Too Broad, Too Narrow, or Just Right

Driving down a major boulevard in a city where we lived at the time, my wife spied a new restaurant in a place where many others had failed. In the window, it advertised food from multiple ethnicities, including both Mexican and Chinese! I’d be surprised if “Bueno Wok” lasted long.

There’s a truism about how a lack of focus can kill an enterprise. Being “a mile wide and a quarter inch deep” is widely recognized as a cause of failure.  Typically, a desire to increase revenue leads to pursuit of business that doesn’t leverage the company’s strengths and results in lower margins and muddled branding. But, are there instances where too narrow a focus can be just as harmful?

The diagram below categorizes organizations according to two attributes, focus and potential. The Focus axis ranges from single domain to multiple domains through all domains, while Potential ranges from restrictive to growing through saturated. Companies focused on several verticals are distinguished from those whose offerings are truly horizontal (i.e. domain-independent). Of course, each axis represents a continuum so that an infinite set of combinations is possible, allowing for the unique positioning of any specific company.

Back to the original question: is it possible to be too focused? Consider the example of a company providing a niche offering to several vertical markets. In the diagram it would be classified as “saturated domain-specific.”

Suppose you’re advising a new CEO hired to grow this “plateauing” company, Your first inclination may be to assess each of the company’s currently targeted vertical markets in hopes of focusing on the one with greatest growth potential. However, if the frequency of opportunities within each vertical domain is found to be sporadic and sensitive to changing business cycles, it may make more sense to remain diversified. Finding additional verticals that the company can target may represent a more fruitful direction.

So a key factor in opting to narrow or broaden our focus ia available market opportunities. Other factors include strength of brand, plus the company’s ability to execute (e.g. capitalization), integrate, partner, and acquire. These affect companies in each of the diagram’s nine categories in different ways. (NOTE: future posts will consider how, so if one of the nine categories is of particular interest, let me know when you sign up on this page to be notified by email when the next post is available.)

Translating the CEO’s vision for growth into breakout strategies requires careful thought to determine the best way to target and deploy finite corporate resources. Too often a new direction is based on an unrealistic view of the company’s position and capabilities. While it takes an optimist to run a company, it takes a realist to lead one toward its highest value.

 

Stuck? 5 “Non-Urgent” Paths to Growth

In companies who have plateaued, the leader may be absorbed with urgent matters like managing finances and addressing operational issues, while neglecting less urgent but critically important issues. In our work advising CEOs, five common “non-urgent” factors repeatedly arise that can hinder or accelerate growth.

Take a few minutes to think about where your company stands on these 5 issues:

  1. Clarify (who are we, and what sets us apart?)   A shared understanding of purpose and unique assets increases efficiency. With a crystal-clear picture of who the company targets, what problems the company uniquely addresses, and other elements of strategic positioning, managers and employees can act faster while reducing the number of meetings and emails; in short, more gets accomplished.
  2. Comprehend (what direction will lead to increased value?)  Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisitions, and partners, you can identify and target those market segments with the highest growth potential.  
  3. Communicate (what key messages will attract prospects?)  In an interconnected world filled with noise, every business needs a brand that associates the company with its unique qualities. Identifying key messages that flow from the strategic positioning and repeating them frequently will reinforce existing customer relationships and open new ones.
  4. Connect (which relationships will help increase our reach?)  Too often CEOs have been burned by partnerships that fail due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution. Self-fueling partnerships with potential acquirers and industry leaders drive new revenue through access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, and staff augmentation.
  5. Convince (how can we improve sales execution?)  Too often significant time is wasted on non-buyers. Eliminating them early through rigorous qualifying saves time and money. Based on clear positioning, high potential markets, strong messaging, and self-fueling partnerships, the right qualifying questions lead to rapid elimination of “no’s” and enable a focus on “maybes” – real prospects.

Obviously, other important factors (e.g., operational excellence, product and service strategy, customer relationship management) impact success, but less obvious, non-urgent issues are often the root cause of stagnation.  Dealing with them may be the shortest path to getting your company unstuck.

Defining Product versus Services Businesses

The genesis of this post is a comment I made about product companies at a large networking event earlier this week in Houston:

“If you think you’re a product company and you haven’t developed a repeatable sales model, then you’re a services company.”

In other words, if every deal closed is in a different vertical market and/or solves a different problem, then the transition from a services company to a product company is incomplete. What is the effect on the value of your company?

How to grow a company’s value is a topic I spend a great deal of time thinking about, and the 20/20 Outlook process focuses on aligning a company with others in the industry to grow a private company’s valuation. While that’s a vital driver of any corporate strategy, let’s consider how the form of a company’s offerings (specifically, products versus services) impacts its market value.

One attraction of starting a product company is the relatively rapid growth in valuation possible in comparison to that of a pure services company. To see why this is a critical issue, go to Yahoo Finance and compare the ratio of revenue to enterprise value for half a dozen public companies that derive most of their revenue from either products or services. For example, the well-run government services company Raytheon’s trailing twelve months’ revenue is $25 billion yet their enterprise value is only $18 billion, a ratio of 0.7. Compare that with your favorite products companies and you’ll find much higher ratios for well-run products companies.

Of course, customers demand varying amounts of service to accompany product purchases, thus few so-called product companies are successful without offering services as well. The percentage mix of product and services revenue can determine profitability and valuation, so it’s important to characterize the difference between products and services.  Products and services both solve problems, but in their purest form, they do it differently. The chart below depicts these differences.

Cost – Any problem can be solved with enough services, but the cost may not attract any customers. Creating a product to solve the problem is an alternative, and the gap for customers who want more customization than the product offers can be filled with services.

Fit – Services by their nature enable delivery of customized solutions. Products exist because enough problems of a certain class can be solved well enough to satisfy most needs with a generalized solution.

EBITDA – Earnings vary widely, yet as a general rule, the EBITDA of a well-run product company can easily double that of a well-run services company of similar size.

In the software industry, for example, it’s fairly common for a services company to evolve into a product company over time. Consider the continuum below that depicts such an evolution, starting on the left with totally service-based solutions (“Custom Services”) and incorporating product-like characteristics as we move to the right and end with Product/Service solutions.

To the right of Custom Services is “Packaged Services.” Once you’ve solved the same problem several times, you can package a partial solution (60%? 80%?) that can be customized for each customer. Basing the price of the solution on value rather than level of effort (hours), profitability increases.

Continuing to the right, next to Packaged Services is “Product-Related Services.” If your staff becomes expert at designing, implementing, integrating, and managing solutions using highly desirable but complex products, the result is a scarce resource that can be sold at a premium and that raises your margins. The classic historical example is a services company that became a leading expert at implementing SAP systems.

If yours is a well-run product business or is evolving into one, the benefits include higher EBITDA and a higher valuation than those of a similarly-sized services business (“product only”). And finally, the highest valued companies are often those that have desirable products with an abundance of product-related services available, whether supplied internally or by partners.

As the line between products and services blurs with the introduction of new types of products delivered in new ways, it’s important to understand how value is derived. Does the statement about claiming to be a product company without developing a repeatable sales process ring true?

I ask forgiveness for some sweeping generalizations. Certainly, exceptions to this high-level look at valuation abound. Feel free to point them out and elaborate or disagree.

Thoughts During Freakish Weather

Freakishly cold weather meant waking up to no electricity this morning. Having to break two early appointments due to temperatures in the teens gave me time to think, and I remembered that it was exactly a year ago when I filed the papers establishing 20/20 Outlook LLC.

Moving beyond 30 years of mostly C-level jobs has been exciting, challenging, and gratifying. The exciting part is meeting many fascinating and gutsy people who are willing to take chances in order to follow their dreams. The past year’s challenge has been building a personal brand around what I do. Gratification comes from seeing how the 20/20 Outlook process resonates with CEOs and others who hear about it.

I’m thankful for having experienced a wide variety of responsibilities over the years. Most of the time I knew I had the best job in the company. While I was building strategic partnerships at the world’s fastest-growing networking company, the CEO’s verbal job description was “go make good things happen and keep me posted.” I learned from experts how to formulate business plans and implement integration plans successfully from arguably the most successful software acquisition company ever. A billion-dollar company recruited me to lead product direction for their 100+ software products and help transition from independent product lines to solutions. In between, I helped grow business for half a dozen startups.

Now I’m given the opportunity to apply what I’ve learned and draw on the wisdom of people I know by advising CEOs of small- and medium-size companies on new growth strategies. Helping them move beyond the “CEO dilemma” and into new levels of business activity is the dream. Working with truly courageous people every day and seeing them succeed in moving to the next level is more a gift than a job.

Top IT Trends for 2011

Cascadia Capital LLC is a Seattle-based independent investment bank founded in 2000. They recently announced their top information technology predictions for 2011, based on insights from their work with private and public growth companies.

The six trends are:

  1. Increased competition between growth equity and strategic acquirers
  2. M&A, not IPOs, drive shareholder liquidity
  3. Web content management, analytics, marketing automation and customer
    relationship management (CRM) convergence
  4. SMB adoption of cloud services will drive consolidation of cloud vendors
  5. HIPPA compliance drives M&A for healthcare IT sector
  6. Technology enabled services companies become acquisition targets

Do you agree with their predictions? What would you add?

Surprise: Clients Tell It Best

It’s been awhile since the last post was published. Client deliverables, non-profit activities, and family priorities, as well as continual business development, have made it a hectic time.

The 20/20 elevator pitch is that “it is a process that helps a company get ready and stay ready for an exit,” but it’s more than that. While helping shoot some videos during that non-profit work, we were close to Infoglide’s offices, so I asked CEO Mike Shultz to stand in front of the camera and share his thoughts on his use of the 20/20 process.

Mike has started and sold several companies, which enables him to speak with authority in this 2:47 of unedited footage. With just one take, Mike captures the essence of the process better than any marketing firm I could have hired. Enjoy.

Acquisition Activity? Up, According to Corum’s Nat Burgess

Corum Group is a leading provider of merger and acquisition services to software and information technology companies. Because of their heavy involvement in  M&A, they are an excellent source of data about high tech transactions. Their president Nat Burgess was recently interviewed on CNBC about the current level of acquisition activity.

The Mystery of a Disciplined Process

“Mystery” and “process” aren’t often used together. A process is commonly thought of as a way to replace mysterious methods of accomplishing a goal with a well-documented, step-by-step procedure that, if followed precisely, always produces the desired result.

CEOs can be mystified when a competitor with seemingly inferior products and services is acquired by a larger company.  The response is, “Why not my company?” The answer often isn’t self-evident.

In his book A Whole New Mind, Daniel Pink proposes the need to combine left-brain analytical thinking with right-brain creative thinking for those who aspire to succeed in the 21st Century. They must combine both modes of thought in order to “connect the dots” faster than their competitors.  The 20/20 Outlook process demands right-brain and left-brain thinking from management teams who implement it.

A client CEO commented not long ago about how the process has precisely positioned his company for an exit. “At first we just wanted to determine where we fit in the marketplace. During the process, we identified twenty potential acquirers and then narrowed our focus to two industry groups. What we noticed over time was that a market for our products developed around those two groups as though the market was mysteriously growing toward us.”

The CEO came to realize that the illusion of the market coming to his company was the result of decisions he and his team made to follow the decision framework they had put in place. Now those decisions have put them in a position to achieve significant payoffs from relationships created using 20/20 Outlook thinking.

A Milestone for 20/20 Outlook

Exactly six months ago, 20/20 Outlook LLC officially opened for business. If it seems longer than six months, you’re right – planning started over 18 months ago. I felt “nudged” in a new direction and began exploring how to deliver value to CEOs of private companies. The answer ultimately lay in combining an unusual (some might say “weird”) combination of C-level experience in partnerships, acquisitions, and product strategy for startups through billion dollar companies to create the 20/20 Outlook process.

In February, I set a goal to achieve a certain level of business in six months, and we’re on track to surpass that goal this month. Experienced friends in the consulting business say it takes a year to get it off the ground, so it’s exciting to reach this milestone in the middle of what no one but Washington would call a booming economy.

Most new businesses move in different directions once launched, and this one is no exception. Connecting with great clients was planned, and working with some great CEOs to help them achieve their goals is exciting. What was unanticipated is how many people have said “you should write a book” (more on that soon).

No one could be surrounded with a more supportive group of industry friends, comprising serial CEOs, C-level execs, VPs, VCs, private investors, consultants, and other computing industry leaders. Thanks to each of you for being so open and helpful with your advice and encouragement.

Finally, a special note of thanks goes to Mike Shultz, Infoglide Software CEO. His willingness to be a sounding board and continual idea source for 20/20 Outlook is deeply appreciated.

Important Indicators are Up

Because I help companies define an exit strategy and grow value accordingly, I’m always seeking better sources of data that capture the current state of the investment world. Pitchbook is one source that publishes particularly useful information about fundraising, investments, and exits. A recent Pitchbook presentation suggests that we’re on the verge of significant growth in private equity investment during the next year, and that’s good news companies moving toward an exit.

One factor mentioned in the Pitchbook prez is that capital overhang is high and growing. When that happens, valuations tend to increase because so much money is looking for a place to land and produce a return.

Additionally, chart below depicts that the number of quarterly private equity exits through corporate acquisitions, initial public offerings, and secondary sales is on the upswing after reaching a low in early 2009.

Finally, one of the best analysts in the business, Richard Davis of Needham and Company, commented in his newsletter that it’s been 25 years since he’s seen so many companies in a great position for an IPO.

Taken together, all these indicators suggest that, despite the continuing malaise in the broader economy, a CEO who keeps his/her company’s partnerships, product strategy, services, and partnerships aligned with potential acquirers can expect to see greater opportunity this year and through the next.

« Previous PageNext Page »