Situation: The CEO of a successful company is considering two options: sell the company or grow to the next level. She believes that the company could be sold for an amount that would satisfy her financial needs. Also, the prospect of a long vacation and more time for family is appealing. Do you sell the company or grow bigger?
Advice from the CEOs:
First Option: Pursue funding to take the company to the next level – through either private equity or venture capital. Present an optimistic, but credible, upside return for the investment; back this up with a realistic lower estimate to cover exposure.
Both funding sources only buy the home-run model. Two reasons:
They need potential and credible home runs to sell to their investors; nobody invests in solid base hits because the return is insufficient for the risk.
They assume that the funds recipient is overestimating what they can do.
Given the existence of new technology to expand the company’s presence, it has a legitimate home-run model.
Hire a pro to help obtain funding.
Second Option: Take a shot at buying the company’s principal competitor – this provides the opportunity for rapid growth at low risk in the existing market and will make the company more appealing at a higher price.
Third Option: Based on personal goals, if the company can be sold now at a good price – do it. This will enable you to fulfill your life goals.
Give the first two options 12 months. If there is no or limited progress in 12 months start taking two successive months off on vacation – allowing minimal time to monitor the company. If vacations are satisfying, sell the company.
Ask yourself a serious question – do you really want to be on extended vacation now or is this an objective for 3-5 years out? If the company already has strong momentum, why not see what can be built and then sell. There may be more adventure in this.
Fourth Option: Take some money off the table – enough to build your dream – but continue to own controlling interest in the company. This offers both choices.
Situation: A CEO is
concerned about long term trends versus short term volatility. While the
business has done well over time, short term volatility has made it difficult
to project both personnel needs and cost. As the company expands geographically
these issues are becoming more critical. Which is more important – long or
from the CEOs:
the company find that capabilities are not fully understood until they get into
development? In this case, is the problem with variables of schedule, budget or
capability more important?
forward, evaluate each of these variables to determine which is having the greatest
effect, positive and negative, on project performance and profitability.
the problem is time constraints in the project planning phase, assure that
sufficient time for project iterations is allowed in both the schedule and
budget. It may be that the clients are not sure of what they want until they
see a model, and that several iterations are required to assure that clients’
needs are satisfied. Plan and bid for this.
fixed costs impact margins during dips between active projects, assure that enough
fixed cost coverage is built into project bids to cover dips.
geographically remote offices is the company’s issue a question of volume or
resource cost or is it a pricing issue?
it’s a pricing issue to stay market competitive focus initial activity where
this issue is minimized. As market presence expands, add additional capabilities
in phases according to the ability to cover costs profitably.
it’s a resource cost issue use the same solution, adding resources according
ability to cover costs profitably.
the company’s sales and marketing structure in phases while expanding into new
markets. If sales compensation is base plus commission, vary commissions paid
according to resource rates negotiated. This will tie sales incentives to
negotiated resource rates and will help to assure that costs are covered.
with short term issues effectively will improve long term planning and profitability.
Situation: A CEO is evaluating a horizontal market development opportunity to markets related to their current market. There may be branding implications. The new opportunity focused on a different sector and can add business unrelated to current customers. However, the new opportunity will stretch current resources and potentially impact current business and service delivery. How do you expand into new markets?
Advice from the CEOs:
Because the new opportunity utilizes known capabilities the company should be able to segue into the new market relatively easily.
Because the company is already familiar with security and other issues relevant to the new market, compliance should present no challenge.
Consider the impact on company time and resources. Building any new business will challenge current priorities and will require a careful balancing of efforts to assure that both current and new customers’ needs are being met.
Build workload and service schedules for both existing customers and the effort that it will take to develop the new opportunity including the time needed to create and build new customer relationships. Take your best estimate of resource utilization for the new effort and double it, then ask whether your current staff and capacity can handle both markets. If the answer is positive, then you can be more comfortable with the decision to expand into new markets.
As you evaluate the new market opportunity, look at both anticipated and unanticipated but predictable challenges that customers may face over the next five years.
For example, is there misalignment between future challenges likely to be faced and the current expertise and skill sets of managers who will be tasked with addressing these challenges? If so, tailor the sales pitch for new capacities to address these challenges.
Are there existing mismatches between products and services currently offered in the new markets, and do proposed solutions help to address these mismatches? If so, there may be significant opportunities in addressing these mismatches across multiple customers within the affected markets.
Situation: The CEO of a company has a niece working in the company on a project basis. The niece is has helped to develop a strategic plan and has performed well. She now wants to move from part-time to full-time and to receive a raise. Does it make sense to promote a relative?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you are pleased with the individual’s work, don’t worry about the family relationship – go ahead and hire her. This is especially true if she can play a significant role developing the strategic plan and help you to improve your sales organization.
Give this individual a set of responsibilities, a budget, and a time line to do the jobs you want done.
Evaluate her performance just as you would any other employee. Don’t compromise your standards for a relative.
This may offer the opportunity to improve your sales. Have your niece work and travel with your sales people as a systems engineer. This will allow her the opportunity to learn your products, customers, and process – and will provide you with valuable input on how your sales team is performing.
You are really addressing two problems:
What is your niece’s passion? Don’t make work for her simply because she’s related and available. The work must serve your and the company’s needs.
Do you have holes in your business? Put your best people on these If your niece is one of these people, then give her a chance but don’t play favorites.
Situation: A company’s sales are bumpy. The CEO thinks that this may be due to a mismatch between products that they offer and their customers’ needs. They currently use online surveys to capture customer needs and input. How do you determine customer needs? How do you find your sweet spot?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important first step for a smaller and growing company is to clearly identify the customer niche that they serve. This must be a niche where the company can out-serve their competition.
There are two types of niches to consider:
A product/service niche focused on a specific set of products and services – one where you can offer a differential advantage over your competition and become known for this, or
A customer niche – a specific set of customers that you dedicate yourself to serve in a way that provides a differential advantage.
An example of the product model is an individual who started an e-commerce site for lacrosse equipment – products not commonly stocked in sports stores. They offered a wide range of lacrosse products, built an online community, shared articles, etc. and became THE place for lacrosse players to get their equipment.
An example of the customer niche model is to focus on a population and build a concierge or member-only service. The niche here is the buying group. This can be employees of specific companies or government workers as examples. Costco grew using this model.
For an early-stage company, survival is about single pointed focus on that niche where you can provide better products/services or better serve your customers than anyone else. As you grow you can diversify based on the reputation and loyalty that you gained early on.
Look at competitors – how are they gathering customer preference information?
Look at your passion – is it products or people? Choose a niche that fits your passion.
Situation: A company has two key managers who battle constantly. Recently these battles have escalated. Both people are valuable, but this has become a significant distraction. What’s the best way to handle this situation? How do you deal with management infighting?
Advice from the CEOs:
Talk to the two people individually. Acknowledge company awareness of the situation and ask what’s going on.
Listen – make sure you understand what’s going on.
After you listen, coach. The message: I need you to step up. The company counts on you.
Both parties must feel empowered by the conversation.
Focus on behavior only, not the person.
Make sure that each feels validated but with clear direction to change behavior.
Acknowledge each individual’s value. Point out the problem, but make it clear that nobody is indispensable.
At the same time, be firm as to what is expected of individual behavior as well as individual performance. Set the expectation: either you act in a way which does not harm the company environment, or I will take your notice in 30 days.
If either individual can’t agree to this, then that individual is the problem.
Revert to guiding principles and values of the company. Raise the conversation to a higher level.
Establish what the individual wants from the company. Are their needs currently being met? What can be changed to better meet their needs?
An important end point of the conversation – because both are key players – is for each of them to value the other.
If, after providing time for the two to resolve their difference, they still can’t make peace with each other, you may have to make a hard decision.
Be careful – it may be necessary to take a different approach with each individual.
It may turn out that one individual is the instigator and the other is simply reacting to the first’s provocation. In this case, get a 3rd party to coach each of them.
Another company recently had this same problem.
The CEO sat each person down – talked about impact, big picture and what this does to their image in company.
Situation: A company’s current directors are all insiders. The CEO wants to bring in an outside director for greater perspective, someone who can help the company grow to the next level. What should they look for? How do you recruit an outside director?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look for an individual at a company in a similar market segment that is the revenue size that you want to be and which is selling to the same customers that you do. You want their sales process to be similar in type and complexity of sale but non-competitive with your company.
This can be an inactive founder or past employee who has been in GM role with P&L responsibility.
Write a list of the needs that you want this person to fulfill. Use this to evaluate prospective candidates.
Is it OK to hire a stranger?
Before you speak with a candidate, research their background and reputation.
You want someone who can provide information and a perspective that you don’t have now. During the selection process you will get to know the person.
Consider a high level individual from a company that has been a top customer. This individual can help you understand how you are viewed in the market, and how you can enhance your positioning and competitiveness.
Have lunch with a local recruiter who regularly recruits directors for companies. Get their perspective on how to select an outside director and what to look for in a candidate.
Situation: A CEO is concerned that his company’s sales and marketing efforts are not effective. Too often the sales team finds a good prospect, but fails to convert them to the company’s offering. How can the company improve its sales conversion rate? How do you optimize your buy/sell funnels?
Advice from the CEOs:
To improve both your marketing and sales functions, it is essential to move the company’s perspective from the Sales side of the Seller’s Funnel to the Marketing side of the Buyer’s Funnel. Only by understanding your customers can you:
Create awareness of their needs,
Acknowledge interest in a solution to their needs,
Consider options and develop preferences among the possible solutions, and
Determine how to effectively communicate with them through your marketing and sales efforts.
In today’s world, a quality web site is essential to your business. The objective of the web site is to convince the customer that they want to talk to or do business with you. Your web site must tell them:
Who you are.
What your values are.
Why you are special.
And it must include a “call to action” – a convincing reason for them to call you.
To better qualify your prospective clients:
Develop a scripted telephone interview that can be conducted by your sales people or less expensive inside sales/marketing people to qualify prospects before you spend the time and effort for an in-person sales call.
Use targeted marketing programs to leverage references to prospective customers.
Have lots of conversations with potential customers to understand their needs. Tailor your value creation process to address these needs.
Special Thanks to Craig Olson of MXL Partners for his contribution to this discussion.
Situation: A company has a long-term employee who has been growing in responsibility as Customer Service Supervisor. The CEO is considering giving this employee the new title of Production Manager at the same time that the employee receives an annual wage increase. How do you optimize a promotion?
Advice from the CEOs:
Any promotion or increase in responsibility must be consistent with the strategic direction of the company. What are the company’s current and future needs and, based on past performance, can this individual satisfy those needs? If so, this may be a good match.
In addition, it is important to consider the needs and career path of the individual. Does the new position involve an increased time commitment, additional skills and training, or other important factors, and is the individual prepared for this increased commitment? Will a higher level of commitment be rewarded financially? The only way to answer these questions is to have a conversation with the individual.
If as the first two questions are considered there is any doubt, a longer-term transition may be appropriate. Meet with the Customer Service Supervisor and set a series of goals and objectives that will demonstrate their ability to assume the new role over a 6 month time frame. The concept here is that you must work at the level of the new job before you get it.
Before embarking on the above recommendations, draft a job description and list of responsibilities for the new Production Manager position, consistent with the company’s needs as it grows. This will involve input from employees who currently handle these responsibilities. Also look at the reporting structure as it currently exists and as it may change.
Situation: A company wants to add off-shore manufactures to its supply chain. This is a new experience and the CEO seeks guidance on how to negotiate supply agreements. They want win-win agreements with their new suppliers. How do you optimize supply agreements?
Advice from the CEOs:
No supplier relationship is risk-free, especially if you are a small company. Be sure to cover ownership of new IP developed during the relationship. For example, assure that the supplier adds no new developments without communicating these to you in writing. You may want to fund new developments selectively to assure protection of your IP. This is essential if you need to switch or add suppliers rapidly to maintain adequate supply.
A service agreement is not always about cost. It’s about deliverables, and quid pro quo is important.
Manage your key supplier relationships as diligently as you manage your key client relationships. They are equally critical.
In a contract negotiation between supplier and OEM or customer, both sides need to clarify customer needs and supplier capabilities. The greater the transparency on expectations, deliverables, and contingencies, the better the agreement and contract.
In negotiating an agreement with a Chinese company, make the enforcement jurisdiction either Hong Kong or Macao. Why? So that courts can enforce terms of the agreement on the Chinese party in the case of a dispute.
Post-termination obligations are a key to any negotiation – you want this clarified in advance.
Contracts serve two purposes: a legal tool, and a way to drive behavior. They provide an opportunity to assure that both parties are on the same page and, under the best circumstances, serve as process documents.
Special thanks to Bijan Dastmalchi of Symphony Consulting for his contribution to this discussion.