Situation: A CEO perceives that the company has a conflict between performance and planned timelines. Of concern is performance against key metrics like pipeline performance and closing new business. A sense of urgency isn’t present. How do you create and communicate urgency?
Advice from the CEOs:
Management knowledge of company financial status and performance against key metrics – particularly key drivers like pipeline performance – is critical to their being able to assist the company.
A company decision to focus on project profitability may have the unintended consequence of exacerbating the lack of urgency. If revenue growth lags, the only option for managers who are tasked to hit a profitability target is to cut expenses. This delays projects and can negatively impact morale.
Accountability comes from meetings. Not 1-on-1 meetings but team meetings. Peer pressure is an important component of accountability. Nobody wants to be the individual who is consistently behind on projects or initiatives.
The challenge may be more external than internal. When business closes more slowly then everything else slows down: hiring, new development, investment and profits. All of these are driven by new business acquisition.
Another CEO has same issue with her contracts. All contracts include a timeline. If work or deliverables slip, the customer wants to slow down delivery and billings. Her solution is to include stop work and delivery delay fees in the contracts.
What actions would others take to address this?
Institute progress payments. For example, instead of charging 50% up front and 50% on contract completion, shift to, for example, 50/30/20 with the 30% due on completion of project framework. This way, only 20% can be delayed due of customer timing issues.
Built financing into total pricing. The customer is free to delay projects, or aspects of projects, but there is a charge calculated into delayed delivery which covers the cost of money and additional management.
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.
Situation: The CEO of a service company needs to expand its market base due to concerns that a significant service and referrals partner may decide to stop working with them. A break-up would have significant impact on salaries, effort and focus. The company’s priority is to expand client growth to minimize the impact of a break-up. How do you expand your market base?
Advice from the CEOs:
To expand or build a market requires a champion. Someone like the company’s founder who has the passion and contacts to build new business.
Second, incentives must be established to reward success bringing in new clients. These incentives must have teeth – no success, no incentive. No safety valves.
Third, create a plan to support the new business development – including marketing, event attendance, etc.
Initially, be selective and target just a few highly desirable new clients to test and refine the client attraction model before expanding to the broader potential client audience.
Build a set of case studies of services and results for new clients.
Track and prove out the profitability and workability of this model.
How should the effort to expand the market base be constructed?
Start with preparation. Research the current prospect list to assure that they are good prospects. Also look at the current company culture – do the company’s strengths align with what is needed to attract and serve new clients?
If the research shows that a significant number of prospects are different from current clients, think of this as a new channel. Create a different business unit to specialize in serving these clients. Hire a team to focus exclusively on the new client group, with proper incentives tied to achievement with these prospects.
Another company had a similar choice. They created a program to increase their market base and went after it with full focus. It took five years to accomplish vs. the two years that they had planned. Nevertheless, the results have been worth the effort and expense. If the company believes in the model, invest in it.
A CEO is concerned that too much of her company’s business is focused on two
few customers. The loss of a single large customer can potentially mean a significant
hit to revenue and profitability. How do you diversify your customer base?
from the CEOs:
If current cash flow is good, the company should consider purchasing diversity by buying a company.
Consider acquiring a supplier that is in good shape, but with lower margins. They will have the infrastructure to run their own operation, and the purchasing company will have the additional profitability to make the combined entity more interesting.
Given the company’s existing cash generation potential, there are creative ways to finance such an acquisition.
Why is this a good strategy?
Purchasing another company can instantly expand the customer base.
Diversifying the company opens additional options to build long-term sustainability.
A purchase strategy can bring in a ready-made and smoothly running infrastructure in the form of the purchased company.
Diversification can boost the value of the combined company on a more diversified business base. It might allow the company to combine low volume, high profit lines with high volume, lower profit lines. There are advantages to each of these business models.
Where can such a company be found?
Look both inside and outside of the current geographic base.
A candidate could be a higher volume but lower profit supplier of one of the company’s current customers that does not compete with the company’s current offering. Alternately, look at companies with more diversified customer bases in a related industry.
Look at the niches that the company’s current customers serve.
What similar niches exist? Are there acquisition candidates there?
Look at the functionality that the company’s products add for its clients. In what other industries would similar functionality be of value?
As these questions are asked, look for candidates that have complementary customer sets, customer bases, and geographical reach.
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.
A company has a good accounting system, but the CEO is concerned that they are
not making the best use of metrics to drive the business. He senses a lack of
shared understanding of key metrics and goals. He senses the appearance of
financial disarray, despite his clear grasp of the business. Do you have
control of the numbers?
from the CEOs:
A good accounting system may be in place, but if it is not being used to drive the business and monitor the achievement of milestones then the company is not gaining the best advantage from it.
If there is a sense of financial disarray, this suggests that the company lacks financial metrics. Employees and managers may be doing their jobs, but without financial metrics it is difficult to tell how well they are doing their jobs.
Start with basic metrics:
Where are sales coming from?
What is the profitability of sales by customer segment and product line?
What is the company’s profitability?
What are the profitability trends of the company and key segments of the business?
Once a company is tracking these metrics, it is easier to focus managers and employees on products, product development, operations, sales and marketing issues that are most essential to the company’s success.
The company needs the equivalent of a CFO. This means a financial person, not an accountant. An individual who knows how to look at the numbers. A CFO will help the company to
See the strategic trends in the business,
Uncover the best opportunities for growth, and
Understand the greatest potential threats to growth of the business.
Situation: A company wants to expand to new sites. It’s business model relies on high levels of customer service, with high customer retention and efficiency. The challenge is that the model is low margin, because only a few employees are billable. How do you finance site expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
To evaluate profitability and start-up time create a low-cost prototype site to test the model and collect data.
Develop a template with a high likelihood of survival over the first 6-12 months when investment will outweigh income.
Consider a SWAT resource team to accelerate early success for new sites.
Key areas of focus:
Understand the value of the business. For example, is it:
Improving client operational efficiency?
Building the team?
Response time to client needs?
From experience define the most important variables for success:
What is front office, what is back office?
How important are the dynamics between key people? Is it better to hire key people as the number of sites expands or grow them internally.
Determine what is being sold, with a reasonable prospect of return – methodology or services?
Consider a franchise model. The model must show a reasonable return to the prospective owner, including the cost of franchise purchase and start-up costs.
As franchisor, it is important to know what this model looks like to a prospective franchisee; however, take care not to create a representation to which would be bind the franchisor as a promise.
A successful franchise should have a branded presence.
Offer potential franchisees a guarantee: if after one year the net costs to establish and maintain the site are below a certain level, the franchisor will credit the difference between their estimate and the actual net costs in Year 2.
MacDonald’s does not allow franchisees to choose store locations. Similarly, the franchisor can choose locations, determine the availability of key talent, select anchor clients, and develop a reasonable estimate of the value of a new franchise before selling it. This increase the value for the franchise sale and creates a more predictable ROI for new franchisees.
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.
Situation: Revenue for a product and craft business has been slipping. At the same time, their competition has been disappearing. It is clear to the CEO that demand is and will continue to be present because of the market that the company serves. The question is how to maintain the profitability to survive long-term. How do you build in a declining market?
Advice from the CEOs:
The keys to recovery in a business like this will be in two areas: improving sales and increasing margins.
To increase sales the choices are more aggressive marketing and selling to existing customers or creating new markets like previous generations did when they started the business. Consider services that you could bundle with your products to augment the ways that customers use them. It will be the responsibility of your sales and marketing teams to demonstrate these product/service bundles to increase sales both to new and existing customers. This will help to solve the revenue slippage.
The other side is ongoing efforts to reduce cost which will, in turn, improve your margins. Costs can be reduced in creative ways that are not obvious. These include improvements in purchasing, reduction of waste, recycling of component materials, and inventory controls. It will be the responsibility of your production, purchasing and inventory management teams to develop these solutions. Assure that these teams are recognized and rewarded for their solutions.
Look at the segments of your product offering. Are they declining at the same rate or are there differences? This will help you to focus your efforts, as a company, to grow market share even if the overall market is declining.
Other suggestions for increasing sales:
Take advantage of the craft trends. Do this with NEW talent – not tired talent.
Consider partnerships and collaborations.
Set up contests and craft classes.
Look at how other industries promote to the craft industry and follow their lead.
Situation: A mid-sized company has learned that a much larger company is entering their geography and market niche. This company is known to enter new markets with a low pricing strategy to “buy” market share. How do you respond to significant new competition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Accept the fact that you will lose some business; particularly from customers who driven more by price than quality and service. The flip side is that these customers are likely not your best customers.
Research the reputation and business practices of the new entrant in their traditional territory. What is their reputation? What are their weaknesses? Do your homework by networking with their current competitors and customers.
Take a lesson from those who have survived a move by Walmart into their territory:
Boutiques survive Walmart – especially those that focus on personal service. Upgrade your customer base based on personal service.
Use your knowledge of the marketplace and your long term relationships to your advantage – including your reputation with existing customers when going after new customers.
You may remain more profitable than the larger company, on a per transaction basis, based on your knowledge of the territory or business niche.
Don’t assume that all large companies are Walmarts. Walmart has a unique set of talents and a tightly controlled process. This may not translate to other markets – especially those involving personalized service.
If you are a family business, consider promoting your “old world skill” and established reputation and expertise.
Key Words: Competition, Geography, Market Niche, Walmart, Price, Personal Service, Reputation, Contacts, Boutique, Profitability, Family Business