Saturday, September 24, 2022

8 Sure Signs That Your Leadership Style Needs Tuning

leadership-lessonsMost entrepreneurs assume that success is dependent on their product expertise, coupled with some knowledge of how to run a business. In fact, I have found from personal experience and mentoring that both of these are necessary, but not sufficient, for building a business. Successful entrepreneurs today must practice human-centered leadership to compete and win.

There are many leadership styles out there that may have worked well in the past, including authoritarian and paternalistic. But in this new age of relationships, these often work against your business. There is more and more evidence that a more human-centered or heart-centered leadership yields the best results with your team and with customers in the long run.

As top business consultants and leading proponents of this leadership style, Susan Steinbrecher and Joel Bennett, in their classic book “Heart-Centered Leadership: Lead Well, Live Well,” do a good job on the details of why and how this approach leads to greater satisfaction and well-being for the team, and by extension, to the bottom line profit and impact of the business.

Here are some examples from their book and my experience of the many indicators, challenges that entrepreneurs will probably recognize, which highlight the value and need for increased focus on the human element:

  1. Collaborative team sessions seem to drag on. Entrepreneurs often complain about the amount of time wasted in meetings, because one of the team members just wants to be heard, or feels that what he or she has said is not valued. Great leaders learn to listen actively to conversations, so people don’t hold up progress just to be understood.

  1. Disruptive office politics start to show. Startups with weak directives, poor communication, and ineffective cultures are breeding grounds for negative interpersonal dynamics. Office politics are really about self-interest and self-esteem. Heart-centered leaders create engaged teams that are too highly motivated to waste time on politics.
  1. Investments and acquisitions fail. Failure is often not due to fiscal irresponsibility or lack of due diligence. Business-to-business relationships usually fail because the leadership team underestimates the impact and the importance of recognizing the human element. Effective entrepreneur leaders focus on getting people needs satisfied early.

  1. Team conflicts become personal fights. A conflict and a fight are not the same thing. The best entrepreneurs understand their people and embrace constructive conflict for steering through the maze of innovation and change common to every startup. Toxic relationships are emotional, often personal, disagreements which are counter-productive.

  1. Demand for coaching, counseling, and discipline training is high. The most-used workplace training programs are really about matters of the heart. Managers need training in coaching, counseling, and discipline because they resist or have difficulty communicating with team members. Punishment at work is not a motivator to change.
  1. Difficulties retaining key employees. Top team members rarely quit the company. More often than not they quit their boss. All too often, quitting is a response to a perceived lack of leadership or appreciation by key executives. Human-centered leaders connect with each team member at a personal level to assure ongoing commitment.

  1. Evidence of crossing the line ethically. If entrepreneurs show only an exclusive focus on the bottom line, team members may convince themselves that they have to bend the rules to be successful, which can easily lead to lying, cheating, and stealing. Leaders need to focus on a human-centered culture in their actions, as well as every message.

  1. Customer relationships culture is slipping. Your startup can’t sell and compete on the strength of your customer relationships, if the business culture in your startup is not human-centered. That startup culture has to come from the beginning and from the top, meaning heart-centered leadership from the entrepreneur.

There is an increasing body of evidence that teams and leaders focused on the human element not only live well, but are winning in their profit-making objectives as well. Examples of exemplary companies practicing this model include Starbucks Coffee and the Whole Foods. Both of these are human-centered businesses that boast high growth, high loyalty, and low employee turnover.

How evident in your leadership style is your commitment to personal understanding, open-mindedness, authenticity, trust and integrity? If you haven’t tried it, or you aren’t getting the feedback from your team than you want, maybe it’s time to take a hard look in the mirror. It’s never too late to learn.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, September 23, 2022

5 Key Initiatives Define The Ultimate Startup Leader

Leadership-keys-minMost aspiring entrepreneurs are convinced that the strength of their initial idea somehow defines them as a leader, as well as the success potential of their derivative business. In my experience, it’s a lot more complicated than that. It takes leadership ability, as well as a good idea, to make a successful entrepreneur, and great leaders evolve from key leadership decisions along the way.

Fortunately, basic leadership and entrepreneurial skills can be acquired from experience and training. If you don’t have the entrepreneur leadership attribute or interest, but want to be an “idea person” or inventor, then I recommend that you find a partner with the requisite skills to implement and run the business from your idea.

Yet we all know that there is a big gap between good entrepreneurs and a great business leaders. Great leaders seem to make the right pivotal decisions at every critical point along the way. I’ve never been able to clearly define those key points, and what separates the good from the great at these points.

So I was happy to see Julia Tang Peters, in her classic book “Pivot Points,” tackle this issue. She concludes from her work with many modern business leaders, including CEOs Bud Frankel (Frankel & Company) and Glen Tullman (7wire Ventures), that there are five pivotal decisions that propel certain entrepreneurs to be gifted leaders:

  1. The launching decision. At some point an idea captures your imagination and creating a business becomes more than just about income. You define goals that rivet your attention, galvanizing you to turn dreams into reality. The launching point establishes the platform on which every potential entrepreneur becomes an actualized entrepreneur.
  1. The turning point decision. This is the confluence of your willful decision to do more, and the pressing need to take action. It unleashes an extraordinary verve to take the idea or business to the next level. It tests your capabilities and capacity in various ways, stretching them far beyond your comfort zone and requiring total commitment.
  1. The tipping point decision. Here you are catapulted into leading and working on the business, as distinctly different from the work of mastering your subject and working in the business. At this point you will have built a team whom you trust with substantive responsibilities, freeing you to hone the art of leading, inside and outside the business.
  1. The recommitment decision. Now is the time when you as the leader look at where you are and where you want to go, knowing the need to renew the commitment or leave. For many this happens during disruptive change, like being acquired or being the acquirer. For others, it’s a personal decision to balance family life, or do something different.
  1. The letting go decision.  The ultimate test of leadership is letting go at a time of strength so that others can carry on the work. It may be a hold’em or fold’em business situation, or simply time to plan for succession. This decision point is the most emotionally challenging, since letting go is pivotal in defining the terms of the entrepreneur’s legacy.

I’m certain that an understanding of these points will equip you with the knowledge you need to take the right path on decisions when it matters most. The world is full of high-achievers and high expectations, but without the proper framework for turning entrepreneurial determination into real leadership accomplishment, you risk going nowhere.

I agree with Peters that entrepreneurial leadership is not all about people traits or characteristics, but often about the choices they make at key decision points along the way. Of course, skills in decision-making are not enough alone to make a great entrepreneurial leader. Here are some of the other characteristics I look for:

  • Willing to listen, and will address skeptical views.
  • Always an evangelist and a good communicator.
  • Willing to question assumptions and adapt.
  • Proactively sets metrics and track goals.
  • Ties rewards to performance results.
  • Aggressively takes smart risks.

So a great idea is necessary but not sufficient to make you a great entrepreneur and a great leader. Work on the right characteristics, and think hard about those five key pivotal decisions that can make or break your satisfaction and your legacy. It’s more fun when you are the entrepreneur leader you want to be.

Marty Zwilling

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Wednesday, September 21, 2022

6 Marketing Accelerators For Boosting Business Growth

business-growthThe days of “if we build it, they will come” are gone. Great marketing is required to generate revenue and grow every business, especially new businesses which have no brand recognition nor loyal customer base. Yet, as a business consultant, I still find many of you business leaders relying primarily on your technology, word-of-mouth, or location to attract necessary customers.

For example, many investors I know tell me they look for business plans that allocate the largest portion of a requested investment to marketing, but most often see the top “use of funds” to be further product or service development. I also look for a commensurate portion of the plan describing the specific innovative marketing deliverables, beyond the traditional marketing items.

Usually these are described as revenue growth drivers, as outlined in a new book, “The Revenue Accelerator: The 21 Boosters to Launch Your Startup,” by Dr. Allan Colman. He is a business executive and consultant with three decades of marketing and real business growth experience. I will paraphrase here for you some of his key recommendations, with my own insights added:

  1. Make your personal brand totally memorable. In this age of instant communication through the Internet and social media, people remember personal images more than a product or service name. You must use self-promotion early and often through viral videos, blogging, and industry leadership, to establish credibility with your customers.

    Of course, you can’t possibly brand yourself if you don’t know who you really are. Now is the time for you to take a realistic assessment of your strengths and weaknesses, what you love doing, and your own personal dreams. Pull your customers into this picture.

  2. Show customers how you bring more value to them. This means you need to listen first to your customers, feed back what you heard they want and need, and convert these needs to your values. Dig deep to get beyond the best price or best service, to find a higher cause or unique benefit that they can remember and be happy to advocate.

    Another way to add value is to use today’s online digital technology to remember their preferences, simplify their interactions with your business, customize your offerings to match their interests, and make them feel special. The possibilities are endless.

  3. Build relationships with constituents and customers. Building more relationships is the most effective marketing you can do for long-term business growth. Relationships provide credibility for your brand, as well as referrals and advocacy that you can’t buy with traditional marketing. Seek out people who are already known in your space.

    For example, Bill Gates shared a mentoring relationship with Warren Buffett that increased the credibility of both, although their business domains were quite different. Oprah Winfrey was helped in her career by her relationship with Barbara Walters.

  4. Allocate resources to handle bumps along the way. Don’t assume that all your first marketing initiatives will work. Proactively use metrics and customer feedback before a crisis hits, to recognize when a pivot or product adjustment is required. Businesses that operate with no margin for recovery are doomed go get a bad image, if not total failure.

    I have worked with several new business owners who were convinced that no one could match their offering, only to be surprised by how fast competitors appeared. The smart ones were already working on new features, and able to counter competition quickly.

  5. Solicit complementary partnerships and alliances. No new business is ready to show strengths in all areas needed for growth and positive brand recognition. Be ready to complement your strengths by partnering with a complementary co-founder, distributor, or even an established competitor. Always test the relationship before signing a contract.

  6. Follow up and follow through with existing customers. Keeping existing customers satisfied is an ongoing challenge, but a critical marketing strategy. Continuing loyalty and repeat business are key to growth and a top brand image. I recommend that you meet with customer executives regularly and solicit customer feedback after each transaction.

Many new business owners find the toughest hurdle to get over is not building an innovative solution, but selling it, and exponentially scaling the business. To accelerate revenue and profit growth, you need innovative marketing strategies that go well beyond conventional advertising and distribution. I recommend you follow the principles outlines here to take the lead and hold it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 9/7/2022 ***

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Monday, September 19, 2022

5 Keys To Achieving Memorable Competitive Distinction

best-buy-productEvery entrepreneur believes that their product or service is memorable, and that every customer will quickly see the advantage over competitors. Yet true product differentiation in the eye of the customer is rarely achieved. According to an old but still relevant survey by Bain & Company, 80% of businesses believe they have differentiated offerings, but only 8% of customers agree.

Even back then, experts projected that businesses with truly differentiated offerings had only an 80% chance of long-term success, compared to ‘me-too’ companies with a 20% chance. In my view both of these numbers have come down recently. Differentiation is still a key requirement for a successful startup rollout, and but it must be sustainable to keep ahead of new competition.

Since I’m a fan of real-world feedback, I was intrigued by the insights on differentiation in the classic book, “Roadside MBA: Back Road Lessons for Entrepreneurs, Executives, and Small Business Owners,” by Michael Mazzeo, Paul Oyer, and Scott Schaefer. As well as having great academic credentials, these guys traversed the USA getting lessons from real small businesses.

Here are a few of their conclusions relative to product differentiation, supplemented by my own recommendations from recent experience and other experts:

  1. Work on perceptions, as well as reality. It doesn’t do you any good to be different, if your customers can’t perceive the difference, or you don’t tell anyone about it. The days are gone for the “if we build it, they will come” mentality. Marketing and target customer relationships are always required, no matter how obvious the differentiation is to you.

    Of course, working on perception can backfire if the differentiation reality isn’t there. Remember the old saying, “You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still going to be a pig.” Like a damaged reputation, a discredited differentiation is extremely difficult to turn positive.

  2. Quantify the difference for your customers. Use numbers to make your offering the clear alternative. Fuzzy marketing terms like easier to use, lower cost, and higher quality are not effective differentiators, since they have been overused to the point of having no meaning.

    Real data and customer testimonials say it best, such as get it done in half the time, or half the cost, or comes with a 5-year warranty. In my experience, numbers less than 20% are not enough, since small numbers are not likely to overcome the inertia and learning curve required of most customers.

  3. Focus on customers you really care about, and who care about you. Trying to be all things to all people never works. Identify your target customer segment before you finalize your differentiation. For example, customers with high disposable income will likely respond better to unique features, rather than a lower cost.

    One business visited on the road had successfully implemented a product-differentiation strategy to appeal to the 20% of their clients who were the most profitable, and discourage the 80% who were more costly. They noted that customers’ loyalty grew with their real preference for the unique product features offered.

  4. Customize to differentiate, but do it efficiently. The new generation of customers expect to get what they want, when they want it, customized to their taste. So customization is an important differentiation strategy, but be sure to strike a balance between the revenue potential of the effort, versus the costs required to execute.

    We have moved from the era of mass customization to collaborative customization. Today, differentiated companies enable customers to determine the precise product offering that best serves that customer's needs. For example, MakeYourOwnJeans encourages customers to tailor-make jeans dynamically per their specifications.

  5. Define a unique selling proposition (USP), and keep it simple. Complex or highly technical selling propositions are not good differentiators, since they will likely not grab people’ attention or be remembered by most customers. A good example is Dominos Pizza “We’ll deliver in 30 minutes or less, or it’s free!”

Successful product differentiation requires a conscious and continuous effort, including listening on the right social media channels, being consistently helpful to your customers, and continuous innovation. But the results can put you in that coveted 8% that customers remember for real fun and profit. Isn’t that why you signed on to the entrepreneur lifestyle in the first place?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, September 18, 2022

8 Reasons That Startups Need To Think Like An Invader

think-like-soldiersWinning customers as an entrepreneur in a startup has many parallels to a young army trying to penetrate some formidable new and unfamiliar territory. You need a strategy as well as a goal, and you need to pick your battles well. Even in this age of purpose before profits, a business won’t survive by pretending there are no competitors out there to worry about.

I’ve long been aware of the 2500-year-old, but still current, masterwork on military strategy by Sun Tzu, “The Art of War,” but never thought very relevant to business startups. But Becky Sheetz-Runkle, in her classic book for small businesses, “The Art of War for Small Business,” gave me a whole new perspective.

In the context of offering some inspiring examples of small business success, she includes some timeless business lessons that I believe every startup entrepreneur should take to heart and follow in practice. As examples, I offer my interpretation of some of the key lessons here:

  1. Scout the territory first and pick your battles. A smart general going into battle always does the research first on the lay of the land, including critical high points that have the most value, before charging into the fray. Too many startups rush into battle early, assuming any progress will somehow give them the competitive advantage.

  1. Prepare thoroughly and strike fast. Lining up your resources is critical, but so is time to market. Some entrepreneurs get bogged down in planning and never get to the point of action, often called analysis paralysis (i.e. ready-aim-aim-aim-aim-aim...). A good general makes sure his troops are trained and prepared, and are not hesitant to act.

  1. Capitalize on strengths and shore up weak points. A winning military leader always knows the weaknesses of his troops, as well as the strengths. Entrepreneurs likewise must be able to recognize and leverage the competencies of the current team, while providing the backup and direction to minimize weaknesses in selecting target markets.

  1. Attack competitor weaknesses and be alert for opportunities. Every competitor, like every army, has weak points, and every territory has ready opportunities. Entrepreneurs must seek these out, pivot as required, and lead the team into battle. Small wins and some penetration builds momentum and bolsters morale for that major assault.

  1. Limit your focus to key objectives on a single front. No startup or army can manage more than 3 to 5 goals and priorities without becoming unfocused and ineffective. Pick the key challenges and attack them will all your resources, rather than stay spread so thin that every initiative is jeopardized. “Spray and pray” is not a winning strategy in any war.

  1. Capture territory the opposition does not yet own. In war, the smart general looks for territory that is undefended. Success there is assured, but the value of that position may also be low. In business, it’s always smart to look for new opportunities, or markets with few competitors, but beware of “solutions looking for a problem,” and lack of customers.

  1. Negotiate and leverage win-win alliances. Even in ancient times, creative diplomacy was a better solution than fighting to the death. Entrepreneurs need to learn that your toughest competitor may be your best strategic partner, leading to a win-win situation. This approach is called coopetition, and is too often overlooked as a key strategy.

  1. To win you have to take risks, but don’t be reckless. There is no safe position in business, or in war. In both cases, charging into battle with your eyes closed, is simply reckless, and will lead to destruction. Winning in either arena requires the skill and willingness to take smart risks, with trained resources, due diligence, and determination.

In fact, I now believe that all of Sun Tzu’s teachings are still relevant to entrepreneurs, who more than ever face fierce competition for customers, market share, and talent. Their very survival depends on strategy, positioning, planning, and leadership, just like it did for armies a thousand years ago.

With these lessons in hand, entrepreneurs today in startup companies can and do outsmart, outmaneuver, and overwhelm larger adversaries to capture market share, satisfy unmet needs, and emerge victorious in their chosen markets. That’s the challenge and the fun of being an entrepreneur. Believe me, it’s a lot more satisfying than the alternative.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, September 17, 2022

6 Mistakes Often Made Positioning Against Competition

positioning-competitionDon’t bash the competition. Every investor knows how vulnerable a new startup is to competitors, so investors always ask about your sustainable competitive advantage in the marketplace. How an entrepreneur answers this question speaks volumes about their knowledge of business realities, customers, confidence, and their ability to handle investor funding.

There is no perfect answer to the competitive advantage question, but investors are looking for how your offering will keep ahead of competition, not just at this moment, but throughout the life of their three to five-year investment. They are also seeking to find out how you handle one of the many tough questions that a new founder will get in today’s market.

A strong answer should be something like “Our product introduces a new lower-cost technology, which we have patented and trademarked, that makes us very attractive today, and will provide a wealth of additional products as we move forward.” That says you are competitive today, have a real barrier to entry, and the potential to remain ahead of the competition for a long time.

Based on my own experience as an angel investor, and feedback I get from many other investors, here are a collection of answers that we often hear instead, from the least credible to at least reasonable:

  1. Insist you have no competitors. Leading with this answer will likely terminate any further investment opportunity with this investor. He or she will assume your comment means there is no market for your product or service, or you haven’t looked. Neither speaks well for you or your startup. Even if you hedge by saying no direct competitors, we all know that existing cars are still big competition to your new flying automobile.
  1. Claim the first mover advantage. This is one of the most frequent responses I hear, and is rarely convincing. The problem is that startups have limited resources to keep them ahead of big companies. If your early traction highlights an opportunity they have missed, they can mobilize their huge resources and run over you. First mover advantages are only sustainable by large companies, or founders with deep pockets.
  1. Proclaim your solution as a paradigm shift. If you insist that your technology is so new and unique that it will disrupt your competitors and the whole market, investors will fear that neither they nor you can afford the time and marketing required to weather the change. They will likely decline on the basis that historically, pioneers get all the arrows.
  1. Highlight your world-class team as the secret sauce. Insisting that your team is better than any other, giving you a sustainable competitive advantage for the long term, will likely come across as naiveté or arrogance. Investors know that no startup has a lock on the best people and processes, and investors don’t deal with unrealistic founders.

  1. Declare that you will offer the product or service free. Free is a dirty word to investors, since they need a return on their investment. Perhaps you intend to collect money from advertisers, but this requires a large investment to get the audience you need before monetization can work. Facebook spent over $150 million before revenue.
  1. Intellectual property as barrier to entry. I like patents, trademarks, and trade secrets, so this answer is a better sustainable competitive advantage than the other five answers. Now all you have to do is defend your position, and we all know that patents can break a startup in court battles, and will have alternative implementations if the price is right.

Thus, there is no perfect answer to this question, so the best entrepreneurs see it as an opportunity to highlight their own advantages, rather than put down a competitor. Being negative is never the answer. For example, it’s tempting to say that your worst competitor has poor quality products, requiring costly maintenance, but it’s much better to say that you provide a five-year free warranty that no competitor can match.

After highlighting your best competitive features and your intellectual property barriers to entry, I encourage you to put on your humble face, and proclaim your determination to never stop improving your products and processes to out-distance competitors. You want investors to believe that you are a realist, but have the confidence and determination to win.

Investors know that winning in today’s highly competitive environment is more a mindset than a product feature. Competitor bashing is not a skill that you need to hone. I look for entrepreneurs that can sell themselves and their offering to discerning customers. Money from customers and investors is the same color.

Martin Zwilling

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Friday, September 16, 2022

10 Remote Staffing Blunders That Will Cost You Dearly

Outsourcing_TeamThese days, it is almost impossible to find a small business where everything is done by full-time employees, in the office or at home. We are in the age of outsourcing, by any of many popular names, including subcontracting, freelancing, and virtual assistants. These approaches allow your startup to grow more rapidly, save costs, but costly mistakes can lead to business failure.

There are many books written on this subject, but this classic by Chris Ducker, “Virtual Freedom,” manages to pack a lot more practical guidance into a small space that many others I have seen. He is regarded by many as the number-one authority on virtual staffing and personal outsourcing, and is himself a successful entrepreneur based in the Philippines.

I was impressed with his summary of the top ten outsourcing mistakes made by entrepreneurs, followed by real guidance on how they can and should be avoided. In terms of quotes I hear too often, here is my interpretation of the most common mistakes, which every entrepreneur should avoid at all costs, before these assume that outsourcing will be their salvation:

  1. “With outsourcing, we won’t need many managers.” Contractors and freelancers, like any other business, manage their own internal processes, but they can’t manage your business. Don’t over-manage remote workers, but don’t expect them to manage your business. Hire and train your own managers for internal and external work projects.
  1. “With the high-speed Internet, our workers can be anywhere in the world.” Labor rates are lower in some countries, but culture and language match are the real keys to productivity. Countries near you may be in the same time zone for easy communication, but lack the skills you need. As with real estate, it’s still about location, location, location.
  1. “Let’s cut costs by outsourcing all from this point forward.” Some entrepreneurs get outsource-happy to save costs and begin outsourcing everything and anything that lands on their desks. Ideal outsourced tasks are beyond your core competency, can be specified in detail, and managed with quantified deliverables and checkpoints.
  1. “Fixed price bidding is the only effective outsourcing model.” Getting a fixed price bid works for well-defined short-term projects, like blogging or programming. But trying to use it on call centers, affiliate marketing, or even data entry probably won’t be effective. Do your research with peers, and check the alternatives on every project. Be flexible.
  1. “Fair compensation is the lowest price we can negotiate.” Outsourcing won’t work if you don’t keep the virtual team happy. Unhappy workers will do a poor job, so cheap is not always a good deal. Fair compensation is normally something higher than the market price at the outsourcing location, but lower than you would have to pay in your location.

  1. “I expect everyone working for me to adopt my culture.” The outsourcing team will always try to adapt to your situation, but success depends on their cultural work ethics, time constraints, social status, language quirks, and an overall attitude. Adapting to culture goes both ways, and training is the key. Recognize and embrace differences.

  1. “Current workers will manage the outsourcing as I grow.” Don’t set up outsourced projects under a professional who doesn’t want to manage, or is simply unavailable to the different work hours, or insensitive to cultural differences. Virtual teams need a lot of stability and structure, extra communication, standard protocols, and contingency plans.

  1. “My IT budget will go down as remote users use their own tools.” When you sign up remote workers, you’ll start to rely heavily on collaborative tools, Internet bandwidth, and new data security tools. You will need to invest more in training your own team, and increase your capital budget for new hardware and software. Don’t get caught off guard.

  1. “Utilization and personal growth of virtual employees is not my problem.” Some entrepreneurs view their outsourced employees as temps, or as a cheap way to staff the company during its startup phase. You should never hire internal or external staff based solely on what they can do now. Bored and unmotivated teams are never cost-effective.

  1. “I’ll outsource software development, since I don’t understand it.” Entrepreneurs need to know every component of their business at a management level, or have a cofounder who does. Relying totally on a virtual team implies they are managing your company, not you. If you don’t know where you are going, you probably won’t get there.

In summary, an entrepreneur should never approach outsourcing as an inexpensive and easy method of offloading work. With modern technology, and worldwide reach, it should be seen as an important tool for building an efficient, lean, and competitive business, optimized to give you more time for strategic focus.

As every entrepreneur quickly learns, their time is a scarce resource, and it can’t be outsourced. To grow the business, every entrepreneur needs to spend more time working on the business, rather than in the business. How many hours a day are you working on your company? Maybe it’s time for some smart outsourcing.

Marty Zwilling

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