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By definition, most entrepreneurs are thought leaders. They have the ability to recognize a market need, the skills to design and implement a solution, and the drive to start a business from that solution. It all comes from within themselves. A business leader does the same thing and more, through the people around them. Most entrepreneurs are not both.

In reality, a successful startup can be built by a thought leader, but growing a successful business requires a business leader. That’s why venture capital investors often replace startup CEOs as a condition of their scale-up investment. That’s why so many startups plateau after gaining some initial traction, and are run over or acquired by their competition.

Much has been written on this subject, including the classic integration and update of two famous business books by Steve Farber (former partner of Tom Peters), “The Radical Leap Re-Energized”. I like Farber’s highlights of the traits of radical and profound leaders (extreme leaders) as follows:

  1. Cultivate love. Successful leaders model the intensity and energy that it takes to stay ahead competitively and meet ever more ambitious goals. They do this because they love what they do. As they continue to pursue their passion, they remain focused on the contribution made to others and to the surrounding community.
  1. Generate energy. Ask yourself this question – Do I generate more energy when I walk into a room, or when I walk out of it? Do your actions create positive energy for those around you, or are you an “energy vampire,” sucking the life out of your workplace? Hopefully you are the former, and not the latter.
  1. Inspire audacity. This is a bold and blatant disregard for normal constraints. Thinking and acting, “outside the box.” Audacity inspires people to do something really significant and meaningful. It enables them to change the business, the world, and themselves, for the better.
  1. Provide proof. How do we prove to ourselves (and to others) that we are really exercising extreme leadership? The simple answer is “Do What You Say You Will Do” (DWYSYWD). The best leaders achieve their own success by raising the self-esteem of followers. They build credibility by looking for ways to respond to the needs and interests of others.

In this extreme leadership model, leaders aren’t afraid to take risks, make mistakes in front of employees, or actively solicit team feedback. Farber asserts that most of us, at some level, have the innate ability to become a business leader. Getting fully in tune with who you are, and then following your heart, goes a long way towards helping you discover the leader you can become.

Many entrepreneurs who are great thought leaders are unwilling to listen and network. They can’t imagine that their vision for the business can be improved, or even implemented by others. They don’t hire people until it’s too late, because no one else can do the job up to their standards, or with their commitment. At best, they hire “helpers” rather than help, and are too busy to train the helpers.

Obviously some people who call themselves business leaders are only posing. They wear the label and assert the title without putting their own skin in the game. The best leaders approach the act of leadership as an extreme sport, and they love the fear and exhilaration that naturally comes with the territory.

Business leadership is not a solo act. Real leaders accept the job of recruiting, cultivating, and developing other leaders as priority one, as well leading on the thought side. Learning to be both a thought leader and a business leader can make you great. Elon Musk has long been a thought leader, but more recently has shown promise on the business leader side. Where are you along the spectrum?

Marty Zwilling

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If your startup is looking for an angel investor, it makes sense to present your plan to flocks of angels, and assume that at least one will swoop down and scoop you up. Or does it? Actually numbers and locations are just the beginning. The challenge is to find the right angel for you, and for your situation. Here are some basic principles:

  • Angels invest in people, more often than they invest in ideas. That means they need to know you, or someone they trust who does know you (warm introduction). For credibility, they need to know you BEFORE you are asking for money.
  • Angel investors are people too. Investors expect you to understand their motivation, respect their time, and show your integrity in all actions. They probably won’t respond well to high pressure sales tactics, information overload, or bribes.
  • Angels like to “touch and feel” their investments, so they are generally only interested in local opportunities. It won’t help your case or your workload to do an email blast and follow-up with 250,000 members around the world.

But now to answer one of the most common questions I get “How do I find angel investors?” With today’s access to the Internet, and Google searches, it really isn’t that hard. Here are the largest flocks:

  1. Gust (formerly AngelSoft). This is perhaps the most widely-used source of information on angel investor groups across the world, run by the “Father of Angel Investing in New York,” David Rose. This software platform is used by many local angel organizations for managing deal flow.

    Gust claims to have facilitated over $1 billion of investments in 650,000 startups to date, via connection through their platform to over 80,000 angel investors in 190 countries. As an entrepreneur, you simply use their investor search engine to find appropriate investors for your business according to location, industry interest, and other relevant criteria.

  1. AngelList. This is another very popular website for raising equity or debt investments for startups. It was founded back in 2010 by Naval Ravikant and Babak Nivi of Venture Hacks, which is also a great place to visit for startup advice.

    AngelList has featured over 3 million businesses for potential investors in a format that is, effectively, a social network for entrepreneurs and angels. They claim to have already raised over $560 million for 1400 startups, primarily in the US and Europe. In addition, they serve as a jobs available site for 24,000 startups.

  1. Keiretsu Forum. This one claims to be the world’s largest single angel investor network, with 3000 accredited investor members throughout 53 chapters on 3 continents. Since its founding in 2000, its members have invested over $800 million dollars in over 800 companies in technology, consumer products, healthcare/life sciences, real estate and other segments with high growth potential.

    The Founding Chapter is in Silicon Valley, California, (naturally). A caveat is that this is a for-profit organization, so fees to present may be significant.

  1. USA Angel Investment Network. This group claims to be the largest angel investment community in the world. They have already raised $300 million for startups in the US and across the world. A caveat is that this network doesn’t offer a personal touch, as it only facilitates the exchange of contact information, so the matchmaking is left up to you.

    The reach is very broad, with a network has 30 branches extending to 80 different countries. They have over 1,000,000 registered members with over 200,000 investors and 650,000 entrepreneurs.

  1. Angel Capital Association (ACA). The ACA is the angel industry alliance, which now includes a directory to more than 275 angel groups and 14,000 individual angels across North America. ACA member angel groups represent a wealth of accredited investors and are funding approximately 800 new companies each year, and managing an ongoing portfolio of more than 5,000 companies throughout North America.

Of course, there are many more angel investors, often called “super angels,” that have a large following and large reach, so they don’t need any of these organizations to be found. Examples of some leaders in this space include Ron Conway, Mike Maples, Jr., and the founder of 500 Startups, Dave McClure. Connecting with one of these would be a real coup for your startup.

My real message is that the best angel you can find is a local high net-worth individual, with whom you or your advisors have an established prior relationship. So get out there and network, and you can be one of the lucky ones who is touched by an angel without having to go through hell first. If none of these will touch your startup, maybe it’s time to look again, in the mirror.

Marty Zwilling

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Much has been written recently about the requirement to focus today on the total customer experience, as a competitive edge or even for survival. Traditionally, you just worried about the quality of the sales transaction (price, speed, service), but the “customer experience” now includes ease of pre-sale shopping, post-sale support, with a connected relationship throughout.

The challenge I hear from savvy business owners and entrepreneurs operating on a shoestring is that providing a superior customer experience costs money. They are rightfully looking for some new business models and improvements in operational efficiency to provide them with a win-win connected strategy, where the customer becomes their advocate, while growth and profits soar.

I had some ideas on how to do this, but I was pleased with the insights to a connected strategy that were pulled together in a new book, “Connected Strategy,” by Nicolaj Siggelkow and Christian Terwiesch, professors at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. They highlight several key pathways for turning customer transactions into connected relationships:

  1. Recognize and respond quickly to customer desires. In terms of the customer experience, your challenge today is to minimize all friction from the moment a customer desires a product or service, to the moment he receives it. You want that customer to be delighted by the overall experience, rather than remember the many steps and the pain.

    Amazon does this by being the “go-to” place for almost anything, showing you options you like by knowing you and your past purchases, quickly listing comparable items by price and features, allowing you to order with only one keystroke, and delivering the item to your door very quickly, potentially (in the future) even before you ordered it.

    Uber and Lyft make hailing a ride an instant process, which you can see and track with no effort, and pay for without struggling with your credit card or cash. Alexa can order pizza or play your favorite song, just like an assistant, rather than a business transaction.

  2. Delight customers with personally tailored options. This business model recognizes that customers might not know exactly what they want, or they may not know exactly where to go to get what they need. Many, like me, would prefer that someone else do the shopping for them, and present them with the best choices currently available.

    Expedia and Travelocity do this by checking all the ways you can get from one city to another, with current prices, including connections to rental cars and hotels when you get there. Netflix suggests comedies based on your unique previous choices, and Blue Apron will deliver you a meal-kit based on your interest in health, fun, or variety.

  3. Provide useful prompting to prevent future pain. In many cases, customers would be delighted to be coached on upcoming needs, such as time to reorder medication or printer ink, before the crisis, with the option of getting the solution with a single click. This can save them grief, as well as reduce your own marketing and sales costs.

    The latest Apple Watch utilizes this strategy by continually monitoring your heart rhythm, as well as other fitness indicators, with coaching to you on maintaining your health. This obviously helps Apple sell their watch at a premium, as well as assuring loyal customers.

  4. Anticipate and meet customer needs not yet realized. Automatic execution of business transactions in anticipation of a customer need is still not common, but it’s easy to see the potential with the sensors on so many devices now being connected to the Internet (IoT). Soon your refrigerator may order more milk or bread when stock is low.

    Amazon already has a patent to automatically ship you other items of interest, without prompting, based on your prior order and usage patterns (returns are free and simple). The latest wave of medical alert sensors for seniors, like Medical Alert™, will automatically call an ambulance for you after a fall without even pressing a button.

A key point you should take from these insights is that connections and relationships these days don’t necessarily require more people and cost to your business. Current generations of customers are perfectly happy with virtual relationships, and new low-cost learning technology is setting a new bar at predicting customer desires and needs.

Thus, with a connected strategy and smart software, you can indeed improve your customer’s experience, and reduce your costs at the same time. That’s a win-win we can all live with.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/28/2019 ***

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True business success and leadership starts with real personal values, extends to building a team, and finally to inspiring customers and your community. That’s a huge leap from an entrepreneurial idea, to a product, to making money. Is it any wonder that the majority of startups fail? My job as a new business advisor is to help entrepreneurs get over this chasm early.

My approach has always been to suggest specific actions that have immediate impact, as well as highlight positive leadership attributes, leading to longer-term success and a commitment to values. I found some great guidance in this context in the classic book, “Lead True,” by Jeff Thompson, MD. Thompson is a well-recognized successful values-based leader and speaker.

I fully support and appreciate his case studies and conclusions on specific required personal initiatives, and how these can change people, organizations, and even entire industries. Here are some of the key elements of his message that every aspiring business leader needs to understand and practice:

  1. Muster courage to not allow fear to make your decisions. As challenges come along that require specific and concrete action, they are seldom easy. Your company finances, reputation, or even your survival may be on the line. Courage is not the absence of fear, but it is the ability to put your values and vision ahead of the easier way out.

  2. Practice discipline to translate values to consistent actions. In business, consistency is the key to productivity and trust by team members and customers alike. Leaders who are disciplined around values build trust, inspire others, and have more impact. With discipline, you can be the role model your constituents need to overcome all obstacles.

  3. Use durability to stay true to your vision in tough times. Most entrepreneurs find that they are their own toughest critics. Your values and vision can give you persistence and stability, even when the road ahead seems hazardous and endless. The world may not be ready for your great solution just yet, but leadership can carry you for the duration.

  4. Find reverence for people over profits, egos, and convenience. Reverence for others takes humility, but it results in deeper relationships, deeper wins, and a greater business. The more complicated the lives of your team and your customers, the more they need values to understand those struggles. Their reverence is returned to make you a leader.

  5. Measure, don’t guess, with tools that build, not limit. Hope is the weakest strategy for improvement in business. Set goals based on values, that are meant to exceed, and use metrics, rather than gut feeling to assess your own progress, as well as that of your team. Don’t be limited by tools of the past – always be alert for best of breed and innovation.

  6. Commit to a higher cause to attract like-minded partners. Business leadership in today’s environment is all about relationships. People build relationships in the context of common values, or win-win. More important than killing your competitors or making money is a making the world a better place. People will seek your leadership as partners.

  7. Take responsibility for the big picture and your bottom line. Great business leaders really believe their values can win by improving the economy, the environment, and the bottom line all at the same time. They find it improves their ability to build relationships, communicate effectively, and excite their customers into becoming loyal advocates.

  8. Lead to learn and the benefit will go both ways. The days of educating customers to sell your current solutions are gone. Business leaders today listen and learn customer values, and then use their values to provide solutions to customer needs today, and project customer needs for tomorrow. Customers want to be led, rather than pushed.

Thus it’s fair for entrepreneurs to start by pitching an idea and an implementation, but investors and other constituents (as well as customers) quickly need to see beyond this to the values that drive your efforts. If you haven’t communicated these, or are still a bit fuzzy on them yourself, it’s time to rethink your whole business leadership strategy. Your success these days depends on it.

Marty Zwilling

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Startup work environments are always chaos, but they can still be great environments to work in, or they can be terrible. Whether yours is terrible or great, that same tone flows out to your customers, and regulates your productivity inside. You as the founder are the starting point and definer, so you need to get it right.

What does it take to create a positive workplace culture? I did some research on this, and compared it with my own experience. I’ve concluded and the experts agree that it’s all about understanding people, and overtly optimizing the factors that drive them at work.

Ed Muzio, in his classic book “Make Work Great: Super Charge Your Team, Reinvent the Culture, and Gain Influence One Person at a Time,” summarized four key influences which I have also seen as follows:
  1. We are driven by peers. According to many studies and observations, group pressure entices us to rethink our own opinions, and can even change our actual perceptions. That’s a good thing if your business peers are positive about what is happening, and it can cause a spiral into the ground if goals, priorities, and issues are not understood.
  1. We are driven by authority. Stanley Milgram, a famous researcher in the 1960s, concluded that “Ordinary people, simply doing their jobs, and without any particular hostility on their part, can become agents in a terrible destructive process.” It’s up to you, as the authority figure, to define the standards and communicate roles correctly.
  1. We are driven by expectations. Around most people at work is a core group of six to eight people (your “role set”) who send you expectations about what you should or should not be doing, along with implied rewards or punishments. Our satisfaction is strongly driven by this role set. Find compatible and complementary people for your role sets.
  1. We underestimate the impact of the situation. The pressure of a situation actually can override the prior three forces. Thus you always must be very sensitive to the context, since unfair blame based on situational factors will negate all your positive influences. Don’t make the mistake of assuming people act from personal choice alone.
You as an individual team member, and you as the authority figure, must make a conscious choice to drive the culture around you, rather than be driven by it. Psychologists have noted that going passively along ‘on automatic’ if often our worst enemy. It doesn’t get the job done, and it’s not even satisfying.

The most effective way for you to drive the culture is to understand yourself and to be explicit on the following items to your role set and others:
  • Your personal goals and purpose
  • Your intended impact (‘So what’)
  • Your incentives and motivation
  • Your progress as it happens
  • The resources you need
  • Your capability (share your knowledge)
By default, the at-work culture is just “how we do things around here,” based on problems faced “back then.” The problems you face today are different, and the solutions from back then were likely not the best. That means there is always a premium on culture teachers, compared to culture followers.

So don’t ask yourself how you can influence the culture, but rather how you already are influencing it. Are you a beneficiary of precedent or a slave to it? Choose to choose to make your work environment great.
Marty Zwilling
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The biggest challenge these days doesn’t seem to be in starting a new business, but sustaining it against the onslaught of market changes and new competitors that emerge every day. Yet, as an angel investor, I still see too many new business owners who are convinced that their biggest challenge is to get money to start, and once launched with some initial success, they can relax.

In my other role of business advisor, I see examples often of startups that may have taken success for granted too early. A recent high-profile one, Theranos, the blood-testing company, had no trouble getting customers, but promised more than their technology could deliver, Another, Shyp, an early on-demand delivery platform, blamed their demise on premature scaling.

The keys to sustainable success require you to retain that sense of urgency, focus, and vigilance after the launch that you felt during the development and early funding stages. That starts with initially building a solid business strategy, including a strong support system for scalability, long-term leadership, and adaptability. In my view, this strategy must include the following elements:

  1. Define and communicate a purpose and destination. Your constituents can’t plot a journey if they aren’t sure where they are going or why. For a successful launch and scalable growth, they need to establish many checkpoints, with metrics to assess their progress and alignment with the vision. Don’t let that communication fade post-launch.

  2. Build and nurture a team culture of trust and leadership. You and your business won’t be able to sustain a position of leadership without everyone on the customer-facing team being willing and able to emulate your lead. That requires trust and respect from all, as well as constant coaching and development to keep them committed to following you.

  3. Demand continuous innovation to keep up with change. Change is the only constant in a successful business, to keep up with new competitors and new customer demands. Innovation must be applied to your business model, your processes, as well as your product offering. Aim to obsolete your own products with new, before competitors do it.

  4. Make sustainability a key design objective for every step. You may start with prototype products, but you need rock-solid processes for successful growth and agility. Seek out the best practices in the industry, and improve them for your business. Recognize that every successful journey is long and hard, so don’t cut corners now.

  5. Hire the best people and continually upgrade your team. A big mistake often made in the rush to scale is to shortcut the hiring and training processes, to get out there fast, assuming that the team can learn on the job. Look for team players who can collaborate with others, and make sure everyone has the training and tools to do the job.

  6. Seek out strategic partnerships and collaboration. When you finally get that funding for scaling, it may be tempting to do everything yourself, to keep control and do it faster. The problem is that you may not have the experience or connections to jump into new customer segments, manufacturing, and distribution. Capitalize on what already exists.

  7. Focus on existing customer retention and repeat business. For sustainable growth, don’t forget that, according to data from the field, it is five times as expensive to gain a new customer than retain an existing one, and a returning customer purchases 30 percent more items and brings in three to seven times more revenue per transaction.

  8. Build your brand equity and relationships with customers. As a startup, you have no brand recognition, but long-term sustainability requires a powerful brand. These days, brand equity means relationships with more customers, and a more memorable overall experience. Your brand-loyal customer advocates can be your exponential marketing.

  9. Never stop hunting for new opportunities and new markets. Initial success breeds complacency. While a laser focus is necessary to get your startup off the ground, long-term success requires a broad and ever-changing product line, target audience, and geographic focus. Don’t be a “one-trick pony” that fades into oblivion as time passes.

Congratulations are definitely appropriate for a successful new business launch, but it’s not the time to relax or take your eye off the ball. A sustainable business, with long-term success, is a different and never-ending challenge, requiring additional strategies as outlined here. Don’t wait for a business crisis to get started. As many have found out, recoveries are not always possible.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/23/2019 ***

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In my role as a business advisor, one of the attributes I often see in a good leader is the ability and willingness to ask good questions, before moving forward or issuing edicts, potentially in the wrong direction. We all have mental barriers – those unquestioned assumptions, unexplored options, or unchallenged rules of thumb that keep us stuck at a lower level of effectiveness.

Thus, an essential skill for anyone who wants to push the limits of their team and their business is the ability to ask questions that expose and remove those mental obstacles. The challenge is to frame questions that can provoke people into thinking about the problems in a new way, and to ask these questions in a style that doesn’t elicit defensiveness, resistance, or fear.

I saw this challenge outlined well in a new book, “Learning to Lead,” by Ron Williams, former CEO of Aetna and self-made business leader, who rose from the poor side of the tracks in south Chicago to lead several large businesses, and ultimately serve on the President’s Management Advisory Board for several years. His life proves that leadership is learned, not a birthright.

I like his summary of five kinds of questions that can help you change your leadership effectiveness, and your organization’s view of reality when faced with complex new issues:

  1. Questions that highlight key roadblocks to a solution. Before any assumptions are made on a seemingly impossible challenge, you need to focus the conversation on existing barriers to achieving the desired goal, what methods have already been tried to alleviate the problem, and what specifically happened that caused those efforts to fail.

    For example, I too often see entrepreneurs with great determination failing to get investor funding to start a capital-intensive business, such as building a new automated factory. Others face the roadblock with questions like, “Who has such a facility that might partner with us?” and find a win-win solution through a joint venture to achieve their dream.

  2. Questions that clarify the uncertainty over facts. When there is significant confusion over the nature of the problem, or disagreement as to the cause-and-effect processes that are creating current difficulties, you need to ask questions that probe the reliability and sources for the information. Also, opinions are sometimes over-stated as facts.

    If someone on your team is adamant that lack of a complex technical feature is the biggest competitive threat to your business, you may need to ask for specific data from customers and competitors that supports this conclusion. Engineers love to tackle new technology, and sales people are always looking for one more feature to close business.

  3. Questions that probe the evolution of a complex problem. Asking questions designed to elicit explanatory narratives can illuminate how a particularly difficult challenge came to be, which can be crucial to understanding it’s cultural, social, organizational, and psychological roots. There’s an enlightening story behind every issue.

    I have been involved in trying to fix several perennially problematic internal processes, where understanding the history made it obvious that we needed to get the original creator involved, or needed to start over to structure some code that was never intended to be more than a prototype.

  4. Questions that suggest alternatives can be quite powerful. When your team members’ thinking seems to have gotten stuck in a rut, you need to ask questions that raise alternative possibilities. Perhaps they need to be challenged to investigate how other companies have used different approaches to avoid or resolve similar issues.

    For example, every business these days struggles with keeping customer data secure in their database, when potentially that data might be available from another source, kept in cookies on the customer system, or not really be needed at all to do the job.

  5. Questions that drill down to what business we are in. Sometimes problems make it seem like your business may be fundamentally lost. At this point you need questions designed to raise basic issues, relating to business goals, or who is the target audience. Perhaps the problem can be easily resolved by not trying to solve everyone’s problem.

As a leader, taking a big step back to gain a fresh perspective will shed a powerful light on what you should be doing every day, and asking the right questions is a good way to start the process. Just be sure to wield them carefully so they remain useful tools rather than seeming like aggressive weapons. Today’s workforce, and customers, are looking for leaders, not tyrants.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/22/2019 ***

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Too many business owners still think of “customer support” as an after-sale process to rectify customer problems with completed transactions. The world has changed. With the advent of instant communication and social media, customer service starts at the first hint of interest by you, and never ends for repeat customers. One bad customer experience will kill not only one customer, but many future ones, who hear the message via social media and friends.

For example, the days are gone when simply replacing a purchase or giving your money back was considered premium service. Now, if your web site is not clear and clean, or you don’t have a chat robot for a product question online, you may be abandoned as providing poor customer service, just as certainly as having to wait in a long product exchange line after the holidays.

Now customer support is called the “customer experience,” and everyone is expecting you to actually anticipate their personal needs, and totally delight them with all aspects of the shopping experience, price versus value, as well as help with any follow-on questions or problems. Big companies and small, from Amazon to Zappos, have set the bar high along the following lines:

  1. Business must be available when and where you are. Even small businesses can now easily be global in scope, and available 24x7 online. Customers expect you to provide access via their mobile devices, as well as being responsive to sales and support questions on social media and multiple Internet channels and partners at their whim.

  2. Company amazingly finds you based on your interests. No one likes to be blasted by TV and online ads for products you have no interest in, but we all love to be pleasantly surprised by memorable deals nearby on favorite clothing styles or food tastes. The best companies do their homework first to find the customers who will appreciate their service.

  3. Technology enhances experience, not impedes it. We have all been annoyed by the airline agent who seems to type forever into a slow computer, or repeatedly asks for information already known. Amazon introduced the one-click order button and overnight delivery, which has reset the bar for all other businesses in processing transactions.

  4. Customer sees you as a relationship, not a brand. The days of loyalty to a name brand are over, so every company has the same potential to reach out and build relationships with customers. Customers expect to be in control, remembered, and treated uniquely, every time they need support or come back for additional business.

  5. The marketing metrics covers support as part of experience. If your marketing metrics and budget ignore the fact that you have call center queues thirty minutes long, or no coverage of online reviews or social media, your customer service is not keeping up with competitors. Zappos, for example, counts the number of new customer relationships established, not minutes on the site.

  6. Customer experience starts with user-centric product design. The standard today for new products is that if it requires a user manual, that is considered a failure. Product usage by your target audience should be intuitive, and the elegance of the packaging, such as that provided by Apple, which always reflects the sleek, user-friendly experience of the product inside, is as important as the product itself.

  7. Show empathy and empowerment in handling customers. Every person in your organization needs to be committed and able to make decisions for enhancing customer relationships. Ritz-Carltons, for example, encourage employees, once they're fully trained, to spend up to $2,000 per guest to solve a guest issue or improve a guest's stay.

  8. Make it easy for customers to help themselves and each other. Customers today want to be in control and help themselves. They also like to hear from other customers, and even help others. That means facilitating customer online forums, special events, and contacts, where they can share experiences, and answer questions for each other.

Ultimately, your experience is your brand and it’s no longer possible to separate customer support from the overall customer experience. Both are part of the relationship that you build with your customers, and these can be the key to an amazing advocacy, or the tag of poor customer service. It up to you to meet customers on their own terms, and they will reward you for doing it.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on Inc.com on 05/21/2019 ***

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With the ITRC 2018 End-of-Year Data Breach Report revealing a 126 percent increase in stolen sensitive personal information, there is a growing population out there worried about all the people intent on hurting them. My recommendation to entrepreneurs is to recognize these concerns as an opportunity to make people’s life better, rather than worry and dodge the risk.

I continue to believe that most of the data gathering in the real world, and on the Internet, is done by businesses to help you find what you want, protect you, and improve your experience, rather than invade your privacy or scam you. We all just need your help in managing personal data correctly, and making sure you are part of the solution, rather than part of the problem.

That challenge is a major business opportunity, as well as a risk, for startups. I know companies who collect sensitive data from consumers all the time, and still seem to keep a squeaky clean image (Amazon.com, Ebay). There are others, like LifeLock, acquired in 2017 by Symantec for $2.3 billion, now providing identity theft services for nearly 5 million consumers in all 50 states.

But that is just the beginning of the opportunity to provide or take advantage of the new power and tools on the Internet. Here are a few specifics on how to be part of the solution, without the costs, rather than part of the problem:

  • Put a personal face and address on your site; don’t hide behind an “info” email address.
  • Make your company visible, reachable and responsive through social networks.
  • Market your solution and user benefits, not the mysterious technology behind it.
  • Use video and audio, rather than jargon, abbreviations, and computer lingo on your site.
  • Make navigation simple and consistent, with abundant online help

The good news is that, if your company does it right, it might be another Amazon. There seems to be an insatiable demand from consumers for a better shopping experience, meaning they will pay a premium to a company that can present them a better match in products to their interests, without jeopardizing their good name.

In support of this, despite qualms, consumers seem very quick these days to provide more personal data to get something they want. Young people naively enter their pictures and personal data for fun on social networking sites, ignoring constant feedback from the media that these are bad practices.

I certainly agree that just like in the real world, consumers have to assume that there are always bad groups on the Internet, as well as down the street, trying to rip you off, so stay out of bad neighborhoods, and keep your wits about you at all times. Internet users need to start watching out for themselves, like looking both ways before you cross the street.

The bad news for startups is that your company can lose big if it’s caught in the middle. Late last year, Marriott International disclosed a data breach involving its guest reservation database that could affect as many as 500 million guests., and this black eye won’t soon go away. A few years earlier, Target account information was hacked, and some feel it hasn’t fully recovered since.

Sometimes the problem cause is that startups forget the technical standards and quality processes that every Internet rollout must follow to reduce the risk. Don’t take shortcuts on these. I see lots of new software put together on a shoestring as a “proof of concept” – but then gets rolled out to customers “asis” due to lack of time or money to “harden” the product.

What I learned from a panel discussion a few years ago, sponsored by an association of lawyers, is that lawyers don’t have any answers, and are all too quick to fan the flames of fear and paranoia. They merely highlighted consumer privacy rights, with much hand-wringing about big bad companies that are capturing shopping habits without consumer knowledge on the Internet.

A better approach might be to use your marketing power to tell people that you can now ring their smartphone in front of their favorite store for a special sale, and allow them to “opt in,” rather than surprising them with your new technology. Few people are paranoid about something they want and enjoy.

The best startups start from a painful problem needing a solution, rather than a technology solution looking for a problem. Security and privacy are an opportunity crying for more solutions. Have you looked hard at the potential?

Marty Zwilling

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You probably think that the fact that you have started your own business validates your leadership ability. It may confirm that you were a leader yesterday, but do you have what it takes to be a leader tomorrow? In this era of rapid change, you can’t afford to stop learning, or you will find that your competitors, your customers, and your team, may soon be following someone else.

In fact, you may have noticed in a recent study, that the business CEO turnover rate last year was the highest in 10 years, and may go even higher this year. Real business leadership requires continuous improvement, just like your products and processes. Fortunately, contrary to popular opinion, the evidence is that leadership is not a birthright, and can be learned and improved.

Most people agree that leadership is primarily a set of behaviors that capitalize on relationships and a current market and customer understanding in a complex world. It’s not about a title, raw intelligence, or domination. Based on my own experience in large and small businesses, as well as mentoring entrepreneurs, here is my list of behaviors which will keep you ahead of the pack:

  1. Focus on managing relationships more than tasks. Leaders in new companies who have had to do much of the work themselves sometimes find it hard to now find time for the people who are now critical to their future. Building new relationships, inside and outside the company, and nurturing old ones, is a key to long-term leadership.

  2. Be the visible role model for accountability and trust. Team members and other constituents carefully watch what you do, as well as what you say. If you are too busy to be visible, or don’t practice what you preach, their perception of your leadership will diminish. You can’t hold others accountable, if you don’t take the high road yourself.

  3. Spend more time asking questions than dictating answers. Top leaders are always looking to grow by asking probing questions and gathering new insights from a broad range of relationships, rather than advocating their own views. They show empathy to constituents around them, encourage followers to step outside their safe zone.

  4. Practice active listening and full attention to those present. Many busy new venture owners believe they have heard it all before, so they tune out of conversations, or revert to multi-tasking, thus diluting their leadership. Don’t forget that the world is changing around you, so only your focused attention on all new input will keep you in the forefront.

  5. Restrain emotions and ego when you hear critical feedback. Resist the urge to be defensive, and focus on learning the “what” and “why” of every opposing point of view. Avoid the appearance of interrogation in questioning disagreements, and use your emotions carefully in making a point, or reacting to peers or other constituents.

  6. Broaden your communication circle to be more inclusive. Everyone is listening to how leaders take credit or give credit to the team, rather than themselves. Your words are important in garnering the trust and loyalty of your team, your peers, and partners. You need their commitment, feedback, and continued support as the market changes.
  7. Take more time for celebrating the success of others. People will follow you and keep you updated, if they sense your gratitude and appreciation for their efforts. Many new venture owners have trouble disengaging from the escalating demands of their business to celebrate the small successes of the people and customers who depend on them.

  8. Work on being a facilitator rather than a driver. The best leader personality for larger organizations is one of providing help and resources, rather than extracting performance. That means a priority on coaching and mentoring, as well as training and tools, before focusing on results metrics. Let people make their own decisions wherever possible.

  9. Eliminate the use of “off-the-record” comments. The world today is much less accepting of off-the-cuff remarks from business leaders. What you might perceive as a casual remark to friends may cause emotional reactions in others that can damage your leadership and business. Be aware of your environment and new devices around you.

  10. Control your non-verbal cues as well as your words. Such cues include body language, tone, inflexion, and other elements of voice, dress, and association. Practice the positive body language of eye contact, smiling, and confidence, rather than contempt, disgust, or anger. Remember that you will always be judged by the company you keep.

Learning to recognize and practice these behaviors doesn’t require any super-human skills, but does require continuous effort and focus. As your company matures, and the market changes, your leadership expectations and requirements also have to change for your long-term success. Start today by acquiring a mentor, as well as really listening to some trusted voices around you.

Marty Zwilling

*** First published on CayenneConsulting on 05/09/2019 ***

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