Interview with Ishveen Anand, CEO, OpenSponsorship.com
Situation: Emerging stage companies that get early traction must maintain momentum and strong growth. This is particularly true if the company is competing in an established industry where innovative and new solutions are not the norm. Early adopters fall back into old, comfortable habits. Filling the pipeline with new prospects takes a lot of energy. How do you maintain momentum as you grow?
Find a familiar, respected example of an existing service that is similar to yours. Match.com is widely recognized. We use Match.com to describe how we connect athletes with potential sponsors. Our service is free in the early stages and focuses on introductions. It costs nothing unless the parties decide on a deal. It’s up to the parties to decide whether to go out, form a relationship, and later end up together.
Map the stages of a sale for your offering, and select progressive KPIs that represent these stages. For example, early on it may be users. Later it becomes messages between users. A sale is closed when messages produce deals. Once you have progressive KPIs you can focus on tipping points between the stages and facilitating movement from user to message to deal. Set metrics and timeline objectives at each stage of the transaction.
Closely monitor conversation rates between users, messages and deals. Watch the momentum of conversion between the stages and test interventions that positively impact this momentum.
Match social media channels to the personalities of each of your stages. Twitter is a great metric of sales success and LinkedIn helps us to understand the reach of OpenSponsorship. Instagram is a great tool for those selling products, so slightly less relevant to us, but still necessary. Use the appropriate channel that will best bring potential users into your sales stream. An advantage of social media channels is that these provide additional insight into your transaction stream and what users are saying about you.
Understand what’s right for your users. Early on you look for elements that will create buzz and feed viral growth. Target special events and opportunities which offer high visibility. For us, a big event will be the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. For another company it may be a large convention like CES or SxSW. Plan in advance and make the most of these opportunities.
Know your users’ seasonality. What are their peak purchase seasons? Do they have special seasons? What are their off-seasons? How can you take advantage of this knowledge to offer them new opportunities? Populate your web site with the right pages and social media marketing efforts linking to these pages to drive usage and business year-round.
Important pieces of momentum are staffing and investment. Early on, these seem almost like distractions to a CEO. The CEO is more engaged in the product or service being provided. However, personnel and fundraising decisions critically impact the future of the venture and must be taken seriously. Success will depend upon the CEO’s being able to move seamlessly between conversations about product and service, staffing and fundraising.
Situation: A closely-held, non-public company is in negotiation for a possible sale. The CEO seeks guidance on when and how to communicate this to employees. What event would demand communication? The CEO is concerned that if the sale falls through this may significantly damage employee morale. How do you communicate a company sale?
Advice from the CEOs:
The trigger point for any employee communication will be due diligence. At this point, you may have a serious buyer.
Going into due diligence, limit updates to those who will be involved in the process.
Most acquisitions do not go through, so a broader communication risks disrupting the company – unless you are very confident that the sale will proceed.
Prior to due diligence, there is no benefit to communicating any possible sale to employees.
What message do you deliver to those who will be involved in due diligence?
We are entering a due diligence. This is an exercise that we’re doing for our own education so that we understand the value of the company. This is just a drill.
Keep your eye on the business and don’t be distracted by the offer.
Have a good idea of an acceptable sale price.
For a company with intellectual property or significant assets, three to five times EBITDA is a good starting point – unless the sale is a strategic buy to the buyer.
A possible deal is often spoiled by terms and conditions that the buyer attaches to the deal.
One buyer (at any one time) is the same as no buyer. When owners get serious about selling the company they will need a broker to develop multiple buyers, to advise them through the sale process and to defend their interests.
Situation: A mid-sized company has taken over management of the supply chains for several large customers. The products that the company manufactures have long lead times both for sourcing materials and manufacturing customer orders. Sometimes customers either ask for additional production on an existing order in process, or ask for deliveries to be spread beyond contracted timelines. Either situation has a significant impact on the cost of producing the order and company profitability. How do you manage customer change orders?
Advice from the CEOs:
The issue is one of managing contracts and customer expectations. Because this is hurting the company, prime the customers now that things will need to change in the future. Depending upon the level of comfort the response can be reactive or proactive.
A proactive response: because this happens with some frequency, establish a change order schedule and share this with the customers. Your message will be that you are happy to accommodate changes in orders, but you need to recover the cost of these changes in order to be able to continue supplying the customer. Include the change order schedule in future customer purchase contracts. This may cause them to have second thoughts about requesting changes in orders.
A reactive response: the next time a customer makes these demands the response can be: “We’ll take care of you this time but when we draft our next contract we have to adjust the terms of the contract so that it is a win-win.”
The appropriate response depends on value of each customer’s business to the company – both revenue and profit – and your confidence in the relationship with the customer.
Situation: A company plans to implement a new CRM system. They have a project road map and have assigned a manager for the implementation. However, the CEO has concerns because this is the most significant software roll-out that the company has ever attempted. She wants to assure that the roll-out proceeds smoothly, and that and that sales, marketing and customer service functions are not hampered. How do you simplify a firm-wide software roll-out?
Advice from the CEOs:
Focus on company business objectives as you plan and implement the roll-out. Optimize the system to company business objectives, not just what the team wants.
Scope this out as a project management exercise.
Build and test.
Roll the system out to preliminary production and collect feedback on functionality.
Rebuild and test.
Plan and conduct system orientation training.
Set a date for the roll-out.
Don’t immediately roll the new system out company-wide. Conduct an initial implementation with a small scale test team. Make sure that everything works as planned and that day-to-day function is not compromised. From the information that you gather during initial implementation, tweak orientation training so that everyone is comfortable with the new system.
During initial planning sessions to set system objectives, meet first with managers whose teams will be impacted by the roll-out. Managers may not speak freely if their support staff are present.
Have a roll-out celebration and be generous complimenting personnel who have been involved in planning and roll-out.
Situation: A CEO asks: How do you help people appreciate the difference between where they want to be verses where you need them to be? How do you help them understand the realities of career and financial potential that have been set for your company? What do you do to help your employees understand what has to happen before they get to the next step? How do you set appropriate expectations?
Advice from the CEOs:
The current labor market has yielded a different employment environment compared with 20 years ago. Many new hires are either:
Young – without long term expectations or perspective;
Possess an entitlement mentality;
More seasoned and possibly looking toward retirement; or
Have personality challenges.
This is just current reality and will last until the next contraction.
If you have a clear policy on compensation and promotion you are way ahead of the game because you can communicate this clearly at onset of employment. If you don’t have this, create it and make sure that it is communicated consistently to new employees and during all employee reviews.
Once you have established and communicated a clear policy on compensation and promotion the question becomes, on an individual basis, whether an employee “gets it” or not. If they don’t, perhaps your company is not for them.
Is there value to stock options as a bonus?
If you are a public company, they have value because stock options are tradable within legal guidelines.
If you are a private company it’s a different matter. Other than as an emotional boost, without a liquidity event the stock has no value except for possible periodic distributions against shares held.
Situation: Two key managers of a company are too busy with day-to-day activities to focus their planned 40% of time on growth. The company has hired personnel to relieve some pressure on them, and a new ASP (Application Service Provider) is improving customer out-reach. How can the CEO take pressure off these managers so that they have time to grow the business? How do you focus managers on growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Small companies grow through their early stages with everyone wearing many hats and doing everything. The company is now larger than this and it has to stop. Managers need to focus their responsibilities where you need them to focus and stop doing less important tasks.
Have you gone over key responsibilities and expectations for the two managers? Do they have clear objectives and deliverables? If not, focus on this.
Brainstorm with them how they could free-up time to focus on growth.
Do this in a meeting. Your plan is 10% growth. Ask for their ideas on how to grow the business, and develop a plan to put their ideas into action. What help or resources do they need to meet this plan?
Three heads better than one to ask core questions – let them come up with the answers.
Design processes to address needs and responsibilities.
Rank implementation of options in terms of impact to the company and financial results.
Given the ranking, implement programs sequentially – most relevant and easiest first.
Taking orders by phone is clerical. This should not be a manager’s prime focus.
Have a clerical person answer the phone, and train them over time.
Limit the manager’s direct involvement in phone orders to critical situations.
Situation: A CEO is concerned that his company’s sales and marketing efforts are not effective. Too often the sales team finds a good prospect, but fails to convert them to the company’s offering. How can the company improve its sales conversion rate? How do you optimize your buy/sell funnels?
Advice from the CEOs:
To improve both your marketing and sales functions, it is essential to move the company’s perspective from the Sales side of the Seller’s Funnel to the Marketing side of the Buyer’s Funnel. Only by understanding your customers can you:
Create awareness of their needs,
Acknowledge interest in a solution to their needs,
Consider options and develop preferences among the possible solutions, and
Determine how to effectively communicate with them through your marketing and sales efforts.
In today’s world, a quality web site is essential to your business. The objective of the web site is to convince the customer that they want to talk to or do business with you. Your web site must tell them:
Who you are.
What your values are.
Why you are special.
And it must include a “call to action” – a convincing reason for them to call you.
To better qualify your prospective clients:
Develop a scripted telephone interview that can be conducted by your sales people or less expensive inside sales/marketing people to qualify prospects before you spend the time and effort for an in-person sales call.
Use targeted marketing programs to leverage references to prospective customers.
Have lots of conversations with potential customers to understand their needs. Tailor your value creation process to address these needs.
Special Thanks to Craig Olson of MXL Partners for his contribution to this discussion.
Situation: A founder CEO, after many years building a business, has lost the passion that he had early on. He needs to hire someone to succeed him, assuring the ongoing growth and value of the company while minimizing ongoing personal involvement. How does a founder hire his (or her) replacement?
Advice from the CEOs:
When a founder has lost the passion to continue running a business it is time to move on. Passion is critical to meet the day-to-day demands of a business.
Before you start looking, decide whether you will continue to have a role in the business, and what that role will be. Will you remain Chairman of the Board and give up the CEO role? If so, are you ready to let go of the CEO role so that the right person can take it on? Typical company structures for Chairman/Top Manager roles are:
Chairman focuses on growth strategy, select PR and critical relationships.
CEO/COO/GM handles operational planning and day-to-day management.
The candidate that you seek will have the following profile:
Good energy, loves the business, but not ready for the risk of building a company.
When the right person has run the business for you for a few years that person may become your exit strategy.
Go to your next trade show with the mindset to find the right person. Many of the best candidates will be on the trade show floor – now working for someone else, but inwardly looking for their next opportunity.
Spread the news ahead of time that you’re looking. See who seeks you out.
Situation: A CEO wants to schedule an off-site planning meeting with her top staff. She has heard about the potential efficacy of off-site meetings and is intrigued by the idea of taking her staff away from the office for a day or two to concentrate on planning. She is curious about typical agendas, time frames, objectives and who should be involved in the meetings. How do you plan an off-site meeting?
Advice from the CEOs:
Set the objective of the meeting in advance. Tell everyone involved the objective so that they are thinking about this prior to the meeting.
The staff involved depends on the objective of the meeting. Select participants to fit the need.
Include a team building event. One purpose of off-sites is to help the team or teams get to know each other better and improve collaboration.
Have an agenda for the meeting and meet without interruptions. Have participants notify key customers or contacts in advance, schedule back-up contacts if necessary, and don’t allow interruptions.
Hold the meeting during work hours. Options: one day, local for easy travel and return home; or two days, nice setting, dinner the first day, and late afternoon return home the second day.
Do you need a facilitator? This depends on the goal and organizer’s comfort with the topic of focus.
A speaker or educational component pertinent to the meeting goal.
Breakout and group discussions to think through important issues.
A team-building event.
Some fun – dinner or an evening activity that allows individuals to talk in a relaxed setting.
Examples of effective events:
Broad agenda – What can we do better?
All-hands meeting – prompts contribution by all.
Opportunity for CEO to communicate the company vision and involve employees in the planning process for the coming year or period.
Situation: A company’s motto is that they serve the customer first. As an unintended consequence company projects get lower priority and action than customer projects. Frequently, the CEO finds that company projects are only half completed. What have you done to make company initiatives a priority? Who do you serve – the customer or the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is a great question. Clearly serving the customer has to be top priority. However, you also have to complete company projects, particularly those which are critical to company function or which will enhance your ability to serve your customers.
Define the company as a customer for important projects. Call this “billable hours” to the company and credit them as such on these projects. Accompany this with employee training on how to prioritize “company” versus “customer” projects when priorities conflict. It may take time to work through this, and for the message to sink in.
Add completion of company initiatives to the company kudos list. LInk company award eligibility to completion of company initiatives. For mission critical projects, grant double credit for completion of company projects. Adjustment of incentives will help to get the message across.
In employee communications, include updates on company projects along with customer projects and give equal or greater emphasis as appropriate.
Have you defined your “ideal customer”?
Include internal customers within your definition of ideal customers.
This will help to clarify and prioritize opportunities and shift the mindset.
For mission critical projects hire additional personnel or contractors.