Situation: An SMB CEO has sold his business and seeks a new opportunity. Options range from a mid-level position in a large company to various options in existing or start-up smaller companies. How do you evaluate your career choices?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important factors are to determine what you want to do and what will make you, and your family, happy. Start with a Pro/Con analysis of each type of opportunity compared with your short and long-term desires. Which among the following choices are more important?
o Financial stability and some level of job security vs. higher risk and potential reward with lower security.
o Desire to be a player or to be the person in charge vs. being happy with a staff position.
o Ability to create your own path or willingness to adapt to the priorities of others.
Given these choices, here is what you may find:
o In a large or established company the most likely opportunity will be a staff position. The trade-off is stability for authority, but be aware that large company organizational politics may be severe.
o In a small existing company it is possible to be a player in a key position. The trade-off is lower stability and viability for more authority.
o In a new company there is the chance to be the CEO, bringing business experience to a group with technology expertise. The trade-off is high risk, long hours and low stability for a high level of authority.
Other factors to consider are how critical your personal situation is and the depth of your resources. If you have time and flexibility, take the time to find a situation that best meets your needs.
Situation: A company was challenged by a client to design a product to demonstrate the capabilities of the client’s processor. The result was a wonderful success, and has received very positive press. The client does not care about the product, only about their processor. How does the company test the appeal and potential marketability of the new product?
Advice from the CEOs:
Go to a local arcade, for example one operated by Golfland USA or a multiplex theater. Show them your product and ask whether you can test it for appeal with their customers. This will enable you to measure coin-drop numbers and generate demand and market appeal data. With these data you can assess the value of either selling or licensing the product. The objective is to see whether the product generates sustainable demand, or whether it is just a short-lived curiosity.
The big issue with a product like this is very simple – is it addictive?
If your initial tests show that the product generates sustained interest and revenue it is similar to a console game. There are a number of avenues to pursue, including:
Early exclusives use agreements with casino or theater chains – it will have value if it helps them to drive traffic to their venues.
Novelty markets – corporate events, etc.
Evaluate a lease model for target venues.
Consider selling the product to air table companies as a demo unit.
A company is experiencing change in both organizational complexity and culture as it grows. Employees feel that the company doesn’t have the same team atmosphere that it had when it was smaller. How do you manage change associated with growth and new opportunities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Change is an inevitable part of growth. Employees need to understand this simple fact. Change is tied to: age and stage of growth, changes in leadership, performance challenges, changes in customers and competition, and changes in the working environment. For example, the simple addition of Millennials to the employee pool will change the nature of a company.
What else do we know about change? That it is: an opportunity, filled with uncertainty, complex and disruptive.
Typical responses to change from staff are: denial, resistance, anger, fear, confusion, being divided about the impact of change, and chaos. It is important to understand this and to communicate to employees that their reactions are normal. They will also get over these reactions as they adapt to new conditions.
Denison Consulting has developed a model that represents four factors – Mission, Consistency, Involvement and Adaptability – with measures under each factor. The model provides a visual representation of how the organization currently measures up in each of the twelve factors, and provides a clear and understandable map of where the organization needs to focus to make the changes required to survive and thrive.
Special thanks to Paul Wright of Denison Consulting for his input to this discussion.
Situation: A company wants to create a liquidity event every 3-5 years. The objective is to increase shareholder value and also create opportunity for employees. How do you boost shareholder value and liquidity?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the important considerations in evaluating different options?
Seek partners or investors with whom you have synergy and who will improve business prospects. There must be more than just their ability to provide cash.
What is the role of key management and employees post deal? For how long?
Are there timing aspects that help to maximize your own valuation? For example, if your business is cyclical, is there a time of the year when the financial picture is optimal?
As you evaluate alternative deals, evaluate the M&A fees around each option. Could these funds be used differently with greater impact on liquidity?
Technology spinoffs can increase liquidity while keeping the core company whole. Jack Stack describes this process in The Great Game of Business. This is also simpler and cleaner than many collaboration options.
Considering collaborating with or purchasing a complimentary company with an office in a desirable geography.
If an opportunity appears synergistic, dig to find the depth and value of the synergies.
Consider timing options. Are there prerequisites which will increase probability of success?
Roll-ups are doable but risky. It is hard to find examples that work. Challenges often come from of cultural issues and lack of compatibility.
Look at the experience of similar companies as benchmarks for what you might anticipate from various options.
Situation: A company wants to expand its markets and customer base. Currently their business is dominated by a single customer. What best practices have you developed for identifying new customers and markets?
The key to getting new customers is to devote dedicated time to this task.
If your company is populated by engineer or software specialists, consider hiring a sales professional – a commission based hunter sales person who has experience landing big accounts in markets similar to yours. You may pay this person a good percentage of sales for brining in this business, but gaining the additional business can be worth it.
Much depends upon your relationship with your large customer. When a single client has rights over or ownership of the technology of the company but is not pursuing broader markets that the company is interested in, is it feasible to negotiate rights to pursue this business?
The larger client will pursue their own interests, not those of the smaller vendor. Perhaps a win-win deal can be worked out, but it may be difficult – particularly if the larger client is concerned that use of the technology in other markets could affect its interests in their primary markets.
Be very careful in this situation. The easiest tactic for the larger company to defend itself from a perceived threat is to sue and simply bury the smaller vendor through legal expenses. While the smaller company may be legally within its rights, deep pockets can beat shallow pockets through attrition.
In the case that the larger client simply continues to buy all capacity of the smaller company, an alternative is to raise rates, or perhaps to just say no.
Consider recreating the opportunity – create your own adjunct proprietary product with your own software or design talent and expand your horizons with this product.
Be aware, the large client can still sue if there is any appearance that your proprietary product impinges on their product rights. As in the case above, the larger company has the resources to bury the smaller company in legal expenses regardless of who is legally correct.
Situation: A CEO recently sold his company and is evaluating new opportunities. What are the most important questions you should ask when evaluating new opportunities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Perhaps the most important thing to evaluate is your passion for the choice that you select. As you evaluate options look closely at the business involved and your enthusiasm for that business. In addition, how does the company feel to you? Does the staff and culture reflect your values? Are you comfortable with the sense of teamwork and collaboration that you see?
Doing a cost/benefit analysis on each opportunities, with a focus on:
Financial stream – financial prospects for the company as well as the financial package and incentives that you are being offered. In the case of an early stage company, what are their prospects for obtaining financing? If you will be an investor, what is the investment required on your part and what it will cost to support family until you can replace your recent salary?
Personal enthusiasm and satisfaction associated with each option.
Consult several trusted advisors throughout your selection process
Any new CEO assignment requires considerable work and focus, especially in the early phases. Anticipate long hours. The more that you feel compatible with the company and culture, the easier this will be.
Look for an appropriate balance between your personal and career priorities, and the financial opportunity offered by each option. If there is an imbalance, you will have to determine which – financial or personal priorities – you want to give the greatest weight.
In addition to personal, career and financial priorities, determine the most important factors that you want in your lifestyle. As you evaluate options, assess the match that each option offers to your results.
Situation: A company has been presented with a new business opportunity. The opportunity is compatible with the company’s current business, but also involves skills and markets with which the company is not familiar. How do you evaluate a new business opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are at least four critical questions to assess as you evaluate any new businesses opportunity:
What is the total available market, and what is the immediately convertible market for the product or service?
Can you acquire expertise in the new markets that this will open to you?
Do you have a track record starting and nurturing new business within your company?
Is there sufficient seed money available – through company funds or outside investment – to keep the effort going for at least a couple of years as you develop the core team that will operate this business and gain traction?
If there is an offer of outside investment, consider how many months this funding will support the salaries of the team that will build this business, plus operating and overhead costs. You want to be sure to give yourself an adequate runway.
New business development opportunities typically require huge energy, creativity and focus for the first few years. Key management will have to devote all of their effort during the start-up period. Can the company afford to lose the services of key personnel for the time that you estimate this effort will take?
Before deciding to pursue this opportunity, take the time to investigate the market for this opportunity.
In particular, look for other companies that have tried to enter this market, and learn from their experience.
Develop a network of advisors who understand this market and can help you understand both the workings of the market and why companies may have struggled trying to enter the market.
A late stage private high-tech company wants to know what questions are most critical for managing the next stages of growth. This includes factors that can help differentiate good opportunities from poor ones. What questions would you ask about managing a late stage private high-tech company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Never compromise on your team. Is this a team of individuals who will be effective together, and can you make changes where necessary to build and manage the team that you need?
There is no room for someone who is not a cultural fit – do the team members work well together and does everyone see and support a win?
Who are the key stakeholders, and what drives them? Are these drivers compatible or in conflict? Can you bridge potential conflicts, or will they defocus your efforts?
Market & Strategy
Are your market projections realistic or fluffed?
Will your value proposition appeal to a large enough market to justify the investment of time and resources?
Is there a strong, realistic plan?
If you do a full SWOT (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) analysis, is the net positive?
Finances & Capital markets
Are the revenue and financial projections done correctly and achievable?
Raise money when you can, not when you need it – will the timing of your deal or opportunity, given existing financial markets, allow you to raise the funds necessary to bring the opportunity to fruition?
Is there openness to all potential capital or financing options? Financing is a personal relationship – how strong is the relationship?
Boards & Governance
Investors are investors; don’t overestimate their industry savvy. Are they aligned or in conflict? Are they fresh or tired? Will they support your efforts, and do they have the ability to generate extra funds as required?
It is impossible for a CEO or deal to be successful without the full support of the board – will you have full board support for your opportunity?
Is there clear differentiation between governance and management?
Looking over these questions, is the balance positive or negative? That balance will help you to accurately assess whether a given strategy or opportunity makes sense for the company.
Situation: A company survived the recession by cutting back and using cash reserves. Business is now on the upswing with significant new opportunities. However, the company has limited resources to invest landing new opportunities. How do you ramp up sales and business development on a constrained budget?
Advice from the CEOs:
Identify and focus on your niche market, and invest your limited resources closing qualified clients. This is a rifle shot approach, not shotgun. While seeing new business, make sure that you have sufficient production capacity to handle new business. You want your clients to be satisfied so that they will refer others to you
Cash is the most critical resource. Spend carefully and get the most from your investment in business development.
While marketing materials are important, they may not be essential if you have and can leverage excellent referral sources. Word of mouth and referrals from trusted clients are your top assets.
Leverage Linkedin as a free or low cost resource to identify key contacts in your top 100 customer prospects.
You can also use Linked-in.com to recruit additional sales resources who may be amenable to a pure commission sale. This can help you to augment your efforts so that you only pay for success.
Your most important current unused resource is leads and referrals from existing satisfied customers. Let them know that you are looking to grow and ask whether they know of contacts in other companies who could use your product. It is surprising how frequently they will share their contacts with you. Ask whether they would call the contact and provide a personal introduction.
Situation: A company has done a number of things to build company morale. Participation is variable depending on the activity. The CEO wants to build a system to measure employee morale. What metrics do you use to measure changes in your culture over time?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Gallup Organization has focused on this issue perhaps more than any other organization in the world. They find that regularly conducting surveys allows you to measure and improve your culture over time. Their surveys focus on 12 questions that they have found most critical to employee morale within a company.
Do I know what is expected of me at work?
Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
Is there someone at work who is interested in and encourages my development?
At work, do my opinions seem to count?
Does the mission/purpose of my company inspire me make me feel that my job is important?
Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
Do I have a best friend or mentor at work?
In the last six months, has anyone at work given me a review or talked to me about my performance/progress?
This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?
Notice that not one of these has to do with compensation or benefits. Rather they focus on employee perception of how they are managed, whether they have to do the tools to do their job, and feeling that others at work care about them.
Another measure to watch is employee retention – particularly of your best employees.