Situation: The CEO of a service company continually finds the company short of cash. They have just hired a new accountant, but it will take time for this individual to understand the financial situation and to generate recommendations to improve cash flow. How do you keep a company afloat short-term?
Advice from the CEOs:
Point #1: This isn’t just a question of controlling costs; the company needs to build the infrastructure to succeed.
If there isn’t someone on the team in a position of authority, who the CEO can trust completely, hire this person. The CEO can’t control all risks.
While the company has shrunk over the last two years, it is still a substantial company and needs professional management. To grow effectively, professionals are required in key leadership positions. If necessary, hire experienced outside talent
Look for teachable moments as challenges arrive. The CEO, instead of solving a problem, should work with employees and mentor them through discovering and implementing solutions.
How to communicate this to current staff?
Put the story together. Be able to make a clear statement to them, including the current situation and future possibilities for which the company must prepare.
Generate charts and metrics to support key points.
Use senior staff as the mouthpieces to present the story to the rest of the organization. Once they are onboard, have them help craft the message. Don’t underestimate the CEO’s authority. This is business, not a popularity contest.
Let others make mistakes – it is part of the learning process – no matter how critical the situation.
Point #2 – Return to the company’s roots.
The faster everyone accepts that a focused approach is the only way to survive, the faster the company will turn around. Reestablishing company presence in key markets with a new model that speaks to their desires makes a lot of sense.
Be very clear as to what flat-rate service pricing covers. Include this in the signed customer agreement. Don’t allow costs to creep up or it will kill the profitability of flat rate jobs.
Create an infrastructure nimble enough to adapt as market conditions change. Identify what really works and focus on this.
Situation: The CEO of a small technical company is in the process of handing off responsibilities to a new President who lives in another state. The CEO and President have known each other for a long time and have a strong relationship. The CEO will hand off several key responsibilities immediately, while retaining financial and HR because of the President’s location. How do you transition to new management?
Advice from the CEOs:
Most of the current hand-off plan concerns non-technical areas. The next logical area to delegate is Customer Support.
Establish a trigger process for new requests for support that keeps key parties informed and meets customer needs on a timely basis.
Think about bumping up Customer Support to a more proactive Customer Relations function. This is important during economic downturns when trade show attendance is low.
Next in line are Installation and Installation Planning, since the new President will already have Installation Support.
Think about Technical Support. This could be combined with Customer Support and makes sense because many customer support questions come through technical support.
Beef up the financial function to support future growth. Growth brings new complexities into the picture. Consider handing this off to a part time professional who can provide regular updates of the company’s financials. A professional can also look at the structure of the books and suggest changes that will provide more insight into company operations, opportunities for savings, and sources of funding to support planned growth.
A young company is in the process of hiring new employees. Good customer
service, including excellent communication skills and empathy are the most
important qualifications. Good follow-up skills are more important than
educational background. How do you train new employees?
from the CEOs:
Training new employees may be putting the cart before the horse. The first task is to solidify the company’s business model. The next task is to determine what roles and positions fill that model. Only then can the company determine how best to train employees.
Build an organizational chart for a $1 million company.
Who will the company serve?
What are the positions and roles?
This is future that the company will be building and determines how to select and train people to fill the positions.
Suggested Reading: The eMyth Revisited by Michael Gerber – a guide to envisioning the future of the company and how to build it.
A word of caution. As CEO, you don’t want to be training people like yourself. This is both difficult and risky. You may be training future competition.
As an alternative, think of a series of distinct roles or functions that make up the business, then select and train different individuals to handle each role. It’s difficult to find people who can do it all. It’s much easier to find people who can bring in new clients, establish and nurture relationships with partners, network to develop a referral base, or counsel new clients on alternative solutions to fit their needs.
Organizing this way means training and creating experts in segments of the business, but nobody knows the full business the way that the CEO does.
Each position within the company will need individualized objectives and performance evaluation criteria. What are the key metrics for each position? This helps to build efficiency.
Think about both one-time and recurring income models. This may call for different employees or at least a different sales activity to build each business segment.
A young company that focuses on personalized solutions needs to generate near-term
revenue to meet expenses. There are also options for debt or equity financing,
but the terms for each will equally depend on near-term revenue potential. How
do you generate near-term revenue?
from the CEOs:
in terms of the referenceability of early customers. As a new company, the first five customers
define the company to future customers.
core values of the company will help clarify how to make early choices.
just go for the easiest closes.
a chart of potential customer prospects:
potential prospects into groups.
is the deal model and key value proposition for each group?
a video and communications package to demonstrate the company’s benefit to each
are trade-offs between the different deals that the company will pursue:
fast deals are most likely to meet immediate cash flow needs.
biggest deals may involve the creation of LLCs. These will involve both more
time and additional legal fees.
sure that early deals align with the company’s core brand.
outsourcing to speed the provision of services to early clients. Build this
cost into your billings. Assure that the funds from early deals flow to or
through the company. This will improve the financial story to additional
serving special interest groups. Their potential value is that they work for
their passion more than for money. If the company chooses to work with one or
more of these groups, assure that customer selection aligns with company values.
current focus for near-term monetization is on merchandizing. As an alternative,
consider charging a separate fee for the use of company IP. This may give clients
additional incentive to utilize company technology to monetize their
Situation: A CEO and his COO find it difficult to focus on core tasks when business is booming and everyone is busy. The company is small but has been very successful. However, the pressure of simultaneously attending to key customer relationships, training new people, and formulating plans is overwhelming. How do you stay focused when it’s busy?
from the CEOs:
If the CEO and COO are doing a mix of corporate and project tasks, the first step is to delegate so that top staff focus on strategic areas rather than execution.
Over the next week, keep a record of what the CEO and COO are doing. At the end of the week sit down and determine which activities were corporate activities, and which should have been delegated to staff.
As an example, training of new personnel should be a key role of someone else. The CEO and COO will be involved, but only tangentially. The bulk of onboarding should be handled by staff.
Similarly,restrict sales activity of the CEO and COO to high level discussions and decisions.The rest should be handled by sales staff.
What must the CEO and COO be involved in? Intellectual property development, high level decisions about new service offerings, high level decisions on business expansion opportunities, and occasional oversight of company operations.
It is important to focus. The first priority should be the company’s principle revenue stream.
The second priority should be new service offerings which are central to efficient delivery of the primary revenue stream.
Meet with top staff and develop a five-year vision. The order of priorities that are developed will determine where to focus.
In the process of developing priorities, ask the following questions:
What do you love and what do you need to love?
Analyze the comparative importance and urgency of each activity of the CEO and COO. Which require top level input, and how much? Which are better delegated to staff?
Situation: A CEO is contemplating retiring in the next two years. The company is profitable but is primarily dependent upon a single large client for whom the CEO is the primary contact. Compared to national averages the company’s profitability is very favorable. The CEO questions whether his valuation of the company is reasonable. What is a favorable exit strategy?
Advice from the CEOs:
The principal question from the group is whether the anticipated valuation on exit will yield the financial rewards that the CEO requires.
The buyer will discount the value of the current business because the CEO is too important to the business, and because they will not assume that there is ongoing value to the current business beyond 2-3 years.
The best option is to sell to a buyer who wants entry into the key client. They will have reasons beyond the value of the company to pay a premium for this access.
For planning purposes put the value at 2-3 years of the cash that the CEO takes out of the company, discounted to present value plus some premium for the entry that the buyer seeks. Look at the dollars that this will yield and decide whether this sum is a satisfactory payment.
Concerning the company’s relationship with the key client:
The company’s reliance on the key client is two-fold – they are the key customer, and they drive the market which yields a premium price for the company’s products.
Purchasers do not like to be dependent on a single supplier. Their purchasing department will always be looking for alternative sources.
During the exit window it is critical to develop new customer relationships to sustain the company’s growth and reduce reliance on the single key customer.
If the key client is #1, who is developing technologies that will compete with the key client?
What are their markets?
Where are they going?
How are they trying to exploit the chinks in key client’s armor?
What can the company do to secure a vendor relationship with the companies who may replace the key client?
Situation: A software service company wants to expand operations. Their business model is to build clone offices that operate like the home office in new markets, much like a franchise operation. The founder CEO is struggling to identify key managers who can manage remote offices. How do you identify key managers?
Advice from the CEOs:
The key managers must be individuals who are business savvy, not talented engineers. The key managers must understand:
Management – with a proven management record;
Recruiting and hiring;
How to manage an office;
A bonus will be experience in a similar field, but this experience does not substitute for the above four critical requirements.
Looking at current employees, is there the bandwidth within the current team to help bootstrap new remote offices?
For example, is there a key senior manager who can become Director of Franchise Operations? In this role, the DFO will serve as a resource to the individuals opening new offices.
As this individual’s focus switches, an important question will be who replaces this individual in their current role?
It will be beneficial if the individuals who are chosen to lead new offices have at least some experience in sales. This will help to quickly build new customer bases for the remote sites. However, a new site manager must have balanced experience. While sales will be part of the responsibility these individuals must also be able to build and oversee the other critical functions necessary to build viable remote sites.
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: The CEO of a consulting company is frustrated by lumpy revenue and profits. From quarter to quarter it has been difficult to predict either number. Unpredictability reduces options in valuation and exit exercises, as banks and acquirers favor predictability. How do you generate a predictable P&L?
Advice from the CEOs:
The objective is to construct a revenue base built on predictability, even if this is at lower margins. Given a predictable base, the company can complement predictable revenue and profits with higher dollar and margin opportunities as they arise.
Analyze the projects that the company contracts for both revenue and profitability. Some projects will be bread and butter situations which are more common and predictable, but which generate less revenue and profit per project. Others will be customer crisis driven. These latter projects will have higher revenue and profit, particularly if the company is the vendor of choice; the tradeoff is that the frequency of these contracts is unpredictable.
If the objective is predictability, the company’s base should be built on bread and butter projects. As the company grows, focus on this base. Customer crisis projects can then be added as they arise to bump both revenue and profit.
The objective will be to become one of the top 2-3 outside vendors of the choicest clients. Target projects may be ongoing maintenance of older projects in the client companies’ portfolios.
How would this model be pursued?
Focus on the company’s top 5 customers. Reduce risk by optimizing customer leverage as a proven entity and offer them strategic deals.
The focus is long-term project based with guaranteed delivery at lower cost.
Identify the fear or insecurity that exists within the customer and provide sleep insurance.
This model works well in the new economy – get lean, manage infrastructure size and cost, and grow with the economy.
Alternately, identify an area where the customer may not have enough resources and provide a solution that allows them to address this without adding additional personnel or by using existing personnel more efficiently.
Another option is to develop a virtual office model. Provide resources for $X per month, with an evergreen provision.
Situation: A company wants to expand to new sites. It’s business model relies on high levels of customer service, with high customer retention and efficiency. The challenge is that the model is low margin, because only a few employees are billable. How do you finance site expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
To evaluate profitability and start-up time create a low-cost prototype site to test the model and collect data.
Develop a template with a high likelihood of survival over the first 6-12 months when investment will outweigh income.
Consider a SWAT resource team to accelerate early success for new sites.
Key areas of focus:
Understand the value of the business. For example, is it:
Improving client operational efficiency?
Building the team?
Response time to client needs?
From experience define the most important variables for success:
What is front office, what is back office?
How important are the dynamics between key people? Is it better to hire key people as the number of sites expands or grow them internally.
Determine what is being sold, with a reasonable prospect of return – methodology or services?
Consider a franchise model. The model must show a reasonable return to the prospective owner, including the cost of franchise purchase and start-up costs.
As franchisor, it is important to know what this model looks like to a prospective franchisee; however, take care not to create a representation to which would be bind the franchisor as a promise.
A successful franchise should have a branded presence.
Offer potential franchisees a guarantee: if after one year the net costs to establish and maintain the site are below a certain level, the franchisor will credit the difference between their estimate and the actual net costs in Year 2.
MacDonald’s does not allow franchisees to choose store locations. Similarly, the franchisor can choose locations, determine the availability of key talent, select anchor clients, and develop a reasonable estimate of the value of a new franchise before selling it. This increase the value for the franchise sale and creates a more predictable ROI for new franchisees.