It is hard not to laugh when I hear tired old refrains like "Nobody reads business plans anymore" or "In a world of lean startups, there is no time for strategic planning."
Why do otherwise intelligent and well-meaning businesspeople say and think things like this?
Well, for starters as human beings we all struggle to emotionally grasp the impact of the history not made, of the things that don't happen.
You see, poor strategy does not manifest itself as much in high profile flame-outs as perhaps it did in days of yore (see Pets.com, eToys, etc.) as it does in nothing of note ever being accomplished.
As in companies that grow slowly, if at all.
And make no profits.
And are led by entrepreneurs whose talent and work ethic doesn’t translate into the kind of pay and lifestyle they seemingly deserve.
Missed opportunities, lost years, unrewarded work.
These are the real but hidden costs of poor strategy.
Now, the other big misconception around strategic plans is confusing the “form of deliverable” with the process itself.
Again, this is a case where otherwise smart and well-meaning businesspeople make an obvious, but critical error: They equate the plan with a physical document.
And when done poorly, more often than not a document that is only tangentially connected to the “real business” it supposedly represents.
Now, the good news is that the literature is filled with great best practices - tested over thousands of businesses - as to how to lead strategic planning processes that are connected to the actual marketing, sales, operations, and finances of a company.
Even better news: Inexpensive, effective, and everywhere accessible business software-as-services are connecting the dots between “big” strategy and the “small” to do’s, tactics and action items at the living, breathing heart of a business.
Tools like CapitalIQ, Simplycast, The Resumator, Box, Grasshopper, Wufoo, Smarsh, IfByPhone, SnapEngage, Docusign, Hootsuite, Infusionsoft, and Interspire that automate traditionally laborious and repetitive business functions.
This is where 21st Century Strategy lives.
Now, as for those who prefer to cling to their tired clichés, well I guess they can always reminisce about how things were back in the 20th Century.
But for those who need more than nostalgia to sustain them, there has never been a better time to win by doing strategy right.
P.S. Like to demo our dashboard offering? Then Click Here to learn more.
In my posts over the past few weeks, I have talked about the power of business intelligence dashboards, and why companies that use them enjoy triple the revenue growth and double the profit growth of companies that don’t.
This is driven by the simple two facts that a) businesses today collect more data than ever before and b) wading through and making sense of it all is overwhelming as this data is collected and stored in multiple locations, including in CRM and ERP systems, in accounting software, in advertising and marketing platforms, in social media sites, and so on.
So it is the executives who quickly access this data - and connect the dots between it all - that incrementally but inexorably make better strategic and tactical decisions, gain competitive advantage, and win.
Intrigued, but not sure exactly how an executive dashboard would work for your business?
If so, you’ve come to the right place, because my team and I have created a special webinar where I share best practices as to how today’s best run companies use executive dashboards to:
• Identify the most important business metrics to track
• Develop real-time visibility into their organizations
• Improve employee performance
• Make more intelligent business decisions
• And ultimately grow sales and profits
Importantly, this webinar will neither be an academic lecture nor a sales pitch in disguise. Rather, it will be an intense hands-on workshop where I will share key tips and tactics as to how to harness the power of executive dashboards in your business right away to grow revenues and make more money - while working less and having more fun.
Sign Up Now
Note that to promote interaction, we are limiting this program to no more than 35 attendees. So click below to register before the spots fill up!
Look forward to your attendance!
Last week, I wrote about the power of business intelligence dashboards.
How, for the first time, smaller businesses can harness the power of big data to more efficiently and profitably manage their companies.
Some readers expressed skepticism that this "stuff" actually works.
That it is just more "noise” that causes entrepreneurs to get “lost in the weeds” versus long-term thinking and planning.
There is some truth to this.
Heck, “Big Data” at its worst is probably best personified by Wall Street “quant jocks” who equate positive expected value "bets" with larger, more foundational truths of right and wrong, and of good and bad.
To these concerns, let me offer a few suggestions as to how to best utilize business data to support, but not drive, leadership and managerial decision-making.
The first point is that for the vast majority of small businesses “getting lost” in the data is the least of their concerns.
A far bigger one is simply analyzing anything more than the barest minimum of balance sheet - "i.e. How much money is in the bank?" and profit and loss statement - i.e. “What were our sales last month?” data.
And when broader data, like the number of incoming leads, sales proposals, average call hold time, marketing spend per action, e-mail open and click-through rates, is analyzed…
…so much of it is either incomplete or just flat-out incorrect to make doing so an exercise in futility.
AND the data that is complete and accurate sits in so many places, Excel worksheets on the sales manager's computer, deep in a little understood (and used) CRM, in the reporting functionality of software as services like Grasshopper, IfByPhone, Constant Contact and Google Analytics to name just a few…
…that a way too high percentage of the time and energy set aside to analyze it is outright wasted in simply accessing the reports from the data sources that house it!
The simple answer to these challenges is to utilize a best-of-breed business intelligence dashboard that:
• Automatically collects and updates all the data in one easy to access place;
• Has alerts built-in to flag incomplete or way-out-out-the ordinary data; and,
• Is arranged and presented in a visual and formatted way that works for the executive reviewing it.
But it goes deeper than this.
You see, leading and managing a business based on proper data collection and analysis is no longer a choice - it is a necessity.
Because all of our best competitors are doing it.
And doing so along with proper and appropriate strategic repositioning as the consistent and correct interpretation of the data allows, affords, and demands.
Or, as David Byrne of the Talking heads once so famously said “This ain't no party…this ain't no disco…this ain't no fooling around. “
You see, when it comes to data-driven decision-making, it has become a matter of going big or staying home.
As in admitting that one is really not that serious about growing and sustaining a business of lasting value - one agile enough to adapt and evolve in the face of technological and marketplace change, and of competitive threat.
Now, I don't believe this.
No, the best entrepreneurs I know are as serious as they can be about not just surviving but thriving in this massively opportunity-filled world of ours.
Just take it one step, one click, one API integration at a time.
Sooner than you think, your business will be running more responsively, more nimbly than ever.
Then watch the profits follow.
To Your Success,
P.S. Like to demo our dashboard offering? Then Click Here to learn more.
Last week, I wrote about the strong ambition across the globe to have a "Silicon Valley of One's Own," and to replicate the otherworldly innovation of a region that has produced more than 75% of the World’s Unicorns - technology companies started since 2003 that now have valuations of more than $1 billion.
Then, on Monday I went deeper into the drivers of this remarkable concentration along with the macroeconomic drivers of today’s very hot IPO and M&A Markets: long-term low interest rates, the $1.5 trillion in cash held by big tech. companies and private equity firms seeking deals, and venture investor’s now almost universal realization that only via extremely large exits they obtain alpha.
All of this is well and good, but what we found out was of much greater interest was to look at the common attributes and mindsets of these unicorns and their prospective investors and then how to integrate these elements into YOUR entrepreneurial and investment approach, especially when:
• As an entrepreneur, you know that you don’t have a business with “billion dollar potential”
• As an investor, you are more frightened than excited by the “big outlier” return phenomenon
We put it all together and boiled it down to the most essential and actionable insights, and are going to share them via webinar on Thursday at 7 pm ET / 4 pm PT.
Do sign up now via this link: https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/622073466
I look forward to your attendance and feedback!
Tech. Exit Trends in Today's Hot Markets
Monday, September 29th
My Wednesday column as to tech. opportunities far from Silicon Valley was well-received, but frankly left a lot of folks wanting more.
Mostly what was asked was a variant of a common theme: How can I apply the wisdoms and best practices of the Uber - successful Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and investors to my business, or to the one I advise, or are invested in.
It was almost a hope against hope, something that most unfortunately are almost too scared to dream about…
...Having / being involved with a unicorn of one’s very own.
How important is this? Well, given that last week's $25 billion Alibaba IPO was greater in size than 2014’s other 154 IPOs - combined - even slightly improving one's "Unicorn Landing" odds has enormous expected value.
So I and my research team collected and analyzed some of the best research on the topic, from the Kauffman Foundation, NVCA, PricewaterhouseCoopers,Dr. Robert Wiltbank, Harvard University, and TechCrunch’s Aileen Lee, including:
- Categorizing the common attributes among 39 companies started since 2003 that are now valued at more than $1 billion
- The relative likelihood of success of enterprise (B2B) versus consumer - facing (B2C) business models
- How the great liquidity in today's market, with some estimates showing more than $1.5 trillion in cash being held by strategic tech. buyers and private equity firms, is impacting deal modeling and valuation analysis (all the way down to the startup stage)
- How and if yesterday’s report from Harvard University that for their endowment VC return for FY 2014 was 32.4% (compared to a 15.4% return for its total portfolio and the S&P 500's 21.38%) was an outlier, a harbinger of an over-heated market, or a reasonable return expectation given the high variance and the illiquidity of the asset class?
We put it all together and boiled down the most essential and actionable points, and are going to share our findings via webinar on Monday at 2 pm ET / 11 am PT.
Do sign up now via This Link.
I do look forward to your attendance and feedback!
I had the good fortune to moderate a panel at last week's IBA Silicon Valley from Start-up to IPO / Exit Conference.
With entrepreneurs, venture capitalists, attorneys, and investment bankers from over 18 countries represented - from places as far afield as Switzerland, Singapore, and Spain (and Santa Monica and Silicon Valley!) - it was a truly international gathering.
Predictions were shared ranging from the outcome of the Scottish independence vote (incorrect) to Alibaba’s 1st day’s trading closing price (correct!), to animated discussions on the differing perspectives on Internet privacy in the U.S. and Europe.
But, the main thrust of the conference call was quite simple.
It was an inquiry, especially from the conference’s international attendees, as to how and why such an incredibly high percentage of the tech. start-ups that turn into “Unicorns” - businesses with exits via IPO or acquisition of greater than $1 Billion - emanate almost exclusively from the United States, and far more specifically from Silicon Valley.
How concentrated is this phenomenon? Well, as shared by Doug Gonsalves of Mooreland Partners, more than 70% of these Unicorns - names like Dropbox, Airbnb, Facebook, Splunk, Uber, Waze, LinkedeIn, and Palantir - were born and are headquartered in a “30 mile circle around San Francisco Airport.”
The “top down” effect of this cannot be overstated.
These huge exits and investor wins drive the fact that the Bay Area - with less than 6 million people - ingests close to 50% of all U.S. venture capital funding, which in turn is four times as much as in all of Europe.
This in turn drives an as large disparity in the number and quality of tech. startups and innovation emanating from various points on the globe.
Now, my perspective on this concentration has been mostly as an American businessman, as one that lives and works in Los Angeles (which may seem close to Silicon Valley, but to those who know both places can attest are worlds apart).
But visiting with entrepreneurs and executives from Europe, Israel, India, Singapore, and beyond brought the matter into much sharper relief.
Gil Arie of Foley Hoag shared the Israeli perspective - one where the best tech companies there as often as not are making the simple and powerful decision to move themselves (and their families) from across the globe for a Valley presence.
Sure, these companies can (and prefer) to build engineering teams in the lower cost, talent rich environs like Israel, India, Eastern Europe, etc., but for the “top of the pyramid” stuff - strategy, product design, capital formation and funding – being in the Valley feels like a necessity.
But expressed also was a strong counter-balancing sentiment, a deep desire to prove that world and industry leading technology companies can be born and grown far from Sand Hill Road.
And surely it will be so.
For this ambition - always in abundance in the world's best entrepreneurs - to build something that is theirs will eventually push back on the Valley's admirable yes, but also unnatural hegemony on global tech innovation and wealth.
And the great thing is that it will be far from a zero sum game.
Just think about it - if even a small fraction more of the world's Seven Billion People could live, work, and dream in a culture as forward and possibility - filled as Silicon Valley's…
…Anything is possible, is it not?
The typical wisdom regarding the appropriate financing course for a new company goes as follows:
1. An entrepreneur starts a company in classic "bootstrap" fashion - with a combination of sweat equity and their own financial resources. This usually consists of personal savings, credit cards, and small loans from relatives (Mom, Dad, Uncle Bob, etc.).
2. Through connections, or through a chance meeting at a networking or social event, an angel investor hears the entrepreneur's story, likes them and their technology, and on the spot, writes a check to provide the company with its first outside financing.
The angel then introduces the entrepreneur to his or her wealthy friends and business connections who, based on the good reputation of the referring angel, also invest.
3. With this seed capital – more often than not totaling between $100,000 and $1,000,000 - the company accomplishes a number of key technical milestones, gets a beta customer or two, and then goes on a "road show" to venture capitalists around the country for capital to “scale” the business.
This venture capital financing - usually between $3 and $10 million - is the first of a number of rounds of outside investment over a period of three to five years. With this capital, the company propels itself to $50 million+ in revenues, and to either a sale to a strategic acquirer or to an initial public offering.
4. With the exit, the entrepreneur and the original angel investors become fantastically rich and are lauded far and wide.
5. The cycle is then repeated - with the original angel investors now joined in their investing by the once impoverished but now wealthy entrepreneur.
6. All live happily ever after.
It all sounds wonderful and it is. The only problem is that it almost always a fairy tale.
What really happens is more like the following:
A. The entrepreneur pours their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor into their company- at great personal sacrifice to them, their families, and everyone connected to the enterprise.
B. A "black swan" investor appears out of the blue and backs the company - less impressed by the technology than by the talent, desire, and grit of the entrepreneur.
Technical progress and market traction are much slower and cost a lot more than anticipated. There are a lot of dark, hard days.
C. There is considerable internal debate around whether or not to solicit and/or accept outside venture capital. For most companies, it is simply a non-starter. Management has the wrong pedigree, is geographically undesirable, competes in the wrong industry, and/or has a business model that lacks "scalability credibility" with the venture community.
D. Usually unbeknownst to all, the decision around pursuing or accepting a venture capital round will be the most important factor in determining the investment return for the founder and the original angel investors in the company.
But here is the key – contrary to popular wisdom it is negatively correlated.
Yes, you heard me right – multiple research studies, including from the Kauffman Foundation, have shown that when you remove a follow-on venture capital round from a founder or angel investor-funded company, that expected returns skyrocket.
This is very counter-intuitive but critical insight for emerging company entrepreneurs and those that back them to grasp. It is driven by the following:
• The Best Metric for the Health of a Company is Cash Flow. By definition, companies that receive venture capital cannot fund their businesses from operations, and thus need to seek outside capital.
This leads to a lot of negative selection with venture capital - backed companies – whereby the sample of companies that need venture monies are by definition weaker companies.
• Venture capitalists Have Very Different Objectives than Angel Investors. Venture capital funds are usually 7 - 10 year partnerships whereby the general partners - the “VC” - manage the capital of the limited partners, usually institutions (endowments, pension funds, etc.).
At the end of the period, all profits and proceeds are distributed to the various partners on a pre-determined split. These splits are normally such that the VC needs to obtain a “highwater” return for their limited partners before they, as the general partners, see any return.
In practice, this creates a significant incentive for the general partners to hold on for an extremely large investment return, and to be reasonably indifferent regarding smaller (less than 3x returns).
As a result, the VC will often block a portfolio company from harvesting a very attractive, but not home run, return.
• Venture capitalists Cut Tough Deals. Venture capitalists for the most part are very nice guys and passionate about entrepreneurship, but they are not shrinking violets. And they hire very aggressive securities attorneys to represent their interests.
This combo all too often leads to various forms of deal unpleasantness, like cram-down rounds, liquidation preferences, and change of control provisions, which in turn, often lead to unhappy founders and angel investors even in somewhat successful exits.
My suggestions for the investors seeking emerging companies to back?
First, look for "one and done" financings - companies that need just one round of outside capital to propel them to positive cash flow.
Second, look for companies that have short and realistic liquidity (exit, IPO) timelines.
And third, don’t get star-struck by big venture capital interest in a deal. It is often a double-edged and very sharp sword.
On the cover of this week’s Fortune Magazine is PayPal founder and famed technology investor Peter Thiel. Within is an awesome 4,000+ word opus on Thiel’s views on technology, investing, education and innovation.
Thiel’s career and successes span almost the entirety of the Internet Age - in 1998 he co-founded PayPal, sold to eBay in 2002 for $1.5 billion.
More impressively, the managers and engineers that Thiel attracted to PayPal went on to become some of the most famous entrepreneurs of our era – including at least seven that went on to build companies valued at more than $1 billion: Tesla and SpaceX (Elon Musk), LinkedIn, (Reid Hoffman), YouTube (Steve Chen, Chad Hurley, and Jawed Karim), Yelp (Jeremy Stoppelman and Russel Simmons), Yammer (David O. Sacks), and the data-mining company Palantir (co-founded by Thiel himself).
This recognition for entrepreneurial talent has also made Thiel one of the greatest investors of all time.
His prescience is of course best highlighted by his most famous investment, when in 2004 he gave the 20-year-old Mark Zuckerberg, a Harvard sophomore at the time who had never held a steady job, $500,000 in exchange for 10.2% of the company then called “Thefacebook.”
That investment has so far netted Thiel more than $1 billion in cash, and is the highest profile of a string of amazingly lucrative stock picks, a list that includes the aforementioned LinkedIn and SpaceX, but also tech high-flyers like Spotify and Airbnb.
While lately Thiel has become somewhat infamous for his controversial views on anti-aging (Sens Institute), Libertarianism (Seasteading Institute), and education (20 under 20), let this not distract from the fact that we can all learn a lot from his astoundingly successful approach to investing, technology and entrepreneurship.
A few of my favorites are:
1. Run With the Right Crowd. Starting with the PayPal Mafia, with his teaching of a famed Stanford Computer Science course, and his ongoing writing, speaking, and networking in Silicon Valley and beyond, Thiel travels in the rarefied air of next generation technology ideas and technologies. And because of this, he meets great technologists and entrepreneurs and sees deals. Many are duds of course, but a few are world-beaters like the list above.
2. Think AND Act. As PayPal, Facebook, LinkedIn, Airbnb and so many others so aptly demonstrate, Thiel “gets” key technology and investing precepts like scalability, switching costs, double feedback loops, customer acquisition costs, minimum viable paid options, lifetime value, and many more.
And he acts on what he thinks – through founding and investing in companies with these concepts inherent to their business models.
3. Get Lucky. In so many ways, Peter Thiel’s successes are emblematic of the business religion of our technology age: LUCK.
Books like Outliers, the Black Swan, Fooled by Randomness, and the Age of the Unthinkable profess on it. Successful technocratics like the PayPal mafia toast to it. Aspiring entrepreneurs who seek their name in lights pray to it.
And the average man unwilling to step outside of his box gets none of it.
Peter Thiel, from his earliest days, has stepped out of the box and has thought for himself and challenged others do the same.
He has acted on those thoughts and beliefs through founding and investing in companies that in retrospect might look like easy calls, but at the time were shrouded in considerable doubt and passed over by almost everyone else.
With this way of thinking and doing, Peter Thiel has channeled the Romans and their famous ode to luck - "Fortes Fortuna Adiuvat", "Fortune Favors the Bold."
The question, of course, is will you?
P.S. Looking for Opportunities Now? Each year, Growthink reviews hundreds of emerging company opportunities and selects those with the best management teams, market opportunities, and financial prospects.
To learn more about opportunities we are following now, Click Here.
The four letter word in all conversations between entrepreneurs and investors is risk.
Investors are always interested in getting ownership stakes in high potential companies but are also always weary of the considerable risk-taking necessary to actually do so.
The most successful investors and entrepreneurs I know take a dispassionate and detached approach.
They don’t get caught up in all of the “drama” around thinking and talking about risk.
Rather, they view it for what it actually is - simply a measurement of the likelihood of a set of future outcomes.
In the context of evaluating whether or not a business will grow and be successful, risk has three main drivers:
1. Technology Risk. Can the entrepreneur actually bring-to-market a product or service and on what timeframe?
2. Market Risk. Once the product is in the market, will anyone care?
3. Execution Risk. Can that entrepreneur lead and manage a growing enterprise?
Critically, this risk calculation is done not by adding, but rather by multiplying, these factors together.
As such, poor grades on any one of these factor has an exponential impact on the business' overall risk profile, and thus its overall attractiveness.
And as should be obvious, better led and better managed companies simply have better answers when queried regarding the above - their technology plans are better thought out, they understand their market and customers more deeply, and their people have better resumes and track records.
But it goes deeper than that.
Human beings – conservative by default - are disproportionately prejudiced against higher risk undertakings and strategies, even when their expected returns more than compensates for their higher risk.
As a result, higher risk deals are normally underpriced while the lower risk ones are usually over-priced.
That is good knowledge for investors seeking alpha (and who isn’t?), but what about the entrepreneur?
Well, it should be to always remember that the real dialogue going through the mind of an investor when considering a deal is not really about technology, or market, or management, even when that is what they want to talk about…
No, it is almost always about risk - both its reality and its perception.
Address this concern above all others, head-on, thoughtfully, confidently, and candidly.
And then risk will be put back where it belongs - as a factor to consider - and not something that just automatically stops a deal.
To Your Success,
Small business owners lead the most efficient and effective organizations ever designed by human hands - profit-seeking businesses where the Chief Executive Officer also happens to be the Chief (as in largest) Shareholder, too.
Among many benefits, this business form fully addresses the Agency Problem - so often found in larger companies - where the interests of the professional managers do not always sync and align with those of the shareholders.
This can cause various (and nefarious!) effects like:
• Managers seeking to maximize their shorter term "cash-out" - high salaries, bonuses and the like - irrespective of their effect on / benefit to the organization as a whole
• Managers not pursuing potentially high returns, but also higher risk strategies as the personal benefits to them when successful (i.e. a pat on the back) are far less than the penalties when not (i.e. getting fired)
• In worst cases, managers committing out-and-out fraud, treating the companies they are entrusted to lead as personal piggy banks (see Enron), with their only strategic calculus being whether or not they will get caught
In contrast, in most circumstances, what is best for the managers of a small business is what is best for its shareholders, as they are normally one and the same.
But there are three scenarios where this is decidedly NOT the case:
1. When Contemplating Raising Outside Capital. For far too many small business owners, when they think about raising capital, they think too much about "control."
As in "I don't want anyone looking over my shoulder." Or "telling me what to do."
When I hear comments like this, the first thought I usually have is that it might be a very good thing to have someone looking over your shoulder and telling you what to do!
Why? Because usually the advice given is in the interest of the businesses’ shareholders…which to reiterate the largest one of these is usually the entrepreneur resisting “control!”
2. When Contemplating Selling a Business. More often than not owners of businesses capable of attracting a buyer and being sold LOVE what they do, and they especially love being the BOSS.
So the prospect of selling out and no longer being the BOSS can be emotionally difficult.
Now, from the perspective of the Chief Shareholder, the right response to this should be, “Who Cares!”
With the risk of sounding harsh, this decision should be made solely on the strategic and financial merits - lifestyle and heartstrings considerations be darned!
3. Contemplating Investing More of One’s Own Money in One’s Own Business. When one is lucky enough to have capital to invest, the Chief Shareholder “Hat” needs to be worn far more tightly than the Chief Executive one.
Because as the Chief Executive, it is just too easy to overlook portfolio diversification considerations, as it is not possible to “diversify” from the huge time and energy investments necessary to be an effective CEO of a growing company.
From this perspective, the right decision is to almost always try to invest as much as one possibly can away from and outside of one's own business.
I know, this is extremely hard to do as more often than not every instinct screams out to just pour more time, energy and treasure into it to the exclusion of everything else.
That is the Chief Executive talking and is the kind of “irrational” commitment to success that is at the heart of what makes being a small business and an entrepreneur so intoxicating (and admirable)!
BUT when the three scenarios and opportunities above present themselves, take a pause and listen to Mr. and Ms. Chief Shareholder, too.
If nothing else, your wallet will thank you.
To Your Success,
This post is a based on a thought piece I wrote for Entrepreneur Magazine last year. The original article can be viewed here.