Ray Kurzweil on The Age of Embedded Computing Everywhere

Inventor, entrepreneur,  and futurist Ray Kurzweil recently gave an interesting keynote at JavaOne in San Francisco. If you’re interested in how we got here and whether we’ll technology will continue to advance exponentially, he offers great cause for optimism.

The Age of Embedded Computing Everywhere from KAIN Admin on Vimeo.

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.

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.

Little Mistakes Illustrate Important Principles

No one likes to see their stupid mistake to be plastered on the internet, me included. That said, it’s hard to pass up writing about a personal blunder that illustrates important principles.

A week and a half ago my supply of business cards was getting low and a business trip was nearing. It made sense to make the new business cards consistent with my web site’s newly redesigned graphic theme, so I redesigned them. When the card publisher’s web site refused to accept my design file, I called their 800 number.

For the next 15 minutes, a very competent customer service rep somewhere in the world explained why the format wouldn’t work and rebuilt the card using my graphic elements. He’d show me a new version online, I’d ask for a tweak, he’d respond, then I’d refresh the page to see the changes. We repeated the cycle until it was done, and I approved and ordered the cards.

The cards arrived on my doorstep the Wednesday night before I left early for the two-day trip, and I was very pleased with the graphic appeal of the cards. Happy to have my original idea for the design implemented, I packed a supply of new cards before crashing for the night.

During several meetings on Thursday, I handed out a few of the new cards. Friday morning while handing one to a friend, I noticed something wrong. In front of my twitter address “@2020outlook” it was supposed to read “twitter:” but instead it said “tweeter:”, and also the blog URL had an embedded “@” sign. For a few seconds I wondered why the service rep made those silly mistakes, and then quickly shifted the blame where it really belonged – me.

I have a few old cards left, and the corrected ones will be here in a few days. Still, it’s valuable to learn (or relearn) the general lessons apparent from this mistake:

Recognize when details need your full attention. In a rush to get to other tasks after I completed the order, I let my focus on getting the new design right distract me from the more important job of making sure the textual details were correct. The lesson: leaders need to continually and accurately evaluate how much time to devote to details versus the big picture.

Don’t waste time beating yourself up for mistakes. After a mistake is made, focus on correcting it and then move to your next task. If you tend toward perfectionism as I do, this can be difficult. The lesson: when a leader makes a mistake, it’s fine to do a post mortem to determine what could have been done differently. Once you’re done, however, move on without regrets and refocus on growing your business.

In my case, I devoted the trip home to self-flagellation. It didn’t take the whole trip so I used the rest of the time to do something productive – outlining this post.

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?

Restart with the End in Mind

Chances are you’ve heard Stephen Covey’s Habit #2 in his classic self-help book called Seven Habits of Highly Effective People: “Begin with the end in mind.” Or said another way by the author of the Peter Principle, “If you don’t know where you’re going, you probably will end up somewhere else.”

When a business is launched, founders typically have a clear end in mind. A successful company survives the first couple of years and finds its way to profitability or at least breaks even. Then a critical point is encountered where the CEO’s focus on “where we’re going” can devolve into a focus on “staying alive.”

An early 20/20 Outlook post tagged the resulting condition as “The CEO Dilemma.” The CEO lets the pressure to fix operational issues and manage cash flow dictate a daily routine of addressing those needs and neglecting his/her responsibility to relentlessly consider how to grow shareholder value.  Working in instead of on the business becomes a comfortable norm.

If this sounds familiar, realize that you can hit the RESET button by employing the 20/20 Outlook process. Understand how simply saying “if I build a great business, I don’t need to worry about my exit strategy” can keep you from leading the pack among acquisition candidates in your market space.

Instead “restart with the end in mind” by considering the sources that contribute to the value of your company’s product and service offerings. Drill into how relationships with potential acquirers and potential acquisitions can unlock and grow that value. And create and implement a rational plan to align your company with other organizations that can help your business reach its full potential and move into a leadership position.

Technology M&A Is Accelerating

A few days ago, I posted links to interesting articles in an exit strategy update. Indications are that the next 12-18 months  will produce an increase in the acquisition of technology companies, so having an exit strategy in place and aligning with potential acquirers remains top of mind for CEOs. Let’s review some of the evidence.

One significant indicator is that tech companies have started using debt to raise capital. A recent WSJ article said that “the decision to take on debt breaks from tradition in tech, where companies have typically preferred to raise money by selling stock. Debt has become a more attractive fundraising option largely because interest rates are low… Turning to debt is an especially big change for software companies, which typically generate lots of cash and aren’t saddled with large one-time expenses like opening a factory.”

While the focus of the article was on the largest companies like Cisco, Microsoft, H-P, Oracle Corp., International Business Machines Corp., and Dell Inc. who raised more than $20 billion combined in 2009 selling bonds, smaller companies are following suit. Salesforce.com’s $575M debt offering and Adobe’s of $1.5B, both in January, mean that the acquisition drive is broadening.

Yesterday StreetInsider.com quoted an FBR Capital Markets report that “software vendors are flush with cash given the cashflow-rich nature of the software model and more than a handful of vendors have even recently raised additional capital.” The FBR Capital report even suggested some likely acquisitions:

So what should CEOs of smaller technology companies who want to grow shareholder value do? At a minimum, three things:

  1. Understand who your most likely acquirers are and keep the list up-to-date.
  2. Ensure that your company stays focused on activities that increase your attractiveness to those acquirers.
  3. Create partnerships with potential acquirers and other companies who make your company more compelling to those acquirers.

Whether you want to be acquired in the short term or the long term, your company’s value is in the eye of the beholder, and the most important beholders are acquirers.

Exit Strategy Update 04/22/2010

WSJ: Tech Firms Bulk Up With Debt
“The decision to take on debt breaks from tradition in tech, where companies have typically preferred to raise money by selling stock. Debt has become a more attractive fundraising option largely because interest rates are low. The shift comes as mergers and acquisitions are reshaping the industry, with a handful of tech giants that have huge cash hoards—such as Cisco Systems Inc. and Hewlett-Packard Co.—snapping up firms. Now smaller tech companies are hoping that adding debt will allow them to get in the buying game.”

Virtual Intelligence Briefing: AOL dumps $850M Bebo acquisition – Why big M&A rarely works
“Don’t pay product valuations for feature companies – It is a good strategy to acquire small companies to gain super star employees, cool new features, and access to new market segments. But, the acquiring company needs the discipline to only pay a valuation commensurate with a “feature” not a “product”. Don’t add lots of valuation for synergies that probably won’t happen, or for revenue streams that may not materialize.”

WSJ: Eating Into Apple’s Cash Pile
“With a market cap of around five times book, Apple could choose to use its stock for large-scale acquisitions. But as its market value is around $220 billion, this would need to be a very large-scale acquisition indeed. To give some perspective—and not to propose these companies as targets—U.S. software giant Oracle Corp. has a market cap of around $130 billion, while European leader SAP AG is valued around $60 billion.”

MercuryNews: Palmisano Needs ‘Bold Strokes’ to Sustain IBM Growth
“Under Palmisano, IBM has spent $25 billion buying companies. Compare that with at least $42 billion for Oracle and Hewlett-Packard’s $45 billion. IBM’s share price had risen 31 percent in the Palmisano era, versus 53 percent for Oracle and 165 percent for Hewlett-Packard.”

Thanks to the Austin Business Journal

The April 2 issue of the Austin Business Journal includes a profile of 20/20 Outlook LLC. Thanks to the folks at ABJ and technology reporter Chris Calnan for offering the opportunity and for writing such a nice article!

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