Team Building: Ideas to Keep in Mind

“There is no I in TEAM.” – attribution unknown

The importance of a management team to the success of any venture is a well-known business fact. I have blogged about this in the past and it has been the key focal point of investors for years. So given the fact that no man is an island and one needs a team to succeed, a great question for an early stage entrepreneur is where do you start?

I have had the chance to build a number of successful teams in my career but more importantly, I have watched some truly accomplished entrepreneurs build them on a greater scale and with much better results. So when I reflect on what seemed to work for all of us, I kept coming back to five ideas I would suggest you keep in mind as you start the most important task you have as a leader – – building the right team:

1. Think leaders and creators. One of my favorite clients would often remark that an idea of mine was “counterintuitive” and that is what you might be thinking here. You may feel that you are the leader, so maybe these traits are not as important for team members. The point is most businesses successfully build to scale by having a series of teams who use their creative capabilities to solve problems. If you need any proof of that, just read about NASA and the race to land on the moon.

2. Look for the same culture but different skill sets. My advice is culture trumps economics every time. So if you want to build a real team, make sure your key members share a common culture – that comfortable work environment, transparency and a sense of what is right and what is wrong that can overcome the absence of short-term financial rewards.

3. Those who share your vision are good; those that share your passion are great. I have mentioned in the past my client who used the phrase “I always admired a man who can stand up and say, you said it chief.” Everyone will see through someone who is a blind supporter of your vision or worse yet, overly passionate about it. Do not force this; spend the time to make sure each key team member is on the same page. I would prefer serious and dedicated strong silent support over the shallow cheerleader any day.

4. Seek those who seek challenges. The shortest and easiest road is not always the best. The odds of having to pivot at least once along the way is high and that means change, and change is a challenge many do not like to face. While being supportive is important, it is better to have members on the team who have the inner strength to help correct the ship versus fight a required change in direction.

5. Share the pie. How you do this is up to you. Whether you choose to reward every team member (I call it the chicken in every pot approach) or those leaders and drivers having the most impact, make sure you think of and reward those most responsible for helping you on your journey.

So there they are – – hopefully, some helpful ideas you can use as you build your team. And please try to avoid that self-centered promoting type even if they have a skill set that you need. That person never gets the point that there is no I in team.

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Leadership – Five Easy Steps

“They are my people! I am their sovereign! I LOVE them. Pull!” – King Louis quote from “History of the World” by Mel Brooks

For many Brooks’ fans, this classic scene epitomizes what it is like not to be a leader; turning one’s subjects into human clay pigeons for sheer pleasure. Fortunately for all of us, there are many great leaders – – some of whom we encounter in our everyday lives and some who just seem to step up when a situation or opportunity presents itself. It is much more than just staying positive and checking your happiness quotient. I, and others, have blogged in the past about traits and characteristics that are common to both respected and poor leaders. But what about some simple, practical advice you can use every day to become more effective in a leadership role?

Here are five easy leadership steps to consider:

    • Know thyself – One of the best tools I ever employed was the Myers-Briggs test. Finding out my “personality” type allowed me to better understand why I acted and reacted in certain ways and helped me to modify my style. But more importantly, it allowed me to better understand my peers, colleagues and fellow team members and how to more effectively work and communicate with them.
    • Read, read, read – Delve into the case studies and books of those who were great leaders. Learn effective habits and traits to help you negotiate through difficult issues and roadblocks. You do not have to become a disciple of Covey, but understanding concepts such as his will make you stronger.
    • Have a style – You have to work in a manner which makes you comfortable. You may be more of a taskmaster or perhaps a cheerleader, but being consistent allows others to better understand you and builds their confidence in you. There is no need to drastically change to a style that is not you; others will see right through it and your effectiveness as a leader will suffer.
    • Hold others accountable – They say leadership is hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Holding people accountable for their actions and responsibilities is one way of demonstrating this. You do not need to micro-manage or constantly be on your team’s “case,” but a firm, periodic assessment of status goes a long way toward showing you are an effective leader.
    • Admit and address mistakes; celebrate success – Balance here is the answer. Too often, the person in charge spends too much time on one and too little on the other. Perhaps the most difficult but endearing trait is admitting you made a mistake. The typical excuse (usually self- imposed) is you will appear to be a less effective leader if you do something wrong. Keep in mind the famous saying, “That’s why they put erasers on pencils.” And celebrate the “wins”; everyone takes pride in an accomplishment.

So there you have it. Not exactly the complete recipe for being an effective leader but some simple, practical steps you can take each day on your journey to success.

Is That Dashboard Enough?

“You’ve got to be very careful if you don’t know where you are going because you might not get there.” – Yogi Berra

Over the years, I have been amazed as to the number of entrepreneurs I encounter that use shortcut methods to get a feel for how their business is doing financially. Many today explain they have a “dashboard”. I believe a well-designed dashboard can be an invaluable tool for an owner but it should not be an excuse for not having timely, complete and accurate information. Without that, you can end up like Yogi said. A quick story.

Years ago, I was auditing a small but well known public company. The chairman was a sharp businessman, but the market had gotten away from his company and for the first time in years, they lost money and were in debt. I had my typical closing meeting with him and was told in no uncertain terms, the numbers were wrong. He asked, “If we lost $1 million, why do we have cash in the bank?” Though taken aback, I quickly showed him the balance sheet with $2 million of debt. He looked at it, thanked me and gave his “blessing” to the numbers.

Recently, I had the same experience where an owner of a business I knew asked me to visit because his numbers did not seem right. He had cash but his CFO indicated he was losing money. I quickly looked at his financials and did a back of the envelope calculation showing how the changes in receivables, inventory and payables had actually generated cash though he was in fact losing money.

Both had used a version of dashboard reporting (in this case, cash on hand) to assess their financial results. These shortcuts have their drawbacks. The other issue is that in an early-stage company today, there are non-financial type measures that an owner must manage. Unique visitors to a site, return visitors and costs to acquire customers are not in the financial records but can be a solid indicator of the health or future health of an enterprise.

So some simple advice. You should work with your internal or external financial staff to determine what data works best for you to run your business. If you are a more mature business, you need a balance sheet and cash flow statement (they are easy to create) to go along with your income statement to better understand your financial workings. Just using cash balances or average order size (another client used this) is not enough and can be short sighted.

If you are emerging and pre- or early-revenue, develop those metrics that provide the right insight into your business. Those who are in this space can help you and while that data is important, keeping track of how your cash is used (your “burn rate”) is also a critical piece of information.

You may hear from colleagues that they do not waste time on such mundane matters and getting a “quick read” on your results is the path you should follow. While I agree that timely information is paramount, insufficient information is not acceptable. And if your competitor is doing a better job of obtaining and acting on solid information, you may lose in the end. So don’t just settle for dashboard reporting because it is fast and easy; make sure it really can tell you what road you are on.

The Perfect Pitch Works

“He cared; more than Harvey Ramos” – quote from this blog’s author.

I know what you are thinking – he has run out of quotes so now he is quoting himself. So before you get the wrong impression, let me explain.

As part of instructor training at EY, we were told at cocktails when we arrived that the next day, we would be asked to introduce ourselves with the proviso that our presentation had to end with what we wanted scripted on our tombstone. (BTW I suggest you try this sometime.) Well I tossed and turned that night and after trying what I felt were thousands of iterations, I finally settled on “he cared.”

The next day we are going through our presentations and preceding me is Harvey. He comes to the end and announces that his tombstone will read “he cared.” The instructor thanks Harvey and immediately calls on me. My readers are pretty smart so you know how this concluded. So why the long lead in?

If nothing else, this exercise caused me to reflect deeply on what I really wanted to say about my life in simple terms and owners do the same for their company each time they make a pitch for investment. Lately, I have been through a couple of failed funding attempts and I wanted to better understand why investors said “no.” I reached out to some of the investors that passed and also saw a couple of recent articles on the subject. Always searching for a new angle, I gathered about a dozen or so different reasons but was disappointed to find they really had not changed in the last four decades. Some common culprits:

  • Barriers to entry not highlighted
  • KPI failure – either don’t know them, they are poorly defined or poorly measured
  • Shallow knowledge of competition – and the always fatal “we have no competition”
  • Economics – not clear how investment will be used or no “paying” sales channel presented
  • All OPM – where was founders’ buy-in?

I then looked at our “Perfect Pitch” guidelines (available @ withum.com) and realized all these points would have been addressed had the founders done a deep dive into what they were presenting. To draw the analogy, had they invested the same level of thought into what their pitch “said” as I had in doing the simple tombstone exercise, all of these points would have been addressed.

Your “pitch” is your chance to show your best. I really do not care if you use what has worked for us over the years or another guide, when you are preparing it, invest the time to completely address what is suggested – – there is a reason for it. This is not the same as being at a New Jersey diner and spending the time figuring out what you want from the hundreds of items on the menu. This is not a checklist; it is a starting point for you to shape the future of the economic life of your company.

So please when you put the meat on the bones of your pitch, think about what it says about you and your company; what it stands for and what it represents. Don’t get turned down just because you did not do your homework. Think about how an investor sees it, because properly prepared, the Perfect Pitch does work. Good luck.

Quick Test: Should I Form a Startup?

“You can do it!” – line made famous by Rob Schneider in “The Waterboy.”

Being a big fan of the entrepreneurial space, I love to encourage people to get involved in new ventures. Forming something new or making what is there bigger and better can have a profound change on the world, and being a part of that is both exciting and daunting. I talk to owners every day and for those just starting out with an idea, I have a little test that I use to see if they should be encouraged or just continue to dream. Keep in mind a true entrepreneur knows the difference between an idea and an opportunity – thank you, Jeff Timmons – and you have to determine early on which of the two describes your journey.

So here is the quick, five-step test:

  1. Do you have a viable, unique idea? A baseball mitt for ambidextrous players may be unique, but viability may be a question. You should also be able to create a logical one page summary of your idea. It is amazing what happens when you have to put something down in writing. If you doubt this, try this little exercise – write down what you would like written on your tombstone.
  2. Do you have some money? Regardless of what you want to do, it will cost money. You may be able to minimize the cost, but you need to have some available money to get started. When I went into my own consulting business, I knew the most frugal way to incorporate, register, get a website and business cards, etc. but it still took a few bucks.
  3. Would you like to do this for the rest of your life? Next to sleeping, we spend most of our time working. If this is going to be your “job,” do you really like it? And please make sure you are not running from something, like a job you hate, but to a life you will enjoy more.
  4. Can you take the heat? Being the boss is the good news and bad news. Every new hire is another family you are responsible for so you have to be ready for that role. The road is full of stories about the team and sharing responsibility, but in the end, the buck will stop at your door and some people are not built that way.
  5. Can you make money doing it? Having your own business is great, but you need profits to pay salaries and make it worthwhile. This can involve difficult decisions on resource allocations. Be ready for that eventuality.

So there it is. If you have answered yes to these questions – and I think they all have to be yes answers – then you are ready to seriously commit to forming your new venture. Harness your passion and enthusiasm and get started. Just keep in mind that “you can do it.”

Go to the Light – Start Exit Planning Now

“I don’t know where I’m going, but I’m making good time.” – Quote from a former client.

I just completed a series of discussions with some mature business owners on potential exits from their businesses. As usual, I tend to take away common themes and I thought of this quote from a former client. He used it to describe people he had encountered who were so absorbed in what they were doing, they thought they were making progress.

Through his eyes, he thought they were lost. The latter tended to describe these owners. Each had a valid reason to address the need for exit planning – age, paradigm changes, timing – these were all present and culprits in raising the very thorny question as to “What’s next?” There is an abundance of tools to help an owner through the exit process, but getting started – now there’s the rub.

I hear loads of excuses as to reasons to delay. Many who advise in this space have what are perceived of as ulterior motives – money managers who want owners to sell so they can manage their liquid assets, life insurance sales people who want to make sure owners and their families have the annuity or insurance to cover them as they go on their journey, etc. Unfortunately, while well intended, they give the owner an out by raising questions regarding true intent. I have had some success in this space because I do not care what the result is, I just want to make sure that an owner has all the facts before they make their decision. But I will admit, it is a tough battle.

Having said that, I believe the major reasons for delay are psychological. Fear is often downplayed and yet I think it is one root cause of most owners becoming part of the majority who either have no exit plan or start to plan too late. In his 2000 Year Old Man albums, Mel Brooks cited fear as the great motivator for everything from transportation to the development of the handshake and dancing. One problem for the owner is often the absence of someone they can confide in to discuss their fears. Often seen as the patriarch or matriarch, showing fear is often perceived by them as a sign of weakness. So, they seek solace in finding a solution. This keeps them busy and avoids the need to discuss the obvious – starting an exit plan.

The absence of a “life” after the business is gone is also an issue. Often left with little time to develop hobbies or other interests, the lack of something to go to leads the owner to complacency about staying where they are. Making the business stronger is a great defense and considered “progress” perhaps ignoring at times risks like the paradigm shift which may be too great to overcome.

So, to owners, I say start the process now. Have others tell you it is too early, but I never think it is. My advice has always been not to get into a business without knowing how you will get out. Also, find an advisor you can trust. They do not have to be skilled in the exit process, but they have to be capable of listening and telling you things you may not want to hear. With some guidance, you will know where you are going and have a successful completion to your journey.

Buy Out Values – Hail the Willing Buyer

“How the hell did he come up with that number?” – quote from a new client reacting to his partner’s price to be bought out.

Almost every week, I get the chance to see a number of potential transactions among partners — mostly negotiating buying each other’s shares or debating what value to use in a buy-sell agreement. All different types of markets with the operative words being “fair value.” So I have been in the middle of this before and I have a solution that I have used, but it involves some education and “faith” by both parties if it is going to work. Let me explain.

Fair market value is used in a somewhat cavalier fashion in these type of deals but there is little focus on the key aspects of the definition of this term which is a value based on what a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured buyer would probably pay to a knowledgeable, willing and unpressured seller. Valuation experts use common tools to arrive at a number or range, but in the end, most importantly, you need a “willing buyer.” So what is the problem?

When you go to sell your business, the willing buyer may be a financial sponsor of some type (hedge fund, private equity, venture capital, etc.) or even your competitor or someone who wants to get into that market (often called a strategic buyer). Most of these willing buyers have another way to measure the results of their transaction. For example, I had a client sell a significant division of his company to a strategic for about 15 times earnings. This was a great deal for him, but the purchaser was public, selling at 25 times earnings; and my client’s ongoing $10 million in earnings increased the buyer’s market value by $250 million. Not bad. However, this does not translate into the private company market of “willing buyers.”

Using this example, if my client wanted to sell to his partner who wanted to continue to run this business for a long time and not sell, that partner would have to fork over all earnings (at current levels) for 15 years before he would see a plug nickel. What willing buyer is going to do that? Yet, it is a problem I confront quite often. So in this case, the “willing buyer” will only offer something a bit more reasonable from a pure cash-on-cash recovery basis – say 3 to 5 years. Many buy / sells I see have a price of 3 to 5 times EBITDA which gets you to the same place.

So I often suggest that the offer be based on projected cash flow for a 3 to 5 year period. I also suggest that a provision be added such that if the company is sold in say a 5 year period, there is some form of “claw back” – that the previous owners are paid in part as if they still owned some shares (all negotiated). The alternative is to wait for that outside purchaser to come along and prolong an important exit event. So while fair market value is a sacred term, please remember when in comes to partners, it is governed by the provisions of the “willing buyer.”