Situation: A company has a technology road map and a flexible set of technical capabilities. To date they have elicited broad interest from a variety of different markets. They currently don’t have the resources to pursue a large number of different markets, and will likely need their next round of funding within the next year to year and a half. How do you focus your sales and marketing?
Advice from the CEOs:
A race to generate interest from a number of markets is a valid strategy at this stage of your development; provided that you raise or generate the cash to survive. This caveat describes your critical challenge – determining how long you can afford to maintain and fund a broad strategy.
Look at your burn rate and timeline. Pursue options that will generate cash before your next round of funding. Your top objective is to validate your ability to generate revenue prior to your next round.
You haven’t yet found the fish. You are fishing and have nibbles but no bites. Look at what your people are doing and start to eliminate options that are less likely to pay off both short and long-term.
To preserve development cash, create a new rule. Any project that you accept must come with development dollars. This will eliminate some smaller prospects and targets but will help you to focus on others which are more immediately promising.
When one company was in this position, their rule was that the first PO gets the engineers. No PO, no commitment of resources.
Another’s company’s policy is that they don’t work for free.
A softer version is to give the prospective client 30 days to produce an LOI for the proposed project or you will go elsewhere.
Even better is an LOI and $50K up front.
A third company’s strategy from the beginning was always to hunt for elephants – even when they had no money. This has worked well both short and long-term. It represented the level of faith that they had in their technology and capabilities.
Situation: A company is developing new forecasting metrics for both sales and revenue. The immediate future does not look robust, and they are concerned about mid-term future revenue. Ideally they want to extend a 3 month forecast window out to 6 months. What is an effective methodology for forecasting revenue out 6 months? How do you forecast sales and revenue?
Advice from the CEOs:
Get your team together and gather impressions on the direction of business through the end of year. How many see sales going up, staying the same or declining through the end of the year. Discuss the rationale behind each member’s estimate so that you fully understand their thinking and what metrics each sees as important to their forecast. Work to make the estimates and metrics as rigorous as possible.
Based on the metrics discussed, develop an algorithm that you can monitor on a monthly or quarterly basis, depending upon your needs.
As you develop your algorithm, test it against past sales forecasts and history. Can it accurately plot past performance based on the metrics that you had at the time. If not, what needs to be adjusted or better understood.
Do you ask clients for forecasts of their purchase needs and do you track the accuracy of their forecasts? Weigh their responses by the quality of their past predictions.
As an alternative to trying to predict demand, assemble your resources to fit the needs of your market and customers and arrange your resources for flexibility.
Look at industry resources. How far out do experts in your industry claim to be able to forecast demand and sales or purchases? How reliable are these forecasts? What can you learn from this exercise that will improve your own forecasts?
Situation: An early-stage company has a key advisor who is helping them to build a 3-5 year vision and plan. The company can’t afford to pay the advisor full-time but he’s interested in working one day a week or becoming a Board member. Should they give him equity as a Board member and under what conditions?
Advice from the CEOs:
Adding Board members increases complexity, especially when it comes to big decisions. Once an early stage company transitions from their start-up Board to a more formal Board with non-founder members, particularly when a significant number of the new members have strong corporate experience, the Board will take on a certain level of independence in corporate and compensation decisions. Be aware of this, as a larger more independent Board may make decisions that the founders would not make.
It is not irregular for Board Members to receive equity or options. If you want to grant options, you must undertake an initial company valuation exercise, followed by annual valuations. It is common to grant options with 4 year vesting on a monthly basis. Vested shares can be purchased at Day 0 price, with some period to exercise options following departure from company.
Seek an expert in Board operation and compensation. There are a number of advisors with deep experience in this area who can advise the company on standard practices for Board operation and compensation.
If the company decides that they are not yet ready for an expanded Board of Directors, another alternative is a Board of Advisors.
Situation: An SMB CEO has sold his business and seeks a new opportunity. Options range from a mid-level position in a large company to various options in existing or start-up smaller companies. How do you evaluate your career choices?
Advice from the CEOs:
The most important factors are to determine what you want to do and what will make you, and your family, happy. Start with a Pro/Con analysis of each type of opportunity compared with your short and long-term desires. Which among the following choices are more important?
o Financial stability and some level of job security vs. higher risk and potential reward with lower security.
o Desire to be a player or to be the person in charge vs. being happy with a staff position.
o Ability to create your own path or willingness to adapt to the priorities of others.
Given these choices, here is what you may find:
o In a large or established company the most likely opportunity will be a staff position. The trade-off is stability for authority, but be aware that large company organizational politics may be severe.
o In a small existing company it is possible to be a player in a key position. The trade-off is lower stability and viability for more authority.
o In a new company there is the chance to be the CEO, bringing business experience to a group with technology expertise. The trade-off is high risk, long hours and low stability for a high level of authority.
Other factors to consider are how critical your personal situation is and the depth of your resources. If you have time and flexibility, take the time to find a situation that best meets your needs.
Situation: A CEO manages more than one company and is overcome by the complexity of the task. The biggest challenge is the oldest of the companies which is increasingly resistant to change. How do you overcome resistance to change?
Advice from the CEOs:
Regardless of the age or experience of any company, meeting on-going performance objectives is critical. The fact that strategic imperatives have led to the formation of spin-off entities does not change this. Managers and key personnel are expected to perform to reasonable expectations, whether in a family or non-family business.
Resistance to change may be a symptom of more fundamental issues. Is the older business receiving adequate attention from upper management? Are they receiving sufficient funding and resources to complete their objectives? Do they have the latitude to make decisions necessary to achieve their objectives? If the answer to any of these questions is no, then address this first.
Presuming that the answers to the questions mentioned above are positive let the key personnel in this company know that they remain a critical business entity. Telling them this 1-on-1 is not enough. They need to hear this in public forums within the company. They need to be clear on the opportunity that the company enjoys, and what this means both for the company and for them as employees.
You cannot over-communicate the vision, mission and opportunity. They already know that you are juggling multiple balls and need ongoing assurance that they remain important.
Make sure that you have a right person handling day to day matters in the core company and in each of the other entities so that as they grow that they can support themselves.
Situation: A company is investigating off-shoring to lower costs. Trends are confusing with some companies returning operations to local production and others continuing to offshore. In addition, options include partnering with an existing company with expertise, or developing off-shore resources themselves. Does it still make sense to off-shore?
Advice from the CEOs:
Instead of looking at broad trends, narrow your focus to what other companies in your industry or closely related industries are doing. You can get this from industry publications and trade associations, as well as from other companies with whom you have personal relationships. This will help to clarify trends that potentially impact you.
Consider whether there are complimentary objectives that will influence your decision. For example, do you want to expand your market presence abroad and would off-shoring operations help you accomplish this?
Look at other US locations – for example the Midwest. Midwestern moms working from home provide high quality customer service for Southwest Airlines. Part- or flex-timers may be less expensive than full-timers.
Make this move in steps. Consider breaking up your needs into distinct components and outsourcing each component from a different provider or vendor. This will help to preserve your “secret sauce” and corporate IP resources from those who might want to steal it if they saw the whole picture.
Good off-shore functions utilize as little management as possible. Distinct tasks are easier to off-shore than complex processes.
Look at scalability issues – based on your own past experience.
Tie the resources that you need to what is readily available in different geographies.
Situation: A company survived the recession by cutting back and using cash reserves. Business is now on the upswing with significant new opportunities. However, the company has limited resources to invest landing new opportunities. How do you ramp up sales and business development on a constrained budget?
Advice from the CEOs:
Identify and focus on your niche market, and invest your limited resources closing qualified clients. This is a rifle shot approach, not shotgun. While seeing new business, make sure that you have sufficient production capacity to handle new business. You want your clients to be satisfied so that they will refer others to you
Cash is the most critical resource. Spend carefully and get the most from your investment in business development.
While marketing materials are important, they may not be essential if you have and can leverage excellent referral sources. Word of mouth and referrals from trusted clients are your top assets.
Leverage Linkedin as a free or low cost resource to identify key contacts in your top 100 customer prospects.
You can also use Linked-in.com to recruit additional sales resources who may be amenable to a pure commission sale. This can help you to augment your efforts so that you only pay for success.
Your most important current unused resource is leads and referrals from existing satisfied customers. Let them know that you are looking to grow and ask whether they know of contacts in other companies who could use your product. It is surprising how frequently they will share their contacts with you. Ask whether they would call the contact and provide a personal introduction.
Situation: A technology company has grown rapidly over the last year. Two customers representing a significant share of business have temporarily reduced orders for one quarter, resulting in a cash crunch until these orders resume. How do you bridge a short-term cash crunch?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you feel relatively secure that once the quarter is over these orders will resume and your cash crunch will be resolved? If so, ask your bank to increase your cash line. Explain the situation, the companies involved, their order history and the expected timing until you get your next payments. A letter from each company saying that they plan to resume orders will help your case. Be aware that the bank may request a personal guarantee to substantially increase your credit line.
If you have to personally guarantee a line of credit extension, make sure that you see this as an acceptable risk, and that you can trust the customers to come through with their orders as promised.
If you produce products or subcomponents critical to these customers, ask whether they will extend a bridge loan or make a payment against future orders to assure their place in your production queue once their orders resume. You may have to escalate this request within the customer companies if you are currently dealing with purchasing personnel or lower level management.
Can you redeploy excess labor to other projects during the cash crunch? You will have to do this carefully so that you can rapidly redeploy these resources to priority projects once a large order comes in from one of these customers.
Situation: In a contracted service company, activity gets very busy at predictable intervals due to contract renewals. During these busy periods, either positive or negative surprises can make it difficult to handle the work load. What techniques have you developed to make sure that you find time to do all the right things?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at your renewal process and break it down. There may be some aspects of the process that require top staff attention and other aspects that are routine and can be handled without special training. For the latter tasks, cookbook the details so that you can use either your own or outside staff to complete them. This will start to open up more options.
You may want to stagger your renewal periods so that all of the renewals do not happen at the same time. If this is not possible, rank your current customers in terms of revenue volume and profitability. This enables you to shift focus from less profitable customers during crunch times.
As crunch periods are both periodic and predictable, bring in extra staff on a temporary or contractor basis during these times to help manage the load. You may even be able to work with a staffing agency to plan adding of additional personnel to help handle the load during crunch times.
In the current economy there are a number of highly talented individuals – retirees, spouses who work part time, individuals who are underemployed – who want or need to work but do not necessarily have to or want to work full time. During your slower periods offer training on your products and software to a group of people like this so that during the crunch times they can come in to assist the load.
Interview with Richard Owen, CEO, Satmetrix Systems
Situation: If you are not creating promoters of your product or service, you are inhibiting your own growth. Growth is challenging and if you don’t have positive word of mouth it becomes more expensive. How do you find and focus on your promoters?
Advice from Richard Owen:
Calculate and understand your “Net Promoter Score” – the percentage difference between “promoters” and detractors.” Promoters are those customers who would highly recommend your business, detractors have a negative perspective.
It is important to attend these two audiences – “detractors”, who create negative word of mouth, and “promoters” who create positive word of mouth. Detractors can be targeted for service recovery. At the same time, you must identify your promoters and find ways to get them to actively let others know about your business. Both negative and positive effects are being amplified today by social networks.
Understand what your business does that creates detractors and promoters. Gather and analyze root cause data to provide insights around the actions you and your team should take to change the balance in your favor.
Hold employees accountable by “stack ranking” the customer performance of each of your teams or employees. In part, this helps you to understand areas of strength and weakness and allows you to create individualized or group action and coaching plans. There is also a tendency for groups below the average to improve performance because they are being measured.
These are simple ideas, but making this work in practice can be a challenge. Setting up an effective system takes more leadership than leaders typically realize and is often counter to the short term realities of most companies. Success requires a long-term perspective and an external versus internal focus. And, of course, the right systems!
While the leadership of many mid-market companies are as sophisticated as that in large companies, mid-market companies lack the resources of large companies. A focus on action around promoters and detractors allows a company to get 90% of the value for 10% of the effort in customer experience management.