Situation: A CEO is in conversation about combining with another company. One option is for the other company to absorb his company. What are the pros and cons of this option? Are there other options that will better serve both owners and employees? How do you improve a business model?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a great model today. The option under consideration looks like a double compromise – it alters both the company’s strengths and its fundamental business model.
The company’s strength is lean and mean – moving from a hourly/fee-based model with high utilization to a salary-based model, as the option on the table proposes, will change this. It also changes the dynamics of who will work for the company.
The magic of the current model is that it attracts top talent by offering them the best of two worlds: high individual billing rates with ready access to billable hours. Over the long term this has also made it very profitable.
Explore an alternative – how does the company transform its existing business model while retaining its strengths – lean, mean, low overhead – while transforming the model so that it builds “products,” perception, and recognition for the company?
A longer-term alternative is to look for a financial acquisition of the company. It has good net margins, good cash flow, and even spins out cash. This is valuable to a financial buyer.
What is the role of the CEO right now? Another CEO was asked “Do you have a job or a company? What happens if you leave? If the company dies, you have a job. But it may not be necessary to change much to become a company.”
Situation: A CEO wants to create new markets outside the US. They have investigated options and locations and are starting to plan. One question is how long it will take to start seeing results, so that they budget accordingly. How do you build international sales?
Advice from the CEOs:
Decision timelines internationally are longer than they are in the US. For example, in Europe timelines are easily twice as long. This means that new entrants must budget for a sustained effort.
It took another company three years to develop traction in Europe. They have an office in Germany, but most new sales are coming from Eastern Europe. After three years their European operation is now break-even.
International markets, especially in Europe, can be very conservative. Job security and maintaining cash flow are the focus.
Labor laws encourage companies to do things themselves rather than outsource. The result is that a new entrant will face competition from internal departments of potential prospects.
In European the emphasis is not growth, but on conservative steady operation. Growth tends to come from acquisition.
Sales pitches should be tweaked for international audiences. For example, highlight reduced need for additional personnel to manage the systems, fewer breakdowns and glitches, and the ability to count on seasoned outside expertise to quickly address complications.
Relationship selling is very important internationally. Sales and tech support are best provided, and in some cases required to be provided in the local language.
In Europe, Italy can be an important lever to sales with the right partner. Italian companies can be excellent at marketing and can jump-start European sales. This will be a very personal relationship.
Situation: A company has been approached by an international firm with an existing West Coast presence that is interested in expanding its US operations. A Letter of Intent is in place but will expire in weeks. The LOI is of interest because the company has cash flow challenges. The CEO seeks advice on whether and how to proceed with a sale or merger, or whether to continue as an independent entity. Do you merge, sell or keep the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is a personal decision. Do you want to be your own boss or to become an employee? It really is a question of what you want.
If you are burned out, there are advantages to having a boss, at least in the short term. However, 2 to 3 years out you may tire of this.
While cash may be tight, you can address this with other measures.
Can you save money by reducing office staff (hours or people) short-term until your cash flow improves?
Talk to private investors – offer up to 9% interest on a note. The company is a going concern and therefore likely to be able to pay off the note. You may be able to negotiate a note at a favorable rate.
Negotiate a 5 year note, with interest only payments for the first 3 years; sweeten the deal with an offer that if you get new business worth $X during the period of the note, you pay them Y% of upside.
You have revenue-producing business and receivables. Factor your receivables to raise the cash that you need. Adjust your prices to cover the cost of the factoring discount.
If you have the margins, or can increase prices to produce the margin, offer discounts for early payment of accounts receivable.
If you decide to sell, avoid a contract that takes away your flexibility to maximize your future payouts.
Can you be confident that the buying firm will survive until your payouts are completed?
Interview with Kelly Masood, President, Intilop, Inc.
Situation: An emerging company is gaining traction as it moves from early adopters to mainstream. They need to continue to develop new technologies, while bringing down the cost of existing products. This is a delicate balancing act for a small company. How do you grow without losing control?
Advice from Kelly Masood:
It’s important to maintain momentum and continuous improvement. From a practical standpoint, we do this by applying common sense to our technical discipline. Common sense, here, is a relative term. It isn’t really taught in school at any level, but is gained through experience. This is the true expertise of the CEO.
The delicate part of the balancing act is the mix between developing new technologies and building an effective business model. An effective business model is built on innovative and cost effective products and sustainable profitability. Since new technologies go through development stages, it is important to create break points where you transition from development to productization to marketing and sales. Continuous improvement in existing products based upon customer feedback and new product ideas for future developments are crucial aspects of a successful business model.
If you want to minimize outside funding and investment you have to watch cash flow and development expenses. Revenue from existing products is the key. When you don’t have resources, you become resourceful. If the team is dedicated to producing innovative and good products that make business sense, they figure out how to accomplish it without cutting corners.
To mature your team over time you must keep them motivated, occupied and adequately compensated today while inspiring them to make it big in the future.
You maintain interest through the pursuit of new technology and the learning associated with it. Engineers like to see their designs work and turned into a product that creates value, is used and is appreciated.
Keeping the team occupied and challenged starts with choosing the right talent in the first place and then getting them to focus on building great products.
Compensating them with a fair salary means locally competitive rates, sweetened with stock options to provide great upside potential.
For us, retaining great employees is about enabling them to innovate products that will find broad market acceptance.
Key Words: Early Adopter, Mainstream, Develop, Cost, Continuous, Improvement, Common Sense, Business Model, Cash Flow, Expense, Price, Retain, Employees, Off-shoring
Situation: A company had several huge orders last year but ended the year with a low backlog. Sales forecasts are rosy, but acceptance of proposals and initiation of work is hard to predict because the company’s products are just a piece of much larger projects with variable timelines. How do you plan spending in this environment – conservatively to backlog or more aggressively to the sales forecast?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is important to understand the magnitude of difference between spending under the two scenarios. For example, if a conservative spending plan means major cuts to product lines or business compared to the more aggressive plan, then analysis and what if scenarios are more complex,
What are the company’s cash-flow and debt situations. If you are cash-flow positive with little debt, this increases flexibility. Another consideration is the company’s attitude on debt.
Be wary of the healthiness of an unused credit line. Companies have seen unused credit lines cut and accounts cleared when they have started using the lines after a long dormant period.
Exercising the credit line may increase flexibility.
Look at your approach to forecasting and spending. How far out do you forecast? How effective have past outgoing forecasts for several quarters been, and what confidence can do you have for the next quarter, the quarter after, and the quarter after that? If you are reasonably confident one quarter out, you can plan spending on this. If you can adjust spending relatively quickly this gives you more leeway.
Establish leading indicators to improve future forecasts.
What is your win/loss record on proposals, and a conservative estimate of what this ratio means for revenue?
Other examples include sales calls to new customers versus new key customers won, and similar sales metrics. These metrics can help to govern expectations based on sales forecasts.
If your sales team is not performing, look at changes to sales management. This may wake the team up and prompt them to go the extra mile for contacts and contracts.
Situation: A company is bringing in new business, but used up its cash reserves to stay afloat during the downturn. As it increases payroll and orders for components to meet production deadlines, it struggles to meet cash flow needs while waiting for customer payments. How can you increase cash flow to fund growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Your customers need your product to meet their own deadlines. Have you talked to them about your needs and seen what they can offer? Offering modest early pay discounts on amounts due may help to ease your cash flow challenges.
Among discounts offered by other businesses is, for example 2% if they pay in 10 days.
Another option is to offer 5% off if they pay for new orders in advance.
As you bring in new business or projects, negotiate early pay options in your contracts. For example, offer the option to prepay on milestones in exchange for discounts on the final payment.
Factoring receivables is an option, but can be expensive. On the other hand with investors looking for good returns, it makes sense to check out options that are available on the web.
There are now web services which combine small contributions from a large number of investors into funds which can help you to finance short-term cash needs. There are also options which may provide lines of credit which are easier to secure than bank lines.
Look at local redevelopment options or funds which are targeted at local businesses. For example, in the San Francisco Bay area there is a organization called Working Resources which provides low interest loans local businesses to meet cash flow needs.
Situation: As business improves the Company needs to manage cash flow to support growth. How are you managing your cash flow in the recovery?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is a common challenge following a down period. You’ve reduced personnel and used up cash reserves to survive. As demand resumes, you may need to add resources as you increase production. It’s important not to let accounts payable get ahead of your receivables.
Ask customers for deposits on orders – giving you up-front cash. Give priority to those who do.
Redesign the work flow:
Add independent contractors on a project basis.
This requires good cost estimates and well-defined deliverables.
Work with your bank and Line of Credit:
An LOC should cover 1-3 months of operation.
Ask for a lot, and shop different banks for favorable lines and rates.
An LOC is a short-term obligation whereas debt may be long term. Watch your debt covenants for restrictions on obligations to assure that you stay in compliance.
LOCs are frequently Prime plus 1-2%
If you have a broker, see what rates they will offer on a business credit line to keep your brokerage business.
The best alternative is to plan ahead and develop a strong relationship with your banker – including a reliable credit history – so that when need arises, the banker will help you based on your past performance and the confidence that they have developed in you and your operation.
Key Words: Cash Flow, Recovery, Growth, Deposits, Contractors, Project, Estimates, Deliverables, Line of Credit, Bank, Covenants, Credit History
Situation: The Company is seeing an upswing in work and backlog, but doesn’t have cash on hand to support the work. The bank won’t increase our credit line. How can we increase cash flow and better position ourselves with the bank?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, try to speed payments from customers or delay payment to vendors.
Add a schedule of values to contracts to prompt earlier payment. Sweeten early pay terms.
Ask for money up front to cover out of pocket costs.
Ask vendors for additional time. They’d rather be paid later than not paid at all and can be surprisingly supportive if approached honestly.
Negotiate terms with customers and suppliers in advance. This gives you additional information to take to your bank.
Slow down longer pay term sales by raising prices to finance your cash flow needs.
Study the ratios that your bank requires in your line of credit agreement. Adjust assets and expenses to fit these requirements.
Can you time your sales between quarters to smooth performance?
Update inventory counts. Look for uncounted inventory.
Look at your equipment. Have you been expensing or depreciating it? Shifting big items to a depreciated basis can benefit cash flow statements.
Once you’ve gathered this information, see if your accountant can update or restate recent statements. You may be able to generate enough impact to go back to your current bank or approach a new bank to secure a larger credit line.