Design of Business

Business, Culture & Entrepreneurship

Category: Start-up Logic (page 2 of 3)

Back to Basics – Entrepreneurship

Much like riding a bicycle or swimming, with entrepreneurship too, no amount of study or theory can take the place of plunging right in. Yes, some scraped knees, water swallowed and spat out and wounded egos are likely to result, but nothing helps you learn like real-world experience.

Over the past several months, I have tried to walk through a typical, if there is any such thing, life cycle of an entrepreneur. From when the thought to start something first lodges itself in your mind through all the way to exiting your business, the entrepreneurial journey is a roller-coaster ride on steroids. As happened with me, and every parent prior to me, you are clueless when people tell you, “Your life will change once you have children.” They could just as well be talking about being an entrepreneur. All the reading, talking and thinking does not prepare you for it — it’s messy, sleep-depriving, unpredictable and will make you want to cry! Yet, it is is exhilarating, scary and fun all at the same time.

Better men and women than I have written oodles about entrepreneurship and start-ups — the how-to, why and wherefore and the blogosphere is a cacophony of advice givers. So is there anything left to say? My two cents is that it is certainly worth repeating the basics, the foundation on which all endeavours entrepreneurial and otherwise rest and build on. And this is what I shall strive to do in this article.

What: It’s the Journey

My accountant used to tell the tale of how, when a youngish man passed away, his brother standing by the funeral pyre had a flash, a rare moment of insight about how ephemeral life is and how trivial most concerns that dog all of us are. Yet, an hour later when he returned home, he chided his wife on how cold the coffee she served was! It is hard enough to be receptive to the flash of insight and nearly impossible to stay in it every moment.

Yet, as an entrepreneur (or as a parent or spouse), it’s worth reminding ourselves that we should accept, internalise and live the truth, that ‘It’s the journey that counts’.

Many of us fall into the trap of posing most issues as an ‘either-or’ situation. If you are not striving, you are complacent (not content); if you aren’t successful, you have failed; if you aren’t paranoid, you will be dead!

Reality, however, tends to be a lot more nuanced, filled with shades of grey rather than just black and white. If we succumb to it, there are endless ways to pull ourselves down even without competitors or sometimes customers doing it. To what most people would say such as “Keep an eye on your goal at all times” (which you should), “Stay focused” (which you should), “Persevere (beyond reason),” my recommendation is to remind yourself each day that “It’s the journey that matters.”

For even if you get where you (think you) want to be, if you don’t enjoy your trip there or worse yet, you don’t get there, it would all have been a waste.

So, write it down, post it on your desk; better yet, make it your screensaver!

Who: It’s the People

No journey is much fun if you have to do it all alone. Of course, having obnoxious, inconsiderate or downright horrible travel companions is probably the only thing that is worse than travelling alone. Entrepreneurs by nature like getting things done and if you are like me, many times, you’ll have the feeling that no one else can do as good a job as you can (not true). So taking on a partner or hiring and training employees will all, at times, seem far more trouble than it is worth, but no enterprise worth its salt has been built by one person, however heroic — even Superman needed Jimmy Olsen ever so often.

The trouble, of course, with people is that they are people, with all their foibles and baggage, social and emotional. Peter Drucker in his book The Effective Executive speaks of making strength productive by not hiring to minimise weaknesses but to maximise strength. He narrates how: ‘President Lincoln when told that General Grant, his new commander-in-chief, was fond of the bottle said: “If I knew his brand, I’d send a barrel or so to some other generals.” Lincoln assuredly knew all about the bottle and its dangers. Lincoln (however) chose his general for his tested ability to win battles and not for his sobriety, that is for the absence of weakness.’

Paul Hawken, entrepreneur, raconteur and teacher, speaking about the people you want on your team, says “… it makes no sense whatsoever to hire any but the best people you can possibly find. Your employees shouldn’t admire you. That is kid stuff. You should admire your employees.” So make sure you don’t travel alone and that you pick your travel companions carefully for their strengths.

How: Don’t forget to have fun

At least three thesauruses that I consulted report the words fun, joy and playful as synonyms. And who am I to disagree with them? Neither should you!

Business, commerce, entrepreneurship — all sound like serious stuff and all too often we treat them that way, but high cholesterol, hypertension and stomach ulcers are a lot more serious. So having fun, being joyful and keeping work playful is important. The real world in the form of payroll, accounts payable, demanding customers and disgruntled employees make it hard. It is the rare business that manages to accomplish this without ceaseless vigil and trying hard. While we may take our business seriously, we had better not take ourselves too seriously. I will be the first to admit that this, like most good advice, is easier said than done.

Nevertheless, the baristas at Starbucks, the concierge at the Windsor Manor hotel in Bangalore and my local barber all live the maxim that work can be fun! There will be enough folks telling you how to do or not do stuff or why you will fail. The easiest way to have fun is to prove the naysayers, who will be coming out of the woodwork daily, wrong. The best revenge at all times, I believe, is having a good time.

So focus on making sure that the journey for the folks travelling with you and for yourself is fruitful, fun and fulfilling today, and other things will take care of themselves.

This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated June 2008

Exiting your business

Whenever I read of a prenuptial agreement, I react viscerally. Not that I am particularly romantic, nevertheless there is a sense of foreboding. Putting in place an agreement should the relationship fall apart, even before the marriage, seems unsettling to say the least. In the Indian context, where marriages are still largely arranged and families actively contribute to heal rifts (and in some instances serve as the source), there is no major downside to a pre-nuptial lack of preparation. However, in the case of entrepreneurial businesses, even those that plan well before starting up, often give little thought to how it might end.

As an entrepreneur, you conceived a business idea and shaped it to meet a large market need. With love and, at times, feelings bordering on hate or insanity you have nursed, nurtured and grown it to a stage where you now have a reasonably stable business. Along the way, you have brought on board employees, partners and other owners who have ridden the enterprise’s roller-coaster ride with you. You are just getting accustomed to the growing pains (which only seem to change and never cease) and look ahead to what’s next. Of course, even if you are not there yet personally, your employees, investors and likely, your spouse are pushing you to figure out what’s next.

I use the term ‘exiting your business’ for this phase of your business. It may involve an actual exit, such as selling your company or even shutting it down or a major change in shareholding (which I deem a virtual exit) such as going public or a significant dilution of equity, ideally with some financial upside for the present shareholders. If you are not hyperventilating by the end of the previous sentence, you are ready to consider what the best manner to exit your business is.

Are there alternatives to exiting your business? Indeed, there are. You could choose — as many of the companies described in Bo Burlingham’s book Small Giants have — to stay privately held and of finite size. This has its share of challenges including the growth path for your senior team members, monetisation of people’s equity and succession planning. As Bo Burlingham puts it “(You will face) the same choice that all successful entrepreneurs are faced with sooner or later, although most don’t realise that there even is a choice until it’s too late.” So how do you ensure that your exit is smooth?

Know thyself

As with starting a business, exiting a business begins with understanding yourself. The good news is that you are no longer the person who started your business. Therefore, what you want today is likely to have changed. Even if you feel it hasn’t, it’s well worth being certain.

Begin by asking yourself: “What is it I want?” Do you want to grow the business to many times the size it is? Do you merely want to cut back on the hours you are working? Do you want to hand the company over to someone else and not be the person with whom the buck stops? Are you capable of letting go? Would you drive your spouse and family batty if you were no longer an entrepreneur here? These questions are all valid regardless of whether you intend to go public, sell the company, shut it down or raise another round of capital.

A recent example of not being clear is when Bill Gates stepped aside to let Steve Ballmer, his college buddy and confidant of decades, take over the number 1 spot at Microsoft. An article in The Wall Street Journal reports that there were shouting matches and even a dramatic walkout by Gates after an argument. According to the paper, these run-ins “paralysed business strategy decisions that the company still wrestles with today.” Eventually, as another commentator observed, “Mr Gates had an epiphany about his own role and stepped back.”

Before you make plans to exit your business, it is important to recognise that most exits are beginnings rather than endings. For instance, if it involves selling your company and you are no longer going to be involved, you’d have to figure out what you would want to do; more importantly, you would have to be clear about what would happen to your employees with you out of the picture. If the buyer wants you to stay, what will your role be and how happy are you going to be in it? How long should you stay? If you are taking the company public or taking in equity, how will having a formal board of directors impact your business or you? And if you are going to shut down your company, what is the fair thing to do by your employees? Most importantly, when do you walk away from any transaction? In other words, what are you not prepared to give up? Ideally, you run through this exercise annually rather than the night after you receive a call about a possible merger or acquisition.

Exit is a project

In the early days of your business, you probably prided yourself on the speed with which you made decisions. And as an entrepreneur, you still have a disdain for all things that seem to slow you down. If so, be warned that exiting your company is a Project with a capital P! It requires serious chunks of your time and 100 per cent of your mindshare at such times. You should run it as you’d run any major project — it may turn out to be the most critical one in your professional career.

In crunch times, most of us revert, almost atavistically, to our native comfort zone. Leaders who come from a sales background view this as a sales deal, technical folk as a test of their technological capability — in other words as a specific challenge from outside that needs to be dealt with aggressively. Usually, the biggest and most non-trivial challenges of an exit lie inside the company.

The communications and people aspects of an exit — from company intent, “Why are we raising money?” or “Are we in trouble?” to the personal, “Will I keep my job? Should I be buying those vested options?” to a possibly critical “Do I want to bother my boss with this minor issue in the midst of all this?” are critical. Your team may not only have a lot of questions but may also be quite distracted, which is not good for the business or the exit. Therefore, having a clear plan, that includes entry and exit criteria (such as when will this project be killed, if at all), objective targets (“What do I consider a fair share price?”), milestones (“By when do we intend to conclude this, either way?”), roles and responsibilities (“Who does what and how?”) and continual tracking (weekly meetings, daily or alternate day calls) is vital.

Regardless of how hard you think the exit project will be, it will be harder still! So get professional help. It is useful to have the buffer of a professional intermediary, who’ll be objective and ensure that the process does not get derailed and keeps you honest. And be prepared to pay them — they’ll earn every dime if you pick them well.

Business as usual

All of us have been in situations when, even as a key customer meeting is running late, we get a page saying that a top technical guy has resigned and our alarm reminds us of a promise made to the little one not to miss her school play again. As we race madly from the meeting, the fuel indicator glows red and the accountant calls to say that the wire transfer has not come in and tomorrow’s payroll is at risk. Now imagine doing all of this while your spouse is not in town, you have a head cold and a twisted ankle. Trying to manage an exit even as you run your business is all of the above and then getting pulled over for speeding by a surly cop.

It is easy to lose sight of the fact that you have a business to run, especially if you find the exit project exciting and exhilarating. But it is important to keep in mind that by the time the day of the IPO or the selling agreement arrives , you had better still have a viable, vibrant business. And this will not happen by itself. When you are sitting across the table from your institutional investors or prospective buyers, it is this healthy business, running as a well-oiled machine, which is going to allow you to be a cool yet formidable negotiator. It is useful to keep in mind that the exit project is just that — one of several in your business and not necessarily one that will be successful.

So keep your eye on the ball and remember your core objective — sustaining and running your business as though you intend to do it for the rest of your professional life!

This article was published in the Business Line print edition in June 2008.

Selling every moment – sales in an entrepreneurial firm

Selling Process

No one looks forward to a visit to the dentist, especially if it is a root canal that’s in the offing. Yet, most people would choose a root canal over haggling with a car dealer. The words ‘used-car salesman’ have come to epitomise our loathing for the selling profession. The sweet-sounding young thing who keeps calling offering me credit cards and personal loans, is most reluctant to answer when I ask her if it is a sales call. So it would appear even salespersons are at times ambivalent about their jobs.

In this scenario, how important is the sales function for an entrepreneurial firm? Before we answer this question we need to recognise that most entrepreneurial firms begin selling before they have a product and many even before they are a company.

As a founder, you have to sell your ideas to other founders, prospective employees, potential investors and future customers. Often, we fail to acknowledge this as selling as our passion and vision drives us to make believers of others. Selling, however, is what it is and it is critical for the success of your entrepreneurial firm.

Furthermore, it is far too important to be left to the sales folk alone. You need to be selling your company to all the stakeholders, selling your product and its differentiation to your own sales people and selling to customers and partners your unique value as a supplier and partner.

Founders as sales people have their share of risks — they are too close to the company, its products and their perceived benefits that they may not hear too well what customers are telling them.

As a start-up evolves to be a real business, the need to bring in professionals for the sales function grows. Salespersons spend most of their time outside the company and ensuring that they are aligned to your vision, values and goals is a continual process. If your sales people are to win hearts and minds even as they rake in the dollars selling your products, it is important that you stay involved after you bring on board the right salespeople.

Much like customer support, they will be the face of your company and the less they are perceived as ‘used-car salesmen’ the better you will be served.

Selling process For a company’s sales team to be consistently successful it requires a clearly spelt out process for selling.Many companies discover that writing code or building a product is all too easy to get started without adhering to a well spelt out process. However, disaster in the form of poor products or, in the worst case, a shuttered company, is the likely outcome in the absence of such a process. Similarly, too many start-ups think about sales, if at all, late in the game. Even when they plan for it, they grossly underestimate what’s required and make erroneous assumptions such as “the product will sell itself” or marketing or the technical personnel will be able to sell it. However, to continuously, predictably, and most importantly, profitably sell your product you need the right professionals with the right tools and a strong selling process.

The most common tool or process in sales, be it multi-million dollar selling to major accounts or one-on-one retail sales, is the Sales Pipeline. Simply put, it is a series of steps, such as figuring out who your likely customers are (prospect identification), which of them have money to buy, are likely and desirable (qualifying the buyers), and understanding what need they are trying to fulfil (understanding needs).

The accompanying table shows one such sales process; your own may have fewer or more steps depending on the nature of your business. Even in a restaurant or store, good salespersons go through this process, figuring out which customers are browsing as opposed to buying, what it is they are looking for, is the wife or the friend the decision maker, can they up-sell you with accessories (or appetisers or drinks in a restaurant), negotiating price and closing the deal.

However, in high complexity sales such as technology products or high-value selling, the time taken between the first step in the sales process and the order closure may be several weeks to months. And, when you have many such prospects and sales deals in the air, without strict adherence to the process, your survival will be in question.

The term pipeline is used to refer to the sale process, as the sales organisation will aspire to continuously move customers from the first step (identification) through the last step (payment receipt and asking for referrals). At any time, a good sales organisation will have a number of different prospects at each stage of the sales pipeline. Ensuring that the pipeline never runs dry and that a bottleneck is not created at any stage (proposals or negotiations for instance) is critical for predictability and sales success.

Daily discipline Selling, in my view, is the most unforgiving of all jobs in that it requires a level of daily discipline and commitment that few other jobs require. In engineering or marketing you can afford to have an off day; put something off for tomorrow or next week. However, in sales, the consequences of putting something off for tomorrow or next week are often disproportionate and tend to last longer. For instance, when you don’t call on that new prospect you had intended to or make that follow-up phone call about your proposal, that’s when that key decision maker goes off on his six-week sabbatical or your client has an organisational restructuring or budget cuts! Though a good sales person bounces back from this setback, it may take another three-six month selling cycle before she has another shot at the account.

This is made worse by the fact that sales people face rejection every day — from prospects and customers who tell them why their competitors’ products are better and of course less expensive and, worse yet, customers who love the product and your company but they are not buying right now! One week in the shoes of any of your sales people is about the most sobering experiences any of your non-sales employees can have.

Successful salespeople attribute their performance to attitude, discipline and perseverance. The discipline they refer to is in how they manage their sales pipeline.

Typically, regardless of the number of steps in it, the sales pipeline is broken down into three segments. Segment A – those accounts that are nearest to closure, Segment C – those that you have just started working on and are still in the early stages and Segment B — all those in the middle between A and C. Great sales people work their pipeline in the order A-C-B, spending maybe 20-30 per cent on A, 40-60 per cent on C and 20-30 per cent on B. Novices and less effective folk by focusing predominantly on A or A and B tend to let their pipelines run dry or at the very least become very unpredictable.

What time management people refer to as Quadrant II activities — namely the important but not urgent activities such as getting to know the decision making process or the decision makers — are typically Segment C activities. If like the industrial ant, you don’t work your C accounts on a daily basis, like the proverbial grasshopper you are likely to starve once the spring of A accounts passes.

Relationship building If you spend a week accompanying your top sales person, you will discover as one of our engineers recently remarked, “It’s not the product or even the sales pitch but the relationship and trust that the sales person has with the customer that brings home the deal consistently.” People like buying things from people they trust and like. Relationships, especially ones that engender trust, are not built overnight. This is the ultimate Quadrant II activity that separates the great sales people from the merely competent.

With today’s constantly evolving (and rapid obsolescence of) technology, products get rapidly commoditised and features contribute far less to differentiating your offering. So how do your sales people stand apart from the din of competing offerings? Recent selling research and literature talk about consultative selling. From the days when the pyramids were built, great salespersons have always been consultants and partners first. They strive to understand the real issues customers are trying to address and provide them the best possible solution within their constraints. That may, at times, even mean sending them to the competitor. No good deed goes unrewarded especially when a strong relationship has been built.

Those that have built good relationships are not only rewarded with more deals, but are less likely to be perceived as used-car salesmen or worse than a root canal!

This article first appeared in the Hindu BusinessLine print edition in June 2008.  

Marketing for Success

Most people seem to have a reasonable idea of what engineering (design and build stuff), finance (manage the money) or sales (make money by selling stuff) do in a business. Marketing is another story altogether, being confused with sales in the best case or perceived as a money-sucking black hole in the worst. It is likely the most misunderstood part of doing business.

Marketers, in turn, are often perceived by other employees as spending the company’s money on flashy ads or on exhibitions and junkets that involve travel to resorts and fancy meals. The words ‘entertainment expenses’ seem to dance before their eyes when they think of marketing. While some or all of this may be part of marketing, they don’t make us a marketer any more than reading the business pages of a newspaper makes any of us a stockbroker.

So what is marketing and what are marketers supposed to do? And why should you care? Theodore Levitt, the American economist, in his seminal book The Marketing Imagination asserts that “marketing … view(s) the entire business process as consisting of a tightly integrated effort to discover, create, arouse and satisfy customer needs.”

He also makes the distinction: “Selling concerns itself with the tricks and techniques of getting people to exchange their cash for your product. It is not concerned with the values that the exchange is about.”

Even if entrepreneurs agree that marketing is important, they sabotage themselves in a number of ways stemming from not comprehending how best to go about it. The real or often perceived expense of marketing is the most common concern that cash-strapped start-ups have.

When company founders are technologists, there is a belief that superior technology or product performance sells itself. Marketing, I argue, is a critical function for entrepreneurial ventures. It is every employee’s job, starting with the CEO, and is too important to be left to the marketing department alone.

Discovering needs
The dictionary definition of the word discover is to “determine the existence, presence or fact of.” Discovering customer needs is rarely as simple as asking them — though that is always a good place to start. And it helps if you begin this even before you start building your product or service.

Once customers state a need or requirement, repeatedly asking the question ‘Why’ helps. When a mother states “I wish I had more time to exercise” or “I wish I could feed my children healthier food,” she may be talking about the lack of household help or her commute time or how much organic food costs. So understanding the core problem to be solved is important, and many a time the customers themselves may be unaware of it till they go through this multiple ‘Why’ questioning. Even when the desired outcome is clearly stated, such as “Increase the gross margins for our digital cameras” or “Shrink our order fulfilment time by 50 per cent and reduce mistakes to one part per million,” asking ‘Why’ ensures you are working on the right problem.

The first job of marketing is to discover the pain points for the target customers and define them as requirements. Once we have a well-defined set of questions (what and why), we can look for the answers (how).

The challenge for entrepreneurs or start-ups is that they usually get started due to a perceived gap in the marketplace such as “Buying tickets for inter-city bus travel should be easier than it is.” Being men (and women) of action, they immediately set out to solve this problem. Of course, once you have a part of or the whole solution and then get it out there in front of people, you find that your product or service is not exactly setting the world on fire. This is why discovery prior to product development is an important piece of your marketing success. In real life, you don’t do discovery only at the beginning, but iteratively at each stage of your product or service’s lifecycle.

Creating and arousing demand
The most mystifying aspect of entrepreneurship is that once you have built that better mousetrap, not only is the world not beating its way to your doorstep, it’s not even returning your calls when you try to tell them about your solution. As a good marketer you did your homework and discovered that people found buying inter-city bus tickets painful. So you developed your easy-to-use, Internet-based online bus ticket booking system and yet it’s greeted with a great yawn. Creating and arousing demand, what technically the marketers call demand creation, is a critical marketing step. In a previous article, I noted “Build and they will come” only works in films. It is for marketing to get customers to move from “I have a problem” to “This is a good solution to my problem,” where ideally “this” is your product or service.

Creating and arousing demand will require re-acquainting the customer with the learnings of the discovery phase. Tell your customers, “Adding GPS to your digital camera is a good way to differentiate yourself from the competition and it will allow you to hold your price and hence stop the decline in your gross margins.” This way you state the key problem they have, your solution for the same and how the solution works.

Satisfying the demand
The most dangerous stage (and cause of much teeth gnashing for marketers) is the transition from demand creation to fulfilment or satisfying the customer need. Having comprehended the customer’s needs in the discovery phase and evangelised your solution in the demand creation phase, if you don’t execute well in this last phase, your competition is likely to satisfy the customer and enjoy the fruits of your labour.

So having a clear plan to fulfil the demand you’ve created and executing it is key in this last stage of marketing.

Satisfying the demand created rarely ends with product delivery as this only highlights other unmet needs or even the gap between the expectations raised and the reality of your solution. Ensuring customer satisfaction through sustained support and a new iteration of discovery, creation and satisfying is needed. So don’t begrudge your poor marketing guy’s dinner expense — he’s on a tread mill, get on it and support him and sign that darn expense report!

This article first appeared in the Business Line print edition dated May 5, 2008.

Marketing your entrepreneurial business for success

From my tenth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Most people seem to have a reasonable idea of what engineering (design and build stuff), finance (manage the money) or sales (make money by selling stuff) do in a business. Marketing is another story altogether, being confused with sales in the best case or perceived as a money-sucking black hole in the worst. It is likely the most misunderstood part of doing business.

Read the rest here.

Delivering on your promise

From my ninth article in the Start-up Logic entrepreneurship series in the Hindu BusinessLine

Every business sets out with a single premise and in the case of successful entrepreneurial firms this usually is a simple premise. If your business promises to deliver ‘hassle free online bill payment’ or to ‘keep all your contact information current automatically’, it keeps everyone in your company focused on what needs to be done. As an entrepreneur, you discover that just as you manage to get your ducks lined up, growth sneaks up on you scattering things once again.
Read the rest here.

Keeping the cash flowing

Hindu BusinessLine - handling cashFor a business to be viable, money is important. Most of us understand this intuitively and deal with it constantly in our own personal lives. Yet, as runaway individual credit card debt or a cash squeeze in a large company and the occasional sovereign currency crunch demonstrate, it is not difficult to lose sight of where the money goes. Even as capital and sales revenues supply money for your business, inward and outward cash flow management is critical for survival. If you don’t track and control the cash flow in your business, you may not keep your doors open too long, unless, as in the case of Chrysler, an elected government bails you out. It makes better business strategy to understand and manage your cash flow rather than rely on the government to help you with it.

As an entrepreneur, you likely began with an idea of a product or service. Soon, you are knee-deep in building a team, pulling together the product or service, finding and servicing customers. You may even have written a business plan and try to raise money. In addition, you are still trying to keep the company rolling forward. In a previous article, I asserted that having good people on board is the first step to managing the challenges your business will constantly face. The most life threatening of these will be cash flow management. As with the advice of any personal trainer (eat less, exercise more), cash flow management is easier said (spend less than you have, collect sooner than you need) than done, as many large and even profitable companies have found out.

Profit versus cash

To understand the criticality of cash flow, it is useful to begin with a simple business scenario. Ram Charan, author of What the CEO Wants You to Know, begins his book with the example of a street vendor selling fruits and vegetables in India. He poses the question: “How does he (the street vendor) know if he’s doing well? When he has cash in his pocket at the end of the day.” In the case of a cash-and-carry business such as a street vegetable vendor, profit and cash flow are closely tied. Most companies operate on credit terms, at least with their customers. In the case of start-up firms with no track record of good credit, this can be a bigger challenge with customers wanting 30-, 60- or 90-day credit terms and suppliers wanting advance payments or cash on delivery.

Imagine that on a holiday to Hong Kong you see these adorable ceramic animal sculptures that you know every woman would want for her home. You locate a supplier in China who can supply them for a mere Rs 100 each and you know that you can sell them for at least Rs 150, may be even as high as Rs 200. After all your expenses, you’ll still make nearly Rs 50 profit!

So you beg, cajole and wheedle Rs 4 lakh from your family and get a container load of the ceramic menagerie. Unfortunately, you have to pay your Chinese supplier up-front by wire transfer but the thought of that Rs 50 profit per ceramic animal keeps you rolling. Your largest buyers, unfortunately, also pay you only 120 days after receiving their supply of ceramic animals (what accountants refer to as net 120-day terms).

In other words, you have spent Rs 4 lakh on day one for the first container. The products are selling like hot cakes and you have sold all the ceramic animals you had bought within the first 30 days. Your customers, though, are yet to pay you (for another 90 days). Worse, they want to order even more animals from you. You scrape together another Rs 4 lakh and order that second container, whose contents too fly off the shelves.

Your accountant and books tell you that you are profitable, having bought Rs 8 lakh worth of animals, selling them for nearly twice that and making a net profit of Rs 4 lakh. However, your customers owe you nearly Rs 16 lakh and are not likely to pay you for another 60 days. You still have to continue to pay rent, the phone and electricity companies and salaries for your employees, not to mention returning the money you borrowed from family. Thus, despite being profitable you have run out of cash! And if you want to continue in the business, you need even more money.

So even simple and profitable businesses can get into trouble. Most real businesses rarely have products flying off the shelves, so they have cash tied up in goods bought but not yet sold (inventory); if the goods are perishable (vegetables) or time constrained (fashion) they may totally lose their value, resulting in losses or reduced profits. Most real businesses have to pay banks or lenders interest on the money they borrow; their profit margins are rarely as high as in this illustration. All of which means managing cash even in the simplest and, yes, profitable businesses is critical.

Capital as cash

Capital, and adequate capital at that, is the surest way to ensure that you don’t run out of cash. In the above example, if your customers are likely to pay you only on 120-day terms, that means you need capital for at least four months to be able to buy your goods, pay your routine running expenses and have some room to spare for unforeseen issues such as delayed shipments, broken animals or returned goods. So suddenly, you see that you need nearly half-a-year’s worth of cash outlay as capital — and this is for a simple trading business. As every entrepreneur has found, there are no simple businesses and you always need more money than you think.

The downside to capital, particularly equity capital, as the answer to cash flow is twofold — raising sufficient money may prove non-trivial and result in a dilution of your equity early in the life of your business. Debt and other methods of raising working capital might be more fruitful ways of planning and managing your cash flow. Banks offer various working capital funding mechanisms such as packing credit (a credit limit or a loan against orders you have secured from your customers) and bills discounting (providing you cash against bills you have raised on your customers). For a start-up, banks may require personal guarantees of either the company directors or third-parties before extending working capital facilities. Once you have built a track record and, more importantly, a relationship with your banker, it will be easier to grow and leverage such working capital mechanisms.

Cash flow is in the details

Even when you have raised what you deem is adequate equity and got your local banker to extend you various credit facilities, it is critical to pay attention to cash flow. More importantly, you need to build a culture where your entire organisation is well-educated about cash flow and comprehends the need to manage it. Every time a sales person makes a sale for net 60 days rather than net 120 or a purchase manager buys supplies on net 30- or 60-day terms rather than advance payment, they are managing cash flow.

Most entrepreneurial firms, especially in their early days, understand managing to cash. As they grow, a balance is needed between continuing to manage for cash flow and the need to spend money to sustain growth. There have been instances where companies have paid heavily due to their failure to educate employees adequately. An employee in trying to save Rs 10,000 (to buy a testing tool), delayed the shipment of a product to the customer who was ready to pay Rs 2.5 lakh for it, within 30 days. Of course, there have been times, as in the infamous Chrysler case or, more recently, the US Federal Reserve having to guarantee the bailing out of investment firm Bear Stearns, when the lesson of having to watch your cash regardless of your size is brought home hard.

This article first appeared in the Hindu Business Line in April 2008

People – the lifeblood of an organization

PeopleIn every entrepreneur’s life, there comes a moment when a bulb goes off, “Darn! We are a real business.” You’d think that having embarked with much thought (or for some of us with little thought) on the path of entrepreneurship, learning that you are a real business wouldn’t surprise you. Of course, such a realisation usually occurs when the problems of running a real business put in an appearance.

When you first start your business, it all seems more fun than work — figuring out what you want, whom you are going to make the journey with, whom your customers are and what they want and if you have raised capital, what prospective investors want. Notice, but for the first day, you haven’t had time to think about yourself.

However, soon each new day seems to bring up a number of issues, ranging from life-threatening cash-flow problems to stumbling product development, stuttering sales and marketing and the inability to hire good people fast enough. We will look at each of these issues, and how best to address them over the next few weeks.

Let’s begin with the good news – you are not the first entrepreneur to go through this. The bad news is that this knowledge does not make it any easier to get through this period. As with adolescence that every one of us has had to go through, companies too go through an equivalent phase. Only this seems to appear a lot sooner for entrepreneurial firms and, at times, more than once; as with any hormone-laden teenager this will be a time of monumental emotional ups and downs for your company and you.

The one thing that can help you navigate your way through these emotional rapids is having great people on board with you. I spoke of business being all about people earlier and this is truest in such times of corporate hormonal sloshing. Hiring, retaining and motivating great people is far easier said than done and fixing hiring mistakes always takes far longer than we’d like. The truth is companies that learn how to do this well are the ones that grow and prosper in the end.

Hiring people

Hiring even in the best of circumstances is time-intensive and can be emotionally draining. Nevertheless, it will be hard to over-emphasise the importance of hiring well. Brent Gregory, Fellow at Synopsys, and an ex-colleague said it best, “You can let 10 potential good hires go, but you don’t want to make one bad hire.”

Most of us, especially early in our careers, tend to focus on skills and competence when hiring. In times of great demand, we may end up lowering this talent bar, which is a mistake many an entrepreneur has come to regret. It is vital to first test for cultural fit and team skills – domain skills and competence are critical but insufficient indicators of a good hire. Paul Hawken, founder of Smith & Hawken, goes as far as to say, “Hire the person not the position.”

This may seem radical at best or naïve at the worst, particularly for those of you who are hiring for highly technical positions. All too often, interpersonal and team skills get overlooked when hiring for specialised jobs and the organisation invariably pays a high cost due to the resultant cultural and interpersonal conflicts that arise. This is truer still when hiring for senior or leadership positions.

As an entrepreneur, you should be personally involved in hiring the first 50 or even 100 people, as they will go on to build the DNA of your organisation. It is critical to get a large number of people, including the interviewee’s future peers and direct reports to interview a prospective candidate. Many companies make the error of hiring folks based solely on face-to-face interviews.

Hal Rosenthal, author of The Customer Comes Second believes in “placing candidates in situations beyond the normal scope of their work or in environments away from the work place – sports, driving or informal gatherings.” I have found taking a prospective candidate to the company volleyball game often reveals a lot more than two hours in a conference room. And for every hire, from the mail room boy to an executive director, always ask for and check references. More often than not you’d be glad you did.

People – Letting go

In a previous article, I spoke about how hard it is for most entrepreneurs to let go of a paying customer. The only thing that is harder is admitting that you have made a hiring mistake and letting go of that person in a timely manner. Despite the best hiring practices, you occasionally end up hiring the wrong person. Wrong, because mutual expectations were misunderstood; or the incorrect assumptions made by either party about attitude, competency, culture, the job or working in a team. Usually, the causes of such a mismatch are less important than rectifying the situation, at the earliest. No one enjoys firing or letting go of people – especially in small start-ups where there are few secrets and you get to know a individual at a personal level. This is the very reason for rapid corrective action.

The smaller your company, the greater is the need for zero tolerance of any violation of core values by a team member or worse yet, for being a deadbeat. More than the shock of termination of a poorly hired individual, the cost of delaying decisive action is far higher due to the loss of morale, the damage to your credibility as a leader and the overall emotional toll other employees pay. The upside of definitive action is that it communicates your values and beliefs in a manner no number of posters or lectures can and reinforces the expected behaviour in your organisation.

Growing together

Once you have built a team of fine individuals, hiring them would seem simple compared to keeping them happy and growing them with the business. Studies show that when a person joins a new job, he or she does so with high morale and much motivation to make a difference.

The onus is upon you to ensure that you do not demotivate them or undermine their morale.

The best way to achieve this is to provide clarity of purpose for both the organisation and the individual, provide them the tools and resources to do their jobs and remove the roadblocks or regulations that would hinder or disempower them.

For an entrepreneur who never met a problem that he didn’t love to tackle and solve himself, it takes some practice to let go and allow others to get the job done. This requires trust and confidence in your people, which, if you have done a good job during hiring, should be easy.

It is also important to create a learning environment, so that your team stays fresh, is challenged continuously and, in turn, creates a self-reinforcing milieu of teamwork, sharing and continuous learning.

Finally, ensuring that recognition and appreciation are a way of life in your business, will cement the whole team.

It’s worth keeping in mind Paul Hawken’s words about the people you want on your team, “… it makes no sense whatsoever to hire any but the best people you can possibly find. Your employees shouldn’t admire you. That is kid stuff. You should admire your employees.”

(The writer was founder and CEO of Impulsesoft Pvt Ltd, which grew from a boot-strapped organisation of two people to a global leader in Bluetooth wireless stereo music prior to being acquired by SiRF Technology Inc in 2006. Srikrishna, who has an MS and a PhD from the University of California in Berkeley, has more than 18 years of experience building and marketing semiconductor and software products. He writes for The New Manager on the travails and triumphs of being an entrepreneur. He blogs at http://designofbusiness.blogspot.com)

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated March 24, 2008)

Customers – finding, keeping and letting go…

A customer is the most important visitor on our premises. He is not dependent on us. We are dependent on him,” said M.K. Gandhi. As with many of Gandhi’s teachings, it is hard to disagree with him, but harder still to follow his simple advocacy of direct action.

Customer

Photo jm3 via Compfight

If your business involves direct interaction with the customers who walk in the door, Gandhi’s advice is a great place to start. However, it is just as likely that your business requires your going to the customer (selling credit cards, vacuum cleaners or consulting services), or shipping your product to customers you have never seen (software, books or mobile phones). Occasionally, as in the case of radio, television or newspaper columnists, it may mean “free” broadcast of your product and very little interaction with customers, if at all. In all these instances without a good number of paying customers, you will find it is hard to run a viable business.

The customer, someone who pays for your goods or services, is what defines your business. So how do you find customers — and having found them, how do you keep them coming back? Will there be times when you want to let go of customers — if so, how do you do it?

Finding customers

“Build it and they will come” may work in the movies, but definitely it is unlikely to work for most businesses. Even if you run a retail store, a barber shop or a restaurant in the most popular mall in town, finding a customer – especially the right, paying customer is non-trivial. And is best not left to chance. If you are not a retail store front but rely on direct or indirect sales folk or other marketing channels to reach your product or service to your customers, it is even more critical that you find the right customers and find them fast.

As an entrepreneur you have to recognise that first and foremost, you are a sales person – regardless of your job role or what it says on your business card. You will be selling to partners, employees, financiers, bankers, suppliers and most importantly to customers.

To find customers, particularly appropriate customers, you begin with understanding what it is you have to offer and who will be best served by it. This determines your target customer segment. For instance, “Mothers of young children will benefit from our childcare service” or “Companies with employees in more than one location will benefit from our Web-based HR tool.”

Now, it is relevant to address “How will I recognise this customer?” In other words, qualifying the appropriate customers within that segment. “Working mothers and mothers with more than one child will find our service particularly useful and be willing to pay for it.” “Companies, with more than 40 employees, offices in multiple cities, revenues greater than Rs 10 crore and profitable will be the most likely buyers.”

Once you have answered these two questions, then it is a matter of locating or reaching out to these qualified, target customers. In the example we have spoken of, we could reach the target segment of working mothers through hospitals or nursing homes, through children’s stores, through their workplaces, or even movie theatres that play children’s movies. And all this is without advertising, which I assume as a start-up, you will not be spending money on.

If you are selling to companies, it is important to go where these companies congregate, be it to a trade show or exhibition, industry associations and consortiums and to partner with companies offering allied services, so that their existing customers become your prospects. The most neglected and important way to find new customers is to ask old customers for referrals! Far too many entrepreneurs fail to do this and leave easy money on the table.

Keeping them

If you thought, finding good, paying customers is hard; keeping them can be harder still. The good news is that “It takes less effort to keep an old customer satisfied than to get a new customer interested,” as Michael LeBoeuf, retired professor of management at the University of New Orleans, says. There are three critical steps for keeping customers. Step one is providing them what they want, not just what you have to sell or offer. Step two is asking them for feedback and actually listening to them – not just to what they say and how they say it but most importantly to what they don’t say. No news is not always good news in keeping customers. Finally, step three is demonstrating through your actions that you have listened to them and improved upon your offering or service.

Letting some of them go

The hardest lesson I have found is that sometimes we have to let customers go. It appears to contradict LeBoeuf’s assertion, made in the previous section, that keeping a customer is easier (and hence better) than finding a new one.

If you don’t let go of the ones that are either not profitable, or not paying you on time and distracting your business with the overhead of running after them, you will find yourself in trouble soon. And these are the easy ones!

Even harder to let go are customers who are profitable, but don’t treat your employees well or with whom you have fundamental issues of values mismatch, the ones that supported you in your early days but are now sucking up all the energy of your company with little or nothing to show for it. And it is critical, that as an entrepreneur you spend time each month and each quarter reviewing and culling your customers.

Yes, you had better have other paying, profitable and prosperous customers to be able to do this – and that brings you full circle to finding new customers, keeping and growing them even as you continue to weed and cull those that are holding you back! So get out there and begin selling!

This article first appeared in the Hindu Businessline in March 2008.

Entrepreneurship Series – Hindu Business Line

Thanks to my grandfather and numerous teachers along the way, reading is one of my greatest pleasures – and even today, while allegedly busy working, I manage to read one maybe two books a week. In my callow youth I felt, that any one who reads either self-help or how-to books must be somehow wanting. Luckily somewhere between ages thirty-two and thirty-five, I seemed to have gained my senses. And here I am today, practically bursting with lessons learnt from my grandfather, mother and father and a slew of mentors, a few I that I have met in person and a whole lot I have only encountered through their writings.

Running an entrepreneurial, cash-strapped, people-intensive, technology business is the surest way I know of having utter decimation of any semblance of ego – yet surviving the pounding each day and actually thriving and growing is probably the biggest boost to one’s ego as well – do it long enough and a true state of non-duality can be reached. I am not there yet – but along the way have learned a few things and reckoned its my turn to share with the world. With that in mind, I began writing a series of short articles, that are now getting published in the Hindu Business Line on alternate Mondays. Today the third in the series has appeared.

Business is about people
When most people talk about starting a business, they are thinking about commerce — buying and selling. At first glance, business appears to be about that. The street hawker who sells vegetables off his cart or the corner boot polish is indeed doing just that. Even in the case of these single-person businesses, people, usually in the form of customers (and occasionally as investors or moneylenders), are critical to their survival.

However, any business that does anything more complex very rapidly becomes all about people. Particularly for entrepreneurial ventures, it may seem that it is only about people. Make no mistake, capital, cash flow, products, marketing and sales are all important; yet these play the same role for other businesses including your competitors. Your people are what will separate your business from the pack. Full article here.

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