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 CEO has hired a banker to advise on the potential sale of a privately-held company. What else should she be doing in advance of the sale? How do you prepare to sell a company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Prior to moving forward with a banker, it is necessary to prepare a privately-held company for sale. Get an advisor – not a banker – to assist you. Search online for a good mergers and acquisitions advisor. If you know CEOs from other local companies, network with them to discover high quality advisors.
In selling a company, the final deal must provide for the survival and continuing effective operation of the company. A buyer may want assurances from you, or assistance in the transition. This can have a significant impact on your final payout.
Be prepared for the reality that you or someone else within the company will have to remain with the company post-sale. If this is to be another person, this individual will be very important to you during the negotiation process with potential buyers. Keep this individual up-to-date with your intentions and plans.
A company is more than numbers – it is a story. The story must be very crisp and compelling.
The buyer will want to perform due diligence before offering you a price and setting conditions on a purchase. This may involve more than you and your top managers. Communications within the company will be critical to keeping managers and employees informed and on-board.
You will want to have two or three potential buyers, both in case a top prospect fails, and to assure competition and a higher sale price.
Think carefully about your next move from a personal standpoint. Being at leisure may not fulfill you. What do you really want to do for the next segment of your life? This is far more important for you, personally, than you may estimate.
Situation: An early-stage company has a key advisor who is helping them to build a 3-5 year vision and plan. The company can’t afford to pay the advisor full-time but he’s interested in working one day a week or becoming a Board member. Should they give him equity as a Board member and under what conditions?
Advice from the CEOs:
Adding Board members increases complexity, especially when it comes to big decisions. Once an early stage company transitions from their start-up Board to a more formal Board with non-founder members, particularly when a significant number of the new members have strong corporate experience, the Board will take on a certain level of independence in corporate and compensation decisions. Be aware of this, as a larger more independent Board may make decisions that the founders would not make.
It is not irregular for Board Members to receive equity or options. If you want to grant options, you must undertake an initial company valuation exercise, followed by annual valuations. It is common to grant options with 4 year vesting on a monthly basis. Vested shares can be purchased at Day 0 price, with some period to exercise options following departure from company.
Seek an expert in Board operation and compensation. There are a number of advisors with deep experience in this area who can advise the company on standard practices for Board operation and compensation.
If the company decides that they are not yet ready for an expanded Board of Directors, another alternative is a Board of Advisors.
Situation: A company has been presented with a new business opportunity. The opportunity is compatible with the company’s current business, but also involves skills and markets with which the company is not familiar. How do you evaluate a new business opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are at least four critical questions to assess as you evaluate any new businesses opportunity:
What is the total available market, and what is the immediately convertible market for the product or service?
Can you acquire expertise in the new markets that this will open to you?
Do you have a track record starting and nurturing new business within your company?
Is there sufficient seed money available – through company funds or outside investment – to keep the effort going for at least a couple of years as you develop the core team that will operate this business and gain traction?
If there is an offer of outside investment, consider how many months this funding will support the salaries of the team that will build this business, plus operating and overhead costs. You want to be sure to give yourself an adequate runway.
New business development opportunities typically require huge energy, creativity and focus for the first few years. Key management will have to devote all of their effort during the start-up period. Can the company afford to lose the services of key personnel for the time that you estimate this effort will take?
Before deciding to pursue this opportunity, take the time to investigate the market for this opportunity.
In particular, look for other companies that have tried to enter this market, and learn from their experience.
Develop a network of advisors who understand this market and can help you understand both the workings of the market and why companies may have struggled trying to enter the market.