Don’t let bad practices turn into stormy nightmares.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
Running a successful startup is a feat of enduring determination. What begins as an awesome idea for a couple entrepreneurs, becomes a growing Company that demands more attention to how you administer the business than those things which captured your excitement to begin with (i.e., product design, marketing plan, technology roadmap). Careful early attention to Finance and Administration (i.e., process, procedure, and people stuff) can avoid trouble later in what I term “nightmare growth.” This is when you are growing but your time, attention, and pleasant dreams are sacrificed to frustrations even as you sleep!
Here are four examples how a lack of discipline and culture can turn the small cracks in a wall appearing with growth over time, into a watershed dam rupture that ultimately derails a business. Avoid pending nightmares as you grow by paying attention early on to how you administer your Company.
Top management sets the tone. How they conduct business, treat people, deal with big and small Company issues, and portray the Company to the world establishes the values and social mores to be emulated internally. I’ve seen leaders in good times become driven by ego and limelight and in bad times experience significant stress – but in both cases – I’ve witnessed leaders who stray and become unpredictable or undisciplined in their behavior, causing volatility in the foundation of their culture. Guard yourself to maintain culture in good times and bad, or you’ll have employees adopt your poor behaviors or just leave.
A talented Strategic CFO can help you guard culture and even repair it in times of decay. Leaders need to regularly engage in conversations about culture, defining the values intrinsic to culture, and take the pulse of the organization through surveys or other formats to make sure they stay on course.
We’ve all heard stories of crazy dynamics inside startups that often make venture investors impose “adult supervision,” many times in the form of a new CEO. I wonder if Facebook would be Facebook if a seasoned CEO had replaced Mark Zuckerberg early on. The truth is that many times the vision and drive that a founder has is key to driving the business forward. Often, the problems begin when startups ignore cultural fit as they hire people to fill key positions, focusing more on specific skills a potential candidate brings to the job. This approach to hiring for growth can lead to “people problems” later.
I’ve found that hiring people who share the same passion that drives the founders and the CEO is more important than hiring people who seem to have the perfect skills. Spending time understanding where a candidate comes from, what inspires them, and how the work habits they bring fits with your culture will pay off in good times and in bad!
Humans are wired for fairness, so when your team perceives things as unfair, you will lose their energy and passion as they emotionally check out. In my personal experience, I witnessed a young and thriving small Company with highly paid key executives and a weak Board (i.e., proxied votes) drift into a downward spiral as employee effort dwindled and ‘pseudo sabotage’ set in as employees demonstrated who is really key to success. Compensation was not the Company’s only problem as culture was also weak, but it proved that comp structure is a cultural glue, for you nonbelievers try not paying people adequately and you’ll find out.
The Company would have been better off designing a formal comp plan that rewards a larger set of employees for rowing in the same boat in the early stages, striking a balance between base pay, incentives and upside in an exit. Prioritize creating a compensation plan early, one which you can flex up with incentives to balance growth objectives across your most critical employee base.
Cash flow always seems to be in short supply. It is a slippery slope where you lose footing fast if you start funding expenses through payables to buy time for cash to come in. This works (but still with risk) for Companies that have reliable recurring revenues, stable liquidity sources, and market power with vendors. They make tradeoffs with short term liquidity in mind as they take creative measures to pay bills.
The problem occurs with smaller and less stable Companies that begin financing growth initiatives through vendor payables. If you don’t have adequate capital to fund a growth initiative, the temptation to fund growth by slow paying vendors and growing payables is hard to avoid. After all, you have employees inside who are critical to the initiative at hand, and vendors outside who are less so. Having adequate capital to support investment decisions is an issue management needs to solve at the time the decision is made, not doing so turns growth decisions into bad decisions that create bigger problems. There is always embedded risk in any strategic decision you make (e.g., one that requires incremental short or long-term resource investment), understanding that risk and how/when it trades into cash is key to understanding how you should fund the initiative at conception.
Increase your odds of winning by setting smart goals for the new year.
KPIs, MBOs, OKRs. You’ve probably heard of these and several more ways to set your company’s objectives. With so many options to get to the same goal, it is no wonder why by the middle of the year, objectives, as originally set, often go the same way as New Year’s resolutions. The problem often lies on the goal development: sometimes goals are crafted at the leadership level and not effectively shared and refined with the rest of the organization. Also, there’s a tendency to focus on numbers without regards to the operational goals that drive these numbers, for example, growing revenue by x% (a key business goal) may require sales restructuring (an operational goal).
OKR: a framework that may work for you
Although there is no magic formula for setting goals and sticking to them, I’ve found that the framework provided by OKRs (Objectives and Key Results) can set teams on the right track when it comes to goal setting. Before going into details, diving into the Wikipedia definition of OKR can be useful:
“[OKR’s] main goal is to define company and team “objectives” along with the measurable “key results” that define achievement of each objective. One OKR book defines OKR as “a critical thinking framework and ongoing discipline that seeks to ensure employees work together, focusing their efforts to make measurable contributions.”
The key term to focus on is “to ensure employees work together.” The OKR framework is good at steering top management to align their goals with those actually in charge of driving the business towards them throughout the year. This means that as you think of OKRs, you need to make sure you’re delivering on the key initiatives the company needs to get done to get to where it needs to be. I find it useful to think of a “value chain” that will support the OKRs with specific initiatives from your team.
Some guidelines about setting objectives and key results
Setting goals and key results together – which is basically what OKRs are all about – can help you create the discipline to have the right internal conversations initially and throughout the year to ensure the team stays focused.
Here are three easy ways to get you going:
The benefits of using a framework like OKRs go beyond just ensuring you develop objectives and meet them. Crafting objectives and key results together disciplines thinking at all levels, communicates the company’s vision accurately, establishes a measurement culture, focuses the effort of your team and enables employee engagement.
Are you ready for OKRs?
Goal setting using OKRs is valuable regardless of your size. As stated before, creating a culture around setting measurable objectives is always a good thing. Think in terms of developing OKRs around functional or product teams in addition to the executive team.
No matter your size, aligning goals with the specific results needed to get there will only result in an organization where everyone – from the CEO to the most recent hire – point their efforts in the same direction.
To play the marketing game prepare a solid marketing budget with which you can win.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
Crafting a marketing budget can feel like a guessing game. The options to invest your marketing dollars could seem endless, and you could spend weeks debating what will move he needle for your startup. In this article, Steve Lim, Vice President and Head of Marketing at Vantage Data Centers, and I have put together a quick guide that our CEOs and their marketing teams have found useful for budgeting marketing spend. We divide this brief guide in two parts: the three guiding principles for guiding your plan and the process for defining your marketing scope
Guiding Principles: The 3 Cs of your Marketing Budget
We’ve found three simple guiding principles we call the “3 Cs” that can help you navigate your marketing budgeting options.
Your budget must include spend for the key areas:
1) brand awareness
2) content and tool creation
3) demand generation
Specifically, to drive awareness for the brand, you need to budget for public relations, social media, websites and digital presence as well as other brand related programs that reach customers but do not drive direct lead creation or engagement. Then, to develop content and tools, you need to budget for thought leadership content and sales tools. The important thing to keep in mind is that you need an ongoing strategy to tell your story in a compelling way and to portray your company & products in a positive light. Finally, to deliver contacts and leads to sales, you need to budget for things such as digital programs, digital media, trade shows & events, and partner marketing – all of these create a blended program that directly engage customers and drive lead or contact creation for sales teams.
We recommend that rather than using rules of thumb, you calculate estimated marketing spend based on lead conversion or customer acquisition costs (CAC) payback period. To do this you need to incorporate specific building blocks, including:
For each category of marketing spend, there is a minimum threshold. Either you commit to spending a certain amount or, in the category, forego spending anything. Do not try to find cost savings in specific line items. The worst possible scenario is to try and execute a plan after your board agrees on that plan but asks for simple percentage cuts across the board. You have to look at each area of marketing spend and determine what the minimum threshold for spending should be, and either decide to proceed or cut entirely. This is especially true for demand generation programs that drive direct contact acquisition and lead creation. For example, activities like media spend (digital ads, SEM, etc.) require a certain level of investment with some consistency over time to tune, adjust and manage before you see real results. If you cannot commit to spending consistently for a minimum of 6-12 months, you are best to forego this activity completely.
Some areas are more flexible in how you can tune spending up or down, but you need to ensure that you know the thresholds for each as well as the overall mix of spending required across the key areas of marketing. Properly planned and executed marketing is a well thought out mix of spending across the key areas with deliberate thought to how each investment influences the activities overall – essentially the sum is greater than that parts.
Process: Size and Shape of your Marketing Budget
You need to spend time to determine the right size and shape for marketing spend based on your unique circumstances and your market.
The size of your marketing budget should be based on an overall estimate of spend. To determine the range for marketing spend, we recommend using the average cost for an inquiry and lead conversion analysis to estimate the spend per closed/won opportunity (Marketing program portion of CAC). With a range of estimates for leaders and laggards, you can then determine the overall Marketing spend level with confidence. It’s important to note in the process, however, that there are both minimum thresholds that you need to be conscious of and ceilings that are capped based on total addressable markets. Simply put, you have to spend at certain levels across marketing to achieve any results at all – if an average cost per lead is $100, you can decide to invest $100 and get one lead. On the other end, you should not assume you can put an unlimited budget into marketing and generate infinite leads. You’ll be limited by the total addressable market and by some basic assumptions about what a reasonable penetration percentage is for your target market.
To size the marketing budget determining the average costs per inquiry, answer the following key questions:
The shape of your marketing budget is determined based on the relative importance and spend between brand awareness, content & tool creation, and demand generation. For an early stage company to build infrastructure and capabilities, there is a minimum amount of spend needed in all areas. In later stages, companies can shift emphasis and spend depending on whether they need to build awareness, capabilities or sales leads. The shape is also determined based on the approach to planning and executing your marketing programs. This approach can be either agency or internal-resources led with the appropriate management resource for each approach and is a basic build vs. buy decision. To achieve high levels of quality, many startups should use an agency-model until they can hire enough people to assume relevant functions – after all, the trend in marketing – and in finance also BTW – is rent versus own.
Co-author Steve Lim is Head of Marketing at Vantage Data Centers. He has deep experience in marketing strategy, field marketing, sales enablement, program development & delivery, content marketing, and operations.
Make sure you fill those crucial initial spots with a great team that will take you places.
Congratulations to the Houston Astros, 2017 World Series Champions, and to the city of Houston who can use the win after a rough summer of devastating storms. How did the worst team in baseball in 2013 with only 51 wins turn it around so quickly and reach the pinnacle of their sport? They committed themselves to building the best possible team using all means available. The Astros beat the Los Angeles Dodgers, another great team that also had a great season. Both teams won over 100 games and survived a tough run through the playoffs. Also, both teams made major in-season moves that just may have been crucial to getting them to the World Series.
Assembling the best team
Like every other major sport, it’s now conventional wisdom that to win a championship, you do everything you can to put the best team on the field. The Astros traded for Justin Verlander, who went a combined 9-1 in the remainder of the regular season and playoffs and was key to all three of their playoff series wins. The Dodgers picked up Yu Darvish who helped solidify their rotation and get them to the World Series. Last year, it was Aroldis Chapman joining the Cubs and Andrew Miller joining the Indians. In 2015, it was Johnny Cueto and Ben Zobrist for the Royals and Yoenis Cespedes for the Mets.
This lesson applies just as well to startups and to companies as a whole. The best team wins, and the question to ask is: are you doing everything you can to put the best possible team on the field?
I spent 13 years as a venture capitalist and during that time we had a saying. If the three most important factors in real estate investing are “location, location, location”, we often said the three most important factors in VC investing are “management, management, management.” We would take an “A” management team with a “B” idea over the reverse every time. Why? Because we had confidence the “A” team would be able to handle all the twists and turns required to successfully navigate the startup minefield and eventually find the “A” idea. While the “B” team might just get stuck and fail to execute.
As a founder and entrepreneur, I had the same experience regarding the importance of having the right team. No matter how novel the idea, there were always multiple other companies chasing the same goal. With the proliferation of startups, accelerators, incubators, seed funds, crowdfunding, etc, this is likely more true today than ever. There is no doubt that timing matters. Market size matters. Business model matters. But all else being equal, the better team has a much greater chance at winning. I’ve seen it personally from both sides. Bet the jockey, not the horse.
The relentless pursue of opportunity
Of course, as a startup you don’t have unlimited funds to pay seasoned leaders to join your team. So, you need to be creative and grab talent whenever and however you can. Probably the best definition of entrepreneurship I ever heard was from legendary Harvard Business School Professor Howard Stevenson, who defined it as “the relentless pursuit of opportunity beyond resources controlled.”
I joined Burkland Associates about a year ago and one thing that has surprised me so far is how many founders I’ve met who spend their time building Excel models, creating pitch decks and even doing journal entries and reviewing expense reports instead of leading their companies. At a stage where assembling a great team is crucial, a great founder focuses on setting the vision, charting the course, motivating the team and assembling the resources to be successful. Recruit a team of experts – full time or part time, employees or consultants – to help you execute.
Justin Verlander and Yu Darvish may only take the ball every fifth day. They may not even be around 2-3 years from now, but this year, they made all the difference. The lesson to learn from this is: who can you add to your team to give you the cover you need to put you over the top?
Think about it.
There will be storms ahead. Make sure you learn resiliency from the ones that came beforehand.
Photo courtesy of Christopher Michel.
For millions of people in the U.S. and the Caribbean, the summer of 2017 is synonymous with tremendous suffering and loss, as one of the most active hurricane seasons in history hit their communities. As tactical response to the storms scales down and recovery begins, strategic focus will shift to making critical systems more resilient – such things as the water levies in Houston, and the power grid in Puerto Rico.
Although there is a world of difference between how governments and organizations respond to the challenges of large-scale disasters like storms and how a management team runs a business, I think there are some valuable resiliency lessons that can be drawn for startups.
When I’m not working as a consultant, I serve as a Civil Air Patrol liaison officer to FEMA’s Region II. In this capacity, I’ve worked six major hurricanes in the past several years, including Sandy in 2012 and this year’s Irma & Maria. Aside from master-of-the-obvious missives like “failure to plan is planning to fail,” here’s my top five list of lessons from disaster response every CEO can incorporate into their business strategy.
In many cases, your CFO can help you not only properly define your company’s strategic goals, but also help you execute the day-to-day demands in order to reach them in a focused and efficient manner. Like with disaster response, there is no one thing that makes all the difference, but rather countless small elements that make up the overall effort. To sum up, remember another old saying: Manage the little things right, and the bigger things will take care of themselves.