What if you see juicy competitor information?

Has this happened to you?     

Many of us belong to industry associations and find ourselves at conferences and trade shows with time to spend with competitors.  Some of these are old friends, some even former associates.  It is natural to want to associate with these people for many reasons, certainly socially. Most CEOs want to obtain information about their competitors in the most subtle and non-obvious ways.  And of course, most are willing to trade information to get information.

A fair example

In my former industry, I became an informal centralized source for knowledge about the revenues of each of the many competitors, with a special skill for asking just the right questions to obtain the information.  How many employees does the firm have today? Are you profitable yet?  Can you guess what percentage your revenue comes from recurring sources such as maintenance revenues?

In return for the answers to these several questions, I was usually able to guess a company’s gross revenues within a few percent and would state my guess to the CEO.  His reaction would guide me to increase or decrease my estimate appropriately.  He’d be a bit amazed with the quick fancy math work, and I would have yet another piece of the puzzle helping me to gauge the total size of the industry in annual revenues and the growth and size of competitors.

[Email readers, continue here…]  All of this was immensely helpful in strategic planning and marketing, even though to this day I do not think those CEOs were aware of the value of the information so easily given.  And none of this is especially considered a trade secret, violating the unspoken covenant between competitor CEOs that there is a limit to such exchanges.

The other kind of example

On the other hand, often a salesperson or marketing manager would show up at my office door with a complete package of a competitor’s materials, including price lists, a proposal with discount percentages clearly shown and a list of feature functionality meant to reinforce the proposal.  The source of this information was typically the purchasing decision-maker for a friendly customer or candidate customer.  The question is one of ethics, since the competitor certainly did not volunteer any of the information, which would have been the competitor employee’s violation of confidentiality and cause for being fired.

How should you respond?

What does a CEO do with this wonderful, rich information dropped at his door at no cost or obligation? Few would destroy it and ask all to forget that it was ever in their hands. Most would absorb the information and then admonish those who had seen it to not repeat to anyone that it was in their hands.  If you’ve been in business for long enough, you’ve seen your share of this gray market information.  My advice is to be very careful, think of the golden rule, never use this information publicly, and certainly never reproduce it, let alone disseminate it internally.

And a warning…

As to sharing information to get information, CEOs and executives are bound by a duty to their corporations not to share trade secrets with anyone who has not signed a confidentiality agreement, including consultants to the company.  For CEOs on the corporate board, it is a large part of the “duty of care”, a legal requirement of board members to protect the assets of the corporation first and foremost, one of those assets being the trade secrets of the corporation.

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Wow! Are your relationships important!

Forming business relationships at the highest level

As you follow these insights from ignition to liquidity event, you’ll detect a continuing theme, emphasizing the need for deep and wide relationships that the CEO and senior staff can call upon for advice and guidance.  This is the time to elevate those insights to the level of highest value for the corporation, one that cannot be listed on a balance sheet nor included in an appraisal of corporate worth.

And yet, such relationships properly used and never overused, can quickly and precisely help you cut through delays in government agencies, speed the process of product planning and ultimate release, aid in positioning in the market and help you avoid a myriad of mistakes that could prove costly in time and money.

Analyzing your commitments of time to business

Often, I am asked by young CEOs how much time should be devoted to various types of tasks by a good senior manager in a small, growing enterprise.  Of course, the response depends upon lots of variables, including whether the company is in a fund-raising mode (in which case the CEO may be spending up to 80% of their time on this alone).

[Email readers, continue here…]   I am chairman of the Technology Division of the ABL Organization, a roundtable organization with multiple CEO roundtables of about twelve members each, meeting monthly.  Each CEO is asked to make a deep presentation once a year in which he or she starts with personal and business goals for the coming year followed by concerns as to how to reach these goals. Much of the rest of the presentation is devoted to explaining to the group the causes for the concerns and offering information for the group to use in the feedback session to help that CEO seek solutions and to provide resources to them for that purpose.

The format also calls for the CEO to examine their calendar over time and report classes of activities by percentage of total time spent, so that the group may add comments about use of that person’s valuable time to the critique.  It is from over a thousand of these CEO presentations over the years that I attempt to make the following generalities.

How much time do you devote to each type of activity?

A good CEO spends at least 30% of their time dealing with customers, including meeting directly with customers and being involved in closing the largest deals, maintaining valuable relationships, and “sniffing” the attitudes of customers toward the company as well as exploring customer needs that might be satisfied by new product development.  15% typically is spent on direct management issues such as supervision of next level subordinates.  15% might be spent networking with those in the CEO’s relationship circle, including the roundtable organizations.  10% is typically spent networking with board members and advisors, usually with frequent phone calls, and preparing for board meetings.  10% is typical in exploring strategic concepts, reading about new developments in the industry and just spending quiet time contemplating opportunities.  That last 10% is most important and often overlooked. It represents strategic thinking.  “What if?”  “How about…” “When should we…” “How could we…” You get the idea.

There are many other classes a typical CEO will list for that remaining 20%, some concentrating upon time spent in meetings of all kinds, lumped together as if all meetings are of some equal value. The group cohort reviewing this time spent often pays close attention when this happens, since it is a sign that the CEO considers meetings of all kinds a drain upon available time, and few meetings of special importance.

How many hours do you spend on business each week?

Whatever the spread of percentages to make 100% of a senior manager’s time, the roundtable presentation requires the CEO to estimate the average number of hours spent each week at or on work.  Most respond with between 60 and 80 hours a week, emphasizing what you already know, that CEOs are not often 40-hour workers.  But then again, in this new world of always-on communications, who is?

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What are the costs of taking investor money?

Let’s talk about the reality of taking money from professional investors.  It is not the first time we’ve covered this general subject nor the last. But this time, we concentrate upon governance changes.

After friends and family…

Once a company founder has tapped the funds available from his or her resources and from friends and family, if the company needs more cash for growth, the most obvious next step is to look for money from angel investors and venture capitalists, typically in the $300,000 TO $3,000,000 range.

And the restrictions upon your freedom to operate…

This money comes with restrictions a founder may not expect, including restrictions upon the sale of founder stock, clauses that require the investor be allowed to sell an equal proportion of stock upon any other person’s sale of stock, anti-dilution provisions that protect the investor from a subsequent offer of stock at a lower price, and much more.

A seat on your board? 

[Email readers, continue here…]    Almost always, professional investors, including angel groups and venture capitalists, also require at least one seat on the corporate board.  The investor organization is granted the seat if the investment remains, and the documents often name the first representative assigned by the investor group to the position.

Why these restrictions?

In later insights, we will explore the legal and ethical responsibilities of board members.  But the intent of these “forced” placements of a representative on the board is obviously to watch over the company’s use of invested funds and to help grow the company in value.  The combination of restrictive covenants in the investor documents and the new dynamic of board members with an agenda make for a change in the culture of the corporation, certainly one for the CEO.

However, outside professional investor board members can be a very good asset to the corporation with the skills, experience and broad relationships many bring to the boardroom table.

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Do you need an advisory board?

Have you ever thought of creating an advisory board?

As you can guess, that would be an informal group with no legal responsibilities, but one able to be called upon to act as business, industry and scientific advisors to the company or CEO.

Why?

Usually, you would want to create an advisory board to fill in the critical areas of need not evidenced in the board of directors or within the company itself.  University professors, industry gurus, lawyers familiar with patent law and former executives of competitor companies are typical recruits you might consider. Sometimes, celebrities will agree to sit on an advisory board as a gift to the CEO, providing a bit of glamour for the company at small expense.

How about the size of the group?

There is no limit to the number of individuals for such a board, but there is a practical limit to the amount of cash and / or stock to be allocated to these outside advisors.  The rule of thumb for an advisory board member is to expect a half to a full day each year on site, typically in a strategic planning meeting with numerous members of the staff, as well as some reasonable number of phone calls from senior members of management during the year.

How about using the names for marketing, fundraising?

Included in the “package” is the expectation that the advisor’s name will be freely used in the company’s marketing, a bio listed on the website, and occasional calls will come as references to the advisor from potential investors and others looking for deeper insight into the secret sauce of the company or state of the industry than can be provided by many on the inside.

And now the expected cost…

[Email readers, continue here…]    For this, an advisory board member for a small to medium sized company should expect to receive options equal to ¼% of the fully diluted stock of the company, vesting over two years, and subsequent grants if there has been additional stock issued to dilute the advisor, bringing the advisor back to this percentage if an advisor is renewed after subsequent two-year intervals.  Alternatively, some companies pay an advisor a fee of $1,000 to $2500 per “on premises” meeting day and optionally much smaller stock grants, if any.

What if an advisor acts as a consultant with more time?

Additional commitments of time by an advisory board member should be compensated as would any consultant, at half and full day rates agreed upon in advance between the CEO and the advisor. There is no rule as to uniformity of pay, as some advisors may be willing to serve at no cost while others are industry consultants used to receiving fair payment for services rendered.

Create a formal advisor agreement listing expectations.

Advisors fill blind spots in the corporate knowledge base and guide you in areas where you feel you have a personal weakness.  There is usually a formal agreement between the company and the advisor, carefully calling out the time expectation, the forms and amounts of payment, and the indemnifications from liability granted by the company to the advisor in return for confidentiality and non-disclosure of company trade secrets by the advisor.

How about “chairman” of the advisory board?

A particularly strong advisor, especially if well known, may be named chairman of the advisory board, which is often just an honorary title, since the CEO is usually tasked with the planning of the full day meeting of advisors annually, and setting the agenda to match the needs of the corporate board and senior management.

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Do you even need a business coach?

Everyone, even seasoned CEO’s can use a good coach who knows how to bring out the best in a person, is knowledgeable about the business process, and who has an extended list of relationships to call upon to fill needs that become obvious in the coaching process.             

Business coaches come in all sizes and shapes.  

Entrepreneurs will have a relative willing to devote time, a school friend with business experience, professionals who charge for the service, investors with a reason to promote your success and more.

Find a coach who has “been there and done that.”

But by far the best coaches are those that have lived through the process you’re going through and built successful enterprises in your same industry.  Especially if they have sold their companies and live comfortably upon the proceeds, these people are often the most willing to help and the most patient through the process.

Where can you find the best coaches?

[Email readers, continue here…]   One great source for coaches is among fellow members of a CEO roundtable organization, Young Presidents Organization or similar association where you are comfortable with the coach candidate and know something about his or her style.  Another is through industry associations or civic groups such as Rotary or Lions Club or even SCORE, sponsored by the US Small Business Association (SBA).

Some larger communities have organizations of corporate directors, composed of a combination of service providers and professional corporate directors. I’ve personally been involved with the ABL Organization for over thirty years and share problems and solutions with a monthly roundtable of smart CEOs from companies of all sizes.

Board members or lead investors as coaches

If you take smart money from a good angel or venture organization, the lead investor usually becomes your board member and has a vested interest in your success.  If you are lucky enough to create competition among investors for your company, you can select the investor or group with an individual who has experience in your niche and identifies with your vision.

How do you pay a coach?  

If the coach is also a significantly large investor such as a VC fund, the board member-coach will offer a limited amount of time outside of board work at no extra cost, all for the good of the investment.  Professional advisors and consultants are typically paid by the half day or full day, charging anywhere from $600 per half day at the low end up to $4,000 or more at the high end for a full day of work.  Some charge by the hour, making themself available much as an attorney, keeping track of hours spent on phone calls and emails with you. And some will willingly work for stock options, an amount to be negotiated based upon time spent and stage of corporate development.

Years ago, I co-wrote my first book, profiling just such a person, trading his time and experience in exchange for equity – and managing to become wealthy in the process by picking and aiding great young companies that grew large and were ultimately sold at a tremendous profit.  We had no term for such work in those days and created the phrase “resource capitalist” to describe the person and process.  He brought resources to the table from personal experience to a great contact base and was able to help speed the time to market while introducing the company to great potential buyers at the right time in the process.  His average percentage of a company was 5% in return for spending a day a week as I recall.

…and “working for food.”

Jokingly, I used to tell people that I worked for food, with so many free lunches being offered from all sides. But alas, there is no free lunch.  And over the years I have vastly curtailed the practice. However, there surely are experienced executives out there who’ll work for a meal. It is worth asking.

A warning about those willing to take advantage:

There must be many more creative ways to pay a coach, especially for early-stage businesses.  The one warning: avoid those looking to become partners, asking for larger portions of equity than, say, 5% when they contribute no cash to the enterprise.  There may be times when such a person can truly be a founding partner in a young business and devote enough time and resources to warrant more, but this is taking on a partner in every sense of the word and should be done carefully and only after spending time with a number of the person’s references and becoming comfortable with the person, ready for the long run.

 

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Should you be optimistic about your corporate growth?

Planning for future space needs after COVID.

One of the most obvious observations I make with growing company CEO’s is that planning for a new office is done with an optimistic view of the future, incorporating planned space that compromises only slightly the measured needs for the next three or more years as outlined in the financial forecast. Yes, we can mitigate that with starting with a reduced size given the current remote and hybrid work environment.

But… Do we still plan for growth in our infrastructure?

Signing a lease for space enough to handle the growth called for in the business plan, is a predictable group behavior I’ve come to label “The tyranny of the new office.”  The company plans a move to a new facility with plenty of space that is probably built out but not planned for use until the company grows to the next stage of need.  Office employees expected to work in the office regularly move into their new cubicles and offices, spread out far more than in the previous facility.  The excitement and noise of working in too close proximity to cohorts suddenly becomes an unexpected near silence, as everyone notices that they do not have to raise their voices any more to be heard above the din of noise.

And the result of this empty space before the growth spurt?

[Email readers, continue here…]    The exciting sounds of an office filled to capacity functioning in a growth environment are exhilarating to most that have experienced it. The distractions are dealt with using earphones with their smartphones, concentration and tolerance; but they are dealt with by all.  The change to a near silent environment is so startling that, many times, employees express a bit of resentment or even depression, masked by the common statement that “it is so much easier to get work done without the noise.”  It is the excitement of activity that generates more and better output for most, not the isolation of silence.

But back to “the tyranny of the new office.”

Two predictable outcomes almost always follow a move into an office much larger than today’s needs. First, you’ll find subtle moves by employees into the unused, reserved space.  After all, it is there and unneeded for now.  Why not make use of the space until needed?

And second, management sees the open space and often finds it easier to justify acceleration of one or more new hires since the facility is available and infrastructure complete.  Unconsciously longing for a bit more of the excitement from the noise of the previous office, managers often make subtle unrecognized moves to fill the void with new hires earlier than planned.  That’s why the label, “tyranny” even if the word seems out of context.

If and when asked, I always recommend more frequent moves as opposed to longer-term leases.  It seems from experience that both the company and the employees gain from such staggered moves.

Next week: It is time to examine the CEO’s relationships with con-temporaries, coaches, good board members and great resources in the community and industry.

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If you must lease an office, make it a short one!

 Avoid long-term commitments!

It is statistically true that at least half of the young companies funded by angel or venture investors will not survive three years from funding to demise, and more than that percentage will die with two years if not well financed.  The greatest burden of either a growing company or one needing to retract and reduce expenses is the office lease – especially in these years after COVID and remote work.  Although payroll is almost always the greatest cost, companies have flexibility as to how to handle both rapid growth and rapid decline in the personnel arena.

Rapid growth?  Home workers? Business contraction?

The most difficult thing to deal with in any of these events – now or future – is the office lease.  A five-year lease may be cheaper per month than a three-year lease and may provide for more free rent and tenant improvements.  Those benefits pale in comparison to the high cost of retaining or buying out a longer-term lease when growing or reducing in size or misjudging number of at-the-office employees – which is most of the time for early-stage companies.

What is flexibility worth in higher cost?

[Email readers, continue here…]   From personal experience with many companies in my portfolio and from many board experiences over the years, young companies are unpredictably unstable in their facilities requirements. Flexibility is worth a few percentage points of fixed cost when companies are in high growth mode or are at early stages of proof of market.

Yes, it’s a hassle to move offices.

It is a hassle to move, requiring time and planning.  It is much worse to worry overpaying for two leases each month and tying up two large deposits.  Or honoring a personal guarantee if the company cannot pay.

Then there is the dread of “The tyranny of the new office” to worry about. But that is a story for next week’s insight…

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What’s your answer? Are remote workers productive?

We’ve been measuring & disagreeing since COVID.

Do home-based employees work with the same dedication and productivity as those in office cubicles next to each other?

That depends upon the management as much as the employee. 

I have a friend who was a CEO of a recruiting firm who “virtualized” her company after a decade of maintaining a fixed office location.  She organized morning conference calls, had each employee tweet the others in their department when starting work and ending the day, creating the feel of closeness with employee contests, and rewarded her best salespeople by assigning them the best leads, creating an environment where the best excel and those unable to cut it in a virtual environment fall out on their own accord for lack of revenue.

The obvious benefit:

But most important, the unpredicted benefit of having very low infrastructure overhead may be the one most important element in saving the company during the strongest and longest downturn in recruiting industry memory because of COVID and the “great resignation” that resulted. Much larger recruiting companies were in trouble, with high fixed costs for facilities that could be shed quickly.  This CEO’s decision to try to retain an excellent, motivated staff in a virtual environment paid off in every way.  The employees were more satisfied, working more hours in a day even if spread over a longer period, and uniformly claimed a better lifestyle as a result of the move.

Why the past tense?

[Email readers, continue here…]    The CEO successfully sold her recruiting company at a good profit and co-wrote a best-selling business book about remote work along with a fellow CEO who did the same – and who sold his company at a profit.

So, what does it take to be a successful remote manager?

As you see from the story above, it does take more creative management to make this work. It is a management skill that was not taught nor learned until recent times. A creative CEO will find ways to motivate and compensate for the lone nature of working alone, but using social networking tools to make office workers and home workers feel and behave as a unit.   After all, with this generation of texting, tweeting, IM-based workforce, you’ll find as much of this kind of communication from adjacent cubicles as from distant home offices.

Home worker dress code?

Let’s pause for a word about dress code and formal accountability for the home office worker.  Employees working at home must dress for work, even if casual, and find a schedule for the start of each workday that is to be counted upon by fellow workers.  It’s already happening with Teams, Zoom, Webex, Slack and all the other methods of live video communication.  Home workers routinely drop the backgrounds and show their living spaces without shame, worry or fear of “being discovered.”  You’ll notice that those broadcasting from their bedrooms now routinely make their beds before opening their cameras.

Someone who “comes to work each day” even if to the computer in a separate part of an apartment, is putting on the business hat in a much more formal way that one who drifts to a computer in the room beside a blaring TV, dressed in pajamas and arriving whenever convenient.

How about the employee unable to self-motivate in a home environment?

With the proper measurements of productivity, it will soon become obvious to both the employee and manager that such an opportunity is not right for that person.

Ask any CEO who has tried letting employees work from home, whether for a day a week or remotely for most every week – with occasional office visits (if there is still an office.).  You’ll find stories of emails time stamped well into the night, work performed at unusual hours and productivity increases.  You’ll also hear a bit of pride in the telling.  A CEO that encourages this once-risky venture and is rewarded with increased performance, is a person fulfilled and willing to tell anyone who’ll listen.

 

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Would you commit to an office lease today?

Always true: Rent your first, next, or continuing office with caution. 

Several years ago and before COVID’s changes, I became involved with a Southeast Asian company looking to expand into the United States.  During the discussions with the CEO about hiring North American managers, he made it clear that he wanted us to find a first-class office facility from which to start the search process, and proceeded to name cities that attracted him.  Even after discouraging him from this backwards method of infrastructure-building, he kept bringing up the subject in subsequent months as new senior managers and salespeople were hired, each starting with an orientation week at the Asian headquarters then returning to work from home.

Everything has changed of course.

With audio and video conferencing and all the tools for communication and collaboration available today, each of these four new employees felt empowered, connected and enthused to work from home for the first time.  The CEO was still talking about finding an office when the natural progression of growth made it obvious that two of the four needed to be replaced.  These two worked from homes in widely scattered cities.  Had the office been located to accommodate either one, the company would have had to find replacements in the same geographical area as the office.  Without that restriction, outstanding replacements could be located based upon skill and experience, not location.

We know that the best employees may elect home, hybrid, or walking out.

Most businesses, especially start-ups, benefit from the establishment of a virtual environment. The flexibility in hiring decisions, reduced fixed costs, forced highly specific communications and better definition of job responsibilities that most often result from need, almost always give a virtual company the edge financially and flexibly.

Would you renew your existing office lease today?

[ Email readers, continue here…]   More mature companies are saddled with sometimes expensive facilities, often poorly used by a minority of employees.  Five-year leases that seemed a bargain before COVID are most often albatrosses today.

And when does senior management show the flag at the office?  Most want the same flexibility as those they manage.  So, one of the advantages of new or young employees – having visibility and time with their managers – cannot easily be realized, frustrating the employee who made the extra effort to come into the office.

The bottom line for most companies is that the need may still be there, but the size of the space can be drastically reduced and should be.  Landlords know this, and at renewal time are more flexible now, willing to divide spaces to retain tenants with the negotiation power shifting from landlord to tenant.

Yes, every company is different.

During COVID, we sometimes called these “must be in the office” or on-the-floor employees “essential.”  The extra burden of travel cost and time was theirs to bear without extra compensation compared to their peers.  Which leads to the question: “Would you pay more for those who you insist on or who must come to the place of work?  These are complex questions, but when couched in this way – in terms of higher employee cost as well as higher infrastructure cost, become easier for management.  You must decide between hybrid, virtual or forced in-the-office balancing economics with productivity and ability to retain and attract the best employees.

The world has changed, and you must not just “remember how it used to be.”

So, can a company of any size exist for a reasonably long time as a virtual company? 

As recently as 2019, there was a stigma that prevented many CEO’s from thinking it possible.  Today, virtual offices are accepted at all levels of many organizations of all sizes.

 

 

 

 

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How to make a small problem into a big one.

Allowing small problems to escalate into big ones is simple. 

Just ignore the signs for long enough and the job is done.  It takes far more energy to regularly review the key performance indicators you’ve established for each individual and yourself.  But a small excursion caught early and corrected saves massive corrective resources later.

Here’s an example:

Take for example the manufacturing company with a small quality problem in one component, resulting in a test failure rate above the norm.  You can just reject the components, especially if coming from an outside supplier, or you can get to the root of the problem by examining the cause and reengineering the process or product quickly, saving you and perhaps your supplier time and cost.  Such a culture of quality engineering has an additional benefit in creating a higher bar for all to see, making the public statement that quality is a top priority.

Is this just your problem?

[Email readers, continue here…]   The same careful management applies to virtually every person and process in the organization.  If there are ways to measure successful output or execution, find them and use them regularly.

If one person or department is not pulling its weight, others notice and if no action is taken, often others are discouraged because of the lack of management interest and control.  The variant of “one bad apple” holds true in corporate cultures that to a degree entrepreneurial managers and young CEOs rarely credit – until a late correction is made and a collective sigh of relief can be heard company-wide.

 

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