Over the years I have heard comments like, “We operate like a startup,” “We act like a startup,” and “We are an overnight success that was 10 years in the making.” These statements are often euphemisms for “We are small and not growing as quickly as we would like.”
There are numerous estimates of startups in their first few years. One of the best descriptions that I have found is from Failory, but Investopedia and LendingTree have similar but differing takes on the statistics and root causes. All three articles linked to are worth reading. The net result is that the outcome of failure is much greater than the outcome of success, especially over time. So, “acting like a startup” is not necessarily a good thing even when it is true. You want to act like a successful startup!
Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are great inputs to business plans. I have been a principal with successful startups, both early employees and founders. Understanding the data and various causes for success and failure are significant inputs to business plans focused on long-term success. As a Founder, there are a few points that I believe to be key to success:
- You have specific expertise that is in demand and would be valuable to an identifiable number of prospective customers. How would those customers use those skills, and how would they quantify the value? That understanding provides focus on what to sell and to whom.
- Have a detailed understanding of the market and key players to hone in on a niche to succeed.
- Understand your strengths and weaknesses, and then hire the most intelligent and most ambitious people whose strengths complement your strengths and weaknesses.
- Understand how you will reach those potential customers and the messaging you believe will compel them. Then, find a way to test those assumptions and refine them as necessary. Marketing and Lead Generation is very important.
- Have a plan for delivering on whatever you are selling before you get your first sale. A startup needs to develop its track record of success, beginning with its first sale.
- Cash flow is king. It is far too easy to run out of money while looking at a balance sheet that seems excellent because of receivables. Understand what matters and why it matters.
- Founders need to understand the administrative side of a business – especially the financial, legal (especially contract law), insurance, and tax side of things. Find experts to validate your approach and fill in knowledge gaps.
- Consistency leads to repeatable success. You standardize, optimize, and automate everything possible. Wasted time and effort becomes wasted opportunity.
- Finally, there needs to be sufficient cash on hand to fund the time that it takes to find and close your first deals, deliver and invoice the work, and then receive your first payments. That could easily be a 3-6 month period.
Those are the foundational items that are reasonably tangible. What is not as concrete but equally as important are:
- Having or developing the ability to spot trends and identify gaps that could become opportunities for your business.
- Having an agile mindset allows you to pivot your offerings or approach to refine your business model and hone in on that successful niche for your business.
- Foster a sense of innovation within your business. Always look for opportunities to deliver a better product or service, improve the efficiency and effectiveness of your business, and create intellectual property (IP) that adds long-term value.
- Focus on being the best and building a brand that helps differentiate you from your competition.
- Become a Leader, Not a Manager. Create your vision of success, set expectations for each person and team, and help eliminate roadblocks to their success. Trust your team to help you grow, and replace members quickly if it becomes clear that they are not a good fit.
As Steve Jobs once said, “It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and then tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Winning is hard, so focus on the journey. Making your customers’ lives easier and allowing your employees to be creative while doing something they are proud of will lead you to your destination. But, when things start going well, don’t sit back and convince yourself that you are successful. Instead, continue to focus on ways to improve and grow.
Success means different things to different people, but longevity, growth, profitability, and some form of contributing to a greater good should be dimensions of success for any vision.
Let’s start with two of my favorite personal quotes:
“Luck is what happens when Preparation meets Opportunity.” – Seneca, Roman Philosopher.
“Become the person who would attract the results you seek.” – Jim Cathcart, Author of “Relationship Selling”
Why are those quotes important? Because they point out that you are responsible for your own success.
Great companies with great products or services and great management teams make it much easier to be successful, but anyone who is prepared, curious, focused, motivated, and has a system that they follow can become successful anywhere.
My experience has shown the following to be true:
- Without preparation and understanding of your prospect, their customers, and their competition you are unlikely to succeed. This understanding provides the foundation for asking relevant questions to both understand the real need and to effectively qualify a deal in or out.
- Most sales occur because a Product or Service solves real and immediate business problems, or ties into strategic business initiatives.
- Your early goals should be around getting the meeting, having real discussions, understanding problems from your prospect’s perspective (including the terminology they use to describe those problems), and helping them describe what success “looks like to them” and why that is important (logically and emotionally). At this stage, you are learning and positioning, not selling.
- Deal qualification is an essential skill that enables you to focus your time and efforts where you are most likely to succeed. The faster you are able to “qualify out” a prospect that is not a good fit the better it is for you and that prospect. Eternal optimism is not a plan for filling your pipeline.
- If you have a supporting team then make sure that everyone understands the situation, their role and contribution to success, and what you want them to focus on. Never assume that things will just fall into place on their own.
- Have a repeatable process to track activities, measure progress, and identify the best next steps. Remember, “To measure is to know.” (Lord Kelvin)
- The sale is not over until your new Customer is happy. Become their internal advocate within your own organization and you will be rewarded with the customer’s trust, loyalty, and repeat business.
Ideally your Sales Leadership Team has defined a Sales Strategy, created a couple of repeatable Sales Plays and compelling supporting materials such as: Success Stories; Case Studies; ROI and TCO charts; brief but targeted Demos; and realistic Product Comparison information for internal use. These become the foundation for repeatable and scalable success.
But, if that is missing then collaborate with your peers, seek guidance from your leadership, and get creative. Remember, you are ultimately responsible for your own success so don’t allow things to become excuses or a crutch. In the words of the Buddha, “There are three solutions to every problem: Accept it, Change it, or Leave it.”
To help ensure success you will need to follow a Sales Methodology. Here is a link to a good high-level overview from Spotio.com. I’ve used several and there are pros and cons to each. None of them effectively addresses the successful progression from:
- Initiation, Understanding, and Qualification.
- Defining a compelling Solution and successfully positioning it against the competition.
- Closing the Sale, which is an area that many salespeople fall short.
The sales methodology that I personally believe is one of the easiest to use and most effective is MEDDIC. It is a Deal Qualification process, which is more encompassing than a simple Lead Qualification approach. The biggest blind spots are that it fails to address these four key areas:
- Influencers within a buyer’s organization. Knowing who these people are and what their biases may be will allow you to direct various resources towards each, and ideally provide a multi-threaded approach for each and every deal.
- Incumbents and the sentiment towards those vendors and their products. This is key to not wasting time on an opportunity that you would be unlikely to win.
- Related/Adjacent needs. Being able to tie success to multiple areas provides leverage and increases the value of your solution.
- Timeline/Urgency. This allows you to work backward from milestone dates for efforts like typical lead times for Legal and Purchasing, Integration Testing, QA/QC, Training and Documentation, etc.
Being prepared, creating a common vision of success that is based on the outcome rather than the approach, being responsive, and developing relationships and trust based on knowledge and a desire to help are easy ways to differentiate yourself from many lesser salespeople. Invest in your skills, set aggressive goals, and always hold yourself accountable for your own success.
Do this and you will become part of the 20% of any sales team that ‘moves the dial.’
Originally posted on LinkedIn.com/in/chipn
Recently I read that the U.S. is experiencing a significant jump in unemployment claims. Much of that is understandable given the recent decline in many businesses, concerns about how long this crisis may last, and the need to protect ongoing viability by business owners and executives. But, in the near future business activity will resume and it will very important that businesses have maintained a pipeline of business and retained the qualified staff to deliver its products and services.
Now could be the ideal time to challenge your team to focus on improving your business. Look at business processes and identify:
- What works well today? Are you able to identify what makes it work so well? Simplicity, automation, and lack of friction are typical attributes of effective and efficient systems and processes that have a positive impact on any business.
- What could be improved and why? Specific examples and real data will help quantify the impact and support the prioritization of follow-on activities.
- What is missing today?
- Good ideas have likely been raised in the past so why not revisit them?
- What are competitors or businesses in other segments doing that could be helpful?
- Brainstorm and consider something completely new that could help your business.
- Start a list, describe the need and benefits, provide specific examples, and then estimate the potential impact and time to value for each idea.
- Take the ideas having the greatest promise and estimate the cost, people/skills needed, other dependencies for each to see how they stack up.
Something else to consider is the creation or updating of Business Continuity Plans. Now is a perfect time – while everything is fresh in the minds of your team. Not only will this help for the future, but there could also be several useful ideas for the coming weeks.
For example, do you have documentation that is sufficient for someone who is not an expert in your business to be able to take over with a relatively small ramp-up time? How will you maintain quality and control of those processes? Are your plans stored in a repository that is accessible yet secure outside of your organization? Do you have the processes and tools in place to collect documentation and feedback on things that did not work as documented or could be improved? Are your Risk Management plans and mitigation procedures up-to-date and adequate?
Investing in your business during this time of slowdown could have many benefits, including maintaining good employee morale, enhancing employee and customer loyalty, retaining employees and the expertise and skills they have, and increasing sustainability and long-term growth potential.
One of the best team-building exercises that I have participated in was as a Board Member for the Children’s Hospital Foundation of Wisconsin. We were going down a path that led to a decision on whether or not to invest $150M in a new addition. The CEO at the time, Jon Vice, wisely determined that strong teams were needed for each committee in order to thoroughly vet the idea from every possible perspective.
The process started by being given a book to read (“Now, Discover Your Strengths” by Marcus Buckingham & Donald O. Clifton, Ph.D.), and then completing the “Strengthsfinder” assessment using a code provided in the book. The goal was to understand gaps in perception (how you view yourself vs. how others view you) so that you could truly understand your own strengths and weaknesses. Then, teams were created with people having complementary skills to help eliminate weaknesses from the overall team perspective. The results were impressive.
Over my career, I have been involved in many team-building exercises and events – some of which provide useful insights, but most failed to pull the findings together in a way that was concrete, had context, and offered actionable recommendations. Key areas that consistently omitted were around Organizational Culture, Organizational Politics, and Leadership. Those three areas have a significant impact on value creation vis-à-vis team effectiveness and commitment.
When I had my consulting company we had a small core team of business and technology consultants and would leverage subcontractors and an outsourcing company to allow us to take on more concurrent projects as well as larger, more complex projects. This approach worked for three reasons:
- We had developed a High-Performance Culture that was based on:
- Purpose: A common vision of success, and understanding of why that mattered, and an understanding of specifically how that was defined and measured.
- Ownership: Taking responsibility for something and being accountable for the outcome. This included responsibility for the extended team of contractors. Standardized procedures helped ensure consistency and make it easier for each person to accept responsibility for “their team.”
- Trust: Everyone understood that they not only needed to trust and support each other but in order to be effective and responsive the others would need to trust their judgment. If there was a concern we would focus on the context and process improvements to understand what happened and implement changes based on lessons learned. Personal attacks were avoided for the good of the entire team.
- Empowerment: Everyone understood that there was risk associated with decision making, while at the same time realizing that delaying an important decision could be costly and create more risk. Therefore, it was incumbent upon each member to make good decisions as needed and then communicate changes to the rest of the team.
- Clear and Open Communication: People on the team were very transparent and honest. When there was an issue they would attempt to resolve it first with that person, and then escalating if the two people could not reach an agreement and decided to seek the consensus of the team. Everything was out in the open and done in the spirit of being constructive and collaborating. Divisiveness is the antithesis of this tenet.
People who were not a good fit would quickly wash out, so our core team consisted of trusted experts. There was a friendly competition that helped raise the bar for the entire team, but when needed the other team members became a safety net for each other.
We were all focused on the same goal, and everyone realized that the only way to be successful was to work together for the success of the team. Win or lose, we did it together. The strength of our team created tremendous value – internally and for our customers that we sustained for several years. That value included innovation, higher levels of productivity and profitability, and an extremely high success rate.
This approach can work at a Business Unit or Department level but is most effective when it starts at the top. When employees see the leaders of their company behaving in this manner it provides the model and sets expectations for everyone under them. If there is dysfunction within an organization it often starts at the top – by promoting or accepting behaviors that do not benefit the whole of the organization. But, with a strong and positive organizational culture, the value of strong teams is multiplied and becomes an incredible competitive advantage.
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Is this Strategic, Tactical, or Opportunistic?
- 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.
- What are the Cost, Time, and Skill estimates for developing a Minimally Viable Product (MVP) or Service?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.