Situation: Every CEO needs an exit strategy, if only for the good of the business because the future is uncertain. In this case, the Founder CEO wants to reduce her involvement in the business over the next 3-5 years. Her company has an offering that addresses domestic and international concerns about global warming. The CEO seeks help evaluating options. What is your exit strategy?
Advice from the CEOs:
The CEO sees several strategic options. Which option is more likely to yield results in a timeline that fits a 3-5 year exit strategy – a major international push, a partnering strategy, or leveraging current business to gain additional sales and market share by tweaking the current product line?
The company needs international partners, not just a sales presence. This will require substantial time and upfront commitment from the CEO, not just a salesperson.
Where and who are the predominant businesses in the international markets under consideration?
Can an international strategy be executed and produce fruit in time to complement the exit strategy?
Partner with a hardware company to increase visibility and usage.
Partner with some of the top prospects for an exit strategy.
Focusing on the Product Line.
Employ customer shadowing to better understand how customers currently use the software and what challenges they encounter or opportunities they see – involve marketing, and R&D, not just the sales team.
Reposition the current offering to take advantage of opportunities.
Simplify installation and implementation.
Look at the product development strategy. Can revenue be bumped or upgraded from renewal customers? Are there options for “deluxe” versions with a premium price for upgrades, that become the following year’s standard upgrades?
Gather the company’s team and work through the scenarios for these options. Once this is done, prioritize them based of timeliness and potential impact on the bottom line and company valuation.
Also look at the Board structure – are there gaps in regulatory or sales and marketing expertise. What about adding someone who has connections to a key customer base?
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 is facing the expiration of the principal patent for its main product. There are subsidiary patents which still have life. Currently, there are no competing products, but several companies understand the technology. How do you plan for patent expiration?
Advice from the CEOs:
Think of this as a two-step process:
Step 1 – Step back and look at what the company has:
Patents – including the claims that have been awarded on all company patents.
Facilities – capable of manufacturing current products, but also additional products, perhaps with a minimum of additional equipment.
People – competent staff running manufacturing operations, and tight office operations.
Step 2 – Loot at where the company could go and evaluate the markets where the existing technology is applicable:
Work with outside, imaginative people who can take a fresh look at the options.
Looks carefully at the claims in all the company’s patents.
What do they cover?
Is there an opportunity to extend current claims through process patents?
Caveat: a company can file for a process patent on anything that has been for sale on the market for less than a year. However, if they have been selling a product covered by this application for more than a year, they cannot.
Look at other markets – companies that could license the company’s technology, or with whom the company could partner to provide new consumer-oriented products:
Is there inexpensive, affordable equipment that would enable the company to produce additional products in the current location?
Think outside the box: what business is the company in? Think more broadly than the current market about where high value opportunities exist. These can be low to medium volume, high price/margin or high-volume lower price/margin.
Patents are not the only protection – trade secrets also work. 3M’s primary IP strategy, particularly on their adhesives, etc. is through trade secret – both for low and high-volume products.
“Product” patent extensions have limited utility. They are easy to design around. “Process” patents have more utility. These can be licensed at low cost per application in high volume applications and provide a nice royalty reserve stream.
Situation: A small company has a parts supplier for product that they sell to their most important customer. That customer’s specs are “copy exact” on components for existing products; also, their new products are usually based on existing components. The supplier significantly raised prices on the parts supplied to the company. How you respond to a price increase from a supplier?
Advice from the CEOs:
This is an extremely sensitive situation. One solution is to not to rock the boat. The reality is that the company needs the parts, and it will take a lot of effort to replace them with parts from an alternate vendor. Just continue the relationship. Quit worrying about it and milk it for as long as it lasts.
Find out what caused the supplier to raise prices. The supplier needs to understand that to preserve the company’s margins they may have to raise prices to the final customer. This may threaten both the company’s and the supplier’s business with the customer.
Make sure that the supplier understands the company’s costs: office, salaries, equipment, maintenance, and local regulations that are unfriendly to business and difficult to deal with. Ask them to reconsider or reduce the price increase.
Assure that the supplier understands the value that the company provides and the importance of this collaboration to the business and profits and bottom lines of both companies. Leverage this value to get the price that the company needs.
Renegotiate the relationship to assure that supplier can’t go around go around the company and sell directly to the final customer.
Start building relationships with alternate suppliers.
Situation: A CEO’s company has built an admirable suite of products. The next step in company growth is to create a more structured marketing pipeline. They have experienced salespeople, but these people have come to the end of their rolodexes. A new approach is needed. How do you boost your sales and marketing?
Advice from the CEOs:
Create a profile of the ideal customer. This is the customer who can create the greatest leverage using the company’s suite of product. Aim for the top management of this customer.
Incentivize the sales reps to target high value accounts. To create targeting incentives, graduate the commission base.
Set initial commission based on the size of the customer.
Differentiate commission by product – pay the highest commission for highest gross profit products or the company’s highest priority products.
Salespeople need to be able to close sales by themselves.
Currently, salespeople are acting as lead generators and are counting on the CEO to close the sale.
Create a different set of expectations, including thresholds to limit the CEO’s direct involvement in the sales process – for example, limit CEO involvement to accounts with a revenue value over $500K.
Train the salespeople to communicate the value proposition for initial conversations as they qualify a new client. Create a set of resources to assist them along the way.
Is it a good idea to pay ongoing commissions forever?
Another CEO used to do this but has moved to X% for the first period/project and X/2% on follow-on-periods/projects. This keeps them hungry for new customers who will pay the higher commissions.
Don’t create a perpetual annuity – the way insurance brokers are paid. Reduce commissions on existing accounts so that they decline over time – keep salespeople focused on bringing in new accounts to maintain their income levels.
Decide on an acceptable level of total compensation for salespeople. Plan the commission structure to allow them to reach this level, but they have to keep selling to maintain this level. Keep them hungry.
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 founding
CEO of a technology company is considering options for the future. The company
is doing well, with two options for future development either within or outside
the company. How do you choose between strategic options?
from the CEOs:
expertise is less important than business experience, P&L experience, and fund-raising
success. A diversified background and successful experience as a CEO are as
important as specialty industry experience.
to pursue all options for the time being. See how the new opportunities mature
before making final choices, and either split time between the options or
assign good managers to oversee each.
agreements should be based on cash investment of the parties – not time and
#1 – Focus on the primary company.
challenge is that most of the Board members just see the numbers, not the
dynamics of day-to-day operations. They don’t know the CEO’s contribution.
that the Board understands the CEO’s contribution and is rewarding the CEO appropriately.
#2 – Focus on New Opportunity #1.
this option more like a product or a company?
this option as a product incubator rather than a single product company –
producing and spinning off a series of ideas for development.
can be done either within the primary company or as an outside effort.
#3 – Focus on New Opportunity #2.
development can be self-funding. Compared with manufacturing, software is
inexpensive to develop and requires little investment to scale and sell once
the code is written.
trick is to rigorously focus on market opportunity while minimizing cost.
staffing commitments. Use scarce resources to lock up irreplaceable
capabilities. Hire or offer equity only for significant contributions such as
IP development. For labor, use consultants, independent contract arrangements,
or look for what can be outsourced.
Option #2 this can be done either within the primary company or as an outside
A company is moving from sole focus on servicing a market to a split focus
including developing and marketing their own products. This is a significant
transition for the team. What is the best way to organize this effort? How do
you manage a business transition?
from the CEOs:
the company’s financials are great for their market, cashflow may be
insufficient to fully fund a development company.
development of new products can create conflicts if it creates competition for
resources between internal and external projects.
avoid this, create an independent company or entity – in a separate location.
Seek outside funding whether bank, angel or partner financing. The independent
entity can then buy resources from the primary entity at competitive rates.
years ago, another CEO utilized the strategy just described. The important
that venture is properly resourced.
that there is a balance between proven structure and creative application
best resources available at same rates that key customers pay.
free guidance but not free services – peer reviews are key.
third CEO had an opportunity to open a new business using the spin-off model.
allowed infrastructure sharing – with proper compensation and incentives
both entities were successful.
Properly implemented, this model works.
are four aspects to the challenge.
business plan for the new venture must address all four.
internally (vs. externally) creates natural conflict. Workers will tolerate change
in direction from clients better than they do from insiders.
Situation: A company wants to up its game by focusing on service. They are evaluating different options to provide customized services to gain a sustainable differentiating advantage over their competition. How do you enhance your customer service model?
from the CEOs:
the gaming industry one CEO sees an effective model focusing on higher level customer
service. The top games have allowed user customization using generic
customization tools. This allows the provider of the tool kit to serve a larger
number of users using a single tool kit to provide a wide variety of gaming
example from the gaming industry focuses on middleware developers. These
developers create an interactive knowledge base for customer self-service. The
knowledge base is monitored by the host company, and misleading or potentially
harmful input is excluded. The benefit is that this enlists clients to provide
their input on customer service as well as product development.
CEO sees this as a useful way to drive down customer service costs by providing
more tools and fewer bodies to perform the customer service task. The model’s
objective is for the customer not to need personalized service, but to be able
to develop solutions on their own using a flexible took kit. The host company
gains additional advantage because their user agreement allows them to take the
best models used by clients to spark their own product development.
fourth CEO sees lasting value in developing close relationships with customers.
They have developed tools that allow the customer to solve simple customer
service tasks but require company assistance for the more sophisticated
solutions. The company, in exchange for this added expense, learns from the
Situation: A company has multiple locations from which it both sells products and provides services. One location has been in place for several years and produces good revenue but consistently fails to be profitable. The CEO has met with the managers in charge of this location and has set broad objectives to demonstrate a trend toward profitability. However, she is concerned that these objectives won’t be met. How do you manage for profitability?
Advice from the CEOs:
To be effective objectives must be specific, measurable, and timebound. In addition, there must be clear consequences for failing to meet objectives.
If a business is not covering its own costs, there are three alternatives: increase prices, reduce costs, or both.
Calculate the revenue impact of a 1% cross-the-board price increase at the location or across the company. Is this enough to cover the loss? What about a 2% increase? What is required to produce profitability?
Historically, have the location managers been responsible for business results? If not, does it make sense to continue with these managers and to expect different behavior or results?
While the managers may be well-intentioned, do they possess the necessary business skills? Would training or education assist?
Once objectives are set and incentives are changed to make the managers’ pay dependent on profitability, the CEO may be surprised at their ability to comprehend and tackle the situation – with the CEO’s oversight.
How do you change pay and incentives without sending a negative message?
A person who is paid hourly has the incentive to maximize hours worked, not productivity during hours worked. If the manager is shifted to salary at the same level he receives now or lower, with the potential to more than make up the difference through regular incentive bonuses, it becomes easier to direct him to make efficient use of his time.
How do you change the roles and focus of the managers?
The customer development manager is the only one who can impact revenue – by bringing in more business. Bonuses are based on both new business acquired and total revenue received.
The operations manager cannot contribute to revenue within his current responsibilities but can look for places where the cost of operations can be reduced. Bonuses are based on cost savings achieved.