Archive for the 'Business planning' Category

Four things you must know before buying a franchise

Over the years, I’ve met many people who want desperately to own a business, but 1) just don’t know what it should be; or 2) lack the entrepreneurial vision and/or desire to start a business from scratch.

Enter one of the great inventions America has given to the world: the franchise.

Purchasing and operating a franchise is entrepreneurial coloring inside of the lines.If you don’t have a problem playing in a sandbox someone else built, a franchise may be just the ticket for you.

The franchise universe is broad and diverse, with arguably thousands of options, which is both good and bad news - so many choices begets lots of intimidation. But fortunately, the fundamentals you apply to conduct franchise acquisition research, regardless of the one you choose, are basically the same.In his excellent book, Franchising and Licensing, my friend Andrew Sherman identifies a number of key components in any relationship between a franchisor (the developer of the franchise), and a franchisee (the purchaser of the franchise). From Andrew’s list I’ve chosen what I think should be the first four to help you narrow your search, followed by my thoughts.

1. A Proven Prototype
When you lay money down for a franchise, the model must be proven to work, because you’ll have to replicate the product over and over. Indeed, the prime expectation of any customer seeking out a franchise product is that it’s a known quantity. McDonald’s may not have the best hamburger in the world, but whether you’re in Moscow or Moline, it’s supposed to taste just like the one you had in Meridian.

2. A Strong Management Team
When you buy a franchise, not only will you need to seek periodic advice and instructions from the franchisor’s staff, but you want to have confidence in that support. There should be virtually nothing you can ask that they haven’t experienced and anticipated. Here’s a tip: If you aren’t getting overwhelmed with support and answers when considering a particular franchise, don’t expect much more once they have your money. I’d move on.

3. Comprehensive Training Program
In order to make that “hamburger” look and taste just like the last one you delivered, you must be able to learn how to do it yourself and teach your people how. That training MUST come from the franchisor. They will demand that you follow their rules, so you have a right to demand the best training.

4. Sufficient Capitalization
Franchisors are just like all other businesses in that they must have the capital to: a) Grow - you want your franchisor to expand their footprint; b) Innovate - to continue to offer relevant products and services every year; and c) weather the inevitable marketplace storms. When they ask about your financial condition, tell them “I’ll show you mine, if you’ll show me yours.”

Before you buy a franchise, you must talk with two people: 1) Someone who’s operating a franchise like the one you’re considering - ask what it’s like doing business with your franchisor prospect; 2) Someone who’s failed with a franchise - ask what happened and what they wish they knew before they started.

Remember that while owning a franchise is operating a business based on someone else’s idea, it’s still running a business. Other than being a single parent, there is no harder job. If you don’t love working, if you don’t value sweat equity, if you don’t appreciate deferred gratification, if you don’t have a lot of energy, if you like to sleep late, or if you’re a whiner, don’t buy a franchise - or start any business. And if you aren’t good at coloring inside the lines, like me, don’t buy a franchise.

Finally, in addition to Andrew Sherman’s book mentioned earlier, I also recommend one by another friend, Joel Libava, Become a Franchise Owner.

Write this on a rock … Franchising isn’t for everyone, but it might be for you.

Eight questions and four fallacies about business growth

Giant sequoia redwood trees grow very tall. Bradford pear trees, not so much. It’s all in the genes.

But there’s no genetic code for a business. While a Bradford pear can’t decide to compete with a redwood, a business can become whatever its owner makes it. And that last fact creates two questions we go to sleep asking ourselves and wake up trying to answer:

1. Should I grow my business?
2. How big should I grow my business?

In his book, Warp Speed Growth, my friend and Brain Trust member, Peter Meyer, lists four fallacies of growth which every business owner should consider. Here they are, each followed by my comments.

Fallacy 1. You can grow out of organizational problems.

In a state of denial or ignorance, small business owners sometimes think getting bigger will fix management and organizational shortcomings. If a tree is bent, fertilizing it won’t make it grow straighter – only faster in the wrong direction. If you have organizational challenges, don’t grow until they’re resolved.

Fallacy 2. Growth equals profitability.

Yes, increased sales volume can help you improve vendor discounts and therefore, gross margins. But that doesn’t mean your organization can manage the extra activity well enough to convert discounts to the bottom line. One of the rudest awakenings an owner can have is when projected sales growth is achieved, but profit is no better, or perhaps worse, than a period of lower sales. Remember Blasingame’s Growth Razor: “It’s not what you make, it’s what you keep.”

Fallacy 3. Profitability improves when every customer is yours.

Being the market leader is overrated. Peter cites research showing only 29% of market leaders were also profit leaders. Not only are you not going to sell every customer, you don’t want every customer. Many customers, and some customer profiles, aren’t profitable. Remember, you don’t spend sales.

Fallacy 4. If you grow, customers will benefit.

Peter says focusing on growth is focusing on yourself. Every minute your company focuses on itself is a minute diverted away from focusing on the customer. One of the classic examples of a company’s self-absorbed focus on growth is when it uses the term “fastest growing” in marketing material, as if this benefited customers. What makes you think customers don’t like the size that you are? What makes you think they’ll like your next size?

Don’t get me wrong: I’m the last person to say growth is bad, or that you should be happy with the current size of your company. I’m a capitalist, and capitalists LOVE growth. But I do encourage you to make sure that when you grow, it’s because you’ve thought about why and how. Here are six growth reality checks, each followed by a slap-in-the-face question to ask yourself.

• The marketplace is pretty full already. Is there a real opportunity to grow?

• Growth requires capital. How will I fund the growth I am planning?

• The rewards of growth are typically delayed. Can my organization wait that long for the payoff?

• Growth takes a company into unfamiliar operational territory. Do I have the staff and systems to blaze that trail without creating a casualty list?

• Being a business owner should be a source of happiness. Will I be happy with a larger business?

• Every business has corporate values, good or not so much. If our values are good, can we scale them? If they aren’t, why would we scale them?

Ask the growth questions and answer them as Polonius instructed Laetres in Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “This above all, to thine own self be true.”

Write this on a rock … Just because you can grow your business doesn’t mean you should.

Diaper Changing Stuff (DCS): Five critical questions for startups and veterans

Small business owners have to deal with two universes every day: the Marketplace, and what I call, the Diaper Changing Stuff (DCS).

The Marketplace is the fun place, where you buy and sell stuff. Playing in the backyard of this universe is why you became a business owner in the first place. And the good news is, most entrepreneurs are pretty good at the rules and expectations of this universe before they start their business.

The DCS represents mostly backroom, operating tasks (read: not much fun) that have to be done in order to present the business and its products to the Marketplace – accounting, cash management, banking, capital allocation, payroll, regulations – you get the picture. Just as no one has a baby because they like changing diapers, no one ever went into business because they’re passionate about inventory management or accounts payable. And yet, those tasks are as critical as the fun ones.

If you’re thinking of starting a business, don’t do it until you’ve compared my quick DCS checklist to your abilities. If you’re a business veteran, road test your DCS skills against this list to see where you might need improvement.

1. Cash and accounting

Do you know the difference between cash and accounting? Gain this understanding before you hock the house to start your business, because it’s the most imperative financial dynamic you’ll face every day. In fact, it’s the number one business issue that will wake you up at 2am. Remember, you can’t make payroll with a debit or a credit.

2. Capital allocation

Do you know how to properly allocate operating and non-operating capital? Don’t use operating cash to buy long-term assets, or borrow money to operate on. Create a capital source and allocation strategy before you crank up your corporation.

3. Banking

Do you know how to talk banker? If you need a loan, can you explain what you’re going to accomplish with the money, AND how you’re going to pay the bank back? If you make a loan request without this information, you’ll just burn a banking bridge. Bankers are easily frightened, and no one ever got a loan from a scared banker.

4. A/R Days – A/P Days

Do you understand the relationship between Accounts Receivable Days and Accounts Payable Days? If you extend credit to customers, you have to fund those accounts until they’re received, which is usually later than when you have to pay vendors. If you’re not tracking this relationship, you could literally succeed yourself out of business. And the first indication you’re in jeopardy will be a call from your banker telling you to make a deposit, or a vendor putting you on C.O.D. Sometimes these calls come in at the same time.

5. Quality Process

Do you know the difference between Quality Service (QS) and Quality Process (QP)? QS is always making the customer happy, no matter how many times it takes to get it right. QP means getting it right the first time. QS is an expense you have to pay for over and over. Having a QP is an investment in excellence that stops the bleeding and moves customers from complaining to placing new orders and referring you to their friends.

Bonus question: Can you operate the business you had the entrepreneurial vision to create? Not everyone can. Don’t start your business unless you’re ready to change the diapers on your baby.

Write this on a rock … Blasingame’s Fourth Law of Small Business: “Successful small business owners have the spirit of an entrepreneur and the heart of an operator.”

The wonderful world of small business niches

One of the things Sears Roebuck is famous for is their Craftsmen tools, especially their mechanical socket wrenches. Once, while buying one of these, I was confronted with the options of “Good,” “Better,” and “Best,” a strategy for which Sears is also famous. Asking about the difference, I was told that the Best model had more notches, or teeth, inside the mechanism, allowing for finer adjustments when tightening a bolt or nut.

For the past 30 years, the marketplace has increasingly become like that “Best” socket wrench: every year, it acquires more notches, except in the marketplace, notches are called niches (I prefer “nitch,” but some say “neesh” – tomato, tomahto). And just as more notches in a mechanical wrench allow for finer adjustments, niches create finer and more elegant ways to serve customers, which they like – a lot.

Webster (and Wikipedia) defines a niche as, “a place or position perfectly suited for the person or thing in it.” If ever a concept was perfectly suited for something, it is the niche and small business. Indeed, as one small business owner creates a new niche, another is creating a niche within a niche. It’s a beautiful thing.

Rebecca Boenigk is the president of Neutral Posture, Inc., a Texas company she and her mother founded in 1989. This small business manufactures REALLY comfortable and ergonomically correct office chairs. As a guest on my radio program, she told me they attribute their success to filling a niche: Their chairs aren’t for everyone, just those who are willing to pay a little more for a chair that promotes the best posture at work. Many small business fortunes have been made with the Neutral Posture model of being the best-in-niche, rather than trying to conquer the world.

The mother of niches is what Adam Smith called “the division of labor,” which today often manifests as outsourcing. Outsourcing is when individuals and businesses spend more time focusing on their core competencies and contract for the other stuff. For example, there are more professional lawn businesses today because folks are increasingly realizing they can earn more by sticking to their professional knitting, than it costs to hire their grass cut.

And across the marketplace, it’s become an article of faith that the best way to stay on track is by outsourcing non-core tasks to a contractor – often operating in a niche – whose core competency is that task. I’ve long said that the best thing that ever happened to small business – after the personal computer – is outsourcing, because it manufactures niches, which are pretty much the domain of small business.

As niches have increased in number, so have entrepreneurial opportunities, resulting in the most dramatic expansion of the small business sector in history. It’s difficult to say which one is the egg and which is the chicken: Have entrepreneurs taken advantage of niche opportunities presented to them, or have they carved out niches while pushing the envelope of an industry? The answer is not either/or, it’s both/and.

In the future, there won’t be more mass marketing, mass media or mass distribution, but there will be more niches – lots of new niches. Even niches of niches. And that’s good news, because more niches means a healthier small business sector, which I happen to believe is good for the world.

Write this on a rock … Most small businesses will find more success by creating and serving niches.

You say your business plan every day

Do you have a business plan? What? In your head? How’s that working for you?

Don’t know how to get one started? Well consider this conversation that happens many times, every day, between business owners just like you and the people they meet.

Friend: “Hi Joe. Heard you started a business. What’re you doing?”

Owner: “Oh, hi, Sue. Yeah, John and I are selling square widgets to round widget distributors.”

Friend: “What? How’re you going to do that?”

Owner: “We discovered that no one has thought to offer square widgets to these guys. Our research found that round widget companies not only need square widgets sometimes, but they’ll pay a premium for them.”

Friend: “I thought you couldn’t get new square widgets anymore?”

Owner: “Well, we discovered that round widget companies don’t need new square widgets, so we’re buying seconds, cleaning them up, repackaging and delivering them to those customers.”

Friend: “Sounds like you’ve found a niche. How many can you sell in a year?”

Owner: “We’ve identified the need for 15,000 this year, and with the trend in the market, we think we can double that within three years. Gotta go. See ya later.”

Let’s look at what just happened. Without realizing it, Joe essentially said his business plan to Sue. In two minutes Joe identified the business, management team, industry, market opportunity, customer profile, vendor profile, pricing strategy, market research results and, finally, growth plans. All that’s left is to add a few other elements, write the narrative and project the numbers.

Since you’re probably having similar conversations that means you’re saying your business plan, probably without realizing it, every day. But is that a useful form?

There are a bazillion reasons to put your plan on paper, but we only have room for the three most likely:

  • To get a bank loan
  • To attract investors
  • Because it’s an essential management tool

So now that I’ve convinced you how important this management tool is, when you do yours, don’t make these mistakes:

  • Don’t wait until you need a business plan to start one.
  • Don’t wait until you have time.
  • Don’t make it harder than it has to be.

The words of a conversation like the one above are the seeds from which you can grow your business plan. So just start writing what you already know, like Joe said.

A written business plan will help you achieve new levels of management professionalism and success. Here’s a good place to see something less than a bazillion sample plans without any commercials: www.bplans.com.

Write this on a rock … You already say your business plan every day. Now write it down.

Washington’s New Hashtag: #WithoutAnySenseOfShame

Let me tell you a story.

A boss gives an employee a project on January 1st that could easily be completed right away. This project had significant financial implications for the company. Month after month the boss checks in with the employee but finds the project still isn’t completed. The employee hasn’t done his job.

Finally, in the middle of December, almost a year later, the employee delivers the finished project as if there’s been a great accomplishment, but with two pieces of bad news: There are only two weeks left for the project to contribute to this year’s business, plus the project just delivered will be useless on January 1 without being completely reworked.

No doubt right now you’re yelling, “Who keeps an employee like this?” Or perhaps you’re saying, “This is a joke, right? No organization operates like that.” Sadly, this scenario is not only true, it’s been happening in a real organization, like in the movie Groundhog Day, for several years.

The employee in my story is Congress and the employer is America’s small business owners. The projects are 52 tax extenders which Congress has chosen to reapprove annually rather than make them permanent.

Many of these extenders are key factors in growth strategies, plus cash and tax planning for millions of businesses. Perhaps the most prominent is section 179 of the tax code. Part of this section allows and sets a limit for direct expensing of capital items in the year of acquisition, rather than depreciating those items over years.

For several years the Section 179 expensing limit, and the amount awaiting re-approval, was $500,000. But if this provision isn’t renewed it drops to $25,000. And just like in my story, instead of finishing the project permanently, Congress keeps renewing this extender each year, which wouldn’t be so bad if they did their work in January. But in 2014, without any sense of shame, Congress passed another one-year extension for the $500,000 level on December 16.

The expensing provision might not change whether you make the investment, nor the price of the purchase, but it does impact cash flow and tax planning for the year of acquisition, which is a big deal for most small businesses. If you were trying to make a 2014 equipment purchase decision, you had less than two weeks – over the holidays – to get that equipment in service in order to take advantage of the expensing option.

When you’ve read my past criticism of the anti-business practices of the political class in Washington, this is but one example. Like it or not, the tax code is very much a part of business investment decisions for companies large and small. And when investment decisions impeded at the micro level of a single purchase are aggregated across millions of businesses, it has a negative impact on economic growth. It’s not difficult to see how Congress’s failure to do their job has contributed to the moribund 2% annual GDP growth we’ve been suffering since 2009.

So here we are again feeling like it’s Groundhog Day because, like last year, Congress still hasn’t renewed the tax extenders for 2015. Next time someone asks why non-politicians are polling so high in the presidential campaigns, tell them this story.

Write this on a rock … Washington’s new Twitter hashtag should be: #WITHOUTANYSENSEOFSHAME.

Jim Blasingame is author of the award-winning book, The Age of the Customer: Prepare for the Moment of Relevance.




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