Archive for the 'Business planning' Category

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.

Four kinds of Vitamin C prevent professional scurvy

For centuries, prolonged service at sea resulted in sailors contracting a malady called scurvy.  Those so afflicted bruised easily, had joint pain, gum disease, tooth loss — you get the picture.

By the mid-18th century, researchers discovered that eating citrus fruit, like lemons and limes, would prevent scurvy. We now know the active ingredient in this “remedy” is vitamin C in the ascorbic acid found in these fruits. Ascorbic literally means “no scurvy” in Latin.

One of the maladies often found in business owners is a condition I call professional scurvy. This kind doesn’t cause your teeth to fall out, but symptoms do include high levels of negative energy, low levels of performance and an easily bruised ego resulting in an unfortunately high business failure rate.

The good news is, like the seagoing kind, professional scurvy can be cured with vitamin C — actually four kinds of professional vitamin C.

1.  Vitamin Courage

Challenges ignored turn into ugly problems that can bruise a business. But facing challenges with courage reduces the negative impact and provides a chance to morph them into opportunities.

Courage is being brave AFTER you’ve had time to think about it.  Catch challenges early so you can administer a dose of Vitamin Courage.

2.  Vitamin Confidence

Thomas Edison is alleged to have said failure is successfully identifying what doesn’t work. Pure success tends to build ego, which in high concentration can be professionally dangerous. But success alloyed with failure actually builds confidence, which is essential for long-term performance.

Vitamin Confidence in business is nothing more than faith in your ability to sail around present and future challenges, as well as seize opportunities that come your way.

3.  Vitamin Character

Contracts are the transactional laws of the marketplace. But like the relationship between captain and crew, it’s character that counts, not legal words or signatures on paper.

Those who demonstrate high levels of Vitamin Character —like doing the right thing even if the contract doesn’t require it — have no difficulty finding customers or crew.

4.  Vitamin Credential

This one is critical because courage without skill is the definition of foolhardy; confidence without resources is what Texans call “all hat and no cattle;” and character without knowledge is a well-intentioned commitment that may not be kept.

All the best intentions won’t help you succeed if you don’t acquire Vitamin Credentials — education, skill, experience and resources — that can back up your business plan and commitment to deliver.

Write this on a rock….

Prevent professional scurvy with regular doses Professional Vitamin C.

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

How to get a bank loan: Part Two

Since most businesses have been deleveraging post-2008 financial crisis, you could be forgiven for getting rusty at how to ask for a loan from bank. But as the economy picks up and you need growth capital, it’ll be handy to brush up on your banking skills.

Last time, I used the customer qualifying process as an analogy for how to work with your banker to get a loan, and offered the first three of six loan request factors: Who makes the decision, what do they need and how do they want it? Now let’s talk about the last three.

What motivates them?

All banks need to make loans, but all banks don’t like the same kinds of loans. Some banks make working capital loans, and some don’t. Most banks make real estate loans, but each one has its own profile of what kind of real estate they like. And all banks like to loan money for things with serial numbers, like vehicles and equipment. In your first meeting, what the banker says about your proposal should indicate their level of interest in your type of loan. But if not, it’s okay to ask.

Banks will fight for loans, but they’ll kill for deposits. Checking account deposits are virtually free money to a bank, a portion of which they use to make loans. They like personal checking accounts, but LOVE business accounts. A bank’s motivation increases with your daily deposits if you place your operating account with them. You should know the value of your deposits to a bank and use that information to negotiate rates and terms.

How motivated are they?

You can tell how motivated a bank is by how helpful the loan officer is.  Her excitement is no foreteller of success, just of motivation.  But if she seems indifferent or unmotivated, that’s probably not a good sign.

A deal that couldn’t get through the front door of Bank A this morning, could be received with a red carpet at Bank B this afternoon. So be prepared to take your proposal to more than one bank. And be sure at least one of the banks you make a loan proposal to is an independent community bank.

What do I have to do?

Bankers love field trips. Give your banker a demonstration of the new equipment the loan is for, or take them to see the real estate you want to buy. Show them how the object of your loan request will help you grow your business, profits and deposits.

The best way to get a business loan is to do your homework, anticipate what your banker needs and get them what they ask for. And if the bank that was loyal to you when you needed them doesn’t have the best deal — but it’s a deal you can live with, “dance with the one that brung ya.”

Write this on a rock …

Understanding how banks make business loans will improve your chances of getting one.




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