Situation: A private company has a Board of Directors that functions more as an Advisory Board than a traditional Board. For example, they do not have the power to fire or replace the CEO. The CEO wants feedback on how to interact with the Board, and how to work with them between meetings. How do you make the best use of your Board?
Advice from the CEOs:
Decide what you want from the Board, and clearly communicate this to the Members.
Treat the Board as a single entity – not as individuals. Avoid politicking individual members between meetings. Use the Board to drive decisions.
At your next Board meeting have a discussion with the Board:
Let the members know that you are concerned about whether you are using them effectively as a resource.
Lay out strategic elements to be dealt with over next period, and ask for their advice.
For example, if you are moving into a new market you need advice on how to succeed. Are they the right group to provide this advice? If not, what other expertise should be added to the Board?
Consider having this conversation in a special session of the Board.
Bring in expertise – if your industry has shifted, adjust the make-up of the Board to reflect the new realities. If you need to raise capital, look for expertise in this area.
Eliminate less productive members from the Board.
If you are looking at a new market, build an Advisory Board that is knowledgeable about this space, but who are not necessarily customers. Consider retired executives from companies in this market.
Additional needs that you might want to address either through your Board or an Advisory Board:
Financial expertise in new markets.
Where should you partner to make a complete offering or to supplement your offering?
Another CEO has a similar Board situation. In this case, the CEO makes it clear that Board members are expected to:
Assist in bringing in business.
Members are expected either to produce or they are off the Board.
Meetings are driven to a specific agenda with expectations of deliverables.
Situation: Start-ups and early-stage enterprises are typically both resource and talent constrained. The CEO of a start-up asks how others successfully outsourced infrastructure cost effectively and when they were early-stage so that they could focus on critical success factors and improve their opportunity to succeed. How do small companies outsource infrastructure?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the early stages of company development, outsource everything possible and focus our efforts only on the key functions.
In order to focus on the most important things first, decide what must be accomplished and when. Set priorities, establish key milestones and create a timeline to measure achievement. Celebrate your successes!
Identify the most important strategic foci within your business model and outsource everything else.
For example, use outside data centers instead of developing these yourself.
With the increase in Cloud-based options, early stage companies can do without the IT infrastructure that they used to need. Just be careful to safeguard your intellectual property!
Attend relevant meetings and functions to learn about existing and available capabilities. Look for local networking opportunities relevant to your market.
Incubator sites have developed in a number of high tech centers. These are designed to cover infrastructure needs at a reasonable cost so that founders can focus on product and service development.
Hire a virtual assistant – you can find these locally using a Google search.
Take advantage of lower cost labor and enlist younger, less experienced labor to manage databases and clean records.
Set up a wiki for information. This exchange is free and you can tailor it to your needs. It is permission-based; you can find it at pbwiki.com.
Situation: A small company sells consumables as its primary source of revenue and profit, and produces equipment associated with these consumables. Their challenge is that designing and producing equipment is beyond their financial capacity. They have a small, loyal staff engaged in equipment production. This is a critical trade-off that must be resolved. Where should the company focus – people or cash?
Advice from the CEOs:
This product/profit combination is common. HP sells printers and ink, as well as other products, but ink cartridges have long been their primary source of corporate profit. The question is how to produce the associated equipment at the lowest cost?
Given the shortage of financial resources, why not asks a company with expertise in equipment to build the equipment on a contract basis?
Offer the outsource company the designs and expertise to support the project. That company may even hire your employees who have developed expertise in this area.
In return for providing design and guidance, ask the contract company for a percentage of the revenue or profit on equipment that they sell. This relieves you of the payroll and cash obligations for the equipment, and provides you with a modest income stream from equipment sales.
There is an obvious question of how the small company retains its intellectual property position. Is it possible to look at critical sub-assemblies and retain the expertise within the smaller company to complete and install some of these?
If so, this will boost annual revenue. The contract partner completes all but the most critical pieces, and the small company finishes the product with its technology.
The small company, through its sales and marketing efforts, should maintain control of leads and sales of both equipment and consumables.
Situation: A company was launched on a single product with variations. Their R&D team has now developed several additional products which they are planning to launch. This will involve new product names and new customer segments. Having not done this before, the CEO seeks advice on managing multiple products, brands and market segments. How do you manage multiple products and segments?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important element is the plan – write it carefully and build from a solid base.
When working with multiple products or market segments, match your segment strategy for each segment to your product strategy for that segment.
Build a grid that shows all products and all segments where you wish to sell them. In each cell, determine both the decision maker(s) and their top purchasing priorities. This will help you to build your Product/Segment strategy and optimize resource allocation while increasing sales and marketing effectiveness.
It may also help you to fire problem customers who cost you money and attention and reallocate these resources to more promising opportunities.
Analyze the customer’s decision-making process for each product and segment. Make sure that your marketing and sales effort makes sense within their decision process and focus on what is workable.
When introducing a new product or idea, focus first on smaller segments and test the fit of your product or idea. This is low risk if you fail, and you can leverage what you have learned if you win.
Build a one-page strategic plan that covers your full company strategy. Each department compliments the company strategy with its own departmental strategy to support the company strategy.
Special thanks to John Maver of Maver Management Group for his contribution to this discussion.
Situation: A company is resource constrained and faced with a serious trade-off: do they focus on short term cash needs – immediate product improvements that will speed new product iterations to boost sales; or longer term strategic concerns – assuring that they have good IP protection on their technology before they launch new versions? When you are resource constrained, does it make more sense to focus on initiatives that will quickly produce cash or strategic concerns that will protect your future?
Advice from the CEOs:
Build two timelines – one for shoring up the patent portfolio so that you can safely build and launch new IP-protected versions of your technology and one for quickly completing product improvements to speed development of new product iterations which will generate cash. Assess both the energy requirements and the dollar risks and implications of each timeline. If you do not have the resources to do both in parallel, this analysis will help you to determine your best course of action. The risk analysis of each timeline should take into account what would happen if another company were to duplicate your technology and get to market with improvements before you do.
As a compliment to the above exercise, ask what happens if I don’t do either A or B? Do a SWOT and investment analysis on both. Which is the greater risk – launching with insufficiently protected IP or risking not being first to market?
These analyses will help you assess whether it may be feasible to accomplish part or all of either task with dollars in lieu of your own resources.
Interview with Trevor Shanski, Founder, eWORDofMOUTH, Inc.
Situation: A company with a new lead generation solution is ahead of the curve for their market segment, and ready to transition from a product development focus to a full-scale business development focus. This means developing new capabilities on a limited budget. How have you made the transition from product development to business development?
Advice from Trevor Shanski:
The reality of early stage companies is that they live on scarce resources. Founders and early executives have to be able to work for lean base salaries during the learning curve. They will be individuals who have selective characteristics.
They will be able to accept conservative salaries near-term, as well as during financial bumps in the road. Their focus will be growing the company’s value and their incentive will be having a material stake in the company.
They will have limited outside demands on their time and attention so that they can work long hours.
They will appreciate the challenge of heavily performance-based compensation, with the potential to win big if they can deliver.
They will have a network of connections and relationships upon whom they can call to gain early business traction.
Characteristics for successful early stage executives include the ability to work intimately with the founding team. Early stage companies are idea and capability incubators where things change quickly. Players must be able to get the job done with little support.
It is critical to have a clearly defined set of expectations for the first few months as you bring on new executives. Early foci will include:
Immersion in understanding the product capability and possibilities.
Sitting down with a white board and openly looking at fresh thoughts for how the market should be approached. Founders frequently suffer from tunnel vision after a long period of development and need a fresh outside perspective on the market and messaging. What partnerships could accelerate market development? What knowledgeable experts should be leveraged to build awareness? What potential is out there that the founders are not seeing?
After these factors are defined, the next step is to develop an action plan and milestones to guide plan execution, plus a budget and alternatives under different resource scenarios.
Once the plan is in place, the focus will be to gain early feedback on the company’s product and capabilities, and then iterate quickly to find the right message to target significant segments of the market.
The focus of early stage companies has to be on quickly developing plans, and then executing.