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.

Every Portfolio Has (at least) One

Every private equity and venture capitalist investor I talk to has at least one portfolio company that stalls out. The company survives the original investment rounds to become an “established” business. Soon thereafter, the management team opts to focus on a single aspect of the business, e.g., “we’re going to focus on growing the customer base.” The monthly mantra becomes “keep the pedal down on sales, manage operational issues, and carefully manage cash.”

These activities are crucial to survival, yet the danger is that the CEO and management team can get comfortable working in the business and forget to work on the business. Neglecting to put a rational plan and adequate resources in place to enhance company value (including growing revenue) often leads to an abrupt plateauing of valuation that takes months and even years to recover from.

Initiating and maintaining productive relationships with relevant organizations at the right time establishes a decision-making context that maximizes the valuation of technology businesses. Created specifically to increase shareholder value, the 20/20 Outlook process enables a CEO to:

  1. view company value through the lens of potential acquirers,
  2. adjust market strategy and offerings accordingly, and
  3. initiate and maintain strong ties with key companies that can drive valuations ever higher.

The key is to intervene well in advance of a slowdown and put an enlightened process in place. Not doing so risks the ultimate loss of mega dollars and significant market share.

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.

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.

Attacking “Business Entropy”

Not long ago, I wrote a post on how clarity affects the bottom line. It emphasized the importance of a sharing a common vision among a company’s management team and laments how often it’s inadequate. “The lack of this understanding is so common among $10-50M companies that I’ve stopped being surprised when they can’t articulate a clear positioning statement.” The point has since arisen in several CEO discussions, and as I continued to ponder how it happens, a relevant term suggested itself from the fields of physics and cosmology.

Entropy. According to Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary, entropy is defined as “the degradation of the matter and energy in the universe to an ultimate state of inert uniformity” and as “a process of degradation or running down or a trend to disorder.” These words could also describe how the purpose, meaning, and direction underlying a successful business can lose strength over time.

When brand new ventures pursue funding, investors want to understand the business and seek answers to questions like:

  • What category of business is this?
  • What is its primary offering?
  • Who are its competitors?
  • What are the competitors’ weaknesses that can be exploited?
  • What makes the company’s offering unique in the market?
  • How will it gain advantage in the market and keep it?

and so forth.  In a well developed business plan, these questions are answered clearly and formulate the company’s strategic positioning.

As a business grows, it naturally changes, causing the strategic positioning to evolve. New competitors enter the market. The product strategy and product mix react to external economic forces. Customer requirements result in development of new products and services. Acquisitions occur. Partnerships are struck.

Such changes affect the strategic positioning of the company and also the shared management vision. If the company positioning is ignored as these changes occur, the business equivalent of entropy can begin and proliferate. The previous “uniformity” of vision gradually erodes. A “degradation” of the company’s messaging about itself, its products, and its services follows a “trend to disorder.” The lack of shared vision within the management team causes inertia and delays in execution.

Thankfully, the remedy to this “business entropy” doesn’t involve a comprehension of cosmology.  All it requires is foresight and a willingness to take action. Periodically, especially during and after significant game-changing events, the company’s strategic positioning must be reviewed and revised. Senior management and other key players should reach a consensus vision about the company, its market, its competitors, and its direction. And of course, outside assistance can facilitate the process.

Clarity Affects the Bottom Line

Last week I spent a morning leading a management team through a strategic positioning session to achieve more clarity about their business. The next day I read an article containing this quote by the leader of a technology incubator:

My team and I probably saw, heard or read more than 200 business pitches last year. And after about 75 percent of them, we didn’t understand the businesses. I’m convinced that this is a primary cause of entrepreneurial failure. Every entrepreneur needs to be able to clearly and succinctly communicate the essence of his or her business to an intelligent stranger.

While it’s important for startups to have an elevator pitch, it’s equally important for the management team of an existing business to share a clear vision that provides a context for making business decisions. The lack of this understanding is so common among $10-50M companies that I’ve stopped being surprised when they can’t articulate a clear positioning statement. Why do you think so many companies have trouble with something so basic and so important? I have a theory.

Recently a CEO friend in Dallas shared the “PerformanceManagement” matrix below. While the origin is unclear, it’s a useful framework for examining issues, and it offers a clue as to why so many companies lack the clarity they need to operate efficiently.

Urgent Important Matrix

For many CEOs, sustaining an up-to-date picture of the company’s value in the market is either neglected or delegated to Marketing because it lacks urgency compared to operation issues and cost management. This falls under the heading of “Poor Planning.” The CEO’s number one priority is growing shareholder value, and clear strategic thinking contributes directly by enhancing the quality of important decisions affecting future value.

If you’re a CEO, do you stay on top of your company’s value in the eyes of players that matter, especially potential acquirers? Or will you leave this non-urgent critical issue unaddressed until the day you’re shocked to read that your closest competitor was just acquired by a company with whom they’d partnered?

« Previous Page