Category Archives: Sales & Marketing

How Do You Generate Near-Term Revenue? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A young company that focuses on personalized solutions needs to generate near-term revenue to meet expenses. There are also options for debt or equity financing, but the terms for each will equally depend on near-term revenue potential. How do you generate near-term revenue?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Think in terms of the referenceability of early customers.  As a new company, the first five customers define the company to future customers.
    • The core values of the company will help clarify how to make early choices.
    • Don’t just go for the easiest closes.
  • Create a chart of potential customer prospects:
    • Segment potential prospects into groups.
    • What is the deal model and key value proposition for each group?
    • Create a video and communications package to demonstrate the company’s benefit to each group.
  • There are trade-offs between the different deals that the company will pursue:
    • Small fast deals are most likely to meet immediate cash flow needs.
    • The biggest deals may involve the creation of LLCs. These will involve both more time and additional legal fees.
  • Make sure that early deals align with the company’s core brand.
  • Consider outsourcing to speed the provision of services to early clients. Build this cost into your billings. Assure that the funds from early deals flow to or through the company. This will improve the financial story to additional clients.
  • Consider serving special interest groups. Their potential value is that they work for their passion more than for money. If the company chooses to work with one or more of these groups, assure that customer selection aligns with company values.
  • The current focus for near-term monetization is on merchandizing. As an alternative, consider charging a separate fee for the use of company IP. This may give clients additional incentive to utilize company technology to monetize their investment.

How Do You Diversify Your Customer Base? Four Suggestions

Situation: A CEO is concerned that too much of her company’s business is focused on two few customers. The loss of a single large customer can potentially mean a significant hit to revenue and profitability. How do you diversify your customer base?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • If current cash flow is good, the company should consider purchasing diversity by buying a company.
    • Consider acquiring a supplier that is in good shape, but with lower margins. They will have the infrastructure to run their own operation, and the purchasing company will have the additional profitability to make the combined entity more interesting.
    • Given the company’s existing cash generation potential, there are creative ways to finance such an acquisition.
  • Why is this a good strategy?
    • Purchasing another company can instantly expand the customer base.
    • Diversifying the company opens additional options to build long-term sustainability.
    • A purchase strategy can bring in a ready-made and smoothly running infrastructure in the form of the purchased company.
    • Diversification can boost the value of the combined company on a more diversified business base. It might allow the company to combine low volume, high profit lines with high volume, lower profit lines. There are advantages to each of these business models.
  • Where can such a company be found?
    • Look both inside and outside of the current geographic base.
    • A candidate could be a higher volume but lower profit supplier of one of the company’s current customers that does not compete with the company’s current offering. Alternately, look at companies with more diversified customer bases in a related industry.
  • Look at the niches that the company’s current customers serve.
    • What similar niches exist? Are there acquisition candidates there?
    • Look at the functionality that the company’s products add for its clients. In what other industries would similar functionality be of value?
    • As these questions are asked, look for candidates that have complementary customer sets, customer bases, and geographical reach.

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.

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.

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.

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.

How Do You Stay Focused When It’s Busy? Five Points

Situation: A CEO and his COO find it difficult to focus on core tasks when business is booming and everyone is busy. The company is small but has been very successful. However, the pressure of simultaneously attending to key customer relationships, training new people, and formulating plans is overwhelming. How do you stay focused when it’s busy?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • If the CEO and COO are doing a mix of corporate and project tasks, the first step is to delegate so that top staff focus on strategic areas rather than execution.
    • Over the next week, keep a record of what the CEO and COO are doing. At the end of the week sit down and determine which activities were corporate activities, and which should have been delegated to staff.
    • As an example, training of new personnel should be a key role of someone else. The CEO and COO will be involved, but only tangentially. The bulk of onboarding should be handled by staff.
    • Similarly,restrict sales activity of the CEO and COO to high level discussions and decisions.The rest should be handled by sales staff.
    • What must the CEO and COO be involved in?  Intellectual property development, high level decisions about new service offerings, high level decisions on business expansion opportunities, and occasional oversight of company operations.
  • It is important to focus. The first priority should be the company’s principle revenue stream.
  • The second priority should be new service offerings which are central to efficient delivery of the primary revenue stream.
  • Meet with top staff and develop a five-year vision. The order of priorities that are developed will determine where to focus.
  • In the process of developing priorities, ask the following questions:
    • What do you love and what do you need to love?
    • Analyze the comparative importance and urgency of each activity of the CEO and COO. Which require top level input, and how much? Which are better delegated to staff?

How Do You Market a Companion Application? Four Alternatives

Situation: A company is developing a companion application that simplifies the use a major company’s software. The CEO is considering how to show this application to the major company as well as at their user group conference. How do you market a companion application?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • This is an interesting situation. If the major company likes the companion application, the principal question is whether they will want to attach an additional license fee if the companion application is marketed through them. This presents three options:
    • Research other companies that have developed front end or access products for this company – what was their experience with the major company and did that company demand an additional license fee payment. If so, how did they handle this?
    • Be up-front with clients, and if an additional fee is required pass these through to the clients. It may be cheaper for clients to pay license fees through this route than to purchase and pay license fees for the major company product.
    • You may want to take a wait and see attitude while conducting your own research on the situation. See when and if the major company asks for a license fees, and if so, find out whether they are willing to negotiate.
  • Large companies are often focused on their own offering. Forget the idea that they will market another company’s companion application or front end. Instead focus on your own contacts within the industry and your client base and start talking to them about your application. Generate some experience and traction on your own.

How Do You Identify Key Managers? Three Suggestions

Situation: A software service company wants to expand operations. Their business model is to build clone offices that operate like the home office in new markets, much like a franchise operation. The founder CEO is struggling to identify key managers who can manage remote offices. How do you identify key managers?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • The key managers must be individuals who are business savvy, not talented engineers. The key managers must understand:
    • Management – with a proven management record;
    • Basic accounting;
    • Recruiting and hiring;
    • How to manage an office;
    • A bonus will be experience in a similar field, but this experience does not substitute for the above four critical requirements.
  • Looking at current employees, is there the bandwidth within the current team to help bootstrap new remote offices?
    • For example, is there a key senior manager who can become Director of Franchise Operations? In this role, the DFO will serve as a resource to the individuals opening new offices.
    • As this individual’s focus switches, an important question will be who replaces this individual in their current role?
  • It will be beneficial if the individuals who are chosen to lead new offices have at least some experience in sales. This will help to quickly build new customer bases for the remote sites. However, a new site manager must have balanced experience. While sales will be part of the responsibility these individuals must also be able to build and oversee the other critical functions necessary to build viable remote sites.