Situation: A company’s goal is to replace an old, established market with new technology and, by owning the technology, to reinvent the industry. Given this aggressive goal, there is a temptation to go into volume production before establishing the cost advantages to make the technology profitable. The challenge is to establish disciplined, stable, qualified, scalable and profitable manufacturing. To accomplish this, the company must decide between alternatives as they cultivate new customers. How do you optimize your pipeline?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are two sides of the market:
Mega-markets dominated by large corporations which have long lead-times and potentially huge payoffs; however, these markets present long payoff delays for the company.
Smaller, quicker markets with limited volume but which will offer rapid PO acquisition and proof of concept.
The question is how much effort to devote to which market.
Look for early customers who are cast in your own light – disruptors who can help to catapult you into the marketplace
The trade-offs are strategic vs. tactical opportunities.
The immediate tactical need is to generate cash to show that you can. This is the steak.
The strategic need is to seed a foothold in a mega opportunity – to show the potential to revolutionize the market. This is the sizzle.
Identify a killer app that will gain tactical advantage and cash and help prompt maturation of a strategic opportunity.
Another CEO shared experience landing a large client.
They used a short, low cost pilot project to prove the concept to skeptical client staff. The client was surprised and delighted by the success of the pilot project. The pilot project was then articulated into larger projects.
Over time the company used incremental steps to gain a broad presence within the large company.
Focus business development on selling killer apps.
Find low hanging fruit for quick proof of salability and to show a revenue ramp.
Small design wins exercise the machine.
Is it possible to conserve cash to raise the impact of early wins to the bottom line?
Are all current staff during the next 12 months?
Early on, the game is business development – gaining key contracts and agreements with lead customers. Sales follows, with focus on the larger market. This may be 6 months to 2 years out. How many people are needed to focus on business development?
Situation: A CEO is considering a new revenue model for his company. The existing model is profitable and stable, but not scalable. A new model, and perhaps additional locations may be needed to add scalability. How do you assess the risks of the model? What steps can be taken to reduce these risks. How to you evaluate a new revenue model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Project both the current and new models on a spreadsheet. What do profitability and return look like over time based on current trends?
Include assumptions about adding new customers within the model. Consider capacity constraints at the present location. Add start-up investment needed for the new model. Does overall profitability increase in the projections and will this adequately cover new customer acquisition costs?
Are performance standards for the current and new models different? Would it make sense to have different teams managing the models? What kind of experience will be required in the people who will build the new business? Account for personnel additions and start-up costs in the financial projections.
Critically evaluate the upfront financial exposure as new clients are signed up for the new model. Consider hybrid options which can be added to customer contracts. Examples include:
A variable flat fee model. Customers contracted under the new model will receive services up to X hours per month for the flat fee, with hours over this billed separately.
How do current time and materials rates compare with industry averages? If they are high, it is not necessary to quote existing rates to new model customers. Create a new rate schedule just for new model customers. Taking a lower rate under the flat fee model will not cover all costs and profit; however, it will at least partially cover utilization exposure and a higher rate for additional hours can make up the difference.
During the ramp up period of a new operating unit, client choice is critical. If, based on observations and responses in client questionnaires, heavy early work is anticipated, charge an initial set-up fee. Alternatively, ask for a deposit of 3-4 months to cover set-up exposure. If either at the end of the service contract or after a burn-in period some or all these funds have not been used, the client is refunded the unused deposit. This can both cover early exposure and make it easier to sign new customers for the new unit.
Draft contracts under the new model to include one-time fees in the case of certain events – e.g., a server crashes in the first 9 months of the contract, or an unplanned move within the first X months of the contract. These resemble the exceptions written into standard insurance policies. They can be explained as necessary because standard contract pricing is competitive and does not anticipate these events within the first X months of the contract. Most companies will bet against this risk. Those who do not may know something about their situation that they are not revealing. In the latter case you will be alerted to potential exposure.
Consider a variable declining rate for the new model. The contract price is X for the first year, and, assuming there are no hiccups, will be reduced by some percent in following years. This resembles auto insurance discounts for long term policy holders with good driver records.
Adding hybrid options may make it easier to sign new clients while covering cost exposure. The view of the CEOs is that most clients will underestimate their IT labor needs and will bet against their true level of risk. Provided that the new model delivers the same service that supports the company’s reputation, once clients experience the company’s service, they will be hooked.
An additional benefit to hybrid options may be faster client acquisition ramps within new satellite units and faster attainment of positive ROI.
Situation: The CEO of a privately held company wants to share company success with employees. An option that she is exploring is phantom stock. The objective is to engage employees in company success. Does a phantom stock plan make sense?
Advice from the CEOs:
Why would you use phantom stock options instead of real stock?
Phantom stock options are popular in the tech sector. Phantom stock confers the right to receive cash at a future point in time, typically a share of the proceeds received upon the sale of a company.
The principal difference between phantom stock and real stock, is that real stock must be issued in exchange for cash, property or past services. There is also a tax consequence to the receipt of real shares. When shares are issued in exchange for past services the employee must recognize taxable income, just like wage compensation. Employees may be disappointed to learn that they may face taxable income based on the fair market value of their shares received without compensating cash to pay the tax.
Let’s assume that the objective is to increase employee engagement as they observe the value of the shares increasing with company success over time.
Under phantom stock programs the value of the company is pegged on a periodic basis, based on a pre-set formula developed by the company.
In some cases, employees can “sell” their phantom stock back to the company for the differential between the price when they were awarded the stock and the current pegged price.
The structure of the program is determined by management based on company objectives.
Employees frequently don’t have the cash to purchase real stock or options at a fair price given the value of the company. Using a phantom stock plan, a company can offer the rewards of stock ownerships without a purchase requirement or tax implications at the time of award. Employees can be apprised of the value of their phantom stock based on a periodic internal accounting exercise.
Situation: An early stage company has assembled an impressive team and has a solid service offering. The immediate challenge is bringing in clients to fuel growth. The team has the capacity but needs some creative ideas on where they should focus their efforts. How do you fuel early stage growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Fully utilize the team’s talents. Team members with established expertise can offer clinics featuring the company’s service offering at local colleges, business organizations and other venues to target audiences. Think about business organizations with members who would benefit from the company’s services. Also reach out to venture capitalists and the entrepreneurial market.
Develop a strong value proposition:
Eyeballs on the market
Links to highly qualified resources
Demonstrated expertise in your space
Claims tied to the top priorities of target clients
For start-up and entrepreneur client targets:
Offer a packaged set of services for a fixed fee. Be open to creative payment options to fit the financial needs of entrepreneurs.
Start developing a full suite of services. Start by assessing the need and developing a target list of early clients. VC portfolio companies can be a great target.
Build a good web-based communications interface for client use. Think of what is needed to create an attractive menu and let this drive service development.
Develop a separate brand for ancillary services that will complement the current offering, but which is outside of the current offering. Look at markets which would benefit from the service, including medical and nursing providers.
Situation: The CEO of a family business is anticipating retirement in the next two years. Currently, there is no succession plan. Other family members do not seem interested in running the company. What steps should the CEO be taking? How do you plan for retirement?
Advice from the CEOs:
To set the stage for your successor, make sure that you are being paid adequately for your job. If you are being paid less than some of your key employees, nobody else will want your job. Raise your salary to a point where it is appropriate for a CEO, and so it is attractive enough to entice a qualified successor. This will also help attract a buyer should you decide to sell or merge the business. Raising your salary will also help your bottom line if your company is an S Corporation.
Once you identify a potential successor, bring this individual into the business as soon as possible so they have an opportunity to understand the business fully and can receive on-the-job training from you.
Understand the numbers and red flags that give you the information and authority to run the company and the respect of your employees. Teach these to your successor so that this person has the same overview of the company that you command.
Look at what skills your successor needs to be CEO and start mentoring that person on those as soon as possible.
You may need to delay your planned retirement so that you have time to select a successor and prepare that individual to take on your responsibilities. Your current 2-year plan may not work, at least without compromises.
Without a management succession plan, the company may not bring in as much in a sale or merger as you expect. It is important that you improve the numbers to maximize the value of the firm if you choose to sell or merge the business.
Look at your current range of projects. Focus on those which are most profitable to you and emphasize these. You may be able to reduce staff and expenses by being more focused.
Situation: The CEO of a family-owned business finds it difficult to hold family-member managers accountable. They are responsible for significant portions of the business; however, family dynamics make it hard to supervise them. How do you communicate that their responsibilities affect both the business and the family? How to you manage family in a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
The first issue: Why have they not been asked for accountability to date? If you don’t ask for accountability, then don’t expect them to take this on by themselves.
Assign one family member responsibility for developing the marketing and sales strategy for the company.
Change the compensation from salary to salary plus commission. Over a 6-month period, reduce the base salary to half of what this individual currently earns and tie the rest to success increasing sales.
Assign this person responsibility for analyzing the markets that you serve. Are there areas that the company has not tapped into yet? What can you do to make your web site up more effective at driving sales? How can you use exclusivity on select products to your advantage?
When was the last time that the principals of the business met to figure out what to do?
Set the stage: we have split the business into two divisions and have separated the financials. This gives us more flexibility as we develop the business.
Show them the trends of each business.
Show them that if the current trend continues the business will be unsustainable in X years.
Facilitate a discussion that will start to generate solutions.
If the others do not respond:
Tell them that you appreciate their attendance at today’s meeting.
Tell them that you will meet in another two days as a team. Until then you expect them to think things over and to come ready to share their ideas.
Do not hold the meeting in your office or conference room. Secure an off-site neutral location with a white board.
If you are uncomfortable facilitating this meeting hire an outside facilitator. Ask for the input of the others in selecting a facilitator and follow their recommendation. If you work with a facilitator, start with your own dilemmas to set the tone.
Situation: A tech company has grown to twenty people. The CEO is concerned that if they grow much beyond this their culture will start to change. The principal question is whether team leadership structure will remain tight and focused, while teams will continue to be flexible and have fun. How do you manage culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
Other companies have grown to twice this size and continue to increase their number of employees.
One uses component owners as leads, with people under them. Leads are more technical than managers and aren’t expected to be superb managers.
They grow middle managers organically instead of hiring from outside.
If an individual’s plate is full, give them the ability to delegate work to an up and comer.
Active communication has number limits.
The optimal functioning group is 7-12; higher functioning teams are even smaller with 7-8 members.
Create flexible teams that maintain communication pathways and culture.
Consider using reconfigurable space.
When one company grew from 25 to 60, they noticed that at 30 people it became difficult to track people; they needed to develop systems and internal management tools.
Much more attention was needed on sales forecasting and expense elasticity. The solution was to study peaks and valleys and built a model that could function within historic peak /valley limits.
How do you maintain the contractor pool?
Keep a list and actively communicate with them about current and anticipated needs.
One company’s rule: consultants are 100% billable – functionally they are only able to realize 98%, but the rule keeps this number high.
Use contractor pools to supplement project tasks. If your primary differentiating focus is on successfully closing projects, focus contractors on ramping new projects.
Hire people who embody you and your culture. Hire in your own image.
Situation: A company is purchasing another company to expand its product offering. The CEO is concerned that the employees need to stay focused through the closing date. He is also concerned about retaining key employees both of his company and the company that he is buying. How do you prepare for an acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Until the deal closes, don’t change anything about your current direction.
As you negotiate and move to close, be mindful of competitive bids.
This will help to keep the deal in place.
It may also open the option to put together the deal and then seek competitive bids to fund the deal through private equity groups.
Get three second opinions – learn what could go wrong with this deal so that you can plan and anticipate.
To assure that you retain key staff take the following steps:
Hire consultants: HR, financial, see what they recommend.
Offer key employers favorably priced options for a combined minority position in the company. This offers them an upside and will be an effective retention package.
What else can be done to retain key employees.
Let them know how this acquisition will position the company as the Dream Team company in your space.
Explain how this acquisition gets the company closer to a true exit strategy which will be financially beneficial to them.
If you can assure key employees that they will not experience any change in their job, title, responsibilities or compensation, retention may not be an issue.
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.
Situation: The CEO of a business that has been in place for several generations is frustrated by the challenges of working with family members. Relatives are involved in top positions, but frequently place personal concerns above the priorities of the business. This leads to tense situations where other family members, not in the business, will intervene to support their close relatives without appreciating the conditions facing the business. Must a family business always be “family”?
Advice from the CEOs:
For the business to thrive, you must match skills and talent to available positions – not just the “best” family member fit for the position.
Understanding that it is difficult for one family member to communicate negative news to another family member, consider hiring a consultant or HR company to evaluate and be the go-between in determining best family fit, or family/non-family choices for open positions.
If the company involved unionized employees, and some family member employees are union members, this may complicate your choices. Seek outside non-union counsel to help you evaluate situations and navigate solutions.
Hire a professional facilitator to assist in running company planning meetings which involve family members. A facilitator can approach the situation from a neutral standpoint, and does not carry the personal history of brother-sister or close relationships within the company. Choose an individual with experience with family-owned companies who can build a company vision that goes beyond personal relationships and concerns. This individual can also help navigate the operational situations facing the company.
Look at both your organization and ownership structure versus applicable regulations and licensing requirements. This may present new alternatives for you to consider.