Situation: An early stage company has assembled an impressive team and has a solid service offering. The immediate challenge is bringing in clients to fuel growth. The team has the capacity but needs some creative ideas on where they should focus their efforts. How do you fuel early stage growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Fully utilize the team’s talents. Team members with established expertise can offer clinics featuring the company’s service offering at local colleges, business organizations and other venues to target audiences. Think about business organizations with members who would benefit from the company’s services. Also reach out to venture capitalists and the entrepreneurial market.
Develop a strong value proposition:
Eyeballs on the market
Links to highly qualified resources
Demonstrated expertise in your space
Claims tied to the top priorities of target clients
For start-up and entrepreneur client targets:
Offer a packaged set of services for a fixed fee. Be open to creative payment options to fit the financial needs of entrepreneurs.
Start developing a full suite of services. Start by assessing the need and developing a target list of early clients. VC portfolio companies can be a great target.
Build a good web-based communications interface for client use. Think of what is needed to create an attractive menu and let this drive service development.
Develop a separate brand for ancillary services that will complement the current offering, but which is outside of the current offering. Look at markets which would benefit from the service, including medical and nursing providers.
Situation: A company is at a crossroads. They are no longer growing as they have in past years. The CEO is assessing alternatives including a merger, selling the company or restructuring. What are the essential questions to determine whether you merge, sell or revive a business?
Advice from the CEOs:
Do you really have the information to determine whether it makes sense to merge, sell or revive the business? The questions to ask are:
Is your core competency important?
Do you have the talent required to revive the business?
How much of your business is from repeat customers?
Is your platform still being used by a significant number of companies, and are they likely to shift their software soon?
If the answers are favorable, then the only remaining question is whether you have the energy and inclination to continue.
Having developed a profitable business model, why would you give up control or ownership?
Tighten up the business by focusing on the basics and turn the company around.
Identify where you can make money, and
Determine which portions of the business need to be restructured or eliminated.
Essential questions are:
Do you have a clear picture of where the profitability lies within the business?
Do you have a clear statement of your key competitive advantage – your “Main Thing”?
Can you establish a pricing strategy that pays you fairly for the value you provide?
Look at bench time among current employees.
Identify, and fully utilize the most important contributors, perhaps by giving them additional responsibilities in other areas.
See that all retained employees are fully utilized.
Eliminate those who are on the bench the most, or transform them into contractors so that you only pay for active time.
Utilize contractors to fill the “full service” slots that are important to your service offering but which do not contribute significantly to your bottom line.
Most importantly, reformat your role so that you are doing that which you truly enjoy. Your own enthusiasm and passion are the most important long-term drivers for your business, and will be the most important motivators to your staff.
Situation: The CEO of a business that has been in place for several generations is frustrated by the challenges of working with family members. Relatives are involved in top positions, but frequently place personal concerns above the priorities of the business. This leads to tense situations where other family members, not in the business, will intervene to support their close relatives without appreciating the conditions facing the business. Must a family business always be “family”?
Advice from the CEOs:
For the business to thrive, you must match skills and talent to available positions – not just the “best” family member fit for the position.
Understanding that it is difficult for one family member to communicate negative news to another family member, consider hiring a consultant or HR company to evaluate and be the go-between in determining best family fit, or family/non-family choices for open positions.
If the company involved unionized employees, and some family member employees are union members, this may complicate your choices. Seek outside non-union counsel to help you evaluate situations and navigate solutions.
Hire a professional facilitator to assist in running company planning meetings which involve family members. A facilitator can approach the situation from a neutral standpoint, and does not carry the personal history of brother-sister or close relationships within the company. Choose an individual with experience with family-owned companies who can build a company vision that goes beyond personal relationships and concerns. This individual can also help navigate the operational situations facing the company.
Look at both your organization and ownership structure versus applicable regulations and licensing requirements. This may present new alternatives for you to consider.
Situation: A company has built a very successful single site business, and wants to expand geographically. They are investigating where it makes sense to duplicate operations in new sites and where it makes sense to consolidate operations. The company’s secret sauce is in their system and procedures. How do you plan for business expansion?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at the shared services piece and the cost/benefit tradeoffs. What services are best centralized, and what are the critical on-site services that you want duplicate in remote sites?
Other companies use remote offices for field personnel, but centralize all shared services. Centralized shared services include invoicing and collections, financial reporting, telemarketing, anything dealing with trade names and print or trade-marked collateral, and an array of other services which would be too expensive for individual sites to duplicate, or where leaving things to the individual sites might result in inconsistency of service and erosion of the brand.
How do you replicate key talent? Consider whether key talent can be retained in the shared services side of the business, not the cloneable service delivery sites. Typical franchise operations have people who are difficult to replace or replicate so most do not try to include these roles in the service delivery operations.
You will need to provide for a sales role in your remote offices as business development will be critical to early success of new sites.
In the transition from “successful small” to “successful large” most businesses find that the medium stage is the most difficult. Issues to consider include:
Does your direction match your expertise – do you have support of individuals knowledgeable about franchising?
What are the margin differentials within the business? Do you want to clone the high or low-margin areas of the business? Develop profitability models for your central and remote sites, and assure that the sites will have sufficient profitability to assure their short-term success. This will make it easier to proliferate the remote sites.
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 company needs a strong pool of engineers in their market niche to stay ahead of the competition. Their niche is specialized with little transferability from other engineering specialties. They struggle to find local talent and relocation expenses are high. How have you recruited hard-to-find talent?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you want a mix of fresh and experienced talent and need to add 3 to 5 new engineers per year to keep up with growth and turnover, you will be hiring a new engineer every 2-3 months so you need a standardized, repeatable process that is ongoing. If you don’t have either in-house or reliable outsourced HR capabilities, you need to secure this as soon as possible.
Consider establishing a satellite office in a geographic area which has an available talent pool.
Look for areas with a top university engineering program in your field.
Look at your key competitors’ locations and see whether they are in areas with both the educational and industrial-technology base to be a candidate location.
As you develop a new geography, forge strong relationships with the university programs that can feed you the younger talent that you need. This is a win-win relationship, because universities are focused on their placement statistics and corporate support.
Get to know the professors in your specialty and explore establishing a center of study or excellence within the engineering programs.
One company works closely with Santa Clara University and developed a program that offers financial rewards for the best technical papers produced by students in their specialty. This has created a buzz around the company, helped to establish a study program in their specialty, and enables them to attract the best and brightest graduates.
As you establish a reputation for attracting the best younger talent, this can help you to attract seasoned talent that wants to work with the brightest young talent in the field.
Another option is to find 2-3 key experienced engineers who are willing to relocate for the opportunity to build a new team.
Interview with Anju Bajaj, CEO, Zuna Infotech, Inc.
Situation: The US economy is slowly trying to get back on its feet, but many potential obstacles remain. In the mid-west, there is good talent with deep enterprise-level IT experience, and lots of new young talent looking for positions. How can private business help to retool the workforce and boost employment?
Advice from Anju Bajaj:
Working in IT services to provide end-to-end technology solutions, we have found highly skilled talent in the American Midwest. In recent years, many seasoned IT professionals have lost their jobs as Midwestern companies downsized. These individuals have deep enterprise level IT skills, but may not be up to speed with the latest technologies. There are also many brilliant young people available who have good web-based technology skills, but no experience in legacy systems or the working of complex enterprises. Our focus is on cross-training both groups as they collaborate to build IT solutions for our customers.
We have found that by organizing these two groups into small teams, guided by a lead who knows both web-based and legacy systems, we can leverage their individual strengths to cross-train each other. It turns out that both sets of workers are smart, capable and, in live project settings, collaborate and acquire technical skills and domain knowledge relatively quickly.
The bigger and more subtle challenge is teaching younger workers about business processes. Each process must fit the workflow so that a process change in one area doesn’t produce difficulties in other areas. For this, you need to have people with deep expertise in functional and domain disciplines as well as technical experts. By teaming talent, we can produce functional experts who understand all areas. We have found that in three to six months of working together, about 25% of team members reach almost guru status; while the remaining 75% have become quite skilled.
Like most leading service providers, we at Zuna Infotech also build capability through our Centers of Excellence. We focus on developing practices within different industry verticals. With this comes knowledge and structure which we can then pass on through train-the-trainer programs.
We have been inspired by the desire to help keep US workers working while retooling their skills. The results that we’ve found to date have been very encouraging. We hope that this can provide a model for other companies.
Situation: A company wants to grow by acquiring companies in similar verticals that have different but complimentary offerings. The targets will most likely be boutique operations. How should they target and prospect candidates?
Advice from the CEOs:
Before you think about either targeting or prospecting an acquisition do your internal homework. Establish your strategic plan, including strategic capabilities that you want to develop. Look for synergies within your plan, and assure that any new capabilities complement these synergies.
Will current customers be interested in the new strategic capabilities, or will you have to build or buy access to new customer segments?
Determine the leveraging factors. How much incremental business can you expect to gain compared to current business? Look at both top and bottom line impact.
Do a build/buy analysis to determine whether the capability is more effectively built using your own resources or purchased.
Leverage both internal and external resources to develop a target list. Ask what current employees may be knowledgeable of potential candidates.
Use your industry network to identify and gather information about candidates.
Retain a firm to assist you in identifying candidates. They can approach candidates from a neutral position to assess interest in acquisition.
It is critical to negotiate a deal that retains key talent. Founders and key staff of the acquired company must see the combination as a means to facilitate and expand their own vision. In many successful acquisitions you will see the following traits.
The acquiring company did not change management, accounting methods, or operational procedures of the acquired company.
They acted as a bank to facilitate pursuit of the acquired company’s dreams and already successful strategies.
They took a “hands-off” approach with the acquired company and did not try to force cultural change.
Interview with Greg Hartwell, CEO and Managing Director, Homecare California, Inc.
Situation: Fast growing companies find it difficult to manage consistency and reliability of service as they scale to their next level of growth. They need to systematize what works and leverage technology to enjoy the benefits of scale. How do you build consistency and reliability as you scale up?
Advice from Greg Hartwell:
Invest time and effort to build an experienced management team. As a small company building a new service delivery model, it is helpful for the founders to know all roles so that you have a sense of what’s needed for each role.
Be open to hiring people from other industries. This brings a fresh perspective and broadens the pool of talent. There’s value in industry experience, but attitude and cultural fit are key.
The split between tactical and strategic skills is 80 / 20. Basic skills are necessary, but specialized knowledge can be learned.
Institutionalize how you recruit, screen, hire, train and retain. How do you do it like Disney – attracting and hiring the best of the best?
Know your market and the personality of those who will excel. This greatly simplifies the screening process.
Work hard on training. Our customer-focus starts with our employees. We complement natural talent with training that focuses on soft skills, and on consistency and reliability of service.
Find great advisors who can help build a training and retention system that works for you.
Minimize turnover by compensating people well, and treating them even better. Build a culture of recognition and shared experience that emphasizes the importance of the team and its members.
Embrace technology which enhances your ability to scale.
Don’t wait for something bad to happen and then rush to fix it. Anticipate and prevent mishaps.
Leverage communication technologies to tighten the bond between client and provider agency. Provide added services that are valuable and affordable.
Hand-held device technology is developing rapidly. Leverage this to increase consistency and reliability of service, enhance case reporting, reduce human error, reduce the ratio of supervisors to caregivers, and increase productivity. Be at the head of your industry class!
Situation: A company has been seeking additional engineers. Unexpectedly, three excellent candidates independently approached the company seeking employment. This opens the door to expand the department and also to create an additional layer of management consistent with the company’s growth objectives. Currently, in this small company all engineers report directly to the CEO. What are best practices adding a layer of management to the company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Remember that aspiration does not equal talent. There is a big difference between good individual contributors and good managers. The best predictor of managerial success is past successful experience.
You have a number of senior engineers who have been with you for a long time. Have any expressed an interest in management responsibility? Do any of them have a track record successfully managing teams? Similarly, evaluate your new candidates both in terms of both their ability to contribute as engineers and their prior management experience.
If you hire one or more of the candidates, start them at the senior engineer level. Let the company and the rest of your engineering team get used to them and observe the quality of their contribution.
Once you are ready to create a new level of management, make this an open process. Announce your plans to the engineering team, and ask them to approach you individually if they are interested. See who steps up.
When the time comes to make the promotion, how do you communicate this to the group?
If you’ve used an open process to evaluate one or more candidates for management, the group will already be prepared when you announce the new structure and promotion.
An important part of the message is that the company is growing and that there will be ongoing opportunities for talented engineers to earn promotions to management.
For those interested, start with small steps as leads in team projects. Who if effective at guiding their team? Who is a positive source of energy for the team? Who is helpful and goes above and beyond for other team members and for customers? How do they respond to team obstacles? Observe and coach them along the way.