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.

Madagascar – Where Being an Entrepreneur is a Way of Life

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” – old English proverb

My wife and I recently visited Madagascar. It is a beautiful country with unbelievable landscapes, great people and of course lemurs. As I am prone to do, I saw this world through my own “colored” glasses and personally believe there are more entrepreneurs there than anyplace I have ever been. Now before you think I may have stayed in the sun too long or had too many THB’s (Three Horses Beers), please bear with me.

I am not sure about the official unemployment rate, but we spoke to dozens of people from all walks of life while we were there. Except for one, all were what we would call in the US, independent contractors. They were paid when they worked (office and factory workers, those in tourism, etc.) and not paid when they didn’t. So to survive, almost everyone has their own “business” – from performing some type of service to raising crops to clothing boutiques. Every town we visited had a plethora (thank you Three Amigos) of vendors selling everything from food to clothing to kindling wood. So I contrast this with what I see here every day and realize there are two big differences.

First, Madagascar is very poor so there are no “friends and family” to help support you as you go off to develop some new product or service. They need their venture just to survive; to pay the rent or barter to get food for their family. They are the ultimate risk takers – figuring out what they need to do to make it through the day – they are not living comfortably at home (or with friends) writing code for what hopefully will be the next killer app.

Second, they are unbelievably resourceful. Now I meet smart startup founders every day and they certainly know how to deal with limited resources. In fact, when I hold sessions and ask participants to describe an entrepreneur, one of the most common responses is they know how to get the most done with the least. But there, this concept is taken to a different level. There is little money and scarce natural resources, yet we visited “businesses” that:

  • Made aluminum pots (the same my Mom used for pasta) out of 100% recycled aluminum. They used everything from old building siding to car parts. By the way – no kilns for heat; just charcoal and the molds were formed out of silica sand.
  • Created inlaid wood pieces from recycled wood. Here the key tool was a saw; the body of which was constructed from car parts and the saw blades from the steel found in recycled steel belted radial tires.
  • Produced miniature model bicycles from 100% recycled bike parts – everything from hand brake cable to old tire spokes.

So now perhaps you can see what I admired about the entrepreneurial spirit there. Necessity for them is the mother of invention – both the need to survive and the need to make the most from what is available. Perhaps this “way of life” will inspire you to work even harder to make your venture a success because as tough as you think it may be, you are probably not as burdened as the entrepreneurs of Madagascar.

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.

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.