Monday, September 25, 2023

8 Tactics To Highlight Your Startup For Early Funding

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 View public domain image source <a href="https://pxhere.com/en/photo/540345">here</a>Many first-time entrepreneurs find themselves unable to bootstrap their startups, and also unable to find early funding at the venture capital level or even with angel investors. Their only recourse is that first tier of investors, fondly called Friends, Family and Fools. These are the only people likely to believe in newbies, with only minimal product evidence or business experience.

Yet surprisingly, according to statistics on the Fundable crowdfunding site, friends and family are the major funding source for entrepreneurs, investing over $60 billion in new ventures per year, almost triple the amount coming from venture capital sources. The average amount per startup has been $23,000, usually in the form of a convertible loan, rather than an equity investment.

Of course, most startups ultimately need much more than this amount to scale the business, but some prior contribution from friends and family (as well as your own sweat equity) is normally expected as a qualification before professional investors will consider entering the game. Their logic is that if your family won’t invest in you, then why should they?

This is confirmation that the right people are always more important than the right product. Here are some key ways that you can be viewed as the right people, whether seeking an investment from friends and family, fools, or even later from professional investors:

  1. Ask for a specific amount to meet a specific milestone. Shy introverts may be great technologists, but they won’t be entrepreneurs until they learn to nurture relationships with friends and family, practice their elevator pitch and respectfully ask for funding. Waiting for someone to give you a gift with no specific objective is likely to be a long wait.

  1. Offer a formal agreement as well as a handshake. The vehicle of choice is most often a convertible note, which is really a loan with a specified duration and interest, with an option to convert it to equity when professional investors come in later. Hire an attorney to make sure the terms are fair. This shows respect and professionalism.

  1. Let people see your own investment and commitment. Friends and family are quick to differentiate between a passionate hobby and a sincere effort to change the world. Show them that you have done your homework with industry experts and potential customers, and convince them you are not asking for charity or a donation.

  1. Build a prototype first on your own time and money. We all know people who are good at talking, but never seem to risk anything or find time to get started on the implementation. Every good entrepreneur needs to invest skin in the game, to show credibility and leadership to others. Investors want to be followers, not the leaders.

  1. Don’t ask for more than your friends or family can afford to lose. In other words, don’t be greedy, and remember that you have to live with these people even if your startup fails. Ask for the minimum amount you need to reach a significant milestone, with some buffer for the unknown, rather than the maximum amount you can possibly foresee.

  1. Communicate the plan and the risks up front. Remember that no investment is a gift, and everyone who buys in deserves to hear what you plan to do with their investment, and expects regular updates from you along the way. Be honest with naïve friends and trusting family members, since more than 70 percent of startups fail in the first five years.

  1. Focus on well-connected friends with relevant business experience. A wealthy uncle may seem like an easy mark, but a less wealthy friend who has connections and experience with startups in your domain can likely help you more than any amount of money. Remember that you are looking for success, not just money to spend.

  1. Tie re-payments to revenue growth in the startup. Rather than set a fixed repayment schedule, tie investment payoffs to a percentage of new product revenue, or a plan to convert the debt to equity. Use the minimum viable product concept to get revenue early, and allow market and product pivots at minimal cost.

In any case, avoid the urge to think of friends and family as a last funding resort, when they should always be your first focus, and maybe the only one you will ever need. If you succeed, there is no joy like sharing the feeling and the money with people close to you.

But make sure you do it right, per the above recommendations, or you may be the biggest fool.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 24, 2023

7 Strategies To Win With The Power Of ‘We-Commerce’

e-commerce-win-we-versus-meIn the last few years I have seen a popular business model emerging which embodies a greater focus on social and environmental responsibility, and a new requirement for trust and sharing, as well as customer and community collaboration. Companies like Airbnb, Uber, Zappos, and Whole Foods are setting the example, and leading the way in profitability and purpose.

In her classic book, “We-Commerce: How to Create, Collaborate, and Succeed in the Sharing Economy,” veteran marketing strategist Billee Howard calls this movement an economy centered on the power of “we” instead of “me.” She presents a roadmap to help us navigate this new business landscape, retaining the best of the old, while innovating the path to success.

In my work with many entrepreneurs and investors, I also see and support the strong movement to this business model, which can be characterized by the following attributes she outlines:

  1. Deliver value to the greater community, as well as customers and insiders. Provide real value and give-back to the global community and employees, generating trust and loyalty, which in turn brings in more customers. The result is a win-win situation, with more profits for the business, satisfied customers, and happy employees at all levels.
  1. Develop a personal-engagement extraordinary service mentality. The days of mass production and commodity pricing as an asset are gone. The new customer generation wants to provide input, and wants to be treated as one-of-a-kind in their solution, delivery, and service. Being good in business now looks like an art, with creativity and innovation.
  1. Customers and team members must be inspired, rather than pushed. Companies that offer value beyond their product or service, for social and environmental good, are seen as leading the way forward to a shared future abundance. This results in a new loyalty inside the organization, as well as outside, building momentum and profit.
  1. Grow bigger by thinking smaller in the beginning. Start with a niche that you want to be known for, and knock it out of the ballpark by being the best. Narrowing your focus actually broadens your appeal and allows you to charge a premium because you are “the expert.” This give you the credibility to expand to other niches and grow the market.

  1. Make innovation, creativity, and artistry your core competency. This requires team members who’ve been taught to think like innovators, and a reward system that fosters creativity. It requires actively listening to customers, and a culture of change. Most of all, it requires leadership and communication from the top on purpose and shared goals.
  1. Tell your purpose story for engagement and improved recollection. Stories have been an essential driver of change and engagement throughout human history. Good stories make us think and make us feel. They stick in our minds and help us remember ideas and concepts in a way that numbers and text on a slide with a bar graph won’t.
  1. Bridge the physical and digital worlds for your customers. Make sure all relevant customer interaction data, regardless of channel or source, is immediately available at every step of the customer’s journey. Empower all team members and customers, both in-store and online, with the right information they need in order facilitate a buy decision.

On top of the current pandemic, the business world has been forever altered by the growth of the world-wide Internet and global telecommunications. The customer and business universes are now globally and totally connected. This means that all customers see social needs and the environment as part of their own world, and expect these to be part of every business focus.

Thus, as the new sharing economy challengers continue to evolve their new business models, the traditional incumbents are being forced to change, or forced out of the marketplace. It’s time to take a reading on where you are in this spectrum. Is your company innovating a path to success, or riding an old wave into a cliff?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 23, 2023

5 Keys To A Team That Balances Results With Learning

balance-results-with-learningNo matter how hard you work as a business leader or entrepreneur, you can’t sustain consistent results without an equally hardworking team, each with a learning mindset. In fact, in my experience as an executive and a mentor to entrepreneurs, sustainable results require a balance between hard work and learning, for you and your team members. Therein lies the challenge.

Most business leaders I know have found this balance for themselves, but many find it an order of magnitude harder to achieve and sustain this balance within individual teams and throughout the organization. I believe this difficulty stems from the historical use of results-only metrics in measuring performance and rankings, without including learning measures and achievements.

I see these issues addressed well in a new book, “The Performance Paradox: Turning the Power of Mindset into Action,” by Eduardo Briceño. Eduardo is a global pioneer in cultivating growth mindset cultures, and he provides case studies and specific guidance on how individuals, teams, and organizations can overcome this learning and hard work challenge.

Here is my interpretation of his top five foundation requirements to building great learning teams, with my own insights added:

  1. Establish team trust, relationships, and purpose. The best way to establish trust is by being open, asking questions, listening to the answers, and giving candid feedback. Get to know your team members personally to deepen your relationships. Communicate a purpose that gives people a good feeling for helping others and doing good for the world.

    For example, Blake Mycoskie, founder of Toms shoes, garnered trust from his team by effectively communicating a higher purpose of helping the needy by donating a pair of shoes for every pair sold. He found that the returns were far greater than the cost.

  2. Empower team members to initiate change. Make sure your team members feel that you are always willing to listen to new ideas, and never penalize or reprimand them for thinking outside the lines. Encourage change and highlight the learning that always comes from failures. Celebrate small successes often with informal positive feedback.

    Amazon and Jeff Bezos credit much of their growth and success to supporting of unsolicited business “experiments” from anywhere in the organization. Bezos highlights the learning garnered from failures as well as successes from these experiments.

  3. Communicate challenges and objectives transparently. A team shielded from the realities of business cannot help you make decisions. To cultivate a learning culture, you need to expect some discomfort on both sides. Over time, you will get used to sharing and team members will respond in a constructive way, and even overcome conflicts.

    Another advantage of open communication and transparency is your ability to attract and retain the right kind of talent to your organization. Most HR departments say that hiring and retaining the right team members for every role is one of their biggest challenges.

  4. Create a culture of team psychological safety. Fear of being judged as incompetent or insecure is a common and major hindrance to the effectiveness of teams. People need to feel able to talk about mistakes, as well as successes. Your challenge is to define norms of behavior and expectations for contributions, in both positive and negative situations.

    As an example, Google spent years studying how to make their teams more effective, and concluded that their single focus on team member psychological safety was the prime contributor to their success. You can start by showing empathy for each individual.

  5. Encourage people to solicit feedback frequently. When all your people are waiting for feedback, it means they assume all feedback will be critical or negative. You want the team to seek feedback as positive and powerful learning opportunities. Make it frequent and broad, both inside and outside the internal team, to reinforce a sense of confidence.

    As a leader, you are the role model for seeking feedback, by asking your teams regularly for feedback on your own performance. Make it a point to really listen to their input, not be defensive, watch body language, and follow up by making the changes suggested.

You will quickly find that learning teams are more collaborative and productive in normal times, and especially in those challenges where change and innovation is required. Avoid letting them fall into the performance-only trap by shifting their focus from simply doing to learning while doing. Help them improve their skills and discover new career options while doing higher-quality work.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 09/08/2023 ***

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Friday, September 22, 2023

8 Tactics To Make Service Your Competitive Advantage

memorable-customer-serviceMost leaders agree that poor customer service is a business killer today, in terms of lost customers, reduced profits, and low morale. Yet the average perception of customer experience has not improved. Young entrepreneurs and startups, in particular, often remain naively unfocused, despite their passion, of what it takes to provide the high-quality service expected.

It’s a tough job, and inexperienced entrepreneurs just don’t know where to start, and how to do it. Chip Bell and Ron Zemke, who are experts in this area, provide some of the best specific insights I’ve seen, in the classic book “Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service.” Their eight initiatives should be required reading for every entrepreneur:

  1. Find and retain quality people. You have to start with hiring only people who are willing and able to make serious customer service happen. Make sure you know and communicate well exactly what you mean by high-quality service. Train them fully, give them authority, make them accountable, and tie their pay to customer satisfaction.

  1. Know your customers intimately. This means personally listening, understanding, and responding to your customers’ evolving needs and shifting expectations. Then make sure that everyone on the team does the same, and are motivated to improve the match with your startup. Seek out complaining and lost customers for the most important input.
  1. Build a service vision that everyone sees as clearly as you. This means articulating and living the customer service mindset for the team, in front of customers and in the board room. It must be understandable, written down, and verifiable, with regular measurements and metrics to make it real, benchmarked against the competition.
  1. Make your service deliver process “happy.” A well-designed service delivery process will make you easy to do business with. The process must be employee friendly, as well as customer friendly, and have feedback mechanisms to correct poor results. If service employees are not happy, the process isn’t working yet.
  1. Train and coach continuously. Companies with great service routinely spend 3% to 5% of salaries training team members – experienced as well as new. Leaders have found that keeping everyone on top of changes in technology, competition, and customer demands is critical to success. Service people need this as required team support.
  1. Involve, empower, and inspire. Involve team members in the fix to customer problems, as well as fixing the faulty process causing the problems. Empower them to look beyond simple rules for solutions, not out of habit, routine, or fear. Inspiration is the process of creating excitement, enthusiasm, and commitment, by your passion and actions.
  1. Recognize, reward, incent, and celebrate. By human nature, the team that works for and with you wants to do a good job. The best incentive is to give them something good back in return. This should start with constructive feedback on how well they are doing, and what they can do to improve. Don’t forget recognition for accomplishment and efforts.
  1. Set the tone and lead the way. Like it or not, you are the personal role model for all the people in your startup. How they see you deal with and talk about peers, partners, team members, and customers tells them what the real rules of conduct are for customer service. You can’t con or manipulate people into doing quality work.

Customer service is not just handling exceptions, something that you can think about later, once the business is up and running. It’s a core process that must be up and effective when you deliver your first product or service. If you still doubt the consequences, consider the following facts from research by MTD Training Group:

· More than 50% -- Scrapped a planned purchase because of bad service

· 60% – Consider switching businesses after 2-3 instances of poor service

· 69% – Spent more money on purchases from satisfied businesses

· 90% – Tell others about their service experiences.

In the past, competitive advantage was all about economies of scale, advertising power, and service versus price. With instant low price search, ordering via smart phones, and unfiltered online reviews via Yelp and Foursquare, the advantage today has shifted to companies who can make every experience positive. Prepare for it, and don’t jeopardize your future on the first day.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 20, 2023

8 Perspectives On Innovation That You Should Discount

innovation-constraints-to-ignoreStarting an entrepreneurial business, or maintaining the competitiveness of a mature business, requires innovation. Yet everyone I know seems to have a different perspective on what constitutes real innovation, and why is seems to happen so rarely. Another challenge is to debunk some of the common myths that seem to prevent many from even assuming they can innovate.

As a starting point, I like the Wikipedia simple definition of innovation as “the application of better solutions to meet new requirements or market needs.” I also enjoyed the classic book, “63 Innovation Nuggets for Aspiring Innovators,” by George E. L. Barbee, based on his 45-year career and work as an innovation guru with several Fortune 100 companies and the Darden School of Business.

Some of the most common innovation myths that Barbee mentions or I have encountered in my work with entrepreneurs around the world include the following:

  1. True innovation can only come from R&D and geniuses. In reality, the best business process innovations usually come from regular employees on the front line of your business, just trying to do a better job and better serve customers. Many product innovations come from quality improvement focuses, like the Japanese Kaizen initiative.

  1. Innovation must be driven top down by visionary leaders. Some innovations are clearly implementations of visionary ideas, but anyone at the operational level can think outside the box, individually or as a team, to suggest and implement innovations. Many innovations, including Post-It notes and superglue, were even invented by accident.
  1. Real innovation only happens in entrepreneurial organizations. Startups may be quicker to adopt innovations, but there are clearly some large problems than can only be solved by companies with large resources. Other innovations, such as the ones from Kaizen initiatives, can only come from established organizations and processes.
  1. Innovation is random, and can’t be orchestrated. Current research indicates that innovation is a discipline, it can be maximized, measured, and managed through formal processes. Peter F. Drucker outlined the key elements of this discipline, including methodically analyzing seven areas of opportunity, in a classic article on the subject.
  1. Individuals who are innovators are born, not bred. Research published by Harvard many years ago in a book, “The Innovator’s DNA,” concludes that innovation is about 30 percent individual genes and 70 percent learnable and driven by motivation. The focus must be on five discovery skills of associating, questioning, observing, networking, and experimenting.
  1. Solution innovations need to be perfected before going to market. These days, with markets and technology changing so rapidly, it’s impossible to verify an innovation before taking it to market. Thus I recommend the minimum viable product (MVP) approach with iteration, to test innovations until the product or service really meets today’s customers.

  1. “Thinkers cramp” and “organization cramp” limit innovation. Innovation and creativity are two different things. Creativity is more about ideas, while innovation is all about implementation. The “writer’s cramp” type of block on ideas need not apply to the implementation of measurable and specific improvements and innovations in business.
  1. It’s impossible to innovate in a staid complacent culture. Innovations come from people, not culture. When people change, due to new leadership, new motivation, or business changes, innovations occur, which can lead to culture change, rather than the other way around. Complacent cultures cause business failures for reasons well beyond lack of innovation.

You probably know more of these myths, but the message here is that initial innovation is critical to every startup, and continuous innovation is critical to the survival of every business. The market and your competitors never stand still, so every moment your business stands still, it is losing ground.

Don’t let a few outdated and unproven innovation myths stop your business from achieving the impact and lasting legacy of your long-term vision.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, September 18, 2023

8 Business Realities Every Entrepreneur Needs To Know

entrepreneurship-realities-to-knowHow many entrepreneurs do you know that “almost” made it big? Startups are very risky, and most fail. Yet entrepreneurship is one of the fastest growing trends in business today. Surveys show that entrepreneurs are among the happiest people in the world, despite the challenges. Yet it would pay real dividends to know at the start what separates the “also-rans” from the winners.

As an advisor to many entrepreneurs and startups, I’m always looking for early signs that usually lead to an “almost” success, but I have found them hard to pin down. Maybe that’s the reason I was intrigued by the classic book, “Almost: 12 Electric Months Chasing A Silicon Valley Dream,” from Hap Klopp and Brian Tarcy. It’s a true story of “almost” at Ardica Technologies in Silicon Valley.

Even startups with a cast of gifted geniuses and seasoned entrepreneurs can easily fall victim to these malaises. Here are the key lessons from this story and my experience that I believe every entrepreneur should take to heart:

  1. Invention without commercialization is not a business. Your technology may be amazing and the opportunity huge, but these alone don’t ensure a business success. It still requires solution delivery, a team working together, and customers with money to spend. Make sure you are building what customers want, rather than what you can build.
  1. Running short on money often leads to bad decisions. Vendors and most people on your team need to keep getting paid, or their loyalty quickly shifts to retribution. Crisis survival decisions can easily be counter-strategic and lead to product and people credibility gaps. Soliciting timely and adequate funding is more critical than development.

  1. Multiple cultures cannot co-exist in a single company. Culture is simply “the way we do things around here,” and it trumps strategy every time. Everyone on the team must share the same purpose, values, and goals. Culture clash can be some people driven by technology and others by customers. The founder sets the culture by words and actions.
  1. Startup leaders must exhibit trust and transparency. Successful entrepreneurs must create and maintain an environment of team trust to build loyalty and commitment. They need to focus on people behaviors, rather than personalities, to engender trust. Then they “say what they mean and mean what they say” all the time every time to prove it.
  1. Team conflict that turns into friction will slow you down. The best startup teams don’t shy away from healthy debates between team members or founders. That’s the way smart people with innovative insights make real change happen. But heated debates can generate so much emotion and friction that the entire team becomes dysfunctional.
  1. No amount of passion will save a solution that is not ready. If you solution doesn’t work, or exhibits quality problems in the marketplace, no amount of determination or expertise will save you. For high technology solutions, almost working is failing. Founders need to be realists, to understand when to pivot and when to fall back in recovery mode.
  1. Get rich quick is not a viable startup strategy. Entrepreneurs driven primarily by money are usually disappointed, which can cause them to give up too early or set poor goals. Seth Godin once said that overnight success in startups takes about six years, and Seth is an optimist. Make sure you enjoy the journey as well as the destination.
  1. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Like the old refrain, if you don’t know where you’re going, you will probably end up somewhere else. If you don’t formally communicate a plan, everyone will follow their own default, killing the teamwork and productivity you need to survive. No startup is so simple that everyone knows what is in your head.

These are all crucial business lessons that are best learned by reading, not repeating. If you see the symptoms in your own startup, there still may be time for recovery, or it may be time to jump ship before disaster strikes. If it’s too late for you, then at least take consolation in the fact that failure in a startup is not a career-ending disgrace, and should be worn as a badge of honor.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 17, 2023

9 Keys To Overcoming The Fear Of Change In Business

fear-of-changeOne of the biggest challenges in any business, large or small, is overcoming the natural human preference for status quo, or fear of change. It means that most team members and executives alike have a natural tendency to prefer killing innovations rather than implementing them. Even customers, while they all want the next big thing, want it to happen with minimal new learning.

These fears and how every business can counter innovation assassination are explored in a classic book, “Robert's Rules of Innovation II: The Art of Implementation,” by Robert F. Brands, who brings decades of experience implementing innovation as the founder of InnovationCoach®. His goal is to teach us how to drive a culture of continuous innovation into every work environment.

Brands book is based on the implementation of nine principles of innovation originally developed by Google way back in 2008 by Marissa Mayer. I believe these principles, paraphrased here, should be adopted by every entrepreneur struggling to accomplish innovation in a startup in any market:

  1. Innovation can come from anywhere in the organization. Entrepreneurs should look for ideas from anyone, inside the organization or outside, top down or bottoms up, but the implementation responsibility is all yours. Startup leadership and survival is all about execution. That culture has to come from the top down, by your actions and messages.
  1. Focus on customer needs rather than profits. When innovations are implemented that have clear value and acceptance by customers, business success will follow. That’s the win-win equation we are all looking for. It also propagates back inside your company, via happier and more motivated employees, and far outside as societal advancements.
  1. Target factor of ten improvements, not 10 percent. Some experts have long felt it is easier to make something 10 times better than it is to make it 10 percent better. It’s called radical innovation versus incremental improvement. It forces one to step from existing assumptions and tools, and lean instead on creativity and thinking outside the box.
  1. Let new technical insights drive innovative products. For Google, this has led to self-driving cars, based on work with Google maps and artificial intelligence. Every startup technical team has unique insights, which should become new innovations. All too often, these insights are ignored by the company, and developers leave to become competitors.
  1. Ship and iterate, don’t expect instant perfection. Too many innovations get caught in analysis paralysis, and die an expensive death. No technical analysis has the power of real-time user and market feedback. Perfection is impossible in today’s rapidly changing market, and iterations are part of educating the market as well as your team.
  1. Spend twenty percent of work time on innovation. Everyone in a company should be encouraged to spend fully one-fifth of their time pursuing ideas for positive change, even if it is outside the core job or core mission of the company. This approach works best if you start with a focus on hiring change agents, and incentive programs for innovation.
  1. Set your default to sharing rather than proprietary. Information sharing and open source facilitates collaboration on a huge scale, and can bring in as many innovations as are sent out. It also increases market acceptance of innovations, by allowing concurrent work on integration, standardization, and support structures outside your company.
  1. Tolerate no negativity attached to failure. Stigmas and penalties for failing are among the largest gates to innovation. Like Thomas Edison famously said, failure is simply learning what doesn’t work. Failing well to Google means failing fast and failing cheap, all very positive attributes in today’s rapidly changing and highly competitive world.
  1. Instill a mission and purpose that matters. People think harder if they really believe their innovations will impact millions of people in a positive way. Work can be more than a job when it stands for something people care about, and involves giving more than taking. Entrepreneurs are seeing huge premiums these days for giving back generously.

The current pandemic brings new challenges which need to be addressed. There is no more time for excuses, no reasons to postpone, ignore, or otherwise assassinate innovation in your organization. Whether you manage an entrepreneurial startup or a multinational conglomerate, the pressures are unprecedented. Are you now unleashing your team’s full execution abilities?

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 16, 2023

8 New Business Keys To Success For Real Entrepreneurs

Small-Business-EntrepreneursIn my view, starting a new business has never been easier, and according to reports from the Kauffman Foundation, the numbers are here to show it. The rate of new entrepreneurs increased between 2013 and 2021, from 280 to 360 out of 100,000 of the adult population. They helped create over 5 million new businesses in 2022, a forty percent increase over the previous year.

Of course, that’s both the good news and the bad news for aspiring entrepreneurs, since it means more competition, and the business landscape is changing faster than ever. But for founders who do their homework, the cost of entry is lower and the opportunity is higher than ever. Who would not want to join the unicorns (recent startups with a current valuation of over $1 billion)?

Even the homework is easier, with free access to more opportunity details and competitor data on your mobile device from anywhere in the world. Excellent detailed resources are everywhere, including a classic book, “The Startup Checklist,” by serial entrepreneur and founder of the New York Angels, David S. Rose. He nails the current key startup parameters, including the following:

  1. Crafting a lean business plan as your road map. The days of lengthy, text-heavy, business plan documents prepared by expensive experts are behind us. Investors and partners now look only for a framework of your business essentials, within the context of your opportunity, solution, and financials. Just make sure you can fill in all the details.
  1. Building a minimum viable product, with customer validation. Years ago, it cost a million dollars for a new e-commerce site, one that you can now create for almost nothing with current tools and technology. Minimum viable products (MVPs) are recommended for validating the market, with iterative enhancement to quickly meet market feedback.
  1. Incorporating a business entity early through online services. Before you bring on partners, develop intellectual property, raise capital, or generate revenues, you need to establish an official business entity. These days you can create a C-corporation online quickly at a low cost, which will serve you well, without waiting for an outside attorney.
  1. Establishing your brand with interactive social media. Building your public image and presence should start even before product development, through your website, logo, and blogging. Early customer feedback will position your solution, and help you make pivots before critical time and money are lost. The cost of social media done well is low.
  1. Using new tools for recruiting key players and advisors. Networking no longer is primarily a face-to-face serial activity. Online “dating” assistance, including Founder Dating Playbook, StartupWeekend, and CoFoundersLab, as well as LinkedIn and Facebook, give access to the people and skills you need, without the time and cost of travel and small talk.
  1. Rounding out the team with employees and freelancers. With the Internet and modern video communication tools, including Skype and Google Hangout, you can find the people you need, from anywhere in the world, and sign them up quickly. Successful startup teams today have a mix of remote employees, freelancers, and contractors.
  1. Fundraising through online platforms and crowdfunding. Professional investors now look for startups through popular online platforms, including Gust and InvestorHunt. Non-professional investors now use crowdfunding sites, like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, for similar access. Angel groups, accelerators, and incubators are pervasive. Use them.
  1. Measuring progress with big data and analytics. You don’t have to be a heavily funded later stage startup to get access to “big data,” customer analytics, and metrics dashboards. Remember that early and consistent measurement is the first step leading to better control and quicker improvements. Set milestones and manage to those targets.

While these tips, and many others from experts like David Rose, may seem like common sense, it has been my experience as a startup advisor that perhaps two thirds of the startups I see are built initially on creaky foundations. Later cleanup can double your costs and risks. It’s a lot more fun to do it right the first time, making it easier for you, and tougher on your competition.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 15, 2023

9 Strategies For Implementing An Innovative Business

business-innovationWhether you are a business professional in a big company, or an entrepreneur with a startup, innovation is a key strategy. Many people believe that new ideas are the critical element of innovation, but in my experience as a mentor and investor, long-term business success is more about implementation than ideas. Everyone has ideas, but only a few can make them happen.

For example, no one predicted that Howard Schultz could take the simple idea of a better coffee experience called Starbucks, and innovate it into a successful chain of almost 34,000 shops in 80 countries. Obviously, his result goes well beyond the idea of charging a premium for better beans and service. He created a culture of community and human connection that everyone still loves.

So here are my own top recommendations on how to think about your business aspirations, and put innovation in perspective among all the other priorities you will need to achieve success and satisfaction with your role on the road ahead. You will see that I believe innovation is only one of many factors that ultimately determine your position with customers and your own legacy:

  1. Ideas are everywhere – success is all about execution. In my experience, ideas are a dime a dozen, and every investor is wary of the ‘idea person.’ We are looking for people who can lead a team and turn any idea into a business. In communication to all, focus on your experience and determination to deliver results, no matter what the challenges.

  2. Create an appealing vision, mission and purpose. Vision is the big picture that all constituents can relate to. Mission is the road map to get there. Purpose defines the feeling that everyone wants to have from helping others and doing good for the world. You don’t have a business until you have all of these and can communicate them well.

  3. Search for customer pain rather than high margins. New businesses driven only by a passion for big profit margins, rather than customer value and a higher cause, are perennially high risk with low satisfaction for you and the team. To be successful, and leave a positive legacy, you need a team of motivated employees and loyal customers.

  4. Experiment and pivot to avoid ‘big bang’ expectations. Developing the ideal product the first time around is unlikely, high risk, and very expensive in today’s chaotic market. More success has been logged with companies like Amazon, which lightly funds many business model experiments each year, and is not hesitant to pivot or learn from failures.

  5. Look for technologies to adapt from other domains. Elon Musk with SpaceX is an example of a new business bringing in technologies from artificial intelligence and solar power to develop smart and reusable rockets to do satellite delivery and space travel. Insights from these technologies are often not seen by the original inventor industries.

  6. Incent team members to work on possible improvements. This means rewards rather than penalties for sponsoring new innovations internally, even if they sometimes fail. Be willing to rotate change agents across organizations for opportunities and spreading lessons learned. Provide outside training opportunities and hiring to promote this culture.

  7. New customers don’t see incremental improvements. Making something ten percent better than competitors doesn’t easily translate into a great business. You need more dramatic value improvement, maybe ten times, to get the attention of new and existing customers. This usually requires a new paradigm, real creativity, or dramatic innovation.

  8. Be willing to share technology to promote standards. Tesla has found that sharing many of their battery patents has expanded the market for all electric vehicle providers, as well as attracted the very best engineers to join Tesla’s team. Open sharing also increases market acceptance of new products and expedites support infrastructures.

  9. Analyze all failures for learning opportunities. First, failure is not always bad. In every business it is sometimes bad, sometimes inevitable, and always good for learning. Define the leadership attitudes and activities required to effectively detect and analyze failures, then establish a system for extracting learning and propagating it to all your employees.

I believe all these insights apply to all businesses, no matter what domain they may fall into, and how mature they are today. Over time, how you handle these becomes the culture that all team members learn to live with and drive your long-term vitality and success. Thus it behooves you as a business professional, or entrepreneur, to focus first on your own mindset, starting today.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/31/2023 ***

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Wednesday, September 13, 2023

5 Keys To The Culture Change Required For Innovation

Workshop_on_InnovationBased on my years of experience as a business executive and consultant, I am convinced that most companies gradually lose their ability to be creative as they mature, and over time are overcome by new competitors and market changes. Only a few have found the leadership to continually innovate in the face of change, and the rest are still looking for the recipe or secret.

Companies and leaders with notable success include Amazon with Jeff Bezos, Apple with Steve Jobs, and Starbucks with Howard Schultz. Even these have had their ups and downs, but credit their team culture with a mindset of being innovative and agile, compared to the more prevalent corporate culture of focus on profits, repeatable processes, minimal risk, and business as usual.

I’m convinced that the key to transformation success is being proactive, rather than waiting for the next crisis to tell you that you need to change. In terms of specifics, with action items that you can start now, I like the strategies outlined in a new book, “Going On Offense,” by Behnam Tabrizi.

Dr. Tabrizi is a renowned business transformation advocate with decades of experience with executive programs at Stanford University, Harvard Business School, and his own consulting practice. I like his summary of the challenges involved, real case studies, and especially his recommended building blocks to a culture of perpetual innovation in any company:

  1. Extract and instill a long-term vision in your team. Your people on the customer front lines have the input you need on institutional changes required. Listen to them, garner their trust and support, and assimilate your transformational vision for the organization. Communicate the vision priorities so that everyone knows what they are working toward.

    In my experience, most team members by default have only a short-term focus on immediate problems, leading to team members becoming less motivated and more cynical. It takes a strong leader to pull such a business out of its downward spiral.

  2. Synthesize empathy with customers with new trends. Build a deep understanding of customer needs and ecosystem megatrends through interviews, focus groups, data analytics, and your own transformation team research. Define your target customer set, and make sure you are empathizing with that customer at the company-wide level.

    Be sure to address all three domains of empathy: emotional, cognitive, and compassionate. Be aware that hybrid work settings of today are testing your company's empathy strength in its daily operations. Don’t forget to follow through in actions.

  3. Transform employee mindsets from inside-out. Before you bring in outsiders, help current team members see the transformation as an opportunity. Focus on team member strengths and unique contributions, and show how your plan facilitates their progression and growth. Have each develop a personal transformation plan with your support.

    Continuous innovation is a mindset that you cannot outsource, or bring in through acquisition or consultants. It requires that the core team be totally engaged and committed, also supported by management and in-house executives at all levels.

  4. Create flat cross-functional teams and experimentation. You need a structure for rapid and fluid decision-making, with experimentation, continuous testing, and learning. Supporting the rapid-response teams should be a core of executives led by a committed transformation leader with necessary investment resources and success responsibility.

    Jeff Bezos at Amazon is a big proponent of conducting regular change experiments in the business model. Bezos believes that if you double the number of experiments you do per year, you’re going to double your innovation, and assure new business opportunities.

  5. Motivate volunteers for rapid-change teams. You need an army of volunteers eager to drive your strategy forward while continuing their day-to-day jobs, from all levels of the organization. If selected and motivated correctly, these key team members will informally spread the message through the hierarchy, and become the next generation of leaders.

    A key to motivation for continuous innovation is not penalizing failure, and recognizing learning as well as success. When you learn from mistakes and move forward by taking accountability for results, even the ones you don't like, mistakes become opportunities.

Fundamental to this transformation is the underlying emotional commitment of the team to something bigger than profits and revenues. Only then can you all break out of the conventional corporate bureaucratic mindset and become perpetual innovators, overcoming individual wants and insecurities, and beginning the work of doing better for your business and the world.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/28/2023 ***

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Monday, September 11, 2023

5 Priorities Before You Bypass Professional Investors

professional-investorsAs an advisor to many entrepreneurs, I still hear frequently the irrational exuberance that crowdfunding is the quick alternative for startups that are passed over by overly demanding angels or venture capital investors. In reality, crowdfunding has become a major startup funding vehicle, expected to reach $3.62 billion globally by 2030, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy.

I refer back to the classic book, “A Crowdfunder’s Strategy Guide,” by Jamey Stegmaier, one of the biggest thought leaders on crowdfunding, and who has also run several successful Kickstarter projects, that together have raised many millions of dollars. He starts out by outlining five reality checks for the uninitiated who are too quick to jump in with both feet:

  1. Community building has to happen before collecting cash. He points out that the word crowd precedes funding in crowdfunding. Entrepreneurs who don’t focus on what people really want and need to know, before trying to collect money, are unlikely to be successful. Startups need to build a large passionate group of fans before the campaign.
  1. It’s not easy money, so expect to work harder than you ever have. Don’t expect to run a crowdfunding campaign in your free time. Stegmaier recommends that you start by writing a regular blog, joining a few related campaigns, building a high-quality video, and completing up to a hundred additional lessons before you even launch your own project.
  1. You need a polished, tested concept, not just an idea. If you want money, rather than just feedback, you need to actually design, develop, and prove that you have something worth people’s hard-earned funds before you launch your campaign. Crowdfunding to gauge demand is not recommended, since failed campaigns don’t usually recover later.
  1. Making something awesome will cost more than you expect. Don’t assume that any money collected from a winning campaign will go into your pocket. It usually takes more than you can collect just to build and deliver the product. Startup revenues come later. Of course, if the campaign does not meet or exceed the funding objective, you get nothing.
  1. Crowdfunding is just the beginning of your business launch. Crowdfunding success does not mean business success. Many successful crowdfunding campaigns, just like many startups funded by angels and VCs, fail miserably due to normal business challenges, including inventory buildup, marketing, competition, and customer support.

Thus crowdfunding is clearly not the panacea for funding and success that many entrepreneurs envision. According to stats from Kickstarter, only 38 percent of projects meet their funding goal. Of roughly 312,000 unsuccessful projects, nearly 260,000 failed to reach even 20 percent of their goal. There is no substitute for validating your solution before launching your campaign.

The biggest surge in expectations occurred way back in 2015, when the SEC “democratized” everyday citizens (non-accredited investors) to participate in equity crowdfunding. This means that instead of getting a memento or pre-order for a funding contribution, people can now get a portion of the business ownership, which may someday be worth millions for the next Facebook.

At this point, equity crowdfunding is still surrounded by many rules and restrictions on how much one person can invest, and what every startup must document and disclose to protect equity investors. Non-accredited investors can contribute a maximum of only 10 percent of their income, so they can’t lose it all on a single startup. We still have no experience on how well this will work.

Despite the unknowns, I’m definitely a proponent of crowdfunding, to support the upswing in the number of entrepreneurs and startups, and a new focus on entrepreneurship in every university and every community development organization. I don’t see crowdfunding replacing or crowding out angels and VCs in the near future, as there is never enough money to feed the startup beast.

The ultimate truth is that it takes about the same amount of effort and discipline to present a convincing story to investors, whether they be angels, venture capitalists, or ordinary members of the crowd. The odds of crowdfunding success are as low as the alternatives, despite what you hear about the response to Pebble Watch, and the Oculus Rift acquisition by Facebook for $3B. There are no shortcuts to success.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 10, 2023

8 Habits You Need To Cultivate For Maximum Efficiency

habits-for-maximum-productivityEvery entrepreneur and most professionals wish there were more hours in a day to get their work done. These days, with all the new technology, including smartphones and social media, many are convinced that multi-tasking is the answer. Yet there is more and more evidence that jumping tasks on every alert for a new email, text, or phone call actually decreases overall productivity.

According to the classic book, “One Second Ahead,” by noted authority on training the mind, Rasmus Hougaard, there are some basic rules that can really help you manage your focus and awareness in all work activities. Practicing these will ensure greater productivity, less stress, more job satisfaction, and an improved overall sense of well-being.

The top two rules, which he calls mindfulness, include a singular focus for at least a few minutes on your current task, and limiting your distractions very strictly during this period. Don’t ever try to do two significant cognitive tasks at the same time, switching on a millisecond basis, or your attention will become fragmented and both will suffer.

Hougaard outlines eight mental strategies or habits that every entrepreneur needs to cultivate, to keep your mind clearer and calmer, and increase your overall productivity. I concur, based on my own extended career in business and mentoring entrepreneurs. Examples of companies already coaching their teams on these mental strategies include Google, Starbucks, AOL, and more:

  1. Mentally be fully present and engaged in the current task. Presence is foundational for focus and mindfulness. It means always paying full attention to the people, objects, and ideas around you. Practice by making a conscious decision to intentionally be more present with a team member, with a client, at a meeting, or at home.
  1. Deliver rational responses rather than impulsive reactions. This requires patience, or the ability to endure some discomfort and stay calm in the face of challenging situations. Patience is more concerned with larger goals, rather than temporary quick-fix solutions. Practice by stopping and taking a few breaths to calm down, before reacting.

  1. Choose to always give honest and constructive feedback. Show kindness. Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Practice by incorporating kindness in every interaction with people, by showing attention, respect, understanding, and acceptance. You will improve everyone’s productivity, and make yourself happier as well.
  1. Approach every situation with a beginner’s mind. Without a beginner’s mind, what you have seen and done in the past, called habitual perception, can be problematic. It means you may not actually see today’s reality. Practice by overtly rejecting any habitual perceptions, and challenging yourself to be more curious in your day-to-day activities.
  1. Refrain from extended fighting with problems you can’t solve. Acceptance is the realization that every problem can’t be solved, and frustration or anger won’t resolve the issue. It will just make you less effective and less happy. Practice by choosing to move on, without carrying an inner battle, when you have exhausted all reasonable efforts.
  1. Balance your focus between instant gratification and discomfort work. Consciously identify the tasks that come easy to you, such as email and texting, versus tougher tasks, maybe including customer complaints or confronting coworkers. Practicing awareness of balance will lead to a change in your level of quick distraction and long-term avoidance.
  1. Proactively seek moments of joy throughout your day. Most of us are “always on,” always connected, and always running, all day. The key to cultivating joy is to anticipate at least some activities you enjoy daily. Many people find joy in just sitting still for a few minutes in quiet contemplation. Others find an occasion to smile or laugh every day.
  1. Consciously let go of heavy thoughts and distractions. Letting go is a simple but powerful mental strategy to clear your mind and refocus on the task at hand. Let go of a problem stuck in your head, or frequent distractions, such as a new email or text message. Practice by periodically relaxing and breathing to refocus your thoughts.

Without these mindfulness initiatives, most people will find their ability to focus at work declining. We all face the same information overload, increased pressure to move fast, and highly distracted work reality. Our attention is continuously under siege, leading to fewer results. Have you noticed an impact on your productivity, health, and happiness? Now may be the time to increase your focus.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 9, 2023

6 User-Centered Design Guidelines To Thrill Customers

customer-centered-designToday’s customers demand more than a good product; they expect a great customer experience. A few companies are leading the way, including Apple with their iPad and iPhone, offering irresistible stores with friendly experts, elegant packaging, and customer service that never ends. People love Apple’s whole customer experience, and willingly pay a premium for the product.

Much has been written about product design, but designing the total experience from the front rarely happens yet. In the classic book, “X: The Experience When Business Meets Design,” Brian Solis details how to design the whole experience, rather than just the product. Solis is a globally recognized thought leader in this area, and he asserts that the experience is now the product.

Every entrepreneur needs to learn how to do this by starting with the six principles of User-Centered Design (UCD), as outlined by Solis in his book, and already adopted by key International standards organizations:

  1. Apply multidisciplinary skills and perspectives. The total experience design begins with a common vision, but then must cross the borders between product, packaging, marketing, customer support, and many other disciplines. Human-experience design always supplements technology-driven design, and environmentally sustainable design.
  1. Explicitly integrate customers, tasks, and environments. Designers must factor in people behaviors, context, preferences, as well as customer goals and aspirations. The objective is to build a sustainable relationship between the product and customer. This requires people on your team who have real-world experience, as well as design training.
  1. Insist on customer engagement and user-centered evaluation. With the advent of interactive social media, as well as high-bandwidth video tools, there is no excuse for not involving real customers, and prospects who fit the desired demographic. With these, you apply common tools, such as field research, user groups, questionnaires and interviews.
  1. Include the total user experience from shopping to support. Experience using the product is only one stage. Others include the marketing awareness and education stage, online and in-store shopping stage, setup stage, support, and upgrade considerations. While there are many models for the design process, every stage should be included.

  1. Keep users engaged throughout design and development. Don’t assume that early input is adequate. In today’s fast paced market, trends and user needs evolve. Results show that when users are engaged throughout the development process, a number of key system requirements are identified that would otherwise be entirely missed.
  1. Make user-centered design processes iterative. Early testing of conceptual models and design ideas often suggests a complete overhaul and rethinking of the design. In all cases, designs can be refined and improved by iteration. Full customer experience use cases are key because they help identify interactions between stages of design work.

Customer experience should be one of the biggest priorities in startups right now, but I still don’t see it happening. Technologists focus on building a product that works, marketing people try to build a story around the result, and support people figure out how to deal with customer feedback on shortcomings. Good customer experiences happen only by accident, rather than by design.

Most new customers are now mobile or digital first as a result of the devices and apps that shape their lives. These products with their pinch, swipe, zoom, and instant delivery have reshaped customer preferences and decision making. A great customer experience today requires an acceptance of these engagement models and building on them, rather than ignoring them.

If you are looking for a competitive advantage, creating a positive total user experience is the place to start. Too many existing companies have evolved into silos of expertise, which make user-centered design and delivery difficult, if not impossible. As an entrepreneur, you have the opportunity to take the lead, and become the world’s next super-brand. Now is the time to do it.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 8, 2023

8 Ways To Relate To Peers That Can Make Or Break You

American Chamber of Commerce Reception, March 5, 2014.Original public domain image from FlickrMost entrepreneurs, and members of any small team, naively assume that the key to their success is hard work, dedication, and long hours in the business. In reality, their effectiveness is usually more related to how well they develop their work relationships with peers and business leaders. First they need to decipher correctly every relationship as a workship, friendship, or foe.

Workships, according to workplace expert Dr. Jan Yager, refers to those workplace relationships that haven’t yet developed into full-blown friendships, but are closer than mere acquaintances. In her classic book on this subject, “Who’s That Sitting at My Desk?” she explains the importance of mastering work relationships, and provides specific guidance on building the right ones.

It behooves all entrepreneurs and team members to recognize the positives and negatives of each type of relationship. More importantly, we all need to develop the right relationships, and actively avoid those types that are not right for the business, or not right for our career at a particular point in time. Here are the key ones I have experienced, as paraphrased from her book:

  1. Acquaintanceship. Every business relationship, peer-to-peer, or inside to outside, starts as an introduction and formal recognition of roles. Too many relationships never advance beyond this stage, resulting in poor communication, no cooperation, low trust, and low shared productivity. Moving forward to a workship is critical to the business.
  1. Workship - Mentor. This is a productive working relationship where one party, more knowledgeable and/or experienced, takes an active role in fostering the advance of the other. When both parties contribute, it’s a powerful and positive relationship that benefits both careers, as well as the business.
  1. Workship - Advocate. Unlike the mentor, who is a coach and teacher, the advocate inspires you to be the best that you can be. The best advocates do this because they care about you as a person, not because of personal aspirations. Your business will benefit from the increased productivity, high morale, and skill growth.
  1. Workship - Trailblazer. The trailblazer is not overly competitive, but always is a few steps ahead and enjoys setting an example that you are inspired by, or motivated to follow. As a result, you are incented to be a trailblazer for others, which leads to stronger relationships throughout the team, and a stronger startup.
  1. Workship - Communicator. The communicator is always researching the latest info, and keeps you in the loop on what’s happening in the business and why. Unlike the office gossip, information is always shared in a positive way, thus helping you to do your best at work and in your career. What goes around almost always comes around.
  1. Friendship. There are three conditions that accompany the transition from a workship to a more intimate friendship; a shared wish to move to the next level, expanding the work-based relationship to non-work experiences; and sharing on issues requiring trust and discretion. Contrary to popular opinion, friendships are not inherently bad for business.
  1. Romantic. When the relationship is appropriate, condoned by the company, and welcomed by both parties, it can be positive from a personal and even a work perspective. On the other hand, it can cause enormous emotional and legal problems, not to mention pain, suffering, and business failure. Proceed to this level with caution.
  1. Foe. A foe relationship between two startup team members is always toxic to the business, so quick action from the top is required to save the business. Some foe relationships can be turned around to a productive workship or friendship, but all require first a shared wish by both parties to change. Workships and friendships can’t be forced.

In summary, entrepreneurs need to be especially perceptive and sensitive to business and personal relationships, since they normally work with small, closely-knit teams, on innovative and highly unstructured environments. The quality of relationships with customers, investors, partners, and suppliers can easily be their sustainable competitive advantage, or their death knell.

In my experience, even the best technology and business model won’t succeed without successful relationships. That’s why investors say they invest in people, not ideas. Starting from the top, make sure your startup has the right people, and the right relationships with each other. If you don’t, you too may soon find someone else sitting at your desk.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 6, 2023

8 Strategies For Remaining Cool And Collected At Work

cool-and-collected-officeUnfortunately, many of the business professionals I meet these days in my mentoring and consulting activities feel perennially stressed and out of control, versus calm and satisfied with their position. They realize that their productivity is suffering, as well as their health, but they don’t know what to do about it. In my experience, it’s all about work-life balance and enjoying the role.

Over my years in business, I have accumulated a list of recommended strategies for keeping cool and calm in the face of increasing demands at work. On the top of my list is a focus on minimizing multitasking, a result of continuous smartphone and email alerts, as well as an instant gratification mentality. Trying to do too many things at the same time, in my view, results in nothing done well.

Here is my prioritized list of work management strategies I recommend to all business professionals and entrepreneurs:

  1. Avoid reliance on multi-tasking to keep up with requests. Take the time to fully focus on each task you are faced with, and your decisions and productivity will improve. Make every effort to have your mind be totally present for each challenge from a team member or customer. You will also find this reduces stress and allows you to stay cool and calm.

    Some recent studies by scientists assert that multi-tasking not only reduces your output, but it also reduces your IQ. Some say that when people do two cognitive tasks at once, their cognitive capacity can drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an 8-year-old.

  2. Schedule uncomfortable tasks when you are fresh and alert. Practice scheduling of your most onerous tasks, such as counseling team members or meeting unhappy customers, when you are most calm and collected at the beginning of a day, or when you are least likely to be distracted. Balance in your time on strategy and operational issues.

    In simple terms, this means managing your own schedule, rather than allowing events and distractions to manage you. Some successful people do this by establishing a routine and sticking to it, or by writing down and managing their own list of open work items.

  3. Practice patience to listen before reacting out of emotion. Always start by taking a few deep breaths to reset your mind and body when approached with a new issue. Then actively listen to input, asking questions to get to the root cause before jumping to conclusions that may be clouded by ego, biases, and previous similar experiences.

  4. Look at each challenge with a fresh and clean perspective. Avoid the tendency to jump to a conclusion based on past situations. Challenge yourself to avoid emotional reactions and look for fresh new information rather than stereotypes. Express your logic out loud and ask trusted associates to critique your perspective for credibility.

  5. Seek to provide thoughtful and sincere responses to input. This effort will force your mind to organize thoughts and structure your understanding of the issues at hand. Focus on a calm and sensitive delivery to gain the trust and credibility you need for maximum impact and following from constituents. The results will be more satisfying for you as well.

  6. Find an activity to clear your head and refocus on the positives. For some of us, that may mean taking a coffee break, or a walk around the park. Let go of the hard negatives and focus on the rewards for yourself and other team members. Another alternative is to switch often to less demanding tasks, such as email or managing by walking around.

  7. Avoid extended internal battles with tough problems. Make a reasonable mental effort to understand and resolve every challenge, but don’t rehash every issue incessantly to the point of mental exhaustion and frustration. There will always be some problems that aren’t easily solved, and more pain will only make you less effective.

  8. Intentionally schedule at least one enjoyable activity every day. Try to balance the difficult tasks on your schedule, such as counseling employees, with ones you look forward to. For some of us, that may mean quiet time to contemplate strategy, or coffee time to chat with team members and customers. Celebrate even small successes.

In today’s business environment of information overload and a thousand ways to get interrupted, we all face the same pressure to move fast, and deal with the many distractions. I challenge each of you to spend more time managing your time and focus, rather than simply trying to react real-time to all the competing demands coming your way. Your career and your health depend on it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 08/22/2023 ***

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Monday, September 4, 2023

6 Strategies For Establishing A Vibrant Business Team

excellent-team-cultureCreating the right company culture must be a top priority of every entrepreneur and business leader. Simply speaking, culture-driven businesses put their people first, and people make the business, rather than the other way around. Today’s business mantra must be “Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers.” Unfortunately, it’s easier said than done.

Most entrepreneurs start from a base of one or two co-founders, and their vision and focus is on developing an innovative solution, rather than developing people. When they need more team members, they tend to assume that these will come with the same passion and motivation that the founders feel. Moving these employees to first place, ahead of their solution focus, doesn’t happen automatically or easily.

Once a product-first, customer-second, and employee-last culture is set, it is extremely hard to change. Transforming an existing culture is even harder than setting it correctly at the start, as outlined in the classic book, “Cultural Transformations,” by leadership experts John Mattone and Nick Vaidya. They do believe it can be accomplished, with the six specific steps paraphrased here:

  1. Culture starts by thinking different and thinking big at the top. In the midst of daily crises and information overload, it takes a strong leader to develop and communicate regularly to employees the “big picture” of where the company is going and why that is a good thing from an employee perspective, as well as for customers and for society.

  1. Accept the vulnerability of confronting leadership mistakes. The best, most able entrepreneurs, look first at themselves and acknowledge that they make mistakes. They practice one of the most important leadership tenets from an employee perspective – humility. This is necessary to solidify the trust between leaders and team members.

  1. Communicate what greatness looks like in the roles you need. Team members will never create your desired culture if they don’t know what you expect of them. They need to understand and be rewarded for the desired attributes, competencies, and results. You need to paint a compelling future for your company that they can all connect with.

  1. Transform team member mindsets, behavior, and results. The more successes you can help them create, the more chances they will have to interpret these wins as permanent, pervasive, and personal. As they rack up – with your leadership – yet more and more positive reference points, they internalize the causes and consequences.

  1. Find, nurture, and reward talent in support of a compelling future. A key step is to push every talent lever in support of your compelling future. Make sure you are hiring, training, and promoting the future leaders who possess what it takes to create the organization you want. Be sure to differentiate compensation and rewards correctly.
  1. Measure and measure again, and be quick to course correct. You must have a passionate and diligent focus on key results and required pivots. Most importantly, you must measure the strength and vibrancy of your current culture. As well, you need to focus externally on getting feedback from customers, suppliers, and competitors.

In medicine, prescription before diagnosis is malpractice. In the world of cultural transformation, the same is true. Culture determines engagement levels, not the other way around. Don’t confuse engagement or satisfaction surveys with culture surveys.
According to the authors, a good culture survey will show you the relative strength of the five desired cultures in the organization: the “can do” culture; the “will do culture; the “must do” culture; and the “team performance” culture. All of these combine to determine the health and vibrancy of your overall business.

Perhaps it’s time to take a hard look at the business culture in your organization, and what has transpired or not been done to set or transform it to a higher competitive level. In any case, this effort is not a one-time shot or a sprint, but a marathon. Your long-term business success in today’s world depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 3, 2023

8 Keys To Turning Your Company Into One That Matters

businesswoman-success-teamMore than ever before, people want to buy from, work for, and invest in companies that matter. Whether you are an entrepreneur starting a new business, or a corporate executive seeking to revitalize a mature business, the challenge is the same – to become the obvious choice within the hearts and minds of your customers, your employees, and your chosen communities.

It is no longer enough to just have a great product or service. Your company and team members have to be seen as going above and beyond to solve the problems of internal and external customers. How to do this right is illustrated well in a classic book, “Matter: Move Beyond the Competition, Create More Value, and Become the Obvious Choice,” by Peter Sheahan and Julie Williamson, PhD. I can paraphrase their eight key recommendations here as follows:

  1. First define where you uniquely can add the most customer value. This is your edge of disruption, where your courage, capabilities, and optimism allow you to bring more value to key customer problems than any other company. Prioritize likely industry change and disruption over the next five years, and structure your business to lead the way.
  1. Assemble the best team to assimilate and design what is needed. Your company can’t be a leader without establishing an elevated perspective, based on realistic market needs, and demonstrating an ability to execute. These insights must come from tapping the right people inside and outside your organization, with real customer interaction.
  1. Be known for your expertise by broadly sharing the message. Every customer is looking for provocative thought leaders, such as Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, who are able to challenge the status quo with alternatives of substantive value. The willingness to share what you know even with potential competitors is critical for credibility and visibility.
  1. Seek out only the best potential partners and customer leaders. For real influence, you need to elevate your customer and partner relationships, focus on high-potential ones that meet your point of maximum value, and say no to others. Be ruthlessly honest with yourself in building the right relationships and eliminating misaligned behaviors.
  1. Build trusted and open partner relationships, with aligned incentives. This is engaging like you mean it, which is the only way to create mutually beneficial joint solutions to challenging problems. Start with a market segment that you need to understand more deeply, and invest in the success of your joint customers.
  1. Connect with the bigger picture of the market and society. Companies that matter focus beyond the buy/sell transaction view of the world. They recognize and contribute to the interconnectedness of all moving parts of the market as it evolves in real life. It’s about relationships, communication, thought leadership, and social value contribution.
  1. Be the disruptor, rather than a reactor and hindrance to change. It takes a degree of courage and commitment to convert perspective and relationships into impact. It requires that you lean into complexity to proactively align people, processes, and systems to deliver on new opportunities, often at the expense of current and comfortable ones.
  1. Live the role of a company that cares, aspiring to be one that matters. It is important to do work that inspires others to follow, that makes a difference, and contributes to more than your bottom line. Companies that matter take a long-term view, are extremely ambitious and optimistic about their future, and value the future of their customers.

If your company consistently finds ways to add more value and drive higher-order customer outcomes, it will become the obvious choice in your targeted markets. In addition, it will attract the best talent, the most customer loyalty, and provide greater personal satisfaction to you, the entrepreneur.

Thus it doesn’t matter whether your business is a startup or a mature operation, since the principles that make the difference don’t change with size. In fact, these principles are best implemented during the initial formative period of the business, rather than wait to be driven by a painful business transformation later. Too many businesses never survive the transition.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 2, 2023

7 Strategies To Improve Your Thruput In Your Business

Increase-your-productivityIn business, the only thing that counts is results, not how hard people work or how many hours they put in. Have you noticed in your startup or around your office that some people are always at work and busy, but others seems to consistently get more done? Studies of software teams, for example, show differences as great as ten to one in productivity between working team members.

Much has been written about the external influences of office environments, motivation, and personal health impacts, but I see evidence that there are personal productivity tactics that contribute just as much. Along these lines, I was impressed with the classic book, “The Productivity Project,” by Chris Bailey, who conducted dozens of interesting personal productivity projects on himself.

His conclusions validated much of the conventional productivity data, but also highlighted several additional factors to increase productivity that may not be intuitive to most business professionals:

  1. Slow down and work more deliberately. For most people, trying to work faster means trying to do multiple things concurrently. Research shows the result of multitasking is a focus on what’s in front of us only 50 percent of the time. Constant task switching kills efficiency, and usually more than offsets the value of multitasking. Slow down and focus.
  1. Schedule less time for important tasks. When you limit how much time you spend on an important task, you create urgency around the task, overcome your urge to procrastinate, and dive in with more energy and focus. The result should also be fewer total hours at work, improved health, as well as improved productivity and attitude.
  1. Define more activities as unimportant. All business tasks are not created equal. Yet many business people continue to be distracted by the crisis of the moment or a peer request for help, rather than focus on work more critical to their success or the business. This classification of activities requires an overt effort, but pays back in productivity.
  1. Prioritize daily only the top three results required. Thinking in threes allows you to keep important activities on top of mind, and better manage your time, energy, and attention. Trying to create and manage a long list of priorities, in concert with daily distractions, leads to mental thrashing, fatigue, and lower productivity on all items.
  1. Strive for imperfection on key activities. Perfection is not an affordable target on most business tasks. Yet many people continue to work well beyond the point where they are “good enough.” The most productive follow the Pareto Principle, which asserts that 80 percent of the results comes from 20 percent of the effort. Don’t be a perfectionist.
  1. Keep potential distractions at least 20 seconds away. This 20 second rule, studied by psychologist Shawn Achor, asserts that if we move more than 20 seconds away from snacks, cell phones, or peer questions, our focus will remain on critical tasks and efficiency will increase. Distractions are the enemy of productivity. Move away from them.
  1. Eliminate unproductive procrastination. Productive procrastination is doing some lower priority activity to keep busy while avoiding what really needs doing. Unproductive procrastination is wasting time and effort, pretending to be busy, organizing your desk, checking email, surfing the internet, or taking another break. Reduce procrastination.

The value of increased productivity in business is self-evident. It reduces your costs, increases competitiveness, and generally improves the morale and payback to employees. For businesses that depend on people, high productivity can mean the difference between success and failure.

As a result, every entrepreneur and professional I’ve met in business wants and needs to be more productive, but finding the approach that works for them can be elusive. I think you will find the techniques presented here well worth adding to your work ethic.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 1, 2023

6 Steps To Providing Exceptional Customer Experiences

exceptional-customer-experienceHaving the best solution is a good start these days, but a solution alone is no longer enough to keep customer attention and loyalty. They expect to be surprised and delighted as well by their pre-purchase experience and post-purchase interactions. The most memorable businesses, like Starbucks and Apple, no longer sell products, they sell ‘experiences’ with a product at the center.

The challenge is to transform and hardwire your entire team to think in these terms, rather than the default focus on distinct towers of product quality, closing the sale, or fixing a complaint. I remember the classic book, “Driven to Delight,” by Joseph A. Michelli, with inspiring stories on how one well-known company, Mercedes-Benz, made the transition and is profiting as a result.

It’s a tough transformation for an existing business, requiring a strong leader and lots of effort. For new entrepreneurs and startups, I recommend an initial focus on these six steps from the very beginning to set the right culture and save the tremendous cost of a transformation and risky competitive catch-up later:

  1. Start with an overriding top-down focus on customer experience. The right message must be delivered from the top, by your words and your actions. Start with feedback from real customers, set measurable objectives, and make sure rewards and incentives are tempered by customer experiences, rather than only internal thresholds.
  1. Find the best of the best models, and aim even higher. Look inside and outside your industry for role models, and apply some innovative thinking to put you ahead of the game tomorrow, rather than yesterday. Your competition is global, so today’s customers are demanding world-class service. Set the expectation for continuous improvement.
  1. Make sure the team understands the ‘why’ and the ‘how’ will follow. Since customer experience is not a fixed process, it’s most important to get buy-in on the ‘why’ first. The ‘how’ will follow as each team defines how their processes intersect with those of others. Your objective should be for everyone to look for opportunities to say yes rather than no.
  1. Tie customer experience to all compensation and recognition. Customer-driven compensation is now the norm in most industries, not just consumer-facing ones. You see the exceptions being ridiculed daily in online media – employees getting bonuses despite customer pain and bailouts. Strive for customer visibility on the positive side.
  1. Practice is better than training on what saying ‘yes’ looks like. Give your front-line people the mission and freedom to practice delighting customers. Providing scripts and reading manuals won’t do it. Ask key team members to step outside the company and record their experience as a customer looking in. Then let them apply their own input.
  1. Collect and publish compelling stories of customer delight. Real stories are inspiring and more powerful than any executive or marketing messages, both for team members and potential new customers. Stories illustrate concepts and evoke emotions in a way that even the best facts and figures can’t. They highlight the impact of ‘yes’ to all.

A culture of providing great customer experiences doesn’t happen by chance, and it requires more than just excellent operational procedures. Surprising and delighting customers as the new norm requires a backdrop of strong leadership, deliberate planning, and integrity in execution. It requires brand-building at its best.

According to a recent customer satisfaction survey, more than 70 percent of customers say they have spent more with a company and recommended it to friends because of a history of positive experiences. If you surveyed your customers today, what percent of your customers would put you in the winning category?

Marty Zwilling

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