Situation: A CEO has had to shift half of the company’s employees to part-time due to reduced business. This has hampered new product development. The situation has been exacerbated by slow payments from customers. Where should you focus for the next year?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a lot going on. Validate the company’s market potential for products in development, and start gearing up the marketing program so that it will impact this and next year’s sales.
Get a feel for how many customers want the new products in development. Invest in some market research to validate this.
The bottom line is that product development only pays if the company can sell a lot more product! The team needs to know whether customers for the new products exist, in what numbers, where and who they are, and their most critical needs. Without this market intelligence, the company is in no position to tell whether there is a market, nor is the company prepared to address it.
Assume that there is a market, that it can be quantified. Once the company knows who and where the customers are and knows their most critical needs, the next step is to prepare to attack this market. This is not something that is done in 1-2 months, after the product is ready to sell. The company needs to be starting now if marketing is to be initiated in 6-8 months.
Past practice has been to split R&D costs with the customer. The company has the expertise, the customer the money – this is close enough to 50/50. There is no need to show them the numbers. R&D should not be funded through future sales but should be making money now.
One project has been taking so much attention that it is hobbling the company. The company is so focused on getting this “just right” for the customer that sales and market development have been neglected.
For the next 3 months, focus on completing this project, getting it out the door, and getting the company’s focus back on growth. A sense of urgency is needed!
Situation: A CEO has been approached about a potential acquisition of his company. The offer was a surprise, and the team within the company is split on whether they are interested in a sale. They are currently very happy with what they do. How do you prepare for a potential acquisition?
Advice from the CEOs:
How does a company best position itself in advance of discussions?
Rebrand the company to boost the value proposition. Make what the company does best the focus of its value proposition. Position the company as the “experts” in this area.
Look at a series of possible scenarios that could develop and determine who on the team can best contribute each scenario. This will help to evaluate the implications of each scenario and to rank them in terms of favorability on the company’s terms. It will also help to quickly exclude certain scenarios if they come up during discussions with acquirers.
What research should the company conduct on the acquirer?
Do a deep dive into the potential acquirer. Research is simplified if the acquirer is public. Go online and look at their SEC and public filings. Look at their revenue trend as well as their profitability or losses.
What is the acquirer’s history of acquisitions? Interview people from companies that they have purchased.
Don’t pitch anything to the acquirer until you understand what they want to buy – this is critical so that the company positions itself well.
What is the best approach to take once the conversation starts?
Quick first step – send the company’s financials to the acquirer with a 3-year projection. Ask them, based on this, for a price range that they would consider for the company. If the range is outside of expectations, the conversation is over.
Determine whether this looks like a strategic vs. a financial buy. A strategic buy yields a higher price.
Cut a deal structure with a bonus tied to success post acquisition. This means a reasonable upfront payment with big payments for future success. This creates golden handcuffs to motivate the company’s staff to stay post-acquisition.
There should be multiple options on table – addressing both financial considerations and the future of team.
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 company has been approached by a larger company that is interested in
purchasing it. The purchaser wants to fill a niche that they don’t currently serve,
but which is important to their growth. The CEO is concerned about what will happen
to employees following sale of the company. How do you respond to a purchase
from the CEOs:
Questions for Preliminary Stage Research:
What valuation is the tipping point for an attractive offer by the buyer?
Determine the nature of the purchaser’s interest in the company and how it fits into their broader strategic picture. If their plan will dramatically change the market the company’s current market value may go down later relative to doing a deal with them today.
If the acquirer has a history of buying other companies, look at who they’ve recently bought, what they paid, and what kind of impact they had on the staff and culture of the companies purchased.
Check out the purchaser’s P/E ratio. If it is in the range the company’s desired multiple on EBITDA, a good deal is possible.
Temper the company’s response and approach to get the most from this experience.
Currently, assumptions about the acquirer make the offer appear unappealing. Ask questions to validate or challenge these assumptions.
Be open-minded so that the purchaser reveals more about themselves and the market than they would if they sensed a lack of interest in an acquisition.
How does the company protect itself during the inquiry and due diligence process?
Keep staff numbers and individuals, and customer lists close to the chest.
Have an LOI and ask for a breakaway clause before sharing significant information.
Breakaway clause: if the two companies get into discussions and the potential acquirer decides to abandon the discussions, it will cost them $1M.
The potential acquirer may not agree to this, but it demonstrates that the company is serious both about the discussions and about preserving the confidentiality of its business information.
More Advanced Stage Questions and Research:
This looks like a strategic interest. If so:
Get assistance from an investment banker.
Look at what other alternatives may be available to the acquirer to assess the company’s potential value.
Any offer other than a high-multiple strategic valuation and offer should not be of interest to the company.
What restrictions will the acquirer put on the company?
For example, if there is an earn-out value, will they give the company the freedom to operate to maximize this value?
Be careful with employee communications and how employees are informed of an outside interest. This can be difficult during due diligence.
If the founder remains with the company post-sale this could help lock in the value of the exit and assure the employees’ future.
Make the most of this opportunity.
Are there ways that the company can become better and smarter working with the acquirer?
Is there a relationship short of acquisition than would benefit the company like a collaboration or partnership?
Can a relationship short of sale enhance the company’s market presence and help the company to achieve national status more quickly?
Situation: A company is developing a companion application that simplifies the use a major company’s software. The CEO is considering how to show this application to the major company as well as at their user group conference. How do you market a companion application?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is an interesting situation. If the major company likes the companion application, the principal question is whether they will want to attach an additional license fee if the companion application is marketed through them. This presents three options:
Research other companies that have developed front end or access products for this company – what was their experience with the major company and did that company demand an additional license fee payment. If so, how did they handle this?
Be up-front with clients, and if an additional fee is required pass these through to the clients. It may be cheaper for clients to pay license fees through this route than to purchase and pay license fees for the major company product.
You may want to take a wait and see attitude while conducting your own research on the situation. See when and if the major company asks for a license fees, and if so, find out whether they are willing to negotiate.
Large companies are often focused on their own offering. Forget the idea that they will market another company’s companion application or front end. Instead focus on your own contacts within the industry and your client base and start talking to them about your application. Generate some experience and traction on your own.
Situation: An early stage software-as-a-service (SAAS) company notes that a number of companies have privacy statements on their web sites. Is this something that is common, and should they consider their own privacy statement on their site?
Advice from the CEOs:
If your services include the collection of users’ personally identifiable information many users will want to know that the information that they put on the site is secure. Get legal advice on the handling and storage of personally identifiable information. You may want to qualify for TRUSTe or a similar service.
Others will be competing in your space, or close to it. Look at these companies’ sites for what type of privacy statement they use.
Research how important this is to your target audience. Get assistance from someone who is good at drafting surveys. Hire a summer intern or local college student to conduct the survey. This is a quick way to answer your question.
Determine your business policy regarding privacy. If policy considerations dictate that you should have a statement, then find a model statement that you like and use this. Model a statement after one that appeals to you from another company. Make sure that you cover anything that you feel is important, and retain any prerogatives that you feel are important.
Create a link to a separate page that contains a model privacy statement. Count the number of clicks that it receives. You may find that nobody clicks on this.
Situation: A company goes through an annual strategic planning process followed by an annual business planning process. At mid-year they do a review and correction. The challenge is that if the company is behind plan, the management team does not take ownership of plan revisions – it becomes “the CEO’s Plan.” How do you gain commitment to revisions in the annual plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
Throw out your current process and start over.
The challenge is to gain more buy-in and accountability. This only comes if the targets come from those responsible for delivering them – both for the original plan and if any revisions need to be made.
Look at who you involve within the organization – can you drive involvement deeper to generate additional buy-in across the organization?
Hire an outside facilitator to guide you through the process instead of chairing the meeting yourself. This prevents the resulting plan from becoming “your” plan. It also changes the culture of the meeting as well as the buy-in.
If you use a bottom-up / top-down process, moderate the plan results with an eye to two realities:
Bottom-up input from the sales team is rarely more pessimistic than the CEO’s input. If it is ask what is happening.
Make sure that your top-down numbers are empirical and based on the best market research that you can obtain.
If your plans have consistently fallen short over recent years:
You may be baking the targets too high.
Consider building the revenue plan optimistically, but build the expense plan conservatively. This helps control expenses and attain profitability targets.
So that the two plans are not misaligned, review them more frequently – perhaps quarterly on a formal basis with monthly reviews – so that if your revenue plan is meeting targets you can adjust spending to support production and delivery.
It is common to have one set of numbers for sales and a different, more conservative, number for expenses. As long as you conduct frequent review and adjustment of the expense number to sales performance, this works. Many companies also use different targets for operations than what they present to the Board – with the more conservative numbers for the Board.
Situation: A consulting company has an employee who is a perfectionist. They can bill clients for standard work to complete a project to client specifications; however, this employee wants to continue working unbillable time to perfect the work and considers this to be of research benefit to the company. The CEO wants to impress the individual that the company is a business, not a research organization, without discouraging the employee’s enthusiasm for the work. How have you handled perfectionists within your own organization?
Advice from the CEOs:
If the employee possesses skills which are important to the company’s strategic direction it makes sense to work with the individual. One option is to focus this employee on future development rather than current projects.
An increasing number of companies allow employees in development positions 10% to 20% of their time to pursue pure research. Both product and software companies leverage employee enthusiasm to build their products or services. At the same time, they create guidelines to assure that the remaining 80% to 90% of these individuals’ time is devoted to current business.
Why not allow the employee one day per week to focus on research, but limit the focus on pure research to this one day – as well as any evenings and weekends that they want to devote to this on their own time? This way the individual is encouraged to pursue their ambitions, but within a framework that clearly states that we want 80% of your work week to be devoted to billable work.
Situation: A company is negotiating an agreement to resell another company’s software. In due diligence the company encountered a customer who was offered a single user license for the same software at one-third the price that they have been asked to pay upfront. What is the best way to approach the vendor for additional information without divulging the source of his intelligence? Does this change the negotiation?
Advice from the CEOs:
There is no need to divulge your information source. Just say that you have done some research and quote the price that you found. Ask them to explain this to you. See how they respond. This may tell you a lot about how they operate.
What rights do you receive under the arrangement that has been offered by the firm? What exclusivity and guarantees will they offer? Will they write these into the agreement? How will they handle direct inquiries?
Perform a careful financial analysis of the opportunity. Model the market and the full cost of sales that you will encounter. What is customer purchase behavior? Is it changing?
Counter the vendor’s offer to you with a pay-down option that pays the vendor more over time, but allows you access to the software without a substantial up-front payment. This limits your exposure if sales do not ramp as you anticipate.
Visit the vendor and sit down with the President. See how this individual responds to your questions. You may get a much better deal through this approach than through the sales team. You also may develop other partnership options that can benefit you long-term.
Key Words: Reseller, Agreement, Price, Software, Due Diligence, Negotiation, Research, Exclusivity, Guarantees, Direct Inquiry, Analysis, Customer, Behavior, Counter, Visit
Interview with E.J. Dieterle, President & CEO, YES Partners, Inc.
Situation: As corporate wallets start loosening up, companies are looking at market expansion opportunities. International expansion is one alternative. In the past this was done largely by sending Expats. In more recent years there has been a trend toward hiring locally. How do you find the right talent locally?
Everything starts with the basics – a good job description.
Finding people is easier these days with social networks like MySpace, Facebook, LinkedIn, Xing, hi5, Spoke and Plaxo. However, finding the right people remains a challenge.
Invest time and effort to research your target market.
Which country is a market or has the most likely prospective clients?
What is your competitive advantage there?
For a hiring company without an existing presence in the local market it is also a challenge to convince good local candidates that yours is the right company to join. It is important to understand the local business culture and values, and also to offer career-paths to qualified candidates.
Don’t assume the need for multiple offices as you start. You can start with a highly mobile person working from home who knows the local language(s), customs, and who already has contacts in your target market.
It is often assumed that it takes one year or more for an Expat to be efficient locally, and that hiring locally often accelerates first years’ startup-time. However, the local person has to understand and “fit” into the corporate/head office culture.
Working with an international executive search firm to find qualified local talent with the right fit to your business and needs can greatly improve your odds of success.