Situation: A CEO wants to fund future growth through better management of cash flow. Cash flow has been positive for several years, and the company uses a bank line to fund receivables. How to you manage cash flow to fund growth?
Advice from the CEOs:
Since the company is cash flow positive, go to the bank with the assistance of a connected Board member and ask for better terms on your line. This will reduce financing expense.
What are the company’s Days Sales Outstanding (DSO = accounts receivable (AR) divided by average daily revenue)? Reducing this will have an immediate positive impact on cash flow.
Normal up-front payment is 20%. With 35% gross margins and 20% up-front, the company is funding profits through the bank line. The adjusted gross margin (GM) is the company’s Operating GM less the cost of the bank line.
Solutions: Reduce DSO by offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days and increase up front retainers from 20% to 50%. This takes time but is doable by working with customers.
Some customers have seen AR slip from 30 to 45 days. Offering a 1% discount for payment in 15 days is an inexpensive way to decrease AR and increase cash flow.
What is the most immediate need?
The company has positive cash flow, marquee accounts and proof of concept.
What is needed is additional referenceability. Can reference accounts come from exiting marquee accounts? What would this take? Can the Board help to identify and develop additional reference accounts?
The company is resource limited in sales. At this point people are needed. How can this be done without extending current resources?
Shift resources from other departments to sales to boost sales efforts. Another CEO did this very successfully and generated a substantial pick-up in revenue growth.
Increase the incentive for service people to come up with new revenue opportunities. Consider teaming them with the salespeople to generate opportunities.
Consider independent rep firms. Ask key customers who they respect among the independent rep firms.
Develop a joint venture or strategic partnership to feed sales – a situation where this is a strong win-win for both parties.
Leverage the Board to create opportunities. Another CEO has a Board objective of 3 new accounts per year. This comes from 10 leads/connections per year (2 per Board member). Board members who can’t produce leads are turned over.
Situation: The CEO of a software company needs to increase revenue to cover expenses. He doesn’t want to cut salaries because if employees leave it will be hard to find replacements with the required skills. The better solution is to increase revenue. How do you expand business development efforts?
Advice from the CEOs:
Look at the markets which are growing rapidly:
Gaming. This is currently a good investment area. Large casinos are spending heavily on high end projects, and people just keep gambling!
Medical imaging. Potential targets include:
Pharma and Biotech R&D and Marketing/Sales – the ability to show how a drug binds with the cell receptors and how this impacts the cell is interesting to both groups. Also look at Medical schools. This is where you find the top researchers and they love teaching and presentation aids.
Military markets, particularly simulation spaces and unmanned vehicles. They value realistic simulated environments. Also look at training programs that value visually intensive simulations including marine and naval applications, aircraft, and battlefield simulations.
Consider the company’s business focus and strategy. How can it move from a “next project” model to a recurring revenue model? Is it possible to write client agreements to include a piece of the recurring revenue stream from client products?
Look at what the company does and package this as a product/service vs.an hourly problem-solving model. Focus on where the market is going. For example, iPhone apps – cheap to the customer, so millions buy them People now interact differently using electronic media. This opens new options.
What is the company’s key focus – Product Leadership, Operational Excellence or Customer Intimacy? How is the company’s differentiating strength presented consistently to client audiences?
It is important to clearly define the company’s niche – what makes it truly different. The communication must be clearly understood both by the engineers, and the business development and marketing people.
Invest additional funds in business development – with payments highly weighted on success.
A company is concerned because recent accidents on the job have boosted their Modification
or MOD rate and increased company expenses. They have held workshops with
employees and talked about increasing safety, but employees have been lax in
complying with safety measures because these are time-consuming. How do you
boost employee ownership of job safety?
from the CEOs:
is key to the bottom line and future of the company. Enlist employees to
monitor each other and point out when others are acting unsafely.
/ encourage employees to “harass” (in a playful sense) each other if they see
someone not working safely.
caught in inappropriate unsafe behavior is penalized and required to pay $1
into a kitty which is spent on a company-wide benefit such as a pizza lunch.
a presentation, graphically showing the negative impact that a high MOD rate has
on the company, and on employees’ incomes. Hold a company meeting, give this
presentation and discuss with them how costly hazardous behavior is, and how
jobs can ultimately be lost as a result.
nothing else works, explore creating a shell corporation to employ the employees
who are subject to potential injury and effectively “outsource” them like high tech
does. This may lower the MOD rate to 100
as a new business.
for other insurers who will lower the company’s MOD rate.
consequences for flagrant violations of safety guidelines.
thorough background checks before hiring new workers. Avoid new hires with a
history of disability claims.
the grim reality. In volatile markets, forecasts are meaningless. Instead of
fretting over forecast accuracy, focus on increasing billable rates and
generate additional revenue per project, add a flat percentage charge for
project management on top of time and materials. This is often treated by
clients like a sales tax or a gasoline cost adjustment and may not penalize
it possible to build a sustainable revenue source to resolve profit lumpiness? There
maintenance projects. After building a box add a provision for maintenance/upgrades
as new capabilities and technologies are developed. This can cost-effectively
extend the life of the box and long-term profitability of the product that the
box supports, while gaining an annuity revenue stream.
a maintenance add-on service to leverage the company’s core competence on an
ongoing basis. Provide technology upgrades through a maintenance subscription similar
to software companies adding optional access to all new releases over the
course of a year for a fixed subscription cost. The cost to the company for upgrade
downloads is essentially nothing, but it gains an annual annuity revenue
a help desk service to sell via subscription to small companies. Most clients use
less than they anticipate; however, they prefer the security of a flat price
additional info can be gathered through sales to better drive sales forecasts metrics?
Look at the past several years: is there any seasonality in a multi-year
analysis. It may not occur every year, but if you there’s a pattern it may
enable the company to proactively reduce costs where there’s a predictable dip
in project demand.
sales people responsible for both maintaining client relationships and creating
new business? Most companies split these
functions because maintenance is like farming while new business development is
hunting – few sales people excel at both.
in development, the company develops IP, can this be used? When there’s
down-time can capacity be leveraged to develop the company’s IP portfolio? Look
at IP licensing opportunities. This provides an additional potential source of
it is important to figure out an annuity revenue stream, the principal lesson
from the discussion is that most CEOs say that margins are better on fixed
price projects than on time and materials. The key is to control to client
requests for add-ins or adjustments and to include provision for these in
Situation: The CEO of a family-owned company has struggled to align family members with the business plan. When difficult decisions must be made, established personality patterns and family history hinder consensus on what should be done. The CEO seeks advice on whether the addition of one or more outside Board Members can help to build consensus. Can outside Board members help a struggling company?
Advice from the CEOs:
The CEO of another closely-held company brought in an outside Board member two years ago. This has added considerable focus to the Board discussions. The addition of a fresh and respected perspective has helped to clarify decisions and reduce conflicts among the founders.
First, have a conversation with the team. Give them the opportunity to straighten out things themselves. Present the addition of an outside Board member as an option. Get their support. This will make the addition of an outside Board member a company decision, rather than the CEO’s.
The experience of other companies is that compensation can range from free – a retiree who wants to help – to expensive. Arrangements and expense will depend on what the company leadership wants to achieve.
Investigate SCORE – a well-established source for outside board members for small and family businesses.
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 CEO is concerned that there is insufficient fairness and accountability within her company. One manager is paid hourly and the CEO is thinking about shifting this person to salary plus bonus both to put them on par with other mangers and to create more accountability. How do you create accountability?
Advice from the CEOs:
What exactly are you trying to achieve? An operations manager is paid competitively at hourly rates, even compared to salaried employees. The issue is that this person has no responsibility for results as they relate to the P&L. Given this, the group consensus is that it is better to have this person on an incentive program that ties compensation to the performance results that you want.
One objective is that you want this employee to contribute more to planning, strategy or the company’s attempts to develop solutions to the challenges that they face. Have you spoken to the employee about your expectations? Does the employee realize that you want or value their input? Direct communication with the employee is important.
While the employee understands his responsibilities in the operations area, be sure that he is aware that he is also important to the profitability of the company, and managing operational expenses which are contributors to that profitability. Depending upon the individual’s background, he may need training about the links between expenses and the P&L.
Given these factors consider the following options:
Adjust the employee’s compensation by switching from hourly to salary. Make the base livable, but not comfortable, and tie the bonus (which will make the total compensation package comfortable) to the profitability of the business. This will have an immediate effect.
Clearly explain to the employee that you value his creativity and input. Give this person the freedom to contribute and make it clear that his contribution is expected. Early on encourage this and acknowledge contributions in meetings.
You may want to make this person a part owner of the business. This will have a long-term effect.
A small company has need for legal advice, but is unsure how to properly utilize a lawyer. Legal costs have gone up over the last decade, so expense is one concern. Another is a desire to understand how to form an effective relationship with a lawyer or law firm, and how to effectively manage billable hours. Bottom line, how can a lawyer help you meet your business goals?
Advice from the CEOs:
First, seek the counsel of a firm that specializes in small businesses. Just as you would seek a specialist physician to treat a serious medical condition, SMBs are best served by corporate lawyers who understand how they are different from large corporations and who can advise them at a rate and under an arrangement that fits their financial situation.
Schedule regular “off the clock” lunches and conversations with your lawyer. The ideal lawyer for smaller companies serves as an “outside counsel.” Your outside counsel is essentially your legal quarterback and should be willing to meet with you off the clock to discuss general business needs. Of course, as a courtesy to your lawyer, if your conversation starts getting into areas where you are receiving legal advice you shouldn’t expect free advice.
Know what to ask your lawyer versus what to ask your auditor and tax specialist. Each has a separate and distinct domain.
Trust your lawyer – or find a new lawyer. The best legal relationship is when your lawyer is treated as a member of your team. Sharing the business context aids your lawyer in advising you.
There is no need to overspend on lawyers, but you do need to assure that you spend for what you need. A good relationship with your lawyer can help you to walk the line where you are spending appropriately.
Special thanks to Deb Ludwig of DJL Corporate Law for her contribution to this discussion.
Situation: A company goes through an annual strategic planning process followed by an annual business planning process. At mid-year they do a review and correction. The challenge is that if the company is behind plan, the management team does not take ownership of plan revisions – it becomes “the CEO’s Plan.” How do you gain commitment to revisions in the annual plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
Throw out your current process and start over.
The challenge is to gain more buy-in and accountability. This only comes if the targets come from those responsible for delivering them – both for the original plan and if any revisions need to be made.
Look at who you involve within the organization – can you drive involvement deeper to generate additional buy-in across the organization?
Hire an outside facilitator to guide you through the process instead of chairing the meeting yourself. This prevents the resulting plan from becoming “your” plan. It also changes the culture of the meeting as well as the buy-in.
If you use a bottom-up / top-down process, moderate the plan results with an eye to two realities:
Bottom-up input from the sales team is rarely more pessimistic than the CEO’s input. If it is ask what is happening.
Make sure that your top-down numbers are empirical and based on the best market research that you can obtain.
If your plans have consistently fallen short over recent years:
You may be baking the targets too high.
Consider building the revenue plan optimistically, but build the expense plan conservatively. This helps control expenses and attain profitability targets.
So that the two plans are not misaligned, review them more frequently – perhaps quarterly on a formal basis with monthly reviews – so that if your revenue plan is meeting targets you can adjust spending to support production and delivery.
It is common to have one set of numbers for sales and a different, more conservative, number for expenses. As long as you conduct frequent review and adjustment of the expense number to sales performance, this works. Many companies also use different targets for operations than what they present to the Board – with the more conservative numbers for the Board.
Situation: A company has used the same accounting system for over 10 years. The current system produces information quickly and easily, and empowers management and sales to make good decisions. However, it doesn’t respond to customer information requests as well as newer packages. What are best practices for updating your accounting system without losing data?
Advice from the CEOs:
One option is to keep your legacy system, but migrate to a user-friendly platform designed to work with a CRM system that can better meet customers’ needs.
Keep both systems up live until you no longer need the old system, except as an archive of your historic data.
Be sure to cross-train other employees so that your current system doesn’t become worthless if your key administrator gets hit by a truck.
Before you decide which direction to pursue, ask what your employees like the current system.
What do they find most useful?
What accounting features do you need to support your growth plans?
What key functions of the current system would you have to emulate?
How expensive is it to maintain your current system?
Is your business so unique that no off the shelf alternatives exist?
Could you adopt an 80-90% solution and customize the rest?
It may be difficult to do this on your own. Look for a consultant with a background in accounting applications to analyze your needs.
If you feel that you must make a change, but are not ready to do so, develop your solution gradually.