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 technology company has established a leadership position in their niche. Nevertheless, they struggle with individual performance and buy-in to company performance. The CEO asks whether increasing ownership through stock incentives in a non-public company is an effective incentive for employees. How do you strengthen internal incentives and ownership?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the past, employees voiced a strong predilection for share ownership as recompense for the personal risk and sweat that they have put into the company.
It may be advisable to revisit this, particularly given the increased risk that comes with share ownership as a result of regulatory changes of the last 10 years.
As a substitute for share ownership, they may be open to some proxy that will provide them with value and the opportunity to have their opinions heard in the case of a buy-out.
Another company looked at this closely at the time of formation. They decided that proper recognition for contribution did not equal ownership. Ownership also entails personal liability and risk, which many don’t realize and, once they understand the implications of owners’ liability, don’t want. As an alternative they adopted a liberal profit-sharing structure that has met with employee enthusiasm.
Think about this discussion in terms of incentives:
Short Term – Annual-type incentives
Make sure that incentives align with desired behaviors so that individuals’ contributions contribute to business plan objectives and the next step for the company.
Long Term – consider the trade-offs
Broadly distributed share ownership not only complicates future flexibility but may also complicate a buy-out or merger opportunity. Consider the implications of a situation where most shares are in the hands of past rather than current employees.
Strategic Partners wishing to invest may be reticent to work with a company with broadly distributed ownership.
ESOPs, while frequently referenced, tend to eat their children. They have several complications:
They are governed by ERISA, so you cannot discriminate. All must be able to participate.
Ownership is prescribed – with a maximum of 10% per employee. Will a future CEO candidate be happy with 10% when the admin assistant gets 3%? In this way ESOPs can impair succession and recruitment plans.
Annual valuations can be expensive.
Phantom or Synthetic Equity Programs
A company can tailor these to meet changing objectives.
Valuations are cheap and valuation metrics are easy to monitor.
To work through the options, sit and talk with the employees, and listen. Ask what concerns them. Don’t try to come up with a solution until their concerns are understood. There is an array of options available.
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 company faces three options to generate growth. The CEO wants to pursue a path that keeps employees happy and rewards them for their efforts on behalf of the company. What are the trade-offs between the options and the potential impact on employees? How do you generate growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are three options to generate growth – continuing organic growth, accelerating growth through a merger, or by being acquired. These options are not mutually exclusive. The company may pursue more than one.
Organic growth can be accelerated by hiring an individual who’s focus will be company growth. The offer may include a minor equity position that is non-dilutive to current employee-owners, with vesting two or more years out.
It is important that top staff and key employees are comfortable with the person before finalizing any offer.
The message to current owners: “This person will drive this business with X expectations for results. The ownership position is contingent on delivery of anticipated results. Is this works as we anticipate, it is a win for all owners.”
Have a buy-back agreement as part of the employment contract should the individual leave. This should guarantee the company the right to repurchase any shares at an agreed price in the case of a separation.
The CEO has been approached by another company interested in a merger.
Is the value of this option increased or decreased by hiring the person described above?
Should the merger option still make sense, calculate a merger split that makes sense to current owners and see whether the merger partner will accept this. If not, find an excuse to drop or defer the merger discussion.
The CEO has also been approached by a potential acquirer. This could expand the market position of the combined companies, provide additional opportunity for current employees, and a cash payoff for current owners.
Talk to the other owners. Does this option meet personal financial and professional targets? What about personal needs to stay involved in business?
Once these discussions are completed, tell the potential acquirer what you want and need from the deal. They may agree!
Situation: The Founding CEO of a professional services company has always been deeply involved as a service provider and rainmaker in addition to his role as CEO. As the company has grown he sees the need to spend more time as leader of the company instead of being a doer. What can be done to facilitate this transition, and what expectations need to be created? How do you transition from doer to leader?
Advice from the CEOs:
Another CEO removed himself from day to day business development activity by bringing in a new rainmaker. These were the adjustments made to facilitate the process.
During the first year he worked with the new individual in a team or partnership role.
Compensation was results-based. Discussion of equity consideration was deferred until the individual proved herself.
The CEO moved himself out of the individual contributor role except as needed to support the new rainmaker’s efforts.
All of this was accompanied with clear communication to clients: “this adjustment will provide better service to you; here’s my number if you need help.”
Rainmakers are a different personality type. To be most effective, they must be able to say “my team.” Allowing this will ease the transition and improve the relationship.
Create teams to deliver solutions that have traditionally been provided by the founder.
Identify skill sets behind the roles that are being delegated.
Build an organization that will fill these roles.
Participate in team meetings, but as an advisor rather than as principal decision-maker.
Adapt role and behavior in phases to ease the pressure of the change on both the CEO and the team.
How does the CEO manage his own expectations as well as those of the company as he makes this transition?
Delegation initially takes more time and effort than doing the work yourself. Be patient and let the investment pay off.
Larry E. Greiner of USC was an expert on the study of organizational crisis in growth. Per Greiner’s model, the company is currently at stage one – moving from principal and founder to initial delegator. It may be a useful to study this model.
Situation: The key to a career development company’s growth, historically, is leveraging relationships with insiders in potential client companies who know the needs of their own companies. The key benefits to these people are access to good people, no recruiting fees and feeling good about the experience. What is the marketing message to this group? How do you market to company insiders?
Advice from the CEOs:
Ask them. You already have a number of company insiders who work with you. Develop a detailed survey to query what they see as the key benefits of working with your company, and which of these benefits are most important to them.
Consider a broad quantitative survey that you can administer via the web.
Complement this with a smaller in-depth interview survey to understand qualitatively how they benefit from their relationship with your company and the service that you provide.
Your equity is the experience that these people enjoy when they work with you – this is your leverage.
Your pitch is emotionally oriented. Stick with this. Saving recruiting fees will not be as important given your focus and the company insiders that you are likely to attract.
Situation: Early stage companies often find it difficult to raise funds from traditional sources. An experienced CEO wants to help certain new companies of which she is aware in two ways – assisting them in receiving funding, and then helping to assure that they reach key milestones. What is the best way to profitably address this ambition? How do you fund a start-up?
Advice from the CEOs:
Build relationships with a few select sets of local investors – venture capitalists, angels, and private investors – with whom you have strong credibility. For a retainer or fee, agree to bring them a number of new pre-vetted companies in the next year, and post-finding, help the companies to succeed and hit milestones. From the companies that you bring to funders, ask for equity in return for securing funding and providing guidance.
Put yourself in the shoes of the person who will pay you – what do they want and how do you deliver this for them? Develop statistics from your past successes that highlight your capabilities. Don’t be shy about your accomplishments.
What are you passionate about? If the answer is development – linking technology entrepreneurs to strategic partners and then being an accountability partner to assure that milestones are met – this will be your focus and your pitch to both funders and tech companies.
Your value is linking the entrepreneur to the funding source and being an accountability partner.
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: An early-stage company is in discussions with a high-powered individual who could invest, join their Board, or help them more directly as an executive. They want to involve him enough so that he is interested in working with them. How do you attract a high powered individual?
Advice from the CEOs:
You are still in fact finding mode. Get an NDA ASAP! Backdate the NDA to your first conversations.
o This individual needs to meet face to face with your current team. See how the dynamics work; be very sensitive to conflicts and jealousies. These can wreck an early stage company.
o You need to see how the new individual interacts with your current team to check chemistry before you go too far.
o Be gingerly with your co-founders about adding another “founder.”
Create a high level straw man for this person’s roles and responsibilities.
o Ask the individual what he sees as the potential for the company and how he foresees being able to contribute.
o Develop a business plan for this individual – with the appropriate title. Spell out roles and expectations.
If you offer an equity position, be sure that shares are on a vesting schedule and that you have a shareholder’s agreement.
o Be creative in your vesting. Rather than vesting on time, consider vesting on individual and company performance against milestones. If the company doesn’t hit the milestones what is the value of the shares? Make the milestones consistent with the individual’s objectives – bringing dollars into the company based on investment or revenue hurdles.
o If this individual wants to come in as a “founder” insist on some investment to demonstrate commitment – you and your co-founders have funded the company to date.
Situation: A company played matchmaker between another company in the concept stage and a funding source. Having performed this service, the company would like to get something in return. There is no agreement in place regarding consideration for this service. How do you ask for consideration?
Advice from the CEOs:
A way to introduce the conversation is to say – We’ve been happy to help you identify funding for your company. What kind of role and contribution do you see for us as you move forward? This prompts the other company to confirm the inequity, instead of you, and makes it more likely that they will offer you something.
This is really a relationship challenge. You’ve done a great favor for the other company – obtaining funding for an early stage company is a major accomplishment. If there is a good relationship between the two of you it is reasonable to hope that they will recognize this. A minimal way to ask for this is to say – If you get funded we want to be your service provider.
In business, many leads are referrals. When we get a good lead, we try to assure that the referral source gets some business from the resulting project. This encourages them to continue to provide us with leads. It also reflects common courtesy. Providing this example may help your case.
On option may be to ask for an equity interest. For an early stage company, this is inexpensive as they have not yet established significant value.