growth

One Successful Approach to Innovation that worked for an SMB

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When I owned a consulting company we viewed innovation as an imperative. It was the main thing that created differentiation, credibility, and opportunity. We had an innovation budget, solicited ideas from the team, and evaluated those ideas quarterly.

Almost as important to me was that this was fun. It gave everyone on the team the chance to suggest ideas and participate in the process. That was meaningful and supported the collaborative, high-performance culture that had developed. The team was inspired and empowered to make a difference, and that led to an ever-increasing sense of ownership for each employee.

The team also had a vested interest in having the process work, as quarterly bonuses were paid based on their contributions to the company’s profitability. There was a direct cause and effect correlation with tangible benefits for every member of the team.

We developed the following 10 questions qualify & quantify the potential of new ideas:

  1. What will this new thing do?
    • It is important to be very detailed as this was used to create a common vision of success based on the idea being presented.
  2. What problem(s) does this solve and how so?
    • This seems obvious, but if you are not solving a problem (which could be something like “lack of organic expansion”) or addressing a pain point then selling this new product will be an uphill challenge.
  3. What type of organizations have those problems and why?
    • This was fundamental to understanding if a fix was possible from a practical perspective, what the value of that fix might be for the target buyer, and how much market potential existed to scale this new offering.
  4. What other companies have created solutions or are working on solutions to this problem?
    • The lack of competition today does not mean that you are the first one to attack this problem. Due diligence can help avoid repeating the failure of others, and potentially provide lessons learned by others and help you avoid similar pitfalls.
  5. Will this expand our existing business, or does it have the potential to open up a new market for us?
    • There are upsides and downsides to each answer, but breaking into a new market can take more time and be more difficult, time-consuming, and expensive to achieve.
  6. Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?SOX Brochure Cover
    • An idea may fall into multiple categories. When Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX) Act became law we viewed a new service offering as both a tactical means to protect our managed services business as well as an opportunistic means to acquire new customers and grow the business.
  7. What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
  8. What are the Financial Projections for the first year?
    • Cost to develop and go-to-market.
    • Target selling price, factoring-in early adopter discounts.
    • Estimated Contribution Margin Ratio (for comparison with other ideas being considered).
    • Break-even point.
  9. Would we be able to get an existing customer to pre-purchase this?
    • A company that is willing to provide a PO that commits to making a purchase of that MVP within a specific timeframe increased our confidence in the viability of the idea.
  10. What are the specific Critical Success Factors to be used for evaluation purposes?
    • This was an important lesson learned over time that helped minimize emotional attachment to the idea or project, as well as providing objective milestones for critical go / no-go decision making.

 

This process was purposeful, agile, lean, and somewhat aggressive. We believed it gave our company a competitive advantage over larger companies that tended to respond slower to new opportunities and smaller competitors that did not want to venture outside their wheelhouse.

With each project, we learned and became more efficient and effective, and made better investment decisions that positively impacted our success. We monitored progress on an ongoing basis relative to our defined success criteria, and adjusted or sunset an offering if it stopped providing the required value.

The process was not perfect…

For example, we passed on a couple of leading-edge ideas such as a “Support Robot” in 2003 that was essentially an interactive program that used a machine-learning algorithm. It was to be trained using historical log files, could quickly and safely be tested in a production environment, refined as needed and ultimately validated.

This automation could have been used with our existing managed services and Remote DBA customers to further mitigate the risk of unplanned outages. Most importantly, it would have provided leverage to take-on new business without jeopardizing quality or adding staff – thereby increasing revenue and profit margin.

At the time we believed this would be too difficult to sell to prospective customers (“pipe dream” and “snake oil” were some of the adjectives we envisioned), so it appeared to lack a few items required by the process. Live and learn.

In summary, having a defined approach for something as important as business needs innovation to grow and prosper, as best demonstrated by market leaders like Amazon and Google (read the 10-K Annual Reports to gain a better understanding of their competitive growth strategies that are largely based on innovation).

Implementing this type of approach within a larger organization requires additional steps, such as getting the buy-in from a variety of stakeholders and aligning with existing product roadmaps, but is still the key to scalable growth for most businesses.

The Importance of Proper Pricing

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Pricing is one of those things that can make or break a company. Doing it right takes an understanding of your business (cost structure and growth / profitability goals), the market, your competition, and more. Doing it wrong can mean the death of your business (fast or slow), not being able to attract and retain the best people, and not having the opportunity to work to your full potential. These problems apply to companies of all sizes – although large organizations can absorb bad pricing decisions or sustain an unprofitable business much easier than small ones. picture showing several bundles of money

When I started my consulting company in 1999 the plan was to win business by pricing our services 10%-15% lower than the competition. It was a bad plan and it didn’t work. Unfortunately, this approach is something you see all too often in businesses today. In our case we didn’t start to grow until we increased our prices (about 10% more than the competition) and focused on our expertise and value. We were (correctly) perceived as being a premium alternative, and that positioning helped us grow.

Several years ago I had a management consulting engagement with a small software company. The business owner told me that they were, “an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” His concern was that they might not be able to capitalize on recent success so he was looking for an outside opinion.

I analyzed his business, product, customers, and competition. His largest competitor is the industry leader in this space, and products from both companies were evenly matched from a feature perspective. My client’s product even had a few key features that better for Healthcare and Union environments. So, why weren’t they growing faster?

What I found is that competition was priced 400% higher for the base product. When I asked the owner, he told me their goal was to be priced 75% – 80% less than the competition. He could not explain why he did this, other than to state that his customers would be unwilling to pay any more than that. In many cases he lost head-to-head competition against that competitor, but almost never on features. Areas of concern were generally on the size and profitability of the company, and the risk created by each.

I shared the graph (below) with this person, explaining how proper pricing would increase their profitability and annual revenue, and how both of those items would help provide customers and prospects with confidence. Moreover, this would allow the company to grow, eliminate single points of failure in key areas (Engineering and Customer Support), add features, and even spend money on marketing.

Graph showing revenue relative to the life cycle stages of a successful business venture
Source: Entrepreneurial Finance by Leach and Melicher (3rd Ed.)

In another example I worked with the Product Manager of a larger software company who was responsible for producing quarterly product package distributions. This work was outsourced and each build cost approximately $50K. I asked a simple question, “What is the break-even point for each distribution?” That person replied, “There really isn’t a good way to tell.”

Graph showing cost volume profit analysis
Sample cost-volume-profit (CVP) analysis

By the end of the day I provided a Cost-Volume-Profit (CVP) analysis spreadsheet that showed the break-even point. Even more important, it showed the contribution margin and demonstrated there was very little operating leverage provided these products (i.e., they weren’t very profitable even if you sold a lot of them). The recommendations made were to increase prices (which could negatively impact sales) and/or make fewer releases per year, or find a more cost-effective way of releasing products. Without this analysis “business as usual” would have likely continued for several years.

Companies are in business to make money – pure and simple. Everything you do as a business owner or leader needs to be focused on growth. Growth is the result of a combination of factors, such as uniqueness of product or services provided, quality, reputation, efficiency and repeatability. Many of these are the same factors that drive profitability. Pricing can help drive profitability, so as you can see pricing can significantly impact growth.

Some customers and prospects will do everything possible to whittle your profit margins down to nothing. They are focused on their own short-term gain, and not on their long-term risk. Companies that are not profitable generally lack longevity. Those same companies expect to make a profit on their business, so it is unreasonable to expect anything different from suppliers. My feeling is that, “Not all business is good business” so it is better to walk away from bad business and focus on the business that helps your company grow.

One of the best books on pricing that I’ve ever found is, “The Strategy and Tactics of Pricing: A Guide to Profitable Decision Making” by Thomas T. Nagle and Reed K. Holden. This is an extremely comprehensive and practical book that I recommend to anyone responsible for pricing or who has P&L responsibility within an organization. This addresses the many complexities of pricing and is truly invaluable.

In a future post I will discuss the metrics that I use to understand efficiency and profitability. Metrics can be your best friend when it comes to finding ways to optimize pricing and maximizing profitability. This can help you create a systematic approach to business that increases efficiency, consistency, and quality.

At my company we developed a system where we know how long common tasks would take to complete, and had efficiency factors for each consultant. This allowed us to create estimates based on the type of work and the people most likely to work on the task, and fix bid the work. Our bids were competitive, and even when we were the highest priced bid we often won because we would be the only (or one of the few) companies to guarantee prices and results. Our level of effort estimates were +/- 4%, and that helped us maintain a 40%+ minimum gross margin for every project. This approach helped our business double in revenue without doubling in size.

There are many causes of poor pricing, which include: Lack of understanding of cost structure; Lack of understanding of the level of effort; and lack of concern for profitability (e.g., salespeople who are paid on the size of the deal, and not on margins or profitability). But, with a little understanding and effort you can make small adjustments to your pricing approach and models that can have a huge impact to the bottom line of your business.