Category Archives: Strategy

How Do You Manage a Business Transition? Five Thoughts

Situation: A company is moving from sole focus on servicing a market to a split focus including developing and marketing their own products. This is a significant transition for the team. What is the best way to organize this effort? How do you manage a business transition?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • While the company’s financials are great for their market, cashflow may be insufficient to fully fund a development company.
    • Internal development of new products can create conflicts if it creates competition for resources between internal and external projects.
    • To avoid this, create an independent company or entity – in a separate location. Seek outside funding whether bank, angel or partner financing. The independent entity can then buy resources from the primary entity at competitive rates.
  • Several years ago, another CEO utilized the strategy just described. The important lessons were:
    • Assure that venture is properly resourced.
    • Assure that there is a balance between proven structure and creative application development.
    • Utilize best resources available at same rates that key customers pay.
    • Offer free guidance but not free services – peer reviews are key.
  • A third CEO had an opportunity to open a new business using the spin-off model.
    • They allowed infrastructure sharing – with proper compensation and incentives (equity ownership).
    • Ultimately both entities were successful.
    • Lesson: Properly implemented, this model works.
  • There are four aspects to the challenge.
    • Product concept
    • Talent for execution
    • Financing
    • Distribution
    • The business plan for the new venture must address all four.
  • Building internally (vs. externally) creates natural conflict. Workers will tolerate change in direction from clients better than they do from insiders.

Should You Sell or Buy Another Company? Six Thoughts

Situation: A founder CEO is faced with two options – either selling his company or buying a complimentary company. The acquisition would fulfill his dream as CEO, but he is concerned both about the synergy between the two entities and his ability to manage the combined company. Should he sell, or buy the other company?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Given these concerns approach the purchase opportunity skeptically. Be more prepared to say no than yes.
  • In evaluating his ability to run a larger operation, the CEO should objectively assess his own abilities.
    • A good CEO is not a Superman. A good CEO creates a viable business model and vision and hires a good team to bring that model to reality.
    • Consider past accomplishments. In an industry where nobody makes money the CEO has created a business model that is sustainable, highly profitable, and technically superior. The only thing lacking is size in terms of revenue.
    • The new opportunity – on the right terms – can launch the company from dominance in a niche to dominance in a significantly larger industry.
  • Assess the new opportunity both as a technical and cultural match. If there is a good cultural match:
    • Fewer things must go right to add value.
    • The purchase provides a channel to a larger market.
    • The acquisition will rapidly speed company growth.
    • The biggest concern will be the time to manage both entities.
  • The most important factor will be the chemistry between the two company teams. If the chemistry is good, the combination offers reasonable assurance that the two teams will complement each other.
  • Look at the purchase as an opportunity to build a win-win with enduring value.
  • In considering outside investors to support the acquisition, be cautious about financial partners and the conditions behind each financing option.

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.

How Do You Merge with a Competitor? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company is in discussions with a competitor about a possible merger. The CEO seeks advice both about how to proceed with these discussions, and how to communicate the possible merger to staff. How do you merge with a competitor?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Until there is a signed binding legal contract everything must be business as usual.
  • Maintaining this attitude provides more leverage as the negotiation proceeds because the company is prepared for either situation.
  • If there is a differential in pricing between the company and the competitor, write short term contracts with customers that the company takes from the competitor. This creates the opportunity to revise the contracts and pricing if the merger is completed.
    • This issue begs the question – why do a deal now versus in 1-2 years? If current strategies are increasing the size of the company relative to the competitor, in another 1-2 years the company will be worth more compared to the competitor and will be in a position to complete a deal on more favorable terms.
  • At this point, most staff are unaware of the discussions. How is it best to proceed?
    • Consult an HR expert on when to start communicating, what to communicate and how to phrase the message.
    • The trigger to initiate top level staff communications will be the signing of a due diligence agreement.
    • The message to senior management: there is interest but no binding agreement, here’s the deal that’s being discussed. Then just listen to what they have to say.
    • Communications to staff create an important management challenge. Staff will be concerned about their futures and will want to have assurances that these are secure.

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.

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 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.