didn’t learn anything. Own your bad decisions, with no excuses, but wisdom is the accumulation of learning and experience and is required to succeed in business.
  1. Don’t try to satisfy everyone with every decision. Trying to please everyone can cause you to lose sight of your values and strategic goals. Certainly you must actively listen to the opinions, suggestions, and ideas of others, but the decision has to be yours, even in the face of second guessing from those with negative consequences.
  1. Test the quality of information available for analysis. If you're not using data to make decisions, you're flying blind, and gut decisions are based primarily on emotional data. To assess objective data quality, look for completeness, consistency, and timeliness, relative to the decision at hand. The best analysis done on bad data will still yield a bad decision.
  1. Ask open-ended questions to stimulate critical thinking. The ability to ask and answer questions is central to both thinking and learning. The “5 Whys” is another iterative technique used to determine the root cause of a problem or stimulate creative and in-depth thinking. Every entrepreneur benefits from critical thinking and learning.
  1. Don’t allow information paralysis to delay reaching a decision. Analysis paralysis is the state of over-thinking a decision, to the point where a choice never gets made, or is made too slowly. Always identify your top objective for any specific decision, and use that to drive you in decision making. Timeliness must always be a top business objective.
  1. Factor in personal values, assumptions, and intuitions. These are valid and important in any decision, but need to be communicated effectively to all constituents in order to foster total understanding and support. Perceptions are as important as reality, and the wrong perception of your decision rationale can derail even the best effort.
  1. Always define one or more backup or contingent solutions. Contingency plans make sense in every case where you don’t have all the decision information you need, or there are factors involved that you can’t control, such as regulations, economic conditions, or market trends. They should never be used as a shortcut for not doing proper analysis.
  1. Communicate the primary solution to all, with implementation steps. Decisions without a viable implementation plan are counter-productive. Thus the best entrepreneurs map out an implementation plan, and make sure everyone understands what has to be done and how to do it. Finally, they monitor and manage the rollout, with required pivots.

In fact, the business decision-making steps and process have to be uniquely applied to three situational states – the current state, a future state, and the transitional state in between. The author defines a detailed framework and process that fits all three of these to make the best decision possible, whether it be strategic or operational.

It’s an art and a science that will make or break your business. How much of your time do you spend now working on your business?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 20, 2023

7 Suggestions For Motivating Your Team In Tough Times

business-team-happyIt’s easy for an entrepreneur or a CEO to feel like a leader when things are going well, but the challenge is to keep that confidence and drive in the face of economic downturns, business turnarounds, and stressful personnel situations. Working twenty hours a day, losing your cool, and falling back to a no-risk strategy are not conducive to long-term success.

I saw some practical tips for business leaders under pressure a while back in the book “The Outside the Box Executive,” by Richard Lindenmuth, a seasoned interim CEO, who has stepped in and revitalized more than his share of struggling companies. I’m convinced that his advice is equally relevant to early startups, where the challenges are legion and the path is far from clear.

I agree with Lindenmuth that emotional intelligence and stability is a must in these environments. He calls it strategic empathy, which is sincerely focusing on the individual, but always with the big picture of the business as top of mind:

  1. Expect anxiety on the team and deal with it directly. When things are not going well, or when the future is clouded with unknowns, expect to find people on the team who are scared and angry. You have to act quickly to communicate strategy, be the role model for calm, and stand up to outliers before the whole team becomes dysfunctional.
  1. Let them say no, and actively listen to team input. Of course, no leader wants to hear negative views, but it’s important to show empathy and reach everyone on an emotional level, while containing your own emotions. People need to know that it’s safe to express their opinions. Once you get beyond the negatives, most people have real contributions.
  1. Focus on team members who will tell it like it is. In any organization you will find people who will tell you what you want to hear, or who are fighting for their own survival. Although you must listen at every level, the best leaders look carefully for that middle ground or middle manager that can see the big picture and effectively implement change.
  1. Don’t send a representative in lieu of direct contact. Lack of your physical presence is read as detachment, or lack of leadership. Direct contact, to people at every level, is the best way to generate trust, respect, support, and action. A recipe for failure is assuming that you can deliver a message once, and get it passed down by subordinates.
  1. If you see something broken, fix it now. Decisive action inspires confidence. People’s perception of your leadership and trustworthiness is directly related to your word-action alignment and behavioral integrity. Show them what you expect, and people will follow your example. If everyone is fixing problems with confidence, the business will prosper.
  1. Everyone has to pull their weight in the same boat. Create an environment that encourages and rewards participation and progress, with no penalties for missteps. Define a common goal, such as improving the customer experience, and eliminate any contention between the internal towers of development, marketing, and sales.
  1. Practice the eight out of ten rule. Generally, out of ten ideas, eight are not usable, but that’s the only way to get to those two good ones. So welcome all suggestions and praise every attempt, which will encourage more ideas. This may also be stated as the Pareto principle, where 80 percent of the results come from 20 percent of the efforts.

When the business is struggling, it also makes sense to bring in outside help for a fresh perspective. This could be a peer, or independent business advisor, ideally one who has been through a similar kind of struggle in their business. The best leaders put aside their pride and emotion, and listen carefully to guidance from outside the organization.

When real change is required in business, a unilateral top-down business leadership strategy is rarely effective. Successful CEOs and entrepreneurs instead listen, learn, empathize and include everyone in the challenge. With their leadership, and everyone invested in the company’s survival, the odds of success go up dramatically. Are you ready for that really tough challenge?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 19, 2023

8 Practices Common To The Greatest Leader Role Models

TEDxMidAtlantic 2012 - Cameron RussellAlmost every employee or team member can remember that one special boss in their career who was the role model of a leader, always commanded respect, and was able to get the most voluntarily from everyone all the time. Every entrepreneur and business executive I know wants to emulate that boss, but most can’t even describe the attributes required.

They know these exceptional leaders seem to have a way of finding and enticing the best people into the organization, getting exceptional performance out of them, and fast-tracking their careers both inside and outside the organization. In my opinion, great examples in today’s entrepreneur world include Elon Musk (Tesla), Jeff Bezos (Amazon), and Richard Branson (Virgin Group).

I’ve also struggled trying to define the characteristics that set these bosses apart, so I was impressed with the classic book, “Superbosses,” by Dartmouth professor and consultant Sydney Finkelstein. Here is just a small selection of the sometimes counterintuitive practices he observes that I believe are common to this level of leadership:

  1. Create master-apprentice relationships. These leaders not only recognize team members who have high potential, but they willingly and selflessly customize their coaching to what these special protégés really need. Great leaders provide opportunities and personal growth assignments that go far beyond conventional training programs.
  1. Measure by relationships as well as competitiveness. Exemplary business leaders understand the cohort effect, where peer relationship building is as important to winning as knowledge and power. Good connections and team building are the keys to success. They mentor protégés on talent spotting, creativity, and motivation as well as strategy.
  1. Encourage employees to move on to new opportunities. Nobody likes it when great employees leave for a new challenge, but the best leaders don’t respond with anger or resentment. They know that former direct reports can become highly valuable members of their network, and new business partners as either rise to new major roles elsewhere.
  1. Adapt the job or organization to fit the talent. In today’s rapidly changing world, it makes sense to focus on the talent you have at the moment rather than tasks. Twitter and GrubHub are just a couple of examples where CFOs have been asked to absorb COO responsibilities in the last few years, to capitalize on individual strengths.
  1. Take chances on unconventional talent. Larry Ellison (Oracle) preferred a candidate who had accomplished something genuinely difficult over one with formal qualifications. If they were gifted enough, they would rise to the technical challenges. This is a win-win approach, since it often helps people accomplish more than they ever thought possible.
  1. Always searching for new talent sources. The best business leaders never wait until a position opens up to start searching for talent to fill it. They are always on the lookout for talent by peer networking, studying competitors, and working with top university contacts. The goal is to always have a backup plan to facilitate incumbent growth opportunities.
  1. Willing and able to hire on the spot. A few top business leaders seem to have the insight to recognize exceptional talent, and the confidence to go after it, without resumes and extensive interviews. I don’t recommend this approach to new entrepreneurs until you have a few successes under your belt from conventional hiring approaches.
  1. Accept high talent turnover as a sign of success. It makes sense to assume that highly talented people will be in demand, and will want new challenges, so expectations of long-term job commitments are not realistic. Great bosses capitalize on fresh new perspectives, the lure of no career constraints, and the benefits of a supportive network.

Especially in this new world of millennial values and rapid market change, every business leader and entrepreneur should aspire to this imperative of nurturing exceptional talent, and forgetting the tired old assumptions about retention and churn. Maybe then you can be the superboss you always wanted to see again.

Marty Zwilling



Friday, August 18, 2023

6 New Venture Challenges Make It An Endurance Sport

startup-an-endurance-sportThere has long been a big debate about the best approach to starting a new business. Some argue the only way to start is to drop everything and jump in with both feet, while others recommend an overlapped approach to the lifestyle, including not quitting your day job until you have revenue and a proven business model. I’m definitely a proponent of this latter approach.

Billionaire entrepreneur and "Shark Tank" co-host Mark Cuban is an outspoken proponent of the all-in early approach in a video interview, and made it clear that he gives no credibility and low odds to founders seeking funding who have not fully committed their time and efforts to their cause. Obviously his approach of absolute focus, getting up early, staying up late has worked for him.

On the other hand, I remember a classic book, “The 10% Entrepreneur: Live Your Startup Dream Without Quitting Your Day Job,” by Patrick J. McGinnis, a well-known venture capitalist and private equity investor. He makes some good points in the book for the overlapped entrepreneur approach that I espouse:

  1. One job is not enough these days. The smartest people I know these days always have several things going concurrently – and more in the queue. With the rapid pace of change and all the unknowns in the world, everyone should be working on multiple options, including a conventional paying job as well as an entrepreneurial opportunity.
  1. The early entrepreneur lifestyle is not much fun. Even with high passion and a good cause, early startup efforts are stressful, lonely, and things always take longer than expected. I see no reason not to balance these frustrations with the satisfaction of more conventional work accomplishments and the people relationships we all need to thrive.
  1. Startups cost money but don’t pay a salary before revenue. Most entrepreneurs don’t get the satisfaction of a salary for the first couple of years, even if their startup is well funded by investors. Living off credit cards and borrowed money, instead of other work income, can ruin your personal finances and kill your startup motivation far too early.
  1. Maintain the status and affirmation of an existing job. Not all friends and family will see your entrepreneurial efforts as visionary and prestigious. You can choose to keep your startup efforts “below the radar” to keep peace in the family until your business has the momentum and visibility to overcome the qualms of skeptics important to you.
  1. Make sure you have the right idea before risking all. I very much respect the passion and enthusiasm of a new entrepreneur, but I’m seen enough as a startup advisor to know that more time and effort is often required as a reality check. Reality checks are best before you have put everything on the line, essentially eliminating the ability to back out.
  1. Odds are you are going to fail before you succeed. Historical and current statistics still show the chances of failure on any given startup are better than even. The good news is that you can learn from that failure, improving future odds. Having another job is more good news, since it improves the financial, emotional, and social ability to try again.

In my view, entrepreneurship is an endurance sport, rather than a quick dash to success. When you are starting a new venture, raising capital, and landing those initial customers, the obstacles keep coming, so you need all the flexibility and resilience you can muster. It pays to be able to step into a more familiar role from time to time to clear you mind and hone your strategy.

Over time, I do find that the entrepreneurial lifestyle is more addictive and usually more fulfilling than more conventional business roles. As a result, I know many successful entrepreneurs, including Mark Cuban, who can’t resist starting or investing in a second or third business concurrently, or even hundreds. That’s another variation of a part-time entrepreneur.

As a mentor to aspiring entrepreneurs, I often advise them to start with another alternative, of working for an existing startup, before or while starting their own. I recognize that everyone is unique, with different levels of risk tolerance, energy, and motivation. Thus I encourage you to take a hard look in the mirror, and you’ll know when you are ready to be a full-time entrepreneur.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, August 16, 2023

7 Leadership Strategies That Assure Real Team Results

a-business-team-giving-fist-bumpEvery business wants and needs top performers, but most entrepreneurs and executives assume that if they hire and train the smartest and most experienced people, they will get exceptional performance. They forget that top performance is a two-way street, requiring comparable initiative and responsiveness on the part of the leader, as well as contribution from each team member.

In other words, under-performing employees can be just as much a function of leaders not doing their job as employees not doing their job. In fact, there are initiatives that leaders can and must do to even enable high performance on their team. I saw the key ones outlined well in the classic book, “Creating High Performers,” by William Dann, a leading coach to experienced CEOs.

In my own role as advisor and mentor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I was struck by how relevant and critical these same initiatives are to even the earliest stage businesses. Thus, I have converted here Dann’s seven questions for direct reports, to responsibilities that every aspiring entrepreneur should keep high on their own personal priority list:

  1. Constantly communicate what is expected of the team as a whole. Only a few team members will ever be able to figure out what is expected of them on a regular basis. As the team grows, and the business pivots, communication of expectations becomes more and more critical. Your startup’s survival, as well as people performance, is at stake.
  1. Set the standards for good performance in each role. New team members in a new startup, coming from different backgrounds, may have quite different benchmarks of excellent performance. Your standards for product quality, sales growth, and customer satisfaction must be documented and reviewed prior to results and performance reviews.
  1. Provide regular feedback on results seen and measured. Inadequate feedback, good or bad, will result in lowered motivation and a decline in performance, even with the best people. Informal feedback should be provided weekly or daily, with more formal sessions scheduled at least semi-annually. Surprises are expensive for employees and leaders,
  1. Top performers need authority to carry out their responsibilities. Team members who lack sufficient authority tend to avoid responsibility rather than rising up to meet it, primarily due to fear of failure. Giving authority also implies patient coaching on early mistakes, letting go of control, and positive recognition of team member initiatives.
  1. Provide timely decisions in areas where they don’t have authority. People measure your responsiveness as a leader, just as you measure theirs. Top performers expect to be surrounded by top leaders, who monitor and supportively respond to situations that go beyond their domain. The goal is to have no employee action impeded by leader inaction.
  1. Make sure required data, resources, and tools are provided early. Top performance is more than skills and effort. It requires the right tools and information to get the job done. The leader’s responsibility is to anticipate these requirements, listen carefully to the needs of their team, and be responsive in providing these needs.
  1. Acknowledge and reward the results that you desire. Showing your appreciation on a person-to-person basis and in front of peer team members is usually more valuable than financial awards. Yet in the long run, you get what you pay for. Thus paying only for sales volume, when you desire high customer satisfaction, is not productive.

It’s only when leaders live up to their responsibilities outlined here, that entrepreneurs can separate the “can’t do” from the “won’t do” of team member performers. These initiatives on goal setting, coaching, providing resources, and supporting good results should eliminate the “can’t do.” The rest have to be dealt with more directly and moved out before they drag down everyone.

Don’t assume that traditional techniques for assessing performance, including the annual performance evaluation, will create top performers. They can actually do damage, primarily because they are tied to changes in compensation rather than changes in performance. Thus the major burden of your team’s performance is on you, the leader. Are you being the top performer you expect of everyone else?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, August 14, 2023

6 Keys To Defining And Exploiting Your Secret Sauce

climate-change-thermometer-forest-fire-forestFinding your sweet spot as an entrepreneur needs to start with a meaningful personal purpose that is also a business opportunity. Some people are so passionate about a cause that they forget to consider the lack of business potential, while others are so enamored with profit that they jeopardize their ethics. Both ends of this spectrum fail to bring long-term satisfaction or success.

Many entrepreneurs are finding their “secret sauce” these days by combining a strong purpose with a good business opportunity. For example, the handmade-item platform Etsy sponsors free entrepreneurship courses for underemployed and unemployed people, including assistance in setting up a store on Etsy, thus adding more artists and artisan sellers to their platform.

Patagonia, a successful outdoor products company, combines building safe high-quality products with philanthropic efforts to help the environment. In the name of this cause, the company donates time, services, and at least one percent of their sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups around the world. Purpose must not be perceived as just a gimmick.

So the question is how do you find a personal purpose and a business purpose that are in sync, to be the driver of business success, as well as your own happiness? I remember a classic book, “The Purpose Effect,” by renowned author Dan Pontefract, that provides a good framework and background or doing just that. I recommend his tips for creating and maintaining that sweet spot:

  1. Define a personal declaration of purpose. Deciphering one’s personal purpose should be priority one. Keys to this must include how you want to operate your life, and how you incorporate your strengths, interests, and core attributes. Write it down, make it specific, expressive, yet succinct and jargon-free. Then take ownership and make it happen.
  1. Don’t stop believing, learning, and developing. If one stops growing and experiencing, personal purpose will be inhibited. We all change as we mature, and we all need to keep changing. To find new work you love, it helps to do job shadowing or short term rotation. Outside of work, it’s important to join a club, do volunteer work, and help at local events.
  1. Establish a team-defined declaration of purpose. By constructing with the team a purpose-first strategic direction with a role-based mindset, a business will have far greater buy-in from its team to achieve its mission and objectives. When every team member sees purpose in their role, the benefits begin to accrue quickly for all.
  1. Set specific targets for serving all stakeholders. The challenge of every business is to create a win-win relationship between business owners, partners, team members, customers, and the community at large. By setting specific targets, you can apply measurements to chart progress and be able to celebrate successes along the way.
  1. Delight and deliver value to your customers. Without customers, there is no business. Thus even purpose-driven entrepreneurs need to maintain a “customer-first” perspective. When the customer is put first, the team will rally around that focus. When the customers are delighted, they become your best advocates of your purpose and your business.

  1. Create an engaging and ethical workplace. Prioritizing an ethical culture is a critical step to gaining the respect of customers, team members, and the community in the pursuit of becoming a purpose-based organization. Factors which increase engagement include more manager face-time, flexible work rules, and better recognition opportunities.

In the long run, both purpose and business are all about people. Neither of these can be static, and still stay vital. Both should be thought of as in perpetual motion, so finding your sweet spot is not a one-time event. You and your business are on a journey, by way of new experiences, insights, and knowledge, requiring constant attention, or the sweet spot will be lost.

That should convince you that finding and maintaining your sweet spot in business will not be easy. It takes hard work and requires hard choices be made, which can be painful. In the difficult early stages of any business, it can also seem like you are leaving some things for others that should be in your pocket. But you will soon find that the joys of giving far outweigh the taking.

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 13, 2023

6 Tactics To Propel Innovation Before The Next Crisis

technology-innovationEvery entrepreneur and business executive knows that continuous innovation is required to survive, but most struggle with this more than any other challenge they face. They know they need to act proactively, but still are often blindsided by a new competitor coming out of the blue with a future they never imagined. Innovation driven by the next crisis is not leadership.

I remember the classic book, “The Three-Box Solution: A Strategy for Leading Innovation,” by Vijay Govindarajan, one of the world’s leading experts on strategy and innovation. He succinctly outlines the key behaviors that I believe every business leader must focus on, to drive innovation without waiting for the next competitive crisis:

  1. Avoid the assumption that current gifts will keep on giving. This is a trap of the past to be avoided at all costs. The best leaders selectively forget the past, and are constantly on the lookout for the future’s raw material of new ideas. They overtly set out to create the future as a mission distinctly separate from their performance engine of today.
  1. Be alert to “weak signals” of non-linear shifts and trends. To do this, leaders must eliminate the noise of obsolete ideas and activities, by creating protective structures, including dedicated teams focused on innovation. They need to regularly listen to a few mavericks and outsiders who routinely generate nonlinear ideas and trends.
  1. Create the future as a day-to-day business process. The future needs to be treated as today by a team and a process that is insulated from interference, but empowered to draw on necessary performance engine resources. The trick is not to sweep everything aside, but to balance relevant aspects of now while making room for what is new.
  1. Sponsor experiments and measure like new investments. Experiments on today’s revenue engine necessarily focus on short-term financial goals. Experiments on future ideas should be measured like investments, and judged on longer-term potential, allowed to iterate, and focused on learning and adapting quickly. Both are always recommended.
  1. Constantly build new skills to be resilient in the face of change. Ensure your firm’s fitness to act on new opportunities, and develop an evolving sense of where the future lies. A business that relies on static skill replacement is falling behind, and ripe for the next competitive crisis. Build a process also for divesting those who have lost their value.
  1. Invest more energy in the “horse you can control.” Most executives admit to spending huge amounts of time and energy on issues they can’t control, including the economy, regulatory changes, and competitor moves. The best leaders spend more time on their own processes, skills, and hard decisions on what to keep and what to divest.

Govindarajan recommends a simple and practical “three box” framework for allocating time, energy, and behaviors in the proper balance to foster continuous innovation. These three boxes include managing the present, escaping the traps of the past, and generating breakthrough ideas. This is the only way to exploit change and let go of old ideas, while still profiting from the present.

He relates actual examples of how major companies, including GE, Hasbro, and IBM, have used this framework and strategy to selectively let go of the past and remake themselves on a regular basis to stay vital and competitive. On the other end of the spectrum, technology startups also really need this mentality, since the rate of change there is rapid, and competition is so intense.

Thus, I believe the approach actually works and applies to leaders at all levels – from a small team startup entrepreneur, to a business unit leader in a larger organization, to the chief executive of a multi-national conglomerate. It allows any leader to actively invent the future, rather than consistently be reacting to it. How much of your time is currently spent in crisis reaction mode?

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 12, 2023

8 Initiatives For Entrepreneurs To Find Business Help

Maya Penn. TEDWomen 2013, SF Jazz Center, San Francisco, CA, December 4, 2013. Photo: Marla AufmuthThere is no skill more vital to an entrepreneur than effective networking. You can’t build your business alone, and networking is the best way to open doors, professionally and personally. For introverts like me, it’s not easy to step out of your comfort zone and meet new people, but if you approach the challenge correctly, I have found that it can actually be fun as well as productive.

This was illustrated well in the classic book, “Hopping Over The Rabbit Hole,” by Anthony Scaramucci, a well-known entrepreneur, financier, and television co-host of Wall Street Week. He highlights the value and “how-to” of business networking strategy in eight key bullets which resonate with me, and I believe every aspiring entrepreneur practice these early:

  1. Push yourself to take the initiative, rather than wait to be found. If you wait for people to come up to you, they likely won’t be the right people. It pays to do your homework ahead of time on people you expect to find, or people you need to know. Otherwise listen to conversations around you, and join in ones where you can contribute.
  1. Try to find common ground outside of business. In business networking settings, it’s not very memorable to talk only about business. Remember that personal relationships are the ones that set you apart and will grow and last. Look for common family experiences, academic connections, or sports activities. Common interests lead to trust.
  1. Put yourself in a positive state of mind beforehand. Everyone is impressed with people who smile and exude authentic positive energy. Psych yourself up for this, if necessary, before you enter a room. Be the visual image of the people you need to meet, and the right people will gravitate toward you and view you as an influencer.
  1. Exchange connection info and follow up within two days. If you have interest in a real relationship, don’t let the initial connection fade. The follow-up should be simple and to the point, such as a quick email suggesting an opportunity to continue the discussion. Skip the hard sell here, and don’t be afraid to follow-up again in a few weeks if required.
  1. Networking and relationship building should be fun. Learn to relax and enjoy the process, but keep a clear head and remember to save your heated debates for one-on-one discussions in a more private setting. While the ultimate purpose of networking is to advance your career or business, don’t treat it with the formality or structure of work.
  1. Be prepared to give as much as you get from networking. If you start pumping someone you have just met for funding or referrals, he or she will realize that your intentions are shallow. Everyone has something to give to a relationship, no matter what your credentials. Open up and share what you can, before expecting anything in return.
  1. Never be intimidated by business titles and wealth. Successful business people are still people, like the rest of us. They have weathered hard times and failures, and love to talk and offer advice, if you are interested and willing to listen. No matter how shy you are, you must look the other person in the eye, and sincerely get to know them.
  1. Don’t try to be someone you are not, socially, or in business. Networking pretenses almost always lead to disaster. Integrity and trust are required before a new relationship can be productive. No matter how insecure you are, artificial efforts to bolster your image are not recommended. If you humbly treat people as equals, relationships will work.

Of course, business networking is just the beginning of your journey into entrepreneurship, In his book, Scaramucci offers much more – a firsthand, introspective, and candid account of his own failures, successes, and insights that led him to business and financial success. He offers inspiration and a concrete blueprint for achieving your dreams, despite unexpected adversity.

I’ve focused here on the how and why of business networking because I find that technical entrepreneurs, in particular, are often quick to discount and ignore the value of business relationships, in favor of technical conferences and peer experts.

As a technologist myself, I had to learn the hard way that while solutions can be built by a person or two, it takes a network to build a business. How robust is yours today?

Marty Zwilling



Friday, August 11, 2023

8 Strategies For Business Professionals To Stay Ahead

strategies-to-stay-aheadAs a business advisor and advocate for entrepreneurs, I find myself almost always talking and writing about change. Yet there are many things about business and work that haven’t changed for a long time, and don’t need to change anytime soon. I’m always surprised when someone doesn’t seem to grasp these basics, or thinks it’s fine to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I was reminded of a number of these by a classic book, “The Thing About Work: Showing Up and Other Important Matters,” by Richard A. Moran. With a bit of humor, he provides some serious guidelines for struggling career professionals looking to move up, and new entrepreneurs looking to build a company. Moran seems to speak directly from my long-time personal business career.

He points out that “There are lots of things – some big, some not – that we can all do to improve our lives at work.” He manages to highlight a couple of hundred of these with colorful vignettes, but here are eight key ones I found particularly useful for new business professionals:

  1. You can’t win if you don’t show up consistently. Showing up still matters. This is not about clocking in to work. It’s about colleagues, managers, and clients knowing that you care, and know how to find you when they need you. You need to really get to know your team mates and treat work relationships seriously. Someone is always taking attendance.
  1. Peers and customers alike still expect responsiveness. Today it is rare to find people answering phones at work, much less proactively following-up. Yet peers and customers notice phone calls and e-mails not returned in twenty-four hours or less. They expect the same response you give to your best friends. Anything less makes you non-competitive.
  1. Making a to-do list is not the same as getting things done. Everyone is “too busy” these days, but only the best always can demonstrate their list of results. If your list of results includes all the meetings you attended and all the phone calls you made, it’s time to ask yourself “What did I really do today?” Businesses only move forward on results.
  1. Networking effectiveness is a measure of your potential. Productive networking traffic does not happen by default. It takes effort to get out there, do your homework on the best traffic lanes, and follow-up on potentially valuable relationships to make them productive. Networking relationships still drive most promotions, jobs, and new clients.
  1. Work-life balance is not about equity, but about escape. The battle between work and life is no contest – work still wins. If you are committed to devices, work is always at the top of the screen. Yet successful people find an escape to the “life” part of the world. It could be a family, sports, hobby, or TV. All business brains need time to rejuvenate.
  1. Don’t count on job descriptions to define your role. “That’s not my job” has never been a successful excuse in business. Especially as an entrepreneur, every job in the business is yours. Your willingness and your ability to tackle any challenge are the only things that customers, peers, and managers appreciate. Business is not rocket science.
  1. Not finishing things you start kills careers and businesses. Entrepreneurs who claim to be big thinkers are routinely dismissed by investors, in favor of others who execute. Thinkers, and people at work who never say no, accept and start task after task, but they rarely finish one. Crossing the finish line is the milestone in a project that really counts.
  1. The most important skill you need is project management. The person who can demonstrate that he or she can effectively manage a project can write their own ticket for success. That means starting the project, keeping people engaged, and bringing it to a positive completion. If you can manage any tough project, you can probably build a business.

Of course, there are many more work expectations that haven’t changed, but the 80-20 rule still applies. If you are good on the ones listed here, you probably can hold your own on all the rest. You probably already understand why successful entrepreneurs keep starting new companies, even after they sell their first unicorn, and why retirees miss work as soon as they stop doing it.

Are you spending as much time at work focusing on the things that don’t change as you are on the things that must change? I call that the work-work balance. Keep it up, or you may not have a life at work.

Marty Zwilling



Wednesday, August 9, 2023

6 Unforeseen Obstacles Every New Venture Must Conquer

business-obstacles-unforeseenWhen entrepreneurs introduce new products to the market, their passion and conviction often leads them to assume that every potential customer will see the immediate need and value, and will quickly adopt the solution. They are devastated when their business growth never starts or stalls, and they have no idea how to get it moving again.

As an advisor to many startups, I often spend hours with business owners helping them anticipate every possible obstacle to the adoption of their solution, and developing a rollout plan to include antidotes. I remember a classic book, “Jobs to Be Done,” by Stephen Wunker, Jessica Wattman, and David Forber, which details well my perspective on these challenges and counter strategies.

While the authors mission is broader in intent, to provide a roadmap for customer-centered innovation, they definitely codify the principles I espouse in anticipating the primary obstacles to new solution adoption. Here is a summary of their key observations, with our joint specifics on what to expect, and how to overcome these obstacles:

  1. Customers don’t buy what they don’t know and understand. In today’s information overload, marketing is everything. Word-of-mouth is great, but it’s not a launch strategy that stands alone. The more revolutionary the solution, the more important it is to educate customers on a solution’s existence and value. Use every marketing channel available.
  1. Getting people to change behavior can be difficult. If your solution alleviates a high level of existing pain, customers more readily change. Yet most of the startups I see these days are providing a solution that is easier to use, more fun, or more productive. In these cases, you need testimonials, usage details, and return-on-investment examples.
  1. Multiple decision makers required to close a sale. Many healthcare solutions, for example, may appear to have great value to patients, but require doctors to feel safe, and insurance companies to approve. Entrepreneurs need to focus on selling each of the constituents in the chain, recognizing that more time and money are required for growth.
  1. Direct and indirect costs of the solution seem high. The most elegant products have the highest price tags, thus limiting market size. Every customer has a sense of what a solution should cost, based on competition, and the cost of doing nothing. A good tack is to sell exclusivity, or provide case studies to show return on investment and productivity.
  1. Solution brings risk to the customer, or high cost of failure. These days, people worry about the liability potential, or making a dramatic move that may be very expensive to recover from. These fears need to be offset by good marketing, education on benefits, and successful case studies. Expert testimonials and excellent support are essential.
  1. Products so innovative that they define a new category. Consider the Internet of Things (IoT) – a network of connected devices and sensors in a home or facility to allow control or access to almost everything. Just the concept requires learning, acceptance, and understanding value. Your business may die before all these elements come together and customers buy your offering.

Then comes a second set of longer-term obstacles to consider – things that cause customer sales to decline after an initial burst, or to stop usage after initial adoption. Here are the most common issues which cause this obstacle to growth:

  • Solution requires lagging support infrastructure. For example, electric vehicles offer attractive benefits for drivers and the environment, but they also need charging stations and government regulations to facilitate broad usage.
  • Adoption creates new pain points. Many new products sound great, but customers find them overly complex or difficult to use. Other new products are plagued with compatibility or performance problems, and customers quickly defer to new competitors.
  • The luster wears off cool new products. Sometimes cool doesn’t mean better. Very quickly, customers start to look for that usability, improvement in productivity or return on investment. Marketing alone cannot make a product great.
  • Products incorrectly targeted or not targeted. Initial hype can generate a sales spurt, but long-term growth requires a clear fit. The right market is the one that feels the most pain, and has money to spend. Nice-to-have for consumers with no money won’t work.

According to most experts, inadequate attention to these obstacles is the primary reason that more than 50 percent of newly launched products fall short of growth and revenue projections, and only 1 in 100 new products even covers its development costs.

Innovative solutions alone won’t make your business a success. You have to target and appeal to the right customers, and the right jobs that they need done. Is your business properly customer-centric?

Marty Zwilling



Monday, August 7, 2023

6 Keys To New Business Growth From Global Opportunity

2016.07.10 Tel Aviv People and Places 06982With the availability of high-speed Internet and social media access around the world, it’s easy for entrepreneurs to assume that the world is just one big homogeneous market, and project their business will scale accordingly. Nothing could be further from the truth. Large businesses, as well as small, still fail often by not addressing the very real cultural, economic and political differences.

The challenge is to know what to look for when stepping outside your native market, be able to quantify the downside risk, and implement the required strategy in each of the new markets. In the classic book, “Global Vision,” by NYU Stern School of Business scholar and leader Robert Salomon, I finally found some great insights on what to look for, and how to make the necessary changes.

His perspectives have been derived primarily from the travails of several major brands, including Walmart, IKEA, and Tesco. Yet, I believe the conclusions and strategy recommendations are equally valuable for every new entrepreneur who intends to expand outside their local country:

  1. Size market potential granularly based on local economics. The most common mistake is overestimating a particular market’s potential, based on your domestic context. Foreign markets typically have less information available and more variability in sales estimates, which is a setup for failure. Do more local homework and validate cautiously.
  1. Assume large and frequent economic swings. The inability to accurately predict or prepare for sudden changes in the local economic environment creates risks for the markets you know, but can wreak havoc for global initiatives. These economies are often ill-prepared to deal with economic shocks. Double the risk may mean half the opportunity.
  1. Currency exchange fluctuations can wipe out gains. The potential for large currency swings may change the way you need to manage transactions, specify contract terms, and project futures. Smart entrepreneurs have learned to lock in exchange rates, collect on transactions immediately, and pay indigenous organizations to hedge the risks.
  1. Factor in basic infrastructure quality and services. The cost of doing business in any market is heavily dependent on local transportation, energy, technology, and financial services. These components can totally change your customer value proposition, or the business model that you have honed. Re-validate your business model in every market.
  1. Evaluate the political climate and operational processes. Uber and Airbnb are current examples of entrepreneurial efforts that are struggling with government regulations in new markets. It pays to research markets proactively, and engage local experts to negotiate a path early, rather than reactively dealing with fines and tarnished reputations.
  1. Honor cultural sensitivities and assumptions. Cultural traditions often dictate business roles, procedures, and customer expectations. The local culture affects not only the decisions an entrepreneur must make, but also how a market views the company. The best strategy is to engage people in the local market to manage your business there.

My summary recommendation is to quantify the context difference or institutional distance to each new market. The greater the difference between your current and the new context, the more challenging it will be to expand there. Salomon outlines how to convert the comparisons into “risk spreads” that mathematically capture and accurately reflect global market opportunity differences.

But don’t look for any magic algorithmic procedure to solve the complex globalization problems. The challenges are continually evolving and are, at their root, a product of social interaction, economic evolution, and political dynamics. It will always take smart entrepreneurs, armed with the latest knowledge and modern analytic tools, to minimize the risks and maximize opportunities.

Tapping into global markets, especially the large and under-developed ones, not only promises market growth beyond our most optimistic vision, but also empowers people the world over to share in a better economic future. How many global scaling opportunities are you missing today?

Marty Zwilling



Sunday, August 6, 2023

5 Crowdfunding Concerns Worry Professional Investors

crowdfunding-bankbook-businessWith the advent and growth of crowdfunding over the past few years, many entrepreneurs have predicted the demise of angel investment groups and venture capital organizations. In fact, the latest figures show that crowdfunding globally is expected to grow from USD 1.41 billion to USD 3.62 billion by 2030, exceeding the amounts contributed by either angel groups or VCs alone.

Early crowdfunding successes have been undeniable. Way back in 2015, the Kickstarter Pebble smartwatch raised $20.3 million, smashing the prior Kickstarter record of $13.3 million. Worldwide, more than fifty campaigns since then have exceeded the $10 million dollar mark, despite targets as low as $20K.

But don’t be misled – these are just the cream of the crop. According to more recent statistics, fewer than a third of all crowdfunding operations end up being successful, and the rest have to return anything they do collect. That’s not as high as the failure rate with professional investors, but it should convince entrepreneurs that crowdfunding is still no panacea for funding.

Most of the experience so far has been cash versus the equity feature defined by the JOBS Act – Equity Crowdfunding (Title III), introduced back in 2016 with 685 pages of rules. Now there are dozens of online equity portals, including WeFunder and Microventures, already geared up to help regular people buy equity in a startup, without qualifying as an accredited investor.

Have you ever wondered what professional startup investors think about all this? As an accredited angel investor, I claim to be one of those professionals, and I’ve talked to many more. I’ve also perused much of the published material on equity crowdfunding, including a detailed book, “The Crowdfunding Handbook,” by former Wall Street lawyer, Cliff Ennico.

I would summarize the qualms and feedback from professional investors as the following:

  1. Crowdfunding platform costs trickle down to angel groups. The new audit, due diligence, and liability requirements from the JOBS Act, now levied on equity crowdfunding portals, could dramatically increase the costs and restrictions on angel groups. These groups are now largely run by volunteers at no cost to entrepreneurs.
  1. Lack of checks and balances on startup valuations. A startup that is listed on a crowdfunding platform gets no formal pushback or negotiation on its declared valuation. Unreasonably high early valuations hurt the entrepreneurs, as well as professional investors, later when a second round becomes a down round or can’t be negotiated.
  1. Investors cannot verify accountability or governance. In equity crowdfunding, no investor is representing their own interest. Board seats can’t be negotiated, and even informal mentoring in decision and governance processes is unlikely. This means less capability to ensure that invested funds are spent wisely or as planned. Risk is increased.
  1. Later funding rounds can’t deal with a thousand shareholders. Very few successful startups need only one funding round, and venture firm offerings, as well as the IPO process, will go up in cost, complexity, and risk, as the number of current investors goes up. Even if the additional rounds are also crowdfunded, the same considerations apply.
  1. The impact of “dumb money” versus “smart money.” By definition, investors from the crowd have less experience and differing motivations from professional investors. This can hurt the company, and jeopardize all investors. Most public company executives today decry the short-term focus of conventional shareholders on profits versus strategy.

At the same time, we all recognize that that there is never enough money to satisfy the needs of entrepreneurs, so more sources are always welcome. Smart angels and venture funds have already begun to integrate equity crowdfunding as a step in their investment strategy. Increasingly I’m seeing startups in talks with bigger investors after a successful crowdfunding campaign, as fund managers scout platforms for interesting ideas and teams.

Crowdfunding is here to stay, with the major types focusing on pre-orders, rewards, goodwill, and equity. If you are an entrepreneur, I recommend you find the right platform, a good handbook, and go for it. Your options for funding just increased, or at least you have a new way to get some real market feedback on the demand for your solution.

As a professional investor, I recommend continuing to capitalize on business experience and financial acumen. It shouldn’t be that hard to stay ahead of the crowd.

Marty Zwilling



Saturday, August 5, 2023

6 Strategies To Find An Investor For Your New Venture

find-startup-investorOne of the biggest myths I have found in the entrepreneur community is that every startup needs one or more outside investors for credibility and success, and perhaps is even entitled to at least one. They don’t realize that according to statistics from, almost 60 percent are funded with personal savings and credit, and another 25 percent get their money from friends and family.

That leaves only about fifteen percent that actually get their funding from investors, through crowdfunding, banks, angels, and venture capitalists. Of course, if you want to be in that number, or you want that number to go up, you have to know how to locate potential investors who fit your profile, requirements, and expectations.

I saw a good summary of the most effective ways to source prospective investors in a classic book, “The Art of Startup Fundraising,” by Alejandro Cremades, who has been there and done that, both as an entrepreneur and an investor. The first step is to set your criteria, including a match for your sector type and stage, and then proactively seek out and contact the best candidates:

  1. Review profiles on professional social media sites. Searching LinkedIn, for example, is a must for contemporary entrepreneurs. It clearly identifies potential investors who meet your profile, and provides contact information. But don’t wait for them to contact you. Draw up a list of the best prospects, and put together your best story for follow-up.
  1. Identify customer executives who need your solution. Many savvy entrepreneurs are able to convince high-potential customers that investing early in a high-value solution, perhaps through an advance on royalties, is in their best interest. Customers benefit from early solution access, priority input on requirements, and personalized customer service.
  1. Reach out to your biggest fans for investor leads. Strong believers in your solution can be your best salesforce to find investors, and some of them may be open to investing as well. Any one of them might find an interested rich uncle, or give you a warm introduction to that professional investor that you have been trying to attract.
  1. Ask your business advisors for warm introductions. There is a good chance that business advisors and mentors also have access to investment capital, or know someone who does. In my experience, an introduction to an investor from a mutual friend or business associate will double or triple your odds of closing a deal.
  1. Talk to thought leaders at relevant industry events. Getting to know leaders at these events will get you visibility and credibility, as well as valuable feedback on your strategy and solution. Industry leaders are a prime source of leads to companies and individuals that may invest. In addition, it’s always better to be friends before you are a competitor.
  1. Review current crowdsourcing sites for a good fit. By using a service such as Onevest, you can also place your startup in the right shop window and let investors come to you. Crowdsourcing is rapidly becoming the key source for finding investors outside the mainstream. It works best for solutions that have social value and mass appeal.

While exploring all these alternatives, don’t forget that the right investor in a majority of cases may be you, through bootstrapping and personal credit. The advantages are many, including avoiding all the cost, pain, and distractions of finding and managing external investors, allowing you to retain full control and all your hard-earned equity for yourself.

The right investor also changes as you move through the different startup stages. Friends and family are key at the idea and early development stages, when you have minimal business valuation. Angel investors typically provide early-stage rollout funding, while venture capital firms won’t be interested until you have real traction and revenue during scaling.

Looking in the right place for the wrong investor won’t help you. But operating in stealth mode, or waiting for that perfect investor to find you, or feeling entitled, is even less effective. The most successful entrepreneurs know where to look and when to look for funding, and the rules are always changing. Maybe it’s time to rethink your startup funding strategy.

Marty Zwilling