Selected ideas and assistance to entrepreneurs and startup founders in finding business ideas, funding, executive mentoring, and business networking to incorporate a business, file patents, add an advisory board, and address operational issues.
Based on my years of experience as a new business advisor, I always find leadership to be more important to business success than any new technology or innovative solution. The challenge is to adequately define leadership in terms of everyday activities. Most entrepreneurs believe they are leaders, even though the feedback I get from their team and partners may indicate otherwise.
Thus I’m always looking for more practical guidance on the right activities to be perceived as a business leader. I found some great specifics in a classic book, “The Leadership Challenge,” by James M. Kouzes and Barry Z. Posner. These authors bring a wealth of experience in this domain from their workshops, writing, and lecturing on business leadership worldwide.
They have identified ten specific behaviors of exemplary business leaders that I believe every entrepreneur and business professional must focus on to improve their leadership abilities, as well as the perception of others around them as a leader:
Clarify values by communicating shared values. Being viewed as an exemplary leader requires first that you find your voice on your own deeply held values – beliefs, standards, ethics, and ideals. Then strive to understand the same for your constituents. Affirming all shared values is the way to building productive and working relationships.
Set the example by aligning actions with shared values. People listen to what you say, but they follow what you do. How you spend your time is the clearest indicator to all what’s important to you. Your questions determine the path people will follow and focus their search for answers. Show that you actively listen to feedback and model the values.
Envision the future by imagining the possibilities. Even as you stop, look, and listen to messages in the present, you also need to spend considerable time reading, thinking, and talking about the long-term view. Leaders today need to express passion for doing something significant no one else has yet achieved, including society and environment.
Enlist others by appealing to shared aspirations. Enlisting others is all about igniting passion for a purpose and moving people to persist against great odds. You have to engage the hearts and minds of your constituents. To foster team spirit, breed optimism, promote resilience, and renew faith and confidence, real leaders look on the bright side.
Seize the initiative with innovative ways to improve. Leadership is inextricably linked with the process of innovation, of bringing new ideas, methods, and solutions into use. This means making things happen where others don’t, and rewarding initiative in others. It means looking outside your experience, and promoting diverse perspectives.
Experiment to generate small wins and learning. Leaders break down big problems into small, doable actions and initiate experiments that don’t paralyze others with major risks. This creates a climate for learning and winning, to build resilience and grit, as well as incremental progress toward goals. It also builds personal fulfillment, rather than fear.
Foster collaboration by building trusting relationships. Without trust, you can’t lead. You can’t get people to believe in you or each other. Trust is the key to productive relationships, and relationships with peers, constituents and customers are key to great businesses. Building trust requires showing concern for others, and open sharing.
Strengthen others by developing their competence. A well-recognized paradox of leadership is that you become more powerful when you give your power away. The best leaders spend more time supporting and mentoring their constituents to develop their competence and confidence, and then delegate effectively with accountability.
Show appreciation for individual excellence. The best leaders are clear about the goals and rules, expect the best, always provide feedback, and personalize recognition for results. One of the most powerful recognitions is a simple “thank you” delivered in a timely manner. Find out the types of encouragement that make the most difference.
Celebrate victories and a spirit of community. Fun isn’t a luxury at work. Smart leaders find and create occasions to bring people together to publicly celebrate accomplishments and build community. Get personally involved in as many recognitions and celebrations as possible. Show you care by being visible in the tough times.
Exemplary leadership behaviors like these will always make a profound positive difference in people’s commitment and motivation, their work performance, and the success of their company. Especially if you are don’t yet carry an executive role or title, now is the time to start practicing these activities. The most effective and satisfying leadership comes without a title to lean on.
Change is hard. But these days it’s required and inevitable. Yet, in my daily role as an advisor to entrepreneurs and small business owners, struggling to boost revenues, profits, and earnings, I still see too many managers falling back on command-and-control, a focus on weaknesses, and not enough time for people. The result is lost productivity and a poorly engaged work force.
For example, it may seem quicker and more effective to hand your service desk employees the store policy manual, and tell them to follow the rules, rather than spend time coaching them on how to really listen to customer feedback, and use their strengths to build customer loyalty. Most team members want to do the right thing, but may not have your insights or years of experience.
I just finished a new book, “It’s The Manager,” by Jim Clifton and Jim Harter, leaders at Gallup, who have assembled feedback from the largest study of its kind, including over 37 million people from businesses around the world. It says we still have a long way to go in improving workplace cultures, and moving up workplace engagement from the worldwide current dismal 15 percent level.
They provide abundant details and examples, but net out nicely the top six key changes in culture that I also see and recommend on a regular basis to business managers and leaders that I work with. These are changes in culture that we all need to recognize and adapt to, most clearly driven by the growing percentage of millennials and Generation Z, include the following:
Employees need a purpose as well as a paycheck. For a growing number of workers today, compensation is important and must be fair, but it’s no longer their primary motivation. The emphasis for these people has switched from just a paycheck to having meaning, and so should your culture.
For example, when John Mackey of Whole Foods made it clear to employees that his larger purpose was helping people live a healthier life, his team and his customers found a new excitement beyond groceries, resulting in growth and profitability that easily outpaced the industry, as well as awards as one of the best companies to work for.
Team members want development plus satisfaction. Just offering perks, like fancy latte machines and ping pong tables, does not create lasting team engagement. They want personal and career development. That means you need to pinpoint the right goals for each employee, develop a plan, and commit to taking their careers to the next level.
If you have an employee potentially ready for management, executive shadowing can be a great way to expose them to critical elements of other jobs, while they are still learning in their current role. It is also a great way for employees to more formally explore potential career opportunities internally, before they jump ship to a competitor.
Your people will expect more coaches than bosses. They demand to be valued as individuals, and coached to understand and build their strengths, rather than treated as soldiers and directed to march into battle. The best managers give targeted feedback in their areas of expertise and make connections to others who are better suited to the task.
They want ongoing conversations, not just annual reviews. With modern technology, employees communicate constantly with people who count, and expect their managers to do the same. Annual reviews alone have never worked as a substitute for regular feedback on things done well, and not so well. Meet team members on their own turf.
Don’t fixate on team weaknesses – capitalize on strengths. Gallup research shows that weaknesses almost never develop into strengths, while strengths develop infinitely. You need to recognize and understand weaknesses, but double-down on strengths. A strengths-based culture will also help you attract and keep star team members.
A job can no longer be treated as just a job – it’s your life. All employees spend a majority of their waking hours on the job. For their engagement, they expect support, relationships, appreciation, and satisfaction. With workers now at multiple locations, including home, office, and around the world, it’s impossible to separate work from life.
Even the best business strategies will ultimately fail without the proper business culture and great managers, to give employees what they want most – a great job and a great life. As a technologist, it took me a while to learn that managing people is a lot harder than managing technology, but much more satisfying in the end. I also found it’s never too late to start.
Not so long ago, training to meet the press and television reporters was a realm reserved for top business executives only. Now, even the earliest stage startup can rise to visibility or be forever lost by their first media spotlight, so it behooves us all to know the rules early. Most entrepreneurs I know admit to a poor first media interaction, and many are still waiting for the instant replay.
On the social media side, the stakes are just as great. Ask Eric Migicovsky, founder of Pebble, who raised over $10 million on the Kickstarter crowd-funding platform for his relatively low-tech wristwatch with programmed clock faces. Kickstarter may take a bit of the credit for this, but they admit the majority of projects without media attention don’t even approach their funding goals.
There are lots of expensive public and media relations firms out there who can give you the full treatment, but I recommend starting with a good book on the subject, like the classic by media training expert Brad Phillips, “The Media Training Bible.” He provides 101 two-page lessons divided into eight learning categories that I like as follows:
Learn the ground rules for traditional media. Few of us have the background to know when to turn down an interview request, or never use the “no comment” approach, or when it’s more effective to comment “off the record.” Even practical issues, like understanding reporter deadlines, and your own editing rights, are critical.
Craft messages and message supports. A message is a one-sentence statement that incorporates two things: one of your most important points and one of your audience’s most important needs or values, with a call to action. Message supports are stories, statistics, and sound bites that reinforce your message. Both need to be clear and direct.
Make every interview memorable. The key to any effective interview is to articulate a message or message support in almost every answer you ever give. Speak in complete sentences, aimed at the 12-year-old language level, and skip the acronyms. Avoid tentative phrases like “We’re trying” in favor of the stronger “We are doing.”
Answer the tough questions. You must answer every question, every time, or risk appearing evasive, online or on camera. Yet quickly transition back to the message and supports. In all cases, you must stay cool, avoiding anger, sarcasm, or the urge to walk away. Never offer an answer unless you know it’s true – it’s better to say “I don’t know.”
Use appropriate body language and attire. The main impression you leave with an audience may have little to do with your words. Show energy, eye contact, and gestures to enhance the impact of your words. Wear solid colors, and make your look true to your brand and yourself. People judge you and your company in the first few seconds.
Handling different media formats. These days the media formats range from email, phone, radio, television, to social media. Social media includes blogs, social networks, and video-sharing sites. With social media, you are always “on the record” and once you say it, it’s out there forever. All the lessons from traditional media apply, and more.
How to respond to media in a crisis. A crisis is an event, precipitated by a specific incident, that attracts critical media attention and lasts for a definite period of time. It could be a product quality problem, or a major customer complaint on Twitter. The challenge is to be prepared, and communicate quickly and effectively until it’s over.
Prepare, prepare, prepare for every media event. Even the most experienced executives write down what they need to say, and practice for every event. Steve Jobs was a master at this, even though he had years of experience. The result was that every interview or event, online or live, came off naturally and positive. Why do many entrepreneurs think they can “wing it” and get the same results?
Every entrepreneur in this new era of shrinking attention spans, social media overload, and sensationalized reporting needs to know how to create positive messages, cut through the noise, and motivate audiences with multiple media. Don’t wait for a reputation-destroying disaster to start your learning. You won’t get a second chance for a great first impression.
It’s time for more entrepreneurs to reset their focus, and shift their thinking to completely different ways of doing things. Everyone talks about innovation, but the majority of business plans I see still reflect linear thinking – one more social network with improved usability, one more wind-farm energy generator with a few more blades, or one more dating site with a new dimension of compatibility. Serious changes and great successes don’t come from linear thinking.
In searching for ways to get this message out, a while back I came across a no excuse, no apology book by Brian Reich, called “Shift and Reset,” which makes some excellent points on ways to increase the range of change in a person’s thinking, or an organization’s results. Here are some of the key principles that he espouses, and I support:
Force and expect change. Everyone knows change is hard and messy, and occasionally painful. But unless we force ourselves to change, innovate, and experiment with different ways of addressing serious issues, we won’t find solutions that are needed. Major innovation won’t happen without real commitment, sacrifice, and hard work.
Measure ability and results, not experience. Move to a model where people are measured on their deliverables, not how hard they are working, or how many years of experience they have. For entrepreneurs, this may mean more learning from experiments, and for organizations it may mean dumping a stagnant team to start over.
Don’t settle, demand the best. If you want to perform at the highest possible level, you need to hire the best people, who have produced consistent exceptional results. More energy needs to be spent on how the teams are organized and how the individuals work together. Leading an organization or a movement requires skills not taught in school.
Launch fast, fail quick, and learn more. Indeed, even the most capable, passionate, and well-supported entrepreneur will succeed only if he or she has a clear plan to follow. But don’t believe that any plan will develop and must remain unchanged throughout the execution process. Plan in your plan for constant change, with learning.
The time is now to think bigger. Great new ideas are emerging from the massive and frenetic coordination of people online and through connections. Let’s make sure they aren’t lost or ignored as we head into the future. Now is the time when smaller, yet dedicated groups can communicate and work to bring together disparate ideas.
Reich makes the point that everyone has a role to play in solving major issues, and driving greater innovation. The Internet and social media facilitates cooperation and collaboration, which is what we need to shift our thinking, then reset our goals and ways of attaining them. It’s much easier to challenge everything we know, and turn them on their sides.
Especially for change in serious social issues and infrastructures, it’s now easier to motivate people to care enough and take action. We will never innovate quickly by following the same, old, tired patterns. We need to realize what being connected really means, and makes possible. Now is the time to change.
Innovation begins with knowing your customer, so that’s always the first place to focus. The shift and reset in thinking applies to finding the solution, more than in defining the problem. Linear thinking on the solution can doom a startup or an entrepreneur. A good step in the right direction is to build a team with diverse backgrounds and perspectives.
This helps break linear thinking, and greatly reduces the probability that you’ll solve a problem in the same old way, or just like your competitors. Another approach is to bring in team members from outside your domain to challenge your thinking. You as an entrepreneur can either take the lead to make real change happen, watch it happen, or wonder what happened. You decide. Marty Zwilling
Your marketing launch is the most important element of startup success these days, to get customer attention in this world of information overload. Yet it is the one element that too many entrepreneurs focus on only as an afterthought. Everyone assumes their product or service is so great that “word-of-mouth” will carry the day for them.
Michael delivers field-tested guidance on how to create the core elements of great content for your announcement, your webinars, blog posts, Facebook contests, newsletters, Internet TV, and other initiatives. It’s all about content that will bring the masses to your business:
Highly relevant. To get to the core of what’s relevant to customers, you need to know them well. Use your content as a way to make a connection between your business and things that matter to them. The more frequently you can deliver content that meets the needs and desires of your customers, the more relevant you will become to them.
Educational. Helping customers discover new ways to solve common problems can quickly build you a loyal following. Your content must continue to deliver new ideas. In simple terms, this is where you share your knowledge, as well as the guidance from other experts, for free.
Easy to digest. A conversational tone should be the basis for all of your content. Highly relevant and educational content if irrelevant if you can’t make it easy for people to understand. Common approaches include the use of metaphors, tell stories, and always stay on topic.
Visually appealing. The eye is just as important as the mind when it comes to customers. The old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is still alive and relevant. Make sure your paragraphs are short. Use callouts and bullets to help the reader speed through your content.
Conversation inviting. Great content is conversation. If you want to connect with customers, put aside your writing formalities. Your language doesn’t have to be perfect. It’s pretty simple to do. Simply speak out loud. Then write it down. The message should spark a side conversation between friends, and a follow-up comment to you.
Lacks a sales angle. Great content shouldn’t have any obvious marketing messages or sales pitches embedded inside of it. If your content is about your specific product or service, that’s not great content; it’s marketing collateral. People won’t flock to marketing materials.
Creating these core elements is a lot easier if you can team with outside experts to help you. They have what your readers seek – important, worthwhile knowledge, and some experts already have a large following of their own. They are a shortcut that can put you far ahead of your competition.
Some experts are so instrumental that they are called “fire starters.” These are people who have so much influence that their endorsement can ignite your efforts nearly overnight. The best potential fire starters have the eyes and ears of people who closely match your ideal base. Nurture these relationships, and provide generous value to them in return.
Every marketer throws around the word “content,” but few have mastered the art and science of creating useful, thought-provoking, and viral content. Great content doesn’t happen by accident. Start early in your planning, build your own skills, or find the best expertise you can afford. There is nothing more devastating than a good business that fails to launch. Marty Zwilling
To be successful as an entrepreneur, you don’t have to be a fabulous person, but it helps. Some people, and some entrepreneurs, have that something extra that you can’t quite put your finger on, like Ryan Seacrest is searching for on American Idol. But the entrepreneurs that have it, including Elon Musk and Richard Branson, seem to be able to effortlessly get team members, investors, and customers to follow them anywhere.
In her classic book on this subject, “The Essentials of Fabulous,” Ellen Lubin-Sherman, who has been tracking fabulous people most of her life as a writer and journalist, tried to net it out. She identifies less than a dozen primary qualities for fabulous people in general, and I have honed and tuned these to ten that apply especially to entrepreneurs, in my experience:
Be passionate about life, as well as your business. Entrepreneurs who have passion in business, as well as their life, may drive us all batty, but there is never a dull moment. These moments are always being transformed into options to be explored. They make life interesting and an adventure, and everyone loves an adventure.
Be delightfully authentic and honest. Authentic entrepreneurs are destined and determined to have fun, as well as move forward in business. They have an unerring confidence that’s inspiring yet attainable. They savor relationships, and are generous with themselves and their smarts, so they attract a savvy following.
Be revered for an amazing positive attitude. Rather than cave when things get tough, optimistic entrepreneurs go analytic, looking for pivots that keep their goals in sight. They are disciplined, upbeat thinkers, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, and know how and when to laugh it off. A negative attitude takes everyone down.
Be warm and completely accessible. Warmth comes from your smile, and facial expressions that indicate genuine interest. Investors and partners look for entrepreneurs that will look them straight in the eye when speaking, and give their full and undivided attention while you’re speaking. Everyone looks for “rapport talk” rather than “report talk.”
Have impeccable manners and flair. Entrepreneurs who are always looking for opportunities to be gracious and considerate are going to be liked, admired, sought after, and trusted. In business, that means staying connected, showing up on time, with no signs of boredom or preoccupation. It’s not always about you, so dress and talk for them.
Be competent and confident. Competent people accomplish more in business because they’re driven by a pronounced sense of purpose. They are willing to put themselves on the line, and have confidently done their homework to know what it takes. They are reliably consistent, and unafraid to ask for help.
Able to just “get it.” Entrepreneurs who “get it” are emotionally attuned to peers and customers, so that their gut-level instincts become informed judgments that move the business forward. “With-it”-ness takes work, like reading the right blogs every day, challenging yourself to stay abreast of the latest technology, and social media marketing.
Have a big bandwidth. Can you talk, with equal engagement and respect, to your company’s CFO and the guy who pumps your gas? Look for opportunities to praise and nurture the people with diversity. Get comfortable out of your circle of interest and expertise. Go for that black belt in networking.
Be vivid virtually. Developing a superior virtual presence requires a mastery of several mediums – phone, email, text messaging, as well as handwritten notes – but the payoff is undeniable. But don’t overuse virtual communication to the exclusion of face-to-face time In all cases, don’t forget your sense of aplomb, mastery of tone, and the spell-checker.
Attract a superstar board of advisors. The right board is a group of individuals who may not know one another, but know you, and know your business domain. Plus, they need to be willing to put their brains and their expertise at your disposal as long as you need it. No entrepreneur is an island, so take the initiative to build an advisory board.
Paying attention to all these things is how you become a fabulous entrepreneur, another entrepreneur idol. I’m sorry, but there is no magic, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Of course, it will never happen if you don’t start or don’t believe. But it’s worth the effort, unless you have something better to do? Marty Zwilling
As a business advisor and technologist, I often think about the large array of opportunities for entrepreneurs as technology seems to be evolving faster and faster. Yet I still too often hear the question, “Can you give me a really sure-fire idea for starting my own business?” My standard answer is that ideas are a dime a dozen, and success is all about smart execution, not ideas.
Yet from time to time, I try to step back and look for some of the most promising and exciting technologies that I see coming down the pike. In that context, I recommend the classic book, “Driver in the Driverless Car,” by Vivek Wadhwa with Alex Salkever, which categorizes many of the leading ones that everyone, both entrepreneurs and consumers, should be thinking about:
Self-driving cars, trucks, drones, and planes. The opportunities to capitalize on these vehicles are huge, ranging from control software, hardware design, support facilities, to entirely new applications. The challenge, according to a survey from a couple of years ago, is that just one in five people today would entrust their life to a driverless vehicle. Execution won’t be easy.
Artificial intelligence (machine learning). According to experts, computers with more power than the human brain are mere seven to fourteen years away. Artificial intelligence is still young, but already embedded in our everyday lives, through decision support, navigation routing, and much more. Future opportunities for entrepreneurs are endless.
Personalized genomics and healthcare. Advances in the understanding of the genome of an individual is leading to personalized medicine, also termed precision medicine. The next step is manipulation of these genomes to fix and even prevent many disorders, totally change the efficacy of healthcare, and extend and improve your life.
The Internet of Things (IoT). The IoT is a fancy name for the increasing array of sensors embedded in our commonly used appliances and electronic devices, vehicles, homes, offices, and public places. These sensors talk to each other, and to us, via Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or our smartphones, to help us manage our environment and live a richer life.
Merging of man and machine (robotics and biology). Amazing progress is being made in underlying hardware and software, and costs have plummeted. Siri and her compatriots will soon be able to converse with you in more physical and emotional ways. The mental distinction between humans and machines will become almost imperceptible.
There are many more, but these are ones high on my priority list for entrepreneurs looking for a place to start. Yet with these, as with any other opportunity, there are many risks and implications, pointed out by Wadhwa in his book, for every entrepreneur to consider with each idea. He and I suggest that you always ask yourself the following three questions before starting:
Does your idea have the potential to benefit everyone equally? Many technology advances have negative implications for certain industries and segments of society. Your market may be limited to the top one percent of income owners, or may imply values that are unacceptable to the mass market. Consider the societal big picture before jumping in.
Does it promote autonomy or dependence? Customers don’t want new technologies to be like recreational drugs that they become dependent on. We all want greater autonomy – the freedom to live our lives the way we wish to and to fulfill our potentials. Entrepreneurs need to focus on ideas that lead to customer autonomy, not dependence.
What are the higher-level risks and rewards? Beyond the normal risks of starting a new business, many new technologies have the potential for moral and environmental risks. What if you mess up and create monsters or destroy the environment? Look at the potential side effects and long-term consequences of an idea, before making a legacy commitment to that business.
For me, and for most technologists in business, the future is both very exciting and a bit hair-raising. I certainly see no shortage of ideas and opportunities, but I recommend that every entrepreneur, and every consumer, take a hard look at the broader implications of each new technology. There is plenty of room for good, so select wisely and execute well. The quality of all our lives depend on it. Marty Zwilling
I see more and more entrepreneurs who seem to have everything going for them – vision, motivation, passion, even a good business plan, product, and money, and yet they can’t close customers. Maybe it’s time to look harder at the mantra of a new breed of gurus and successful entrepreneurs, including Steve Blank and Eric Ries, called “nail it then scale it” (NISI).
Nail the pain. Great businesses begin with a customer problem that has a big and monetizable pain point. Avoid the three big mistakes, of guessing but not testing the pain (on real customers), selecting a low customer pain (solution is only nice to have), or selecting a narrow customer pain (small number of customers willing or able to pay).
Nail the solution. Neither breakthrough technology nor maximum features will assure that “if we build it, they will come.” In fact, NISI recommends starting with the minimum focused set of features and technology that will drive a customer purchase. Success demands testing the solution early and quickly in the market, then iterating to get it right.
Nail the go-to-market strategy. In parallel with nailing the solution, you need an in-depth understanding of your target customer’s buying process, the job they are trying to get done, the market infrastructure, and a stable of serious pilot customers. Do real tests with real pricing to see if customers will pay you, without being pushed.
Nail the business model. Leverage your customer conversations to predict and validate your business model. For example, when you think about distribution channels, revenue streams, or the relationship with the customer, ask customers what they expect. Don’t forget a viable financial model of costs, margins, customer acquisition, and break-even.
Scale it. Don’t attempt to scale it until you have a proven repeatable business model that predictably generates revenue. Only then is it time to focus on the get-big-fast strategy, and the transformation of three key areas from startup to a managed growth company. These areas include market, process, and team transitions.
These pragmatics and points of focus can effectively counter three core myths which trap too many enterprising and capable entrepreneurs today:
Hero myth: Why believing in your product leads to failure. All too often, founders fall in love with their products or technology, ignore negative feedback from customers, and spend years building a product based on a vision that no one else shares.
Process myth: Why building a product leads to failure. Conventional wisdom is that after a great idea, the next steps are raise some money, build a product, then go sell the product. This doesn’t work when attacking unknown problems with untested solutions.
Money myth: Why having too much money leads to failure. The old saying that “it takes money to make money” isn’t so simple. Money allows entrepreneurs to execute a flawed business plan far too long, rather than stay focused on the market and adapt.
At the heart of it, to be a successful entrepreneur you have to be totally customer centric, and learn to change and adapt as fast as the market. The pace of change in the marketplace is escalating, so entrepreneurs have to improve their ability to deal with change.
At the same time, more entrepreneurs are jumping into the fray, and less money is available from investors. It’s time for a new startup model. In my view, savvy “super angel” investors such as Mike Maples, Jr., and leading incubators such as Y Combinator, are already on this one. How far behind is your startup? Marty Zwilling
Don’t charge the hill until you are “ready.” This probably seems obvious to military types, but I see entrepreneurs violating this rule all the time. They approach key potential investors way too early, trying to talk their way up the hill, with no supporting business plan, and before they have a support team around them. Needless to say, they usually get shot down, and get no second chance.
The first rule is to separate your advisors from your investors. Perhaps a close personal friend can be both (the earliest stage and first tier investors should be “friends and family”). But for angel investors and venture capital investors, just remember that investors are not on your team (yet). You only get once chance to make a great first impression.
Continuing with my military analogy, here are some logistics, suggested ammunition, and an assault strategy (the bold points apply to every aspect of building the business):
Do your reconnaissance first. Before you meet a potential investor, check them out on the Internet and through your advisors. You need to know exactly what the investor has done before, what he is doing now, and what will interest him If you walk into his office cold, and can’t convince him you meet his interests, you will walk out cold.
Coordinate and brief your support team. Make sure all your advisors and team members know exactly what your mission is, and if possible, have at least one of them make prior contact to set the stage. If the investor thinks you are coming to ask for domain advice, and you ask for money, your success probabilities are shot.
Fully prepare for the assault. Don’t try to talk and demo your way up the hill. Talk bounces off and won’t stop any bullets. Lead with your two-page executive summary, be prepared to give a ten-slide investor presentation. Keep your big guns, the business plan and financial model, in your holster but visible for backup.
Put your ear to the ground before charging ahead. Offer to give your executive presentation, but he may want just the elevator pitch. Listen, and follow his lead with confidence and enthusiasm. Don’t insist on a product demo – he is buying the business, not the product. If you have an hour, use no more than 20 minutes for presentation.
Follow-up to assess progress or casualties. Have someone else, if possible, follow up with the investor the next day, to find out what really happened. If you didn’t learn anything from the meeting, you weren’t listening. Most VCs won’t volunteer to the Founder what they think, because that limits their options later.
By now, you are probably saying that this is “old school;” when going to Sand Hill Road offices was like going to the principal’s office. There you were ushered into a gorgeously appointed conference room for a precise amount of time with a serious-looking partner. Now some VCs and angels actually hold court in a nearby Starbucks or Paradise Bakery.
But believe me, investors are, if anything, tougher now than then. Don’t be fooled by the informality. Preparation, professional image, confidence, and strategy are just as important as they ever were. The strategy of “I’ll talk to him informally and early, find out what he doesn’t like, and then I’ll fix it,” is pure folly. Napkins don’t really work as your business plan.
Some of the most prepared “teams” I have seen are essentially one person, with a few part-time advisors, who seem to overcome all obstacles. One person can look like an army charging the hill, if they use all the networking facilities of the Internet, all the tools available to build business plans, financial models, and product prototype.
Don’t be afraid to use some mercenaries to back you up (outsourcing, consultants). All the shortcuts up the hill are rigged with minefields. Better safe than sorry. This is serious business. Marty Zwilling
Change is about the only thing constant in the world of startups. Despite their own focus on changing the world, they often forget that they too have to change rapidly and often as the market evolves. Too many find that out too late, and are left chasing a rabbit that is long gone.
The solution is to establish and maintain a culture and processes that don’t view change as a discrete event to be spotted and managed, but as an ongoing opportunity to improve competitiveness. Chris Musselwhite and Tammie Plouffe, in a classic HBR article on change readiness for large companies, define it as “the ability to continuously initiate and respond to change in ways that create advantage, minimize risk, and sustain performance.”
Since the startup environment is usually more volatile, the challenge there in balancing advantage, risk, and performance, is more critical than in big companies. The following initiatives that Chris and Tammie define for large companies apply just as directly to startups:
Improve change awareness. How good are you and everyone on your team at proactively scanning the environment for opportunities, emerging trends, and customer feedback? This contextual focus is critical to innovation and survival – the right product at the right time.
Increase change agility. Change agility represents a startup’s ability to immediately and effectively engage everyone in pending changes and innovations. It starts at the top with the founder and CEO, but has to extend quickly to the bottom of the organization. This requires leadership, teamwork, and trust at all levels.
Expedite change reaction. This is the ability to appropriately analyze problems, assess risks, and take responsibility for problem-dictated and market-dictated changes, while still sustaining the day-to-day business activities. It’s called the management of unplanned changes, or how well your startup reacts to crises.
Implement change mechanisms. Every organization needs to have specific mechanisms in place to facilitate change, including regular effective communication, reward systems that reinforce desired change behavior, and accountability for results. These won’t work in an autocratic or dysfunctional management environment.
Build a change readiness culture. Change readiness is hard work, and requires creativity sometimes in conflict with task orientation. People have to have the right attitude, and make the choice from the beginning to be ready to change at any time. They need a sense of urgency to handle change, and confidence in their leaders.
Imbue customer change focus. The more everyone in the startup is obsessed with satisfying customer needs and providing better customer service, the more effective the startup will be in adapting to change. Provide direct customer contact to everyone, as well as training.
Experts say that we live in a world where the pace of change is accelerating at the fastest rate in recorded history. On the other hand, change management practices seem to be changing very slowly, resulting in a 70% failure rate of change initiatives. Failure rates this high demand a new mindset and startups are the logical place for this to happen.
For starters, the whole team needs to be constantly trained and encouraged to develop their skills. Relevant skills include continuous improvement of existing methods, processes and devices against a set of quality metrics. The ultimate skills, which lead to innovation and totally new processes, usually come from experimentation and special studies.
In summary, change will happen. If your people and your startup do not change, statistics say you won’t survive. It’s up to you to get out of your comfort zone and make things happen in your startup, rather than let things happen to your business. Marty Zwilling