Category Archives: Technology

How Do You Improve Quote to Collections Flow? Four Tactics

Situation: A company is losing billings because individual billings are getting lost in their process flow. Requests for enhancements come from clients to Project Managers. Project Managers take on development of the enhancements but are sometimes too busy to keep track and don’t report their work to the billing department. How do you improve quote to collections flow?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • It appears that two processes are missing:
    • A formal trigger mechanism to assure that a PO is in place BEFORE Project Managers undertake enhancement work, and
    • Managers are incentivized to assure that the client is billed and revenue collected for the work performed.
  • Formalize the process and do not allow Project Mangers to initiate any work until a work request is logged in the billing system and a PO is received from the customer to cover the expense.
    • Develop a process to track customer requests, estimate development and transmission to billing, forwarding of estimates by billing to the customer with a request for a PO, and upon receipt of PO authorization by billing to initiate work.
    • This can all be tracked and managed by most accounting software packages.
    • This process will:
      • Facilitate tracking of actual expense vs. estimate;
      • Tracking of requests for which no POs are received, for client follow-up; and
      • Tracking of enhancement requests to guide future product development.
  • Compensate Account Managers to track and manage the process.
    • If an Account Manager receives a commission for enhancement work they will have an incentive to keep track of all ongoing work, both for timely delivery and to assure that the customer invoiced for the work.
    • Commissions paid to the Account Mangers will be a small percent of the extra revenue collected.
    • To improve process management, schedule regular meetings to review all enhancement and other work being done for clients. Review and assure that all work has accompanying POs, that the work is being completed on a timely basis and in line with original estimates, and that the company is invoicing and being paid for the work. Empower Account Managers to organize and conduct these meetings. Their incentive will be the commissions they will collect on payment for the work.
  • Build upgrades and a certain number of enhancements into the product price.
    • This enables to company to increase prices and to collect prepayment for enhancements and upgrades that may or may not be requested.
    • Use the process outlined above to track enhancements which are credited against the prepaid accounts, and to assure that enhancements above the prepaid limit are invoiced.

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.

Do You Expand Production Locally or Internationally? Five Points

Situation: A company has built a very successful specialty manufacturing business in the US. Their manufacturing operations are labor intensive, with manufacturing practices optimized using motion studies and sharing best practices developed on the production floor. The CEO is evaluating whether it makes more sense to expand production in the US or to explore international options. Do you produce domestically or internationally?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There are trade-offs between domestic and international production. Quality labor is available internationally at lower costs than in the US. However, risks include potential loss of quality control and higher levels of waste.
  • While investigating international production options, focus first on less critical operations where savings from lower labor costs outweigh the potential cost of wasted material.
  • Do not try to move highly controlled operations. These will include critical operations which require both an elevated level of operator skill and close supervision.
  • Before evaluating international options, break down the steps of manufacturing or processing to identify specific subcomponents or subprocesses that could be outsourced at reasonable risk.
    • For example, look at high volume parts where quality and variation in tolerances is less critical. These will be the best candidates for production in a lower cost, potentially lower quality environment.
  • How critical are trade secrets or patented IP to production? In the US and Europe there are strong protections for IP. However, these protections are not as strong in all countries. If production is outsourced to countries with poor IP protection, this may enable IP theft and create future low-cost competition.

How Do You Expand into New Markets? Three Perspectives

Situation: A CEO is evaluating a horizontal market development opportunity to markets related to their current market. There may be branding implications. The new opportunity focused on a different sector and can add business unrelated to current customers. However, the new opportunity will stretch current resources and potentially impact current business and service delivery. How do you expand into new markets?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Pros:
    • Because the new opportunity utilizes known capabilities the company should be able to segue into the new market relatively easily.
    • Because the company is already familiar with security and other issues relevant to the new market, compliance should present no challenge.
  • Cons:
    • Consider the impact on company time and resources. Building any new business will challenge current priorities and will require a careful balancing of efforts to assure that both current and new customers’ needs are being met.
    • Build workload and service schedules for both existing customers and the effort that it will take to develop the new opportunity including the time needed to create and build new customer relationships. Take your best estimate of resource utilization for the new effort and double it, then ask whether your current staff and capacity can handle both markets. If the answer is positive, then you can be more comfortable with the decision to expand into new markets.
  • As you evaluate the new market opportunity, look at both anticipated and unanticipated but predictable challenges that customers may face over the next five years.
    • For example, is there misalignment between future challenges likely to be faced and the current expertise and skill sets of managers who will be tasked with addressing these challenges? If so, tailor the sales pitch for new capacities to address these challenges.
    • Are there existing mismatches between products and services currently offered in the new markets, and do proposed solutions help to address these mismatches? If so, there may be significant opportunities in addressing these mismatches across multiple customers within the affected markets.

 

How Do You Finance Growth? Three Options

Situation: A mid-sized company faces challenges financing their growth. Investment of time, energy and resources precedes the reward of future revenue. It can be difficult to balance the cash needs of current operations with new growth opportunities. How do you finance growth?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Have you analyzed growth opportunities and evaluated which could increase your cash flow? For example, if you increase manufacturing efficiency, can the savings help to finance growth?
  • If you produce parts or products for start-ups, can you structure the relationship so that if the start-up become successful and is subsequently purchased by a larger company there is a bonus payoff for the work that you’ve done?
    • Analyze – by project, not company – the jobs you’ve done that have eventually become large volume opportunities. Try segmenting your analysis based on the source of the original project: jobs for start-ups, mid-sized and large companies. This may provide insight on where to focus future efforts.
  • Another company performs clinical services for both big pharmaceutical companies and start-ups. To take advantage of the upside from working with start-ups they take payment both in cash and in stock.
    • One option is to set up a separate Investment LLC – not tied to the operating company but owned by the same people – that takes the stock position and can, at its option, provide limited venture funding to start-ups.
    • Start-ups are not yet threats to your large customers but are potential future acquisition targets. Because the stock financing is done outside of the operating company, it is more difficult to trace back to the operating company. Further, competing large companies have not tended to see these investments as threatening the way that they would view direct investment by the company in a competitor. At the time of acquisition by the larger company, the member’s ownership position in the start-up is liquidated.

How Do You Set Up Co-Development Partnerships? Five Thoughts

Situation: A company has clients who are interested in projects for which the company’s partners already have partial designs. There is an opportunity to leverage these partial designs into development of full solutions for their clients. How should the company approach this in a way that satisfies their customers and is fair to their partners? How do you set up co-development partnerships?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Given this opportunity it is no longer important who performed what part of the development. As long as your partners have quoted you what they believe to be a fair price for their development pieces, you are free to accept their price, complete development to your clients’ specifications, and sell the full solution to the client at market prices.
  • What you bring to the table is the opportunity to rapidly monetize the technology. This is something that your partners can’t do, so by filling this role you are acting in the interest of all parties.
  • What you charge for your work and the full solution depends on the potential value to the client. Time is money, and delivery now is worth a premium price to a client who needs your solution and wants to release their product as soon as possible.
  • This strategy is particularly applicable to early stage companies who need to release their initial products and start generating revenue.
  • Take a note from Bill Gates – sell the product for a good price and then buy or acquire the supply.

How Do You Develop Products with a Foreign Firm? Five Ideas

Situation: A company has been approached by a foreign company that is interested in their expertise. The foreign firm says that they are only interested in their own domestic market, and want the company’s help developing new products for their existing domestic clients. How do you develop products with a foreign firm?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There is great variability between companies in different locales and on different continents. Before proceeding with negotiations, get references from the company and check them carefully. Research the company and its local market.
  • Relationship will be critical. You want to meet with their CEO. This is an important factor working with any company. Watch the commitment level of the CEO and top staff. Take an expert with you – someone knowledgeable about local mannerisms who can read the body language in meetings. Position this individual as someone who is assisting you in the negotiation.
  • If you proceed with negotiations toward an agreement, make your enforcement jurisdiction either the US or a neutral country with a western judicial system. For example, if the company is Chinese, make the enforcement jurisdiction either Hong Kong or Macao.
  • Will intellectual property be a factor? If so, get an IP attorney knowledgeable about both the market of the other company as well as your preferred enforcement jurisdiction.
  • Could this help you to augment or fund your own development? If so, ask for rights to produce and distribute products developed through the collaboration in the US and other markets outside of partner’s domestic market.

How Do You Move a Live Online Data Center? Seven Suggestions

Situation: A company has run out of space and is planning a move to a new and larger facility. The biggest challenge is that they maintain a live online data center upon which their clients depend. How do you move a live online data center?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • This is not a rare event. Many companies with live online data centers have to upgrade their systems on a regular basis as equipment and software technologies evolve. Maintaining service during a move is not significantly different. Research what steps these companies have taken to minimize disruption during upgrades.
  • Don’t try to do it all by yourself. Seek outside expertise to help you plan the move, and to develop options that will minimize both downtime and service interruption.
  • Ask a trusted data center resource for a 3rd party audit of your move plan.
  • When one company moved, they overlapped their leases by one month, and their Internet connections by 2-3 months. This gave them breathing room as they completed the move and allowed them to stay live uninterrupted through the move.
  • Another company increased their back up servers and service. They also planned their move to occur during what they knew would be a low demand block of time. As a result, they were able to complete the move, plug in the servers and were only down for 30 minutes.
  • If it is feasible, consider leaving your old center in place as a back-up data center.
  • Conduct a number of practice shutdowns and restarts to test your systems.

How Do You Reduce Risk in OEM Agreements? Four Guidelines

Situation: A company is introducing a new technology. They are evaluating an OEM licensing model. They have been advised that if they go forward independently they will be perceived as a threat by OEMs, and this may inhibit their ability to form key OEM partnerships. How do you reduce risk in OEM agreements?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • Consider moving forward with a mixed model – both seeking OEM relationships and also selling direct to the market. Because you will be actively entertaining OEM relationships the risk of threatening them will be reduced. In addition, this will help you convince OEMs that your market opportunity is real.
  • A purchaser of intellectual property (IP) will always try to go around your only offer is an IP license. They would rather own the IP than pay licensing fees. Therefore pursuing your own product applications makes sense to convince the market that you are more than just IP.
  • There is a risk to this strategy – being caught in the middle. You can end up seeking two clients, your own end users and the OEMs. They aren’t the same and don’t necessarily share common interests. Just be aware of this.
  • You must be able to succinctly explain your value proposition to client audiences, whether these are OEMS, end users or potential funding sources. In the case of the latter two, they also need to easily understand the critical value proposition to the end user, as well. This value proposition will be your 30 second elevator speech.

What Leads in Building Brand Focus? Five Factors

Situation: A company faces a question branding a new product – what should lead the branding focus: product design or product attributes that will be an eventual part of the branding strategy? Which should lead in building brand focus?

Advice from the CEOs:

  • There are two areas of focus – each an important part of the overall trademark and branding strategy:
    • A distinct name or symbol, for example Amazon.com or eBay, will gain the right kind of attention and be easy for potential customers to remember. The prime risk here is stepping on someone else’s mark.
    • Your overall branding strategy. The point here is not confusing your customers. Marketing people will advise you to KISS – Keep it Simple Stupid! One tack is simplifying the complexity of technology.
  • It is important to develop a consistent set of product attributes – one that you know through research will resonate with your client base – before your Alpha launch. It is dangerous to conduct an Alpha launch without clarity on this point. Subtleties of the eventual brand do not need to be finalized, but the overall framework of key product attributes should be consistent and clear from the beginning.
  • Design and the development of important product attributes ideally take place in synch with each other. Positioning will depend on your audience, and the unique needs and expectations of the audience.
  • The name itself could be important. Being clear and easy to spell may be important. Test alternative names for this trait.