Situation: A CEO faces challenges with clients. The first is vague customer specs because they don’t understand the product. Second is misunderstandings as to timelines. Third is insistence on strict timelines while simultaneously demanding revisions to previous work. How do you add more discipline to quotes and pricing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Is the company’s technology strategy aligned with its capabilities? Currently the company is trying to build advanced solutions in multiple international markets with a small staff. There does not seem to be the technology or development discipline to convert current capabilities into a sustainable market advantage.
For near term focus, because of commitments and milestone payments due from the key customers, focus resources on finishing the last piece of these projects. Once this is done, step back. Look at options and determine the company’s technology strategy moving forward.
The key challenge is to define ONE beachhead on which the company will focus and which they can dominate. The objective is to leverage existing engineering creativity to create a sustainable competitive advantage.
As this exercise is designed, start with a clean slate. Don’t burden the process with a lot of restrictive assumptions. Consider using an outside facilitator to help facilitate this process.
Until this exercise is completed does it really make sense to seek additional work or to commit the company to the next phases with current customers?
Once the company has selected and committed to a technology strategy, the decision process becomes different.
The objective is to develop laser-like focus on the technology. Minimize distracting the team with other opportunities.
It may be OK to lose money on development projects if this work will significantly impact or accelerate the development of the company’s core technology.
How does the company justify asking for payment for development for future projects?
First, determine and clearly state the company’s technology strategy. Evaluate all future development projects and decisions in terms of their alignment with this strategy.
Second, if a particular project is completely aligned with the technology strategy, the company may waive the requirement of payment for development. This, ideally, will be the only exception.
Ask for a limited time/scope project to jump start and define new projects. This provides proof of company capabilities and establishes its credibility.
If is it necessary to negotiate or bid, start high and bargain down to but not below the best estimate of the cost of development.
Remember that deciding what NOT to do or quote is often harder, but just as critical, as deciding what to quote.
Situation: A CEO has had to shift half of the company’s employees to part-time due to reduced business. This has hampered new product development. The situation has been exacerbated by slow payments from customers. Where should you focus for the next year?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company has a lot going on. Validate the company’s market potential for products in development, and start gearing up the marketing program so that it will impact this and next year’s sales.
Get a feel for how many customers want the new products in development. Invest in some market research to validate this.
The bottom line is that product development only pays if the company can sell a lot more product! The team needs to know whether customers for the new products exist, in what numbers, where and who they are, and their most critical needs. Without this market intelligence, the company is in no position to tell whether there is a market, nor is the company prepared to address it.
Assume that there is a market, that it can be quantified. Once the company knows who and where the customers are and knows their most critical needs, the next step is to prepare to attack this market. This is not something that is done in 1-2 months, after the product is ready to sell. The company needs to be starting now if marketing is to be initiated in 6-8 months.
Past practice has been to split R&D costs with the customer. The company has the expertise, the customer the money – this is close enough to 50/50. There is no need to show them the numbers. R&D should not be funded through future sales but should be making money now.
One project has been taking so much attention that it is hobbling the company. The company is so focused on getting this “just right” for the customer that sales and market development have been neglected.
For the next 3 months, focus on completing this project, getting it out the door, and getting the company’s focus back on growth. A sense of urgency is needed!
Situation: A CEO is reviewing options for introducing a new offering. The target customers are small companies or projects within larger companies. The offering includes both an initial product and follow-on services. Education or training will be a component of the offering. What is the best way to roll out a business opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
It is best to position the offering as a straightforward proposition at launch and develop proof of concept. This will provide experience and an income stream to fund more complex offerings based on the initial model.
It will also provide insight on how to sell the product and service in different markets – manufacturing, service, and software.
Leverage this experience to pursue more complex models.
Build a portfolio of case studies before pitching to paying companies.
Use companies with whom relationships already exist as the proving base. These will become references for new clients.
Develop data to show actual cost savings from the use of the product and services.
Establish a relationship with an existing company for which the offering is complimentary and cross-offer products and services on an ad hoc basis.
Trial the product and service with one of their clients in return for a royalty or share of the profit.
Ask that company to make the introduction.
Target start-ups – offer an initial package for a low price. Offer the product to start-ups for free and get them hooked as long-term customers.
What would be needed to roll the offering through growth equity firms or venture capitalists?
This will require some proof that the offering increases the ROI to growth equity and VC portfolio companies and funds.
Note that the portfolio companies of growth equity firms are larger and farther up the growth curve
In current economy the key message to prospects may be that the offering will help them to “right size” their company.
Take a closer look at the offering and determine whether it is configured appropriately for the current environment.
Situation: A company has grown through its expertise consulting for other companies. For its next growth step the CEO and Board want to shift to a project basis. This entails several changes, from compensation to organization and focus. How do you shift culture as the company grows?
Advice from the CEOs:
Risks & Challenges
Biggest risk – dissatisfied employees who see less billable income per hour and may not see the “more hours” part of the picture.
The biggest personnel challenge will be those who have been with the company for many years, and who will see the most change – maybe not to their specific practices if they can bring in business, but on the project side.
Communication is a critical challenge, and also the best way to avoid landmines. Put a velvet glove on the presentation of the opportunity: “This is good news – we know that the low hanging fruit is now mostly gone, and that the remaining fruit is higher; to counter this we now have more options.” Carefully prepare communications to both management and consultant team members.
Another potential landmine – the impact on the company’s reputation if it blows up after a year. Set appropriate expectations – the company is introducing a new program rather than a wholesale rebranding.
Countermeasures to Mitigate the Risks
Maintain a structural option that preserves the old model for those who can bring in new projects and who prefer this model. For them, the new model is just an option that can help tide them over if there are gaps between the projects that they bring in.
Present the project option as new opportunity. Give more senior and experienced consultants priority in choosing whether to participate or not in new project work.
Plan and create the ability to assess the old consultancy model vs. the new project model. This will be especially important when individuals are spending part of their time in each area.
Create a set of metrics for each business – the consulting and project businesses – to measure whether they are on track. Identify and monitor the drivers for each business.
Keep the title Consultant on consultants’ business cards – Consultant, Sr. Consultant, etc. Allow them to continue to take pride in their role.
Move to the new model through a planned phase-in but retain the option to adjust the speed of transition between the old and new models. This will allow sensitivity to changes in the environment.
Don’t consider an immediate and complete rebranding – think in terms of introducing a new product under the company’s well-known brand. Plan a gradual transition of business to the new model. Introduce the new product as a new offering. As it picks up steam, gradually move brand identification and promise to the new model.
For the new project model, create incentives for project performance. Show team members that while the hourly rate may be less, if they perform as a team they will share the upside through project bonuses.
Situation: A CEO is concerned that business operations are inconsistent. Employees are always coming to her for answers instead of working things out themselves. As a result, the CEO is continually focused on operational details as opposed to strategic direction. How do you create consistent business operations?
Advice from the CEOs:
Make managers live up to their titles.
Require them to go to each other to solve problems first, instead of always asking the CEO.
When they ask a question, don’t give them the solution, but advice on how to solve it.
Require them to present solutions vs. problems
Be willing to spend money on their solutions.
Answer all questions with questions.
Ask them for their recommendation.
Keep asking until they come up with the answer.
When one starts to delegate, it hurts for a while but will work itself out.
The CEO should not be doing “regular jobs” that are really employees’ responsibilities.
How has implementing these suggestions impacted other companies?
Businesses have become more diversified.
CEOs are focused strategically vs. tactically.
Businesses are more successful and profitable.
CEOs enjoy coming to work again.
Create a sales intern program.
Hire 4 sales interns for $10-15/hour – with the offer that after 3 months there will be full time jobs for those who prove they can sell.
Have the top 4 sales staff design the intern program – call response scripts, responsibilities, etc. – subject to CEO review and approval.
Assign one intern to each of these 4 sales staff in mentor/mentee relationships. This will demonstrate the capacity that each has as a sales manager.
Should younger workers be handled differently?
Allow flexibility – where appropriate – on hours and how they do their jobs.
Responsibility will also vary by pay level – higher pay equals more hours and more accountability.
Situation: A CEO wants to build additional incentives into the company’s compensation plan. The objective is to add group incentives to the pay mix – to focus more attention on group performance rather than just company goals. How do you create an incentive-based compensation plan?
Advice from the CEOs:
The best policy is to be upfront, open, and transparent as the plan is presented.
Communication is the key to success, including the following bullet points:
Pay starts at a base which is 75th percentile – a generous base in our industry.
Group bonuses, which reflect the results of the group’s efforts, allow you allow to reach the 90th percentile or higher.
On top of this, profit sharing enables the addition of 10-20% of your base.
Altogether, management thinks that this is a generous package. The difference from the old system is that employees will be rewarded for making decisions which will benefit the group as well as the company – and you will be generously rewarded for this.
Once plans are communicated to employees 1-on-1, reinforce the message with a group presentation and open discussion at monthly company meetings.
Consider: significant changes in compensation may be best taken in small rather than large increments. Start with small incremental adjustments. If these are effective proceed to larger increments on a planned and open schedule. This is particularly true if the historic culture has been that we all win or lose together.
A downside of rewarding by team is that some will get rewarded for producing minimal results. Consider some percentage of discretionary payments to recognize and reward effort instead of pure parity within the team.
Consider longer-term results within the payment scheme – not just quarterly results.
People need to know that they are accountable. Let them know that a 75% base is reasonable but that the significant rewards will be for producing results above this level.
Situation: A CEO has been the principal source of financing for her company. She is looking for Round #1 financing of $800K to $1 million to take the company through the next two years, followed by an additional two rounds of financing to take the company to profitability. What are the best options to obtain financing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Given the company’s size, it’s too risky to put all eggs in one basket. Also, it is difficult to simultaneously pursue all options. List and rank all financing options, and limit efforts to the top 3-5 options, forgetting the rest for now. The company is more likely to be successful with a limited number of targets.
The big question is which avenues to pursue? Current preferences are:
Sell what the company can sell now – focus on collaborators and bootstrap the company as much as possible.
Angel funding, if the company can find the right angel.
Avoid venture capital unless there are no other options.
Given these, where does the company have live contacts? What conversations can be pursued to a successful conclusion in the next 1-2 months?
For the Angel option, the company’s model is easy to explain and has appeal. Which potential Angels could be approached in the next 1-2 months?
An option is to bring an Angel in slowly – creative input, perhaps a Board seat.
Once the Angel is on-board, put together a list of your funding priorities and a list of 4-5 top prospects in a Board discussion. Ask this individual’s advice and assistance contacting some of the prospects. He may ask at that meeting or later why he hasn’t been asked.
For the first $1million – consider an SBA loan.
Under new guidelines, the application fee has been reduced.
Approval cycle – 30 days or less.
The trade-off between bootstrap and Angel funding and SBA is personal risk. Look at this as a fallback option.
VC funding is very time consuming. Also, VCs prefer that their clients are somewhat desperate, so that they will receive a larger piece of the company for their money.
Situation: A service company has developed the capacity to produce and sell a product. The CEO is considering two options for this new opportunity: create a separate entity for the new business or run the businesses in parallel under the current umbrella. How do you best exploit a new opportunity?
Advice from the CEOs:
Option 1: Create separate entity for the new business while the existing business continues in parallel.
How big is the potential win? The current company competes successfully for about 10% of the market. The new capability would allow the company to potentially compete for 100% of a larger market.
How different are the two opportunities? The current business requires specialized talent – it is a low volume, high margin business. The new opportunity is the reverse – high potential volume but lower margin. It is a more generic market with fewer specialized needs.
The separate entity option provides the most flexibility. The current model already functions well. A spin-off provides an additional option without losing what already exists.
Bring in another individual to develop and run the new entity. It’s a different game and requires a different focus. However, it will be a great opportunity for the right person.
The spin-off model will be more sustainable under separate management than under the current company.
Option 2: Operate both businesses under a single entity.
This option looks like a double compromise – it alters both the company’s current strengths and the fundamental business model.
A long-term alternative is to look for a financial acquisition for the current company. It produces good net margins, has good cash flow, a and spins off cash. This can be valuable to a financial buyer.
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.
Situation: The CEO of a service company is focused on growth, which is driven by new contracts. This, in turn is driven by new sales contacts per week. Sales staff are paid on commission. The CEO wants to assure that quarterly objectives are met to grow the company. How do you maintain focus on quarterly objectives?
Advice from the CEOs:
Track and publish progress against weekly, monthly, quarterly metric objectives and key drivers.
Post charts around the office to maintain staff focus on objectives.
Put up whiteboards that show individual metrics as well as daily “top 3” focus items.
Identify key market sectors where focus will pay off for the company.
It’s OK to take a generalist approach as the company develops a new market sector. This helps to learn the dynamics of that sector.
As sector market penetration grows, develop functional or sector specialties.
Identify and focus on the gaps to company success.
Monitor and generate incentives to increase sales activity. The more fun that is involved in this, the faster the company will close the gaps.
Focus marketing on developing more prospects. Brainstorm creative marketing approaches that will generate prospects. Create a competition to develop the best new ideas with incentives or prizes to celebrate the most successful ideas.
If additional resources are required, currently beyond the company’s budget, investigate adding commission-driven contract resources with strong incentives for identifying new prospects and landing new clients.