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Podcast: Michael Lebowitz, Founder & CEO, Big Spaceship

Podcast: Michael Lebowitz, Founder & CEO, Big Spaceship

I recently interviewed Michael Lebowitz, Founder & CEO, Big Spaceship about how corporation get social media wrong. Listen now:

 

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What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from a Door to Door Pitchman

What Entrepreneurs Can Learn from a Door to Door Pitchman

Let me tell you a story about Johnny Miller.

“Johnny who?”

Trust me, you don’t know this Johnny. But I bet you’ve seen one of Johnny’s co-workers walking down your street, knocking on door after door attempting to sell magazine subscriptions. Last weekend I answered the door while blocking my big, loud and unhappy dog who was intent on killing the stranger outside. One hand on the door, one on the dog, I was not an ideal prospect. Johnny, however, had me hooked in 10 seconds. I sidled out to the front step, and before I knew it I was sitting down with a magazine salesman for a product pitch.

When you think door-to-door salesman, the word “inspiring” doesn’t come to mind. Most of my friends would have sooner pretended they were not at home. But being brave, I figured I’d politely brush Johnny off. Little did I know that Johnny, a 21-year old raised in the projects of Charleston, South Carolina, could sell his words, ideas and products brilliantly. I think entrepreneurs can learn a lot from his example.

Many entrepreneurs get the strategy and execution of their pitch completely wrong. Rather than paint a picture in the world of the investor or customer, they make the mistake of focusing on what they make or sell. It is easy to talk about your product or service. It’s what you know, and it’s wonderful, right? As an entrepreneur, you dive in when asked the innocent-sounding question, “so, what do you do?” The truth is that most pitches fall flat and don’t succeed, and that’s where we can learn from Johnny.

Johnny has knocked on 10,000 doors in 3 ½ years of selling subscriptions all over the US, and managed to sell skeptical me with no powerpoint in sight…on words alone. Here’s how he did it:

1. Johnny Engaged Immediately. Johnny got a hook in me immediately.How? I’ll get to that. The point is he knew he had a very thin lifeline. Now take a look at your pitch– verbal or powerpoint – how long is it? And your real lead, the juice, the reason for your faith and enthusiasm in your business – how many slides into the deck is it? If you are doing an executive summary, how far down the first or second page until you get to the heart of your business? I’m getting bored already. Johnny wouldn’t let me get bored or disengaged.

2. Johnny’s Words and Questions Were Honed to Perfection. Johnny used his first twenty words like a scalpel. Have you refined your pitch down to its essence? No empty words? Everyone knows what an elevator pitch is, but why do so few entrepreneurs actually do it well? Listing your lawyer or accountant in your executive summary is a loser move. Endless copy about confidentiality – unnecessary. As Mies Van de Rohe said: less is more. Johnny is a scientist. He experimented in his delivery and discarded losing experiments in favor of winners. Most entrepreneurs keep plowing through the same long turgid prose.

3. Johnny’s Pitch Was Human. Johnny’s pitch did not distinguish between the product and the man selling it – they were one and the same. It’s a given that entrepreneurs fall in love with their technology, product, and design. They love their baby. But even with all that emotion, they make the mistake of pitching very rationally, unlike Johnny, who made his product come alive. The thing is, we human beings are emotion-based decision makers. Here’s an example that plays to pure emotion. My friend Dominic Luzi served as interim CIO at Hästens, a maker of high end beds costing $15,000 to $65,000. I asked Dom how a bed could be worth so much? He told me that his first night in a hotel room with a Hästens bed he wanted to see what all the fuss was about, so before turning in, he lay down on the bed in a full suit, tie, and shoes, just to test it out for a minute. The next thing he knew, it was the following morning and he hadn’t moved an inch from his original spot. There is magic to that bed and all Dom had to do was tell me his experience. Can you get that level of feeling into your pitch?

4. Johnny Listened. Just because it’s a pitch doesn’t mean it’s canned. Yes, hone your message, but don’t go on autopilot. Johnny knew he was selling a basic product. Rather than rambling on about why magazines are great, he asked me what my first job was. And as I blissfully reflected on my past, Johnny listened like his life depended on it. Come to think of it, I guess for him it did.

Johnny is consistently successful in the most brutal form of business combat, the stone cold pitch to a completely uninterested prospect. Get in the mind of your prospect and you’ll win. Thanks for the lesson Johnny. I can’t wait to get my first copy of Vegetarian Times, and I’m not vegetarian.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Three Best Ads Ever for Entrepreneurs

Three Best Ads Ever for Entrepreneurs

I take inspiration wherever found, and sometimes great advertisements win hearts, minds and can push company founders forward.

The three best print ads of all time for entrepreneurial action:

1) Schwinn: “We fell. We got up. End of Apology.” This ad for Schwinn bicycles features a banged up rider in the upper right – check out that blood – and it sums up great, unreasonable, unrelenting, unstoppable entrepreneurs everywhere.

2) Cessna: “Some words of encouragement for the last people who really need them.” This ad from Cessna has as much attitude as one could stand in the middle of a vicious recession, but you can feel yourself perking up just reading it: “…Call them contrarian. Label them renegades…If you are one of them, you are already on your mission. While others flail dull weapons, you hone yours…and emerge stronger than before. RISE.”

3) Minolta: “Are you waiting…” This ad from Minolta is alpha to omega for everyone who needs just a little boost to get in gear. Here’s the full text:

Are you waiting
for someone to lead and inspire you
for the boss to recognize you
for clients to thank you
for coworkers to help you
for the world to hail you
well here’s a news flash
they are all just sitting there too
waiting for you

Minolta got it right. We’re all just waiting for you.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Tweet from the Jury? How Successful Startups Ask the Crazy Questions

Tweet from the Jury? How Successful Startups Ask the Crazy Questions

With the buzz around the Apple-Samsung trial I wonder what the jury was thinking as both sides took the stand.

We could get a glimpse into the jury’s mind soon. The Citibank trial jury a couple weeks ago came close: they acquitted the defendant and sent a note to the judge who read in court: “This verdict should not deter the SEC from continuing to investigate the financial industry, review current regulations and modify existing regulations as necessary.” (See Article)

What happens when social media and transparency hit the jury room? Sounds impossible but so was Facebook by traditional standards of privacy. Steven Brill launched Court TV (now TruTV) when the idea of broadcasting live trials was shocking. Now it’s standard fare.

What’s it mean for entrepreneurs? Get out of your thinking box. What did Brill and many other entrepreneurs do to reach success? They turn the problem on its head, asking, “why is this the way it is?”

If you think the idea of jury empowerment sounds crazy, consider the Citibank trial aftermath. First jury foreman Beau Brendler wrote the statement. Then SEC lawyers called Brendler to ask him: “how can we be more effective?” That’s power, because Brendler had essentially tweeted a message – and if you include the NYT article he reached about 2 million people.

Maybe you won’t be the entrepreneur to start a tweet service from the jury room, but I’ll bet in your field there’s still an assumption or two that needs re-thinking. Steve Shank thought online education had a future, but for seven years everyone in the field laughed at him. Finally Capella University received its accreditation, and it now stands as an education industry leader with 34,000 students from 50 states and 53 countries. And Steve went from being a guy with a crazy idea to a pure genius.

Back to Beau Brendler. Beau, you listening? Just one small problem. Your tweet was 164 characters. Next time you send instructions and encouragement to the SEC, could you keep it to 140?

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Olympic Takeaways for Entrepreneurs

Olympic Takeaways for Entrepreneurs

In business a lot of people can be touchy about criticism. In sports, athletes depend on it: if you want to improve your swing, your throw, or your attitude, you better be open to coaching.

The Olympics is the ultimate example, with the top athletes closely advised, cajoled and encouraged. Entrepreneurs also can learn from some good coaching, and in fact there are great lessons from recent Olympic champions, also-rans and even the DNFs (Did Not Finish).

Perfect your performance like Usain Bolt. To perfect can mean to take something to a flawless state, but I think there is a far better way to use this word for company founders: the continual process of expanding and developing skills and bettering results. Try this sentence: “She worked to perfect her startup over the course of five years and achieved $10 million revenue.” Is she done at $10 million? Of course not. Any entrepreneur worth her salt will now set a new goal. Sharpening our act – that’s something we can all do. Usain Bolt ran faster in his second Olympics, and I suspect he’s already setting even more ambitious goals for the future.

Make a comeback like Gabby Douglas. It was doubtful that Gabby Douglas would even make the US Olympic team, let alone win an individual Gold medal. Forbes contributor David DiSalvo wrote in The 10 Reasons Why We Fail that one of the reasons for failure is accepting one’s (low) station in life. But how does that explain Oscar Pistorius? How could you watch his 400 meter race and not be inspired? Comebacks are what make legends, so if you’re behind the curve right now in your business, just imagine how much more glorious it will be when you succeed.

Be remembered by your grace under pressure, just like Liu Xiang. He failed to clear the first hurdle in his race, crashed to the ground and was disqualified. He limped off, but then returned to kiss the hurdle. Competitors then helped him exit, because they knew a champion was in their midst. For Liu, the hurdle, the event, the training and the crowd were all sacred. Contrast this with an American runner, who was tripped up, fell, and immediately began to pound the track with her hands. She was not hurt, but she didn’t finish the race.

Especially with startups, none of us hits a home run every time, so the question is what to do when you crash. Anyone can look good when they win. It was fun to watch the pole vaulters – thrilling to see someone leap up to an impossible height and clear the bar. But when they failed to clear the bar, you saw them get up off the mat and applaud the crowd. It was their way to say: thank you for the opportunity to be here, and just so you know, I’m coming back, even better than before.

**Robert Jordan is a Forbes.com contributor. View the original posting of this article on Forbes.com.

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Creating a Tech Ecosystem: Interview with Terry Howerton, Founding Chairman of ITA and TechNexus

Creating a Tech Ecosystem: Interview with Terry Howerton, Founding Chairman of ITA and TechNexus

Terry Howerton, Founding Chairman of ITA started his first company when he was 15 and knows the ups and downs of being an entrepreneur. In this video interview Terry shares how he co-founded ITA 10 years ago to create a place where people could self-identify as a tech community in Chicago.  Two years later he started a “clubhouse” for this community, TechNexus, which was just named in Forbes as one of the Top 10 Incubators in America.  While the 25,000 square foot space downtown was originally built as a collaboration center, TechNexus has morphed into an incubator where all types of people from stakeholders and investors to executives, engineers and IT buyers can gather together.

Since TechNexus opened in 2007, it has hosted 137 companies that have raised $80M and employ 450 people. Open Kernel Labs, a company that creates a virtual machine that sits inside a mobile phone, has been at TechNexus four years and has grown to one billion mobile devices worldwide. You can walk the halls and run into someone from, say, the Advanced Research Team at Motorola Mobility, or a 22 year-old hotshot building a mobile app. This is a tech ecosystem.

Recently we coached two college sophomores with a great idea, who were intent on heading home for the summer to work on product launch. My approach when starting a company is to surround myself with good people. There’s an even larger set of smart, giving, great minds who want to help. So our best piece of advice for the sophomores? Find a great incubator to take you in. It could lead to good things even if you don’t know upfront what’s possible.

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How to Pitch Motorola VC

How to Pitch Motorola VC

Motorola started a venture capital program in 1999 and since has invested over $500 Million in 175 different companies. As one of the most active investors out there, Motorola Solutions Venture Capital Group has had companies in its portfolio with resulting IPOs and even acquisitions. Some recent investments include Cleversafe, ViVOtech and Canvas. Surprisingly, out of the 175 companies invested in, Motorola has only acquired four.

In this interview with Reese Schroeder, Managing Director of Motorola Solutions Venture Capital, Reese shares Motorola Solutions’ thesis on investing. It’s not a try before you buy model, but rather looking for companies with a strategic fit. With a constant pipeline (the team is currently looking at around 1,000 opportunities), hear what Motorola Solutions is looking for. Reese spells out exactly how he wants to be pitched and shares where he sees entrepreneurs mess up when they walk in his door.

(Recorded in the Fall of 2011)

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When Was Your First Entrepreneurial Epiphany?

When Was Your First Entrepreneurial Epiphany?

My first inkling that I was an entrepreneur was at about age six. I loved sawing wood and hammering nails. I found some boards in a shed and went to work. As other kids came over, I assigned them tasks – I think we were trying to build a go-cart. As they were all sawing and hammering away, I thought – they’re working for me.

And then there’s Caine’s Arcade. Have you seen the Caine’s Arcade video yet? Here’s a nine year old who loves arcade games, has a skill with cardboard, a very loving dad and a lot of creativity. Caine turned his Dad’s auto parts store into Caine’s Arcade, outfitted with a variety of homemade cardboard games.  Despite having no customer, Caine worked at it every chance he got and waited for someone to walk in the door. Then one day filmmaker Nirvan Mullick happened upon Caine’s Arcade and became its first customer. More importantly, Nirvan decided to create a wonderful film, and both the arcade and film have gone viral.

Since then, the Caine’s Arcade Foundation has raised over $170,000 to help foster entrepreneurship and creativity in children.

So much good stuff came out of this. Caine’s Arcade even has a theme song: http://cainesarcade.bandcamp.com/

If a 9 year old kid can be that inspired, how powerful can we be?

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7 Years for Success? Disruptive Innovation Takes Time

7 Years for Success? Disruptive Innovation Takes Time

Steve Shank founded Capella Education, one of the first online universities, in 1992 when the Internet was not yet well-understood or widely embraced. With traditional educators questioning the entire concept of online teaching, Capella had a lot to prove. In this interview, Steve talks about bootstrapping the company to build a disruptive innovation, which he defines as a fundamental change in the marketplace. Patience was key for his success as it took seven years to demonstrate viability in the market. Today Capella has 34,000 students from across the US and 53 countries.

Steve Shank is one of the ten founders featured in the Nightingale Conant audio program How They Did It: Real World Advice From Today’s Most Successful Entrepreneurs. Listen to audio samples at here or order the program for a 20% discounted price for friends of Bob

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Wanna Exit? Here’s How, to the Tune of $115 Million: Interview with Michael Alter, SurePayroll CEO

Wanna Exit? Here’s How, to the Tune of $115 Million: Interview with Michael Alter, SurePayroll CEO

Michael Alter, CEO of SurePayroll, shares three crucial lessons in this video interview on the sale of his company to Paychex for $115 million.  Here are the highlights:

Your Company Is the Product

As managers, leaders and owners of companies, we spend all our time producing and selling things: products, services, processes. We think about how to create, position, price, brand and sell. But what happens when we try to sell the whole enchilada? It turns out the best process is the same, on a larger scale – the company becomes the product, and the same sales and marketing elements apply.

A radical example – recall the sale of ICQ’s Instant Messenger to AOL way back. The owners of ICQ proudly told the world that prior to selling to AOL for $425 million they had not taken in one dollar in revenue.

Make Sure Your Product (The Company) Is Fully Baked

Michael is brilliant on this point – because price isn’t the whole story. It’s easy to say you should sell when it’ll get the highest valuation. But what does that mean? Any smart buyer has a plan for making your maximized outcome her bargain price, from which she can later brag about what a steal she got when she underpaid for you. Michael said that for his 12-year-old venture, the decision to sell was not about flipping the company for a quick profit. With 30,000 customers and 160 employees, much was at stake. Even in the face of selling the company and turning the keys over to someone new, Michael said you have to ask, where do you want the company to go from here?

Go In With a Bigger Plan

This doesn’t just mean a plan to sell. Michael said that seven years ago SurePayroll got an offer but declined. The decision to wait proved to be the right choice. A sale process acquires momentum and picks up speed as you go along. It gets hard to change course. Your plan has to remain global and future-oriented even while you are packaging your company up with a pretty little bow on top. Michael  took a global look at SurePayroll and saw that with big differences in client base, SurePayroll would not go through significant change following the purchase. Paychex had a strong presence with traditional payroll customers, while SurePayroll catered to online use by small businesses. He accomplished the shareholders’ goals for sale while taking care to insure SurePayroll’s ongoing viability.

It’s always emotional when exiting a VC-backed company. Investors don’t go in without eventually wanting a way out (sorry Warren B., I love Berkshire Hathaway but VC aren’t built for forever as a holding period). Great founders don’t flip and don’t treat their creations lightly. But sale is a common outcome.

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