What is Your 3-Year Plan? Six Suggestions

Situation: A founding CEO wants to cut back to 1-2 days per week with someone else overseeing day-to-day operations. Her timeline to accomplish this is 3 years. Currently she splits her time between engineering and sales support, managing operations, overseeing the CFO and managing the company. How do you accomplish this transition? What is your 3-year plan?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Advertise for and hire a General Manager/engineer who can understand the company’s applications and develop unique solutions.
  • Advertise for and hire an understudy for the sales person. This could be someone in their 40s who is experienced, and who can act both as the sales person’s back-up and develop additional accounts to diversify the business.
  • As the company continues to grow it will take more time and effort to manage all the activities. Plan the company’s organization chart and infrastructure to account for this.
    • Be careful not create an infrastructure during good times that is unsustainable during down times.
  • As the new GM gains familiarity with the company, this individual will and should start to take control. This automatically means that the founding CEO will have to agree to release some of her control. Prepare for this.
  • Consider several alternatives for the GM:
    • Super President – $400K.
    • GM with engineering talent – perhaps a consulting or engineering sales background. Hire at $150-200K and develop into the President.
    • Given the 3-year lead time this individual could be a Technical Lead or Project Engineer. The objective will be to develop a very talented person into the GM or President. This alternative opens a larger pool of talent, at lower initial cost.
  • Where are these people found?
    • Trade association contacts.
    • A high-quality engineer that another CEO won’t be hiring over the coming months. Talk to friends and industry contacts.

How Do You Enhance Your Customer Service Model? Four Thoughts

Situation: A company wants to up its game by focusing on service. They are evaluating different options to provide customized services to gain a sustainable differentiating advantage over their competition. How do you enhance your customer service model?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In the gaming industry one CEO sees an effective model focusing on higher level customer service. The top games have allowed user customization using generic customization tools. This allows the provider of the tool kit to serve a larger number of users using a single tool kit to provide a wide variety of gaming options.
  • Another example from the gaming industry focuses on middleware developers. These developers create an interactive knowledge base for customer self-service. The knowledge base is monitored by the host company, and misleading or potentially harmful input is excluded. The benefit is that this enlists clients to provide their input on customer service as well as product development.
  • Another CEO sees this as a useful way to drive down customer service costs by providing more tools and fewer bodies to perform the customer service task. The model’s objective is for the customer not to need personalized service, but to be able to develop solutions on their own using a flexible took kit. The host company gains additional advantage because their user agreement allows them to take the best models used by clients to spark their own product development.
  • A fourth CEO sees lasting value in developing close relationships with customers. They have developed tools that allow the customer to solve simple customer service tasks but require company assistance for the more sophisticated solutions. The company, in exchange for this added expense, learns from the customer interactions.

Which Is More Important – Long or Short Term? Five Points

Situation: A CEO is concerned about long term trends versus short term volatility. While the business has done well over time, short term volatility has made it difficult to project both personnel needs and cost. As the company expands geographically these issues are becoming more critical. Which is more important – long or short term?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Does the company find that capabilities are not fully understood until they get into development? In this case, is the problem with variables of schedule, budget or capability more important?
    • Going forward, evaluate each of these variables to determine which is having the greatest effect, positive and negative, on project performance and profitability.
    • If the problem is time constraints in the project planning phase, assure that sufficient time for project iterations is allowed in both the schedule and budget. It may be that the clients are not sure of what they want until they see a model, and that several iterations are required to assure that clients’ needs are satisfied. Plan and bid for this.
  • If fixed costs impact margins during dips between active projects, assure that enough fixed cost coverage is built into project bids to cover dips.
  • For geographically remote offices is the company’s issue a question of volume or resource cost or is it a pricing issue?
    • If it’s a pricing issue to stay market competitive focus initial activity where this issue is minimized. As market presence expands, add additional capabilities in phases according to the ability to cover costs profitably.
    • If it’s a resource cost issue use the same solution, adding resources according ability to cover costs profitably.
  • Build the company’s sales and marketing structure in phases while expanding into new markets. If sales compensation is base plus commission, vary commissions paid according to resource rates negotiated. This will tie sales incentives to negotiated resource rates and will help to assure that costs are covered.
  • Dealing with short term issues effectively will improve long term planning and profitability.

What Are Your Five- and Ten-Year Plans? Five Points

Situation: A CEO is considering her exit strategy between five and ten years out. She wants to do what is best both for her, the company and her employees, assuring that both personal and company needs are met and the company is ready for transition. What are your five- and ten-year plans?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The personal side and the company’s future are closely linked. The solutions and strategy must fit both the CEO’s priorities as well as those of the company. By looking at the CEO’s role, the current and future needs of the company, and any changes that need to be made, the CEO is preparing for an eventual exit.
  • The CEO must decide what lifestyle she wants – both as she prepares for eventual exit and as she prepares the company to continue under new leadership.
    • She must decide what she wants to do with her time in an ideal world. What will make her happy as she prepares for the future?
    • This must be considered both for herself and her business partners. Have conversations to align both business and personal expectations.
    • Conduct a strategic planning retreat on the future of the company as well as the transition of leadership.
    • Have a talk with significant others to align personal expectations.
  • What changes in leadership are necessary to implement the plan? What are the key roles and who will fill them? What is the succession plan for each key role? Are current personnel in place to fill these roles, or is additional hiring and training necessary?
  • Consider an ESOP or a virtual stock program to enhance employee incentives and sense of ownership in the company’s future.
  • Decide what exit means on a personal level.
    • Transitioning from founder to leader gets the CEO more involved in the company.
    • Meditate on priorities and engage in ongoing discussions with key personnel to jointly plan the future.

Do You Have Control of the Numbers? Four Points

Situation: A company has a good accounting system, but the CEO is concerned that they are not making the best use of metrics to drive the business. He senses a lack of shared understanding of key metrics and goals. He senses the appearance of financial disarray, despite his clear grasp of the business. Do you have control of the numbers?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • A good accounting system may be in place, but if it is not being used to drive the business and monitor the achievement of milestones then the company is not gaining the best advantage from it.
  • If there is a sense of financial disarray, this suggests that the company lacks financial metrics. Employees and managers may be doing their jobs, but without financial metrics it is difficult to tell how well they are doing their jobs.
  • Start with basic metrics:
    • Where are sales coming from?
    • What is the profitability of sales by customer segment and product line?
    • What is the company’s profitability?
    • What are the profitability trends of the company and key segments of the business?
  • Once a company is tracking these metrics, it is easier to focus managers and employees on products, product development, operations, sales and marketing issues that are most essential to the company’s success.
  • The company needs the equivalent of a CFO. This means a financial person, not an accountant. An individual who knows how to look at the numbers. A CFO will help the company to
    • See the strategic trends in the business,
    • Uncover the best opportunities for growth, and
    • Understand the greatest potential threats to growth of the business.

What is the CEO’s Job? Is It for Me? Four Recommendations

Situation: A CEO wants to significantly grow his company, either to prepare for an IPO or to become an interesting takeover target. However, he struggles with delegation. When responsibilities are delegated, the job isn’t done to the CEO’s satisfaction and he ends up doing the work himself. He asks: what is the CEO’s job? Is it for me?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • In order to grow the company to the desired level, it is necessary to hire competent people and delegate. The most important position will be a COO with deep experience organizing people and functions.
    • The CEO’s role is to provide the vision and strategic objectives for the company. The COO’s role is to assure that the right people are in place or hired to do the work necessary to realize the vision and operational objectives.
    • The CEO-COO relationship will be pivotal. If there are specific ways that the CEO wants to see things done, these must be clearly delineated in discussions with the COO.
    • The role of the COO will be to organize the company to reach the growth objective.
  • Hire a competent, talented HR person to plan the organizational development road map, and the positions that must be filled in stages to reach the goal.
    • The growth plans of the company are ambitious. Absent significant change, growth will be limited to a fraction of the current objective.
    • Working with the COO and HR person, build the organizational chart for the size company that the vision imagines. Fill the chart with current personnel where the fit is appropriate. Determine where the gaps exist and build a plan to hire these people in stages.
    • The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber provides an exercise to accomplish this.
  • Hire a high-level assistant to help in areas where the CEO finds it difficult to let go. This will be another key relationship and will be important to learning how to let go.
  • Hire a CEO coach.
    • This will likely be an individual with significant experience who has achieved the growth envisioned by the strategic plan.
    • The CEO Coach will help to draw lines between delegating and micromanaging and will help the CEO to learn to effectively delegate to qualified people.

How Do You Improve Quote to Collections Flow? Four Tactics

Situation: A company is losing billings because individual billings are getting lost in their process flow. Requests for enhancements come from clients to Project Managers. Project Managers take on development of the enhancements but are sometimes too busy to keep track and don’t report their work to the billing department. How do you improve quote to collections flow?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • It appears that two processes are missing:
    • A formal trigger mechanism to assure that a PO is in place BEFORE Project Managers undertake enhancement work, and
    • Managers are incentivized to assure that the client is billed and revenue collected for the work performed.
  • Formalize the process and do not allow Project Mangers to initiate any work until a work request is logged in the billing system and a PO is received from the customer to cover the expense.
    • Develop a process to track customer requests, estimate development and transmission to billing, forwarding of estimates by billing to the customer with a request for a PO, and upon receipt of PO authorization by billing to initiate work.
    • This can all be tracked and managed by most accounting software packages.
    • This process will:
      • Facilitate tracking of actual expense vs. estimate;
      • Tracking of requests for which no POs are received, for client follow-up; and
      • Tracking of enhancement requests to guide future product development.
  • Compensate Account Managers to track and manage the process.
    • If an Account Manager receives a commission for enhancement work they will have an incentive to keep track of all ongoing work, both for timely delivery and to assure that the customer invoiced for the work.
    • Commissions paid to the Account Mangers will be a small percent of the extra revenue collected.
    • To improve process management, schedule regular meetings to review all enhancement and other work being done for clients. Review and assure that all work has accompanying POs, that the work is being completed on a timely basis and in line with original estimates, and that the company is invoicing and being paid for the work. Empower Account Managers to organize and conduct these meetings. Their incentive will be the commissions they will collect on payment for the work.
  • Build upgrades and a certain number of enhancements into the product price.
    • This enables to company to increase prices and to collect prepayment for enhancements and upgrades that may or may not be requested.
    • Use the process outlined above to track enhancements which are credited against the prepaid accounts, and to assure that enhancements above the prepaid limit are invoiced.

How Do You Boost Employee Ownership of Job Safety? Four Ideas

Situation: A company is concerned because recent accidents on the job have boosted their Modification or MOD rate and increased company expenses. They have held workshops with employees and talked about increasing safety, but employees have been lax in complying with safety measures because these are time-consuming. How do you boost employee ownership of job safety?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Safety is key to the bottom line and future of the company. Enlist employees to monitor each other and point out when others are acting unsafely.
    • Allow / encourage employees to “harass” (in a playful sense) each other if they see someone not working safely.
    • Anyone caught in inappropriate unsafe behavior is penalized and required to pay $1 into a kitty which is spent on a company-wide benefit such as a pizza lunch.
    • Create a presentation, graphically showing the negative impact that a high MOD rate has on the company, and on employees’ incomes. Hold a company meeting, give this presentation and discuss with them how costly hazardous behavior is, and how jobs can ultimately be lost as a result.
    • If nothing else works, explore creating a shell corporation to employ the employees who are subject to potential injury and effectively “outsource” them like high tech does.  This may lower the MOD rate to 100 as a new business.
  • Look for other insurers who will lower the company’s MOD rate.
  • Create consequences for flagrant violations of safety guidelines.
  • Do thorough background checks before hiring new workers. Avoid new hires with a history of disability claims.

How Do You Replace Aging Talent? Four Options

Situation: A CEO is concerned that all her key personnel are over 50. This includes software engineers who are experts in languages which remain at the foundation of many customers’ databases, but which are no longer formally taught. How do you replace aging talent?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Look at which areas potentially limit the company’s growth. Is it technology and software expertise, or marketing and sales? Based on this assessment, rank the critical positions to be filled and start hiring staff who can grow into the most critical positions.
  • Take a cue from the Japanese. For years their aging workforce was predicted to limit the country’s growth. Instead, they chose to retain employees through their 70s and this has helped them to maintain both productivity and employment.
    • Many Baby Boomers are finding that they don’t have the savings to retire and are working well past the historic retirement age.
    • Other Baby Boomers retired but found themselves bored after a productive career and have returned to the labor pool.
    • These factors may delay the company’s need to replace aging talent.
  • The bigger question is what to do if a key player is lost. Focus on hiring back-ups to key personnel and allow several years for them to come up to full speed. Current employment trends suggest that numbers of experienced people are returning to the labor pool. Look for a few good people to add to the team.
  • What are the plans of the company’s key clients? Do they plan to stay with the company’s products and expertise, or to sunset these and replace them with new technology? Adjust operational objectives, as well as the exit strategy, to achieve desired growth given customers’ timeframes.

How Do You Create Predictable Costs and Profit? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company finds that it’s costs and profitability vary greatly by season and during economic fluctuations. Some of this is due to hourly rate fluctuation and payroll costs. They also have excess capacity during slow periods. However, new projects arise quickly, and the company must be prepared. How do you create predictable costs and profit?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Here’s the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and managing expenses.
    • To generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize contract negotiations.
  • Is it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There are options:
    • Application maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
    • Add a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue stream.
  • Investigate a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price subscription service.
  • What additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics? Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip in project demand.
  • Are sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating new business?  Most companies split these functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is hunting – few sales people excel at both.
  • If, in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of annuity revenue.
  • While it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in contracts.