Category Archives: Finance

How Do You Free Up More of Your Time? Four Observations

Situation: The CEO of a successful small software company is snowed under by day to day tasks. She wants to focus more of her time on business and infrastructure development. However, the company’s departments are not strong enough to run without her supervision. How do you free up more of your time?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The first priority is to develop infrastructure that will allow the CEO to focus on strategic development.
    • To build this the company needs the right people to do the work.
    • Look at the daily task list and develop or hire new managers to oversee day-to-day non-strategic functions.
    • For example, offload payroll and back-end accounting to a bookkeeper.
  • Look at the gaps between where the company is now and where you, as CEO, want to be in terms of your time and responsibilities:
    • In addition to a bookkeeper, hire an experienced executive assistant – to keep you focused as CEO.
    • The company is growing rapidly. It is time to hire a human resources manager.
  • The company’s cash flow projection for the coming year indicates a substantial surplus.
    • Use this surplus to hire infrastructure.
    • In front of key clients, keep the impression that you are available to them; however, this is primarily for client relations. The CEO doesn’t have to do all the work demanded by clients.
    • Use the lawyer / rainmaker model. The rainmaker maintains key client relationships; however, the rainmaker has staff do 90% of the work.
  • The 7 States of Enterprise Growth Model indicates that the company is now in what’s called a Wind Tunnel. The critical activities in a Wind Tunnel are:
    • Letting go of methodologies that no longer work and acquiring new methods that do work, and
    • Hiring and training additional staff.

How Do You Keep a Company Afloat Short-term? Three Points

Situation: The CEO of a service company continually finds the company short of cash. They have just hired a new accountant, but it will take time for this individual to understand the financial situation and to generate recommendations to improve cash flow. How do you keep a company afloat short-term?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Point #1: This isn’t just a question of controlling costs; the company needs to build the infrastructure to succeed.
    • If there isn’t someone on the team in a position of authority, who the CEO can trust completely, hire this person. The CEO can’t control all risks.
    • While the company has shrunk over the last two years, it is still a substantial company and needs professional management. To grow effectively, professionals are required in key leadership positions. If necessary, hire experienced outside talent
    • Look for teachable moments as challenges arrive. The CEO, instead of solving a problem, should work with employees and mentor them through discovering and implementing solutions.
    • How to communicate this to current staff?
      • Put the story together. Be able to make a clear statement to them, including the current situation and future possibilities for which the company must prepare.
      • Generate charts and metrics to support key points.
      • Use senior staff as the mouthpieces to present the story to the rest of the organization. Once they are onboard, have them help craft the message. Don’t underestimate the CEO’s authority. This is business, not a popularity contest.
      • Let others make mistakes – it is part of the learning process – no matter how critical the situation.
  • Point #2 – Return to the company’s roots.
    • The faster everyone accepts that a focused approach is the only way to survive, the faster the company will turn around. Reestablishing company presence in key markets with a new model that speaks to their desires makes a lot of sense.
    • Be very clear as to what flat-rate service pricing covers. Include this in the signed customer agreement. Don’t allow costs to creep up or it will kill the profitability of flat rate jobs.
  • Create an infrastructure nimble enough to adapt as market conditions change. Identify what really works and focus on this.

How Do You Transition to New Management? Four Insights

Situation: The CEO of a small technical company is in the process of handing off responsibilities to a new President who lives in another state. The CEO and President have known each other for a long time and have a strong relationship. The CEO will hand off several key responsibilities immediately, while retaining financial and HR because of the President’s location. How do you transition to new management?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Most of the current hand-off plan concerns non-technical areas. The next logical area to delegate is Customer Support.
    • Establish a trigger process for new requests for support that keeps key parties informed and meets customer needs on a timely basis.
    • Think about bumping up Customer Support to a more proactive Customer Relations function. This is important during economic downturns when trade show attendance is low.
  • Next in line are Installation and Installation Planning, since the new President will already have Installation Support.
  • Think about Technical Support. This could be combined with Customer Support and makes sense because many customer support questions come through technical support.
  • Beef up the financial function to support future growth. Growth brings new complexities into the picture. Consider handing this off to a part time professional who can provide regular updates of the company’s financials. A professional can also look at the structure of the books and suggest changes that will provide more insight into company operations, opportunities for savings, and sources of funding to support planned growth.

How Do You Prepare for a Difficult Conversation? Three Suggestions

Situation: The CEO of a family business faces his most difficult conversation. One brother, who makes more than anyone else, is not living up to his responsibilities. A long-term key employee currently handles most of this brother’s responsibilities at a modest salary. The CEO is intimidated by this task. How do you prepare for a difficult conversation?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Call a meeting of the three brothers and the key employee. Propose putting all four into a pool. The key employee is treated like a brother. Ask: what is a fair way to split the pie and to build incentives so that each makes what their father, who built the company, made? Make it clear that all four members of the team want the same earning potential and that one team member is not more equal than the others.
    • Prepare and script this meeting ahead of time.
    • Don’t allow the under-performing brother to play the others off against each other.
    • Know what must be said if this brother says he will leave.
  • The CEO must stick with the message. If the underperformer doesn’t like the message, he is not indispensable. A replacement could be hired for far less than he is currently being paid.
  • What are the key points for the conversation?
    • Turn the question around – the brothers all joined a company model that no longer works – the three brothers, combined, make less than their father made.
    • Ask the underperformer – what are the proper incentives? What is fair? Is it fair that for years, he has made more than anyone else?
    • It’s time for each member of the team to work together to figure out how to make what their father made in this business.
    • The brothers have supported the underperforming brother for years. Any old debts that were owed have been paid.
    • Ask the underperforming brother for his voice in how to expand the company and make it more profitable.
    • This is a new game. If all members pull together everybody wins.

How Do You Fund Business Growth? Four Observations

Situation: A company is looking at options to fund growth. These include selling a stake in the company, bank financing, organic growth. or partnering with another company. There are trade-offs to each option. How do you fund business growth?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There is a question that should be answered before talking about funding: what is the vision for the business?
    • Think about building the business that the founders want to run. What size company feels comfortable from an operational perspective? What does it look like?
    • Does the company have the right people and infrastructure to support planned growth? Are current direct reports capable of taking on additional projects and monitoring both current facilities and additional sites?
    • As the company grows, can the bottom line be increased as fast as the top line?
  • Commit the 5-year plan to paper. Before deciding how the company will grow, determine the vision, the growth rate to support that vision, the organization required, and the strategic plan to get there.
  • The funding decision is an investment decision. What’s the return for a multi-million-dollar investment?  What incremental revenue and earnings will it produce?
    • Estimate how much revenue the investment will generate in 5 years. At the current gross margin, what is the incremental gross margin per year.
    • Given this estimate, what is the projected EBITDA? Does the annual EBITDA represent a reasonable rate of return on the investment?
    • The investment ROI must be known – both from the company’s perspective and for any lender or partner who invests in the planned expansion.
  • How high do the company’s relationships extend in key client companies? Do client upper management realize how critical the company is to them?
    • If the answer is not high enough, develop these relationships. This could open new funding opportunities.
    • For example, if the CEO knows the right people at a key customer, let them know that the company may want to build a facility near them. The customer may be interested in partnering with the company to finance the facility.
    • A multi-million-dollar joint venture plant investment is a modest investment to a large customer if it gains them a strategic advantage.

How Do You Create a Roadmap for a New Business? Four Suggestions

Situation: The CEO of a new company is building her business. She has a business plan but is struggling to bring in new clients. How do you create a roadmap for a new business?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Creating a new business is a numbers game. Draft a 3-year plan that will generate $1M in billings.
    • The bottom line of the plan is bringing in new clients.
    • Create a financial template that is driven by how many clients it takes to reach the financial goal in three years. Fill out the annual numbers including where new prospects will come from and set quarterly and monthly goals and activities to generate those clients.
  • Develop a marketing “hook.” For example, in the case of business services:
    • Fixed cost business tune-up – a low-level retainer with limits on time and services offered (up to x hours work per month or quarter on y projects)
    • Fixed fee in-house service for small business – again with limits on the services offered
    • Additional services beyond the limited services will be at the company’s normal rates, possibly with a discount to those on the basic retainer service.
  • Create a list of desirable new clients – the company’s sweet spot. Next look for people who can connect the company with these clients.
  • How to get to the target client?
    • This is a funnel question. To build the funnel take three sources of clients: referrals, current business contacts, networking. How many contacts are needed from each source to generate 10 new clients per year?
    • Make presentations to groups which may produce clients or referrals.
    • Get to know the local business people who make referrals.
    • Write articles for magazines that these business people read. Be an expert.
    • To save money, use student interns from nearby colleges and universities to do some of the basic work – target client research, researching and writing articles (make then co-authors on the articles – looks great on their resumes!) This is an inexpensive win-win for both the company and the intern.

How Do You Respond to a Purchase Offer? Five Thoughts

Situation: A company has been approached by a larger company that is interested in purchasing it. The purchaser wants to fill a niche that they don’t currently serve, but which is important to their growth. The CEO is concerned about what will happen to employees following sale of the company. How do you respond to a purchase offer?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Questions for Preliminary Stage Research:
    • What valuation is the tipping point for an attractive offer by the buyer?
    • Determine the nature of the purchaser’s interest in the company and how it fits into their broader strategic picture. If their plan will dramatically change the market the company’s current market value may go down later relative to doing a deal with them today.
    • If the acquirer has a history of buying other companies, look at who they’ve recently bought, what they paid, and what kind of impact they had on the staff and culture of the companies purchased.
    • Check out the purchaser’s P/E ratio. If it is in the range the company’s desired multiple on EBITDA, a good deal is possible.
  • Temper the company’s response and approach to get the most from this experience.
    • Currently, assumptions about the acquirer make the offer appear unappealing. Ask questions to validate or challenge these assumptions.
    • Be open-minded so that the purchaser reveals more about themselves and the market than they would if they sensed a lack of interest in an acquisition.
  • How does the company protect itself during the inquiry and due diligence process?
    • Keep staff numbers and individuals, and customer lists close to the chest.
    • Have an LOI and ask for a breakaway clause before sharing significant information. 
      • Breakaway clause: if the two companies get into discussions and the potential acquirer decides to abandon the discussions, it will cost them $1M.
      • The potential acquirer may not agree to this, but it demonstrates that the company is serious both about the discussions and about preserving the confidentiality of its business information.
  • More Advanced Stage Questions and Research:
    • This looks like a strategic interest. If so:
      • Get assistance from an investment banker.
      • Look at what other alternatives may be available to the acquirer to assess the company’s potential value.
      • Any offer other than a high-multiple strategic valuation and offer should not be of interest to the company.
    • What restrictions will the acquirer put on the company? 
      • For example, if there is an earn-out value, will they give the company the freedom to operate to maximize this value?
    • Be careful with employee communications and how employees are informed of an outside interest. This can be difficult during due diligence.
    • If the founder remains with the company post-sale this could help lock in the value of the exit and assure the employees’ future.
  • Make the most of this opportunity.
    • Are there ways that the company can become better and smarter working with the acquirer?
    • Is there a relationship short of acquisition than would benefit the company like a collaboration or partnership?
    • Can a relationship short of sale enhance the company’s market presence and help the company to achieve national status more quickly?

How Do You Fund an Early Stage Venture? Four Suggestions

Situation: An early stage venture which focuses on a humanitarian mission needs funding. The founder is more interested in providing a peer-driven platform and service than in producing profits. She envisions most of the funding coming from donations rather than investors, at least near term.  How do you fund an early stage venture?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Given that the venture is focused on building a peer-driven software platform, it is possible that it may be of significant value if the venture was to be sold for its technology or audience. Facebook and similar platforms could have a distinct interest as the venture attracts a significant audience. Is this a potential conflict with the original vision? The answer to this question will impact funding choices going forward.
  • There are several resources available to assist in fund raising:
    • Look for local groups that assist with fund raising.
    • The Foundation Center (www.foundationcenter.org) specializes in helping organizations to secure funding for non-profit ventures from foundations. They have online facilities as well as locations in New York, Boston, San Francisco and other major cities. They also provide training in raising funds from foundations.
  • Us the founder’s network to find people with an interest and contacts in fundraising.
  • Connect with local churches and synagogues which also excel in fund raising. The congregations may be smaller than the mega-churches, but the members are often very connected. Because of the humanitarian nature of the new venture, churches and synagogues may be natural partners.

How Do You Manage Conflicting Demands from a Client? Three Points

Situation: A CEO is struggling to manage conflicting demands from a key foreign client. The client frequently changes targets and priorities; however, the performance contract with the client does not allow variations from plan. In addition, the CEO and client have different expectations concerning ROI. How do you manage conflicting demands from a client?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Recruit or access expertise from an individual who knows both cultures to coach you on intercultural communications. This will help you to avoid inadvertent miscommunications where your well-intended queries are negatively interpreted by the other party.
    • Cultural interpretation is an increasingly important factor for multi-national business growth.
  • Are there elements of the client’s structure and the agreement with the client that offer significant benefit, but which are underappreciated by company staff?
    • Access to capital?
    • Access to funding or allowance on expenditures that allow the company to increase staff to meet company demands?
    • Assure that staff are aware of these benefits and how critical these can be to the company’s, and their future growth and income.
  • Meet with the client’s leadership to outline the conflicts that the company faces meeting the client’s needs and demands. Explain to them how these conflicts are compromising the company’s ability to meet their needs. Once the conflicts in priorities are clearly expressed this may help the client to understand and resolve the conflicting demands.
    • This may involve a considerable personal risk and cost to the CEO. However, if the effort is successful it will, in the long-term, benefit both companies.

Which is More Important – Cash Flow or Value Creation? Six Thoughts

Situation: A family-owned company has built a sustainable and modestly profitable business. They have built high quality, referenceable collaborations. The CEO is ambitious and wants to become a world-class company. They now seek limited partners as investors to grow the company. Which is more important – cash flow or value creation?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Both cash flow and value creation are important. There are several sub-questions to the question:
    • First, what is the fundamental business model?
    • Second, the CEO is the company’s charismatic leader. How best to follow his energy?
    • Finally, and most fundamentally, does the current business model make sense? Can it be simplified it to improve its scalability?
  • Currently there are three divisions, each with a different objective.
    • Operations – to be sustainable.
    • Services – low profit and low percentage of company revenue but also low overhead.
    • Investment – to achieve an acceptable rate of return.
  • How does the company get the best valuation?
    • Currently, the company is organized as a conglomerate.
    • Conglomerates are too diffuse and difficult to optimize to attract investors. Pure plays do better. Consider refocusing the company around its key strengths.
  • The family business model is fine. The question for the family – how does the CEO keep and attract the key staff like that makes this business work? Salary alone doesn’t do it. What are the future rewards for key personnel? Consider deal participation to incentivize key employees.
  • The investment and operations divisions are different companies – this is fine. Optimize both.
  • To attract the best LPs, the business model should evolve from a family to corporate model. This will make more sense to investors and improve their ability to participate in future growth and profits.