Situation: A company is facing the expiration of the principal patent for its main product. There are subsidiary patents which still have life. Currently, there are no competing products, but several companies understand the technology. How do you plan for patent expiration?
Advice from the CEOs:
Think of this as a two-step process:
Step 1 – Step back and look at what the company has:
Patents – including the claims that have been awarded on all company patents.
Facilities – capable of manufacturing current products, but also additional products, perhaps with a minimum of additional equipment.
People – competent staff running manufacturing operations, and tight office operations.
Step 2 – Loot at where the company could go and evaluate the markets where the existing technology is applicable:
Work with outside, imaginative people who can take a fresh look at the options.
Looks carefully at the claims in all the company’s patents.
What do they cover?
Is there an opportunity to extend current claims through process patents?
Caveat: a company can file for a process patent on anything that has been for sale on the market for less than a year. However, if they have been selling a product covered by this application for more than a year, they cannot.
Look at other markets – companies that could license the company’s technology, or with whom the company could partner to provide new consumer-oriented products:
Is there inexpensive, affordable equipment that would enable the company to produce additional products in the current location?
Think outside the box: what business is the company in? Think more broadly than the current market about where high value opportunities exist. These can be low to medium volume, high price/margin or high-volume lower price/margin.
Patents are not the only protection – trade secrets also work. 3M’s primary IP strategy, particularly on their adhesives, etc. is through trade secret – both for low and high-volume products.
“Product” patent extensions have limited utility. They are easy to design around. “Process” patents have more utility. These can be licensed at low cost per application in high volume applications and provide a nice royalty reserve stream.
Situation: A CEO founded his company with a partner. The partner is no longer deeply involved but retains a voice in company strategy and finances. The CEO wants total control. It has become complex trying to run the company with an absent partner. How do you gain control of the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get a formal company valuation as soon as possible. The expense is paid by the company or split 50/50 between the CEO and founding partner.
This exercise will provide the information needed to run the company. It is a much more sophisticated exercise than simply valuing current company assets.
It will provide a good third-party valuation upon which the CEO and partner can negotiate a buyout of the partner’s interest or place a value on a silent partnership arrangement.
Once the company has a valuation, how is the conversation started?
First ask what the partner wants. His response will help frame the discussion.
It’s OK to let the partner know that the current arrangement is not working for you.
As silent partner, instead of a salary the partner just gets checks – monthly, quarterly or whatever – based on net profits (EBITDA – Earnings before interest, taxes, distributions and adjustments).
The CEO’s salary is included in the expenses of the business.
If it is too painful to initiate the discussion on your own, hire someone to help you.
Once the CEO has control of the company, create an organization chart, including the roles and responsibilities of the key positions in the organization.
First, decide what you do as CEO – or want to do.
For the other roles, either hire employees or consultants to help.
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael E. Gerber includes an example of how Thomas Watson did this as he founded IBM.
This process can have surprising results. Another CEO doubled the size of the company after buying out his founding partner’s position. The partner turned out to be one of the top inhibitors to growth.
A company seeks to leverage the difference between information from traditional
media and the richer information available through social media. Their objective,
using publicly available information, is to identify individuals’ specific plans
or preferences to better target their clients’ marketing dollars. Can social
marketing leverage your competitive position?
from the CEOs:
principal value proposition is the ability to mine publicly available information
from consumers through social media and make it useful to advertisers who want
to reach those customers.
the company’s technology allows access to shared data which can be used by many
companies this is less expensive than clients’ trying to go it alone.
most important differentiation will be the timeliness of data. Many firms
collect data after the fact – for example after a key purchase is made. What
advertisers desire is the ability to anticipate purchases. An example is a
consumer’s plan to buy a house. This information is valuable to many companies.
If data is mineable, it is valuable.
essential question is how the client will make more money from data being
near-real time. If the client can use the company’s data to enhance their marketing
database, this adds value.
partnering with the agencies that B2B and B2C companies hire to advertise their
products. Even the largest consumer B2B and B2C companies work with outside ad
agencies because these companies have better access to targeted customer lists
than the companies.
a subscription model, offering access to unique, current data to many customers.
The differentiating value is the currency and timeliness of the data. A
subscription model generates an ongoing revenue stream.
A CEO closely watches company cash flow so assure that it is enough to fund the
company during both upswings and downturns. The company is doing well, but the
CEO is concerned about a near-term potential downturn. Where so you find
sources of capital or savings?
from the CEOs:
anticipating future cash flow needs, planning to breakeven may not be enough.
Anticipate contingencies and cut enough to be profitable. This is particularly
true if a downturn is longer than anticipated.
a close look at operating capacity.
current capacity based on staff count and average billing rates.
best – worst case scenarios given market trends. Compare each against current capacity
and evaluate the gaps. This will help set staffing levels to assure that the
company is not overcommitted in case of a downturn.
future cash flow for non-payables based on experience. This may indicate the
need to cut expenses deeper to assure that the company survives an extended
a recovery, pull back those who were let go.
there is underutilized time from the team, pitch this to investors to obtain
equity financing for new IP.
selling a key customer on a royalty model. This can be a small royalty – maybe 1-2%
of products sold based on the company’s contribution. This is pure profit to the company, and provides
an annuity revenue stream, even if small.
at banks which are aggressively expanding in the region. If they are hungry for
new clients they will offer attractive rates.
are better sources of funding than investors. A good client can become a strategic
partner. Do some homework before first before making the call to a key contact.
the level of financing that is needed.
where it would be used and what kind of return the company can yield on the
Situation: A finance company wants to revise its web portal. The objective is to provide up-to-date specialized financial information to clients for a subscription fee. Currently information is provided directly to clients. The portal will allow clients to manipulate the data provided to gain greater insight into their own strategies and operations. How do you launch an Internet portal?
Advice from the CEOs:
This presents an opportunity to bring several niche services together under one umbrella.
The plan is to make money by selling subscriptions. A challenge will be determining how much clients are willing to pay for this service.
Perform an analysis to determine how much clients can either make or save by utilizing the new service.
Try a menu approach with varying fees depending upon the number and frequency of services accessed.
To more quickly gain recognition and credibility, consider partnering with an existing well-established entity such as Bloomberg. Design your portal to integrate your data into their existing traffic flow.
This reduces the development effort because the partner already has the shell and a well-established market presence.
As an alternative to partnering, it may be best for the company to develop the portal on its own.
In this case, if there is a tightly defined target audience and the company already possesses all the equipment and programming required to launch its own portal, it may be best to carefully select initial clients and for the company to do everything itself.
If the company has the necessary access to key target clients, this will save the need to split revenue with a partner.
Situation: A component company is struggling to set financial goals. Its sales are dependent upon purchases by large customers whose orders are influenced by the economy and demand for their products. How do you set goals in a volatile economy?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the principal drivers that define the market? Have they changed? If so, how? Focusing on principal drivers creates more clarity in a volatile economy.
Rather than looking at the company as a producer of components, focus on the critical value add that the company’s products provide to customers. By focusing beyond the product, strive to become a key partner to customers. This can allow you to develop retainer contracts with key customers rather than working solely on a project basis.
The Holy Grail is predictable recurring revenue, for example on a service contract basis. The establishment of retainer contracts can help the company move in this direction.
The company’s customers have increasingly placed rush orders because they have been hesitant to commit to steady production. This, in turn, increases the costs to the company because they are being asked to alter their production schedule to accommodate rush orders. It’s fair to publicize and charge expedite fees for rush orders, just as delivery companies increase their charges for expedited delivery. Expedite fees will cover the cost of altering production schedules and can also add cushion to company profits.
A portion of the company’s business is supplying consumable parts that the OEM marks up and distributes to end users for their equipment.
As an alternative look at parts manufacturing/sourcing, storage and distribution direct to the customer as a separate business opportunity and take this over from the OEM – it may be a nit to the OEM that they would be willing to give up for a reliable service alternative.
Situation: A company has built a strong prototype line capable of handling projected volume for the near-term as they scale up production. Their long-term plan is a fabless model through manufacturing partners. They have solid IP counsel and protection. What are the most critical elements of scale-up? How do you generate scalable manufacturing?
Advice from the CEOs:
The answer will depend on the product strategy, if the near-term focus is on quick tactical wins.
The most critical elements of the scale-up will be:
The planned speed of the scale-up. A tactical approach, which will make limited demands on production near-term supports a prudent scale-up plan.
Having the right business development talent to generate quick wins with smaller volume opportunities to feed the scale-up.
When you are ready for larger volume – and your scale-up capacity can support this – hire an experienced sales professional who is known in the industry and who can bring you some relatively quick higher volume contracts.
Que near-term contracts according to the sales cycle.
Design cycle – build awareness of your capacity among significant market players and focus on quick turn-around to respond to their demand.
Qualification cycle will be longer, perhaps 6 months. As your brand awareness builds push for qualification orders which will be larger, but still within near-term capacity.
Focus business development efforts on building strong awareness across your target companies. Some companies tend to limit early knowledge of vendor capabilities between their divisions until they have confidence in the vendor’s ability to deliver. Optimize customer awareness by:
Cultivating business partners who can facilitate a high-level approach within your target customer companies.
Start creating a small forum of industry savvy individuals who can become your champions. Leverage this forum to spread your message and bring you opportunities.
Situation: A company is interested in partnering with a larger company to market a suite of services. They have identified two good candidates. They haven’t worked with partners in the past and are curious about how other companies work with marketing partners. How do you evaluate marketing partners?
Advice from the CEOs:
The danger of working with a single marketing partner is that all of your eggs are in one basket. Your success in this relationship will depend upon the success of the marketing partner. This, in turn, will depend on the amount of attention that they pay to marketing your services, and on how actively their sales department sells your services. The danger to you is loss of control over the marketing and sales process.
Another company had a similar situation several years ago. At that time, the advice of the CEOs was to not select an exclusive partner, but instead to work with two different marketing partners, even though they are competitors. The company followed this advice, and it has worked like a charm.
Start with a position that you want a non-exclusive relationship. If a potential partner insists on exclusivity then ask for fixed guarantees of business and fixed minimums.
Other companies around the table work in partnership with competing companies all of the time. All of the partners value the services that these companies provide, and the relationships are harmonious.
If a possible partner insists on an exclusive relationship, another alternative is to split territories and supplement your agreements with most favored nation clauses.
Going back to the original question, provided that the terms offered by the marketing partner/partners are favorable, you won’t really know how they will perform until you establish a relationship and monitor it over time. Exit clauses and conditions will be an important part of any marketing agreement.
Situation: A company has clients who are interested in projects for which the company’s partners already have partial designs. There is an opportunity to leverage these partial designs into development of full solutions for their clients. How should the company approach this in a way that satisfies their customers and is fair to their partners? How do you set up co-development partnerships?
Advice from the CEOs:
Given this opportunity it is no longer important who performed what part of the development. As long as your partners have quoted you what they believe to be a fair price for their development pieces, you are free to accept their price, complete development to your clients’ specifications, and sell the full solution to the client at market prices.
What you bring to the table is the opportunity to rapidly monetize the technology. This is something that your partners can’t do, so by filling this role you are acting in the interest of all parties.
What you charge for your work and the full solution depends on the potential value to the client. Time is money, and delivery now is worth a premium price to a client who needs your solution and wants to release their product as soon as possible.
This strategy is particularly applicable to early stage companies who need to release their initial products and start generating revenue.
Take a note from Bill Gates – sell the product for a good price and then buy or acquire the supply.
Situation: A company’s major customers are expanding their manufacturing in China. They want the company to be able to service their Chinese locations. If you don’t already have a presence in China, what are the best ways to create a presence in China? In addition, how do you get the cash produced by these operations out of China?
Advice from the CEOs:
Increasingly, multinational businesses with operations in China seek vendors who can seamlessly handle all of their domestic and international needs. In China, the objective is to be able to translate service output into English so that US managers can monitor the output and assure that Chinese operations are meeting the same or similar basic standards as their domestic and other foreign operations. If your company can’t do this large contracts are at risk.
Look for local partners, including partners located in Hong Kong or Japan who can deliver service in China to your standards. You want partners who you can risk-manage.
It is interesting to look at the Japanese approach to China. Japanese concerns known to CEOs around the table only transfer highly developed, late stage manufacturing projects to China.
As you look at partners who have capabilities in China there are a number of qualities that you want to investigate:
Competence and honesty.
Loyalty – a partner who will stick with your company and not just take the new knowledge and start to compete with you.
Absence of graft and record of compliance with the Foreign Corrupt Practices regulations.
If you work with Chinese partners, work with two of them. Do not give them exclusive agreements, and do not tell them about one-another. This is critical to protecting any IP that you will be using in China.
We’ve learned over the past year that taking cash from your Chinese operations out of China is difficult. The Chinese government imposes heavy fees and levies on companies exporting earned capital because they want this capital to remain in China. Given this, you must ask yourself whether this is important to you.