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Image representing 37signals as depicted in Cr...

Image via CrunchBase

I really enjoy reading Jason Fried’s articles in Inc. Magazine.  It is truly refreshing to read a fresh approach to business that is rooted in customers and products.  Recently Jason wrote about hiring an administrative assistant.  At first blush this might not seem very interesting.  In truth it is probably the single most effective spend a business leader can make as their business grows.

Start-ups begin with a minimum of staff and no extra money.  That tends to build a culture of frugality and self reliance.  The challenge comes when the growth of the company exceeds the leader’s ability to produce.  Jason talks about his experiences in this article with this exact problem.  He is not alone.  Several of my clients are strapped for time seven days a week but struggle with hiring an administrative assistant.  It is not always the money.  In fact my personal experience is the key issue is letting go.  Self reliance is a great trait but it is also Self Limiting!

Are you at that point where your company cannot be limited by your own ability to produce?

 

 

 

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The law and advertising, beware!

Paying people to hold signs is one of the olde...About 15 years ago my company learned some hard lessons about the law and advertising.  We said something in our ad that we should not have said.  It turns out there is something called the Lanham act that allows competitors to bring suit for false advertising. That is exactly what happened to us.  Christine Lebrón-Dykeman of McKee Voorhees and Sease recently wrote a very good article about this exact situation in their newsletter.  It turns out there are several valid reasons a private party can do this:

  • The advertiser made false statements of fact about their product
  • The Advertisements are or could be deceptive
  • There was a material deception
  • The product was sold in interstate commerce
  • The party bringing the lawsuit was injured or would be injured.

The damages can be extensive.  Before advertising, make sure you read this (the article begins on page 3 of the newsletter).  It is a very good read.

 

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Make it better or shut it down – Keeping your focus

2012 Ford F-150 SVT Raptor Crew CabI am a big fan of Jason Fried of 37Signals. I think what they have accomplished is not only amazing but sets a model for others to pursue. Recently Jason wrote a post for Inc. Magazine titled “Walking Away From A Product“. In the post, he tells the story of his teams’ decision to shut down a profitable product and the resulting reactions from others. Understand, the product was making a profit for them. And they are shutting it down or selling it. Why? In a word, focus.

For many starting or growing a business, the highest pressure comes from having too much to do. There are so many things on your plate, some days you struggle just to get a list of all the things needing to be done finished. The second highest pressure is to grow revenue. Revenue is the life blood of a compay. So why would Jason suggest killing off a product that is making money? Simple. Focus! Focus the precious time you have on the products or projects that make money and have the greatest potential to grow. Say you have a total of 6 hours a week available to work on growing your products or services. You do not want to spread that 6 hours around too much. You certainly should not spend it on the lowest potential or performing product or service.

Jason is correct is saying that if you are not making a product better, you need move away from the product. Beyond just focus, you need to recognize that these days competition is constant and relentless. If you are not going to improve your product, you may want to sell it to your competitor who does focus in the product’s area.  At the end of the day, focus your precious time in the place with the most potential. This will increast you opportunity for success.

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Naming your product

 

Business Plan Template - Product Box Shot

Business Plan Template – Product Box Shot (Photo credit: IvanWalsh.com)

Many of my clients are creating a new product. Some of these clients are brand new companies and others are existing service providers who have recently developed a product. When you are a brand new company no matter what the company name, it will require an introduction. When you are an existing company that already has name recognition, don’t change the name of your company just because you now have a product to compliment your services.

Some companies consider renaming their company to their new product name. Beyond the reasoning above, there are a few additional reasons not to do this. First, keep in mind you may end up with multiple products so you do not want the company name tied to any one product. Second, it is possible that someday another company buys one of your products but not your company. You will want the ability to separate the two.

When you name your product, consider focusing on something descriptive, something that denotes the solution you provide. Think about a sales call where you will introduce your new product. You have just introduced yourself and your company. If you are a new company, they will not have any point of reference. If you are an existing company, it is likely they will have a certain level of trust based on your reputation. With that, you need to introduce them to your product. Focus on the problem you solve so that when the potential customer hears the name, they can envision the problem solved. It will also naturally move the conversation along. Here is an example:

“Hi, I am Mike from Standard Software. We have a new product called Connection Monitor. This product is targeted at small businesses that are higly dependent on their internet connections. The user of our product can keep up-to-date on the status of their connections and program alerts…..” Upon hearing this, the customer will most likely respond with questions, how, where, to what extent, who etc.

By choosing a name that denotes the solution, you will lead the conversation to the next logical step. While the name may not seem thrilling or bold to you, it will help your customer understand what you are providing.

 

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Negotiations in business – practice, practice, practice

 

Customers talking to a Relationship Manager du...

Customers talking to a Relationship Manager during the Edelmetallmesse (Photo credit: GoldMoneyNews)

 

Doing business is a series of negotiations. From the moment you plan to start a business to serving your customer, you find yourself negotiating. For most people negotiations brings to mind price, but there are many other areas you must negotiate.

For the service provider, the details of the service, the delivery time-frame and the definition of “complete” are some of the many items that must be determined. For the product company, delivery time-frame, extended warranty, financing options, product specifics (color, options, etc) all must be negotiated.

Negotiations is a required skill all business people must learn and refine. Many experienced business people will tell you they are still learning how to be a better negotiator. For those getting started, here are a few points to consider;

  • Some people like to negotiate. It is like a sport to them. Be prepared to spend the necessary time. It is not just about the end goal, it is the process these people enjoy. Don’t hurry them. It will be harder to close the deal.
  • Many times a customer request for a price allowance may indicate you have not overcome product objections. Make sure you have dealt with any objections before negotiating price
  • Keep your emotions in check and do not make the process personal. This is not about you winning or losing, it is about taking care of the customer. Making the process a win/lose proposition immediately puts you in competition with the customer.
  • If you must negotiate price, give up in very small increments. If the customer offers you 25% less, counter with 3% less or some similar amount. First, this lets the customer know you will not be giving up huge amounts. Second, you will quickly find out if the issue is price or product.
  • Finally, unlike some in politics, there is no room for absolutes in business. Bluntly stating there is no room for compromise is stating you are not open for business. Stay open to listening and considering offers. Some may be surprisingly beneficial.

Practice your skills of negotiation every day. Not just with customers but with vendors, partners, employees and others you come in contact with. After each encounter, think through what you did, what worked and what you could have done better. This will pay off in the long run.

 

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What is an angel investor?

English: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Comm...

English: The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission headquarters located at 100 F Street, NE in the Near Northeast neighborhood of Washington, D.C. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Following the launch of the Plains Angels this week, I have had several people ask me what an Angel Investor is. According to the Angel Capital Association:

An angel is a high net-worth individual who invests his or her own money in start-up companies in exchange for an equity share of the businesses. ACA recommends that entrepreneurs work with investors who are accredited investors (who meet requirements of the Securities and Exchange Commission) and who can add value to the company via high quality mentoring and advice. Other important things to know about angels include:

  • Many angels are former entrepreneurs themselves
  • They make investments in order to gain a return on their money, to participate in the entrepreneurial process, and often to give back to their communities by catalyzing economic growth.
  • Angels make a return on their investment when the entrepreneur successfully grows the business and exits it, generally through a sale or merger
  • It is estimated that angels invested 19 billion in more than 55,000 start-up businesses in 2008 (Source: Center for Venture Research)
  • Angels tend to invest in companies that are located near them regionally (or to co-invest in a wider geography if a local investor they know and trust is involved)

The key thing to me at the end of the day is can the angel investor add value to the company. This is commonly referred to as “smart money”, or money that comes with skills, connections, knowledge, or other valuable resources.

Remember, if you take outside capital from angel investors or other sources, you need to plan in advance how you will return the capital with a good gain. As stated above, this generally occurs when the company is sold or merged with another company.

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Partnerships – a guaranteed divorce

partnership agreement

Many of the clients I advise are in partnerships.  It is a common situation.  Two or more people get together to solve a problem and the next thing you know a partnership is born.  If you listen to the first-time partners, they will tell you their priorities are to get the product into the market and grow the business. If you listen to partners who have been through years of business together, you will hear something different.

What older, wiser partners will tell you is to plan the divorce.  It is coming.  It is guaranteed.  At some point the partnership must end.   Whether for reasons of death, indifference, disagreement, or a multitude of other reasons, it will happen.  The key these wise people will tell you is to plan the divorce in advance.  Setting the value of the company and how one partner might buy out another partner well in advance sets the rules if things go bad. I sincerely hope that things will not go bad for you in your partnership.  But in case they do, have the ground rules set in advance.

My good friend Rush Nigut at Brick Gentry has presented on this topic many times in the past.  Check out the video of him on this subject “Rush Nigut on Partnering” for an in-depth analysis of why this is so critical and how you can protect yourself.

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Let go or be dragged

 

English: Stunt show at Texas Hollywood, Almeria

English: Stunt show at Texas Hollywood, Almeria (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

So the other day I was getting ready for yoga class when one of my classmates told us about something she saw on Facebook. Someone, I do not know who, posted “Let Go or Be Dragged” on their page. As the class talked about this from the standpoint of life in general I thought about how this applies to startup and growth businesses.

One of the key failure points in a business is when the owner or general manager cannot let go of certain aspects of their business. Recently I was working with a VP of marketing at a small manufacturing company. She was adding a dedicated sales manager to her team. Her manager, the president of the company, who was probably trying to do the right thing, interjected a whole different organization structure on this VP. While it is his prerogative as her manager, he unintentionally cost her a lot of time and trouble. She was having to drag him along to where she needed him to be. He needed to trust her and let go.

The problem here is knowing what things to let go of and what things to stay in control of. If you want a company to grow, you have to get the right people engaged in the team. Once you do this, you have to let go. Keeping tight control of a talented, motivated employee is a fast way to lose that employee.

The same thing holds true for founders. While they are the ones that start the company, that is no guarantee they are the right ones to grow the company. In fact, I will argue that in most cases the founder will not be the right one to grow the company. The necessary skills are not the same. Sure, there are exceptions, but they are few.

In the end, if you are an owner or manager, stay aware of the people on your team. Are they dragging you along? Do you need to let go?

 

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How do I tell you…?

SadDear Small Business Owner,

How do I tell you?

  • How do I tell you that the tops of all the napkin holders in your restaurant are covered in dried, crusted food?
  • How do I tell you that your email is delivering “permanent failure to deliver” messages to me?
  • How do I tell you that your phone has no answering machine?
  • How do I tell you that you forgot to deliver my goods three times in a row?
  • How do I tell you that you never write down what I need, then often apologize a month later for missing something?
  • How do I tell you that I waited for five minutes at the register and no one came?
  • How do I tell you that your Facebook page is not connected so I cannot communicate with you?
  • How do I tell you that I cannot depend on you returning my phone calls?
  • How do I tell you that you have billed me three times for something I already paid you for?
  • How do I tell you that I cannot trust you?

How do I tell you that you are killing your own business?

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Mentors: Why, who, when, and what next

16775bMentors play an important role in business.  Most successful business people I know will attribute some of their success to having good mentors.  So what makes for a good mentor?  Well, it depends on you.  First you have to decide what you want from your mentors.  You will notice I say mentors plural as you likely need more than one.  One place to start is where you are weak.  Face it, we all have weaknesses.  The best mentors for you are probably strong where you are weak.  If you are strong in finance, you may not need a financial mentor.  Whereas if you are weak in sales, you may want to find a mentor who is experienced in this area. A great way to figure out your strengths and weaknesses is through a book and an assessment tool called Stengths finder.

Next, how often should you meet with your mentors?  Should you meet with several at once or each individually?  This is very dependent on what your needs are.  If you have the ability to have regular meetings with your mentors, do it.  I find monthly meetings about right for me in most cases.  Use this time to explore not only tactical issues you have in their area of expertise but also ask for their help on longer term strategy.  For large scale decisions you may want to meet as a group in a more advisory panel approach. What ever you do, make sure you are not taking too much of these people’s time.

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The business sayings of my father

English: Car dealership on Ipswich RoadI grew up the son of an entrepreneur.

My father was Bill Colwell.  For anyone who was in Waterloo, Iowa in the early 70s you could not miss him.  He ran TV commercials on channel 7 every night for Schukei Chevrolet. This was when I was in junior high.  Every night my dad would get on TV and say, “Hi, I’m Bill Colwell for Schukei Chevrolet and I’m crazy!”

Yes, I got tough fast.  But more importantly, growing up around an entrepreneur who did not finish high school and did not have a direct path to success, it was a learning experience.

My Dad had a lot of sayings.  Many of these have been of great value to me in my career.  I would like to share a few of these with you as they have helped me grow my businesses.

  1. Tell the truth, you never have to remember what you said.  Boy is this more true than ever. Back in his day there was no internet and social media data pile storing everything you ever said or did.  I cannot tell you how many times this has saved me with a customer or vendor.
  2. Sell what you can see, don’t see what you can sell.  When I first starting selling cars, I would come back into the store and tell my dad that “if we just had xxx car” or “if it just had power seats” I would have sold it.  My dad pointed to the rows of cars and said “see those cars, that is all the money we have.  We have to sell those cars”.  That was the long version of “Sell what you can see, don’t see what you can sell”.  In business you have to sell what you have to sell.
  3. Smile and dial.  We did a lot of cold calling.  Can you imagine taking out a phone book and dialing random numbers to try to sell someone a car?  Well, I tried to do it.  One thing my dad taught me was “Smile and Dial”.  In other words, when you are talking to a customer, smile!  You will sound much more positive.  Also, look up and straight out to the horizon.  Your voice will be more clear.
  4. Shut up and Write.  When the customer said yes, shut up and write up the deal.  If you keep talking, you may say the wrong thing and talk the customer back out of the deal.  Even today I will have experiences where a salesperson keeps talking and starts to confuse the situation.  They need to “shut up and write!”

My dad learned by failing many times.  These sayings of his are hard won knowledge.  My dad passed away in 2001 of lung cancer.  I miss him.  I will never forget him or his sayings.

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The paradox of a new idea

 

Deutsch: Logo von Yahoo

Deutsch: Logo von Yahoo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Recently I drove by a closed restaurant.  It had been a steakhouse most recently. I thought about how tough it would be to compete against the other steak houses in the area and wondered if that was why it did not survive.  As I drove on, I thought about all the types of food available today at restaurants from German to Italian, to Mexican to Chinese to Thai, to bagel shops, well, you get the picture.

I realized the one thing harder than competing against the steakhouse or any other type of restaurant probably would be if a new restaurant came along with a whole new type of food or way of doing business.  At least if you are a steakhouse, the customers will know what to expect. This is the paradox of a new idea.  While many customers will say that they are seeking something new, they tend to gravitate to the familiar.

If you are starting a business that is truly a new idea, how do you get customers to try you out? Groupon leveraged the analogy of a coupon, something everyone already understood. When Yahoo became be one of the first mainstream search engines, they spent a lot of money on memorable ads that demonstrated what a search engine was, then added a unforgetable holler of “Yahoo!”

How does the small business or startup entrepreneur best compete with a new idea?  After all, they do not have the millions of dollars Yahoo.  That is one of the most challenging questions for the truly new idea based business.  Here are a few paths to consider:

  • Like Groupon, create an analogy to a recognizable product idea
  • Offer it as a complimentary product to an existing well-known product.  Want to sell an “after desert palate cleanser”?  Sell it with desert.
  • Offer a known product at a very low price then bundle the new idea product on top.  Are you going to steam clean office desks to get rid germs?  Better sell it with the rest of the cleaning process.

Offering a brand new, unrecognizable product to a market that does not know what it is, will most likely lead to failure.  Make sure your new idea can be recognized and understood in context to it’s use.

 

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Do not compete on price, unless…

Been asked by many friends lately to help them...There was an interesting article about a new start-up company called AutoSlash in the New York Times this past weekend.  AutoSlash says they will get you the best price on a car rental by constantly checking for better deals even after the reservation is made.  What caught my attention was how many of the auto rental companies had decided to allow AutoSlash to work within their reservation systems and coupon systems to deliver these low prices.

This seems like an interesting move. I can understand why the low dollar rental companies may want to pursue this, but one company that is connected is Hertz.  Given their reputation for being on-premise and having covered parking for the cars among other ammenities, it just seems odd. Maybe they figure that in a tie on price they will win the business?

For a new business starting out or a business trying to grow, competing on price does not make sense long term.  Sure, you can use price to bring new customers into your business, but only if you think you can keep them over time for repeat sales or sell them something else while they are there.  Walgreens is famous for this strategy.  They will discount something heavily to get customers to the store but they make up for their loss leader sales with other purchases.

Competing on price alone signals to the customer they should always expect the lowest price. While this will win you some business, you will have a harder time keeping your customers long term.  A price-only buyer does not tend to be a loyal customer.

Use price where needed to bring customers into your business.  But when doing this, make sure you know you will keep them over time at reasonable margins or sell them other items that will make up the margin hit.

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What can we learn from the Komen Foundation polarization

 

Twitter 6x6

Twitter 6×6 (Photo credit: Steve Woolf)

In the aftermath of the controversy surrounding the Susan B. Komen foundation decision and the reversal of the same decision, perhaps the best thing we can all do is learn from the situation.  Regardless of the side you might be on, if you own a small business, you should be thinking about how to avoid these types of situations.

We all live in a time of increasing polarization concerning issues. When you combine this with the ability of almost everyone to speak with a loud voice via Facebook, Twitter, Blogs, and other social media platforms, you have a situation which is entirely new. In a matter of hours, the opinion of literally millions can be heard. And there is nothing you can do about that.

Now take that same combination to the local level.  These days it is common to comment on local news sites, in fact it is encouraged. Any issue can get amplified to a higher level than desired. Some time back, a local restaurant owner found out the hard way when his not-too-polite comments were broadcast around the Des Moines metro for all to hear, over and over again.

If you own a business, you must take extra care not to cast your business into the light of polarizing issues. Sounds easy, but it isn’t. Who decides what is polarizing? Everyone. Here are a few polarizing issues that may or may not surprise you:

  • A restaurant has a pig roast in the parking lot.
  • A hardware store fires an employee.
  • A mechanic has a religious symbol on his wall.
  • A veterinarian clinic has to euthanize an animal.
  • A man walks into a shopping center carrying a gun.
  • A woman enters a funeral visitation wearing a revealing dress.

Are these polarizing?  The answer is yes, for a certain group of people. What will cause the loudest of outcries will most likely depend on your response to someone raising the issue as polarizing in the first place.  Does the funeral parlor ask the woman to leave because others are complaining? Does the hardware store respond to an accusation of bias? How does any business person deal with this? The answer is complex, but here are some guidelines to consider.

  • Be consistent in the way you manage and operate your business.
  • Be polite to everyone. Everyone!
  • Ask others that don’t share your personal views for their opinion on how to respond to a sensitive issue. Have an issue raised by a gun owner? If you have time, ask a couple other gun owners you know and trust for their thoughts. You may learn more about where a perceived issued is coming from.
  • Anticipate all potential outcomes so you know what you will do. Plan ahead. It is like playing chess. You have to play a few moves ahead to stay safe.
  • If you think something you are going to do is going to polarize the community, ask yourself if your business can survive the impact. If not, you shouldn’t do it.
  • Do not over react to those who are not civil or respectful.
  • Communicate clearly and consistently concerning the situation.

Lastly, don’t lie. People have a much greater ability to sense when someone is lying that most people understand.

 

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So, whos ready to step up to the next level?

English: Flight of steps Running up to the rai...Growing a business quickly requires that you can bring new employees into your business and bring them up to speed in their tasks. Too often, bringing a new person on requires one of your best employees to take precious time to train the new person. The same can be said about developing new processes which you want everyone to start using. Whether these are processes used in serving the customer or managing information, everyone involved needs to know how to do these new procedures correctly.

I have had great success managing this problem through my employees. Many of my employees would ask for opportunities to learn new things on the job or just work on something different. My solution was to have the employees write written instructions on how do do certain procedures. I fell into this by accident one evening late when I was trying to create a document for my employees.  It finally dawned on me that many of the employees knew the details much better than I did.  I can be a bit slow at times! Perhaps this sounds simplistic, but think about it.

  • If the procedure is new, the person who developed it is probably best suited to write down how to perform the procedure.
  • Writing the process down moves company knowledge onto paper and out of a single person’s mind – great insurance should that person leave. This is also a great way to deal with new locations or virtual employees.
  • Asking the employees to write out processes engages them in the entry point of management and challenges them to try new things. This is a quick way to find out who is ready for the next level.
  • Asking the rest of the employees to improve the instructions over time is a great crowd-sourcing approach to improving the process over time.

Finally, asking the employees to develop, write and improve the processes your company uses, engages the employees in the business and enables you to grow faster.

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