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.

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You Have to Be Fiscally Responsible

“Friends don’t do this to friends.” – quote from a new client CEO when told his CFO was “taking” money.

For those of you who follow this blog regularly, you know my background as a long-time audit partner with EY. That experience has allowed me to be a trusted advisor to many business owners of all types and to see first-hand the issues I use as content here. I use few, if any, “geeky technical topics” and I usually leave the ugly side of the business out. But there is a disturbing trend I see with too many of this generation’s entrepreneurs that I feel is worthy of exploring. First, let me provide some background.

There is a popular acronym called KPI (Key Performance Indicators) that many owners today rely on to gauge the health of their business. KPIs may include average sales per day or employee, days of sales in receivables, unique users to a site, etc. Many come into favor as early-stage companies may not have revenue but need some objective data to monitor progress. All understood. But this tool is not so new. As a young manager (yes, before the internet but not quite when people used quill pens), I was always interested in what data owners of established businesses used to manage their company. Interestingly, while some referred to monthly financial statements, most used daily information on shipments, cash collections and weekly payroll. As to the last item, even the most unsophisticated owners always knew their weekly “nut” or payroll. They would leave the full accounting and finance function to the CFO but they always had a handle on KPIs. So why the trip through accounting history?

I notice more and more a bifurcation of tasks and responsibilities by today’s entrepreneurs. Once a financial manager of any type is hired, it seems everything finance related is delegated to that hire. Someone in an owners’ blog somewhere must have said this is the right thing to do; that administrative tasks just bog you down and you should abdicate your fiscal responsibility and only spend time on activities that bring value (product development, team and customer building, etc.) to make your venture a success. Not true.

So, the genesis of this quote. We recently landed a new early-stage client and as part of our process did some simple diagnostics. The CFO was a close friend of the CEO founder with complete charge for finance and a few other functions. Without going into details, the CFO was paying himself unauthorized bonuses. No accounting tricks; they were right there on the payroll register; the CFO just felt he deserved more money. We were astonished to find the founder never reviewed payroll; did not know what his nut was. He was devastated. In addition, the bond company is giving them a hard time about covering the shortfall citing inadequate supervision.

So, a simple lesson for owners of all businesses. It is perfectly fine to leave the core of the finance function to others but always have some minimum KPI type of checks and balances in place as your predecessors did. Take the advice from Chris Anderson as relayed in David Kidder’s “Startup Playbook” – “engage in the whole process.” Because in the end, it is a real challenge to be a success if you are not fiscally responsible.

Profit is Not an Ugly Word

Leo Bloom: “Heh, heh, heh, amazing. It’s absolutely amazing. But under the right circumstances, a producer could make more money with a flop than he could with a hit.” – quote from the movie The Producers by Mel Brooks.

Some of you may recall this memorable line which was the premise of this classical movie. The plan was to raise a significant amount of money, find a play that would “flop” on opening night and keep the unused funds. An ingenious ploy; save for the fact that the play was a hit, more than 100% of the equity had been sold and the main characters ended up in prison.

So, let me begin by apologizing for the somewhat dour tone of this blog. I think of this line as I see pitches that seek to raise more and more capital with an apparent disregard for the spend or “burn rate,” with entrepreneurs chalking up their expenses to the investment needed to grow. Every entrepreneur I ever met believed they could grow faster with more dry powder. But the successful ones realized that just like one’s personal finances, at some point, you must “pay the piper” (face the music, come to Jesus, yada, yada, yada).

I would have thought we learned our collective lesson from the dot com boom / bust. Back then, despite substantial losses, valuations were sky high and investors began to focus on other “metrics” which soon took the place of the old reliable P & L. Just like the Cabbage Patch Kids, one day someone decided that these companies were in fact ugly, and shortly thereafter, most were trashed and entrepreneurs were sent home to live with their parents.

I want to be clear here; if you are running any type of business, you need a clear path to profitability. I saw a recent article with an entrepreneur calling out investors for just asking when the company would turn a profit, which the author interpreted as just stifling growth. How dare they? Well I ask, how dare you build a business model without such a pathway and put your stakeholders (especially employees) at risk with the hope that someone will be smitten with your traction or stickiness and rescue you with an acquisition deal? That’s not building a viable business; that’s the equivalent of legalized gambling.

Please do not get me wrong. I am not implying that one must be profitable to attract investors. If I believed that, I would not be so respectful of angels and VCs that make the early-stage ecosystem work. Thank goodness for them. But if you think investors do not believe that a sustainable business is nirvana, you just have not asked the right questions. That path to profitability must not only be clear but in sight.

The great entrepreneurs I know are better than that. They realize that this not a Max Bialystock shell game. They need to seek profitability and realize the clearer the path to this goal, the more likely it is their journey will be successful.

Leadership; You Will Know It When You See It

“I always admired a subordinate who could stand up and say ‘you said it, chief.’” – quote from a long-time entrepreneurial client

We have all had experience with leaders, and I would be the first to admit that I openly copied the leadership traits of those I admired. The above quote came from a client years ago as I was asking how he instilled the “followship” that is an important part of leadership. His backhanded comment was a reminder of the fact that without some respect (admiration and even fear), the effectiveness of a leader can be somewhat diminished.

I thought about this when I recently attended a session / presentation on leadership. A panel of successful leaders responded to questions and provided some guidance on this topic to the audience. As enlightening as it was, I was somewhat taken aback by the commonality of the message on leadership. While each took their turn at eloquently explaining what they believed a leader was, none captured more than one or two elements of what I thought made a leader. It was at that point that I realized that no definition could capture the wide range of effective leaders I have known.

What I also began to realize as I reflected on my role models was that it was an event or opportunity that allowed that person to become a leader in my eyes. It was action more than executive presence that defined them for me. While I had known most of my leaders and knew what they were capable of, it was an event that brought out their best. Two situations, both related to initial public offerings (IPO) come to mind.

If you have ever been involved in an IPO process, you know it is one of the most intense processes known to man. While not quite like sending someone to the moon, it relies on very timely coordination and execution from a diverse team to come to the right point in time where everyone can “sign off” and give the go signal. At times, that window is only open a day or two at best and if you miss it, you have to revisit the process. At the time of this decision, expectations are high as are the attendant professional fees.

In two separate cases, we were at that go or no-go point and each CEO stepped up and determined the time was not right and the deal was pulled. In one case, it was an experienced professional manager who had been through the process before, but in the other case, it was a business owner with a very unsophisticated business who saw certain parties in the process being pushed to the edge of the envelope. While he was not sure what was going on (and he had the most at risk) he sensed it was not right and stopped the presses.

Crisis, personal issues, conflicts, financial distress, loss of major customer – – I have seen various owners respond to these traumatic events, but it was the true leaders who did not let the situation control them but stepped up to show they were leaders. It was obvious to all present that they saw leadership.

So, as an owner, be prepared to show you a leader. You may in fact be a good mentor and coach to your team, but when the opportunity presents itself, be prepared to step up and do the right thing. The ultimate success of your company may depend on it.

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?”