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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My Partner(s) and I Can’t Work Together; What Do We Do?

Quote: Disputes happen (my sanitized version of the often used phrase of unknown origin.)

It is tough to be in the business of serving entrepreneurs and not encounter a dispute or two between owners. I am not referring to the garden variety disagreements that happen on a daily basis, but major differences that lead to paradigm change. The most common form of this conundrum is one owner firmly believing that the glass is half empty and one adamant about the glass being half full. In this scenario, the more optimistic owner dreams of the future and touts expansion, investing and new hires; the pessimist blocks him at every step setting up an unworkable situation. So what do you do?

One of the techniques I have seen employed is to bring in outside consultants to set up processes to both help clarify the true nature of the differences as well as resolve them. One of my clients often used the phrase “says easy; does hard” and that is what I usually found with this technique. When people really have different business philosophies, it is difficult at best to identify all of the differences and just when you think you have, new ones seem to surface. Obviously, if you can’t fully identify the problem, you can’t resolve it. The stark reality is that in some business relationships, there exists what is referred to in many divorce filings as “unreconcilable differences” and when they are deep seated, attempts to resolve them almost always lead to failure.

Unfortunately, in this situation the only viable solution is the difficult separation / buyout / settlement approach. Now those that have followed my blog know that I am not a fan of liquidity provisions in shareholder agreements. Even if a price is set in advance, getting the appropriate financing can be a major hurdle. For some reasons, banks are not interested in loaning you money that is going to an important “former” partner and out the door leaving the debt behind to be serviced by the survivor. However, when this type of situation arises, in many cases the future of the enterprise is at stake so it is imperative that a separation be negotiated.

These transactions are very emotion packed and much like a married couples’ divorce, value seems to manifest itself not in the true worth of the item being negotiated but in the perception one owner has as to the importance of the item to the other owner. So terms and conditions as well as price suddenly carry with them a level of unreasonableness fueled by the years of feeling underappreciated or maligned and getting a deal done takes on a whole new level of difficulty.
So my advice here is first, to start a separation process if it is clear there are major business approach differences and engage advisors who are used to dealing with this type of situation. Qualified lawyers and advisors who have not dealt with this before tend to treat this as a normal sale which only delays the process. And be prepared to be patient because emotions add to the timeline, but do not place your business at risk by avoiding the issue. Unfortunately as we all know, disputes happen.

Is There Such a Thing as Dumb Money?

“Dopus. I already had the money in my hand.” – Comicus quote from “History of the World” by Mel Brooks

At times, an entrepreneur is so focused on closing the deal for financing that they forget some of the long-term ramifications. In this scene from History of the World, Comicus is willing to say almost anything to get his weekly stipend. But is this approach dangerous for a business owner seeking financing? After all, money is money and it doesn’t come with a personality — or does it?

We have all heard the expression “smart money”. When one is discussing a successfully funded venture, it is common to hear the phrase “that’s where the smart money is.” Investment advice is often laced with terms such as “that is what the smart money is doing.” While I think you get the point, the question has to be raised: “Is there such a thing as dumb money?” I submit to you that there definitely is. The real question is how to avoid it.

Most owners seeking financing have this uniform image of an investor — serious, numbers-oriented, like Jack Webb (there’s a dated reference for you) they just want the facts. But smart owners do some diligence on their potential partners, and the wise ones know those traits that can come back to haunt you. So here are some warning flags.

Watch out for self-promoters. There is nothing wrong with having some pride in what you have accomplished, but the potential investor who goes on and on about their value proposition, including name dropping like they are some gossip columnist, has to be vetted with a cautious eye. When the next words you expect to hear are “enough of me talking about me; why don’t you talk about me for a while,” it is time to put your private eye glasses on.

The over-promiser is another type to take with a grain of salt. I have been in many meetings where investors are making their pitch and they mention connections they have that can really help the business grow. I can’t count the number of times these conversations resulted in companies accepting these investors, only to find that the two or three contacts they mentioned at that key meeting are in fact the only contacts they have. This is what I call the “big hat; no cattle” approach.

Finally, be careful when confronted by the smartest person in the room. This type tends to look down on the entrepreneur as if they are not worthy to be on the same planet. Without really analyzing the facts, they are quick to point out how something should be done differently and how they will add value by their vast knowledge.

The one common element is: if an investor is really going to help you (besides funding you), they have to understand you. As Stephen Covey advises, “Seek first to understand; then to be understood.” The types noted above may be past the point of being able to listen and understand. And by the way, it is not so much that they are dumb as it is they are not capable of using their smarts effectively. So make sure when you seek investment, you do not get stuck with dumb money because, in the long run, it will be a very painful step in your journey.

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.

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.

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.