How Do You Best Exploit a New Opportunity? Three Observations

Situation: A service company has developed the capacity to produce and sell a product. The CEO is considering two options for this new opportunity: create a separate entity for the new business or run the businesses in parallel under the current umbrella. How do you best exploit a new opportunity?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Option 1: Create separate entity for the new business while the existing business continues in parallel.
    • How big is the potential win? The current company competes successfully for about 10% of the market. The new capability would allow the company to potentially compete for 100% of a larger market.
    • How different are the two opportunities? The current business requires specialized talent – it is a low volume, high margin business. The new opportunity is the reverse – high potential volume but lower margin. It is a more generic market with fewer specialized needs.
    • The separate entity option provides the most flexibility. The current model already functions well. A spin-off provides an additional option without losing what already exists.
    • Bring in another individual to develop and run the new entity. It’s a different game and requires a different focus. However, it will be a great opportunity for the right person.
    • The spin-off model will be more sustainable under separate management than under the current company.
  • Option 2: Operate both businesses under a single entity.
    • This option looks like a double compromise – it alters both the company’s current strengths and the fundamental business model.
  • A long-term alternative is to look for a financial acquisition for the current company. It produces good net margins, has good cash flow, a and spins off cash. This can be valuable to a financial buyer.

How Do You Expand Business Development Efforts? Four Thoughts

Situation: The CEO of a software company needs to increase revenue to cover expenses. He doesn’t want to cut salaries because if employees leave it will be hard to find replacements with the required skills. The better solution is to increase revenue. How do you expand business development efforts?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Look at the markets which are growing rapidly:
    • Gaming. This is currently a good investment area. Large casinos are spending heavily on high end projects, and people just keep gambling!
    • Medical imaging. Potential targets include:
      • Pharma and Biotech R&D and Marketing/Sales – the ability to show how a drug binds with the cell receptors and how this impacts the cell is interesting to both groups. Also look at Medical schools. This is where you find the top researchers and they love teaching and presentation aids.
    • Military markets, particularly simulation spaces and unmanned vehicles. They value realistic simulated environments. Also look at training programs that value visually intensive simulations including marine and naval applications, aircraft, and battlefield simulations.
  • Consider the company’s business focus and strategy. How can it move from a “next project” model to a recurring revenue model? Is it possible to write client agreements to include a piece of the recurring revenue stream from client products?
    • Look at what the company does and package this as a product/service vs.an hourly problem-solving model. Focus on where the market is going. For example, iPhone apps – cheap to the customer, so millions buy them People now interact differently using electronic media. This opens new options.
  • What is the company’s key focus – Product Leadership, Operational Excellence or Customer Intimacy? How is the company’s differentiating strength presented consistently to client audiences?
    • It is important to clearly define the company’s niche – what makes it truly different. The communication must be clearly understood both by the engineers, and the business development and marketing people.
  • Invest additional funds in business development – with payments highly weighted on success.

Do You Sell the Company or Grow Bigger? Four Options

Situation: The CEO of a successful company is considering two options: sell the company or grow to the next level. She believes that the company could be sold for an amount that would satisfy her financial needs. Also, the prospect of a long vacation and more time for family is appealing. Do you sell the company or grow bigger?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • First Option: Pursue funding to take the company to the next level – through either private equity or venture capital. Present an optimistic, but credible, upside return for the investment; back this up with a realistic lower estimate to cover exposure.
    • Both funding sources only buy the home-run model. Two reasons:
      • They need potential and credible home runs to sell to their investors; nobody invests in solid base hits because the return is insufficient for the risk.
      • They assume that the funds recipient is overestimating what they can do.
      • Given the existence of new technology to expand the company’s presence, it has a legitimate home-run model.
    • Hire a pro to help obtain funding.
  • Second Option: Take a shot at buying the company’s principal competitor – this provides the opportunity for rapid growth at low risk in the existing market and will make the company more appealing at a higher price.
  • Third Option: Based on personal goals, if the company can be sold now at a good price – do it. This will enable you to fulfill your life goals.
  • Give the first two options 12 months. If there is no or limited progress in 12 months start taking two successive months off on vacation – allowing minimal time to monitor the company. If vacations are satisfying, sell the company.
  • Ask yourself a serious question – do you really want to be on extended vacation now or is this an objective for 3-5 years out? If the company already has strong momentum, why not see what can be built and then sell. There may be more adventure in this.
  • Fourth Option: Take some money off the table – enough to build your dream – but continue to own controlling interest in the company. This offers both choices.

How Do You Manage Through a Difficult Period? Six Solutions

Situation: The CEO of a company is wrestling with issues concerning change orders and high labor and materials cost. To get back into good financial shape, they are considering options including reduction in estimator time and selling equipment; however, either of these could gut the business. How do you manage through a difficult period?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • It is critical to get on top of change orders. This is potentially a big profit-loss swing for the business.
    • Does everyone understand what’s happening?
    • If the answer is yes, teach them more about the business nuts and bolts so that they can help develop solutions? Share a portion of the savings in the form of spot bonuses for those who develop solutions.
  • Take a lesson from The Great Game of Business. Let employees know about the challenges and challenge them to help develop solutions.
    • As an example, look at change orders and the percent of change orders that are not correctly completed, approved and invoiced as a critical number. Let’s say that 50% of change orders are not completed, approved and/or invoiced correctly. The objective for the year is to reduce this to 25%. Calculate the value of lost billings from the past year. If this can be reduced by half, the value will be $X. If the company can meet this objective, consider making half of $X available for distribution as gifts or prizes.
    • To support this, allow each new project to design its own minigame to reduce the number of incomplete and uninvoiced change orders.
    • The idea is to have the project and inside teams design the minigames and come up with ways to reduce incomplete and uninvoiced change orders. They will learn new ways of being more efficient from this process. This is the long-term benefit to the company.
  • If it is necessary to reduce staff, cut early instead of later. This is painful but laid-off employees can be hired back on a contract basis as necessary.
  • A common solution during a difficult period is to cut back to core, reducing overhead as a survival strategy, and focus on winning as may bids as possible to rebuild the business.
    • Look at all departments and the gross margin that each produces minus the overhead that each requires. Focus cutbacks on those that are not positive.
  • Increase annuity contracts – contracts with major companies that are growing and frequently require the company’s services.
  • Transfer equipment to a separate corporation. Lease it back as business requires. This increases cash flow flexibility – for example, don’t make lease payments when cash is tight.

How Do You Transition from Boss to CEO? Three Insights

Situation: The head of a small service company wants to become more strategic – more like a CEO. Ideally, he wants to create a small samurai team to help him expand.  He prefers working with a range of clients to develop creative, out of the box solutions. How do you transition from boss to CEO?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber is a valuable primer on how to bring in more clients and revenue. The critical question that this book helps to answer is “what do I want to build?”
    • The book walks you through the critical questions that will help to answer whether your true ambition is to be a Picasso with helpers or a company. The answer may be either, but how you build each is different.
  • The more that skills can tied to a tangible outcome the easier it is for clients to hire a company. Quantify past successes. Make it easy to justify hiring your team.
  • To add to your pipeline:
    • Help friends help you. Make it easy for them to refer you. This can be simple: YouTube videos or improving the company website to highlight past successes.
    • The company web site can’t be just OK – it must be the all-important credibility builder that the company needs. Recreate the site to wow the visitor and tell the company’s story. Make it fun and compelling.
    • Participate in groups or forums that your targets attend. Create presentations, webinars, etc. Establish the company as an expert with the answer and as a trusted resource.
    • Also present to professional organizations to establish expertise and credibility.
    • Testimonials are powerful – particularly if backed by metrics.
    • Collaborate with people with similar depth of experience who can help develop the pipeline. Offer them a cut of total job revenue.

How Do You Maintain the Passion for Your Business? Six Thoughts

Situation: The CEO of a company is finding it increasingly difficult to maintain the passion that she had when the business was young. Day to day work feels like having a monkey on her back with too much time spent on sales and business minutiae. Too little time is spent on strategy and growth. How do you maintain the passion for your business?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Look at what you like and don’t like – delegate what you don’t like.
    • Delegate activities which are inappropriate for a top executive – like answering the telephone when others are present to do this.
  • Get everybody in the same boat – get them rowing in unison.
    • Delegate more responsibility – with the understanding that others will make mistakes. When they do, they must understand their responsibility for repairing them.
    • Prioritize tasks as they are delegated to reduce conflict or confusion.
  • Strengthen relationships with key suppliers and customers. This is a strategic move to reduce future risk to the company.
  • How did you get the monkey off your back?
    • Ask managers and employees for their input – have them develop solutions. If they push back that they don’t know how or don’t have the resources, let them know that their job is to provide solutions, not just to identify problems.
    • This takes time and patience, but if the CEO is steadfast this can yield results in a surprisingly short period of time.
  • Reduce time spent on sales. Become the closer – the only person who can do that little something to close a sale.
    • Have the others do the heavy lifting our qualifying the customer, developing the solution, crafting the proposal and presenting this to the customer. Limit the CEO’s involvement to reviewing the proposal prior to presentation, and to acting as closer ONLY if sales can’t do the job themselves.
  • Learn to take time off – develop other interests. This is the first step in being able to take longer periods of time off.

How Do You Maintain Focus on Quarterly Objectives? Three Ideas

Situation: The CEO of a service company is focused on growth, which is driven by new contracts. This, in turn is driven by new sales contacts per week. Sales staff are paid on commission. The CEO wants to assure that quarterly objectives are met to grow the company. How do you maintain focus on quarterly objectives?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Track and publish progress against weekly, monthly, quarterly metric objectives and key drivers.
    • Post charts around the office to maintain staff focus on objectives.
    • Put up whiteboards that show individual metrics as well as daily “top 3” focus items.
  • Identify key market sectors where focus will pay off for the company.
    • It’s OK to take a generalist approach as the company develops a new market sector. This helps to learn the dynamics of that sector.
    • As sector market penetration grows, develop functional or sector specialties.
  • Identify and focus on the gaps to company success.
    • Monitor and generate incentives to increase sales activity. The more fun that is involved in this, the faster the company will close the gaps.
    • Focus marketing on developing more prospects. Brainstorm creative marketing approaches that will generate prospects. Create a competition to develop the best new ideas with incentives or prizes to celebrate the most successful ideas.
    • If additional resources are required, currently beyond the company’s budget, investigate adding commission-driven contract resources with strong incentives for identifying new prospects and landing new clients.

How Do You Gain Control of the Company? Three Steps

Situation: A CEO founded his company with a partner. The partner is no longer deeply involved but retains a voice in company strategy and finances. The CEO wants total control. It has become complex trying to run the company with an absent partner. How do you gain control of the company?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Get a formal company valuation as soon as possible. The expense is paid by the company or split 50/50 between the CEO and founding partner.
    • This exercise will provide the information needed to run the company. It is a much more sophisticated exercise than simply valuing current company assets.
    • It will provide a good third-party valuation upon which the CEO and partner can negotiate a buyout of the partner’s interest or place a value on a silent partnership arrangement.
  • Once the company has a valuation, how is the conversation started?
    • First ask what the partner wants. His response will help frame the discussion.
    • It’s OK to let the partner know that the current arrangement is not working for you.
    • As silent partner, instead of a salary the partner just gets checks – monthly, quarterly or whatever – based on net profits (EBITDA – Earnings before interest, taxes, distributions and adjustments).
    • The CEO’s salary is included in the expenses of the business.
    • If it is too painful to initiate the discussion on your own, hire someone to help you.
  • Once the CEO has control of the company, create an organization chart, including the roles and responsibilities of the key positions in the organization.
    • First, decide what you do as CEO – or want to do.
    • For the other roles, either hire employees or consultants to help.
    • The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber includes an example of how Thomas Watson did this as he founded IBM.
  • This process can have surprising results. Another CEO doubled the size of the company after buying out his founding partner’s position. The partner turned out to be one of the top inhibitors to growth.

How Do You Choose Between Opportunities? Six Points

Situation: The CEO of a software company has been presented with two opportunities by a large customer – international expansion to support their sales and creation of a data warehouse facility. The company has the option of pursuing either or both. The customer is not offering up-front cash to support either opportunity. Should they pursue either or both? How do you choose between opportunities?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Keep pursuing both opportunities and establish a series of decision points which will yield either a Go or No-Go decision on each. The big question is to determine how either will support company growth.
  • The customer is interested in both opportunities so ask them for assistance such as: removing barriers, client referrals, or some form of cash or investment.
  • For either opportunity to succeed requires a high level of internal buy-in and support from the customer.
  • If the company can afford to be aggressive now, this is a great time to move.
    • Look carefully at the ROI on each opportunity under different scenarios.
    • Do background work with potential clients to validate each market opportunity.
  • Specifically to International Expansion
    • Buy-in from the customer’s head of international sales is essential – without this it will be difficult to establish a solid relationship with the international sales team. Lack of this support will be a No-Go sign.
    • Can the customer provide office space, access to their infrastructure, administrative support, assistance in gaining necessary licenses to do business, etc. during start-up?
    • Could this venture be undertaken through a joint venture with an established international company? This would save start-up costs and allow validation of the opportunity before risking the company’s investment.
    • Execution will require a large-scale effort – both time and money. Include both in the Go/No-Go calculation.
  • Specifically to the Data Warehouse Facility
    • A competitor’s right of first refusal on this business is a barrier. However, the opportunity may be viewed as too small for the competitor. Is it possible to buy rights from this competitor?
    • Ask the customer to transition their customers to your company and its product.

How Do You Expand Your Market-Base? Six Suggestions

Situation: The CEO of a service company needs to expand its market base due to concerns that a significant service and referrals partner may decide to stop working with them. A break-up would have significant impact on salaries, effort and focus. The company’s priority is to expand client growth to minimize the impact of a break-up. How do you expand your market base?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • To expand or build a market requires a champion. Someone like the company’s founder who has the passion and contacts to build new business.
  • Second, incentives must be established to reward success bringing in new clients. These incentives must have teeth – no success, no incentive. No safety valves.
  • Third, create a plan to support the new business development – including marketing, event attendance, etc.
  • Initially, be selective and target just a few highly desirable new clients to test and refine the client attraction model before expanding to the broader potential client audience.
    • Build a set of case studies of services and results for new clients.
    • Track and prove out the profitability and workability of this model.
  • How should the effort to expand the market base be constructed?
    • Start with preparation. Research the current prospect list to assure that they are good prospects. Also look at the current company culture – do the company’s strengths align with what is needed to attract and serve new clients?
    • If the research shows that a significant number of prospects are different from current clients, think of this as a new channel. Create a different business unit to specialize in serving these clients. Hire a team to focus exclusively on the new client group, with proper incentives tied to achievement with these prospects.
  • Another company had a similar choice. They created a program to increase their market base and went after it with full focus. It took five years to accomplish vs. the two years that they had planned. Nevertheless, the results have been worth the effort and expense. If the company believes in the model, invest in it.