Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

Inflows and Outflows

“Eventually everything shows up in earnings and cash flow, but it shows up late.” David Larcker

A fundamental premise of business is that when your inflow exceeds your outflow, the business will make a profit. In principle that is how things work, but there is a big difference between profit and cash flow. One could have a positive cash flow yet be running at a loss. As an entrepreneur we have to first make sure we become cash flow positive and then ensure that we make a profit doing so. Going for big multi-million dollar deals with huge margins is very exciting. However when we pursue such types of deals, we get stuck with the hidden costs associated with such deals fairly early on. They include major revisions, slower decision making, slower payment cycles and the possibility of losing the deal at the last minute. I have learned this lesson the hard way and have since become a true believer in singles and doubles (smaller deals) rather than going for the home run.

The cash flow section of the business plan is a critical component and is often given great importance and emphasis by investors when evaluating a business. This section basically involves outlining both the inflow and outflow from your business activities. Quite simply, these are revenue and interest earned on investment subtracted by the costs associated with running the business. If you have been having cash flow problems in your business and have not created a cash flow projection sheet, I recommend you do so immediately by identifying your inflows and outflows. However the real problem is that inflows are usually much slower to come in than your outflows. This is when the business begins to run out of cash and is put under a lot of pressure. There are a couple of tips which can help ease this problem:

1. Invoice at regular intervals and have a strict follow-up policy. Instead of billing the client for your services at one go, bill them in smaller increments regularly to ensure a steady stream of cash. Have built-in policies to ensure that customers who delay payments are downgraded for all future deals and are constantly reminded via all means about outstanding payments.

2. Extend supplier credit for as long as you possibly can. These are usually large payments that put an enormous strain on the business cash flow position. Negotiating extended supplier credit terms can be very tricky. If you have guaranteed orders which are going to be given to the supplier in the near future I seldom use those to gain more leverage during the negotiation process.

3. Stock less of your product if meeting supplier payments will be an issue. Converting idle inventory to cash usually takes quite a long time and panic offloading will result in large losses if they are unloaded below cost.

Managing inflows and outflows is a very challenging. However, missteps to manage them efficiently ultimately leads to the closure of the business. Therefore we need to continually forecast cash flow projections and ensure that we remain in a position to meet our obligations.

Related Posts:

Forecasting

– Communication Channels

Internal Policies

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Are you Out of Cash?

Happiness is a positive cash flow. Fred Adler.

I do not agree completely with Mr. Adler’s point of view but I do understand where he is coming from. Those of you who have been through tight cash flow cycles, will be able to connect with the quotation much as I did. Running out of cash is a fundamental reason why many businesses have to pack up and fold. Without correct management of this critical asset, we find ourselves unable to meet payroll needs, pay suppliers or even cover basic business expenses. We could have a booming business yet mismatched inflows and outflows can cripple the business’ ability to meet obligations.

First time entrepreneurs, and in general smaller companies are more vulnerable to experiencing such incidents. There are a few major reasons behind this.

1. Firstly, due to inexperience, first time business owners generally do not have a tight control over outflows. This results in over inflated payrolls, very high basic expenditures and often frivolous spending on equipment and services which they clearly do not have a requirement for. With high burn rates and not enough business coming in, the business usually has to drastically cut expenses and lay-off staff to make ends meet.

2. Secondly, marketing plans are usually not executed as planned and controls are not put into place to measure their effectiveness. This results in fewer deals being clinched and ultimately lower revenue figures. With less cash in hand, marketing efforts are usually scaled back and this becomes a vicious cycle where there is not enough business coming in to sustain basic expenses.

3. Thirdly, due to their smaller size, larger clients usually take advantage of them by delaying payments and suppliers do not provide adequate credit support. This results in a two way pull where matching inflows to outflows becomes an extremely challenging juggling act.

These are just some major problems which result in a cash flow crisis. Not only are these situations detrimental for the health of the business, they also lead to higher levels of stress for the business owner. The fact of the matter is that managing cash flow is challenging for any business regardless of its size. It requires discipline, creativity and a lot of perseverance. Over the course of this week I will share some insights on how to make cash management systems more effective. I would like to know what systems readers are currently using to manage their cash flows, and, what has worked and what has not.

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5 Components to build Trust

“Self-trust is the first secret of success.” Ralph Waldo Emerson

This series started with a post regarding how the trust I had in PayPal was shaken when my account got compromised. In life, our trust in people and businesses will often be tested. That is life, and we have to accept it. The fact of the matter is, without trust, we would not get far in life. The trust building process comprises of several components. Each of them plays a vital role in the process, and provides us with  benchmarks to help achieve the level of trust required. 

1. Integrity: Integrity is based purely on the actions and decisions we make in life. They reflect who we are and what we stand for. Three measures to use to benchmark our own level of integrity are ; firstly, are we congruent in our thoughts, words and actions? The second one is, do we honor our promises and commitments to ourselves and others? The last one, do we possess the courage to stand up for our values and beliefs in the face of resistance? These questions can serve as a guide to learn more about personal and business integrity levels. To read more about trust and integrity please click here.

2. Competence: Competence is a pre-requisite for the process of trust building. An individual or business is deemed competent in a particular skill set when they have proved themselves adequately. However, for a new startup, without a track record, this is a challenging task. Competence needs to be communicated through actions in a younger team. Using academic credentials, talents and skill sets or references can be used to help prove a younger team’s ability and capability. To read more about trust and competence please click here.

3. Consistent Communication: We have all come across businesses where senior management says one thing, middle management says another and the customer service representative says something completely different. When there is inconsistency in communication, building trust will be an arduous task. As younger startup companies, we have to instill the importance of consistent communication, from the beginning of our operations. This includes the alignment of senior management’s agenda, marketing strategies as well as how customer service representatives are supposed to interact with clients. To read more about the importance of consistent communication and trust please click here.

4. Genuine Concern: An individual or business can have high levels of integrity, be competent and communicate with consistency, yet, a lack of genuine concern for others or your customers, will dramatically slow down the trust building process. I believe a genuine concern for your customer with honest intention is the ‘x-factor’ in the trust building process. It is important that we get a deep understanding of our clients needs and wants and craft our strategies around them. It is only when we are able to communicate the importance of this component to the rest of the team in the form of actions will we actually notice results. To read more about trust and genuine concern please click here.

5. Results: Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. Therefore, as young entrepreneurs, we must pay a great deal of attention to proving ourselves and showing tangible results. These can be in the form of academic achievements, extra curricular achievements or projects where we have documented results. It is important to become result and action oriented. When an individual has a reputation of getting the job done well, the ability to gain the trust and confidence of peers, investors and customers is enhanced. To read more about trust and results please click here.

Building and maintaining trust is a challenging task. It requires constant attention, and the slightest of slips in our behavior has severe negative impact on the level of trust. As we all know, once a vase is broken it can be put back together, but it will never be the same. The components talked about in this post are foundational elements in the trust building process. When we have the trust of a customer or friend it dramatically changes the dynamics of the relationship, to one where a lot more can be achieved. As entrepreneurs, we must strive to develop a reputation of one who can be trusted. This will have a phenomenal positive impact on the level of business as well as your life. 

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Results

“You can’t build a reputation on what you are going to do.” Henry Ford

As a young entrepreneur, some questions you hear repeatedly from prospective customers are, “Who is currently using your product/service?” or “How many users do you currently have on your system?”  These questions are asked with the aim to establish whether the prospect can trust your business to deliver what you are pitching, and whether the team has the appropriate capabilities and skill sets. Not many individuals want to be the first customer to test a brand new product/service, it is hence up to the entrepreneur to convince the customer why they should use their product/service. The question that arises is “How does an entrepreneur convince a customer to trust him to deliver on his word?”. I believe the fastest way to do this, is to reference past performance and results, and use them as benchmarks to make a convincing argument. 

Results and past performance speak louder than any number of words. The world today benchmarks each and everyone of us to what we have achieved. For example, take an individual with high levels of integrity, extremely competent, communicates consistently and has a genuine concern for what he/she is doing. However, if this individual does not have a track record of delivering when given a task, chances are that they are not going to be given a chance to step up to the plate. Therefore, as entrepreneurs, we have to constantly look for ways to prove to customers, stakeholders, investors, employees and the media that we have what it takes to succeed. We cannot wait around for things to happen or wait for the ‘right’ opportunity. Action needs to be taken, and positive results need to follow. Will we always get the results we want? Unfortunately not. However, if we persevere and pursue what we want to achieve relentlessly results will follow.

Some areas where younger entrepreneurs can display results they have achieved are:

1. Academics: This works well when you are raising early stage angel or venture funding. If one has achieved success in the form of honor rolls, awards or other recognition for academic pursuits, they should be included in some way in your pitch. From a customer’s point of view, having someone with deep theoretical knowledge about your product/service adds great value.

2. Extra Curricular: Including any information about areas such as sports, debate societies, student unions or charitable efforts one has been part of, also adds value.  A personal example is,  when I co-founded an entrepreneurship society at university, which has since grown from 10 members in Singapore, to over 2500 spread across all of Asia today. It was through this platform that I gained a valuable network, and built trust with many of my mentors today. Other examples could be contributions to charitable organizations and events, and funds you may have raised for them.

3. Projects & Initiatives: Results can only be achieved when you take initiatives and actions. Highlight areas where you took an initiative, such as, starting a blog, a website, a store on ebay, freelance projects or any other example where you have documented results. Such projects go to show that you are willing to go the extra mile to reach you goals. 

Once the business has established customers, continue to track results through all business processes. Take responsibility for all the results you get, be they positive or negative. I have found that the learning process is specially instructive when we do not get the results we want. I have repeated this many a time, there is no failure, only feedback. Once you have established a solid track record, and have been identified as a result oriented team member, the level of trust your peers will have in you, will sky rocket. 

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Genuine Concern

“If a man speaks or acts with a pure thought, happiness follows him like a shadow that never leaves him.” Buddha

An individual or business can have high levels of integrity, be competent and communicate with consistency, yet, a lack of genuine concern for others or your customers, will dramatically slow down the trust building process. I believe a genuine concern for your customer with honest intention is the ‘x-factor’ in the trust building process. We have all encountered situations where a business, restaurant, hotel or individual went out of their way to assist you and remember the impact it had. This could be something as small as having your laundry picked and dropped to your house free of charge or giving you a complimentary meal when your food did not arrive in time. These gestures communicate genuine concern for the customer, and an honest aim to make sure they are completely satisfied. 

When a business puts making X amounts of money in a calender year or achieving a certain amount of ROI every quarter as the only aim, they tend to miss out on this factor. Therefore, to build an organization which takes into account the aim and will to ensure that each customer is looked after to the best of the company’s abilities is a challenging task. It has to begin with senior management, they must lead by example. A couple of days ago, I had a prospective customer email me regarding taking some psychometrics courses. Unfortunately, his email got buried and I completely forgot to respond. When I uncovered his email a week later, I promptly sent him the information along with a free test to apologize for the delay. We must always remain vigilant of our intentions, attitude and actions from the customers point of view. 

As a startup it is important that a culture for genuine concern is developed from the onset. Listed below are a few steps to help you get started in the right direction.

1. Listen: Understand your customers in as much detail as possible. Learn what their goals, objectives, threats and concerns are when dealing with vendors, who may be providing similar services to yours. Armed with a thorough understanding of their needs and wants, we will be better equipped to cater to them.

2. Communicate: This needs to start internally in the business, the team must be made aware of the focus, agenda and achievement targets of the company. How the company plans to achieve targets as well as the necessary actions that need to be taken. Such information empowers the workforce as can be seen at Southwest Airlines, the company has the best service standards by far in the industry. We also need to communicate our agenda to the customers. This helps create transparency and removes suspicion from the customer’s mind.

3. Actions: We have to lead with examples and empower our workforce to go beyond the call of duty to help a customer. Ritz Carlton gives employees a discretionary budget in case of an emergency or incident with a customer. At my local Starbucks, the servers know me by name as well as my daily order. When a customer receives such service they are bound to let everyone know, and this will not only help create goodwill but also secure a loyal customer base. 

Financial goals are important metrics for any business. However, I believe that businesses should have metrics for the softer side of the business as well. How many satisfied customers did we serve this year as compared to last year? How many customer complaints were received this year as compared to last year? Benchmarks must be created for quality of service too. Genuine concern for your customers is positively correlated to better quality of service, this results in more customers and higher levels of trust.

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Consistent Communication

“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” Anthony Robbins

We have all come across businesses where senior management says one thing, middle management says another and the customer service representative says something completely different. Another example, marketing slogans promote 24/7 customer support yet, there is no one to answer the phones at 3 am in the morning. When there is inconsistency in communication, building trust will be an arduous task. As younger startup companies, we have to instill the importance of consistent communication, from the beginning of our operations. Such a culture will act as a catalyst in the development of trust and creating a level of loyalty to your product/service. Failure to do so will have a detrimental impact on your business as a whole, and it will be very difficult to retain and nurture existing customers. 

Several key areas where consistency of communication is of utmost importance are:

1. Senior Management: This group of individuals is responsible for the creation of a culture where candor is promoted through the ranks. They need to lead by example by keeping their word, and being upfront and honest with all employees, vendors and customers. This is manifested in the little things, how many times have you told your secretary or colleague to make up an excuse when you don’t want to speak to someone on the phone? If one promotes honesty and consistency in the organization such actions clearly conflict with the message that you are sending to your employees and colleagues. Inconsistency of communication is usually the result of a breakdown from senior management. This group needs to be extremely vigilant of their actions and words. 

2. Customer Service: How many times have you called a support department and felt like slamming the phone down because of the level of service you received? I know I have wanted to do so many times. This is the result of the gap in communication between middle and senior management. When this level is not clear about the level of communication the organization stands for, what their role is, or why it is important that they act and behave in accordance with the principles of the organization, they will not be able to communicate this messages to the end customer. I understand that in todays world, doing this while outsourcing these activities to third party vendors is going to be a difficult task. However, it is of vital importance that creative solutions to this problem be developed to facilitate the trust building process.

3. Marketing: Seth Godin wrote an interesting book called “All Marketers are Liars”. It uses various examples to drive home the point that the most successful corporations are the ones who have consistent and honest marketing. Today, we are bombarded by millions of advertisements, many of them use deceptive tactics to stir curiosity. I am sure many people click the pop up banner which says you have won a million dollars. Often a company will promise features and capabilities which they may not possess. Most of these companies will never be able to develop any trust with their target customers. As a startup, use marketing as a tool to tell a compelling story, which is rooted in honesty. 

Consistency of communication must be developed through the entire business. When mistakes are made do not attempt to cover them up and embellish the truth. It only takes a single act of inconsistency in your message to destroy any trust which may have been developed between your partners, vendors or customers. 

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Selecting the Right Name

“When you think of the blur of all the brands that are out there, the ones you believe in and the ones you remember, like Chanel and Armani, are the ones that stand for something. Fashion is about establishing an image that consumers can adapt to their own individuality. And it’s an image that can change, that can evolve. It doesn’t reinvent itself every two years.” Ralph Lauren

If you think coming up with the next million dollar is challenging, correct selection for the name of your business is not going to be any easier. A name formulates the foundational base of your entire business. It communicates what you do to your target segment, what differentiates you from the competition and is ideally meant to instigate curiosity to find out more. A logical argument often used against this methodology of thinking, is that names such as Google, Amazon and Monster do very little to reflect what they do, yet, they have become mega brand names. The fact of the matter is, the businesses mentioned above were pioneering companies which revolutionized internet search, online shopping and online recruiting. They are built on very sound business models and due to the sheer superiority of their products/services they have become household names today.

Getting the name game right is something I have been giving more time towards, in my more recent ventures. We named our first design agency “Synaptic Creations”. I am not a biology student but picked up the word from a friend who told me synapses were the gap between two neurons, over which impulses lead to learning. It made sense at the time and we went with it. The word creations however, is too generic and reduced the ability for us to expand into other areas as well. It also confused some individuals who thought we may be some genetic based start-up. The name would fail several of the benchmarks I now have, for appropriate names for a business. It is important is to learn from mistakes made in the past to help you get it right the next time.

Most of the time, start-ups have to select their own name unless you have managed to secure some major early stage funding. If you have I would recommend NameLab or similar brand name consultants. If you are on your own, there are basic guidelines, namely, keep it short, keep it simple, avoid generic terms, the name should be easy to pronounce and spell and, should be unique. I do advocate a structured process to help you think in a more focused manner, which will in turn help you in deciding on a name which has been looked at from all angles, and has had major thought put into it.

Firstly, we need to think through the space we will operate in. Use questions to get your team thinking along the same wave lengths. These could include:

1. What would be the word you would want customers to associate your business with?

2. Who are you target customers?

3. What are the unique components of your business model?

4. How are you different from your competition?

5. What words best describe what your business does?

6. What emotions do you want your name to instigate in the customer?

Develop similar questions based on your business concept, and come up with as many permutations as possible by mixing and matching. Create a filtered list of names which passes the basic guidelines. If possible do a focus group or collect feedback from friends and family on the names you have shortlisted. This process will take a lot of time, so plan in advance for it so that there is no need to make a rushed selection. This is a name you are going to have to live with for a long time, you need to make it count!

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How to Position your Brand

“A brand should strive to own a word in the mind of the consumer.” Al Reis and Laura Reis

When you walk into a supermarket with the intention of buying eggs, do you actually pay attention to the branding on the eggs or do you pick up whatever is available? I usually pick up whatever I find. However the decision is more complicated when I want to get a soft drink. Brands such as Coke and Pepsi have spent billions of dollars positioning their products as the only cola alternatives. A frame of reference has been created and no matter how many new rival products are introduced in this category, it is almost impossible to dislodge the current leaders. 7-Up did something very interesting with its positioning when it rebranded itself as the “Un-Cola”. Since it could not use the word cola in the customers mind, it reframed it’s positioning relative to its competition and took up a unique position in the minds of customers.

Naturally having the edge of being first in a certain category, has it’s advantages. However, competing in markets where there is already some competition, we need to figure out a way to convince potential customers, to use our product/service instead. This requires a lot of creativity and understanding for your target market and your competitors offering. As mentioned in prior posts, we have to take into account the sort of persona we want to project and what competitive edges we want to bring to the forefront. Take for example the rent-a-car business in America. Hertz had a large edge over the No.2 provider Avis. That was until Avis capitalized on its position by using the tag line “Avis is only No.2 in rent-a-cars, so why go with us? We try harder.” This statement dramatically helped the profitability of the company and more importantly helped customers develop a reference point between Avis and Hertz.

As a start-up organization we often cannot afford to pay tens of thousands to brand consultants to help us  develop positioning strategies. However all is not lost. The end goal is to own a word in the mind of the customer, or be able to communicate your business concept in 5 words or less. Much effort needs to be put into name selection and the use of words as discussed in the brand personality post. These will be discussed in greater detail in the next post in the series.

To get you started on what your product/service should be, there is a great positioning rule called the 4D Rule:

1. Desirable by the customers

2. Distinctive from the competition

3. Deliverable by the company

4. Durable over time

A well positioned brand will lie at the intersection of all four requirements.

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