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February 2 was the fifth anniversary of 20/20 Outlook. It’s gone by quickly. Long-time friends have been very supportive, and I’ve made many new ones along the way.
I’ll continue to share my thoughts and those of others about how to discover growth ideas and create new revenue initiatives through partnerships.
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The Oxford Dictionary defines opportunity as “a set of circumstances that makes it possible to do something.” Although opportunities are generally thought of as spontaneous, serendipitous, and not amenable to process, is it possible to find them systematically?
In general, an opportunity is a chance to move from state A to state B; a business opportunity requires an interaction with another person or organization to create a desired outcome. Since a business opportunity implies a relationship, a thorough understanding of how and why relationships are created is the foundation of systematic opportunity discovery. Although some opportunities arise through original creative thought, even those are based on an understanding of relationships.
The exchange of money for goods and services is one type of business interaction, but it represents a desired outcome, not an opportunity. While the ultimate measure of success is revenue generation and profitability, value creation must precede it. An opportunity is created by an exchange of resources that enhance value. What classes of value-enhancing resources are there?
Five of the most common are:
1. new products and technology,
2. brand recognition,
3. additional staffing,
4. customer relationships, and
5. new markets and industries.
A majority of business opportunities arise from the recognition that one or more of these resources can be leveraged to add value to existing offerings. How can we intentionally and systematically identify and define opportunities based on this principle?
The process that leverages this knowledge comprises 4 steps:
1. Define your company’s value relative to others.
2. Define other companies’ value relative to yours.
3. Leverage individuals gifted in identifying and defining new opportunities.
4. Discover opportunity in the gaps.
Valuing Your Company
A crystal clear picture of your company’s value is a critical enabler of systematic opportunity discovery. What resources does your company have, and which ones does it need? Well-understood strategic positioning affects the bottom line positively. It minimizes investing in opportunities that deliver little or no return while enhancing the chance of finding richer opportunities.
Valuing Other Companies
The second step depends upon the first. Knowing clearly what your company offers, you can view other companies through this lens: if another company were to acquire mine, what would be the increase or decrease in the value of the combined companies? An exit strategy approach is a proven way to identify value in other companies, and you’ll learn what resources you may have that they need.
Leveraging Gifted Individuals
Some individuals are naturally gifted in identifying and defining opportunities. Harnessing this strength by including the right individuals in your company. If your team lacks this strength, augment your team with advisors who possess vital insight into opportunity discovery.
Opportunity in the Gaps
Opportunity is driven by accurate perceptions of value, so clarifying your understanding of what others find valuable versus what you find valuable leads to discovery. The gaps between companies represent potential opportunities.
To systematically discover opportunities, the CEO must to set the right tone. Leading your company to an opportunistic frame of mind is less tangible but vitally important. Set the right example by staying curious and remaining open to new possibilities, then follow this four-step process!
In the classic Steve Martin bit from early Saturday Night Live days, he’s a pitch man with a compelling hook: “How to make a MILLION DOLLARS and NEVER PAY TAXES!” After dramatically repeating the offer several times, he pauses to reveal the answer: “First, get a million dollars. Then…”
This post might be called “How to BUILD A VALUABLE COMPANY and SELL IT FOR A FORTUNE!” The first easy step? “Build a valuable company.” Assuming that you’re already doing that and your exit strategy centers on being acquired, four factors will impact success:
- Strategic importance of your product/technology/service
- Intensity of the competitive environment
- Existence and visibility of urgent, unsolved customer problems
- Presence of an insider relationship
Gauging the strategic importance of your offerings to a potential acquirer’s portfolio of capabilities is critical. Imagine all acquisitions resting along a value continuum. On the left end are low value (for the seller!) types of acquisitions like asset sales. Moving toward the right are transactions whose value is based strictly on financial parameters (e.g., discounted cash flow).
At the extreme other end of the continuum are companies whose value is so strategic to the acquirer that revenue and profitability are of little consequence. An example I’ve seen is a small software company with technology that uniquely solved an urgent problem for a multi-billion dollar enterprise. The valuation received was such a high multiple of the acquired company’s revenue that its financials were almost irrelevant to its value.
A common mistake in identifying potential acquirers is casting too narrow a net. Try listing 20 potential acquirers. Listing the first half dozen will be easy, but most of those are likely more financially-driven than strategic. Building out the list of 20 can lead to a discovery of previously unrealized strategic value in adjacent spaces.
A company in a highly competitive environment is motivated to move quickly to close gaps in its offerings. The trick is connecting during the time when the potential acquirer begins to realize it has to act. Wait too long to engage, and they will solve their competitive challenges through internal efforts, or by partnering with or acquiring another company. Getting on their radar at the right time is critical.
Urgent Customer Problems
An acquirer with a strategic competitive need is caught in a situation characterized by two attributes:
- A high-impact opportunity or threat exists.
- The company has a weak ability to respond.
Nothing will drive the acquirer forward faster than demands from customers having problems solvable by the incorporation of your company’s products, technology, or services. An effective way to validate value to the potential acquirer is to engage them in a proof of concept to solve a real problem.
The presence of an insider relationship is often the single most important success factor in getting and staying on the acquirer’s radar. Developing an internal champion who is already convinced that the companies should be working together for mutual competitive reasons optimizes the odds of success.
If you have an insider relationship with a target acquirer, use it; if you don’t, get one. Having already built a strong industry network will pay huge dividends at this point.
When to Prepare
Early in the life of a company, management has to focus on building a strong business. Deep analysis in preparation for an exit can be a distraction at this point.
Waiting too long to apply exit strategy thinking, however, is also a mistake. Once the business starts to prove itself, begin investing for the future by creating a valuation framework for your company. Build and maintain a list of 20 potential acquirers. Understand what clusters of acquirers need in order to grow. Fill gaps in your offerings to fill those needs and increase your value to potential acquirers.
Start building your exit strategy 12 to 24 months in advance of searching for an acquirer. By the time you decide to enlist an investment banker’s help, you’ll understand the universe of potential acquirers, you’ll have moved into a strong position that maximizes your valuation, and you’ll arm your investment banker with maximum ammunition and motivation.
If you liked Part 1 of our guest post on The American CEO (“2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit”), you don’t want to miss the exciting climax in Part 2. Feel free to post comments – The American CEO does respond!
Joel Trammell requested a guest post for his American CEO blog, and it’s called 2014 Issues for a 2016 Exit. You’ll find many other great thoughts for CEOs there, and since it’s a two-part article, subscribe there and/or here to make sure you get the second half next week.
The original 20/20 outlook process evolved while I was CMO at Infoglide a few years ago. In early April the company was acquired by FICO (Fair Isaac Corp.), one of the top potential acquirers identified during the process in 2009. The acquisition resulted from a partnership formed between the two companies as suggested by the analysis.
In early 2010, I founded 20/20 Outlook LLC. The original 20/20 Outlook process is now the second of four processes used to identify and create conditions that lead to growth and acquisition:
- CLARIFY: create bulletproof Strategic Positioning
- COMPREHEND: develop a Valuation Framework
- CONNECT: engage in Self-Fueling Partnerships
- COMPLETE: develop Mutual Accountability to move from strategy to execution
At our upcoming RISE Austin session on May 17, we will focus on how to develop self-fueling partnerships built upon a solid valuation framework. (RISE session locations can be fluid, so please make a note to double check this link a day or so in advance.)
Hope to meet you there!
UPDATE: The Self-Fueling Partnerships session for RISE Austin (4pm, 5/17) will take place on the second floor at the LBJ School of Public Affairs, 2300 Red River Street. You may want to arrive early to find parking.
How does a company get acquired? FICO’s acquisition of Infoglide provides an excellent example of applying deliberate steps to increase the odds and accelerate the process.
CEO Mike Shultz graciously allowed us to describe the backstory in a short case study. Read it to discover what you can do to attract potential acquirers.
Washington Post, July 2, 2012: “Outlook for U.S. economy dims as manufacturing shrinks for the first time in nearly 3 years… ‘Our forecast that the U.S. will grow by around 2 percent this year is now looking a bit optimistic,’ said Paul Dales, an economist at Capital Economics.”
Being the CEO requires committing to a “no excuses” life. Others may offer plausible reasons for non-performance, but if your company plateaus, CEO excuses aren’t an option – you must take action:
- Softening economy? Find a way to take advantage of a changing business landscape.
- Lengthening sales cycles? Determine how to identify highly motivated prospects.
- Shrinking margins? Examine whether your company is leveraging its strengths.
Changing your business to address these and similar challenges incurs risk, but the risk of doing nothing is greater. How can you adopt an effective breakout strategy that will recharge you and your executive team?
Here’s a rational, three-step process guaranteed to provide direction: (1) reexamine your company’s true value and what sets it apart; (2) in light of market conditions and competition, determine an altered direction that will maximize value; and (3) identify new business relationships that will open doors to new business. In other words, you need to clarify, comprehend, and connect:
Clarify – Who are you as a company and what sets you apart? What truly separates companies like Apple, Southwest, Berkshire Hathaway, and the NE Patriots from the rest, year after year, is a sense of purpose. Clarifying the organization’s purpose and unique assets beyond a simple mission statement actually increases efficiency. It’s imperative to get this right.
Highly successful companies perform at a high level because they focus on a clearly identifiable market with a differentiated solution. Even successful companies eventually let pressure to increase revenue force acceptance of business outside their primary focus. Since profitability grows by exploiting core competencies, losing focus erodes margins. Having a crystal-clear shared vision of who your company targets and what customer problems it uniquely addresses enables employees to make decisions more rapidly (fewer meetings and emails needed) so more gets accomplished faster and margins increase.
Comprehend – Once you understand your company better, update your understanding of your immediate market. What change in direction will maximize value? Finding the right direction in a complex and competitive market accelerates growth. How do you define who’s in it and who isn’t? What is your relationship to other companies in your space?
One proven method is to pretend you’re selling your company and identify a number of companies that could acquire you and another set that you might acquire or partner with. By comprehending the needs of potential acquirers, acquisition targets, and partners, you will develop a value framework that identifies high value opportunities.
Connect – Which relationships will increase business the most? Whether your company is B2B or B2C, strong relationships with other companies can help it grow faster. That said, many CEOs have been burned by partnerships that failed due to poor planning, unrealistic expectations, and unmonitored execution.
The solution? Design self-fueling partnerships that continually reinforce each partner’s objectives. Partnering with potential acquirers and industry leaders will drive new revenue by providing access to new markets, extended geographies, enhanced product and service offerings, better branding, and staff augmentation.
By following this three-step process, breaking out of flat growth may be easier than you think.
Today is the second anniversary of 20/20 Outlook LLC. Helping visionary CEOs create breakout strategies is enjoyable beyond all expectation. Before the launch in February 2010, experienced consulting friends advised that it would take a year for people to remember what 20/20 Outlook is, then another year for the business to hit full stride. They were spot on.
Nine months into it in December, 2010, opportunities started arriving on their own. I remember getting a call from a California friend asking for help in opening up U.S. operations for a European company, then days later came a request to write an article for TexasCEO magazine. The juxtaposition of two unanticipated invitations was encouraging.
My goal remains to provide cycles to busy CEOs immersed in urgent issues so they can accomplish their important but non-urgent ones. While the original 20/20 Outlook process remains an essential weapon, the scope has evolved into the role of trusted advisor to CEOs, bringing clarity and direction to the dreams those CEOs have for their enterprises.
This post is written to thank the numerous friends who have given continual guidance over the past two years, including CEO clients and other long-time friends across multiple disciplines. You make it fun to learn new ways to think about and address the challenges CEO face. From an A- guy blessed with a multitude of A+ friends, thank you!
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.