Situation: A CEO is faced with three strategic options that the company could pursue. He seeks guidance on how the company should evaluate the three options. What signs should they be watching for in their marketplace? Are there steps that they should take while completing their evaluation? How do you decide between strategic options?
Advice from the CEOs:
Go with what sells! Listen to the market, and your key customers. Make sure that you have ears out there that will give you early signals.
Until there is a clear indication from the market place as to which is the stronger strategy, keep your options open. A hybrid strategy – maintaining your current strategy while evaluating the strongest strategic option – will allow you to do this and continue to drive revenue from your existing base while the market determines dominance among the new platforms.
Look at the cash flow from your current strategy and each of the new options that you are considering.
What difference is there in upfront payments versus ongoing residuals?
Look closely at your cash flow needs compared to the timing of receipts from each option.
Are there ways that you can strengthen your cash flow depending upon which strategy you select? How will you bridge the gap between current and future cash flows from each strategic option?
Consider hiring a full-time manager in business development.
This will help you to learn more about your customers and what they will buy.
Select someone who has relationships with the key people in your target markets, and who knows what the insiders are doing at important existing or target customers.
Select someone who can give you access to new opportunities and help steer your strategic development.
Consider a long-term strategic partnership with a leader in your market.
Situation: The CEO of a privately held company wants to share company success with employees. An option that she is exploring is phantom stock. The objective is to engage employees in company success. Does a phantom stock plan make sense?
Advice from the CEOs:
Why would you use phantom stock options instead of real stock?
Phantom stock options are popular in the tech sector. Phantom stock confers the right to receive cash at a future point in time, typically a share of the proceeds received upon the sale of a company.
The principal difference between phantom stock and real stock, is that real stock must be issued in exchange for cash, property or past services. There is also a tax consequence to the receipt of real shares. When shares are issued in exchange for past services the employee must recognize taxable income, just like wage compensation. Employees may be disappointed to learn that they may face taxable income based on the fair market value of their shares received without compensating cash to pay the tax.
Let’s assume that the objective is to increase employee engagement as they observe the value of the shares increasing with company success over time.
Under phantom stock programs the value of the company is pegged on a periodic basis, based on a pre-set formula developed by the company.
In some cases, employees can “sell” their phantom stock back to the company for the differential between the price when they were awarded the stock and the current pegged price.
The structure of the program is determined by management based on company objectives.
Employees frequently don’t have the cash to purchase real stock or options at a fair price given the value of the company. Using a phantom stock plan, a company can offer the rewards of stock ownerships without a purchase requirement or tax implications at the time of award. Employees can be apprised of the value of their phantom stock based on a periodic internal accounting exercise.
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.
Situation: A tech company competes in a rapidly changing marketplace. The companies they serve constantly evolve their platforms. The company must respond rapidly to assure compatibility with both hardware and software innovations. Users adapt to new platforms at different rates, and the company must address their needs, as well. With so much time spent tending these diverse needs, how do they plan for market evolution?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the market you serve you must constantly reinvent yourselves as technology changes. Some platforms make changes on a 5-year cycle, while mobile platforms are currently on a 6-month cycle. This may force choices as to which platforms to serve. You also may want to focus on platforms where what you bring to the table is most useful.
You have made the strategic choice to tie the future of your company to a few large companies that dominate their markets. It is imperative that you cultivate close relationships with the technology as well as strategic leadership of those companies. This will give you more advanced insight into their plans, and they may even involve you in discussions about how the market evolves. If so, you will have positioned yourself for that evolution. These relationships may also become your exit strategy.
Businesses run on cash, or access to cash. As you cultivate relationships with your key customer companies, look for opportunities to invest in developing markets on a subscription basis which will provide ongoing annuity revenue. Figuring out how to leverage advertising or positioning options into your offering offers an additional revenue stream.
Situation: A company has a technology road map and a flexible set of technical capabilities. To date they have elicited broad interest from a variety of different markets. They currently don’t have the resources to pursue a large number of different markets, and will likely need their next round of funding within the next year to year and a half. How do you focus your sales and marketing?
Advice from the CEOs:
A race to generate interest from a number of markets is a valid strategy at this stage of your development; provided that you raise or generate the cash to survive. This caveat describes your critical challenge – determining how long you can afford to maintain and fund a broad strategy.
Look at your burn rate and timeline. Pursue options that will generate cash before your next round of funding. Your top objective is to validate your ability to generate revenue prior to your next round.
You haven’t yet found the fish. You are fishing and have nibbles but no bites. Look at what your people are doing and start to eliminate options that are less likely to pay off both short and long-term.
To preserve development cash, create a new rule. Any project that you accept must come with development dollars. This will eliminate some smaller prospects and targets but will help you to focus on others which are more immediately promising.
When one company was in this position, their rule was that the first PO gets the engineers. No PO, no commitment of resources.
Another’s company’s policy is that they don’t work for free.
A softer version is to give the prospective client 30 days to produce an LOI for the proposed project or you will go elsewhere.
Even better is an LOI and $50K up front.
A third company’s strategy from the beginning was always to hunt for elephants – even when they had no money. This has worked well both short and long-term. It represented the level of faith that they had in their technology and capabilities.
Situation: Market swings in recent weeks have shaken up some people. A CEO is curious about how other companies are seeing this as well as how the see their companies doing in the current economy. How are you responding to market instability?
Advice from the CEOs:
Business turned back up two years ago, and we are working on major sales opportunities.
We reduced executive expenses.
We are sharing a bookkeeper with another business to reduce salaries.
In April we increased staff to respond to strong first quarter demand; however since April revenue is flat to declining.
Let a few people go, may have to do more of this.
The current economy benefits our industry because our service thrives in an uncertain economy. We have not yet had to make adjustments.
We continue to see a big shift from direct hire and full-time to temp and part-time employees – this is working in our favor. Weaker competitors have closed shop.
Business is going well. Most customers have cash. The major decision that we face is how much to grow. We’ve seen some project cancellations, but not enough to hurt.
What concerns you about the future?
Availability of credit lines.
Varies by bank and your relationship with the bank.
Securing additional or increased lines may be difficult.
Anticipating a raise in rates by the Fed, lines may carry a higher interest rate.
The trickle-down effect from consumer spending continues to be weak. We are looking for opportunities less sensitive to swings in consumer spending.
Receivables are being pushed out.
What are you doing about this?
Proactively having employee meetings and being straight with employees about how the company is doing.
Situation: A CEO has been analyzing the metrics that she uses to track her company’s performance. Historically she has used common metrics like sales, gross and net margin, profit and net operating income, budget plan vs. actual expenses, and sales forecast vs. actual sales. She is curious what other companies use to track performance. What are your key business metrics?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important financial metric for many companies is actually cash flow – how much cash you have on hand and your cash flow forecast. Two metrics that can help you to better understand and boost cash flow are:
Receivables – aging rate
DSO – Days Sales Outstanding
Additional financial metrics include:
Variable versus fixed cost ratios
To augment understanding of profitability, track “good” profit – revenue from customers who are profitable, as opposed to revenue that is either break-even or unprofitable.
Sales metrics to measure future revenue include:
Order backlog – by month for X months out
From this, forecast beyond visible orders
Marketing metrics include:
Net promoter score – would the customer refer us to a friend or family member?
Client and referral client retention rate
Metrics for utilization of resources for a service provider include:
Total hours paid versus total hours billed
Business trend tracking. If business is seasonal, look for historic peak to peak times – this may be 3 months and may be 18 months. Determine this and make the rolling cycle equivalent to your business cycle.
Review your metrics regularly to reinforce their importance across the company
As we begin 2015 more people are feeling upbeat about the economy than they have through most of the last six years. The dollar is at new highs against global currencies. The US is approaching energy self-sufficiency. However, some still see regulatory headwinds and downsides. What do you see and what will you do differently in 2015?
Advice from the CEOs:
Over the last six years, software companies have seen large increases in outstanding credit to clients, combined with restrictions on clients’ credit lines available and fewer new purchases. We hope for a better year in 2015, and will focus on reducing outstanding credit to improve cash flow.
Cash continues to be king. B2B business sectors with good cash positions are solid.
If your product/service saves clients money and makes financial sense, you’re in good shape.
Raising money will continue to be a challenge. Investors have been focusing on accelerating deliverables, creating a difficult environment for entrepreneurs. The Wall Street Journal says that the share of people under 30 who own businesses has reached a 24-year low, referring to young entrepreneurs as an endangered species,.
What is your current planning horizon?
We continue to plan quarter to quarter. There are too many variables for a longer horizon. We pay up our credit lines, and cover multiple payrolls with safe bank deposits.
We are watching headcount and dollars in the bank.
We are communicating more with our best employees and bringing them into more decisions so that they won’t be looking elsewhere.
Situation: A professional services company has developed a new trial offer to promote their services to prospective clients. The offer includes a discount for an initial evaluation accompanied by a discount on services should the client choose to proceed with recommended solutions. They seek guidance on whether this is an effective approach. How do you craft and effective trial offer?
Advice from the CEOs:
The suggested approach is similar to what others offer to new prospects, but only goes half way. A discounted offer only works if you’ve convinced the prospective client that first, they need your services, and second, that there will be a positive financial impact to their bottom line if they agree to your trail offer. You need to add recommendations that will demonstrate a significant short term financial benefit.
Target your message. Give the prospect a reason to spend scarce dollars now.
Offer to apply all or some of the initial fee to future expenses if they contract you to solve problems that you identify in your initial review.
An example of a more targeted offer would be as follows – we will audit your accounts receivable as well as any debts that you’ve written off last in the last 2-3 years. Based on this audit, our past experience has been that you can boost short-term collectibles from these accounts by 30%. An offer like this demonstrates an immediate impact on cash flow.
Do you feel comfortable offering a guarantee? You will save the client $X over a guaranteed period or the service will be free.
Situation: A company is frequently short of cash at payroll time. It has good revenue and profitability, but timing of receipts can make it difficult to meet payroll. Are the CEO and CFO doing something wrong, and what changes should they look at to better manage cash flow needs? What are best ways to boost cash flow?
All financing begins with your cash flow pattern! Your ability to manage cash flow is the foundation of credit worthiness. It is both a reflection of past performance and specific future performance expectations.
What can you do to optimize your situation?
First – put your own house in order!
Review your business model and the aspects of the business model that are causing cash flow challenges. Based on what you find, fine-tune your business model and its cash flow capacity. If receipts are the challenge, work with your customers to focus on timely payments.
Understand your financing needs in their full context. What short-term financing options are available? Will your bank offer you better terms on your line of credit to keep your business.
Stop, think and analyze before you act.
Framing: View the problem in its full context!
Alternatives: Consider all relevant choices!
Trade-offs: Get more than you are giving up!
It is important to fine tune your business model, not just in slack times when you have the time, but also in good times so that you are well-prepared for the next slack period.
When times are flush, set aside funds to invest in analysis of your business model.
Special thanks and in memory of Eric Helfert, PhD for his advice in this discussion.