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 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 her #2 is being challenged by others in the company. An option is to hire a technical project manager; someone who carries the CEO’s authority and who can get things done. What are the obstacles to achieving this? How do you boost company morale?
Advice from the CEOs:
The technical project manager must have a non-threatening role – they shouldn’t challenge the technical skills of the developers. The role is to oversee schedules, progress, and to resolve barriers – both technical and personal. The job is to get things back into shape.
While the business involves highly technical software, operationally it is people centered, not software centered. People centered means a team that collaborates and supports one-another. The important questions are:
Where do the needed people skills come from?
How do the model and reality transition to a people centered business?
Look for someone who can nurture talent. People skills are more important for this role than technical skills, with the caveat that individual must be able to understand technical challenges.
An option is a 3rd party within company to straighten this out.
“COO” Responsible for Technical Direction – title is important because it conveys respect.
The CEO’s voice and ears.
Run weekly meetings and is the go-to person when the CEO us traveling.
The focus is to manage the primadonnas and keep them focused on their jobs instead of on interpersonal conflicts.
This role focuses inwardly on company vs. the CEO who focuses outward on the broader vision, key stakeholders, etc.
The bottom line – this is your company, your vision. Make it work. The task is teaching maturity – learning to give rather than worrying about making a name for themselves.
Have regular lunches with each of the developers and have frank conversations with them. What’s up and what’s wrong? Listen and let them air their concerns. Talk them through these concerns, but make sure that they understand that the CEO sets the direction both for the company and the boundaries of acceptable and unacceptable behavior within the company.
Situation: The CEO of a consulting company is frustrated by lumpy revenue and profits. From quarter to quarter it has been difficult to predict either number. Unpredictability reduces options in valuation and exit exercises, as banks and acquirers favor predictability. How do you generate a predictable P&L?
Advice from the CEOs:
The objective is to construct a revenue base built on predictability, even if this is at lower margins. Given a predictable base, the company can complement predictable revenue and profits with higher dollar and margin opportunities as they arise.
Analyze the projects that the company contracts for both revenue and profitability. Some projects will be bread and butter situations which are more common and predictable, but which generate less revenue and profit per project. Others will be customer crisis driven. These latter projects will have higher revenue and profit, particularly if the company is the vendor of choice; the tradeoff is that the frequency of these contracts is unpredictable.
If the objective is predictability, the company’s base should be built on bread and butter projects. As the company grows, focus on this base. Customer crisis projects can then be added as they arise to bump both revenue and profit.
The objective will be to become one of the top 2-3 outside vendors of the choicest clients. Target projects may be ongoing maintenance of older projects in the client companies’ portfolios.
How would this model be pursued?
Focus on the company’s top 5 customers. Reduce risk by optimizing customer leverage as a proven entity and offer them strategic deals.
The focus is long-term project based with guaranteed delivery at lower cost.
Identify the fear or insecurity that exists within the customer and provide sleep insurance.
This model works well in the new economy – get lean, manage infrastructure size and cost, and grow with the economy.
Alternately, identify an area where the customer may not have enough resources and provide a solution that allows them to address this without adding additional personnel or by using existing personnel more efficiently.
Another option is to develop a virtual office model. Provide resources for $X per month, with an evergreen provision.
Situation: A CEO is considering a new revenue model for his company. The existing model is profitable and stable, but not scalable. A new model, and perhaps additional locations may be needed to add scalability. How do you assess the risks of the model? What steps can be taken to reduce these risks. How to you evaluate a new revenue model?
Advice from the CEOs:
Project both the current and new models on a spreadsheet. What do profitability and return look like over time based on current trends?
Include assumptions about adding new customers within the model. Consider capacity constraints at the present location. Add start-up investment needed for the new model. Does overall profitability increase in the projections and will this adequately cover new customer acquisition costs?
Are performance standards for the current and new models different? Would it make sense to have different teams managing the models? What kind of experience will be required in the people who will build the new business? Account for personnel additions and start-up costs in the financial projections.
Critically evaluate the upfront financial exposure as new clients are signed up for the new model. Consider hybrid options which can be added to customer contracts. Examples include:
A variable flat fee model. Customers contracted under the new model will receive services up to X hours per month for the flat fee, with hours over this billed separately.
How do current time and materials rates compare with industry averages? If they are high, it is not necessary to quote existing rates to new model customers. Create a new rate schedule just for new model customers. Taking a lower rate under the flat fee model will not cover all costs and profit; however, it will at least partially cover utilization exposure and a higher rate for additional hours can make up the difference.
During the ramp up period of a new operating unit, client choice is critical. If, based on observations and responses in client questionnaires, heavy early work is anticipated, charge an initial set-up fee. Alternatively, ask for a deposit of 3-4 months to cover set-up exposure. If either at the end of the service contract or after a burn-in period some or all these funds have not been used, the client is refunded the unused deposit. This can both cover early exposure and make it easier to sign new customers for the new unit.
Draft contracts under the new model to include one-time fees in the case of certain events – e.g., a server crashes in the first 9 months of the contract, or an unplanned move within the first X months of the contract. These resemble the exceptions written into standard insurance policies. They can be explained as necessary because standard contract pricing is competitive and does not anticipate these events within the first X months of the contract. Most companies will bet against this risk. Those who do not may know something about their situation that they are not revealing. In the latter case you will be alerted to potential exposure.
Consider a variable declining rate for the new model. The contract price is X for the first year, and, assuming there are no hiccups, will be reduced by some percent in following years. This resembles auto insurance discounts for long term policy holders with good driver records.
Adding hybrid options may make it easier to sign new clients while covering cost exposure. The view of the CEOs is that most clients will underestimate their IT labor needs and will bet against their true level of risk. Provided that the new model delivers the same service that supports the company’s reputation, once clients experience the company’s service, they will be hooked.
An additional benefit to hybrid options may be faster client acquisition ramps within new satellite units and faster attainment of positive ROI.
Situation: The CEO of a company has a niece working in the company on a project basis. The niece is has helped to develop a strategic plan and has performed well. She now wants to move from part-time to full-time and to receive a raise. Does it make sense to promote a relative?
Advice from the CEOs:
If you are pleased with the individual’s work, don’t worry about the family relationship – go ahead and hire her. This is especially true if she can play a significant role developing the strategic plan and help you to improve your sales organization.
Give this individual a set of responsibilities, a budget, and a time line to do the jobs you want done.
Evaluate her performance just as you would any other employee. Don’t compromise your standards for a relative.
This may offer the opportunity to improve your sales. Have your niece work and travel with your sales people as a systems engineer. This will allow her the opportunity to learn your products, customers, and process – and will provide you with valuable input on how your sales team is performing.
You are really addressing two problems:
What is your niece’s passion? Don’t make work for her simply because she’s related and available. The work must serve your and the company’s needs.
Do you have holes in your business? Put your best people on these If your niece is one of these people, then give her a chance but don’t play favorites.
Situation: A company has clients who are interested in projects for which the company’s partners already have partial designs. There is an opportunity to leverage these partial designs into development of full solutions for their clients. How should the company approach this in a way that satisfies their customers and is fair to their partners? How do you set up co-development partnerships?
Advice from the CEOs:
Given this opportunity it is no longer important who performed what part of the development. As long as your partners have quoted you what they believe to be a fair price for their development pieces, you are free to accept their price, complete development to your clients’ specifications, and sell the full solution to the client at market prices.
What you bring to the table is the opportunity to rapidly monetize the technology. This is something that your partners can’t do, so by filling this role you are acting in the interest of all parties.
What you charge for your work and the full solution depends on the potential value to the client. Time is money, and delivery now is worth a premium price to a client who needs your solution and wants to release their product as soon as possible.
This strategy is particularly applicable to early stage companies who need to release their initial products and start generating revenue.
Take a note from Bill Gates – sell the product for a good price and then buy or acquire the supply.
Situation: A company has an opportunity to use equipment supplied by a partner to create a demonstration project that will highlight their capabilities. They want to create the best buzz possible through this effort. One idea is to work with local service agencies to create a demonstration that will be highly appealing to news outlets. How do you create the best buzz?
Advice from the CEOs:
In addition to working with local agencies in your target localities to create publicity and awareness, work with the local newspaper reporters who write about the areas served by these agencies. City reporters are always looking for fresh stories, and will help you to generate instant news that may be picked up by other local and possibly national media. This form of building awareness virally is much more effective than traditional advertising campaigns.
Use industry trade shows of potential partners as demo venues by collaborating with the trade show organizers for a live demonstration that benefits the organizers. Let technical trade publications know about your demos. Stories that catch the attention of technical publications can also get the attention of national media and give you visibility far beyond the trade shows.
Use YouTube to highlight use and the impact of your service. Assure that your YouTube videos are interesting and attention gathering. This will help generate viral awareness.
Look at how Google helped to make Mountain View, CA a wireless city. They worked with the city and created great excitement both locally and nationally.
Consider using actors to stage demonstrations, followed by actual demonstrations.
Situation: A CEO wants to push project ownership down to lower levels of the company. This is not happening unless the CEO pushes. How do you delegate yet stay informed as you push authority down the organization chart?
Advice from the CEOs:
The company needs systems and guidelines to clarify on what and when the CEO wants to either have input or hear back, and what can happen without the CEO’s knowledge.
Set levels of approval – dollar impact or decision type – and clarify what decisions can made at what level, what decisions need higher level approval and at what level, where they must inform you, and where you must sign off.
Similarly, establish regular reporting and meeting schedules, along with guidelines as to what is to be reported – again by budgetary impact or decision type – and assure that this reporting takes place.
“The Great Game of Business” by Jack Stack describes a company which has implemented these systems with astounding results. It provides a template and describes in detail how the system is implemented and what bumps they encountered along the way.
Invest more time in setting roles and responsibilities for your direct reports.
Keep reporting systems aligned across the company.
Expect over time to adjust levels of authority as individuals grow in responsibility and accountability.
Most importantly, lead by example. If a team member comes to the CEO for guidance on a project, refer them back to the proper manager for advice.
2015 Top ranked software systems to manage projects and processes from selected searches:
Capterra: Microsoft Project, Basecamp, Atlassian, Wrike, Podio