Situation: A company hired an experienced individual to sell for them as a consultant. The individual initially asked to be paid on an hourly basis. Results have come with surprising speed. Now the consultant is asking for a commission on sales. How much should you pay a salesperson?
Advice from the CEOs:
Tailor the commission structure to company objectives. For example, if the objective is to reward new business development, and to retain the individual, try something like:
Offer 10% commission on Year 1 sales.
If both the customer and the consultant are still with the company in Year 3, the consultant gets a 5% bonus on Year 2 and 3 sales.
Repeat this for successive years.
If the interest is a long-term relationship, determine the nature of the sales services where the consultant excels.
What is the individual’s focus?
Have a highly qualified sales expert do a telephone interview of the consultant and offer their assessment of the individual’s talents.
One successful sales model includes one measure to retain the job, and another to calculate commissions:
Set a dollar quota for sales performance – if the individual does not hit at least 85% of quota, they lose their job.
However, calculate commissions based on the gross profit that their sales generate.
This properly balances the focus between revenue and gross profit generation. To succeed, the individual must pay attention to both measures.
If the individual wants a substantial commission, then don’t pay a substantial base. Instead pay a draw against commissions to allow them to support themselves between sales.
Pay on receipt of payment, not on receipt of orders.
Situation: A family-owned business has a family member on hourly pay who puts in excessive overtime. The cost of overtime significantly cuts into company profits. The CEO wants to cut back these overtime hours and get the employee to work more efficiently. At the same time, she feels that maintaining peace within the extended family is important. How do you cut excessive overtime for a single employee?
Advice from the CEOs:
Situations like this within a family business are delicate because of relationships beyond the work place. Treat this individual respectfully, but make it clear that you have to act in the best interests of the company and all employees.
Develop a job description with this employee that will help to get their overtime under control.
Communicate to the employee: “I don’t want to take advantage of you by requiring this much overtime.”
Let the individual know that you are looking for additional talent and want to more tightly define the roles.
Develop a company policy on overtime that limits the amount of overtime that any one individual can accrue. If anyone starts to approach this limit, then have a process in place that shifts additional overtime to others.
This is a serious problem for the company. It calls for company transformation. Enlist the employee as a champion for the cause of transforming the company. Keep this a positive vision.
If the individual is not a keeper: start controlling hours, but don’t give a raise. Let them leave on their own time.
If the individual is a keeper: give them raise, while cutting overtime hours.
Situation: A CEO has hired an individual who is currently working on projects for the company. The CEO likes this person and anticipates that he could eventually become General Manager. There have been a few rough spots but, overall, objectives are being met. How do you bring in a new General Manager?
Advice from the CEOs:
Transition the individual from their current responsibilities to GM in small steps. This will allow him to develop relationships and credibility with the rest of the team. These relationships and credibility are what he will need in the more senior position.
Coach the individual about any behaviors that you may observe, or which may be reported to you by others within the company, which are contrary to your culture. Understand, from the new individual’s perspective, what motivates these behaviors. Encourage the individual to develop alternative behaviors that are more consistent with your culture. Be open to the possibility that some of the behavior may be addressing flaws in the current culture.
Maintain open communication with your key managers who will be impacted as the new individual gains responsibility. As the individual gains authority within the organization, be clear that you support your new manager.
Your current culture is always in flux, and will continue to change as you bring in the new GM. This will create natural resistance as people adapt to the new situation. Be patient and stick with the plan. When others complain be honest and up-front that you support the new manager, and that everyone will have to adapt.
A small company has need for legal advice, but is unsure how to properly utilize a lawyer. Legal costs have gone up over the last decade, so expense is one concern. Another is a desire to understand how to form an effective relationship with a lawyer or law firm, and how to effectively manage billable hours. Bottom line, how can a lawyer help you meet your business goals?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, seek the counsel of a firm that specializes in small businesses. Just as you would seek a specialist physician to treat a serious medical condition, SMBs are best served by corporate lawyers who understand how they are different from large corporations and who can advise them at a rate and under an arrangement that fits their financial situation.
Schedule regular “off the clock” lunches and conversations with your lawyer. The ideal lawyer for smaller companies serves as an “outside counsel.” Your outside counsel is essentially your legal quarterback and should be willing to meet with you off the clock to discuss general business needs. Of course, as a courtesy to your lawyer, if your conversation starts getting into areas where you are receiving legal advice you shouldn’t expect free advice.
Know what to ask your lawyer versus what to ask your auditor and tax specialist. Each has a separate and distinct domain.
Trust your lawyer – or find a new lawyer. The best legal relationship is when your lawyer is treated as a member of your team. Sharing the business context aids your lawyer in advising you.
There is no need to overspend on lawyers, but you do need to assure that you spend for what you need. A good relationship with your lawyer can help you to walk the line where you are spending appropriately.
Special thanks to Deb Ludwig of DJL Corporate Law for her contribution to this discussion.
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 has hired interns in the past and wants to upgrade their intern program to attract more interns from top schools. How do you attract interns from top schools?
Advice from the CEOs:
Top schools want to build lasting relationships with the companies to whom they send interns. In addition, the ability of top schools to attract top students increasingly relies on the placement rate of the school, so this can be a win-win proposition for both company and school. Take the time to cultivate this relationship and let the school’s representatives know your intentions. Get to know the top professors in programs from which you wish to recruit interns.
Provide a high quality internship experience. Treat interns as though they were normal employees during internships. Give them a job, objectives and tell them that you will evaluate you as though they were FTEs. They will feel more like members of the team and will have a higher quality internship experience. They will likely tell their placement office and other students about their experience. Interns should understand that if all goes well, the company MAY have a job for them; no job is guaranteed.
If you want more applicants from top schools then view your internship program as an investment. Look at it as a recruiting tool, not as an expense.
Pay for interns may not be same as FTEs – frequently interns are paid less, and don’t get the same benefits as FTEs. Before you make an offer or hire, call the school from which the potential intern comes and check out the candidate’s representations as to expected salary, etc.
Hire more than one intern and compare their performance against each other.
The CEO of a technology company has hired many engineer interns. Many of these were subsequently hired as employees. Overall their success has been good, but not fantastic. Similar to a new employee, it takes time for an intern to get up to speed.
Situation: A company has been approached by another company with complimentary technology concerning a partnership. The other company is young and rapidly growing, though at this time they are much smaller. The two companies are already collaborating on a project. There have been hints that this could develop into a merger. Under these circumstances, what’s the best way to develop a partnership?
Advice from the CEOs:
It’s always best to date and get to know the other party before exploring a deeper relationship. You are already collaborating with this company, so just continue on this path as you get to know them. See how the relationship and value of the partnership develops before exploring options that could result in loss of ownership and control.
Partnerships and moves beyond partnership are really about culture and values. Cultural fit is a huge question that is too often ignored when companies discuss partnerships and mergers. This requires more investigation than you’ve done to date. Wait until real challenges develop, and see how the two companies respond. Do they collaborate effectively to develop a solution or does the relationship become contentious. This will tell you whether a deeper relationship is worth exploring.
To be successful, relationships have to offer a win-win value that surpasses the cost of collaboration. There is always a cost to collaborating with another company if only in time and effort put into the relationship. Find a way to measure this cost so that you can compare it to the value received. The other company should be doing the same.
If you could buy the other company right now would you?
If you can’t tell the value of the company based on the information that you have, why would you consider a deeper relationship at this time?
Situation: A company performs service that is primarily locally-based. A competitor is establishing a new site less than two miles from the company’s location, offers a broader array of services and is larger than the company. How can the company protect its business by responding to this new competition?
Advice from the CEOs:
Your most important asset is understanding what you are doing right, and what is most important to your customers. Remember that business is more than just a product or service. It’s a relationship. Your customers depend upon your for more than just what you offer for sale. Reach out to your customers for these answers. Make sure that you respond to their needs. As a benefit you may also find new growth opportunities.
Ask current customers whether you need to expand your service offering, or whether your current offering and lead time is acceptable to them. Ask how their needs are changing and how you can better serve them.
Reestablish the connection to your customer and listen. Preempt new competition by contacting your customer base before the competitor gains a stronghold.
Study your options and avoid knee-jerk reactions. You may be in better shape that you think.
Major retailers and service companies have moved into many locations. Local businesses who survive their presence do so because they are focused on their customers’ needs and are better at serving the customers that the big companies are.
Invest in key components of your business relationships: services, payment terms, responsiveness, your facilities, and so forth.
Situation: A company wants to expand its markets and customer base. Currently their business is dominated by a single customer. What best practices have you developed for identifying new customers and markets?
The key to getting new customers is to devote dedicated time to this task.
If your company is populated by engineer or software specialists, consider hiring a sales professional – a commission based hunter sales person who has experience landing big accounts in markets similar to yours. You may pay this person a good percentage of sales for brining in this business, but gaining the additional business can be worth it.
Much depends upon your relationship with your large customer. When a single client has rights over or ownership of the technology of the company but is not pursuing broader markets that the company is interested in, is it feasible to negotiate rights to pursue this business?
The larger client will pursue their own interests, not those of the smaller vendor. Perhaps a win-win deal can be worked out, but it may be difficult – particularly if the larger client is concerned that use of the technology in other markets could affect its interests in their primary markets.
Be very careful in this situation. The easiest tactic for the larger company to defend itself from a perceived threat is to sue and simply bury the smaller vendor through legal expenses. While the smaller company may be legally within its rights, deep pockets can beat shallow pockets through attrition.
In the case that the larger client simply continues to buy all capacity of the smaller company, an alternative is to raise rates, or perhaps to just say no.
Consider recreating the opportunity – create your own adjunct proprietary product with your own software or design talent and expand your horizons with this product.
Be aware, the large client can still sue if there is any appearance that your proprietary product impinges on their product rights. As in the case above, the larger company has the resources to bury the smaller company in legal expenses regardless of who is legally correct.
Situation: An early stage company is preparing for an IPO. The founder and Board have selected a new CEO with experience taking companies public. How do you facilitate a CEO transition, and how can the founder best position himself to support the new CEO?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get clear on your own strengths and desired primary responsibilities, but prepare to be flexible in negotiating responsibilities with the new CEO. For example, if the founder’s strengths are marketing, IP and early stage fund raising, see how these compliment the strengths of the new CEO. Then select a title which will allow you to leverage your strengths without impinging on the focus of the new individual. Don’t pigeon-hole yourself with your new title; keep it as broad as possible, for example Executive Vice President.
If you, as the founder, have a good long-term relationship with your VCs and the Board this will be one of your strengths. Be prepared to counsel the new CEO on individual personalities and objectives of this group. The CEO will form him own relationship with the VCs and Board over time.
Chemistry between the founder and new CEO will be very important. The job of the new CEO is to captain the ship. Your new job is to be a superior first mate.
It appears that you have an excellent learning opportunity. Learn as much as possible from the new CEO as well as the experience of the IPO process.
To smooth the transition personally between the two of you, take the opportunity to tell the CEO that you believe that the Board made the best choice and that you look forward to the opportunity to learn from him. This might be best done outside of the office, for example taking the new CEO to dinner.
Maintain your relationship with the key VCs on the Board. Let them know about your future ambitions and that if the right opportunity opens up in one of their portfolio companies, you could be interested.