Situation: A founder has created a new social media offering. The concept is to attract individuals with complimentary interests and have them engage each other for mutual benefit as a better source of information and connections. Implied trust is an important component of these connections. How do you engage people in a new offering?
Advice from the CEOs:
People are willing to experiment with a new social media offering – in this case because they like to help others. It makes them feel good and they like the role of helping others.
People are always seeking good talent. If this does a better job helping them to find good talent, they will try it out.
Hiring managers prefer to pass on a resume of someone known to them because a bad referral could reflect badly on them. Strengthen this aspect of the offering through information gathered from participants.
A small pool is a negative. Broaden the pool to include those who are looking to step up their careers. Think of this as people-to-people direct hiring and use a social approach with broad appeal. This will increase the number of people willing to play.
Be the place where people can come to help others. Add additional tags – help to build confidence and get inspiration. Getting a job happens as a consequence.
The element of trust and relationship is important to many – 40% of early users of the current network express this. Assure that the value proposition is also attractive to the 60% who are not concerned about this.
The network will build on the energy from the emotional play.
Expand the options for how people can help. Investigate allowing trusted referral relationships within the system. Allow people to refer trusted people in their own networks. This can include people who “I would trust to refer good people.”
Situation: A CEO has been approached about a potential acquisition of his company. The offer was a surprise, and the team within the company is split on whether they are interested in a sale. They are currently very happy with what they do. How do you prepare for a potential acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
How does a company best position itself in advance of discussions?
Rebrand the company to boost the value proposition. Make what the company does best the focus of its value proposition. Position the company as the “experts” in this area.
Look at a series of possible scenarios that could develop and determine who on the team can best contribute each scenario. This will help to evaluate the implications of each scenario and to rank them in terms of favorability on the company’s terms. It will also help to quickly exclude certain scenarios if they come up during discussions with acquirers.
What research should the company conduct on the acquirer?
Do a deep dive into the potential acquirer. Research is simplified if the acquirer is public. Go online and look at their SEC and public filings. Look at their revenue trend as well as their profitability or losses.
What is the acquirer’s history of acquisitions? Interview people from companies that they have purchased.
Don’t pitch anything to the acquirer until you understand what they want to buy – this is critical so that the company positions itself well.
What is the best approach to take once the conversation starts?
Quick first step – send the company’s financials to the acquirer with a 3-year projection. Ask them, based on this, for a price range that they would consider for the company. If the range is outside of expectations, the conversation is over.
Determine whether this looks like a strategic vs. a financial buy. A strategic buy yields a higher price.
Cut a deal structure with a bonus tied to success post acquisition. This means a reasonable upfront payment with big payments for future success. This creates golden handcuffs to motivate the company’s staff to stay post-acquisition.
There should be multiple options on table – addressing both financial considerations and the future of team.
Situation: A CEO has been the principal source of financing for her company. She is looking for Round #1 financing of $800K to $1 million to take the company through the next two years, followed by an additional two rounds of financing to take the company to profitability. What are the best options to obtain financing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Given the company’s size, it’s too risky to put all eggs in one basket. Also, it is difficult to simultaneously pursue all options. List and rank all financing options, and limit efforts to the top 3-5 options, forgetting the rest for now. The company is more likely to be successful with a limited number of targets.
The big question is which avenues to pursue? Current preferences are:
Sell what the company can sell now – focus on collaborators and bootstrap the company as much as possible.
Angel funding, if the company can find the right angel.
Avoid venture capital unless there are no other options.
Given these, where does the company have live contacts? What conversations can be pursued to a successful conclusion in the next 1-2 months?
For the Angel option, the company’s model is easy to explain and has appeal. Which potential Angels could be approached in the next 1-2 months?
An option is to bring an Angel in slowly – creative input, perhaps a Board seat.
Once the Angel is on-board, put together a list of your funding priorities and a list of 4-5 top prospects in a Board discussion. Ask this individual’s advice and assistance contacting some of the prospects. He may ask at that meeting or later why he hasn’t been asked.
For the first $1million – consider an SBA loan.
Under new guidelines, the application fee has been reduced.
Approval cycle – 30 days or less.
The trade-off between bootstrap and Angel funding and SBA is personal risk. Look at this as a fallback option.
VC funding is very time consuming. Also, VCs prefer that their clients are somewhat desperate, so that they will receive a larger piece of the company for their money.
A company is looking at options to fund growth. These include selling a stake
in the company, bank financing, organic growth. or partnering with another
company. There are trade-offs to each option. How do you fund business growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is a question that should be answered before talking about funding: what is the vision for the business?
Think about building the business that the founders want to run. What size company feels comfortable from an operational perspective? What does it look like?
Does the company have the right people and infrastructure to support planned growth? Are current direct reports capable of taking on additional projects and monitoring both current facilities and additional sites?
As the company grows, can the bottom line be increased as fast as the top line?
Commit the 5-year plan to paper. Before deciding how the company will grow, determine the vision, the growth rate to support that vision, the organization required, and the strategic plan to get there.
The funding decision is an investment decision. What’s the return for a multi-million-dollar investment? What incremental revenue and earnings will it produce?
Estimate how much revenue the investment will generate in 5 years. At the current gross margin, what is the incremental gross margin per year.
Given this estimate, what is the projected EBITDA? Does the annual EBITDA represent a reasonable rate of return on the investment?
The investment ROI must be known – both from the company’s perspective and for any lender or partner who invests in the planned expansion.
How high do the company’s relationships extend in key client companies? Do client upper management realize how critical the company is to them?
If the answer is not high enough, develop these relationships. This could open new funding opportunities.
For example, if the CEO knows the right people at a key customer, let them know that the company may want to build a facility near them. The customer may be interested in partnering with the company to finance the facility.
A multi-million-dollar joint venture plant investment is a modest investment to a large customer if it gains them a strategic advantage.
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: A CEO wants to establish baseline metrics to evaluate company performance, and guide both planning and operations. Without baseline metrics it is difficult to compare the impact of options that the company faces. What are the most important areas to analyze, and what do other companies measure? How do you establish performance metrics?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with the basic divisions of the business. As an example, take a company which has three arms to its business – products that it represents for other companies, products that it distributes, and custom products that it manufactures to customer specifications.
For each of these lines track gross revenue, profit net of direct costs, FTEs necessary to support the business, number of customers, net profit percent, net profit per employee and net profit per customer.
Calculate these metrics on at least a quarterly basis for the past 2-3 years to set a baseline and a chart of historic trends.
Once you establish a baseline, chart current performance on at least a quarterly basis and look for trends and patterns.
Where is your greatest growth and greatest profitability – not just on a global basis but in terms of profit per customer and profit per employee?
If you’ve included your full costs including the costs of the FTEs to support each business, then the analysis should show you where you want to invest and what it will cost you to support additional investment.
Do a similar analysis of costs per line to further support investment analysis.
This analysis will help to evaluate whether it is better to purchase another rep line, or whether you would be better off investing the same funds to grow custom business.
Similarly, it will demonstrate on what kinds of customers and products you want your sales force to focus to grow profitable business and will help you to establish objectives based on anticipated revenue or profit per new customer that sales closes.
Finally, it will highlight potential vulnerabilities such as the impact of the loss of a key customer in one portion of the business.
Situation: A company is purchasing another company to expand its product offering. The CEO is concerned that the employees need to stay focused through the closing date. He is also concerned about retaining key employees both of his company and the company that he is buying. How do you prepare for an acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Until the deal closes, don’t change anything about your current direction.
As you negotiate and move to close, be mindful of competitive bids.
This will help to keep the deal in place.
It may also open the option to put together the deal and then seek competitive bids to fund the deal through private equity groups.
Get three second opinions – learn what could go wrong with this deal so that you can plan and anticipate.
To assure that you retain key staff take the following steps:
Hire consultants: HR, financial, see what they recommend.
Offer key employers favorably priced options for a combined minority position in the company. This offers them an upside and will be an effective retention package.
What else can be done to retain key employees.
Let them know how this acquisition will position the company as the Dream Team company in your space.
Explain how this acquisition gets the company closer to a true exit strategy which will be financially beneficial to them.
If you can assure key employees that they will not experience any change in their job, title, responsibilities or compensation, retention may not be an issue.
Situation: A company serves a market with a lot of new small entrants. Clients purchase from these other companies as well as the CEO’s company. They are continuing to call and network with their client base to retain clients and build new customers. What else should they be doing? How do you deal with cut-throat competition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Make a list of those clients who are no longer purchasing from you or referring new clients. Go talk to them. Ask why they are no longer purchasing from you or referring new clients. This may open new options. You may find something new or unexpected that you can offer.
Work with an outside service to follow up with on clients lost and won. The key question for them to ask clients is why. Learn from the responses what is most important about the clients’ purchase and referral decisions.
Consider a new service. A health/happiness outcome would be a nice value-add: a quarterly report back to referral sources on how happy the clients that they referred are. The last question on the survey should be – Would you work with our firm again? Why or why not?
Consider using an outside source to gather the data for these surveys. To get more valuable responses, don’t just ask about your company, but also several of your top competitors; this will produce a richer set of responses.
There are two ways to compete: either you are low cost or have established a unique value proposition. Whatever this is, sustainability of your critical point of differentiation is essential.
Health care legislation is now in flux. Whatever the outcome, it will have an impact on your market. Become an expert resource on the implications of various outcomes.
Look at social media resources – feed valuable information to your audience via blog.
Situation: A company finds that new opportunities are coming in more slowly than they had planned. They have work now, but no confidence that this will continue long term. This is frustrating because they are in the middle of a transition in their business model. How do you create clarity about the future?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is a lot of uncertainty in the business world. Low oil prices are depressing investment in the energy sector. Global political and economic uncertainty are not conducive to bold expansion plans. This uncertainty may last for some time. Companies have to adapt.
A mapping solution is a used by some companies use to create clarity between alternatives:
Start with box representing where you are now.
Draw boxes representing each of the alternatives that you are considering.
Map the paths that will get from where you are now to each alternative. Draw them out, including what you have to accomplish and what resources you have or must acquire to get to each.
Do a SWOT analysis (strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats) for each alternative.
This will help you to think through each of the options and identify the benefits and pitfalls of each.
This is a great exercise to do with your management team, as others will add their own perspective and insights.
Tools: use Post-it notes – either easel pads or larger (5” x 8”) Post-it notes. Put these on the wall, and start sketching out your ideas with boxes and paths. Revisit the charts for at least a few minutes a day for the next 3-5 days. You will be amazed at both the number of new options you generate and how the obvious options rise to the top.
This is much easier and more productive than it may sound. Don’t fear the process.