Startup Professionals Musings

Marty Zwilling

Saturday, August 13, 2011
What Entrepreneurs Can Learn From Reality TV
I’m not much of a television person, but my family loves one of the popular “reality” shows, called “So You Think You Can Dance,” so I’m sort of forced to watch it every week on Fox. Over time, I’ve concluded that even startup entrepreneurs can learn a few things from this one. Of course, you must ignore the pomp and circumstance of the TV staging.

I’m on the selection committee of our local angels group, so I know that every CEO approaching our group for funding goes through ten minutes of creative “dancing,” to give us a basis for selecting startups that are most qualified and “ready” to proceed to the next level. If selected, they go through it again in the real meeting of 20-40 investors. It’s tough and not fun for either side.

The business “dance” obviously has different particulars than TV dancing, but there is serious business and artistry involved in both cases. Here are some observations I can offer to startup founders looking for funding, analogous to the aspiring dancers on the show, hoping to move to the next level:

Judges evaluate the person first. Investors want to look the CEO in the eye, and be convinced that he or she can lead the company to success – it’s more important than the creative idea. On the TV show, I’m sure you all see contenders that have lost before they start, just because they lack the enthusiasm, presence, and confidence of a winner.

You only get a few minutes to make the case. In fact, your case is usually won or lost in the first couple of minutes. In business, as on the show, wins can turn to a loss if you bungle or skip relevant basics in the short time allotted. Everyone wants a longer time or second chance to win you back, but it would rarely ever change anything.
Skip the bravado, but don’t be immobilized with fear. I subscribe to a quote from another TV show too old to mention, where the hero said “He who is not afraid – he’s a fool.” Let your adrenalin help you deliver an outstanding performance, but trying to wow investors with jokes or stories of unending success will not move you up a level.

Play to the audience in front of you, and adapt your message. If the panel is looking for value and return for the investor, skip the technology pitch, or customer sales pitch. Some entrepreneurs give the same talk, no matter what the audience. If you have only one dance, don’t be surprised if it wears thin quickly with the judges.
Dress appropriately and professionally. Under-dressed may impress on TV, but it’s better to be over-dressed in the business world. Business casual is the standard for investor presentations. Remember that most investors are from a generation where faded and torn jeans were on the wrong side of success in business.
Practice, practice, practice. Even if you are an experienced dancer, you practice your craft with renewed determination before a big show. Business entrepreneurs need to do the same thing, maybe in “presidential debate” style with their team for critics, until they master the timing and can handle every unanticipated slip or challenge.
Even though I’m certainly no expert on dancing (I’ve taken Beginning Ballroom Dancing three times now), most of the reviews I have seen call the TV show realistic, with the panel of judges giving reasonable critical and technical feedback. That’s a welcome relief from Donald Trump’s pompous calls on “Celebrity Apprentice.”

Depending on one’s perspective, this is either the perfect time or an awful one to start a business. So, if you plan to face a business version of the dancing challenge soon, watch the show and check the recommendations above. Show some energy and enthusiasm, and don’t let the technical steps required overshadow your creativity. Break a leg!

Marty Zwilling

Friday, August 12, 2011 founder
Startups, Avoid 10 Common Million-Dollar Mistakes
It’s a well-accepted axiom in the investor community that entrepreneurs learn more from their failures than their successes. Thus a well-explained startup failure often can actually improve your odds of funding in the next go-round. Yet, there is no doubt that the best strategy is to learn from someone else’s mistakes, so you can enjoy the millions that someone else lost in learning.

Certainly there are innumerable possible mistakes to be made, but there is a thread of common ones that I see across the range of all startups. Ryan Blair, a serial entrepreneur who admits to his share of million dollar mistakes, as well as some multi-million dollar successes, sums these up nicely in his current bestseller “Nothing to Lose, Everything to Gain:”

Don’t make wildly optimistic sales forecasts. Test and adjust your projections, based on experienced advisor input and industry norms, rather than the Google high exception. Excel spreadsheets can easily project dramatic growth, with no connection to reality.

Don’t hire people who like your ideas all the time. Flattery feels good, but it doesn’t pay the bills. Look for the thoughtful challenge to your ideas, and practice active listening, when you are selling your vision. High three-digit intelligence has value.

Don’t focus too much on the competition. It’s always more productive to focus on making your offering successful, rather than killing your competitors. Doing things like dismantling their leadership team, or highlighting their shortcomings is lose-lose.

Don’t waste time caring what others think. No matter how hard you try, you won’t make everyone happy. Don’t be afraid to follow your vision, learn from your mistakes, and pivot the business, just because someone will see the change as a disappointment.

Don’t mix business with pleasure. This is especially true of relationships. Do not fraternize with your employees, and choose your partners wisely. Thou shall not “do your business” where you do business.

Be quick to fire and slow to hire. Pull the trigger fast when a new hire isn’t working, but don’t forget to be human and follow all the steps. On the other side, hiring after one interview is like hopping a red-eye to Vegas to get married after one date.

Don’t put your company before your people. A company is an entity that can be pivoted at will. Your team of people has a collective passion and intelligence with a real worth that’s hard to manipulate. Make the company fit the people, rather than vice versa.

Don’t under-forecast cash needs. When you have people and their families depending on you for their paychecks, and you are out of money, that’s another lose-lose situation. Even if you can find someone willing to help, it’s a very, very expensive proposition.

Don’t try to do too much all at once. You hear about all the parallel entrepreneurs, like Steve Jobs running Apple and Pixar at the same time. Make sure you have the aptitude to run one business well, with one product line, before you start a couple more.

Never write something you wouldn’t want to come back to you. Every one of us has sent a sensitive email to the wrong party, or had it misinterpreted by the receiver. Save the hard and easily misinterpreted messages for face-to-face calm discussions.

There are more, but I think you get the idea. Of course, the biggest mistake is failing to learn from the mistakes of others, or even from your mistakes. You can only learn from your mistake after you admit you’ve made it. Wise people admit their mistakes easily, and move the focus away from blame management and towards learning. Wise people can become great entrepreneurs. Where are you along this spectrum?

Marty Zwilling

Thursday, August 11, 2011
7 Skills Not Found at Birth in Most Entrepreneurs
Many people believe that good entrepreneurs are naturally born, rather than trained or experienced in the art of business. I believe there is a natural born component required, but often I tend to agree with Peter Drucker, who said “It’s not magic, it’s not mysterious, and it has nothing to do with genes. It’s a discipline, and like any discipline, it can be learned.”

On the natural born side, some entrepreneurs seem to have a strong vision and the ability to inspirationally lead others. It is this vision that is the beacon to drive the right people behavior, leading to the success of the business. If you don’t feel a vision in your heart, or if you don’t have the strength to inspire people, entrepreneurship is probably the wrong road for you.

If you feel you have the vision characteristics, you still could benefit from some of the key learnable skills that can improve the success and impact of every entrepreneur, assembled from an interview with Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines and other executives:

Ability to set priorities and focus on goals. Many people allow themselves to be driven by the crisis of the moment. Personal discipline is the key word here. Set yourself some priorities and goals, and live by them.

Able to identify important issues. Some people call this common sense; others call it “street smarts.” In the normal startup environment, there are multiple forces competing for your attention every day, and you need to learn to delegate or ignore many. It relates back to experience and knowledge, more than genes.

Conviction to be a passionate advocate. When you believe in something enough to turn your passion into action, you have become an advocate. That power and voice is then used to persuade others to make the correct decision. An effective advocate requires conviction, usually acquired during related first hand experience or training.

Broad knowledge and experience. Experience allows one to tackle challenges with confidence in a given area. Broad knowledge facilitates the same success in other business areas. Entrepreneurs need this, because their challenges are across the spectrum from technical to legal, operational, financial, and organizational.

Active listening skills. Above all, the ability to listen and understand the real meaning of what people are saying (and not saying) is paramount, because the most important information never arrives in reports or email. Some people pick this up from experience, and others find classroom courses most helpful in setting the focus.

Sound judgment. I don’t think anyone is born with sound judgment; it has to be learned, but can be started at a very early age. Every entrepreneur must have the capacity to assess situations or circumstances shrewdly and to draw proper conclusions.

Pleasant skepticism. Skepticism is not doubting, but applying reason and critical thinking to determine validity. It’s the process of searching for a supportable conclusion, as opposed to justifying a preconceived conclusion. It is a learned skill.

These all revolve around the larger theme of team building. In short, to succeed, the entrepreneur must see and articulate a vision in order to attract and motivate a team, then be able to identify the key issues, challenge the views held within the team, and make judgments from among the varying perspectives in the team.

Every entrepreneur enters the game with a unique combination of genes and skills. If the things mentioned here feel natural to you, and you are young at heart, have a healthy curiosity and zest for life, the entrepreneurial world may have a place for you, too. Give it a try. If you are having fun, you probably have what it takes.

Marty Zwilling

Wednesday, August 10, 2011
You Built a Great Startup, But Can You Scale It?
Once you are able to achieve some real “traction” with your business (paying customers, revenue stream), it may seem the time to relax a bit, but in fact this is the point where many founders start to flounder. All the skills and instincts you needed to get to this level can actually start working against you, and you can fail to scale.

Investors often say that successfully navigating the early stages of a startup requires lots of street smarts, guts, and luck. For successful scaling of the business, there has to be a transition to “executive” mode in the more traditional business sense. Certain behaviors between these two modes are incompatible, and can cause real problems.

Way back in 2002, John Hamm published some early work on this subject in “Why Entrepreneurs Don’t Scale” in the Harvard Business Review. Here is my interpretation of that work, incorporating my personal experience, identifying some strengths of an entrepreneur during early startup stages which can become a problem for scaling:

Perseverance. This is generally a required quality for a successful entrepreneur, but it can turn into an unhealthy stubbornness during the scaling stage. The key is to make decisions from data and feedback, once your business has real customers and real products. Trusting your gut at this stage isn’t good enough.
Absolute control. During the early stages, you are the company, processes are not documented, you don’t have much help, so you need a fanatical attention to detail. To scale the business, you have to find people who can do the tasks, and delegate appropriately. Control freaks are doomed to failure.
Individual loyalty. Most founders form very close relationships with the small team that gets the startup off the ground, and that is important. Scaling requires that you expand the team, probably with people you haven’t known. You also have to deal with the inevitable personnel challenges, even within the original team. Total loyalty can be toxic.
Isolated and insulated. Working in isolation is fine during the creative phase of the startup, where the founder is often the designer and architect, as well as the builder. Now this same individual has to step into the spotlight, and meet with customers, analysts, and investors. Insulation from the real world will not work during scaling.
Tactical versus strategic. Early stage startup founders have to think tactically. Even business school courses don’t teach you to operate strategically, deal with people objectively, and create loyalty within a diverse workforce. These are areas where past stumbles are the best teachers. Investors don’t want to fund your stumbles.
Every founder moving into the executive role has to step back and take a hard look at what works, and what doesn’t work. The best ones can do that, and they adapt. Investors and advisors see this as a critical part of their role, and often are the “bad guys” who ask the founder to step aside, while they bring in a “more experienced” CEO to take over the helm.

Unfortunately, some founders won’t adapt, and won’t step aside. Even if they are pushed out, they can cause terminal damage to the business by negative versions of their strengths, now seen as stubbornness, unwillingness to give up control, testing loyalty, and hiding from reality.

Thus my best recommendation, if you want to scale and to survive, is to open up and work closely with an “outsider” that you trust, such as a respected board member, a coach, a mentor, or an investor. The key is to expedite your learning, and take deliberate steps to confront your shortcomings. That way, you will become the leader your company needs, learn to stop floundering, and begin to fly.

Marty Zwilling

Tuesday, August 9, 2011
Eight Ways to be Your Own Worst Enemy for Funding
A while back I received a discouraging note from an entrepreneur with a patent and a medical software application who couldn’t find a dime of investment, and was grousing that seed funding just wasn’t available anymore. After exchanging a couple of notes, I concluded that she was more likely a victim of item #1 on my reject list below, rather than a drought on seed funding.

Too many people still believe the urban myth that you can sketch your idea on a napkin, and people will throw money at you. Fundraising is indeed brutally tough at all stages, and the seed funding is the hardest to find. The simple answer is that if you need funding, do your homework early and completely.

I seem to see common threads in the stories from people who don’t get money, so I checked my list against ones quoted in a recent book by Barry H. Cohen and Michael Rybarski, titled “Start-Up Smarts.” We agree on issues we see sabotaging most funding efforts, in decreasing priority sequence:

Lack of a compelling story. That story has to begin with a painful problem shared by a large collection of viable customers, with your competitive solution. Additionally, you need to be able to communicate the essence that story and value to investors in a couple of sentences – your elevator pitch.

Lack of clear objectives/goals. Often, the number one question that entrepreneurs fail to address is: “How much money do you need, and what valuation do you place on your company?” Then you have to have evidence to support your request. I’ve asked this question many times of presenters in angel meetings, and often get a blank look.

Failure to prepare for due diligence. Any serious investor will perform a thorough review of your business and personal background before signing the check. They don’t like surprises, so you should explain any possible issues first, in the best possible light, before being asked.

Lack of understanding of the funding process/rules. The key here is to create a win-win partner situation for your investors. Discussion of risks and rewards in an open fashion, without sleight-of-hand or shortcuts, will convince investors that they can count on you, and will avoid shareholder lawsuits later.

Reliance on inappropriate business professionals. Using well-respected professionals to bolster your endeavor is key. If you can attract well-known advisors, attorneys, and accountants, it will give potential investors comfort that you have been able to get implied endorsement of your concept, as well as your integrity.

Poor choice of funding sources. It is not helpful to you for funders to love an idea that does not fit the criteria for their investing capability. Don’t waste time talking to VCs for requests less than $1M, or very early stage, and don’t expect professional investors to jump in if you have no “skin in the game.”

Not doing due diligence on the funding source. You need to complete due diligence on your prospective funders as they complete due diligence on you. Find out what they have invested in recently, what stage, and what is their track record of expectations and follow-through. You don’t need surprises or disappointments either.

Being unprepared for the next steps. After a good elevator pitch or initial presentation, investors will ask for your formal business plan and financial projections. Don’t derail their enthusiasm or risk your professional image by not having these materials immediately available. The same thing goes for incorporating your company, having key hires lined up, and facilities arranged as required.

There are many others opportunities for you to shoot yourself in the foot. Rather than play the victim, you can be proactive on all these items, and stay one step ahead of your “competitors” in professionalism, timing, and preparation. The resources are out there to help you, like the book mentioned, this blog, and many more. Use them and win.

Marty Zwilling

Monday, August 8, 2011
The Power of Negative Events in Your Startup
Managing and motivating a team in a startup is more than just using the right interpersonal skills. It’s more than providing recognition, tangible incentives, and clear work goals. A key influencer of satisfaction and motivation, top-ranked by employees, is positive progress and the completion of meaningful work. Sometimes you have to manage progress, not people.

“Busy work” and “grunt work” are deadly terms in a startup environment. So are setbacks, project cancellations, and frequent changes of direction that make people doubt that the work they are doing will ever see the light of day. These points are illustrated in detail in “The Progress Principle,” a new book from the Harvard Business School, by Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer.

They explain that work progress and setbacks matter so much because one of the most basic human drives is toward a person’s belief that he or she is individually capable of planning and executing the tasks required to achieve desired goals (self-efficacy).

Negative events cause uncertainty, doubt, or confusion in people’s sense of themselves, and lowers their motivation for the work. In fact, an analysis of thousands of detailed logs from employees show that setbacks have more power to sway work satisfaction than progress:

The effect of setbacks on emotions is stronger than the effect of progress. The power of setbacks to diminish happiness appears to be more than twice as strong as the power of progress to boost happiness. The power of setbacks to increase frustration is more than three times as strong as the power of progress to decrease frustration.
Small losses can overwhelm small wins. The asymmetry between the power of setbacks and progress events appears to apply even to relatively minor triggers. Similarly, small everyday hassles hold more sway than small everyday assists. Any manager’s job description should start with facilitating subordinates progress every day.
Negative leader behaviors affect work satisfaction for everyone. Managers should avoid actions that negate the value of work in progress. One way is dismissing a team member’s work, or changing priorities arbitrarily, or inadequate communication. Don’t assign people who are clearly unqualified, or over-qualified, to a task.
Failure to facilitate progress and remove obstacles. Consistent daily progress by individual employees fuels both the success of the organization and the quality of those employees inner work lives. This progress principle should be the driving force and the number one objective of every leader.
Other types of negative events – not just setbacks – are more powerful than their mirror-image positive events. Based on employee logs, the connection between mood and negative events is about five times stronger than the connection between mood and positive events. Employees recall more negative leader actions than positive actions.
People often say, “it’s business, it’s not personal.” But work is personal. If people feel capable, then they see difficult problems as positive challenges and opportunities to succeed. Put another way, they develop a “sense of empowerment.” This need grows throughout their career as people compare their achievement with those of their peers as well as their own “personal best.”

As an example, entrepreneurs often have great difficulty relinquishing top leadership positions when their companies have grown beyond their own management capacities, because they have invested so much of their personal identities in what they have built.

In many cases, only you as the founder can remove barriers to progress, such as meaningless tasks and toxic relationships, before they disrupt employee motivation and productivity. Only you can activate the positive forces that enable progress, including “catalysts” and “nourishers.” Start today in your own startup, to eliminate the negatives, as well as accentuate the positive.

Marty Zwilling

Sunday, August 7, 2011
Startups Can Make You Work Hard and Still Be Happy
Building a startup is hard work for low pay, it’s risky, and it requires total responsibility to make it work. Yet, many entrepreneurs are the happiest people I know. On the other hand, I know many unhappy individuals who are always partying, have minimal commitments, and little responsibility. I suspect the real parameters of happiness have eluded these people.

According to one of my favorite authors, Brian Tracy, in his book “The Power of Self-Discipline,” happiness is not even a goal that you can aim at and achieve in and of itself, but it is a by-product that comes to you when you are engaged in doing something you really enjoy while in the company of people you like and respect.

He defines the five key ingredients of happiness that every potential and existing entrepreneur (and every person) should evaluate relative to their own situation:

Happy relationships. Fully 85 percent of your happiness – or unhappiness – will come from your relationships with other people. For entrepreneurs, that includes business colleagues, but it also still includes spouse, children and friends.

Meaningful work. You must be doing things that you love and give you a sense of fulfillment, as well as making a contribution. Studies have shown that the three most motivating business factors include challenging work, opportunities for growth, and pleasant coworkers.

Financial independence. The happiest of all people are those who have reached the point at which they no longer worry about money. That doesn’t mean unlimited funds, but enough that they don’t fear being destitute, without funds, or dependent on others.

Health and energy. It is only when you enjoy high levels of pain-free health and a continuous flow of energy that you feel truly happy. For many, health is only a “deficiency need,” meaning you don’t think much about it until you are deprived of it.

Self-actualization. This is the big one, the feeling that you are becoming everything you are capable of becoming. Before this can happen, you must first feel that all deficiency needs are satisfied, and you have achieved self-esteem:

Survival. Basic survival is the top deficiency need, meaning sufficient food, water, clothing, and shelter to preserve your life and well-being. You cannot be happy, and you will experience tremendous stress, until survival requirements are met.

Security. The second deficiency need encompasses financial, emotional, and physical security. You have to have enough money, security in your relationships, and physical security to assure that you are not in imminent jeopardy of any kind.

Belongingness. The final deficiency need reminds us that we are social people, and we need social relationships with others, both at home and at work. You need to be recognized and accepted by other people who count in your world.

Self-esteem. Your self-esteem is the core of your personality and largely determines how you feel about everything that happens to you. Are you liked and appreciated by peers, doing a good job and being recognized for it, and achieving your ideals?

According to Abraham Maslow, a noted psychologist, less than two percent of the population ever reaches this height of self-actualization and personal fulfillment. But the wonderful thing about self-actualization needs is that they never need to be completely satisfied. As you stretch yourself in this direction, you experience a steady flow of happiness and contentment.

In all of these areas, you need to exert self-discipline and willpower to overcome the tendency to take shortcuts. When you keep going in spite of all obstacles and hardships, you feel powerful. Your self-esteem and self-confidence increase, and then as you move, step by step, toward your ideals, you feel genuinely happy. Are you a happy entrepreneur?

Marty Zwilling

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