10 reasons to never be too cool for Old School

You may think you’re too cool for “Old School,” but there’s one thing it produced that you can’t be successful without: the fundamentals. Here are ten essential operating fundamentals that are timelessly, beautifully, definitively, non-negotiably, Old School.

Financial statements: Become an expert at understanding your financial statements. Spend more time with the numbers below the sales line on your operating statement. Non-negotiable.

Budgets: Yuck, right? But operations work best with a track to run on. Creating budgets isn’t hard – sticking to them is. Grow some discipline and get on track.

Cash management: Whether sales are up or down, you must be intimately familiar with your cash picture today, tomorrow, and six months from now. Do not delegate this.

Inventory: This is a euphemism for cash. Inventory that isn’t turning is declining in value and must be converted into cash – ASAP. And if you aren’t practicing Just-In-Time inventory management, do it now.

Vendors: Their success depends on yours. Talk to them about managing inventory, improving margins, lowering freight costs, and new ways to serve customers. Get rid of any vendor that only wants to sell you stuff.

Systems: These are the structured components in your operation which may be outdated and unproductive. Scrutinize employee schedules, delivery routes, opening hours, (your idea here). Nothing is sacred! Nothing.

Customers: Categorize them from the most profitable As, to the least profitable Ds. Worship the As, cater to the Bs, encourage the Cs, and let the Ds learn the meaning of self-service. You might even have to fire a few.

Products: Same song, different verse: A-B-C-D. Stock the fast-turning As, keep some of the Bs handy, and only a couple of the Cs. But never let a D spend the night under your roof unless a customer has paid for it.

Add Value: Find out what customers want instead of trying to get them to take what you need to sell. If you don’t add value to your customers’ operations, like your unhelpful vendors, expect to be fired.

Employees: Let them help you find efficiencies and opportunities. Encourage creativity and entrepreneurial thinking. Invest in training. Share your plan and let them help you accomplish it. Empower producers and cut the dead wood.

Bankers: Don’t be a stranger. Good news or bad, an informed banker can help you. But an uninformed banker is a scared banker, and no one ever got any help from a scared banker!
Focus on these Old School fundamentals and success will come and play in the New School backyard.

Write this on a rock … Even if you’re too cool for Old School, you still have to focus on the fundamentals.

Organizational special sauce: an intangible force

“Two all-beef patties, special sauce, lettuce, cheese, pickles, onions on a sesame seed bun.”

You may know this line as the commercial jingle describing the Big Mac that McDonald’s created to compete with the Hardee’s Husky, which came with essentially the same condiments, including Hardee’s own special sauce.

Over the years, the term “special sauce” has been re-deployed beyond the burger wars, from condiment to handy metaphor. Management and organizational commentators, like me, have co-opted the term to identify a level of organizational performance beyond extra effort. Here’s how I’ve observed organizational special sauce in the marketplace.

Organizational special sauce isn’t a strategy or campaign, nor can it be achieved with a slogan or mission statement. No special sauce was ever the child of an algorithm, big data, or other amalgamation of ones and zeros. To the chagrin of Wall Street quants, organizational special sauce is an incalculable, unprojectable, and intangible force. It’s 100% performance leverage produced by a single active ingredient: human beings loving to work together toward something they all believe in.

This leverage kicks in like a turbo after quantifiable, tangible leverage reaches its RPM red line. Every business would like to have organizational special sauce but few ever do, because the elements that foster it are not easy to achieve, including, but not limited to:

  • Hiring the best people, who are then respected and valued.
  • Excellence as a non-negotiable performance standard assumed by all stakeholders.
  • Leaders demonstrate all the aspects that define the word: courage, integrity, morals, ethics, commitment, decisiveness, humanity.
  • People are not interchangeable parts, as if they were modules.
  • Corporate values flow to the organization’s last mile as a minimum expectation.
  • Delegation includes responsibility AND authority.
  • Corrective action first presumes shortfalls result from best efforts, and the first management step is redemption.

Here’s how organizational special sauce manifests:

  • Peerless products and services.
  • Industry-leading employee retention.
  • Prospective employees line up to join the organization.
  • Employees and partners are proud of and claim the organization’s excellent reputation.
  • Ethical actions and integrity manifest as devotion to the unenforceable.
  • Customers become the organization’s best salespeople.
  • Teams work harder than they ever did, while having more fun than they ever had.
  • And the classic marker: quantum leap performance.

You can’t demand, buy, or acquire the intangible leverage of special sauce, you can only foster an environment that gives rise to it. It’s an engagement sweet spot that produces results beyond expectations and projections – quantum leap performance.

Organizational special sauce is possible, but rare in public corporations, because it doesn’t conform to the analytical expectations of the Wall Street 90-day conference call. Our here on Main Street it’s more prevalent, where small business leaders know special sauce comes from the intangible resolve of their valued and respected employees.

Write this on a rock … Contributing to organizational special sauce is one of the hardest and most beautiful things you’ll ever do at work.

Investor search mistakes to avoid, part 2

Last week I introduced you to a list of mistakes businesses make when searching for investment capital. The list came from a book by my friend, Andrew Sherman, titled, Raising Capital. As we learned, there’s more to acquiring capital than a business plan.

So now let’s take a look at the rest of Andrew’s list, and, like last time, each one is followed by my thoughts.

Mistake: Not understanding the investor selection process.
Don’t deliver information with a fire hose when a pitcher is preferred. If there is interest, investors will request the full details as needed.

You’ll need three documents: an initial, one-to-three-page executive summary (the pitcher), an intermediate 10-page (+-) model, and a long one with all numbers and research (fire hose). Deliver the last two only when requested.

Mistake: Too little research and analysis.
You must have market/industry research and analysis to back up your assumptions and projections. Investors don’t value promises or hunches. Don’t show extensive data until requested, but reference and summarize what you’ve learned in the short models.

Mistake: Underestimating the funding chronology.
If your funding requirements and the investor’s investment schedule are not in sync, guess who makes adjustments? Remember, to an investor, urgency sounds like desperation. And this will be true for crowdfunding as well.

Mistake: Being afraid to share your idea.
Sherman says you can’t sell if you can’t tell. Get a non-disclosure agreement that fits your project and use it. Investors not only expect to sign an NDA, they won’t respect you if you don’t give them one.

Mistake: Being dollar-wise and investor foolish.
Trick question: Which is the best alternative: a) $1 million from investors who know nothing about your industry; or b) $500,000 from investors who have industry background and contacts? Since the value of an investor relationship is usually more than cash, “b” is often the correct choice. Consider all forms of investor participation when evaluating an offer.

Mistake: Getting hung up on initial ownership and control.
Establishing ownership and control is where most investment negotiations break down. Here’s a handy rule: He who has the gold makes the rules, which usually includes control. Business founders are typically better served focusing more on the investor exit plan and less on initial control.

Accomplishing a successful investor relationship requires thoughtful preparation plus skillful negotiation.

Write this on a rock … Know the rules before pursuing an investor search.

Investor search mistakes to avoid, part 1

Small business capital comes from three primary sources:

1. Profits left in the business;
2. Debt, like a bank loan;
3. Equity investment.

For most small businesses the third source is, and has been the founder’s investment.

In recent years, this option has become more robust and multi-faceted in the form of outside investors, whether venture capital, angel investors, and even with crowdfunding. The challenge is developing a capitalization strategy that matches the right sources with the short and long-term goals of the founder.

It must be said that while many elements of finding and acquiring investor capital are similar to getting a bank loan, the former takes longer and is more complex. In his book Raising Capital, Andrew Sherman addresses this issue with a list of common mistakes entrepreneurs make searching for investor capital. This is the first of two articles where I’ll identify Sherman’s “mistakes” and follow each one with my thoughts.

Mistake: Using an investor search that’s too broad.
Each investor has an interest and related strategy. An investor that likes medical ventures won’t be a prospect for your retail idea. Qualify each investor prospect before making contact.

Mistake: Misjudging the time involved.
Part of Murphy’s Law states that everything will take longer than you think. Alas, Mr. Murphy is alive and well in the investment marketplace. It usually takes months, not weeks, to find, approach, and get an answer from investors. Even crowdfunding will take more time than you think. And remember, like prayers, sometimes the answer is “no.”

Mistake: Falling in love with your business plan.
Every mother’s baby is beautiful. But your plan is not your investor prospect’s baby. Expect that your business plan will have to be adjusted before you get funded. So be prepared to accept that changes will come with the capital.

Mistake: Taking financial projections too seriously.
First let’s establish the prime financial rule: All projections are wrong! Of course, you can show projections you believe are achievable. But also include a conservative set that shows your break-even point if things don’t go as planned.

Mistake: Confusing product development with sales.
Investors love real customers and real sales. Even sales projections based on history will be highly scrutinized. But projections based on projected sales will be highly doubted.

Mistake: Minimizing the management team.
A good management team can fix a bad plan, but a bad team can ruin a good one. Unless you’re asking investors to contribute management expertise, don’t seek investor capital without a qualified management team.

Next week, more investor search mistakes.

Write this on a rock …
Make your own mistakes, not these.

Are you looking for answers in the wrong places?

This is a story about three small business owners who had one thing in common: a wise man named Luther. Oh, by the way, Luther is their janitor.

On Mondays, Luther cleans the offices at National Supply Co., Inc. Sometimes he talks with the founder, Mr. Gilbert.

One Monday afternoon Mr. Gilbert said, “Luther, I don’t know how long I can survive.”

“What’s wrong, Mr. G?” Luther asked.

“It’s those big-box competitors,” Mr. Gilbert said. “I’ve looked under every rock for ways to lower our prices and increase advertising, but I just can’t compete with those guys.”

“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place,” Luther offered.

“What do you mean?” Mr. Gilbert asked.

“Those big competitors will always be with us,” Luther reminded him. “Why don’t you emphasize the value of the human connection and customized service that only a small business like yours can deliver? Those two things alone are worth more than anything the Big Boxes offer.”

On Wednesdays, when Luther cleans the offices at Central Data Corp., he often visits with the owner, Sarah.

“Luther, I always assumed my kids would take over my business, but now it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen,” Sarah lamented one day.

“Why aren’t they interested in the business?” Luther asked.

“I’m stumped, she said. “I’ve shown them the opportunity and how profitable the business can be. What else can I do?”

“Maybe you’re asking them to look in the wrong place,” Luther suggested.

“What do you mean?” Sarah asked.

“Sarah, I’ve noticed how much you love what you do,” said Luther, “even when times were tougher and things weren’t so rosy. From what I’ve seen, being an entrepreneur is as much about nourishing the spirit as growing the bank account. Help them think about that.”

On Fridays, Luther cleans the offices at Westco Dynamics, Inc. Mr. West usually talks with Luther for a few minutes, but he seemed pensive today.

“Luther, my family was so poor that we struggled just to survive,” Mr. West said. “When I left home, I vowed to never be that unhappy again.”

“Mr. West, it sounds like you’ve got something stuck in your craw,” Luther observed.

“Aw, it’s nothing,” Mr. West fibbed. “It’s just that, with all my money and stuff, I still can’t stop looking for ways to make sure I’ll never be poor again.”

“Maybe you’re looking in the wrong place,” said Luther.

“What do you mean?” Mr. West asked.

Then Luther said, “You’ve been motivated by the fear of being poor instead of the joy of creating something from nothing. Try finding happiness in knowing that you provide valuable products and services for your customers, and jobs and income for your employees and their families. Remember, money and stuff only give you options, not happiness.”

Write this on a rock … When you’re looking for answers, make sure you look in the right places.

Four marketplace truths about your customers

Spend time in the marketplace and you’ll have many close encounters of the third kind with the most interesting species in all of nature: the human being. And as we have learned, the nature of humans isn’t much different from other animals: All need to breathe, eat, drink, procreate and survive.

But there is something that clearly sets humans apart from other fauna: sentience. And one of the manifestations of being self-aware is that beyond what humans need, they also want.

Every human who owns an automobile will need to buy new tires. But what they want is to keep the family safe while not spending a Saturday buying tires. So if you’re in the tire business, should you advertise tires, which are commodities that the Big Boxes can sell cheaper than your cost? Or should you develop and market a customer loyalty program that combines peace of mind for your family with pick-up and delivery? How about this tag line:

Let us worry about when you need new tires and get your Saturday back.

Basically the hairless weenies of the family animalia, human beings need shelter, but we want a home. So if you’re a realtor, should you focus on the obligatory list of residential features, or how the physical setting and interior space fit what you’ve learned is your customer’s sense of a home? Try this on:

Mrs. Johnson, countertops can be replaced. What I want to know is how much will you love seeing the sun rising over that ridge as you enjoy your first cup of coffee every morning?

Humans, like thousands of other warm-blooded species, need to eat every day, whether they get to or not. But unlike other animals, only humans want to dine. If you own a fine dining restaurant, do you emphasize the food, or the potential for a lasting memory? Check it out:

Long after you’ve forgotten how wonderful our food is, you’ll still remember that table for two in the corner or the booth next to the fireplace.

Small business success requires understanding these marketplace truths:

1. What customers need are commodities driven by price.

2. The price war is over, and small business lost.

3. What customers want is anywhere from a little bit more to everything.

4. Customers will pay more for what they want – charge them for delivering it.

As a small business success strategy, delivering what customers want or selling commodities they need, is as Mark Twain said, “like the difference between lightning and a lightning bug.”

Write this on a rock … Find out what humans want, deliver it, and charge for it.




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