Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

5 Steps to Better Inventory Management

“Every company has metrics that track performance. The key question is whether these metrics really provide visibility to performance as viewed by the customer.” Steve Matthesen

Inventory management is an aspect of business which needs to be given more attention than what it currently receives. It is certainly not the most glamorous aspects of running a business. Inventory management is a basic business building block like marketing, sales or finance. Simply put, inventory management deals with how efficiently an organization manages it stock cycles. Stocks in inventory, relate to aspects of business that are exposed to risk when accumulated beyond certain thresholds. In the case of a service business, it is the amount of outstanding payments. Efficient inventory management helps a business to maximize its existing assets by increasing turnover. Listed below are five steps to assist your business in managing inventory cycles better:

1. Inventory Velocity: This is an essential metric, which measures the speed at which a business can move it’s stock. The speed at which a business moves it’s inventory will impact substantially on its profitability and ROI. Inventory velocity can be calculated by simply dividing the cost of goods sold by the average inventory for the period. This is a benchmark all businesses should watch very closely. To learn more about the importance of measuring inventory velocity please click here.

2. Forecasting: Mistakes made by forecasting incorrectly will impact directly on the level of inventory at the end of a financial period. There are three important aspects to be considered when constructing forecasts. The forecasts need to be based on data acquired from the market, sales channels and the current pipeline. Based on these aspects, we can construct forecasts for multiple scenarios which enable us to put measures in place, for the best and worst case scenarios. It is important to remember that forecasts are only as good as the assumptions they are based upon. To learn more about how to forecast revenue for your business please click here.

3. Communication Channels: When there are insufficient channels of communication between the producer, distributor, retailer and customer inventory, management becomes challenging. The information gap needs to be bridged by implementing several communication channels which include, allocated representatives, conference calls, real time stock levels and feedback channels. When information is allowed to flow freely from the customer to the producer, changes can be made faster and everyone in the chain stands to benefit. To learn more about the various communication channels please click here.

4. Technology: Organizations such as Walmart and Dell have shown the power of technology to optimize inventory management. Today, entrepreneurs have access to several tools such as bar coding, inventory management  and billing management software, which can help give small businesses an edge in managing their inventories optimally. To learn more about different types of technologies available for inventory management please click here.

5. Internal Policies: Policies and controls need to be selected carefully. Their main objective should be to facilitate bottom line growth for the business. These objectives act as guiding principles, and policies are intended to facilitate reaching those goals. Proper inventory management can impact bottom line figures and results for the business substantially. Policies pertaining to ordering, review and collections need to be mapped out in detail to ensure proper management of inventories. To learn more about internal policies relating to inventory management please click here.

Operations and supply chain management are the nuts and bolts of all businesses. Without smooth operations and proper controls, we could have a great website, killer marketing strategies and still come up short. When a customer does not get the product in time, or at the right price, we lose the customer. It all comes down to execution, and ensuring that we have systems in place to manage each order optimally. Inventory management is a critical aspect of this chain, and I recommend all business owners review their inventory cycles and work out ways to optimize them.

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Inventory Management Internal Policies

Policies are many, Principles are few, Policies will change, Principles never do. John C. Maxwell

A common answer I get when I ask individuals why they chose to become entrepreneurs is, “We did not want to get buried in bureaucracy and policies which stop us from performing optimally.” I completely understand where they are coming from. It is true that in some larger organizations policies and controls become so complex that it leads to much frustration. However, I do not advocate running a business without any control measures. Policies and controls need to be selected carefully. Their main objective should be to facilitate bottom line growth for the business. These objectives act as guiding principles, and policies are intended to facilitate reaching those goals. Proper inventory management can impact bottom line figures and results for the business substantially, and is an area where entrepreneurs need control measures to ensure that things move smoothly. Listed below are a few policies which may be helpful:

1. Ordering: If your business depends on manufacturers to produce your product, it is best you have documented your specifications in detail. It is also advisable to get quotes from a number of manufacturers before deciding to go with a particular vendor. This not only helps gather market information, it enables you to get the best price as well.

2. Inventory Review: I recommend setting up a policy to review inventory stock levels periodically. This helps determine current worth, idle stock alternative strategies to be offloaded can be discussed, and it provides management with a holistic view of the level of risk they are currently exposed to. For a service based business, this can identify customers not paying on time, and adjust their credit lines accordingly.

3. Collections: This is an area where entrepreneurs face a lot of challenges. If you have outstanding payments for products sold through retailers or for services rendered, it is essential that a mechanism is in place to receive this payments as soon as possible. I would recommend setting up periodic reminders through, email, phone calls and personal visits to speed up this process. Depending on your business model, having a collection policy which is adhered to closely, can increase short term liquidity substantially.

Inventory management is definitely not the most exciting aspects of business. It is however, a critical function which needs to be given a lot more focus. Through appropriate policies and control measures, we can achieve optimal inventory velocity and increase the likelihood of turning in even greater profit.

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Inventory Management Technologies

The first rule of any technology used in a business is that automation applied to an efficient operation will magnify the efficiency. The second is that automation applied to an inefficient operation will magnify the inefficiency. Bill Gates

Technology has played a massive role in optimizing inventory management. Examples of companies which stand out are, Walmart and Dell, they have used technology to make the most of their inventories and maximize velocity. Both these companies have used technologies such as RFID (Radio Frequency Identification), web based systems and software automation. Take Walmart for example, they track inventory levels throughout their stores continuously, and are able to transfer inventory from one geographical location to another, based on demand changes or how they use RFID to streamline pick-ups and deliveries from their warehouses. These represent massive infrastructure costs, which eventually lead to cost savings and efficiency. Most start-up companies will not be able to afford such systems. However, they do need to think of creative ways to use available technologies to optimize their own inventories.

Some ways to incorporate simple technologies into your business are:

1. Bar Coding: With specialty printers and software available quite reasonably, I recommend tagging your stock to keep track of movements. We implemented this in one of the companies I was consulting at, and it gave management a holistic view about stock levels and usage patterns. Using this information, they were able to make better inventory based decisions.

2. Inventory Software: These programs help keep track of key metrics regarding the usage of your inventory. They have the capability to provide future trends based on past usage, and can identify areas where the business is taking unnecessary exposure by ordering too much or too little. The fact that your stock inventory can be viewed holistically is a great benefit in itself.

3. Billing Management: For service based businesses, I strongly recommend using an invoicing and billing management software. These are critical to ensure that invoices are issued in time, and payments made accordingly. One can easily find metrics such as, how long your billing cycles are, and which customers need to be given stricter terms. Some tools have inbuilt email reminders, a very handy feature, to remind customers on a periodic basis. I find a lot of younger business owners take this function too lightly which can severely damage cash flows.

A constant aim should remain to increase inventory velocity. Technology provides us with a multitude of tools to help reach this goal. Some technology tools available, can unnecessarily complicate processes which can backfire. It is important to always keep simplicity and some specific goals in mind when integrating technology tools.

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Communication Channels

The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place. George Bernard Shaw

A major reason for inventory mismanagement is a lack of appropriate communication channels of information. When a producer has insufficient contact with the distributor, unrealistic expectations are formed. By the same token, if the distributor has insufficient communication channels with the retailers, there is also a massive information gap. To minimize surplus inventory stocks and form realistic expectations, all the parties involved need to play an active role to allow for real time feedback and communication. For example, a company I have invested in, distributes a particular type of spray paint can. It is a high end product, with many lower priced competitors. When we began a relationship with the producer, the producer’s expectation was to clear inventory at a certain speed. The ground realities however, were very different from what was expected, and it was primarily our fault for not doing sufficient research. This strained the relationship with the producer.

Eventually, we devised a model through which we began to clear the goods at a much faster pace, but it was not through the traditional retail model. When the producer came to visit our operations, he had very different expectation, and it took a lot of effort to clear communication channels. The lesson to learn from this example is, there have to be multiple communication channels for a business, to help them acheive their inventory turn targets. First the producer and the distributor must allocate an individual on each side to communicate the feedback received. There also needs to be periodic conference calls with management to talk about issues from a macro level, and to temper expectations and goals. Stock levels and pricing strategies should be constantly monitored. Next, if the distributor used multiple retailers, the same structure should be set up for communication between them. Lastly, constant customer feedback must be available through the web or surveys.

Creating a holistic model, where communication between all involved parties becomes transparent and fluid, will help fill the information gaps which are a result of faster inventory speeds. In my personal experience, it has not only created a stronger relationship with our principal, it has helped us tap into the potential of the product itself. This is done through constant feedback and strategies, which are developed when all the individuals involved work together to push the product harder. A lack of communication channels will result in stock piling of inventory, unhappy relationships and unrealistic expectations. It is therefore critical that communication channels be set up as soon as possible.

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Forecasting

Champions know that success is inevitable; that there is no such thing as failure, only feedback. They know that the best way to forecast the future is to create it.Michael J. Gelb

Forecasting and inventory management are intricately related. Any mistakes made by forecasting incorrectly will impact directly on the level of inventory at the end of a financial period. It is therefore critical that management spend time and effort in forecasting market demand as accurately as possible to avoid difficult situations in the future. Forecasting is a very tricky exercise, especially for entrepreneurs who are introducing new products or services into the market. Many a time this uncertainty is used as an excuse to overlook market data. I have been guilty of doing this a couple of times, and if you are running a product based business, the consequences can be quite severe. Listed below are a couple of pointers to help with the revenue forecasting exercise.

1. Market Data: Identify your target segment and the budgets for the problem your business is planning to solve. How is your competition addressing the problem at hand currently? Is there a high switching cost in the industry? At what rate is the target industry growing? How have embedded competitors innovated to get ahead of the competition? Can you find your competitors revenue statistics? What are the industry operating margins?

2. Sales Channels: How will your product/service be marketed and sold to customers? How many sales representatives are going to be allocated? What are individual targets set for each representative? How will each representative be compensated? Do any of the available sales channels vary cyclically?

3. Pipeline Management: How are leads collected and passed to sales representatives? How many collection points does your business have? How many leads can be managed per representative in the pipeline? How long does it take to convert a prospect to a customer? What is the average value of a prospect in the pipeline?

4. Scenario Planning: When creating forecasts it is best to come up with multiple scenarios. This helps develop strategies to manage the best case situation, the expected situation, and the worst case situation. These scenarios take into account certain uncertainties and help devise strategies for measures to be taken half way through the year when things take an abrupt turn.

Collecting this data can be an extremely challenging task. Be careful of information sources used. Forecasts are only as good as the assumptions which they are based on at the end of the day. A tip I use personally is to start looking for very specific statistics before I dive into the research. Lets say I want to know what the total revenue for our target industry is in Asia Pacific during 2007. This helps me narrow my search queries and focuses my attention to relevant information sources. No matter how challenging this process may be, it is far better than making some fatal errors in the future.

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5 Essential Facts about Revenue

“A computer can tell you down to the last dime what you’ve sold. But it can never tell you how much you could have sold.” Sam Walton

An organization can have a great product and a great team, without any revenue however, they have very little. Revenue is the life blood of any enterprise; it fuels growth, motivation and success. Every organization strives to develop perfect products/services, most of the time however, they are developed with inadequate attention to revenue streams. What follows are shattered dreams and expectations, because a business without solid recurring revenue streams has nothing to stand on. Over the course of this week I have shared some basic facts with you regarding revenue streams, I have re-capped briefly below:

1. Revenue & Business Models: If you are writing a business plan or, are in a new startup venture, identify your revenue streams as clearly as possible, and understand what resources need to be put into place to realize their true potential. The future of your organizations rests upon these strategic initiatives. The business model must be based on sound revenue streams in order to succeed. To learn more about revenue and business models please click here.

2. Revenue & Market Segmentation: Once identification of a business model has been made, correct mapping of its target market is essential. Having a strategy to aim a product/service at ambiguous market segments results in spreading yourself too thin, especially when resources are tight. Market positioning of products is of paramount importance for successfully generating revenue at a quicker pace. To learn more about revenue and market segmentation please click here.

3. Revenue & Investment: Investing in correct revenue streams can be the difference between an organization that succeeds and one which does not. It is critical that metrics are put into place to ensure that all revenue streams are closely measured. This will lead to informed decisions on whether it makes financial sense to continue investing in a particular revenue or to focus energies on another stream to ensure that financial stability is maintained. To learn more about revenue and investment please click here.

4. Revenue & Change: Our world is in a constant state of flux. We are living through a time where we need to become adept at forecasting as also adapting to changes taking place. This principle applies to all aspects of our lives, in the business sense, it has far reaching implications. We have to avoid becoming rigid at all costs to maintain a competitive direction in the global market place. Failure to do so will result in an inevitable downslide of your organization. To learn more about revenue and change please click here.

5. Revenue & Metrics: Metrics are mandatory components of any successful business. Measuring your revenue streams is essential as you need to be aware of the growth rate of your streams, how quickly your pipeline is being converted, what sort of market share you hold and how the industry you operate in, is changing. Such metrics provide information that will allow you to make informed choices. To learn more about revenue and metrics please click here.

In todays day and age there are a plethora of startups which have no clear business model, some are purely developed attractive acquisitions while others wait to see how they develop. My advice is, go in with a plan on making money from day one if you want to build a strong and well founded organization. When developing your streams ensure that you cater to each level of your market segment and create opportunities for scalability and cross selling. Doing so will put you in a favorable position to succeed. 

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Metrics for Revenue Streams

Every company has metrics that track performance. The key question is whether these metrics really provide visibility to performance as viewed by the customer.” Steve Matthesen

Working at a startup, there are always a host of things which need to get done. It is a constant battle with time to stay on track and achieve goals and targets. In the midst of this daily commotion, we are inundated with information from all sides. To keep abreast of all these developments, it is essential to develop a system which provides dashboard views about current standings. This is where metrics come into play. They need to be incorporated into every major business function to provide real-time statistics and keep the focus in the right direction.

The metrics for revenue streams used at some of the organizations that I work with, range from being very simple to relatively complex depending on the nature of the business. I have experienced that there are a few metrics which need more focus than others where revenue is concerned. They are:

1. Revenue Stream Growth: This metric provides data regarding development of each stream of revenue by quarter. It involves data which includes percentage growth numbers, pipeline activity and deal closures. These figures provide detail analysis on streams that are growing at a faster pace than others, the stages of revenue facing plateaus and how projected business is forecast in the coming quarters for each stream. 

2. ROI on Revenue Streams: It is one thing to have an extremely high turnover and a completely different story when that is not being converted into bottom line results. This metric provides data regarding the profitability of each segment and a break-down of investment into the stream, as well as marketing costs and cost of goods/services. Constant vigilance helps regarding which streams need to be promoted and which need to be ceased. 

3. Market Share & Industry Analytics: This metric keeps track of current growth trends in the industry the organization operates in. It constantly updates data regarding major changes on competition, government policies, economics climate and company position. This requires constant study to stay current with the rapid changes taking place. 

While keeping all the metrics in mind make sure that you take time out to compare them with related metrics to customers, vendors, suppliers and distributors. This will ensure a complete picture of the current situation. At an early stage startup, complicated metrics are not necessary, what is required however, is the ability to put these metrics into practice at basic levels. This will ensure that the position and development of the company is dealt with more effectively.

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Change and Revenue Streams

“The key to success is often the ability to adapt” Anonymous

Our world is in a constant state of flux. We are living through a time where we need to become adept at forecasting as also adapting to changes taking place. This principle applies to all aspects of our lives, in the business sense, it has far reaching implications. This story has been heard time and time again, companies become complacent and rigid about rapid changes taking place and soon find themselves compromised. A story, very much in the news these days is, Yahoo!. This company once dominated web search. Today, it finds itself in a messy situation involving corporate raiders and hostile takeovers. What went wrong?

Yahoo! pioneers and leaders of web search throughout the 90’s became complacent about changes taking place in their domain space. A new entry startup called google started to develop traction. Before you knew it, they became a formidable player in the search market. Yahoo! failed to adapt to this change and continued diversifying their business model into new markets. They failed to defend their primary revenue stream, including a missed opportunity to buy-out google for $3b. This is an example of how the pace of change can turn positions in a matter of years, even for such a large firm. However, this is not the first story of its kind, nor the last, these mistakes take place on a daily basis.

If your organization has developed revenue streams which have potential of exponentially increasing over the years, it is your foremost responsibility to protect fiercely. This is done by continuous improvement of the processes, as well as developing complementary assets as barriers around that stream. If done diligently, you will be able to protect yourself from inevitable complacency, which could lead to an unfortunate outcome. On the flip side if you are struggling with your current revenue streams and not being able to develop them further, pay close attention to changes occurring around you. If you are promoting a product/service which has no place in the current market, you need to rethink strategy, and, as soon as possible.

Incorporating systems to account for changes in domain, industry, economics climate and external factors is critical to success. Make sure you have them in place to avoid trouble !

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Investment and Revenue Streams

“Sometimes the best investments are the ones you don’t make.” Donald Trump

Multiple revenue streams are extremely valuable assets for any business. Each revenue stream has to be positioned to address certain components of the overall strategy. Every revenue stream is not created equally, some are based on low margin and fast moving products/services while others facilitate growth of higher end products/services. The key factor to be addressed here is not only the creation of renewable revenue sources positioned for the right markets, but also correct investment into these streams. 

For example, if your business currently provides you three streams of revenue, you need to have certain measures in place to gauge the level of growth of each stream. These metrics will provide you critical data to measure which streams have the potential of exploding, as compared to others whose growth is relatively stunted. Without these metrics, we could make a fatal error of investing in wrong revenue streams which could have negative impact on the overall bottom line. Concentrating your investments on the right revenue streams is a strategy used by all successful companies. 

In my personal experience, one of the most telling signs of focusing on wrong revenue streams, is near the end of the quarter when the entire team has to push itself ridiculously hard to reach set targets. If this happens in a consistent fashion, quarter after quarter, you could be backing the wrong stream and costing the organization dearly. Develop flags for each of your streams and when things seem to be going off course consistently, look into revenue streams rather than blaming the economy or your team.

Are you investing in the correct revenue streams?

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Revenue and Market Segmentation

“The perfect business model must have a way to build in its own high-margin products that can be sold while processing reliable renewable revenue streams at any margin.” Mitch Thrower

 Once identification of a business model has been made, correct mapping of its target market is essential. Having a strategy to aim a product/service at ambiguous market segments results in spreading yourself too thin, especially when resources are tight. Market positioning of products is of paramount importance for successfully generating revenue at a quicker pace. For example, I was consulting with a startup organization who is launching a business in the mobile social networking area . They have specifically developed a service for the 15-21 age range, exclusively for the Chinese market. Even though the market is exploding for mobile usage in China, by selecting a niche segment they can become a much stronger adversary to competition.

It is only after a market segment has been selected , a niche market to operate in identified, that you have to develop revenue strategies. These strategies can be aimed at capturing multiple subsets within your market segment. For example many online service providers give you multiple options to sign up for their service. At one my companies we use Highrise(CRM tool) which allows you to sign up either as a single user, small medium enterprise (SME) or a full fledged enterprise implementation. This strategy gives them the capability to develop revenue streams faster, at multiple levels. Ultimately this provides the company with growth, stability and flexibility to adapt itself to changes in economic situations.

The example mentioned above shows a company which has not selected any clear market segment to promote its products in. Many SMEs find them a more cost effective alternative to other such CRM tools. Positioning a product for mass market appeal is a strategy which I have not used extensively in any of my ventures. It is a harder process and one, I think, you could grow into rather than jumping into the deep end for it. For every facebook, google or amazon there are thousands of similar services which never got similar traction. Correct market segmentation provides you with structured direction and enables you to develop specific competencies. These can result in major competitive advantages in the long run. 

When developing your Go To Market strategy, paying attention to niche markets and building multiple level revenue streams around it, could become your winning strategy. 

 

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