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: A company has built a strong prototype line capable of handling projected volume for the near-term as they scale up production. Their long-term plan is a fabless model through manufacturing partners. They have solid IP counsel and protection. What are the most critical elements of scale-up? How do you generate scalable manufacturing?
Advice from the CEOs:
The answer will depend on the product strategy, if the near-term focus is on quick tactical wins.
The most critical elements of the scale-up will be:
The planned speed of the scale-up. A tactical approach, which will make limited demands on production near-term supports a prudent scale-up plan.
Having the right business development talent to generate quick wins with smaller volume opportunities to feed the scale-up.
When you are ready for larger volume – and your scale-up capacity can support this – hire an experienced sales professional who is known in the industry and who can bring you some relatively quick higher volume contracts.
Que near-term contracts according to the sales cycle.
Design cycle – build awareness of your capacity among significant market players and focus on quick turn-around to respond to their demand.
Qualification cycle will be longer, perhaps 6 months. As your brand awareness builds push for qualification orders which will be larger, but still within near-term capacity.
Focus business development efforts on building strong awareness across your target companies. Some companies tend to limit early knowledge of vendor capabilities between their divisions until they have confidence in the vendor’s ability to deliver. Optimize customer awareness by:
Cultivating business partners who can facilitate a high-level approach within your target customer companies.
Start creating a small forum of industry savvy individuals who can become your champions. Leverage this forum to spread your message and bring you opportunities.
Situation: A company was launched on a single product with variations. Their R&D team has now developed several additional products which they are planning to launch. This will involve new product names and new customer segments. Having not done this before, the CEO seeks advice on managing multiple products, brands and market segments. How do you manage multiple products and segments?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important element is the plan – write it carefully and build from a solid base.
When working with multiple products or market segments, match your segment strategy for each segment to your product strategy for that segment.
Build a grid that shows all products and all segments where you wish to sell them. In each cell, determine both the decision maker(s) and their top purchasing priorities. This will help you to build your Product/Segment strategy and optimize resource allocation while increasing sales and marketing effectiveness.
It may also help you to fire problem customers who cost you money and attention and reallocate these resources to more promising opportunities.
Analyze the customer’s decision-making process for each product and segment. Make sure that your marketing and sales effort makes sense within their decision process and focus on what is workable.
When introducing a new product or idea, focus first on smaller segments and test the fit of your product or idea. This is low risk if you fail, and you can leverage what you have learned if you win.
Build a one-page strategic plan that covers your full company strategy. Each department compliments the company strategy with its own departmental strategy to support the company strategy.
Special thanks to John Maver of Maver Management Group for his contribution to this discussion.
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.
Situation: A company has experienced low sales early in its peak season due to bad weather. The CEO wants to develop additional leading indicators that will help predict whether sales will recover prior to the end of the peak season. What leading indicators have you found effective in predicting seasonal sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
Access to benchmarked research can be helpful, especially industry reports that cite growth indicators. Some industry report producers can generate drill-down reports of their base data for a fee. This allows you to tailor your own study based on their data.
Depending upon whether you set revenue projections by brand or product line, look for indicators within brands or lines that will provide you with clarity on sales projections. An example is product reviews in relevant newsletters, provided that these have effectively benchmarked to sales results in the past.
In addition to new leading indicators for existing products, there are a number of ways that you can reduce the impact of seasonality on your cash flow. These include: investments that will lead to future income streams; new product placements to compliment or extend current lines; new key customers or outlets through which you can expand your market; and increasing sales calls to create new demand. Also, use the current season to establish additional benchmarks that will be useful in future years.
Other tactics include evaluating in-house versus contract production of your products to improve your margins, and strategies to improve up-sales from medium to premium products where margins are better. You can also focus on smaller independent outlets rather than national chains which are dominated by national brands, and also regional explore private label opportunities.
Situation: A company has recently introduced a disruptive business proposition. The immediate focus is pitching the solution as an attractive alternative and building early traction. What are best practices for building acceptance of a disruptive model?
Advice from Marc Rochman, CEO of Openbucks:
Any business, especially an innovative start-up, is bound to meet a wall of resistance; the key is finding the cracks in the wall. To do this, you must demonstrate a significant benefit to both the company and its customers. However, most important is finding a partner who has an early adopter attitude or culture.
Often the principal resistance is not with the product or solution being presented, but fear of being the first through the gate – particularly with a product and company who haven’t yet proven themselves. This stems from a perception that if the solution turns out badly the penalty may be severe, especially for the executive who made the decision.
Openbucks recently introduced a new payment solution for people who don’t have bank accounts or credit cards such as teenagers and people without strong credit and those hesitant to use credit cards online. The solution allows people to purchase a gift card from a retailer and use that gift card to buy in-store goods as well as to buy and pay for digital goods inside hundreds of online games.
Openbucks’ first partner is Subway. They are innovative, imaginative and not afraid to be first with a new concept. In addition, Subway also happens to have a subsidiary that specializes in payments and payment processing so they immediately understood the model.
Another early partner is CVS Pharmacy. To CVS the appeal was the model of convenience and a way to encourage repeat customer visits. Since people routinely visit pharmacies to get prescriptions and a host of other products, it is easy for them to buy a gift card during a routine visit.
The keys to overcoming objections to innovation are:
Be resilient and patient, especially when working with large companies. Once they begin to see a trend of success, they will more likely be ready for mass adoption.
Strike the right balance between persistence and a willingness to adapt your product when you see an opportunity. Pivot or tweak your model to take advantage of a new opportunity that you did not anticipate originally. The pivot allows you to take an easier path instead of banging against the wall too long. Sometimes you just have to go around the wall.
Subway has more stores than any other retailer in the US. Adopting the Openbucks solution came naturally for Subway because they understand payment processes and how to use them to create loyalty and foot traffic.
The program is simple and a win-win-win for the consumer, retail outlet, and merchants who can collect cash-like payments from the unbanked, under-banked and those who prefer not to use a credit card online. The purchase of a $10 Subway gift card can be used to buy a Subway sandwich, and inside mini digital stores in hundreds of online games. Fifty-four percent of those who buy a Subway gift card also get a sandwich – a clear value to the retailer. Further, since they have the card, they are more likely to be repeat customers.
Situation: A company is considering a merger. The other firm competes with customers who account for 25% of the company’s current revenue. How do you maximize the value of this merger to the company while mitigating the negative impact on current business?
Advice from the CEOs:
The maximum risk from the combination is loss of 25% of current revenue. The merger makes sense if you believe you will gain upside which more than counters this risk.
Both companies have brand equity. Maintain both brands and to continue to promote them. Maintaining both brands will buy you time to replace business which is potentially at risk.
Talk to customers and get their perceptions of the pros and cons of the potential combination. Ask about any concerns that they may have. Understanding the pros, cons and concerns will help you to mitigate negative fall-out.
Legally, in a 50/50 split, the Chairman will call the shots. You will have little recourse to counter the Chairman if he decides to fire you. This individual has built his company through previous mergers. Visit and break bread with those who were principals of these companies at the time they were merged or acquired. This will tell you a great deal about the individual with whom you entrusting your future. You will also learn what the others did during their mergers to help plan your own moves.
Give yourself a back door or Golden Parachute after six months if the merger does not go as you anticipate.
Interview with E.J. Dieterle, President & CEO, YES Partners, Inc.
Situation: As corporate wallets start loosening up, companies are looking at market expansion opportunities. International expansion is one alternative. In the past this was done largely by sending Expats. In more recent years there has been a trend toward hiring locally. How do you find the right talent locally?
Everything starts with the basics – a good job description.
Finding people is easier these days with social networks like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, hi5, Spoke and Plaxo. However, finding the right people remains a challenge.
Invest time and effort to research your target market.
Which country is a market or has the most likely prospective clients?
What is your competitive advantage there?
For a hiring company without an existing presence in the local market it is also a challenge to convince good local candidates that yours is the right company to join. It is important to understand the local business culture and values, and also to offer career-paths to qualified candidates.
Don’t assume the need for multiple offices as you start. You can start with a highly mobile person working from home who knows the local language(s), customs, and who already has contacts in your target market.
It is often assumed that it takes one year or more for an Expat to be efficient locally, and that hiring locally often accelerates first years’ startup-time. However, the local person has to understand and “fit” into the corporate/head office culture.
Working with an international executive search firm to find qualified local talent with the right fit to your business and needs can greatly improve your odds of success.
Situation: IBM and others established the value of preaching FUD (Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt) within their marketing campaigns – “choose IBM, the brand that you can depend on, because who knows what others will actually deliver.” Is it still worthwhile to use FUD, or are we better off emphasizing the positive benefits of our services and keeping our image positive?
Advice from the CEOs:
When considering whether it is better to sell the time that your system or product is “up” or the time that it is “not down,” you need to understand your customer’s perspective.
If they are cautious and skeptical, then FUD may work. If they are positive and upbeat, then they will more likely respond to a positive, upbeat message.
Match your marketing message to the attitude of the key decision makers within your customer companies. Learn their hot buttons during ambassadorial visits.
Companies sometimes use FUD when they sell “the future.”
Being “in”: if you haven’t got our product/service you won’t be with it!
Insurance companies sell protection from the unknown.
Mix the message. Sell the positives, with an appreciation of the cost of the negatives to reinforce the positives.
Be the “Mr. Goodwrench” of your marketplace. Educate and reinforce.
Consider positive health care analogies in your marketing:
Rapid Response – mimic messages from urgent care.
The value of maintenance programs – mimic messages from wellness programs.
Develop metrics to substantiate what your customers are hearing from your message.