Finance Does Not Live In Isolation

Finance does not live in isolation, an interesting concept. There are two important ramifications to that concept, first, you cannot look at your company’s numbers just for now, or just for this year. As a matter of fact, not even just for this year and last (unless, of course, you just started last year). Rather, you need to look back at least three years. You do so in order to see the trend lines of how you arrived where you are now. Are you improving or declining? If for example, your cash cycle is 145 days, what was it three years ago, better or worse? If better, work to understand what you have done right. If worse, dig down to find out what is going wrong.

The second ramification of the opening statement above is a question: what is your competition or industry doing? You need to know how you compare to your competition, whether you are a local or national player, dig out information about the rest of the industry. From the example above, what if the industries cash cycle average is 95 days? Can you see how you may have trouble competing in an industry that is far more efficient than you in keeping cash flowing through your organization? A longer cash cycle will mean that you must tie up more cash in working capital, rather than investing in other ways to improve business.

There are any number of online researchers that can provide you with industry information for you to use in viewing how your business stacks up against the competition. I prefer Bizminer, an online research company, because they break down their research in ways that are very useful for a small business. For example, you can do research on a statewide basis, and many of their reports are narrowed down to a small area, such as a county. In addition, their reports are broken out into different revenue categories, allowing you to narrow down your comparative information to your industry sector.

A last word, when comparing your company to your industry, do the comparison over the same timeframe that you are using for your company review. That is, if you are going back three years to see what your trends are, it is important to look at industry trends for the same period, to see if you are trending in the same way. This can give you another important clue on how your financial picture is shaping up.

Never leave your numbers all by themselves!

Filling the Entrepreneur’s Skill Gap

In a past Blog, I have written about making sure that you surround yourself with a team that covers any areas that are not your strong point. As an entrepreneur, you have many skills and the drive to succeed, but rarely do you have it all. Therefore, is crucial to find people to help you with those areas. Many entrepreneurs find this difficult, for different reasons. One reason that is often cited is lack of funds to hire employees.

The reality is that you do not need full time employees to do everything that has to be done, and hiring contractors for critical elements of your business process can work, and often are less expensive than you might think. While it might be a challenge to come up with funds to pay the contractors, it is well worth the effort when you see the outcome.

For example, I am engaging in a sales campaign for another enterprise in which I am involved. We are doing it the old fashioned way, sending out letters with a real ink signature and following up with a telephone call. I do not engage a full time person to do sales for this particular company, at least not yet. How did I find my sales caller? In this case, I used the site Elance and found a person that had the skills that I needed. I then interviewed her by phone (a great test of someone’s phone skills), and finally had her do a few test calls. Based on the results, she has been making sales calls for 9 months now.

Another example would be using a service to make your work look professional. Last year, I conducted a survey in the same industry as the company mentioned above. The results were significant and very interesting, but the resulting white paper looked kind of blah. I then used a graphic artist who took the content and formatted it with typesetting and graphics that brought immediate attention to crucial information and conclusions of the report. I never could have done that on my own.

The lesson taken is that an entrepreneur/small business owner will never have the skills to do it all, so don’t be afraid to hire a contractor to fill in those skill gaps.

Question: do you have any examples of how you used outside help fill in skill gaps. Also, do you have any suggestions on where to find the help you need?

Did Someone Say Competitive Advantage? A Great New Book on Strategy

Did Some Say Competitive Advantage? A Great New Book on Strategy

“Did someone say competitive advantage?” In a booming voice, Dr. Chuck Bamford started his class on strategy, a capstone piece in the Notre Dame Executive MBA program. I was fortunate to follow this class with Dr. Bamford, and it has made a big difference to me.

Now Dr. Chuck has written a book entitled, “The Strategy Mindset”. In creating this pared-down tome, Bamford has distilled his wisdom on strategy to its essence. The book is easily read, but more importantly, presents a clear, logical and winning formula for doing strategy right. I know, because I have used this formula with several companies, always to great success. I have been waiting for Dr. Chuck to create this volume for some time now.

The author is a straight talker, and begins with some myth busting. He pulls no punches when he takes issue with a number of ideas about strategy, including some of the more common myths of the day, such as trying to be the low cost leader. He not only takes issue with these myths, but cogently explains why they don’t work.

In the rest of the volume, Dr. Chuck takes you step by step though strategy, presenting an overview of the model that is both strong and easy to understand. He begins with the importance external analysis. Many a business has been started with an idea, but if that idea is not based on a sound understanding of the market, its’ players and dynamics between them, the idea will probably not come to fruition.

The author then turns to an internal analysis of the company in order to understand what about the company makes them stand out in the marketplace. This is not a “My people are my advantage exercise.” Rather he seeks an understanding of what within the company creates the advantage, in order to focus resources on those facets.

The next stage of Dr. Chuck’s process is the creation of a one-page strategy map that make crystal clear what each person in a company must do for all to achieve success. To those that protest at the simplicity, Dr. Bamford insists that with proper preparation, if the exercise of creating a strategy takes more than two days, you are doing something wrong. The elements of the strategy map are:

  • The Value Driver: what creates value for the customer.
  • Stakeholder Statements: what you want the stakeholder to say about the company.
  • Need from the company: what we need to make this happen.
  • Must do individually: what I need to do to make this happen.
  • Metrics: how we will measure success.

I don’t often make endorsements, but I cannot speak highly enough of this book. You need to acquire a copy of The Strategy Mindset by Dr. Chuck Bamford today!

Unintended Consequences

Business agility demands that a business be ready to react quickly to their environment in order to take advantage of change. However, there are times when a fast change results in unintended consequences. Many are the stories of plans gone awry, even when well researched and grounded in fact. All the more reason not to make snap decisions that can take your business in the wrong direction. Here are some questions that can help you discern the difference.

Are we equipped to handle the change? There are many companies that are the victim of their own success. Something that seems like a good idea turns out to be a great idea, to the point that the company is unable to keep up with demand. Before making a change or introducing a new product or service you need to ask several questions. The first is about volume, do you have the infrastructure to keep up demand? The second is about resources, do you have the people to keep up with the demand.

What would we do if demand was 2 times what you predict? 10 times? 100 times? Using hypothetical numbers allows you to analyze what effect different scenarios might have on your business. You may discover that up to a certain point, you can handle the new business or increased volume that a change may foster, but nothing beyond that point. If that is the case, you may want to introduce the change or new product to a smaller segment of your clients or the market.

Is the change based on fact or a hunch? It is true that there are those that can study a market and get a “gut-level” sense of what is going on. Generally speaking, I would not believe that of myself, and you should be skeptical as well. Is your hunch based on research and data, or is it based on anecdotal evidence but not supported by more extensive research? Getting to market with a new product or service includes doing a certain amount of research to back up the hunch.

Do you have a Plan B? If the new product or service does become successful beyond what you can handle, do you have a Plan B in place? Plan B can include outsourcing on a temporary basis, or using temporary staff to fill in. Be ready for success beyond what you predict.

These simple questions can help your business avoid unintended consequences on the road to success.

Chief Twitter Officer?

The headline to an article published recently in India Real Time (WSJ.com) read, “Can Chief Twit be far behind?” The reference was to the possibility that the Chief Twitter Officer may already be in existence. The article also mentions officers such as Chief Monster at Monster.com, Chief Internet Evangelist at Google and Chief Belief Officer at Future Group. Your humble blogger, who is known as the Chief Bulldog at the The COO’s Bulldog certainly is in good company.

Then there is the Chief Human Capital Officer at the US Department of Energy. I don’t know; I think I would rather be a person than capital, what do you think? Not to be outdone, another government agency has a Chief FOIA Officer. (Would that be pronounced “foya” or “foeea”?) It turns out that the Chief FOIA Officer works for the FCA, or the Farm Credit Agency, processing Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests that come to the agency. I wonder if the federal government has a Chief Acronyms Officer to make all of these up.

In an article on Greenbiz.com Ellen Weintraub complained that while she had seen plenty of Vice Presidents of Sustainability and Directors of Sustainability, she had yet to see a Chief Officer of Sustainability. Perhaps there is not enough work to keep that person busy, this making them more of a Chief Unsustainability Officer. When I looked up the definition of sustainable, I came across the words “carry on”. The Chief Carry On Officer would either be in charge of company parties or loading people on airplanes these days!

Then there is the Chief Green Officer; is the word green a noun denoting the person’s responsibilities or an adjective describing their color? Or is the Chief Green Officer simply another name for the CFO? It has gotten so bad that Steve Tobak, in his BNET column, The Corner Office, opines that we should no longer say C-Suite, but should rather use the term C-Tent!

Getting back to the Chief Twit; I worked for him a number of years ago, but fortunately did not stay long at that company!

On Being a First-Time Small Business COO

Many small companies grow to the size where the owner can no longer run the business entirely by him or herself. In some cases, the owner never realizes that the business is beyond a single executive/manager and the consequences are dire. In others, the owner is cognizant of the need and recruits an experienced COO, or perhaps promotes from within.

In the latter case we have a newly minted COO (or VP Operations, or some other title) who has been with the business for a while and knows it well but is now asked to take on an executive role for which they might not have a great deal of experience.If you are in the latter category, here are four recommendations to help you succeed.

Know the Owner’s Mind: It is crucial in your new role to understand how the owner thinks about the business and what their expectations are for you. The real challenge to the new COO is to become the crucial link between strategy and execution and in order to do so you must understand both. Frequent well-planned meetings are a must. Some of the meetings should focus on strategic subjects and others on operational detail.

If you have been working at the business in a different capacity, then you should be able to leverage your knowledge, but do not presume to understand the owner’s thinking without serious, ongoing discussions.

Know the Business/Financial Model: Understanding the Business/Financial model comes down to a simple concept: do you know how the company makes money? Actually uncovering the model may not be so simple. First, you must understand what your product or service is and why the client buys. In other words, how does the company create value for the client? Second you must have an intimate knowledge of the business processes that create that value. Finally, you must understand how the business process affects business finance, in particular cash flow.

Even if you have been working at the company for an extended period of time, as a new COO you must gain process knowledge. Review any documentation, if it exists. As is often the case with small business, documentation will not exist, so work quickly to document basic processes as soon as possible. In addition, study the company’s financial statements so that you will understand how the financial model is affected by business process.

Set Up Feedback Loops: Once you know the crucial information that you need to understand operations and finance, set up feedback loops that will continuously provide you with the information that you need. In addition to information from operations and finance, the third feedback loop that you will want to establish early on is one that reports to you on what is happening in the marketplace. You need to know how the current economic environment is affecting the business, as well as what your competition is up to.

Find a Mentor: If you are new to the COO role, particularly in a small business, finding a more experienced person to mentor you will help you establish yourself in your role. Use your business contacts and network to find someone with sufficient experience to guide you as you grow into the role. Even if you don’t currently know a COO, you would be surprised how many of them would be willing to serve as a mentor. Work at finding someone with whom you can communicate well and who is willing to work with you on a regular basis.

If you find yourself in the position of being a new COO in a small business, you have exciting times ahead of you, so step up to your new reality with enthusiasm. Welcome to the world of the COO!

Know Your Competitive Advantage

Competitive advantage is what all businesses are seeking: it allows your business to charge higher prices for your products and services or to get more customers. Everyone is seeking competitive advantage in their market.

Gaining and maintaining competitive advantage requires that your business be focused on the proper things; that is simple, but not always easy. There are really only two areas of business focus in order to establish competitive advantage: first, you must be competitive in your industry and secondly your business must differentiate itself from the competition. Sounds like a contradiction to me! Let’s take a closer look at each.

In order to be competitive in your industry your business must do “industry basics” well. For example, if you are Starbucks, you can have the nicest storefront possible, with great music and a cool ambiance. But, if your coffee is not at the right temperature, or tastes bad, you will not be able to compete in your market. For a coffee shop, temperature and taste are basics and the company must focus on them in the right way.

In what might seem to be contradictory, it is also true that you should not exceed your industry basics in the name of competition. That practice can be costly and self-defeating. Take the example of a distribution company that competes in a market where 5 day delivery of goods is the standard and customers do not expect more. If a company were to spend time and money on next day delivery, they would be wasting money creating differentiation that their customers don’t want. Doing so puts the focus in the wrong place and could actually hurt the business.

In many cases, businesses do not always focus on the right places to understand industry basics. For example, a business’ financial results, in comparison with the industry median for that result is often a good place to see where your business stands in your industry.

A software development company might look at their software production cost (Cost of Sales); they may not be competing on price, but if their production costs are significantly higher than others in the market, they will have a hard time competing. Proper focus here will keep them competitive in their industry.

Differentiation, on the other hand, is not about industry basics. It is about how your business can do something differently to distinguish itself in the industry. Of course, what you do differently must also be something that your market wants!

Let’s look at distribution again. Supposing that the company that tried to differentiate with quick delivery took some time to talk to their customers that are retail operations. Perhaps they might discover that their customers spend time breaking down the goods they receive from the distribution company into smaller lots for reshipping. The distribution company might be able to save their customers time and effort by packaging their goods in such a way that the customers would have minimal repackaging to do.

At times, it might be possible to turn an industry standard on it’s’ head in order to gain competitive advantage. Prior to Starbucks, most of the coffee industry was centered on fast food coffee chains such as donut shops. Fast was the operating word. Starbucks created a product that included not just upgraded coffee, but an entire experience.

The company wanted people to stay longer, not leave quickly. Starbucks achieved tremendous success with that strategy; only recently have they made moves that have harmed them (but that’s the topic of another Blog).

The name of the game in competitive advantage is to stay focused on the right things for your industry!