Do You Have What It Takes to Be an Entrepreneur?

“The difference between involvement and commitment is like ham and eggs. The chicken is involved; the pig is committed.” – quote attributed to Martina Navratilova

There seem to be more blogs and advice pieces today preaching of the coming evolution in entrepreneurship. It appears more graduates are trading in the traditional path of a career in a larger institution where they can learn a skill set for the opportunity to uncover some unwanted need in society and building a solution that can make them rich. For those of us who remember that famous scene in “The Graduate”,  “entrepreneurship” has replaced “plastics” as the one word of advice for a college graduate. We are also seeing more experienced people trading in that one final job in Corporate America for the chance to “be their own boss.” Entrepreneurship seems to be alive and well with role models like Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and Jeff Bezos leading the way. (I guess it helps they are three of the four richest people in America.)

What is it that makes some of those who choose this route more successful than others? Many have written books, blogs and articles on what makes an entrepreneur. I have posted two blogs – “Can You Be an Entrepreneur?” (March, 2014) and “What is an Entrepreneur?” (April 2014) but it took a reminder from my sister (thanks, Ro) about the quote above to focus me on what it takes to make it as an entrepreneur. So, let me expand a bit further.

First, too many people use the word entrepreneur to describe anyone who is in business. I do not mean to disparage anyone, but the carpenter who works for a construction company and decides to start a small business and do a couple of jobs on his own when he is off is not what I consider an entrepreneur. An entrepreneurial venture should involve some risk taking; something that is disruptive and that creates value. It is not an avocation but the desire to solve a pressing problem.

I had the honor of having a front row seat to a cavalcade of successful entrepreneurs. I was fortunate enough to be involved for years in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year Program in New Jersey. Each year, we would be witness to dozens of successful stories from all walks of business. We had immigrants who came to the U.S. with no money or job or even a place to live but were committed to their vision and accomplished great things. We had a receptionist who learned her boss’s business so well that she bought it from him and made it an amazing success; and a toy manufacturer who introduced a product four times and after three failures, it became one of the best-selling products of all time. But none of them did it part time; the stories of sacrifice were emotional but inspiring. At the end of every EOY Gala, you could feel the excitement in the room; a renewed sense of commitment. A few winners announced they were inspired by what they had witnessed at previous galas and went on to accomplish great things. The common theme was one – – commitment.

So, if you have the real desire to be an entrepreneur, ask yourself if you are willing to sacrifice it all for what you believe in. Because the road to success is long and hard and those who are only involved will have a hard time making it to the end of the journey.

Entrepreneurial Loneliness – Learning to Share

“It’s lonely at the top of Olympus” – quote from Emperor Nero (Dom DeLuise) – “History of the World” – by Mel Brooks

Some would say that today, we live in the age of the entrepreneur. As someone who has been in this space for over 40 years, I must say I tend to agree. When we first formed entrepreneurial services at EY, it was considered by most to be just small business. There was no Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Mark Zuckerberg or Steve Jobs back then. Each entrepreneur we met seemed to be possessed by this passion to set out to create something that big business wouldn’t (or couldn’t) do. They were the outliers; jousting at windmills and looking to accomplish the impossible. Looking back on all the innovation, financial success (can you say unicorn?) and social good, one can only say thank goodness for those early pioneers. It has been quite a ride and the juggernaut continues.

However, I see something a bit different in many of the entrepreneurs of today. While I still believe that deep down inside they want to change the world, they start out motivated by something a bit different; the ultimate vision of being their own boss. They raise questions like, “Why be creative for others?” and, “Why put up with all the office politics, infrastructure and chains which will keep me back?” Perhaps they just can’t find a job. But they love the image of that ultimate dream – – waking up in the morning and looking in the mirror and realizing you have nobody to answer to but yourself. Ah, nirvana.

So why the concern? To me there is an important part of the message of success that does not get delivered as forcefully as the image of the entrepreneur on a stage by himself or herself explaining their success to the world. Lost is the importance of the support cast. Where would Steve Jobs had been if Steve Wozniak had not been there? While every entrepreneur loves the fact that they answer to themselves, that same scenario conjures up visions of fear and uncertainty – – most feel personally responsible for the success or failure of their company. The immediate reaction is usually to do “whatever it takes” to make sure the business is successful. Learning to build a team and share some of that responsibility and “pain” with others does not come easy.

I am surprised that with all the business coaches and organizations that offer advice and the plethora (thank you “Three Amigos”) of guidance on team building that is prevalent in business media, I still get introduced (on more occasions than I care to admit) to successful business owners who believe they are on their own and who are feeling the strains of “being alone on Olympus.” My role with them sometimes morphs into a form of pseudo psychological therapy, but mainly it is just that of an objective observer offering advice that often reinforces what the entrepreneur believes but feels they cannot share with those close to them.

So please, as you build your business, find people to share your successes and your challenges – – key employees, advisory board members, advisors or peers. Many of those in your personal network are more than willing to help and support you on your journey. As the famous saying goes, “No man (woman) is an island,” and for an entrepreneur, no truer words were ever spoken.

Do I Let My Company CFO Into My Family Office?

“Badges; we don’t need no stinkin’ badges.” – quote from “Blazing Saddles” by Mel Brooks. (Believe it or not, this is a “misquote” from a 1948 movie.)

There is no doubt that in any business a CFO can be a very valuable asset. The ability to translate the vast array of data into understandable, user-friendly and actionable information for both internal and external stakeholders is truly a highly-valued capability. In most cases, there is an unwavering trust in the CFO and having him or her in the Family Office just seems like an extension of their fiduciary responsibility. In addition, in many cases the CFO believes they have earned the right to take on this responsibility – that in fact they “don’t need no stinkin’ badge” to assume this role.

However, the position specification for a financial/operating leader in a Family Office is much broader than what is normally found for a CFO of an operating family business. When there is an operating entity, the focus is on the mechanics of that business – pricing, people, profitability and cash flow. This is a playing field where most CFOs are very comfortable and where they have gained the bulk of their life experience. But in the Family Office, the CFO has to deal at a much more personal level with individual family members. The CFO may be seen as the older generations’ “person” and may find themselves catering more to the needs of that older generation when the real needs may be those of the next generation. The CFO may have little patience for those with limited financial experience and may not be able to provide the guidance required to all family members. The requisite tasks also become much more “treasurer” based, investment performance, dividend yields, capital markets, etc., versus operating profits. This experience may not be in their “bailiwick,” and while they may be able to provide some guidance, they actually may be somewhat lost in that environment. The need to understand taxes; estate planning and wealth management may be foreign to them and simple tasks such as paying family members’ bills or providing appropriate financial education can become a bit of a challenge.

So, if you are going to consider allowing your company CFO into your Family Office, you or an advisor should assess the overall skillset, including the interpersonal capabilities and the trust and confidence that various family members have in that individual. It is not a standard “rite of passage” that you allow your Company CFO into your Family Office. I had the honor of working with several CFOs as the NY Managing Partner of Tatum and I can tell you not all would fit in with what I envision as the CFO in a Family Office. Make sure you consider the real DNA of your CFO before making this decision. In the end, if there is a match, he or she does not need a “stinkin’ badge” to be a valuable and integral part of your Family Office.

Don’t Let Excuses Prevent Success

“I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am…” line by Terry Malloy (Marlon Brando) from the movie “On the Waterfront”

I am lucky; every day, I get the chance to meet bright, enthusiastic young entrepreneurs just beginning their journey as well as those who have mastered the art of being a business owner and are enjoying the fruits of their labors. Whether they are just starting out and are driven by the hope of success or reflecting on their accomplishments, whether they are young or mature (I hate old), they all share one common trait – – they never let excuses hold them back. Every obstacle is only a challenge; every failure a learning experience. Unlike Terry, they never lamented over what could have been; they made their way and remained focused on what they wanted. So, a valid question is why do I wax nostalgic at this point? Like most ideas I share, the roots are in the commonality of my experience.

Many of us who offer guidance to entrepreneurs try to be as practical as possible. We all create lists of dos and don’ts. I am guilty of this as well; my blogs include the Top 10 Points of Focus for Success as well as the 10 Reasons Why Startups Fail. We believe that making it simple and formulaic somehow makes it easier to comprehend and perhaps spurs a reader to action. But as one of my favorite clients used to say, “Says easy; does hard.”

So in keeping with this, simple is better approach, I offer the following for your consideration. Most accept the theory (I know I do) that most problems can be solved with a combination of three resources – – time, money and people. We can always use more of each to help us through the day, but I am discouraged when I see entrepreneurs falling back on the lack of resources as an excuse. Just some examples.

I met with a startup tech company that was looking to raise money. Table stakes here are developing a Minimum Viable Product (MVP). They apparently had the capability and resources at hand to achieve this milestone but were so focused on the “raise” they did not take the time to take this important first step. Needless to say, their timeline to raise funds (if they ever do) is now much longer. Their view; investors just don’t get it. If I only had the time…

Entrepreneurs at all stages can always use additional money. When the topic comes up, I am sometimes amazed at the responses when I ask two simple questions: how much do you need and what for? Believe me, I have heard more than one lament as to how fussy or ignorant potential investors are for asking. Really?

Mature businesses often do not take the time to recruit/develop the next generation of managers, and then are shocked when they try to exit and potential buyers shy away. I hear how potential buyers just “don’t appreciate the value I have created.”

So if this sounds familiar, I suggest you take a deep dive and find out what is really preventing you from getting to the next level. We all know that with additional time and money we could have “been something,” but isn’t the real question, “How come so many others are?”

Getting Your Pitch on the Right Page

“I am them, they are me, we are all singing, I have the mouth.” – a line from Fabiola, a Mel Brooks character.

So another week of reviewing pitch decks has passed, and as the saying goes, “The more things change; the more they stay the same.” I like to reflect on my comments on decks from the last week or two and search for commonality. This week seemed to indicate that founders are struggling a bit expressing their vision.

Here are some ideas that may help:

  • Don’t be too esoteric. Much like the Mel Brooks character above, don’t hide your vision by burying it in language which makes the reader feel like they have to interpret Plato’s “Allegory of the Cave” in order to get your point. Instead, state clearly the nature of the problem you are solving. You may think the correct interpretation of your pitch will result in investment, but be careful. That sound you hear may just be indigestion.
  • Try to avoid repeating. Once you have outlined the problem and solution, assume the reader can follow and will move on. Having to repeat your key concepts more than once (save for in the body and closing) may not add value to the investment thesis.
  • Less is more. Related to the previous subject, a deck should be no more than 20 or so slides. It is a vision piece, not courtroom evidence or a master’s thesis. I would suggest a useful exercise from my college communications course – pretend each word costs you $1,000; then review your pitch with the goal of cutting costs.
  • Acronyms can confuse. In an attempt to show your market prowess, using abbreviations may showcase your industry knowledge, but is every investor as in tune as you are? You want people to know when you use AI that you are talking about artificial intelligence and not aortic insufficiency, so words may trump abbreviations.
  • Show a picture. I do believe a picture is worth 1,000 words but I believe value is conveying the right ones. Have a simple visual of the customer, your product and the problem with limited notes that highlight the interplay. When I explain succession planning, I now find it is easily understood when I show three intersecting circles representing family, management and ownership. We relate better to something we can see.
  • Practice, practice, practice. You have to start by making your pitch in front of family, friends or advisors. Start with the request that they point out at least one or two things they would do differently if they were making the pitch. Honest feedback is worth its weight in gold.

Please keep in mind that the more eyes who see and honestly comment on your pitch, the better it will be. It is crucial to make sure that while you do not want to lose your vision; if others cannot see it (aka be on the same page), you will probably be disappointed in the value your deck brings. Simple steps like the above can bring you an improved result.

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.

What is an Exit Plan?

“We’ve Gotta Get Out Of This Place” – classic 1965 song by The Animals

I have come to expect the “exit” question from my mature business owners but I am hearing it more from emerging businesses these days. At times prompted by reaching inflection points, changes in key personnel or just pure exhaustion, owners want to know the best way to “exit stage right.” The key questions center around, “Is the timing right?” and, “Am I at the point of getting the most from what I have built?” Well as Robert De Niro’s character Paul Vitti said in “Analyze This,” “It’s a process.” So let’s take a closer look.

I had the privilege of serving as Chair of the Business Exit and Succession Planning Committee of the NY State CPA Society and we had a process for both of these milestone events. The “seven steps” of an exit plan with some comments follow below:

  1. Identify owner(s) exit objectives. This is the gaiting factor. The owner has to be confident it is time to move on and most importantly, that he or she has something to go to. This is particularly important for more mature owners.
  2. Quantify business and owner financial resources and needs. Tied closely to the first point, the calculation of “what you need” many times governs “what you want.” You have to complete the exercise to calculate what you need to live, and I will assure you your estimate of this amount will be grossly underestimated.
  3. Maximize and protect business value. Performing a SWOT analysis on your business and even some sell-side due diligence (see my 11/18/16 post Seller’s Due Diligence – An Emerging Tool in the Sales Process) will help you clarify how others might see you and what pieces have to be “fixed” before you start on this journey.
  4. Consider ownership transfer to third parties. Sometimes the hardest decision to make; especially for family owned businesses who hate to see control of the company go outside the family. But if liquidity and exit are important, this may be your best alternative.
  5. Consider ownership transfers to insiders. So you want to keep it all in the family. A common transaction is a sale from one generation to the next. It may not maximize liquidity but it accomplishes a very common emotional objective.
  6. Ensure business continuity. Nobody wants to buy a business (or at least pay good money for it) that is winding down or appears to be at the end of its useful life. I know it sounds counterintuitive but regardless of the exit plan, a robust program to keep the business intact and growing should be part of your exit strategy.
  7. Complete wealth and estate planning. Whatever you reap from your successful exit, you need to do some planning in advance to make sure taxes are minimized both for you and your estate.

So there it is; a brief journey through the exit plan process. As you would suspect, there are professionals who can act as your guides to help ensure your plan is a success and as in all things in life, the more time you have to prepare the higher the chance it will be successful. So while it might be “the last thing you will ever do,” follow the process and hopefully your journey will be a success.