What’s your story? Did someone else create it?

It is an old warning in the entertainment industry.  Define your persona the way you want others to view you – before someone else defines you by comparing you to someone not as flattering as you would like.

Sometimes you win when others define your story

I have a friend in the music business who worked hard to gain introductions to, and become mentored by, several known names in the business.  One well known informal mentor called him the “Stevie Wonder of Hip Hop.”  That description stuck, and it is helping the young artist to define himself through instant branding and a positive image.

Sometimes it is best that you do it first

If you are proud of the fact that you were first to market with a product or service, you might define yourself as the “first and best”. If you are the largest company in your niche, you might want to define yourself by relative size, which connotes success and staying power.  If you are the quirkiest of suppliers in your niche, you could create a campaign around your company’s counterculture.

Use a word picture or mantra to make it memorable

[Email readers, continue here…]  One great way to define your story is with a word picture in which you associate yourself with a person or company that is recognized in a positive way and helps you tell your story more easily.  For example, if you have a bicycle courier service that you want to be known as speedy and reliable, define yourself as “the FedEx of urban couriers.”   (See “Manage Your Mantra” two weeks earlier in this blog.)  Your failure to do this early in the life of the company may come back to haunt you when others refer to you as just another street currier.

Sometimes you reduce your market to increase your positioning

How do you define yourself?  A mantra, tag line, motto, or logo with your unique brand definition is a good start.  Press releases and PowerPoint presentations with a uniform use of the mantra or phrase will reinforce your effort.  Back your story up with a statistic if possible. “There may be forty companies that do what we do, but we’re the first, largest and used by more Fortune 500 companies in our area than all the others combined.” (You can tell that story by limiting your market to the lower east side of town, where you are all those things.)

Create the story and spread it so you define yourself

Teaching your associates and employees to use the phrase each time they introduce the company to another social or business contact helps spread the word.  There is no one who will ever be as passionate about telling your story as you.  It is worth the time and effort to work on telling it well and in a memorable way.

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Posted in Positioning | 3 Comments

Five ways to make your company stand out.

There must be at least several companies out there right now positioning to compete with you.  If you’re large enough, you may be the target, and if smaller, you are the minnow not the shark – and need to be agile and creative.

The five strategies:  Picking one to emphasize

So, how do you position yourself to be a stand out? There are five  strategic positioning areas for you to consider. That’s our subject this week. There are five niches you can chose when defining your positioning strategy:  price, quality, service, innovation, and elegance.

And although many positioning efforts cross the lines between these, great companies play to the strength of just one.  And within that slice of differentiation, to make any sort of impact and lasting company, the difference between you and your competitor cannot be incremental.  “Me too” positioning is lost in the noise of today’s targeted marketing and corporate reach through inexpensive, but effective, use of Internet marketing.

Pricing strategies differentiate your business

First, and easiest to understand, is creating differentiation by price. Certainly Walmart, Target and others have gotten the attention of their potential customers using price as the primary leader to drive sales.  Walmart succeeds because it has changed the game with its suppliers, actually partnering with them to help drive costs down so that prices can truly be lower at the store level.  Since that capability is far beyond most every other retailer, there is great risk in competing by price alone.  Most anyone else can meet or beat your price any time they wish.  And their motive may have little to do with short term profit, a most frustrating finding when you finally realize that it is impossible to compete with such driven opposites.

Using price creatively

[Email readers, continue here…]   Price can become a competitive tool by creative companies where they can change the game, reducing the number of parts for example to lower manufacturing costs, or reducing the time to install a product, lowering after-sale costs.  But, for the most part, competing on price alone is not a good strategy for the long run.  Success is not rewarded appropriately by continued dominance of a niche when price alone built that niche.

Quality can be, and is, an important differentiation.

Ford recently returned from the land of the nearly-dead to become not only profitable but a desirable alternative to the dominant Japanese cars by emphasizing quality at competitive prices.  And some brands are built principally upon quality even at increased price, including Mercedes, Tesla and Audi, to name a few auto brands that have successfully been able to charge more for quality than just the added features above their lower-priced competitors.

Service is a remarkable differentiation.

Those who shop constantly at Nordstrom’s are knowingly paying more for personalized service that has proved endearing and able to withstand the competition for decades of continued high standards, not compromised by the need for profit first, service second.  Internet hosting providers, ISPs, are often distinguished by their potential customers by the level of up-time which equates to quality of service, even at incrementally higher hosting cost.

Innovation, technology, and early adapters

Innovation certainly defines a number of companies catering to early adopters and the mass audiences that follow.  Apple stands out as the first name on most minds when thinking of innovation, even though Apple originated none of its dominant product lines, choosing instead to come to market with innovative adaptations of existing products.  The iPad created an entirely new market segment from what was for over a decade a sleepy niche computer tablet market dominated by a few small-selling products aimed at niche markets.

And finally, elegance

Elegance serves as a major differentiation for those who are willing to add quality and service into a brand that is priced well above reach of the masses.  Coach, Bentley, Patek Philippe, and Chanel are brands defined by elegance, not feature-functionality and certainly not by being the low-priced competitor.  The great benefit of reaching for differentiation outside of low price is that the public you court is the public loyal to you over time because of your brand and your brand recognition, and the least likely to abandon you for another when their price is lower by increments.

Increase your margins and brand awareness

Branding, price strategy, and positioning are related as differentiation’s that help you to increase margins and drive profits when competitors fail with inferior strategies.

So, consider your core competencies and pick one or two of these positioning strategies to drive your company’s growth and profitability.  You’ll be ahead of many of your competitors who often don’t think strategically when positioning their companies in your niche.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Growth!, Positioning | Leave a comment

Everyone needs to manage their mantra or move on.

Ever stand with someone you’ve never met when at a party, a trade show or just meet someone in the hallway?

We all have.

And then that person opens his or her mouth and spends a boring two minutes describing their business to you?  Leaving you wondering how much of that you got and how much you might retain?

We all have. So, here’s the antidote to prevent you from becoming “that” person.

Describe the business in ten words or less.

I am constantly surprised when speaking with entrepreneurs and CEO’s who act puzzled and a bit flustered when I ask, “So what is your mantra?  Tell me about your company in ten words or less.”  Almost everyone begins a long explanation of their business that is nearly impossible to follow, let alone recall a few moments later.

The easy way to lose an opportunity

And each lost an opportunity to tell their story in a memorable way that has power and boosts their enterprise value in the minds of the listener.  I recently spent fifteen minutes in front of a table-top display, attempting to coach an entrepreneur who repeatedly tried to state why his business was better than a competitor (one I didn’t recognize) and never explaining what it was that he did.

You only have seconds to do it or lose

[Email readers, continue here…]   In explaining what you do, and what you do better than the other company, you have seconds – and only seconds – to get your image across into the minds of your listener.  The best way to do this with a young company without name recognition is to appropriate the image of another, known company, to invoke the quick mental understanding of what you do.

Some examples of excellent mantra

“We are the Skype of moderated Internet broadcasting,” evokes immediately the mental picture of a company that provides a platform for broadcasting town hall meetings or large group gatherings over the Internet, much as Skype does with one-to-one video connectivity.

Yet, if you took the time to describe the company with that longer description after the quotes above, you’d lose many of your listeners with too much detail and too many words.  With the short description evoking the image of a known company, the listener immediately grasps enough to engage in a discussion – or at least walk away and be able to repeat to another the main thrust of the business.

So, that’s a mantra?

That’s a mantra: a short, quickly understood picture of your business in just a few words, often using the name of a well-known company or process to complete the picture-story.

Count the seconds

You have only seconds to make a first impression.  Your mantra is the ticket to entrance into a longer conversation.  It is often the most powerful but inexpensive marketing tool a young company has to offer.   And it is often extremely difficult to craft effectively in just a few words.  So, what is your mantra?

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Posted in Positioning | 3 Comments

How much time do you spend “outside the box?”

So, you’re managing all that work, all those interruptions, all those texts and pesky emails.  You get home at some reasonable hour, kind of tired, and needing a recharge.  Sound familiar?

Well, that’s probably because you’ve “wasted” a significant portion of your time on tasks others could have done effectively.  So, where do you get those sparks of genius that could change your company and change the world?

How most entrepreneurs work today

Creative entrepreneurs find niches for their business that are not full of competitors fighting over the last dollar of margin, or niches that are mature and shrinking in size.  They search for areas unexplored, or those covered by companies with less of a vision for quality, service or innovation.

Outside the box? Think of the Titanic tragedy.

Even creative entrepreneurs are often trapped inside the box of their experience.  Recently in a discussion of this very subject in a roundtable of CEO’s, one CEO reminded us of the Titanic tragedy.  She stated that those in charge during the last hours aboard had options probably never considered that could have saved many more lives, given the limited number of life boats available.  She listed several, including pulling up the teak floorboards and throwing them overboard along with the deck chairs and dining tables, all to be used for floatation.  It made us all think that we had never considered such solutions when contemplating that disaster after the fact.

So, how can you create a culture of creative thinking?

[Email readers, continue here…]   With that challenge, we turned as a group to discuss how CEO’s could make a culture of thinking outside of that restrictive box of experience.  We considered adding questions to the interview process that could bring surprising answers from a job candidate, pointing to a creative thinker that might complement the team.

We challenged ourselves as a group to think of answers to problems that a writer of fiction might create, unconstrained by conventional thinking.  We worried over the fact that we may have hired people in the past that fit our image of the proper addition to our core staffs, people with similar experiences and training, constrained by the same experiential thinking as ourselves.

The result could change your life

Our CEO group we left that meeting each more willing to search for talent to help us and our enterprise find creative alternatives that would challenge us, expand our product, marketing, sales and process abilities beyond the constraints of our present definition of our company and its core.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Growth! | 2 Comments

Your core competency and why not to stray

Consider your core.  It is the one skill, process or advantage you have over your competition.  Then think of all the things you do to surround that core with people and assets that complete your company and allow you to release your product or perform your service.

Which of your IP assets is your core?

Now consider how many of those surrounding assets and services are really necessary for you to perform in order to protect and grow your core.  For most small and medium-sized businesses, there are lots of wheels spinning around the core that take up the attention and resources of management but add little or no value to the core of the business.

Why this is a tricky question

These are new times, enhanced by our global ability to find resources anywhere on earth to complement the core of our business.  And most often, the companies supplying those services are much more efficient at doing so than we could be because of their experience and advantages of scale, and the cost to us of such services is lower than performing them ourselves.

So – what is your core offering?  Are you building it more slowly because your resources and attention are focused around many processes not critical to that core?

How about non-core resources?

[Email readers continue here…]   It is a rule that early stage managers should find, protect and grow the core business, finding resources wherever possible to service that core in the form of variable expense, to be added to or shed at will as the company finds its niche and establishes a pattern of growth.

What kind of resources are not in your core business?

From administrative services supplied by personal assistants located in India, to designers and producers of prototypes in China, to call centers managed and located in the Philippines, there are efficient, well organized solutions for virtually every process needed by a company to surround its core.

The core we abandoned in this new generation

In earlier college business administration courses, professors often touted the advantages of “vertical integration,” the process of bringing all production from raw materials through the finished product under one roof.  With the advent of worldwide seamless communication and cheaper skilled labor available through virtual relationships, that old school thinking no longer holds, even for the largest corporations capable of performing all operations in house.

Henry Ford located his auto plant near the river so that his steel mill could cool the raw product and feed the plant across the property.

The disadvantage of doing it all – a personal story

And in the 1960’s, I created a vertically integrated record manufacturing plant where raw materials came in one door and finished record albums out the door of the same building.  It was considered the most efficient possible organization at that time.  But it proved impossible to shed overhead during downturns.  Labor and downturn cash flow issues and management distractions contributed to offsetting the positive effects of such a practice.  I doubt Ford would organize his plant that way today, and neither would I.  There are far too many alternatives that serve to protect the business during downturns, give management alternatives and provide superior results when not at the core of the company’s offering.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Positioning, Protecting the business | 2 Comments

The four “P’s” to help you build a great business

How do you manage a great business, as opposed to be a survivor?  Well, here are the four areas you should focus upon every day.

Now, some of us remember things better when given a catchy phrase or rhyme. So, here’s one to help you with squeezing the most out of your own available resources.  In this new reality in our business world, there is certainly little room for mistakes and no room for bloat within our companies. Preventing them is our responsibility.

The first “P” stands for people.  The wrong person in most any job causes everyone below or above that person in the production system that depend upon that person to operate at a reduced rate or quality of output.  And if there are people depending upon the output of that wrongly-placed individual, they too will suffer from reduced resources to complete their jobs.  The cost of a bad or failed placement in any position in a company’s critical chain is enormous and goes far beyond the salary paid to that individual.  Enough said.

The second “P” is for productivity.  But if a good person is failing at their job, it may be because you have not provided the resources necessary for that person to do the job expected.  For example: Hire a great sales person then fail to support him or her with a good marketing effort or a properly priced quality product, and that person will be set up to fail, and for reasons you might have fixed.

[Email readers, continue here…]   Then there is the third “P” – performance.  Like a great orchestra, it takes a skilled conductor (you) to bring the best out of the collective members of the group.  You are responsible for the quality of performance that defines an excellent enterprise and assures long life for the company as competition becomes more aggressive and geographically extended.

The fourth “P” is for process.  How do you efficiently get your offering from development to market?  How do you stage and tune a production line for maximum quality and output?  How do you penetrate an established market with a groundbreaking new product, but on a limited budget?  All these are process questions, often faced by management (you) when seeking success.

Kids Wooden Number Block As Symbol For Numeracy Or Counting

Now, all of us have limited resources and must deploy them effectively to gain the most possible ground in the marketplace.  Like a chain with four links, no one of these listed here can be weak or we frustrate our opportunity for success.  We’ve got to focus and pay attention to each to each of these four areas to strengthen the chain.

Future look: Over time we will explore these issues more deeply using the “theory of constraints” (TOC) method of looking into your physical and financial roadblocks.

The four “P’s”:  People, productivity, performance and process.

Ask yourself: which of these four P’s is your weakest link?  What can you do to rethink, reinforce and redirect resources and remove roadblocks to the success of that link and enhance your whole organization?

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Posted in Growth!, Protecting the business, Surrounding yourself with talent | Leave a comment

Here’s how NOT to define your competition

We investors see this all the time. An entrepreneur pitches using a deck with no slide for competition. When asked (as we always do,) the response is “This is new. We have no competition.”

Niet!  No! Unh unh.

Professional investors laugh when they hear an entrepreneur come out with that one.  That statement has killed more investment deals than almost any other.  It is a failed litmus test for the entrepreneur, even if the plan is for a totally new device or service that could take the world by storm.  Well, come to think of it, this is especially true in such an instance.

Dis you really do your research?

The statement shows a lack of research or previous thinking that is a red flag for us investors.  Whether you have not been able to find companies doing “something like” the plan, or you has not considered the most obvious killer of new ideas – doing nothing, it is a faux pas that should never be allowed to happen.

Your potential customers could choose “do nothing.”

[Email readers, continue here…]   Doing nothing is the main competitor for most products and services, whether a compelling new idea or a seasoned product long proven to be effective.   Remember that the buyer must commit resources, money and time, toward the purchase of your product, and even if the product repays its investment in a few months, there may be issues you know nothing about that make no decision the right decision for this and perhaps many buyers.

External factors to consider

Consider the state of the economy. Perhaps buyers cannot obtain attractive financing in the current market.  Maybe there is advance knowledge of new technologies around the corner that makes any decision today a risky one.  It could be that a larger competitor has met with its customers, promising to extend its product line into this very niche.  There are thousands of variants of the theme, where no decision is the right decision.

Do your homework!

So, do your homework especially well by putting yourself into the minds of your potential customers.  Widen your search to include companies with products peripheral to yours, where extension of their product would seem logical, especially if you plan to be successful early in making sales into their market.

If you are raising funds, list “do nothing” as a viable competitor in your slide deck.  If you are training your sales staff, work especially hard on responding to emotional and factual counters to a final close of a sale.  Practice overcoming the potential objection long before standing in front of investors, customers or even your board.

After all, fooling yourself should never be an option.

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Posted in Finding your ideal niche, Ignition! Starting up, Positioning, Raising money | 1 Comment

What’s the minimum information to give your investors?

Every investor wants regular information from companies taking their money.  And most of us investors are frustrated by the lack of regular communication – unless of course – the company needs more money.

On the other side, entrepreneurs and CEO’s usually have a natural fear of giving too much information to us investors after the initial investment is received.  They worry that we will not keep the information confidential and that financial data will find its way into competitors’ hands.  Others worry that we will latch onto individual line items within financial data and engage in inquisitions regarding telephone bills, marketing costs and other tactical line items in detailed financial statements.

The minimum legal requirements

First, let’s cover the absolute minimum legal requirement a company must provide to its investors.  There must be an annual meeting of the shareholders, and that meeting must be announced with a written notice at least ten days prior to the meeting. (There is a provision that a waiver of notice may be signed preventing this need, but it requires that all shareholders sign).

Required actions by shareholders

At the annual meeting (which can be attended by phone), there are actions that require a vote of the shares present either by proxy or in person. These include election or re-election of board members if required by the bylaws of the corporation, approval of any increases to stock option plans (which would dilute the worth of shares outstanding,) and approve any additions to the capital stock authorized to be issued.  Shareholders may vote on other issues during the year by written consent, including acquisitions, stock issuance, changes to the articles of incorporation and bylaws, and more.

[Email readers, continue here…]   Prepare for your annual meetings well. But don’t worry. Few investors will show up that day.  But – make it easy for them by creating a video or phone link to the meeting.  More will attend, and all will feel included.

How much financial information must our companies give?

But the question that is most often asked is: “How much financial information must be divulged?”  The answer is that the minimum requirement is to provide an income statement and balance sheet to all shareholders annually.  There is no requirement that either be detailed by general ledger account, and those statements should rarely be that detailed anyway.  Summarizing income statements with a line for revenues, cost of revenue, general and administrative expenses, sales and other direct costs – all leading to net income, would satisfy the legal requirement for statement of income and expense.

Requirements created by investment documents

When a company accepts an investment from professional or organized investment groups – such as angel groups, venture capitalists or corporations, there is usually a document signed entitled “investors rights agreement” that calls for additional financial and narrative reporting requirements due to that class of shareholder.  This could include the need for audited financials, monthly financial and narrative reporting and more.  That burden is an ongoing cost of taking the investment, much as a public company takes on the additional burden of governmental reporting, both adding to costs over time.

Good practices vs. minimum requirements

Good relations with us investors can be maintained only by keeping current with information between the company and with us.  If there is a concern over some investors gaining a competitive advantage, the amount of information may be reduced to the minimum for some classes of those investors.  A good example of this is the information provided to common stock holders, many of whom may be former employees who have exercised stock options and moved on to join the ranks of the competition.

Of course, a public company is not entitled to pare its information to reduce exposure to competitors.  That is one of the many costs of becoming a public entity as many CEO’s have found and dealt with over the years.

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Posted in Depending upon others, Raising money | 2 Comments

Think ahead when raising your early investments

Some businesses just can’t fit within the angel capital or friends and family model for raising funds.  Sooner or later you may need to seek venture capital and accommodate the needs of the venture community in negotiating the terms of an investment.

What VC’s can and cannot do

First, VC’s in general cannot invest in ‘S’ corporations or limited liability companies (LLC’s).  This is only a minor problem in that both forms can convert easily into ‘C’ corporations at low cost and little consequence.

And what VC’s worry about

More importantly, VC’s will worry over several issues when looking at a company and deciding about an investment.

First: Is the price paid for shares by previous investors excessive, creating a post-money valuation too high for the actual value of the company?  If so, the VC will contemplate a “down round” – that is: offering an investment where previous investors find their investments instantly worth less than their original value, even if the investments were made at high risk and years earlier.  No one wants to face this, but the need for money and the possible overpricing of the first rounds may have created an unsustainable valuation.

How did you structure your first round?              

[Email readers, continue here…]  Second, it is important in the first investment round to face the issues that may be required later by subsequent, more sophisticated, investors such as VC’s.  These include “tag along rights” which allow investors to sell some shares when others, such as management or founders, sell any shares.  Also included are “drag-along rights” in which minority shareholders may be forced to obey the vote of the majority in such important votes as to sell the company or take a round of financing at lower share prices.

The enlightened professional investor

Most VC’s today are becoming enlightened (as are organized angels), correctly forcing many decisions that might have been dictated by investment documents instead to the corporate board to decide.  This allows for a discussion – and perhaps a negotiation – between inside and outside board members in such instances, all for the good of the corporation, not just one class of shareholder.  You may recall that board members have a “duty of loyalty” to the corporation, and not to their constituent investors.  This enlightened thinking reinforces that duty, even sometimes at the expense of profit to the VC’s.

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Posted in Raising money | 2 Comments

How much of my business do I have to give to an investor?

If you’re looking for growth capital, this one’s for you. We’ll cover what information you’ll expect to provide, your range of expected values and amounts of investment to expect.  All to help you set your expectations.  OK?

Financial History and Projections

Let’s start with the basics. If you are a going business with a track record of revenues, then the importance of accurate current financial statements cannot be overstated. If there is no record of revenues, see the “The Berkus Method” available with any search query for valuing the business before revenues.

And you should “know your numbers and be able to defend them” during early meetings with candidate investors.  At the least, historical numbers must include the latest income statement and balance sheet, showing activity through the latest period.  If the business is not a startup, expect to supply income statements for the past several years as well, to emphasize trends in revenue and costs.

Projections for your future

You should expect to present detailed projections for the next 12 months as a basic minimum.  Beyond that, plan to prepare projections for two additional years, but not necessarily in account-by-account detailed format.  Sophisticated businesses will also create a cash flow projection for the same period, showing cash used and remaining at the end of each period.  And note that projections showing “unbelievable” rapid growth are always suspect. Careful about “hockey stick” forecasts.

How much money can you get?  

Well, here is a question with a circular answer.   To grow your business to a size that will be attractive to a VC or angel making an investment now, you’ve got to show that the business will be large enough at the time of the investor’s liquidity event (cashing out) to make the investment attractive at all.

[Email readers, continue here…] Most VC’s look for a 10x opportunity – that is – a ten times increase in the valuation from investment to liquidity event.  Later stage investors sometimes look for less, since the business has already proven its capability to stay in the game and has already completed its product development cycle, eliminating more risk for the investor.

So, you’ve got to play with the numbers to determine your level of comfort. The more you ask for – the more equity you give up.  Completing this exercise often leads you to lower your expectations about the amount of money to be raised.

It is also a factor that early stage investors don’t want a controlling interest in your company.  It is a disincentive to you and a burden to them.  “Engineer” your needs if possible so that you give 20-35% to investors on the first professional investor round.

Here’s a valuation example for you based on amount to be raised

Try this example:  You want to raise $2,000,000 today.  Your projections and the analysis we’ll undertake below lead to a possible valuation of $40,000,000 in five years, assuming that you meet your plan, and allowing for a 50% discount to your projected numbers during the investor’s evaluation.  That means – using the investor’s 10x expectation for return – making the business worth $2,000,000 today at best.  To raise $2,000,000, you must give up 50% of the post-investment equity (the current value of $2,000,000 plus the investment of $2,000,000).  The post-investment value would be $4,000,000.  When multiplied by 10x, the target valuation at exit would be the $40,000,000 quoted above.  It is a fact that very few businesses reach the $40,000,000 valuation hurdle. And it is probable that you’ll need more money to reach that target, muddying the calculation and reducing your equity percentage.

Remember your employee option allocation

Your potential investor will include the full number of shares reserved for your present or future option plan – usually 15-20% of total equity – making your personal equity 20% less when calculated as “fully diluted,” or including a reserve for options.  Therefore, in the example above, you would control less than 50% of the company at funding if you received $2,000,000.

Given your strong desire to keep controlling interest in the early stages of growth, the amount that can be raised must be lower than $2,000,000 in order to accomplish this goal.

So, the circular reasoning exercise returns.  Raise your projections (and sell your investor on the increased projections as a result) or lower the amount of capital you raise in this round.  Your future rounds should be at higher valuations if you meet your plan, making dilution of your equity less onerous at that time.

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Posted in Raising money | 3 Comments