Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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How to get from where you are to where you want to be

How lean is your startup?

“Excess cost can be created by indirect factors that aren’t immediately apparent. You can attack these costs only by getting to the real heart of the problem, rather than just bashing away at the cost itself. The three biggest indirect cost generators are time, complexity, and poor quality.” Andrew Wileman

These days there is a lot of talk about shaving costs and becoming more capital efficient. With the credit markets the way they are, just about every venture capitalist has sent out doomsday emails telling their portfolio companies to brace themselves for tough times. I understand that market conditions are very bad, however what I fail to understand is why such emails are not sent out on a regular basis to portfolio companies. As companies become more adept at providing products and services there should be a natural downward trend in their costs. If such a trend is not becoming apparent the business needs to re-evaluate it’s position and figure out where it is leaking cash. From a cash flow perspective this is an extremely vital exercise. If costs are allowed to inflate without sufficient increase in revenue and benefits of economies of scale, the business is headed straight for trouble.

I take the approach of measuring cost effectiveness in terms of every product or service that the business is providing. The goal must be to provide the product or service at a lower cost than the competition. This does not necessarily have to be reflected in lower price points. As we widen the cost comparison between competitors, we are able to hold a much stronger position in the overall industry. Some questions that you can ask yourself to determine how lean your startup is, are:

1. What are the direct costs associated with providing the product or service? If you are selling used mobile phones through the internet for instance, then some of these costs would include; procurement expenses, hosting of a website, marketing campaigns for the website, and delivery costs to customers.

2. What is the incremental cost of producing one more unit or providing another service? Over time economies of scale should kick in and we should see a fall in the incremental cost. In today’s world, thanks to the internet the cost of delivering the same service to many customers has very little incremental cost. For instance if you set up a web service to provide an ability to create invoices, the architecture can be used to serve 1 or a 1000 customers. What needs to be identified is, when does one need to add more servers or optimize the architecture to handle more users.

3. What costs remain unchanged irrespective of volume of products and services provided? These are your fixed costs. One needs to find a level of products and services to ensure we break even. These costs must be contained in order to reach positive cash flows and profitability faster. Services such as Amazon’s s3 cloud computing services provide new web startups the ability to scale much faster and keep fixed operating costs at a minimum. Finds ways how you can reduce your fixed operating costs.

4. How does your cost structure compare against your competitors? This is often difficult to assess but it is possible to get a rough idea after doing some research regarding the competition’s processes. Once we can assess areas of advantage and disadvantage we can build on these segments respectively.

Cost cuts do not necessarily require a business to layoff staff or drastically cut marketing expenditure. If costs are inflated to begin with, these cuts need to take place whether we are in a boom cycle or a recession cycle. The focus needs to be placed on ensuring we optimize reduction of overhead counts, at the same time not letting our growth stagnate. An equilibirum needs to be found, once we have thoroughly assessed the business we will be able to reach such a level.

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