Monday, May 10, 2021

6 Ways To Extend Creativity To All Areas Of Business

think-outside-the-boxMost aspiring entrepreneurs believe their initial idea and inspiration requires the most important creative thinking. Experienced entrepreneurs will tell you that the initial idea is the easy part, and it’s the later implementation, and the competitive business marketing that are the real creative challenges.

There is a tough balance here to achieve, since a large portion of starting and running a business requires analytical, logical thinking. In fact, our education and training to logically associate related concepts reduces our ability to add the creative side, even though we were all born without that bias. Maybe that’s why “thinking outside the box” is so rare.

While looking for guidance on how to be more creative in growing a business, I came across Michael Michalko’s classic book, “Creative Thinkering,” which clearly applies to business as well as personal environments. With his insights, I offer the following recommendations on how to nurture and build your creative business capabilities:

  1. Look for familiar patterns in unrelated subjects. Due to learned habits and routines, new ideas default to be similar to old ones. Creative thinkers get results by combining dissimilar subjects, like investors and competitors. I find that startups looking for funding often never even think of asking strategic partners, rather than just venture capitalists.
  1. Change the way you look at things, and the things you look at change. Stereotyped notions block clear vision and crowd out imagination. Sometimes it’s helpful to imagine contradictory approaches, or working with opposites. Many businesses have found that raising the price of a product to give it status can win more customers than a price war.
  1. Think the unthinkable. We all need ways to unstructure our imaginations to explore the outer limits of alternatives, so that we can go beyond the typical solutions. In business, this may be as simple as replacing a product line that is still profitable, or a recent startup making a takeover bid for a large company. Creative people at Facebook are likely working on this one right now.
  1. Intention is the seed of creative thinking. Intention has a way of bringing to our awareness those things that our brains deem important. One way to prime for creativity is to generate an awareness of what you want to accomplish. If you study the Amazon 1-click patent long enough, you’ll likely find something of your own worth patenting.
  1. Change the way you speak, and you change the way you think. Many entrepreneurs focus on deficiencies, and phrase their thoughts and ideas with negatives, such as no, never, and don’t. Make a conscious decision to become a positive-thinking person by creating positive speaking patterns. Ten customer referrals is better than “no complaints.”
  1. You become what you pretend to be. Attitudes influence behavior, but behavior also influences attitudes. Reality has often been shown to conform to beliefs, whether they be positive or negative. In business on the Internet today, it’s easier than ever to pretend to be a large and mature company, and successful startups don’t have to pretend long.

Brainstorming, ideation, thinking outside the box, disruption, creative thinking – whatever you want to call the process of developing successful new business approaches – is something that must explore every day in your business. You have to let go of things that are holding you back, and take chances in business, especially after that first great idea.

You cannot will a new idea. But you can train your imagination, like a muscle with regular exercise, to conceptually blend dissimilar concepts from different contexts, leading to original ideas and insights. How long has it been since you have conceived and implemented a really creative idea in your business?

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 9, 2021

6 Techniques For Kickstarting Time Management At Work

work-management-kickstartOne of the toughest challenges of an entrepreneur in building a startup is the fact that there are so many things that you don’t know how to do, or don’t like to do. Things like raising money, building a business plan, or hiring and firing people. These aren’t fun, especially for a visionary. That’s when the curse of procrastination steps in.

The result is that certain things just never seem to get done. Jan Yager, in her classic book, “Work Less, Do More” talks about procrastination as a primary obstacle to efficient time management. She describes how you can grow so busy doing everything but what you should be doing, that you’re unaware that you’re failing to address what’s really fundamental to your success.

I haven’t met an entrepreneur yet who can honestly say they haven’t felt this challenge. Here are some techniques I espouse from Jan and others for conquering procrastination:

  1. Plan your daily activities in advance. Make whatever it is you’re avoiding the very first task you do on a given day. Don’t start the day by checking e-mail, surfing the Internet, or reading the newspaper. Get a priority task done first every day, then take a break or do some low priority work that you enjoy more.
  1. Set up a personal reward system. Pick a reward that will be a real motivator, something you truly want but have been denying for yourself. For example, as soon as you complete your financial projections, you can call your business partner to skip out for that round of golf he keeps mentioning.
  1. Try creative procrastination. If you are finding your top priority to be too daunting, try tackling the second or third most important items on your to-do list. You will accomplish all your day’s priorities, but in a different order. That’s better than substituting a trip to the doughnut cart.
  1. Arrange for gaps in your schedule. Build space into your schedule so you actually have some free time that will still permit you to get the priority project done without the tendency to put yourself down or engage in the self-criticism that too often accompanies procrastination.
  1. Face the truth head-on. Take a few minutes to contemplate why you are delaying something. What does the postponement provide? What will it take to get you to act now? Write down the real deadline. Maybe it’s time to hire an expert, or assign the task to someone else on the team. Move the ball.
  1. Define a period without distractions. Make a resolution to turn off the phones for the first hour of a day, or close the door to your office to discourage interruptions. Do not let anyone distract you from your priority tasks during these periods.

A closely related malady to procrastination is the well-known “Parkinson’s Law” – all work will expand to fill the time allotted. When you add procrastination, people tend to start things too late, and then miss the deadline, no matter how far in the future it is set.

Psychologists assert that procrastinators actually sabotage themselves. They put obstacles in their own path. They actually choose paths that hurt their performance, and avoid success in life. It represents a profound problem of self-regulation.

If you are a chronic procrastinator, or your business partner is one, becoming a successful entrepreneur is unlikely unless things change. You can change yourself, using the techniques described above, perhaps combined with cognitive behavioral therapy. Believe me, it’s worth it for your personal well being, as well as that of the business. Start now.

Marty Zwilling

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Saturday, May 8, 2021

10 Tips For Entering The Startup Community This Year

finding-a-jobThese days I see a surge of new startups as businesses seem to be recovering from the pandemic. If you are not starting one yourself, the next best thing is joining one as a partner, or as an early employee. It takes much the same preparation to make you the best entrepreneur, or the best job candidate. Of course experience is the best teacher, but you need to get the job to get the experience.

According to Ford R. Myers, a noted career coach, and author of the classic book, “Get The Job You Want, Even When No One’s Hiring,” many job seekers and career changers make the mistake of halting all their efforts as summer approaches, believing that nobody will be hiring until early fall. He and I believe that these next few months are the perfect time, especially with the pandemic, for starting a new career.

Here are some tips from both his perspective and mine to stave off the coming summer “brain drain” and focus on the next step of employment, or starting a whole new career as an entrepreneur:

  1. Create and control your Internet image. Whether it's LinkedIn, YouTube, or Facebook, you need an online presence. No online presence may brand you as “old school,” and not startup material. Carefully monitor the "personal brand" you're building on the Internet to keep it positive.
  1. Perform an internal career audit. Now is a perfect time to take an honest look at your career -- where you've been, where you are today, and where you'd like to go. Identify new goals based on your own definition of career success and then take action.
  1. Invest in career coaching. A qualified career coach can help you get totally clear on your objectives, differentiate you from the competition, market you effectively, get the offer, and negotiate the best compensation. Don’t assume it’s a luxury you can’t afford.
  1. Actively work the network. Spring and Summer are the best times of the year to make new connections and find new startups, with outdoor activities and sports. Contrary to popular belief, business networking is not all done at investor receptions and conferences.
  1. Follow-up with existing connections. Make new connections through your network, and always follow up with people you've already met. I’ve never met an executive or professional yet who didn’t enjoy being asked to share his expertise and views, and most will then remember you as someone who really cares.
  1. Update your career "tool kit." Most job seekers still use only their resume as the cornerstone of their search. But there are many other items you should have in your "career tool kit" – good online profiles, accomplishment stories, positioning statement, contact list, professional references, letters of recommendation, and more.
  1. Tune your business fashion sense. Fashion trends in startups are more relaxed and modern than you may see in large enterprises. It may be time to update your apparel to prevent the impression that you are stuck in the past and may have a difficult time adjusting to the startup world. It also will boost your own confidence level as well.
  1. Volunteer or seek internships. There are many volunteer opportunities available during this time of year. This is a good way to get practical job experience, help people, and to meet other professionals who may be able to recommend you.
  1. It is better to give than to receive. The fastest and most effective strategy for getting help is to offer help to others. Ask the people in your network who they might like an introduction to or if there is any way that you can be of assistance to them.
  1. Become an opportunity magnet. Always think and speak positively, and never say anything negative. This will help you to become an opportunity magnet -- poised to attract, interview and "hire" your next employer.

The most important thing is to get out there and work the territory. If you adopt a defeatist attitude or wait for the job to find you, startup founders and peers will quickly see this, and you will be defeated. Startups are hard work for everyone, so enthusiasm, confidence, and a can-do attitude are essential to success. The harder you work at it, the luckier you will get.

Marty Zwilling

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Friday, May 7, 2021

7 Principles For Being A Wise Business Decision Maker

wise-decision-makerAs a mentor to aspiring business owners. smart people stand out to me with intellectual power and depth of knowledge on many subjects. The tougher question is whether you are also wise, in the sense of cultivating the right relationships, understanding team dynamics, and keeping to the correct side of the ethical line to maintain the trust of team members and customers alike.

Of course, if you are new to the challenges of business, it’s especially hard to anticipate correctly and react wisely to complex business situations. Unfortunately, in today’s world where time is of the essence, none of us can afford to make all the mistakes personally and learn from them, so I always try to recommend some key strategies for moving more quickly into the wise category:

  1. Keep your eye on the big picture, to temper your passion. If your passion is a new technology, make sure you understand how it fits into the existing social culture, the environment, and political realities. Wise business leaders know how to communicate their solution’s value in the context of this world view, and make decisions accordingly.

    A few years ago I had the privilege of working with Dr. Roy McAlister, a genius and the inventor of hydrogen engines for automobiles. Yet he has had minimal business success, not being able to overcome customer qualms, infrastructure, and political implications.

  2. Stay aware and sensitive to the perspectives of others. Wise business leaders never forget that they need other people’s support and help to make things happen. For progress, it may be necessary to curb your ego and self-dependence. That means you must be authentic and do things appropriately, based on their perspective, not yours.

    For example, after Yvon Chouinard founded Patagonia, he wisely recognized a growing interest in helping the environment, and capitalized on it by dedicating a percent of sales to environmental needs. This locked in engagement from his employees and customers.

  3. Be willing to adapt quickly as conditions change. I find that some of the smartest entrepreneurs are the most reluctant to accept new realities, and unwisely keep charging down a road now leading in a new direction. Steve Jobs was a victim of this mentality in the early days of Apple, pushed out of his early CEO role before he could make it great.

  4. Look for ways to make everyone a winner with you. Some leaders have to prove they are right and others are wrong, whereas wise leaders seek ways to strategically satisfy all parties. Learn to plant the right seed, and instead of convincing people they're wrong, find common ground and persuade them that what they really want is your desired outcome.

  5. Learn to let go of small things and hold on to strategic. Being willing to concede and learn, without giving up on your direction, is indicative of a wise leader. You can be in charge, without always being in control. Learn to delegate the operational decisions, to give you time to manage strategic ones. Keep yourself aligned with long-term goals.

  6. Act in the interests of expanding the total market. In business, just leading your company is not enough. Sometimes, to scale the market you need drive expansion by co-opetition or fostering common platforms. Elon Musk offered his battery patents free to all takers in order to expand the electric car market, and provide a common infrastructure.

  7. Understand and exercise political judgement. Wise leaders read the viewpoints, emotions, and power positions of others, through monitoring their everyday verbal and nonverbal communication. These leaders also carefully consider timing—when to make a move or to discuss issues, or mobilize other leaders to focus on common objectives.

My goal here is to help you evolve from smart to wise by providing the guidance and insights from the successes and failures of others before you, to reduce your learning time and pains. Also I’m convinced that smartness alone is not enough to assure success. We need wise leaders to create the maximum lasting value for society, as well as shareholders. You too can be one of these.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 04/23/2021 ***

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Wednesday, May 5, 2021

6 Action Stages To Get From Your Dream To A Business

goal-setting=businessBefore you, as an entrepreneur, can hope to successfully start a new business, you need to set some goals and milestones to lead the way. It’s easy to talk in the abstract about all the possible applications for a new technology, but you don’t have a viable business plan until you have specific targets on what you will produce, when, and how.

Yet many people avoid these specifics out of fear of the unknown, or set some totally unreachable goals. I’m a believer in having a healthy disregard for the impossible, but it does help to have a structured path to get there. Only when you have conceptualized your idea into realistic goals can you move on to prepare an implementation plan.

Yet even the best entrepreneurs are not sure why they succeed or fail. As a result, they blame failures on the wrong things, and are surprised when they can’t reproduce successes. Heidi Grant Halvorson, Ph.D., in her classic book “Succeed: How We Can Reach Our Goals,” gives six great recommendations around goal setting in general, and I’ve adapted them to the startup environment as follows:

  1. Formalize your goals. Setting a goal requires the conceptualization of an idea into structured thought, and formalizing that thought into one or more goals. For a startup, that formalization is a business plan. It’s hard to know when you have arrived, if you have never figured out and declared where you are going.
  1. It’s about execution. Most of the time, startup founders know what needs to be done to reach a goal, but just don’t manage to actually do it. Focusing on execution is essential for success, whether it be for business or personal goals. Action trumps thinking, especially when the future in uncertain.
  1. Seize the moment. Given how busy most entrepreneurs are, and how many goals they are pursuing at once, it’s not surprising that most routinely miss opportunities to act on a goal, because they simply fail to notice the opportunity. Startups who move swiftly get traction with customers and investors.
  1. Know what to do. Once you’ve seized the moment, you’ve got to figure out exactly what you’re going to do with it. This is why experience in your business domain, and experience running a startup are so valuable to investors. Everyone can learn, but it takes time, and goals are jeopardized by time in this rapidly moving world.
  1. Put your shields up. Goals require protection – distractions, temptations, and competing goals can steal your attention and your energy, and sap your motivation. Entrepreneurs need to focus on creating value for their customers and investors, and be sure to spend time on critical business issues, rather than the current crisis.

  1. Know how you are doing. Achieving a goal also requires careful monitoring. If you don’t know how well you are doing, you can’t adjust your behavior or your strategies accordingly. Check your progress frequently against milestones and financial projections of the business plan.

When you create goals in business, no matter how unrealistic they might seem, you are deciding that they are possible and that you are going to find a path to meeting them. To make this happen, you need all the motivation you can muster, and all the guidance from experts, to achieve success in these goals, and achieve your long-term dreams.

It probably means stretching beyond your comfort zone, by developing creativity if you are mainly practical, and mastering the art of execution and organization if you are mainly creative. Also, you need to really believe that you can achieve your goal, even if it’s taking longer than you planned. Don’t concentrate so hard on reaching your goal that you lose sight of why you set it in the first place. Enjoy the ride.

Marty Zwilling

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Monday, May 3, 2021

7 Strategies For Making A Mentoring Relationship Work

business-mentor-relationshipI’m a big fan of mentoring in business, and have been at different times on both the contributing and receiving end of the process. These days, I seem to often hear from entrepreneurs who are struggling to find a mentor, or complaining about their lack of effectiveness. Like any other relationship, it takes work on both sides to make mentoring work.

Most entrepreneurs view a mentor as someone older and more experienced who takes the time to personally give guidance, advice, and takes an emotional investment in your success. They don’t think about this process requiring an investment on their part, both in nurturing the relationship, and really listening, without being defensive, to advice given.

Brian Tracy, in his classic book “Earn What You’re Really Worth,” solidifies my ideas on how mentoring, as well as other personal development activities, can quickly increase anyone’s value and income in business. Here are some key points on how to find and utilize the right mentor, which I have adapted specifically for entrepreneurs:

  1. Set clear objectives for yourself in your business growth. Decide exactly what it is you need mentoring on before you start thinking of the ideal person to work with. A successful financial executive probably isn’t a good mentor for building and executing a great marketing strategy. If you don’t have an objective, you won’t know when you arrive.
  1. Work, study, and practice continually to solidify the guidance. The very best mentors are the most interested in helping someone who is willing to learn and grow quickly. That doesn’t mean you should accept any guidance blindly, but it does mean no time making excuses, and an honest effort to understand and implement action items.
  1. Don’t ask for too much time or make a nuisance of yourself. Remember, the best mentors are busy people, and they may be opposed to someone trying to take up a lot of their time. The best approach is to ask for small focused blocks of time, maybe just ten minutes, in private, and be prepared with real issues to discuss.
  1. When you meet with a mentor, you should lead the discussion. Your mentor should not be driving your business, or expected to provide critical feedback on actions taken or missed. It’s most effective if the entrepreneur proposes the agenda and drives for specific insights, but never forgets to press the mentor for broader or related implications.

  1. Remember the difference between a mentor, a friend, and a coach. Expect a mentor to tell you what you need to hear, not like a friend who may tell you what you want to hear. A business coach is focused on helping you with generic skills, whereas a mentor’s aim is to teach you based on specific situations. The same person can’t be all of these.

  1. On a regular basis, send a note to communicate progress and current tasks. There is nothing that makes a potential mentor more open to helping you than your making it clear that you are following through, and the help is doing you some good. This is also a good way to hand out and follow up on assignments to your mentor.
  1. Keep the relationship positive and productive. If a mentor proves to be unresponsive or on a different wavelength, bow out of the relationship immediately. Be aware that mentors are usually in a business position that can hurt you as well as help you, so don’t waste their time or antagonize them.

When you consciously and deliberately seek out a mentor, you must look for someone who genuinely cares about you as a person and who really wants you to be successful in your venture or your career. That emotional involvement and genuine concern for you are the keys to real mentor contributions.

Some people will say that they need to make all their own mistakes, in order to learn from them. Yet there is plenty of evidence that the fastest way to business success is by piggybacking on the counsel of men and women who have already spent years learning how to succeed. If you can’t make a mentor relationship work, I worry about the rest of your business as well.

Marty Zwilling

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Sunday, May 2, 2021

7 New Venture Strategies Improve The Odds Of Survival

business-survival-oddsI’m always looking for evidence of early startup characteristics that might be predictors of long-term success. Every investor has his own list, usually based on his own very small sample, or simply his gut feeling. Of course, we would all like to have a magic list based on more definitive tracking of many real startups over time.

In that context, I came across an old study of 27 startups featured in Inc’s annual “Anatomies of a Start-up,” done for “The Journal of Business Venturing,” and published by George Gendron in Inc Magazine. As it turned out, 17 of the 27 companies were still in business seven years later, which is at least double that of other studies. The points all still ring true today.

To determine what factors made a difference, the researchers compared the 27 companies using numerous variables. Of all those variables tested, only seven proved to be reliable predictors of survival. Here is my own net of those seven habits:

  1. Founder is ready, willing, and able to learn. We have all known entrepreneurs whose egos are so large that they can’t be bothered listening to any advice from friends or experts, and they insist on doing things their way. Effective entrepreneurs are always open to learning, no matter what their prior experience.
  1. Seek out established suppliers and channels. The challenge of a creating a new product or service is tough enough, without insisting on a new supply chain, and a new distribution channel. The most effective startups focus on their core competency, and work hard to pick the best of the rest for partners.
  1. Pays close attention to new potential competitors. Effective startups are never comfortable just because the features they plan for rollout in six months are ahead of what competitors have now. Things move fast in the startup world, and real competitors never stand still. Reassess new entrants and competitors every month.
  1. Spend more time on initial positioning. Like the old saying, you only get one chance for a great first impression. Overcoming a bad image, or even changing a non-image, takes lots to time, money, and effort. Your initial business identity can make or break your startup.
  1. Do your homework on minimal capital requirements. Usually that means have a Plan B and Plan C, just in case your initial source doesn’t materialize, or takes much longer to finalize that you expected. Running out of capital in midstream is a brick wall that can derail even the best plans.
  1. Offer customized products or services. It’s very difficult for a startup to jump quickly to the volume required to sustain them as the low-cost producer. Big gorillas with deep pockets find it hard to scale products that are designed or produced to order.
  1. Choose a large market in a growth industry. By definition, a growth industry has a history and an outlook of at least double-digit annual growth. A large market means at least $500 million in potential sales if the company is asset-light, and $1 billion if it requires plenty of property, plants and equipment.

This study jibes with other academic research in showing that no single factor is a reliable predictor of success, but taken together they do add up to a considerable advantage. In my view, a necessary but not sufficient first predictor of success is the habit of building a plan.

It’s the plan building process that provides the value, and gives you real insight into your market, your customers, and the competition. After that, it’s all about learning and execution. If you see a startup with the execution habits listed above, that may be the horse you want to bet on, and ride to the finish line.

Marty Zwilling

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