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.
Situation: A company has a successful product, but the market is changing. Previous customers were savvy, but the market is shifting to more naïve customers who don’t understand how to use the product. How so you respond when the market for your product changes?
What you are seeing is a typical market evolution. (See Clayton Christensen’s book Crossing the Chasm.)
When a new product is introduced, early adopters are typically savvy users who quickly grasp the utility of the product. They don’t mind some inconvenience provided the product is useful.
As the market matures and starts to attract mainstream customers, new users will not be as sophisticated and expect the product to be easy to use.
If you don’t adapt to these new customers your product will languish as new competitors enter the market with user-friendly adaptations.
The path is clear. Figure out how to make your product easy to use. If you use a GUI (graphic user interface) make the GUI intuitive. Allow customers to get what they need with as few choices or clicks as possible.
These changes may alienate more sophisticated customers, but they usually only represent a small segment of your potential market.
Add a customer-friendly service component. This builds a service income base around the product. You have different options.
Align the customer with appropriate level of resource – you may not require high level resources to assist the customer, particularly if the product is one where the service consultant only needs to be one page ahead of the user.
Outsource the service component to a partner or use independent contractors.
Consider a remote monitor system:
A dashboard interface with easy to read visuals or messages that tell the customer when service is needed. This will enable them to perform simple maintenance using your tools, or alert them when they need to contact you for service.
An example is Norton’s evolving system of products that enables an unsophisticated home computer user to either use Norton tools to perform routine maintenance, or directs them to the Norton web site for assistance or more sophisticated solutions.
Situation: A private company creates a liquidity event every 3-5 years: selling pieces of the company, product-based spin-offs, or potentially the whole company. Most frequently, engineering efforts spin off opportunities for new product-based companies. How do you measure company or business valuation with the objective of maximizing shareholder value and liquidity?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at a model to create productized service offerings that are replicable and predictable. This can create a stream of spin-offs to generate ongoing liquidity events. Jack Stack’s company, Springfield Remanufacturing has done this very effectively over the past two decades. He describes his methods in The Great Game of Business.
Regarding selling the whole company, the most important measure is strong company performance in recent quarters. Focus on internal metrics as well as revenue and profitability performance. Put together a solid 3 to 4 quarters of profitability with an upward trend to increase appeal to potential acquirers. The current market requires both a longer history of profitable performance and more data points of performance than was required in the previous decades.
To compliment internal measures develop a relationship with a business broker who can help you assess the value of either product or company spin-offs. A broker can determine the current value of the opportunity as well as a timeline and critical actions to enhance opportunity value.
Consider a roll-up of your company and one or more of your business partners.
Look for similar or compatible financial structures and complimentary capabilities.
A roll-up can broaden your range of products and services. As a bigger entity you have more options, and can enhance your ability either to generate spin-offs or become a more interesting acquisition candidate.
The downside is the time that it takes to complete the roll-up if you feel you have a short window of opportunity.
Interview with Trevor Shanski, Founder, eWORDofMOUTH, Inc.
Situation: A company with a new lead generation solution is ahead of the curve for their market segment, and ready to transition from a product development focus to a full-scale business development focus. This means developing new capabilities on a limited budget. How have you made the transition from product development to business development?
Advice from Trevor Shanski:
The reality of early stage companies is that they live on scarce resources. Founders and early executives have to be able to work for lean base salaries during the learning curve. They will be individuals who have selective characteristics.
They will be able to accept conservative salaries near-term, as well as during financial bumps in the road. Their focus will be growing the company’s value and their incentive will be having a material stake in the company.
They will have limited outside demands on their time and attention so that they can work long hours.
They will appreciate the challenge of heavily performance-based compensation, with the potential to win big if they can deliver.
They will have a network of connections and relationships upon whom they can call to gain early business traction.
Characteristics for successful early stage executives include the ability to work intimately with the founding team. Early stage companies are idea and capability incubators where things change quickly. Players must be able to get the job done with little support.
It is critical to have a clearly defined set of expectations for the first few months as you bring on new executives. Early foci will include:
Immersion in understanding the product capability and possibilities.
Sitting down with a white board and openly looking at fresh thoughts for how the market should be approached. Founders frequently suffer from tunnel vision after a long period of development and need a fresh outside perspective on the market and messaging. What partnerships could accelerate market development? What knowledgeable experts should be leveraged to build awareness? What potential is out there that the founders are not seeing?
After these factors are defined, the next step is to develop an action plan and milestones to guide plan execution, plus a budget and alternatives under different resource scenarios.
Once the plan is in place, the focus will be to gain early feedback on the company’s product and capabilities, and then iterate quickly to find the right message to target significant segments of the market.
The focus of early stage companies has to be on quickly developing plans, and then executing.
Situation: A well-established B2B company is starting to work with B2C retailers. It is finding that both the internal and external perspectives of B2C companies are very different. How does a B2B company work differently with B2C companies?
Advice from Ross Johnston:
In the OEM market, manufacturers control all warranty obligations, have tightly controlled procedures for handling and tracking returned goods and are very focused on product quality and operational efficiency.
Leading B2C retailers have a very different perspective. Their focus is on the customer: on encouraging great customer experience and repeat customer visits. Products are sold to big box retailers without warranty, and the retailers provide their own warranty programs. This results in far more returns than for OEMs. Further, product is returned for a wide variety of reasons from failure to work as advertised to the customer simply changing their mind. There is also a wide range in how returned products are handled – from throwing them in the dumpster to returning undamaged items to stock, and few records are kept.
Our challenge is to help retailer and big box customers design, develop and implement recycling and cost recovery systems in our market. This means both developing procedures for the retailers and new channels to cost recovery markets.
First, they need processes to triage returned goods into broad categories: new or near new goods condition for resale; goods which require refurbishing or recycling; and goods for environmentally appropriate disposal.
Second, we have created a software tracking solution – a reverse logistics program – to track returned goods from receipt to their eventual disposition with full end-to-end P&L analysis. This can yield up to a 45% gross margin on returned goods which is shared with the retailer.
We develop additional processes that vary by retailer to help them handle the flow of returned goods.
We want to provide the retailer with an end-to-end operational platform that turns a cost center into a profit center and reduces long-term liability exposure that accompanies landfill disposal.
Situation: A company has a long relationship with its initial client, which provides the company with key intellectual property. This client handles all marketing, sales and distribution for the company’s principal products, but only accesses 20% of the market. The client is concerned about having its image associated with expansion into markets that the company wishes to pursue. How do you structure a deal that enables you to access the broader market without offending the client?
Advice from the CEOs:
The issues for the client are public relations and liability. They don’t want to be associated with certain segments of the larger market as it may compromise customer perceptions of their core business. Further, they want to be indemnified should they face damages from your forays into the larger market. It is important that you address their concerns.
Sit down with the key client. Pose a problem that will generate the solution that you seek and let them solve it on their own. Then seek an agreement with the client on carve-outs within the larger target market with which they are agreeable.
Build an external company with different branding to approach the larger market, without jeopardizing the relationship with the key client. If ownership and management of the two entities are the same be aware that this is a thin veil.
You may increase opportunity for success if you build your own successor product – one tailored for the larger market – while your key client is paying you for current business. Once the product is built, ask the client whether they want to be involved and if so, on what terms. This enhances your bargaining position and reduces your downside risk.
Expand your offering, where current products are part of a larger offering. You have two alternatives: go there anyway, or go there with the client. If the client decides that they don’t like what’s happening and opens the market this could be ideal for you.