Stages of a Business Life Cycle – Why It Matters Where You Are

“Where you stand depends on where you sit.” – quote attributed to Rufus Miles of Princeton University

I have been privileged to serve businesses in all stages of their life cycle. For example, I am now helping an owner sell the business I helped him to acquire over 30 years ago. Over the years, I have helped companies deal with a wide variety of issues and realize the commonality is often the current stage of the life of that business. More importantly, focusing on “where you stand” in the cycle can help an owner address the typical issues they will probably face not only in this stage but the next. It’s the old “I am more afraid of what I don’t know” syndrome I see so often. So while a complete listing of what to consider at each stage is way beyond the scope of any blog or article, some brief highlights will get you thinking.

It may have been the Boston Consulting Group or another organization which introduced this concept (or a derivation thereof) years ago, but to me there are typically four stages of the business life cycle:

  1. Startup
  2. Emerging
  3. Growth
  4. Mature

Startups are characterized by developing proof of concept, they are pre-revenue, may have a minimum viable product (MVP) and the owners are usually trying to define themselves. Challenges are funding, funding, funding (angels, friends and family), sharing equity and recruiting team members (usually centered around those that believe in the founder(s) vision.)

Emerging companies do have an MVP, some traction, and are looking to develop an effective approach to the market. They have raised funds from friends and family and are looking for that next round. Challenges are more sophisticated funding (VC’s, etc.), honing the customer experience, the product and approach, expanding the team, more disciplined equity grants and trying to keep control over everything – – being a bit more “directed” but monitoring culture.

Growth is when you start to hit stride. Product is developed and is appealing to the sweet spot of the market. Financing is less of an issue and you probably have cash flow to fund basic growth: your balance sheet is your friend. Team members are now recruited with more specific objectives in mind. Equity is more guarded (like a fine wine) and delegation and timely reporting of Key Performance Indicators replaces informal chats as to “how things are going.” Discipline works its way into almost all aspects of the business and controls (versus control) is the key word of the day. Organic versus acquisition growth is a constant subject of discussion.

Mature companies have usually achieved stability in market presence, financial rewards and in management team composition. Thoughts turn to succession planning, risk management (protecting what you have built) and perhaps an exit plan. Processes are helping keep the business intact and acquisitions and dispositions are a more frequent part of the conversation.

So there are issues to address at each stage in the life cycle, and at times, owners get a bit ahead of themselves like adolescents tend to do. Hopefully, by identifying where you are in the process and understanding that where you stand depends on where you sit, you will be able to successfully see your way through it.

Advertisements

Stock Books Are Not Checkbooks

Leo Bloom: “She also owns 50 percent of the profits.”
Max Bialystock: “Mrs. Alma Wentworth.”
Leo Bloom: “She owns 100 percent of the profits.”
Max Bialystock: “Leo, how much percentage of a play can there be altogether?”
Leo Bloom: “You can only sell 100 percent of anything.”
Dialogue from Mel Brook’s 1968 classic The Producers

When I first started consulting with owners on equity sharing (a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away) I never thought that four decades later I would still be giving advice on the same subject. But to quote Ronald Reagan, “There you go again.”

I was just brought in to consult with an early stage company that has concluded (and I agree) that the time is right to join forces with a larger organization in order to “ramp up” and maximize the potential of the product they have developed. We are helping with the efforts to prepare the company for sale. Quite honestly, in most cases the task at hand relates to analyzing and summarizing financial data. I am always amazed that so many (almost every) early stage companies I go into have an array of valuable financial data that could really help the owners more effectively run their business, but most do not want to spend the money to get it. So it is usually up to the accountants to either verify the data by completing an audit or analyzing the data as part of the due diligence process. But I digress.

One of the first questions I raised was if the company had any contracts with key employees or vendors. The first answer was no. Well, I soon learned that while in the owners’ minds there were no contracts, they did have letters outlining deferred pay and stock ownership for at least 12 current and former employees and vendors; everyone from an old landlord to the ex-CIO. As we started to put together a rough “cap table,” the dialogue above came to mind. We finally herded all the stray cats and assembled a very ugly picture. In addition to the dilution, it was fraught with business, tax and (dare I say it) accounting issues. A great deal of time and fees later, I sat down with the owners to understand how this had happened.

Their response harkened back to what I heard 40 years ago; they did not have the cash so they offered ownership instead. So here are my three reasons why this is a bad idea:

  1. Lack of faith – in most cases, these “deals” are exchanges on a 1 to 1 basis; like exchanging $5,000 of rent or pay for an equivalent number of shares in the company usually at or near founder prices. If you really believe in your company, how does this demonstrate your faith in its future value?
  2. Tax issues – without getting into the gory details, unless you do the right things at right time, there can be unforeseen tax consequences. Nothing says I appreciate you more than a tax bill with no cash to pay it.
  3. Control – unless you follow the right discipline, you can end up with stock ownership in the hands of someone who has underlying interests which may not be consistent with yours. This is never a good thing.

So if you are an owner, please treat your equity like a precious child and only use your stock book as a checkbook as a very last resort.