Situation: A company has developed a disrupting technology that allows OEM manufacturers to produce high-end machines at a fraction of their current cost. The challenge is that the company does not possess the capacity to reach producers of high-end machines. The CEO seeks advice on how to efficiently focus channel development. How do you build channel sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
The dilemma is having a major disrupting technology in a market with a strong division between OEMs servicing the low/medium-end market and those servicing the high-end market.
This technology collapses the division between the low/medium and the high-end markets.
This shift disrupts the current business models of either group of OEMs, as well as their technology development plans. This is the source of resistance.
Therefore, the most promising channel development partner is either:
A low/medium-end OEM who is also a disrupter and who has the capability to develop a high-end sales and marketing effort; or
A high-end OEM that knows the market but who’s current strategy is failing and needs an entirely different solution to revive their prospects.
The near-term task is to gain market capability – both manufacturing and marketing/sales – and to use this capability to gain early market acceptance.
If, over the next 12 months, the company can begin to impact the market shares of the high-end OEMs, this is the surest way to gain their attention. Once the company starts to gain share, a likely outcome is that one of the high-end OEMs will buy the company to lock up their IP.
Another company used a similar strategy several years ago.
They entered a new market by way of a business collaboration with a high-visibility partner.
In one year, they took 30% market share from the market leader through this collaboration.
As a result, the market leader bought them because “it was less expensive to buy you than to spend the marketing dollars that we would have had to spend to compete against you.”
Situation: A CEO faces challenges with clients. The first is vague customer specs because they don’t understand the product. Second is misunderstandings as to timelines. Third is insistence on strict timelines while simultaneously demanding revisions to previous work. How do you add more discipline to quotes and pricing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Is the company’s technology strategy aligned with its capabilities? Currently the company is trying to build advanced solutions in multiple international markets with a small staff. There does not seem to be the technology or development discipline to convert current capabilities into a sustainable market advantage.
For near term focus, because of commitments and milestone payments due from the key customers, focus resources on finishing the last piece of these projects. Once this is done, step back. Look at options and determine the company’s technology strategy moving forward.
The key challenge is to define ONE beachhead on which the company will focus and which they can dominate. The objective is to leverage existing engineering creativity to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
As this exercise is designed, start with a clean slate. Don’t burden the process with a lot of restrictive assumptions. Consider using an outside facilitator to help facilitate this process.
Until this exercise is completed does it really make sense to seek additional work or to commit the company to the next phases with current customers?
Once the company has selected and committed to a technology strategy, the decision process becomes different.
The objective is to develop laser-like focus on the technology. Minimize distracting the team with other opportunities.
It may be OK to lose money on development projects if this work will significantly impact or accelerate the development of the company’s core technology.
How does the company justify asking for payment for development for future projects?
First, determine and clearly state the company’s technology strategy. Evaluate all future development projects and decisions in terms of their alignment with this strategy.
Second, if a particular project is completely aligned with the technology strategy, the company may waive the requirement of payment for development. This, ideally, will be the only exception.
Ask for a limited time/scope project to jump start and define new projects. This provides proof of company capabilities and establishes its credibility.
If is it necessary to negotiate or bid, start high and bargain down to but not below the best estimate of the cost of development.
Remember that deciding what NOT to do or quote is often harder, but just as critical, as deciding what to quote.
Situation: A CEO wants to fund future growth through better management of cash flow. Cash flow has been positive for several years, and the company uses a bank line to fund receivables. How to you manage cash flow to fund growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Since the company is cash flow positive, go to the bank with the assistance of a connected Board member and ask for better terms on your line. This will reduce financing expense.
What are the company’s Days Sales Outstanding (DSO = accounts receivable (AR) divided by average daily revenue)? Reducing this will have an immediate positive impact on cash flow.
Normal up-front payment is 20%. With 35% gross margins and 20% up-front, the company is funding profits through the bank line. The adjusted gross margin (GM) is the company’s Operating GM less the cost of the bank line.
Solutions: Reduce DSO by offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days and increase up front retainers from 20% to 50%. This takes time but is doable by working with customers.
Some customers have seen AR slip from 30 to 45 days. Offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days is an inexpensive way to decrease AR and increase cash flow.
What is the most immediate need?
The company has positive cash flow, marquee accounts and proof of concept.
What is needed is additional referenceability. Can reference accounts come from exiting marquee accounts? What would this take? Can the Board help to identify and develop additional reference accounts?
The company is resource limited in sales. At this point people are needed. How can this be done without extending current resources?
Shift resources from other departments to sales to boost sales efforts. Another CEO did this very successfully and generated a substantial pick-up in revenue growth.
Increase the incentive for service people to come up with new revenue opportunities. Consider teaming them with the salespeople to generate opportunities.
Consider independent rep firms. Ask key customers who they respect among the independent rep firms.
Develop a joint venture or strategic partnership to feed sales – a situation where this is a strong win-win for both parties.
Leverage the Board to create opportunities. Another CEO has a Board objective of 3 new accounts per year. This comes from 10 leads/connections per year (2 per Board member). Board members who can’t produce leads are turned over.
Situation: A CEO has had to shift half of the company’s employees to part-time due to reduced business. This has hampered new product development. The situation has been exacerbated by slow payments from customers. Where should you focus for the next year?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a lot going on. Validate the company’s market potential for products in development, and start gearing up the marketing program so that it will impact this and next year’s sales.
Get a feel for how many customers want the new products in development. Invest in some market research to validate this.
The bottom line is that product development only pays if the company can sell a lot more product! The team needs to know whether customers for the new products exist, in what numbers, where and who they are, and their most critical needs. Without this market intelligence, the company is in no position to tell whether there is a market, nor is the company prepared to address it.
Assume that there is a market, that it can be quantified. Once the company knows who and where the customers are and knows their most critical needs, the next step is to prepare to attack this market. This is not something that is done in 1-2 months, after the product is ready to sell. The company needs to be starting now if marketing is to be initiated in 6-8 months.
Past practice has been to split R&D costs with the customer. The company has the expertise, the customer the money – this is close enough to 50/50. There is no need to show them the numbers. R&D should not be funded through future sales but should be making money now.
One project has been taking so much attention that it is hobbling the company. The company is so focused on getting this “just right” for the customer that sales and market development have been neglected.
For the next 3 months, focus on completing this project, getting it out the door, and getting the company’s focus back on growth. A sense of urgency is needed!
Situation: A CEO wants to raise money to expand the company. Target investors will be private equity investors with a minimum investment threshold of $10 million. What are the key points to make in an investor presentation?
Advice from the CEOs:
To demonstrate the company valuation, and the potential increase in value to investors, calculate the EBITDA trend for the last 3-4 years and project it out for the next 5 years.
The valuation is the whole company – not just the investment piece.
Show the increase in exit valuation with and without the target investment. Show impact.
Show revenue and EBITDA on the company’s current trend and what this will become with the investment.
An alternate view: Don’t focus on valuation. The company is profitable and growing. Pitch the plan and the financials associated with the plan. Let the potential investor come back with an investment proposal and terms. KISS – Keep It Simple Silly – take all the risk out.
There are periodic Shake the Money Tree events in Silicon Valley, sponsored by SVASE – Silicon Valley Association of Startup Entrepreneurs. Start attending these.
Ask for advice – not money. There is an adage in Silicon Valley is that if you ask for money you get advice; whereas if you ask for advice you get money.
There’s a subtle difference between the two asks. The point is that potential investors don’t just want to invest money. They want to be involved in the decisions as to how the company spends that money. By asking for advice, a potential investee demonstrates that they respect the opinions and input of potential investors and will listen to them.
Situation: A CEO has a staffing issue. The company has four product areas but only three strong leads. There are no back-ups for these leads. The CEO feels that the company can’t afford full-time back-ups and is concerned that the presence of back-ups may threaten the leads. How do you create an effective staff back-up system?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are two problems, not one.
The leads may not be great managers and may not even like managerial responsibility.
The company has one administrator with support from the leads.
The company’s vulnerability is having an effective lead leave and taking their key core team members with them. This would create a significant hole in the company’s offering.
Change the structure – put manager administrators at top and let the leads do what they love to do. Fit the jobs of the leads to their skills and talents.
Hire the best #2s that can be found to back up the effective leads. Replace the less effective lead with a new lead.
Replace current team members who aren’t as good with new staff. This will provide the funding for the new people.
Then separate managers from architects in terms of role. This does not mean a change of compensation, or necessarily even titles. It means aligning roles with talents. It will also mean that individuals will be happier in their roles and will be less likely to leave.
Don’t do this all at once, but in gradual stages to avoid panic and allow individuals the time to adapt to their new roles. Act as a coach adjusting the whole team to a new playbook.
Consider adjusting the compensation structure to retain the key leads.
Situation: A company has a technology that was developed by but not of interest to a major corporation. The company continues to have significant business ties with the corporation, but the corporation wants to be assured that they are never connected to the technology in question. How do you create a Chinese wall around a product?
Advice from the CEOs:
The challenge facing the company is this: representatives of the large corporation don’t and can’t sell the services offered by the company, however exclusive clients of the corporation represent 25% of the available market for the services provided by the company. To date the large corporation has been unwilling either to reward the company for selling to these clients or to assist them in the sales process.
A solution: show the large corporation that the company provides a higher value or potential value to them than they receive on their existing products.
Show them the potential financial value to them of a symbiotic relationship.
Does the company develop the capabilities and value of the technology on their own, or do they partner with client companies in the market?
Many the potential clients in the market appreciate the technology and want to work with the company in some form so a partnership is possible.
The issue is that an open partnership might offend the large corporation who may then perceive the company as taking advantage of their clients.
How does the company establish a Chinese wall so that neither the large corporation nor the clients who purchase the company’s product are concerned about any activity that the company undertakes in the market?
Set up a separate entity and license the technology to this entity. The company would be an investor and would do some of the work but through a client/service relationship with the separate entity.
Get independent M&A advice on how to structure this entity.
Investigate other companies that have set up similar structures. Determine how they have addressed concerns such as conflict of interest, and what structures they have set up to avoid this.
Situation: A CEO is reviewing options for introducing a new offering. The target customers are small companies or projects within larger companies. The offering includes both an initial product and follow-on services. Education or training will be a component of the offering. What is the best way to roll out a business opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is best to position the offering as a straightforward proposition at launch and develop proof of concept. This will provide experience and an income stream to fund more complex offerings based on the initial model.
It will also provide insight on how to sell the product and service in different markets – manufacturing, service, and software.
Leverage this experience to pursue more complex models.
Build a portfolio of case studies before pitching to paying companies.
Use companies with whom relationships already exist as the proving base. These will become references for new clients.
Develop data to show actual cost savings from the use of the product and services.
Establish a relationship with an existing company for which the offering is complimentary and cross-offer products and services on an ad hoc basis.
Trial the product and service with one of their clients in return for a royalty or share of the profit.
Ask that company to make the introduction.
Target start-ups – offer an initial package for a low price. Offer the product to start-ups for free and get them hooked as long-term customers.
What would be needed to roll the offering through growth equity firms or venture capitalists?
This will require some proof that the offering increases the ROI to growth equity and VC portfolio companies and funds.
Note that the portfolio companies of growth equity firms are larger and farther up the growth curve
In current economy the key message to prospects may be that the offering will help them to “right size” their company.
Take a closer look at the offering and determine whether it is configured appropriately for the current environment.
Situation: A company has grown through its expertise consulting for other companies. For its next growth step the CEO and Board want to shift to a project basis. This entails several changes, from compensation to organization and focus. How do you shift culture as the company grows?
Advice from the CEOs:
Risks & Challenges
Biggest risk – dissatisfied employees who see less billable income per hour and may not see the “more hours” part of the picture.
The biggest personnel challenge will be those who have been with the company for many years, and who will see the most change – maybe not to their specific practices if they can bring in business, but on the project side.
Communication is a critical challenge, and also the best way to avoid landmines. Put a velvet glove on the presentation of the opportunity: “This is good news – we know that the low hanging fruit is now mostly gone, and that the remaining fruit is higher; to counter this we now have more options.” Carefully prepare communications to both management and consultant team members.
Another potential landmine – the impact on the company’s reputation if it blows up after a year. Set appropriate expectations – the company is introducing a new program rather than a wholesale rebranding.
Countermeasures to Mitigate the Risks
Maintain a structural option that preserves the old model for those who can bring in new projects and who prefer this model. For them, the new model is just an option that can help tide them over if there are gaps between the projects that they bring in.
Present the project option as new opportunity. Give more senior and experienced consultants priority in choosing whether to participate or not in new project work.
Plan and create the ability to assess the old consultancy model vs. the new project model. This will be especially important when individuals are spending part of their time in each area.
Create a set of metrics for each business – the consulting and project businesses – to measure whether they are on track. Identify and monitor the drivers for each business.
Keep the title Consultant on consultants’ business cards – Consultant, Sr. Consultant, etc. Allow them to continue to take pride in their role.
Move to the new model through a planned phase-in but retain the option to adjust the speed of transition between the old and new models. This will allow sensitivity to changes in the environment.
Don’t consider an immediate and complete rebranding – think in terms of introducing a new product under the company’s well-known brand. Plan a gradual transition of business to the new model. Introduce the new product as a new offering. As it picks up steam, gradually move brand identification and promise to the new model.
For the new project model, create incentives for project performance. Show team members that while the hourly rate may be less, if they perform as a team they will share the upside through project bonuses.
Situation: The CEO of a specialty company that is a leader in their market asked the group to review the company presentation. The members of the group were asked to put themselves in the place of a potential customer or investor. How do you improve your company presentation?
Advice from the CEOs:
Don’t assume that the audience has a sophisticated understanding either of the company’s market or its technology. In any pitch either to a new prospect or for funding there will be individuals in the audience who are not experts. The pitch needs to deliver a message that any listener can easily translate to any colleague.
Give brief examples from the experience of current customers to make the technology and its advantages concrete.
What is the problem that the company solves?
State up front: What is the pain – why is it there? How does the company’s solution address this pain? What’s the impact?
Show market potential and explain why the company’s solution will be a home run.
What makes the company’s solution unique and gives it a sustainable advantage?
Assume Ignorance – KISS – Keep It Simple Silly!
The presentation should be high level, easy to understand, and crystal clear in 5 minutes.
Establish credibility by summarizing current success and list the names of current customers.
For presentations to investors have ready answers for the following questions:
How the funding sought accelerate development, and what is the expected return that this will produce?
Assure that timelines are realistic, particularly for a ground-breaking technology.
Do not be vague in answers to questions like “what is your market share?” Answers must be crisp and believable. If additional documentation is required to validate company estimates have a back-up slide in the presentation to address this. Keep the explanation in the back-up slide simple, even if the analysis is complex.
Add an expectation of return on investment. What equity will the company give for an investment of $X. State the company’s pre-money valuation as a believable number. Then give an estimated 3-year post money valuation with $X investment. Investors will discount anything number given but will not want a range.