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.
Situation: The Board of a company has asked the CEO to generate to forecast of revenue for this year. Their primary technology is new and the company has just started receiving orders. An achievable revenue forecast my not please the Board. However, the company may lack manufacturing capacity to meet a higher level of demand. How do you forecast revenue for a new technology?
Be realistic in your forecast. While the Board may not like your number, the impact of setting the goal too far out of reach is potentially significant, including discouraging the team, and impairing credibility with the Board. However, if you aim realistically and significantly exceed the target you will be heroes.
How is it best to approach this in discussions with the leadership team?
Create a set of objectives and revenue targets and put probabilities around each. Also look at the obstacles to hitting the higher numbers, including manufacturing capacity and the cost of increasing capacity.
For examples if your most likely forecast is $X, then put probabilities around achievement of multiples of this number:
$X – 95%
.75X – 99%
1.5X – 75%
2X – 60%
Once your determine the objective, think through everything that must be covered to meet that goal, from sales to production, and start developing plans and contingencies to address these.
Share your probabilities with the board, as well as your plans and contingencies that may increase likelihood of reaching the higher targets. Ask for their input and assistance hitting the higher targets.
Situation: A company has developed a disrupting technology that will allow OEMs to produce high-end circuits at a fraction of their current cost. A non-exclusive OEM partner is using this technology but doesn’t have a channel to high-end users, and the company is too small to reach these customers themselves. How do you reach high-end users?
Advice from the CEOs:
Your dilemma is having a disrupting technology in a market with a strong division between OEMs servicing the low/medium-end market and those servicing the high-end market.
Your technology collapses the division between the low/medium and the high-end markets and OEMs and proposes a full-scale technical shift.
This shift disrupts the current business models of either group of OEMs, as well as their technology development plans. This is why you are finding resistance.
Therefore, you need a channel partner that is either:
A low/medium-end OEM who is just as much a disrupter as you are – highly promising but not yet well-established – and who is capability of developing a high-end sales and marketing effort; or
A high-end OEM that knows the market but is collapsing under their current strategy and needs an entirely different solution to revive their prospects.
Your near-term task is to simply gain market capability – both manufacturing and marketing/sales – and to use this capability to gain early market acceptance.
Your investors want to see early “Blue Chip” partners, but given market realities, this may not be the wisest strategy.
If, over the next 12 months, you can begin to impact the market shares of the high-end OEMs, this is the surest way to gain their attention. Once you start to gain share, a likely outcome is that one of the high-end OEMs will buy you to lock up your IP.
Another company recently used a similar strategy entering a new market by collaborating with a high-visibility partner.
In one year, they took 30% market share from the market leader.
The next year the market leader bought them because “it was less expensive to buy you than to spend the marketing dollars that we would have had to spend to compete against you.”
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: Even with a better mousetrap, an early stage tech company can’t afford a large sales force to cold call enterprise prospects. How do you build an affordable, scalable sales model – one which lets you quickly identify potential customers, and sell to them with a predictable rate of success?
Advice from Scott Dietzen:
From our experience, there are three steps to the process:
Form and quickly test hypotheses about your early adopters, and be prepared to iterate. “Friends and family” customers typically provide this test bed;
Look for ways for candidate customers could self qualify, and then strive to make that easily repeatable; and
Once have honed your messaging, leverage PR, viral marketing, social media, and other inexpensive means get your value proposition in front of more customers.
The chain of events between hypothesis, private experimentation and public launch is crucial:
Before launch, you want to have many confidential conversations about your value proposition with early prospects, and hopefully get many customers to privately try out your product. What do they love about the product? What changes will make it even more valuable? Listen and learn. At Pure Storage, we spent a year and a half in customer testing before we came out of stealth.
Most companies work too hard on the product and too little on the go to market plan. It’s better to do these in tandem. At Pure Storage we thought our messaging would skew toward performance, but learned that the fact that we saved customers 10X on their power and space budgets was equally important to them.
By having referencable customers in place before launch, you are better able to declare and defend first mover status and their validation is crucial to a successful launch.
A great way to accelerate growth on a start-up budget is to let customers self qualify for free:
At WebLogic, we offered developers a free download evaluation version of our software. A developer could choose to use WebLogic for free, and then go to their manager only after they had a WebLogic solution up and running. This made it far easier for management to make a buy decision, and took off so fast that it was hard for our sales force to keep up with the inbound license key requests!
At Pure Storage, we give away a software tool that storage administrators can point at an existing storage workload. The tool allows them to evaluate the savings from our data reduction algorithms, and hence how much their companies could save in cost and power by converting from mechanical disk storage to Pure solid-state flash. Enabling the customer to generate their own ROI story is an easier, more economical path to winning a happy customer, and the end user insider becomes a hero for delivering value to his/her organization.
Key Words: Technology, Solution, Model, Sales, Marketing, Customer, Identification, Hypothesis, Early Adopter, Social Media, Scalability, Pre-launch, Stealth
Situation: An organization that provides an online network for senior financial executives has an immense amount of content on its web portal. To improve the user experience of their target audience, they want to simplify access to this knowledge. How do you simplify access to knowledge?
Advice from John Kogan:
We have a rich portal with an immense amount of content potentially valuable to senior corporate finance[K1] executives. We have many ways to access this content – perhaps too many. Our objective is to get the highest quality answers in front of the user with the least effort on their part. Google has done a very good job of pulling the best content to the top given a million possibilities to each query. If we can do this, we become the Google of finance and accounting!
Most people know what they want when they come to a site. We have started by creating a clean user experience to allow them that good “line of sight” to what they want.
Our objective is to help the user identify the right content with the smallest number of queries. From the user perspective, exposing the wrong content is a waste of time. We want to show them high quality, compelling content which directly addresses their need.
To develop quality content, you must have an open mind. It’s not about what we want to say, but understanding the user’s needs and addressing these. You have to be guided by the data to tell you what’s happening on the site and what the user wants to see, and then provide them relevant information.
Achieving this means that we must find people who are smarter than us in these areas and gain their input. In the end, your company is no better than the ideas that you can either dream up or gather from others. We constantly seek fresh perspectives from investors, advisors, users and potential users.
Finally, you must take action on the data you gather. Too many companies suffer from information paralysis. The solution is Vision plus Will plus Doing it!
Situation: A company has developed and shipped equipment that puts it into a new market. They can continue to pursue this direction or make a significant shift that will open up a larger opportunity. What are the most important considerations to this decision?
Advice from the CEOs:
There are a number of points that you need to clarify before making this decision:
What is the magnitude of difference between the two opportunities?
How much of a shift in technology is required to make the jump to the larger segment?
How much of the expertise to make this shift do you have in-house, and how much must you bring in, acquire or develop through partnerships?
What is your most likely exit strategy and how will each opportunity impact it?
Are you being realistic in your ability to meet development timelines?
If you don’t have deep expertise in the area that you want to develop, the answer is most likely yes. If you do you can often beat your initial estimates.
If the shift includes both there is risk that you will underestimate the time required to develop both the prototype and to turn the prototype into production quality technology.
If your ultimate objective is to sell the company, be aware that selling any company can be tricky, and you may not be able to sell the company for the value that you need to support yourself after the sale.
Study other companies in your geography and market, and determine both the price that they received for their companies and how they positioned their companies for sale.
As an alternative to selling, consider hiring a general manager to run the company. This can free you to concentrate on your passion and also increase the value of the company if you decide to sell at a future date.
Interview with John Lima, CEO, Coffee Bean Technology
Situation: As with anything new, there are varying adoption rates for social media. Many top executives aren’t sure how social media can improve their sales. How can social media effectively enhance sale efforts?
Advice from John Lima:
Business is about people, and people are increasingly using social media to connect with others and to express themselves. Social media platforms encourage us to be ourselves – to take off the business mask that we normally present to the world. This enables the savvy company to better know their customers.
First, social media enable you to find customers more quickly. Almost everyone is somehow connected to social media. The problem is the inefficiency of searching for them through LinkedIn, Facebook Twitter, etc. Software-assisted search makes this more efficient. Develop a customer Social ID: a profile of what you believe your customers interests and buying behavior to be to serve as your social media connector.
Second, find people who fit this profile and engage with them in social media. Let them bring their conversations and interest to you, and refine your Social ID as you gain additional information. This gives you insight into the person – who they interact with and what interests them – and enables you to approach them as a human being. Envision an open marketplace where people connect first and then tell their stories. This allows salespeople to quickly build empathy and smooths the sales process.
Third, your evolving customer Social ID can help generate new leads. As the Social ID becomes more sophisticated you can develop key words to find similar customers. Software robots use these key words to find relevant conversations in Twitter or Facebook and flag then for a sales person who can then dig deeper to determine whether the individual identified is a competitor or a prospect.
To make this work efficiently, you want to have an integrated system with a set of tools that allows you to cost-effectively sift through the millions of daily entries logged through social media.