Poke the Box – Now

Seth Godin’s latest little book (little in size, not in ideas) called Poke the Box takes its name from a “buzzer box” an MIT Ph.D. uncle built for a cousin decades ago. “The box had two switches, some lights, and a few other controls on it. Flip one switch and a light goes on. Flip both switches and a buzzer sounds… A kid sees the buzzer box and starts poking it. If I do this, that happens!

As the CEO of a business, it’s easy to get trapped in a comfort zone that provides a false sense of security (“I have this all under control”). While you’re “running the business” (translation: working on operational issues and managing finance), your competitors are finding ways to deliver better, faster, and cheaper products and services. You can delegate much of  running the business, but the buck stops with you when it comes to guiding the company through the constant change needed first to hold your position and then to grow.

One way to poke the box is to partner with a company that has related interests. Consider a list of companies that (a) could acquire your company someday or (b) would grow your value through an alliance or acquisition. Take the initiative to determine what mutual or complementary interests exist:

  • Expand geographical reach?
  • Extend product life through new capabilities?
  • Enter currently underserved industries?
  • Increase product deployment and service resources?

Once you’re in the swim with a partner, market feedback will flow in and lead you to your next move. If you act, you have no guarantee of success, but if you fail to act, you’re almost guaranteed to fail in the end.

Regardless of what you need to do to grow your business, Godin’s point is that life is a buzzer box, and if we don’t poke it, we don’t learn. All actions in business have risks, but with competitors constantly pressing ahead in a globally connected world, sitting still doesn’t decrease risk – it increases it! Doing nothing cuts us off from feedback that can guide us to value.

Get into the flow now, and adjust as you learn. And read Seth’s book for inspiration.

Filling the Gaps

In a post called “Chief Marketing Obstacles: The Treacherous Trail to CMO Success” in Texas Enterprise, the authors did a marvelous job of laying out the challenges that chief marketing officers face in gaining the management clout needed to operate effectively. In responding to the article, I noted how the CMO can fill the gaps that exist in the organization.

For me, filling gaps has been a recurring theme for years. After taking my first management job in software development with absolutely no training, my psychology education helped me observe the group’s interactions and notice what was required for success. It became obvious that I needed to fill any missing gaps in the group’s combined competencies if we were to be as successful as possible. Whenever possible, the gap filler was me.

I noticed an interesting parallel after moving into product management. When the goal is to contribute a “whole product” solution, it can require capabilities outside an organization’s ability to deliver. Options for filling the gap include staff training, contract or consulting help, or partnering with another organization to acquire the needed product capabilities or features.

As I climbed the ranks and handled senior management positions in several functional areas, that early observation about filling the gaps proved to be valuable once again. Given a finite amount of people in any organization I managed, competency gaps had to be filled without additional headcount. Options included staff training, contract or consulting help, or partnering with another organization, yet the one always available was… me. If it were possible for me to learn the needed skills, then we had the resources to achieve our objectives.

If you manage a company or part of it, it’s good to keep in mind your responsibility to deliver a “whole product” and consider all the options available to fill the gaps.

CEOs, Company Culture, and Performance

How often do you get to sit in on a conversation with a room full of CEOs? That’s exactly what I did recently when I moderated a CEO Roundtable for TexasCEO and Somerset Consulting Group at the Hotel ZaZa in Dallas (great venue).

We brought together seven executives who run significant businesses in varied industries: communications, commercial construction, manufacturing, chemicals, health and fitness, franchising, and financial services. Each is a recognized leader in their respective industry, and each contributed a unique perspective on the topic of the day: how does company culture affect employee performance?

Everyone naturally agreed that an organization’s culture is a key determinant of its performance. It’s also clear that a CEO’s actions and performance are major factors in creating and preserving that culture. So, what is it that determines who is a CEO?

Having accumulated a number of accomplished CEO friends over the years, I’ve concluded it’s not something that can be taught – CEO’s are a breed unto themselves. You can gain more knowledge by taking B school classes and by reading about others’ experiences in being a CEO (shameless self-promotion), but the basic attributes that drive a classic CEO start showing up early in life:

  • the need to succeed in a unique way,
  • the willingness to do whatever it takes,
  • a desire to have a hand in deciding what’s going on around them,
  • and the courage to take responsibility for failure.

The reality of being a CEO is that it requires the level of focus, dedication, and sacrifice that most people aren’t equipped to make. If you disagree, please state your case!

[For more, check out the article about the Dallas CEO Roundtable in the May/June issue of TexasCEO magazine.]

Shoot the Runt

After a long career in high tech that includes a rare combination of C level experience in both large companies and startups, I’m privileged to know quite a few serial CEOs, i.e. those who have led two, three, even four companies to success.

Each CEO has developed principles enabling them to quickly assess a situation and deal with it effectively.  Every CEO I’ve approached has been eager to share what they’ve learned so other business leaders can make positive moves and avoid mistakes made by others. I’m compiling these valuable insights into a series of CEO/mentor dialogs (and ultimately, a book) that highlights these principles in an easy-to-absorb format.

The dialogs you’ll read illustrate a single principle from an experienced CEO. While the dialog will be central to each chapter, the book chapters will add a discussion of what it means, plus takeaways and references for further reading. The goal of publishing these dialogs now is to strengthen the discussion portion of the book by drawing on comments and discussions from you and other readers.

I welcome ideas and suggestion for the book, so feel free to email them to bob@2020outlook.com. Thank you in advance for helping create a useful collection of mentoring advice by adding your own experiences through comments.

Now, here’s the first dialog called, what else? “Shoot the Runt” of course.

Strategy versus Tactics: One or the Other, or Both?

If you have trouble telling whether it’s your strategy or execution that’s lacking, you are not alone. When we don’t get the results we want, it can be challenging to distinguish whether the problem is what we’re doing or how we’re doing it.

In the Imperial Sugar cover story of the just-released issue of TexasCEO magazine, CEO John Sheptor describes how he did both, making tactical changes to stabilize the company before leading it through a more fundamental strategic transformation. For many CEOs, though, the dilemma is choosing one or the other – should I focus on improving execution or should I change the overall strategy?

Marketing expert Seth Godin offers one way to decide:

If you are tired of hammering your head against the wall, if it feels like you never are good enough, or that you’re working way too hard, it doesn’t mean you’re a loser. It means you’ve got the wrong strategy. It takes real guts to abandon a strategy, especially if you’ve gotten super good at the tactics. That’s precisely the reason that switching strategies is often such a good idea. Because your competition is afraid to.

Once you decide to change the strategy, begin by examining your company’s current positioning vis-à-vis the competition. Most businesses initially have a crisp vision of how they are positioned against competitors, but that vision gets fuzzier over time as compromises are made to land new business. Clearly understanding where you stand now by highlighting current strengths and weaknesses makes it easier to create a new vision for growth.

Ownership of Open Source

Writing about open source issues has been on my list for awhile because it’s so important to have a good strategy for using it. Thanks to John Curtis at Quotient for taking it off my list with a great post. Check out “Let’s talk about ownership” for a clear discussion of the major issues.

Are You Working On or In Your Business?

In a recent post, I mentioned that an article I’d written for TexasCEO magazine would show up soon on their web site. Here’s a link to the article and a picture from the party held at Annie’s in downtown Austin to celebrate publication of the current edition.

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.

What Is It About Texas?

A few nights ago, I attended an event honoring the subject of TexasCEO magazine’s current cover story, Clayton Christopher. I met some other amazing people there and have been thinking since about the experience since then.

(Full disclosure: I have an article the print edition that will also be posted on the TexasCEO web site soon.)

The manner in which our country was born resulted in a population that loves being free to follow their dreams, and for 200+ years, millions of other dreamers have immigrated here. Over a 30-year career in high tech, I traveled the United States meeting wonderful people everywhere I went. Living recently in the Detroit area for several years is a prime example where, despite its exaggeratedly negative reputation, I found incredibly intelligent and highly motivated people building new companies and pursuing their careers with great passion.

If you’re a native Texan or an adoptee of this state, though, you can’t escape what a distinctive place it is. You’re deeply aware of the unique loyalty of its residents and the power of its brand. The shape of the state and its flag are recognizable by people living all over the globe. Many people who grew up in and live in other states have affection for those places, yet nowhere else do you find people who so deeply identify with the state they live in. Why is this true?

When I lived in Dallas during the 90’s, I made a good friend who’d grown up in New York City. By fifteen years into his career, he and his wife had lived in six cities in vastly different regions of the country. When I asked how they came to reside in Dallas, he said they had made a very deliberate decision to move there.

The couple had lived in Texas once before. It was during the 1980’s immediately after a huge downturn in the state’s then-dominant energy industry. The memory of how Texans responded to the economic crisis had stuck with them ever since. Instead of the complaints and despair they might have expected, the universal attitude was optimism. The general attitude was “OK, what can we do now?” and people started planning a new business or a new career. When they started their family, they made a conscious decision to move back to Dallas because they wanted to rear their children among people with a can-do, optimistic outlook on life.

Another anecdote: a CEO friend relocated his company to Austin from Silicon Valley in early 2009 to take advantage of  the large pool of available technical talent and the friendly business climate. While those reasons prompted him to move, what also keeps him here is the love of the state’s optimistic attitude which he mentions often.

Targeted at the state’s business leaders, TexasCEO magazine published its first issue in May 2010. Its articles continually reflect that Texas optimism. The current January/February edition focuses on bootstrapping a business. It’s full of stories about people in different industries and different parts of the state who have successfully created new companies.

So what it is it about Texas? What I’ve encountered upon returning after living out of state several years are people who recognize obstacles yet choose to believe they can overcome them with creativity and hard work. Having grown up around people like that is something I truly appreciate.

So for Texas friends, am I way off base? What is it that you like the most about the state?

For non-Texas friends, does this resonate with you, or are all of us Texans just weird?

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