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.
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
A company is concerned because recent accidents on the job have boosted their Modification
or MOD rate and increased company expenses. They have held workshops with
employees and talked about increasing safety, but employees have been lax in
complying with safety measures because these are time-consuming. How do you
boost employee ownership of job safety?
from the CEOs:
is key to the bottom line and future of the company. Enlist employees to
monitor each other and point out when others are acting unsafely.
/ encourage employees to “harass” (in a playful sense) each other if they see
someone not working safely.
caught in inappropriate unsafe behavior is penalized and required to pay $1
into a kitty which is spent on a company-wide benefit such as a pizza lunch.
a presentation, graphically showing the negative impact that a high MOD rate has
on the company, and on employees’ incomes. Hold a company meeting, give this
presentation and discuss with them how costly hazardous behavior is, and how
jobs can ultimately be lost as a result.
nothing else works, explore creating a shell corporation to employ the employees
who are subject to potential injury and effectively “outsource” them like high tech
does. This may lower the MOD rate to 100
as a new business.
for other insurers who will lower the company’s MOD rate.
consequences for flagrant violations of safety guidelines.
thorough background checks before hiring new workers. Avoid new hires with a
history of disability claims.
the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of
fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and
generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for
project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by
clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize
it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There
maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades
as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively
extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the
box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an
ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar
to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the
course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade
downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue
a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use
less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price
additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics?
Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year
analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may
enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip
in project demand.
sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating
new business? Most companies split these
functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is
hunting – few sales people excel at both.
in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s
down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look
at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of
it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson
from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed
price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client
requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in
Situation: A CEO is considering a new revenue model for his company. The existing model is profitable and stable, but not scalable. A new model, and perhaps additional locations may be needed to add scalability. How do you assess the risks of the model? What steps can be taken to reduce these risks. How to you evaluate a new revenue model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Project both the current and new models on a spreadsheet. What do profitability and return look like over time based on current trends?
Include assumptions about adding new customers within the model. Consider capacity constraints at the present location. Add start-up investment needed for the new model. Does overall profitability increase in the projections and will this adequately cover new customer acquisition costs?
Are performance standards for the current and new models different? Would it make sense to have different teams managing the models? What kind of experience will be required in the people who will build the new business? Account for personnel additions and start-up costs in the financial projections.
Critically evaluate the upfront financial exposure as new clients are signed up for the new model. Consider hybrid options which can be added to customer contracts. Examples include:
A variable flat fee model. Customers contracted under the new model will receive services up to X hours per month for the flat fee, with hours over this billed separately.
How do current time and materials rates compare with industry averages? If they are high, it is not necessary to quote existing rates to new model customers. Create a new rate schedule just for new model customers. Taking a lower rate under the flat fee model will not cover all costs and profit; however, it will at least partially cover utilization exposure and a higher rate for additional hours can make up the difference.
During the ramp up period of a new operating unit, client choice is critical. If, based on observations and responses in client questionnaires, heavy early work is anticipated, charge an initial set-up fee. Alternatively, ask for a deposit of 3-4 months to cover set-up exposure. If either at the end of the service contract or after a burn-in period some or all these funds have not been used, the client is refunded the unused deposit. This can both cover early exposure and make it easier to sign new customers for the new unit.
Draft contracts under the new model to include one-time fees in the case of certain events – e.g., a server crashes in the first 9 months of the contract, or an unplanned move within the first X months of the contract. These resemble the exceptions written into standard insurance policies. They can be explained as necessary because standard contract pricing is competitive and does not anticipate these events within the first X months of the contract. Most companies will bet against this risk. Those who do not may know something about their situation that they are not revealing. In the latter case you will be alerted to potential exposure.
Consider a variable declining rate for the new model. The contract price is X for the first year, and, assuming there are no hiccups, will be reduced by some percent in following years. This resembles auto insurance discounts for long term policy holders with good driver records.
Adding hybrid options may make it easier to sign new clients while covering cost exposure. The view of the CEOs is that most clients will underestimate their IT labor needs and will bet against their true level of risk. Provided that the new model delivers the same service that supports the company’s reputation, once clients experience the company’s service, they will be hooked.
An additional benefit to hybrid options may be faster client acquisition ramps within new satellite units and faster attainment of positive ROI.
Situation: Edgar Allen Poe’s “Surviving the Maelström,” is a tale is of three brothers whose fishing boat is caught in a monstrous whirlpool, and how the reaction of each brother determines his fate. Similarly, in times of uncertainty, our ability to react with either panic or a rational, reasoned response determines our fate. How do you survive a maelström?
Advice of the CEOs:
Based on Poe’s story, you need to replace fear with assurance, uncertainty with boldness, and doubt with conviction.
There are several potential financial bubbles forming including student loans and negative interest rate loans to sovereign governments. Both, in their own way, pose a threat to the international and domestic financial systems and could rapidly impact borrowing costs for companies. The solutions are to stay in ongoing contact with customers, and to stay light and flexible as companies so that you can adapt to market changes.
For Internet companies, the shift to Freemium offerings (a base product for free with pay as you go functional add-ons) makes it more difficult to design viable business models, and means new competition for established companies in low capital cost businesses. Again, a solution is to stay in ongoing contact with customers, constantly reinforcing your value proposition and the reality of switching costs.
Creative Destruction – particularly the emergence of new companies that threaten large customers and can change the value perception of suppliers’ core competencies. Solutions include ongoing communication with customers seeing what they see as “the next big thing,” focusing on continually improving our own core competencies, and possibly teaming with the more promising emerging companies.
The illusion that advertising will pay for everything – in reality, advertising dollars are a scarce resource like all other resources. Solutions include testing our own value-adds as an ongoing process, and creating fast-fail models to cost-effectively test our own promotions.
Definitions of value and productivity are no longer stable; all depends on the method of measurement. A solution is to remain aware of the innovator’s dilemma and to continually renew our value propositions.
A workforce in flux where young people don’t want to work for what they perceive as “old line” companies, as well as early-retiring baby boomers who may learn in 3-5 years that they can’t afford retirement. Solutions include focusing on employee engagement, building more flexible and “liberating” business models, and teaming younger with more experienced workers to cross-train each other.
Situation: A company targets mid-sized clients with pricing that is similar to its competitors. They believe that their principal differentiation is their relationship with their clients. The problem is that this is also what all of their competitors claim. They are considering testing a new pricing concept – a monthly fixed fee that will provide a pre-negotiated set of services at a favorable discount, with a weekly presence in their clients’ offices. How to you test a new service delivery model?
Advice from the CEOs:
This looks like an appealing concept. With this arrangement there is no clock ticking and the client may view your various services as a more open menu of options available to them.
Another company has a similar relationship with their CPA firm and have both enjoyed this and are using more services from this firm.
Just a regular presence in the office is worth the retainer.
Another appeal is that this allows regular participation in management and Board meetings.
Another CEO offers a similar program for her professional service company’s clients and have found it successful.
Since there appears to be strong support for this model within the group, what is the best way to implement this new offer?
Negotiate an initial monthly rate for a set level of services as a retainer without a clock.
Agree to a periodic review and adjustment of services and pricing – perhaps quarterly – based on the time and services that have been provided during the preceding period.
How do you sell this program to those within your own company who are skeptical?
Try the program with three clients on a limited trial basis and measure it.
Situation: A company has developed a number of initiatives and priorities which are important to the success of the company. All of the initiatives are daunting. What do they need to do to get all of these accomplished? How do you manage multiple priorities?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with corporate level objectives and set these independently from your initiatives. Pick your top corporate goals and objectives – financial, performance, and so on. Once this is in place, rate your initiatives in terms of how they help to meet your company objectives.
Create an initiative list. Measure the upside and risk for each initiative. Based on the results of your analysis classify each initiative: critical, important, or nice to have. This, plus alignment between initiatives your corporate objectives will indicate which initiatives are most critical to company success.
Every company needs long and short term goals. Use these to align and prioritize initiatives. Only and your team you can tell what is important and importance is a matter of your strategic focus and objectives.
They key to accomplishing multiple objectives is focus. Focus on your top 2-3 initiatives first – if you can reasonably handle this many. Once these are accomplished, focus on the next 2-3, and so forth.
Look at your competitors – where are the opportunities in the marketplace. How will your initiatives make you more competitive?
What does your leadership development plan look like? If you plan to add new leadership, include in your thinking a transition plan to new leadership, taking into account your multi-year timeline.
Situation: A company offers a service that can potentially boost clients’ revenues by 50% or more. However, the CEO has found it difficult to communicate this value proposition to potential clients. While some clients understand and have bought the company’s service, too many others have not. How do you communicate your value proposition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Not everybody will buy any service, no matter what advantages it offers. Here are steps to take:
Make a list of clients that you have closed, and those that you have not.
Identify whether there is a difference in the profile of the clients that you’ve closed and those that you didn’t.
From the commonalities among those clients that have accepted your value proposition, create an ideal customer profile.
Use this profile to pre-qualify potential new clients and assure that they meet this profile before investing in sales efforts.
By focusing sales efforts on those clients that you are most likely to close, you will improve your close rate and also reduce your sales cost to revenue ratio.
As you cultivate a new prospect, identify those individuals within the client company who can block your sale. Make these individuals heroes for supporting your offering. Offer them appealing learning retreats. Offer augmentations that appeal to the unique needs of the client. Raise your prices to fund these augmentations, but more than cover these costs with boosted revenues to the client.
Focus on the key WIIFM – “What’s in it for me” – that will appeal to key purchase influencers. Enlist these people as your evangelists within the client.
Emphasize not just financial benefits, but quality of life benefits that will accrue to clients through your service. Back this with a guarantee that you feel comfortable making.
Situation: A CEO is concerned that his company’s sales and marketing efforts are not effective. Too often the sales team finds a good prospect, but fails to convert them to the company’s offering. How can the company improve its sales conversion rate? How do you optimize your buy/sell funnels?
Advice from the CEOs:
To improve both your marketing and sales functions, it is essential to move the company’s perspective from the Sales side of the Seller’s Funnel to the Marketing side of the Buyer’s Funnel. Only by understanding your customers can you:
Create awareness of their needs,
Acknowledge interest in a solution to their needs,
Consider options and develop preferences among the possible solutions, and
Determine how to effectively communicate with them through your marketing and sales efforts.
In today’s world, a quality web site is essential to your business. The objective of the web site is to convince the customer that they want to talk to or do business with you. Your web site must tell them:
Who you are.
What your values are.
Why you are special.
And it must include a “call to action” – a convincing reason for them to call you.
To better qualify your prospective clients:
Develop a scripted telephone interview that can be conducted by your sales people or less expensive inside sales/marketing people to qualify prospects before you spend the time and effort for an in-person sales call.
Use targeted marketing programs to leverage references to prospective customers.
Have lots of conversations with potential customers to understand their needs. Tailor your value creation process to address these needs.
Special Thanks to Craig Olson of MXL Partners for his contribution to this discussion.