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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Inventory Velocity

“Inventory velocity is one of a handful of key performance measures we watch very closely. It focuses us on working with our suppliers to keep reducing inventory and increasing speed.” Michael Dell

To understand the importance of inventory management with clarity, we have to understand a key metric, inventory velocity. Simply stated, inventory velocity is 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. Whenever the subject of inventory velocity is brought up, the example of Dell is almost certain to arise. Dell revolutionized the personal computer industry with it’s direct sales model. Michael Dell understood that in an industry where margins are low, and inventory depreciates rapidly, the only way to be highly profitable is the ability to improve inventory cycles faster. His business model hence eradicated the need for holding inventory to the absolute minimum, resulting in Dell becoming an industry leader.

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. When your inventory velocity is low as compared to your peers, this is definitely a red flag which management should take very seriously. Having excess inventory left over, poses a major risk to any business. The inventory experiences depreciation, holding cost and reduction in the price of the product. In my experience getting rid of old inventory in the market place is a very challenging task. Therefore I recommend most businesses to have internal policies to deal with inventory which has not been moved a particular period of time say 12 months. These should either be disposed of or sold at whatever price the market will offer.

The concept of inventory velocity can also be applied in some cases to the services sector. For example, if you are running a consulting practice and bill your clients by the number of hours. The number of hours that are left outstanding at the end of a certain period of time, is your inventory. Inability to turn around your inventory quickly will result in massive cashflow gluts which can severly harm business operations. Lets say that one calculates on average the business settles outstanding balances in 90 days. What do you have to do to reduce the average to say 60 days? How will be the impact of the available cash flow? We have to think of ways to optimize our business operations continuously. As a younger company, this is always a challenge as larger companies take advantage of their clout. However keep track vigilantly of this key metric, and work on increasing it.

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How full is your warehouse?

“Just-in-time inventory…improves cash flow while its partners bear the brunt of long payment cycles.” Andrew J Lauter

Inventory management is a matter which should be of concern to entrepreneurs. However the truth of the matter is much to the contrary. This is an area in which I have made some pretty major mistakes in the past and still do to a much smaller extent to date. So what do I mean by inventory management? It is basically how effectively an organization balances it’s stock demand and supply. When our warehouses are full or we have many unbilled invoices, cash flow is reduced drastically. This has major repercussions on our ability to manage day to day operations as well as grow the business.

Mismanagement of inventory is an area where many entrepreneurs make mistakes because of their inexperience in managing cash flows and liquidity. One of my initial entrepreneurial experiences was in my design firm, we had pre-ordered a lot of fancy paper to reduce production lead time and get deep discounts. It seemed like a good idea in principle. However, when deals in the pipeline kept getting delayed, and we lost a big account, we began to seriously feel the pain. We were fortunate to save the business because of a close friend who helped us bridge our cash flow gap. It was through this lesson that I began to learn how important it is to manage inventory intelligently and not make orders on a whim because of a “good deal”.

Over the next week I plan on demystifying this topic and I hope this series will assist first time entrepreneurs who are not always aware of the challenges of managing their inventory correctly. The concept of inventory should not be restricted  to physical stock, it includes any sort outstanding payments that maybe causing a liquidity crunch for the business. The sooner we become adept at managing our inventory cycles, the faster we will be able to grow and scale our business. I hope you enjoy this series and I look forward to your comments and feedback.

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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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