Situation: A CEO is in conversation about combining with another company. One option is for the other company to absorb his company. What are the pros and cons of this option? Are there other options that will better serve both owners and employees? How do you improve a business model?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a great model today. The option under consideration looks like a double compromise – it alters both the company’s strengths and its fundamental business model.
The company’s strength is lean and mean – moving from a hourly/fee-based model with high utilization to a salary-based model, as the option on the table proposes, will change this. It also changes the dynamics of who will work for the company.
The magic of the current model is that it attracts top talent by offering them the best of two worlds: high individual billing rates with ready access to billable hours. Over the long term this has also made it very profitable.
Explore an alternative – how does the company transform its existing business model while retaining its strengths – lean, mean, low overhead – while transforming the model so that it builds “products,” perception, and recognition for the company?
A longer-term alternative is to look for a financial acquisition of the company. It has good net margins, good cash flow, and even spins out cash. This is valuable to a financial buyer.
What is the role of the CEO right now? Another CEO was asked “Do you have a job or a company? What happens if you leave? If the company dies, you have a job. But it may not be necessary to change much to become a company.”
Situation: The CEO of a start-up software company focuses on connecting potential parties to business opportunities. Early signs are that this offering has legs and potential parties have responded positively. The critical question for the CEO is how best to turn interest into revenue. How to you monetize your business model?
Advice from the CEOs:
The first step is to segment the audience and determine both the potential for each segment to both benefit from and fund the service that they receive.
Individual contributors may not have a lot of financial resources but may be interested in participating as employees or providers of expertise or services. They also may know others and can spread the word.
Collaborating organizations may be able to offer both funding and services to help build and sustain momentum.
Companies have funds to support the effort provided they see value to their bottom lines as a result.
Suggest a fee or contribution for services from companies who will benefit. Provide guidelines or a sliding scale of fees depending upon duration of services provided to the company. Make it clear that moneys earned will be reinvested to increase the range and depth of services offered.
Suggest a sliding fee scale for individual contributors based on the financial benefit that they receive.
For companies and collaborating organizations offer levels of membership or recognition for support based on benefit received.
For all segments – start with small, timed fees and increase these as the model proves its benefit to them.
Situation: A technology company has established a leadership position in their niche. Nevertheless, they struggle with individual performance and buy-in to company performance. The CEO asks whether increasing ownership through stock incentives in a non-public company is an effective incentive for employees. How do you strengthen internal incentives and ownership?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the past, employees voiced a strong predilection for share ownership as recompense for the personal risk and sweat that they have put into the company.
It may be advisable to revisit this, particularly given the increased risk that comes with share ownership as a result of regulatory changes of the last 10 years.
As a substitute for share ownership, they may be open to some proxy that will provide them with value and the opportunity to have their opinions heard in the case of a buy-out.
Another company looked at this closely at the time of formation. They decided that proper recognition for contribution did not equal ownership. Ownership also entails personal liability and risk, which many don’t realize and, once they understand the implications of owners’ liability, don’t want. As an alternative they adopted a liberal profit-sharing structure that has met with employee enthusiasm.
Think about this discussion in terms of incentives:
Short Term – Annual-type incentives
Make sure that incentives align with desired behaviors so that individuals’ contributions contribute to business plan objectives and the next step for the company.
Long Term – consider the trade-offs
Broadly distributed share ownership not only complicates future flexibility but may also complicate a buy-out or merger opportunity. Consider the implications of a situation where most shares are in the hands of past rather than current employees.
Strategic Partners wishing to invest may be reticent to work with a company with broadly distributed ownership.
ESOPs, while frequently referenced, tend to eat their children. They have several complications:
They are governed by ERISA, so you cannot discriminate. All must be able to participate.
Ownership is prescribed – with a maximum of 10% per employee. Will a future CEO candidate be happy with 10% when the admin assistant gets 3%? In this way ESOPs can impair succession and recruitment plans.
Annual valuations can be expensive.
Phantom or Synthetic Equity Programs
A company can tailor these to meet changing objectives.
Valuations are cheap and valuation metrics are easy to monitor.
To work through the options, sit and talk with the employees, and listen. Ask what concerns them. Don’t try to come up with a solution until their concerns are understood. There is an array of options available.
Situation: A company instituted employee awards two years ago. These include an annual President’s Award, at choice of the President, and a Peer Award which is awarded monthly by peers for outstanding achievement. Recently, management recognized a team within the company with an award for a significant team contribution – a company-paid trip to Las Vegas. This caused resentment among some of the other employees. How do you recognize employee performance?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are two benefits to employee awards – the award itself, and, more significantly, the employee being recognized among his or her peers. Transparency within any award system is important.
There does not appear to be anything wrong with the award to the team. However, it is important to communicate to the company that awards are proportional to the benefit that the employee or team has created for the company.
Since there has been a mixed response, a message to the company is appropriate. The best way to do this is a brief company meeting, with telephone access to those who are remote. Here are some key points to cover:
Make the theme of the meeting employee awards.
Recognize the team that received the Las Vegas award and use the meeting to update the company on your rewards policy. Detail the policy, how awards are recognized, and that rewards are commensurate with the level of benefit gained for the company.
Deliver the full message in a positive tone.
Schedule 1-on-1 telephone conferences with individual remote employees who are not able to participate in the meeting.
Optional – follow-up with an email detailing the awards policy.
The complaints that you heard meant that the company did the right thing. A little jealousy isn’t bad if it shows that the company will reward hard, productive work.
Situation: A company played matchmaker between another company in the concept stage and a funding source. Having performed this service, the company would like to get something in return. There is no agreement in place regarding consideration for this service. How do you ask for consideration?
Advice from the CEOs:
A way to introduce the conversation is to say – We’ve been happy to help you identify funding for your company. What kind of role and contribution do you see for us as you move forward? This prompts the other company to confirm the inequity, instead of you, and makes it more likely that they will offer you something.
This is really a relationship challenge. You’ve done a great favor for the other company – obtaining funding for an early stage company is a major accomplishment. If there is a good relationship between the two of you it is reasonable to hope that they will recognize this. A minimal way to ask for this is to say – If you get funded we want to be your service provider.
In business, many leads are referrals. When we get a good lead, we try to assure that the referral source gets some business from the resulting project. This encourages them to continue to provide us with leads. It also reflects common courtesy. Providing this example may help your case.
On option may be to ask for an equity interest. For an early stage company, this is inexpensive as they have not yet established significant value.
Situation: A company is a C Corp with several owners. As it is the end of the year, there is an active debate on owners’ compensation. The CEO has looked at a number of options, but would like the advice of others in a similar situation before making a decision. What do you see as the pros and cons of various options for end of year owners’ compensation?
Advice from the CEOs:
In one company, profits are split among owners according to stock ownership. This is similar to a public corporation where dividends accrue according to stock ownership. The pro is that it is equitable; the con is that smaller owners who may have made significant contributions during the year don’t necessarily receive the recognition that they may believe they deserve.
Another CEO varies owners’ compensation according to company performance. In good years, there is the option to be generous through enhanced bonuses, etc. In slim years it is more important to conserve cash, and quite frankly company performance didn’t justify significant bonuses. The pro is that this offers the CEO more flexibility than the first option to recognize significant contributions; the con is that the recognition of some may seem arbitrary to others.
In response to the latter observation, a third CEO sees this as acting like a good father – sometimes you just have to declare your prerogative if employees squabble about your decisions or push too hard for unreasonable requests.
The CEO who originally asked the question followed with an additional question – how do you present your compensation decisions to owners or staff who may think that they deserve more than their stock position or company performance over the year allows?
This is a facts of life situation – once the final determination is made it is not negotiable.
Situation: A company’s employees are increasingly getting offers from other companies. They believe that they have a good team, a good work environment and offer a competitive pay and benefit package. However, they are concerned that the job market in Silicon Valley is heating up. How do you keep your employees on-board when they start receiving offers from others?
Advice from the CEOs:
Make sure that your wage and benefit scale continues to be competitive. The Silicon Valley Index, published by Assets Unlimited in Campbell, is the best local survey covering Silicon Valley and the San Francisco technology market.
Survey after survey finds that compensation is basically a hygiene factor – it has to be good enough so that needs are satisfied, but it isn’t one of the more important factors in retention. The Gallup Organization has determined that respect, challenging responsibilities, and personal recognition are much more important factors in employee retention. Be sure that you are actively involving your key personnel as leaders in formulating and updating your processes, and that there are plenty of opportunities for recognition and celebration for your staff.
If you are generating a profit, share this with the employees as an incentive. This may well be better spent in fun and team-building activities like a weekend in Tahoe for a team, or supporting their creative needs by sponsoring their efforts in engineering design competitions. Whatever is appropriate for your company, involve your employees in setting company performance goals and give them a voice in determining how achievement should be rewarded. Making them part of the process builds better long-term loyalty.
On the sales side, establish a reward incentive structure for bringing in new business for the company to prompt field personnel to develop and exercise their business development skills.
Whatever you and your team decide, be sure that your choices support your overall strategic plan.
Situation: A company is doing well, but the CEO is concerned about emerging hurdles that may stall momentum. The key issue from a systems development perspective is changing a “one-off” project based focus towards a modular mindset – essentially shifting a short-term to a long-term view. How do you align expectations across the company and transition to a broader focus?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start by clearly communicating your expectations. Work with your managers so that they communicate a consistent message to developers. Look for organizational changes to better align talents of individuals to roles taking advantage of these talents. You may want to refresh the gene pool by bringing on additional people.
One company with multiple teams creates healthy competition against performance objectives between teams with recognition and rewards to the top team.
If the change involves creating greater alignment between functions, create opportunities for individuals from different functional areas to work together. For example, have an engineer accompany a sales person on a critical call to close a deal. If the deal meets spec objectives, is closed, and the project completed on schedule and on budget, the engineer is bonused on the sale.
One company rents a lake cabin every year. Use of the cabin goes to teams recognized for meeting objectives, deadlines or other outstanding performance. An added benefit is that on the way to and from the cabin as well as while they are there, teams spend time talking about the next performance coup that will get them the next use of the cabin.
Look at your organization – both your Org Chart and the physical space. One CEO found that his engineering organization was stove-piped both in terms of reporting and incentives, and physical barriers prevented groups from easily interacting with one-another. To create better coordination between design engineering and manufacturing engineering, the teams were relocated to a new shared space, without physical barriers. Also, the Org Chart was adjusted to increase incentives for collaboration between the functions.
Situation: A company has done a number of things to build company morale. Participation is variable depending on the activity. The CEO wants to build a system to measure employee morale. What metrics do you use to measure changes in your culture over time?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Gallup Organization has focused on this issue perhaps more than any other organization in the world. They find that regularly conducting surveys allows you to measure and improve your culture over time. Their surveys focus on 12 questions that they have found most critical to employee morale within a company.
Do I know what is expected of me at work?
Do I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right?
At work, do I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day?
In the last seven days, have I received recognition or praise for doing good work?
Does my supervisor, or someone at work, seem to care about me as a person?
Is there someone at work who is interested in and encourages my development?
At work, do my opinions seem to count?
Does the mission/purpose of my company inspire me make me feel that my job is important?
Are my co-workers committed to doing quality work?
Do I have a best friend or mentor at work?
In the last six months, has anyone at work given me a review or talked to me about my performance/progress?
This last year, have I had opportunities at work to learn and grow?
Notice that not one of these has to do with compensation or benefits. Rather they focus on employee perception of how they are managed, whether they have to do the tools to do their job, and feeling that others at work care about them.
Another measure to watch is employee retention – particularly of your best employees.
Interview with Charles Bellavia, CEO, ElectraDrive
Situation: High tech entrepreneurs frequently see venture capital funding as a quick route to enabling their ventures. However VC funding is highly variable by tech sector and company cash needs, and few companies are ever funded. Do you need to rely on VC funding and what are the alternatives?
Advice from Charles Bellavia:
The first question to ask is what you want from VCs. In the past they brought both contacts and funding. Now, generally, they just bring funding. So ask three questions.
Can you fund the company out of your own pocket?
Far more companies are funded by founders, friends and families than by VCs. However self-funding demands conditions.
Cofounders should have alternate income sources so that they can operate without salaries for periods of time.
Watch the life stages of start-up cofounders. Avoid joining a start-up when your kids need your attention, especially during their teen years. Can you forgo regular income if you are paying for college? If an annual 2-week summer vacation is important, don’t join a start-up.
What is the minimum funding needed for the company?
What funding do you need just to prove your technology and generate cash?
Focus is key. People will suggest variations. You have to know your path and whether variations will help or distract.
Stay with your core idea and think in terms of product generations. Build fitting variations into future plans if they will delay initial launch.
How do you keep project workers motivated?
Plan for turnover. Know who is key to the project, and where you need back-ups.
Start-up life is all consuming. When the picture on the wall is crooked, everyone jumps to straighten it out.
Have fun and make it fun. This needn’t be expensive, like parking lot pot-luck barbeques with a CD deck and music.
Be generous with simple, low cost recognition. Acknowledge employees for who they are and where they came from. This is especially important when you have diverse employees and builds camaraderie. One company has pot luck lunches and employees are asked to bring their national dish; the food is wonderful and helps employees to appreciate one another.