Situation: A tech company has grown to twenty people. The CEO is concerned that if they grow much beyond this their culture will start to change. The principal question is whether team leadership structure will remain tight and focused, while teams will continue to be flexible and have fun. How do you manage culture as you grow?
Advice from the CEOs:
Other companies have grown to twice this size and continue to increase their number of employees.
One uses component owners as leads, with people under them. Leads are more technical than managers and aren’t expected to be superb managers.
They grow middle managers organically instead of hiring from outside.
If an individual’s plate is full, give them the ability to delegate work to an up and comer.
Active communication has number limits.
The optimal functioning group is 7-12; higher functioning teams are even smaller with 7-8 members.
Create flexible teams that maintain communication pathways and culture.
Consider using reconfigurable space.
When one company grew from 25 to 60, they noticed that at 30 people it became difficult to track people; they needed to develop systems and internal management tools.
Much more attention was needed on sales forecasting and expense elasticity. The solution was to study peaks and valleys and built a model that could function within historic peak /valley limits.
How do you maintain the contractor pool?
Keep a list and actively communicate with them about current and anticipated needs.
One company’s rule: consultants are 100% billable – functionally they are only able to realize 98%, but the rule keeps this number high.
Use contractor pools to supplement project tasks. If your primary differentiating focus is on successfully closing projects, focus contractors on ramping new projects.
Hire people who embody you and your culture. Hire in your own image.
Situation: A tech company is having difficulty with a customer. Given three options – high quality, low cost and rapid delivery – the company can deliver any combination of two, but the customer wants all three. When the company asks which two are most important, the customer responds that they want all three. How do you respond to unrealistic demands?
Advice from the CEOs:
The Devil’s Advocate response to this question is to look at your processes. Is it possible to do all three, and if so under what circumstances?
Think from the perspective of the customer:
What will you need and when?
Integrate the customer into the decision process as much as possible.
Demonstrate where trade-offs exist, and work through these in binary fashion until you reach agreement on the scope of work, delivery timeline and price.
The challenges change depending upon who within the customer company you are working. For example, the engineers understand the challenges and complexity of the product in question. However, the purchasing agents do not necessarily understand the product, its complexity, or how critical it is to their final product.
In this case try bargaining with the purchasing agent – if the purchasing agent goes back to the engineers and gets their agreement that your company can change the quality or delivery spec, perhaps you can be flexible in your pricing. Put the ball in the PA’s court – but make sure that the PA knows that he/she will be responsible for any project delays for not giving you the order today
Use stories to set expectations – better yet, use stories, combined with metrics about the costs associated with attempting short-cuts to develop authoritative arguments in support of your position.
Create a User Guide for your customers – paper and web formats – to sell your story. Sell fear, uncertainty and doubt; for example, if the PA wants to go another route here are the potential costs in terms of time, market share and profits lost.
In particularly difficult negotiations, use the real estate mantra: Some Will, Some Won’t, So What, Who’s Next?
Situation: A tech company competes in a rapidly changing marketplace. The companies they serve constantly evolve their platforms. The company must respond rapidly to assure compatibility with both hardware and software innovations. Users adapt to new platforms at different rates, and the company must address their needs, as well. With so much time spent tending these diverse needs, how do they plan for market evolution?
Advice from the CEOs:
In the market you serve you must constantly reinvent yourselves as technology changes. Some platforms make changes on a 5-year cycle, while mobile platforms are currently on a 6-month cycle. This may force choices as to which platforms to serve. You also may want to focus on platforms where what you bring to the table is most useful.
You have made the strategic choice to tie the future of your company to a few large companies that dominate their markets. It is imperative that you cultivate close relationships with the technology as well as strategic leadership of those companies. This will give you more advanced insight into their plans, and they may even involve you in discussions about how the market evolves. If so, you will have positioned yourself for that evolution. These relationships may also become your exit strategy.
Businesses run on cash, or access to cash. As you cultivate relationships with your key customer companies, look for opportunities to invest in developing markets on a subscription basis which will provide ongoing annuity revenue. Figuring out how to leverage advertising or positioning options into your offering offers an additional revenue stream.
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’s accountants advise them to make distributions for tax purposes. Simultaneously, the company’s future is based on technology and staying ahead of the competition. This requires ongoing investment. Do you focus on taxes or investment?
Advice from the CEOs:
The focus of the answer is distributions and company morale, not tax planning. Think about the impact on the team. Are there considerable differentials in compensation within the company? If so, this may be impacting morale.
Differentiate bonuses from variable compensation. Make bonuses special. This starts at the top. The attitude should be that if someone works hard, they will be compensated. Once bonuses become assumed, they are just regarded as part of the overall compensation package.
Smaller geographical units can help retain a small company atmosphere and drive. As a company grows, similar results can be achieved with Tiger Team projects.
If the organizational structure enables this, foster friendly competition metrics between offices – and publish the results.
One company distributes performance data to top staff – with color-color coded red/yellow/green metrics based on performance. All red and yellow numbers require an explanation. The company has seen a significant reduction in red and yellow metrics since they started this.
At company meetings – publicize and recognize top 10 performers in various areas. Recognition boosts morale.
Company events boost teamwork and morale. These may include company barbeques, in-house cooking shows created and run by staff, and quarterly outings – bocce ball, tubing, sailing on the Bay.
Growth is accompanied by change. When a company starts it’s a mission. After 15 years it’s a job. This is a function of growth, and it takes ongoing creativity to keep individual employees excited about their job and role.
Situation: A company is launching a new service – using existing technologies to address a new market. The CEO is curious as to whether it makes more sense to create a separate firm or corporation, a division within the current structure, or a new brand to take advantage of this opportunity? Do you launch a new brand or a new company?
Advice from the CEOs:
Because you are utilizing an existing process in a new market, don’t create the additional conflict or complexity that you might by splitting this into a separate entity just yet. Utilize the collaborative talent within the company to create a new brand rather than a new division or corporation.
Adding the additional overhead, accounting and other complexities of a separate entity is overkill – start it as a division or a brand.
Use this as an opportunity to grow your overall company brand. Create a series of icons to represent the company’s various capabilities. The icons will also help you to describe the range of capabilities of the company to prospective clients.
The market which you are addressing is early stage. By developing this new market as a new capability of your current well-respected brand, you have the opportunity to become the category leader.
When another CEO created new capabilities as extensions of existing technology he followed the following route:
Create a sub-brand as you develop and start to develop the new capability;
If it is successful and grows, develop it into a division;
If the capability grows to the point that you attract and decide to take outside funding to accelerate growth, create a separate company so that you don’t give away ownership of the parent company.
Think “effective vs. efficiency.” Start with efficiency. Add effectiveness (dedicated people) as opportunity proves itself out.
Situation: A CEO is evaluating a potential deal with an Asian company that is synergistic with the strategy of the CEO’s company. The structure would include a US entity, run by the CEO, and an Asian entity that would provide essential technology. How do you structure an international deal?
Advice from the CEOs:
Before you agree to a deal, raise your own level of trust with the key players of the Asian company so that you are comfortable with the investment of time and money that you will make.
Assure that you will have the focus and attention of talent that you will need within the Asian company. This is better done through mutual understanding and agreement than through contract. In Asia, relationships are personal, not contractual, though for legal reasons personal understandings must be backed by a good written contract. This will likely mean that you will have to travel to Asia to spend time with the key personnel upon whom you will rely.
Make sure that there is agreement on a clear road map for both the US and Asian entities.
You will need a solid bridge person who can speak both the language and culture of your Asian counterpart – not just someone who says that they can, but who can deliver. Test this relationship before agreeing to the deal.
Structure the deal so that the US entity owns exclusive rights to the technology world-wide with the exception of the home country of the Asian firm. Assure that you own an acceptable piece of the US entity.
Don’t complicate the exercise by creating additional shell companies in Asia. Shell companies can make it difficult to maintain accountability and assure that you gain the value that you seek.
Situation: A company wants to create a liquidity event every 3-5 years. The objective is to increase shareholder value and also create opportunity for employees. How do you boost shareholder value and liquidity?
Advice from the CEOs:
What are the important considerations in evaluating different options?
Seek partners or investors with whom you have synergy and who will improve business prospects. There must be more than just their ability to provide cash.
What is the role of key management and employees post deal? For how long?
Are there timing aspects that help to maximize your own valuation? For example, if your business is cyclical, is there a time of the year when the financial picture is optimal?
As you evaluate alternative deals, evaluate the M&A fees around each option. Could these funds be used differently with greater impact on liquidity?
Technology spinoffs can increase liquidity while keeping the core company whole. Jack Stack describes this process in The Great Game of Business. This is also simpler and cleaner than many collaboration options.
Considering collaborating with or purchasing a complimentary company with an office in a desirable geography.
If an opportunity appears synergistic, dig to find the depth and value of the synergies.
Consider timing options. Are there prerequisites which will increase probability of success?
Roll-ups are doable but risky. It is hard to find examples that work. Challenges often come from of cultural issues and lack of compatibility.
Look at the experience of similar companies as benchmarks for what you might anticipate from various options.
Situation: A small technology company has a handful of major customers. They are very good at what they do and want to expand and diversify their customer base. The challenge is that they don’t have the funds for large-scale marketing. As an additional twist, for now they prefer to stay under the radar of their largest competitors. How do you build market awareness on a small budget?
Advice from the CEOs:
Start with the basics. Define your market niche and build from there. Create a beachhead in this niche and generate strong testimonials from your current customers. Segue to tradeshows and broader marketing opportunities as you build marketing strength.
You already have several marquis clients. Look for opportunities in other divisions within these client companies. The work that you have done for existing divisions makes you credible.
Network with your current clients to develop other opportunities. They won’t want to help their competitors; however, if you can improve what they receive from their other vendors they may provide introductions for you.
As a small company, focus on a single market where you have strength and credibility. You don’t want to spread yourselves too thin.
Find a good customer and solve their problem well. Create an evangelist who will tell others about you.
Look for speaker opportunities at high visibility events within your market niche.
Consider webinars, these are inexpensive and if you promote them to decisions makers in your target niche you can quickly build credibility.
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.