Situation: A founder CEO established her company with a significant personal loan, which is being repaid. To compensate herself for the original investment, she is considering several options including an employee stock option plan (ESOP) through which employees would be able to establish ownership of a certain percent of the company. What is appropriate compensation for a founder CEO?
Advice from the CEOs:
The critical question is: what is the CEO’s goal? The next question is – what options best serve to achieve goal?
If the goal is long-term goal is maintaining or increasing current income combined with long-term security – like a Trust Fund – seek the counsel of a financial advisor who can help model how the options under consideration will satisfy the goal.
This individual can also evaluate the tax advantages associated with various options.
Is there a clear exit strategy in place?
Every company needs a written exit strategy, as well as a plan to put this strategy into action.
The simple existence of a strategy and a plan does not preclude adjusting either the strategy or the plan as conditions or opportunities change.
There are two important corollary points:
Having a strategy and plan is the only way to build a structure of accountability within the company; and
Recalling a lesson from Jim Collins’s book, Good to Great, the successful companies selected a solid strategy and stuck with it; the less successful comparators continually changed strategy and never allowed momentum to build.
To assist establishing an exit strategy, seek the advice of one or two consultants. There are several highly qualified exit advisors that can be researched through current professional contacts or via the Internet.
Situation: A company is transitioning from a service model to a product model. A major challenge is meeting funding needs during the transition. Funding sources perceive the current service model as heavy on cost of sales vs. implementation and this hinders acquisition of funds. The CEO sees this as a short-term problem as the company will quickly start to generate more cash through the product model. How do you transition from service to product?
Advice from the CEOs:
In a competitive funding environment, it is important that the offering be credible. While others may be offering similar solutions, believability will prove to be a strong differentiator.
Where to focus over the short term?
Create a hybrid model as a transition between the current service offering and the planned product offering. Demonstrate that current customers have responded favorably to the product/hybrid opportunity.
Test this concept with an investor. The story is that the company needs funding to get to a saleable product model.
What is the message to investors?
Helping the company to achieve a short-term and very feasible objective gives the investor the following advantages: purchasing at a lower valuation, getting a larger share of the company for less, and at a low risk.
As the valuation of the company increases, the earliest investors will get the best deal!
During meetings with investors, ask them for advice on the current and following rounds and financing, and what they will find most appealing.
How do you mitigate the risk to the first investor?
Have a solid business plan and projections that have been vetted by others.
Have a list of referenceable clients.
Utilize the current service model and demonstrate the product/hybrid Package. Build a case on the advantages of the hybrid model including the financial case. The company is always there to provide back-up assistance to meet customer needs in the hybrid model.
Demonstrate flexibility – the customer can always choose the service model or convert to this if they wish.
A Key Point: You are selling yourself as the trustable resource, not the product or service.
Reference previous investment including founders’ investments. The founders did not invest to fail!
Situation: A company has strong technology and good top customers. However, the CEO is concerned that the company is too dependent on a few large clients. She wants to increase business among mid-tier clients. How do you expand the sales funnel?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get very crisp in identifying who your core customer is and focus on them near term. Look at what you offer that your competition can’t match and create appealing offers for new clients.
Simplify and clearly define your market position.
Here’s an example: First to market with the best, smallest, fastest solution.
This clearly defines who you are. Focus the company on delivering this.
In each high potential market find one company to whom you can offer a significant advantage.
Their current market position might be number 2, 3 or 4. Offer them a solution to gain an advantage on #1 and shift the playing field. This is a win-win for both you and them.
Horizontal business expansion could be the best near-term strategy. This lets each vertical market solve their own problems of technology direction, logistics, etc. Seek customers who have the resources to manage this in their respective market places.
Tailor contract minimums and pricing according to customer order commitments. Be willing to sacrifice price and some margin for committed purchases that match your timelines and resources.
Buyers often overstate their anticipated needs because they don’t want to be caught with short supply.
You can meet and promise lower prices for higher volumes because they rarely order them. However, combine this commitment with higher prices for the lower volumes that they are more likely to order.
Look across markets and focus on promising targets.
Use a call center to queue up prospecting telephone calls.
Have sales people conduct scripted qualification calls with prospects by telephone.
Only send sales people out to talk to qualified prospects. This saves travel expense and increases the productivity of in-person sales calls.
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: A professional services company wants to grow while maintaining the small company atmosphere that has been the key to its success. There is a limit to how many clients a manager can manage, and with this the reality that if the firm is to grow they will have to bring on more client managers and support personnel. How do you maintain your culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
To maintain your boutique atmosphere, consider hiring to fit your needs rather than to maintain a culture. Use team meetings to direct team members while communicating and instilling the culture that you wish to maintain.
Don’t risk diluting the strength of your client relationships. A $250K client who is fully committed to your service may have more demands than a $1M client for whom you only represent 10% of their business.
Service companies with the highest profit ratios rotate customer contact among several qualified people. What matters is the level of service provided, not the individual providing the service.
Grow by adding locations. Instead of growing vertically in the same office, grow modularly by spawning additional offices.
Create an optimally sized model for the level of service that you wish to deliver.
Design the organizational structure for this model and identify the order in which slots will be filled as business grows through each office.
Develop a service and organizational template with standard operating procedures, metrics, technology, and reporting.
Once the model is created, spawn it.
Focus your business. Define a niche that you can serve better than your competitors. Focus on this niche and develop a sustainable advantage over your competition.
Assure that your service delivery is seamless to the client and make sure that it remains seamless.
Offer a menu of service options and price options by the level of service delivered. Some will want to buy a Mercedes, and some will be happy with a reliable lower priced sedan.
Situation: A company is drafting a pitch for their next round of funding. They want to reach both current and a new set of investors and highlight the improvements that they’ve made since their last round of funding. How do you optimize a financing pitch?
Advice from the CEOs:
Work on a quick demo of the site. This is critical for a software company. The site must clearly and quickly show what differentiates you.
When you sit down with potential investors, start your pitch with a catchy statement, e.g., “We’ve all heard about ‘pay it forwards’. I want to talk to you about ‘Job-It Forward’.”
Start the presentation with an overview and a simple illustrative explanation so that the audience instantly gets what you are doing. For example, “we’re about generating social capital and here’s an example of how we do this.”
Be careful not to drown your audience in detail. Limit yourself to 3 bullets per page. Use graphics rather than words as much as possible. Most people can only absorb a limited amount of verbal information, but they remember pictures.
If you’ve already started talking to potential investors, what are your results? What feedback have you received to date? Analyze this and adjust your presentation and pitch accordingly.
Can you show a potential funder ROI? For example, if you give us $X, we will generate $Y in terms of return. You want to demonstrate IMPACT! Those who will support you want to see the advantage of investing in you vs. other options available to them.
Include a slide showing sources and uses of money spent to date. Show how you will use the money that you wish to raise.
Situation: A company is planning to pitch a Blue Ocean service to a major prospect. The service has a proven track record with industry leaders and is not being offered by other vendors. How do you pitch a Blue Ocean service?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start by listening to the client’s current situation. Here are some opening questions:
How did you get here? Just the 2-3 minute version. As a follow-up question, ask what their past performance has been.
What is your most important competitive strategic advantage? Follow-up: what is your future competitive advantage – the same or different?
If everything goes right, where do you see things in 2-3 years?
What obstacles, roadblocks and constraints will keep you from getting there?
Include graphics in your presentation on both the prospect’s current situation and how your proposal differentially impacts their ability to reach their future objectives.
In your presentation, highlight your ability to offer a very competitive overall cost proposal based on your ability to outsource work to lower cost subsidiaries or partners.
Emphasize your track record providing the proposed service to industry leaders.
Be sure that your overall proposal looks sound and responsive to the prospect’s need as you understand it. It will be important to understand whether the individual with whom you are meeting next has the same perspective. Try to determine this before your next meeting.
Adding an additional vendor within your proposed framework doesn’t upset the apple cart. It probably benefits everyone as long as it benefits the prospect.
Note: The term Blue Ocean Strategy comes from a book published in 2005 and written by W. Chan Kim and Renée Mauborgne, professors at INSEAD and co-directors of the INSEAD Blue Ocean Strategy Institute. The authors argue that companies can succeed not by battling competitors, but rather by creating ″blue oceans″ of uncontested market space through the simultaneous pursuit of differentiation and low cost to open up a new market space and create new demand.
Situation: A company wants to reduce their cost of engineering. They are considering outsource options, both domestic and overseas, as well as remote offices in lower cost regions domestically. How can you best reduce costs?
Advice from the CEOs:
An emphasis on cost may be misplaced. Consider instead of where you can offer the best value to your customers or clients. Focus on and compete in best part of your market – the place where you possess the strongest advantage; then worry about cost.
Outsource companies can be dangerous partners. Assume you only profit from the first job that you give them and that they may be your competitor the next time around.
We’ve learned from the last decade of experience in Asia that cost advantages are often temporary. Salaries for top talent in India and China now approach those in the US. This experience is likely to be repeated in Southeast Asia.
Focus on high dollar services and opportunities.
There are limitations to offshore talent – especially in complex, multi-step development projects. Keep high dollar projects in-house because they justify higher prices and margins.
When you outsource, negotiate retainer contracts with additional charges for work above and beyond the scope specified in the retainer.
What do you want to be? Consider your options:
Become a project management company and outsource development.
Be a development company and just look for cost effective sources of labor.
Start your own outsource company – a split-off staffed by your own employees – and feed them work.
Before you invest substantial time or money, do a test.