Journey of a Serial Entrepreneur

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

5 Tips for Better Cash Flows

“Should you find yourself in a chronically leaking boat, energy devoted to changing vessels is likely to be more productive than energy devoted to patching leaks.” Warren Buffet

Mismanagement of cash flows is a leading cause of failure among businesses. Business owners do not realize how critical it is to budget and plan cash flows from the beginning of the venture and most times a liquidity crisis catches them completely off guard. This often leads to irrational last minute maneuvering which amplifies the problems at hand. To ensure smooth cash flow cycles we have to ensure that we are extremely vigilant of the financial health of our business from the onset. This may appear to be over simplistic advice, however the truth of the matter is, not enough emphasis is given to this function. The excitement lies in closing those million dollar deals and creating fancy marketing campaigns. Reality of the matter is that if we do not have the financial structure in place to support these deals and campaigns we will soon find ourselves in a lot of trouble. Listed below are a couple of tips which have helped me manage cash flows better.

1. Inflows & Outflows: From the onset identify your inflows and outflows. If you have adequate historic data, map out how long on average it takes to receive cash after providing your product/service. Next carefully map out all your expenses, and dates when they need to be paid. Next we have to minimize the time between the two flows. Usually inflows are much slower than expected and this needs to be compensated by negotiating favorable agreements with suppliers, stocking less and invoicing your customers at regular intervals. To learn more about the importance of mapping out inflows and outflows please click here.

2. Cost Management: Cost cuts do not necessarily require a business to layoff staff or drastically cut marketing expenditure. 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. Identify all direct costs, incremental costs of increasing volume, fixed costs and overall cost structures in comparision to 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. To learn about each cost in greater detail please click here.

3. Marketing: Cutting marketing expenses to conserve cash is often not the most optimal solution for solving one’s cash flow problems. Assessing marketing strategies and tactics needs to be practiced on a regular basis. It is not wise to make marketing expenses cyclical with business cycles. With optimized marketing campaigns and strategies in place, a business has greater chances of avoiding these cash gluts as business is constantly being generated at a healthy level. To learn more about marketing strategies during a liquidity crunch please click here.

4. Technology: Gone are the days of keeping track of your business expenses on excel sheets. As a business owner today we should use one of the many accounting packages available to make sure we always have a financial snapshot of the health of our business. This will provide us with the ability to quickly identify trends and potential liquidity crunches before they take place. Please click here to read five questions you need to answer before selecting which accounting package is right for you.

5. Last Resort Measures: There will be times however when a liquidity crisis will hit . It is important that when it does we remain calm and evaluate the options we have instead of making rash decisions. The options I have used during these period of times are, discounting, credit cards, loans from friends and family, invoice factoring and secured credit lines. All of these options need to be used when all other alternatives have been exhausted. Attention needs to given to ensure that all documentation has been read carefully and that one is fully aware of the pro’s and con’s of each measure. To learn more about each measure please click here.

Those who have experienced liquidity crunches realize how stressful and frustrating these cycles are. They can result in partners leaving the business, unpleasantness at the office and even eventual closure of the business. Using some of the tips provided above we can avert a number of these situations. It comes down to better financial planning and catering for unforseen events. We have to be prepared when such situations arise and must deal with them face on. There is no need to dig ourselves deeper into a hole by using temporary fixes. If the business that you are running is repeatedly running into cash flow problems, do your best to re-engineer it from the ground up, or have the discipline to change boats.

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Getting out of a Cash Crunch

“When you’re in a pit, the first thing to do is to stop digging.” James Ellman

At some point of time or other most entrepreneurs go through a cash crunch period. These are stressful and frustrating times when the world seems to be falling apart around us and we have a limited set of options to get out of the mess. I have found that by following the tips provided earlier in this series we can reduce the probability of being stuck in a liquidity crisis substantially. However, there are times when even after having planned for every conceivable outcome there is a blind spot we missed out. The important thing to do at this point is not to panic. Cutting your marketing budget, laying off staff and hawking office equipment on ebay is not usually the answer. In a situation where we have exhausted options of negotiating extensions with suppliers and run out of excuses why we have not settled the rent, there are a couple of alternatives I have used. Listed below in order of my personal preference are:

1. Discounting: If we are in a quarter with a number of payments due I include a clause in outgoing invoices stating that if payment is made within x number of days there will be an x% discount. This creates monetary incentive for clients to pay up on time. If invoices have been pending for a while I give the same discount to the client stating they should pay the discounted bill or we would be forced into calling in collection agencies. Surprisingly I have had very good results using this method in speeding up payments causing strapped up cash.

2. Credit Cards: I personally do not advocate using this type of financing but when the situation calls for it, use it as an emergency backup. These can be either business applied credit cards or personal cards. Using the cash advance option, essential payments can be made. This will help tide through the business until payments are made by clients. Using this option for any other expenses other than these critical ones results in getting buried by ridiculously high interest payments. Instead of fueling growth for your business this stunts growth. Use it with caution

3. Loans from Friends & Family: If you are in desperate need of some bridging capital and need access to it quickly, going to friends and family is a valid option. I do not like mixing friends and family with business, but at times it is unavoidable. Make sure when you take the money there is an agreement with terms and conditions spelt out in black and white. Full disclosure must be made regarding the situation at hand as well as when you are expected to repay the loan. Conflicts tend to arise when inadequate information is given, this results in confusion and unrealistic expectations.

4. Invoice Factoring: For businesses with natural and steady flows of revenue, but prone to erratic payments, applying for these schemes through banks or specialist factoring companies is an option. These basically take into account your average business activity and streams of revenue, then provide you a credit line against it. This can free up much of your working capital and can boost growth. However read the fine print carefully. Sometimes these institutions limit who you can do business with, and can also force your clients to interact with them as far as payments are concerned. This reflects negatively on the business and does not convey a good image to your customers.

5. Secured Credit Lines: If one is expecting the next couple of quarters or year to be tight, taking out a secure credit line may be a good alternative to solve the liquidity crunch. The bank provides you with a line of credit which is usually secured against a particular asset. The asset is usually real estate which you or the business may own. The business is then able to borrow money against the asset conveniently. This is an option exercised by many entrepreneurs. However it takes time to setup, therefore one must plan for it well in advance and not when you are stuck in a liquidity crisis.

No one wants to be stuck in a liquidity crisis. We must do all we can to ensure the business does not slip into one. Keep your eyes on both the sale numbers and controlling expenses. When and if the situation becomes critical these last resort measures can provide significant relief in assisting you to get out of the mess. It is important to use these options wisely and to do thorough research on them before committing to any one of them.

Related Articles:

Raising Capital from Family & Friends

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Technology and Cash Flow Management

“What amount of value creation can be assigned to the efforts of management for a particular time period? That is the essence of accounting. Otherwise, it’s simply an appraisal process.” Charles W Mulford

Gone are the days of keeping track of your business expenses on excel sheets. Earlier on in my entrepreneurial journey we relied solely on excel sheets to manage accounts. However we were then introduced to Quickbooks, and it completely changed the way we viewed our accounts. With this software we were actually able to extrapolate a lot of data and zoom into key metrics by which we could monitor the growth of our business. Many business owners wait until they have an ‘established’ business before investing in standard accounting software. This is like wearing a helmet after you have experienced a fall. Undoubtedly experience is a great teacher and one should continue to learn from mistakes. There are however some precautions which should be taken beforehand, and getting software to manage your accounts is one of them.

There are many great accounting solutions available in the market today. These key questions need to be answered when selecting an accounting package:

1. What is your budget allocation for purchasing this software? (If a budget has not been allocated there are many free accounting solutions which one can find online)

2. Do you want the software to run locally on your computer or would you want web access to your data?

3. How many users will be using the software?

4. What is the primary purpose of purchasing the software? (Do you require a simple application which helps to track all of your incomes and expenses, or do you require one through which you can manage inventory, payroll, invoices etc)

5. What level of reporting will be required? (If one requires simple profit/loss, cash flow and balance sheet statements there are a lot of great packages out there. For more complex reporting, software like Quickbooks premier can generate detailed reports on sales report per employee and profitability per product)

Once these key questions have been answered, you will have a better idea for the sort of solution required and your search would have been made easier. When you have selected a software, assign someone or a group of people to continually update it to ensure access to the latest activity. This acts as a safeguard and protects over exposing the business to unnecessary risk as well as maximizing the opportunities currently in hand. I plan on creating a widget which will compile the answers to the questions above, and help provide a list of appropriate software or services. If anyone would like to help me out in creating it please let me know at blog (at) usmansheikh.net

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Cutting your Marketing Budget?

“Marketing is not an event, but a process . . . It has a beginning, a middle, but never an end, for it is a process. You improve it, perfect it, change it, even pause it. But you never stop it completely.” Jay Conrad Levinson

The quote above encapsulates the essence of this blog post. I don’t think anyone could have said it better. I am a fan of all Mr. Levinson’s work especially his book “Guerrilla Marketing”. In the book there is constant emphasis on marketing being a process which we cannot cut whenever things get tight. As I mentioned in my last post, costs need to be contained tightly if we are to reach our goal of attaining a positive cash flow. What I have noticed is that whenever things get tight, cash flow wise, many entrepreneurs tend to pull the plug on marketing expenses in an effort to control costs. This however leads to a decrease in new business development, which ultimately results in decreased revenues.

Cutting marketing expenses to conserve cash is often not the most optimal solution to solving one’s cash flow problems. Assessing marketing strategies and tactics needs to be practiced on a regular basis. For example we could be advertising our new virtual assistant services on the front page of a popular web portal. We have continued to run the ad for the last quarter but have barely broken even on our investment.  We find however that ads running with much greater ROI on a couple of niche blogs and portals relating to the GTD methodology. As a business owner we should assess these trends on a regular basis and change out strategies likewise. If we take the approach of cutting all web advertising, it is more like amputation instead of laser point surgery.

These budgets and control measures need to be adopted from the onset of your business venture. It is not wise to make marketing expenses cyclical with business cycles. With optimized marketing campaigns and strategies in place, a business has greater chances of avoiding these cash gluts as business is constantly being generated at a healthy level. If you are currently experiencing cash flow difficulties in your business, assess your marketing budget and find ways to optimize the cash available to you in order to maximize your ROI.

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Marketing Budgets & Controls

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5 Steps to Better Negotiations

“Any business arrangement that is not profitable to the other person will in the end prove unprofitable for you. The bargain that yields mutual satisfaction is the only one that is apt to be repeated.” B. C. Forbes

Most of us take part in some form of negotiation everyday. In life, skilled negotiators are able to close better deals, and reach mutually acceptable agreements faster. Ever since I undertook this entrepreneurial journey, negotiations seem to have become common place. I have come a long way from my early negotiations, at that time, very often I did not get the best deal possible . Experience however is a great teacher, and although I have made many mistakes in the past, I have also learnt much, which has honed my negotiation skills . Listed below are some key steps to be undertaken during negotiations, to ensure that a mutually acceptable agreement is reached quickly, fairly and efficiently.

1. Motivations & Interests: At the heart of every negotiation, each side has a set of motivations and interests which enable them to take  certain positions on issues. Before beginning the negotiations, identify  your personal motivations and interests for resolving the issue at hand. Internal clarity helps greatly to communicate your message. Next, we need to understand the other side’s position, as also why they have taken it. What are their motivations and interests on the particular issue? The initial round or rounds of negotiation need to include candid discussion to ensure as clear a picture as possible. To read specific examples please click here.

2. Focus on the Problem: The entire objective of negotiating is to find a mutually acceptable consensus. To ensure that this objective is achieved, we need to keep the process as simple as possible. This requires us to understand each other’s perceptions to ensure that we are on the same page. It also requires us to keep emotional baggage off the table. Lastly, we need to ensure that during the negotiation process both parties communicate clearly, and listen attentively. At the same time, we need to be aware of non verbal communications as well. Being focused on the issue and not deviating ,greatly improves the speed at which to reach an agreement. To read more specific examples please click here.

3. Develop Options: The objective of the option development phase is to arrive at a set of mutually viable and beneficial options. To reach this objective much collaborative work is required. We need to have several candid sessions whose sole purpose is to chart out maximum number of options. Each side has to ensure that its position’s and interests are clearly communicated, with the entire focus on how to maximize expectations by working together on a macro level. To read more specific examples of developing options please click here.

4. Alternatives: These are options which form our backup options if negotiations break down and agreement cannot be reached. Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available alternatives related to the issue at hand. Then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. Alternatives are vital negotiation tools and need to be used tactfully to ensure that a fair agreement is reached. To read more specific examples of alternatives please click here.

5. Objective Criterion: These are benchmarks which provide a fair assessment to rate particular options against. Negotiations which use objective criterion’s usually result in fairer agreements. Therefore it is important that before one begins negotiations, criterions are researched and decided upon. Whether it is for purchasing a business or negotiating a salary increase, one needs to identify quantifiable metrics which can help make the decision making process easier and fairer.To read more specific examples please click here.

Negotiations are usually not very straight forward. Much of the time, emotions get in the way which complicates matters dramatically and frankly confuses both sides on procedural matters. To say that we need to keep all emotion out of the picture is not possible. What we need to do is to exercise a great deal of self control, and constantly put ourselves in the shoes of the other side. Only once we begin to see negotiations as a two-sided process will we be able to progress to becoming a more skilled negotiator. I wish you the best of luck in all your future negotiations.

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Objective Criterions

“Here’s the rule for bargains: ”Do other men, for they would do you.” That’s the true business precept.” Charles Dickens

Most of us have at some time, played the high-lowball game during negotiations. For example, a while ago I was attempting to buy a domain I wanted. The seller had a listed price of $500, I put in a lowball offer of a $100 dollars straight off the bat. The $100 I offered, had no actual basis and was nearer to the $200 or so I wanted to actually pay for the domain. The seller and I had a number of correspondences back and forth, and a deal was struck around $230. Did I get a good price? Was my reservation price, one that had a logic basis? Unfortunately I could not answer any of these questions.

It therefore got me thinking, that having objective criterions are necessary to ensure that both sides get an optimal deal. In the case of the above example, companies such as Sedo are able to calculate the true worth of a domain through several established criterions that include, estimate of the domain name’s value, list of recent comparable sales, search engine friendliness, branding potential, legal situation and even, possible buyers. This estimation establishes the true worth of a domain. If the had seller relied and gone with such a report from a trusted authority, stating the domain estimate at $500, I would have had very little room to negotiate a price which was substantially lower. We can therefore see, that by adding objective criterion’s to negotiations, we can optimize the value created on the whole.

It is therefore recommended, that whenever you enter into a negotiation, be it changing terms of payments with your supplier, a salary increase for your staff or the sale of your business to a private equity firm, do research regarding the metrics that can be used fairly, to add objectivity to the negotiations. It is important that the criterions proposed are acceptable to both sides. A key characteristic of skilled negotiators is, they are always prepared. They know their underlying interests, the options available,  available alternatives, and a list of objective criterions to reach an optimal agreement for both sides.

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What are your Alternatives?

“The hardest thing to learn in life is which bridge to cross and which to burn.” ~David Russell

How does one assess whether one is really getting a good deal or not? To answer this question one needs to have a deeper understanding of the alternatives available. Lets say for example, we are negotiating a salary increase with our employer. We want an increase from $50k to $60k. We bring up the topic with our employer, who immediately refuses the suggestion blaming the current economic climate. We could be an extremely valuable resource for the company, but without any available alternative we have very little leverage in this negotiation. However if we do some research about market rates for our profession and may even float our resume around to get an idea what our market worth is we could arrive at a figure which gives us a better understanding of our market worth. With this figure we now have a foot to stand on during negotiation.

Alternatives however are rarely as straight forward in complicated deals where one is negotiating the sale of a business or better terms of payment from suppliers. They do however give us an important edge to see how far we can actually push during negotiations. Lets say for example I am selling my car and my reserve price is $20k I meet a seller whose maximum limit is $30k. In this case any price above my $20k reservation price will be a positive outcome for myself and likewise any price below $30k will be a positive outcome for the seller. This brings out the objective of negotiations which is to achieve a better deal than not negotiating at all. Revealing your alternatives during negotiation is usually not a good strategy unless it strengthens your position at the negotiation table. It is important to remember that alternatives should not be used to apply pressure or force the other side into a particular decision. They are markers to help us make an optimal choice.

Before the negotiation process, one should clearly list down all the available choices related to the issue at hand. I then list down possible alternatives that the other side may have. This gives a better understanding of how much room there is to negotiate. It is important to not use ones alternatives to apply pressure tactics to induce the other side to give in. Such tactics may work in the short term, however repeated use of such strategies will hurt your future chances of getting a better deal. One needs to be fair and ensure that each side is benefiting from the agreement to ensure better long term results.

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5 Steps to Assess a Business

“Strategy is not just a plan, not just an idea; it is a way of life for a company. Strategy doesn’t just position a firm in its external landscape; it defines what a firm will be.” Cynthia A. Montgomery

As a business owner one needs to continually assess one’s own company as well as those of the competition. It is essential to have the ability to look at the larger picture and see what is working, and what is not. If you are younger start-up company looking to raise money, or attract potential team members, you need to have well thought out answers to key questions which will be asked. Listed below are five key questions which I believe every business owner must be able to answer.

1. Why does your organization exist?: To answer this question, one needs to have clear understanding of the problem the organization is wanting to solve and how it plans to do that. The answer needs an opening sentence which has the ability to get the other person interested instantly, and wanting to know more about the business. To read more about answering this question please click here.

2. What is your competitive edge?: This question requires you to identify three main components, customer needs, competitor capabilities and your own organizational capabilities. This will help to clearly identify the space your organization is going to be operating in, and your customer value proposition. To read more about the answering this question please click here.

3. What is your business model?: In essence this question is asking how your business makes money. The answer to this question requires you to clearly pin point your target market, financial estimates, scalability and originality. All assumptions and forecasts used in the answer must be based on extensive research. Investors see far too many hockey stick projections, without substantial evidence of how and why demand will pick up to reach those estimates. To read more about answering this question please click here.

4. How do you acquire customers?: The answer to this question is all about your marketing strategy.  Clearly outline metrics used to measure performance, market positioning and price point strategies. These objectives and strategies need to be translated into executable tactics through your promotional campaigns. Avoid using generic answers when answering this question and focus on key metrics you  want to achieve, and how. To read more about answering this question please click here.

5. Who is on your team?: This question requires you to tell the assessor the business plans for execution. The answer to this question is I believe, by far the most important aspect of assessing a business. One needs to mention the teams past experience, achievements, leadership examples and responsibilities. Highlight strengths and how they will be used to help reach your target goals. To read more about answering this question please click here.

One needs to have the answers to these questions, always prepared. They require much initial hard work and research,  the benefits however, far outweigh the time spent on them. One needs to remember to be clear, concise and confident when answering these question. It is all about passion for the business and the industry one operates in. This passion must be conveyed when talking about one’s organization. In the end if the story makes sense, numbers are fairly correct and you have managed to assemble a talented team, success is closer than you think.

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Who is on your team?

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.” Babe Ruth

The success of any startup depends on the quality of the team executing the plans. It comes down to having a team who complements each others strengths and weaknesses, has the ability to work cohesively together and most importantly, has the same core beliefs and values. To communicate this to a potential investor or assessor of the business, requires a deep understanding of oneself and one’s team mates. A clear segmentation of the roles each person will be playing and why that particular person has been chosen for that role is essential.

The answer to this question should include reference to the following:

1. Experience: The first things which needs to be established is the team’s past experience and achievements. This will assist an understanding of where they are coming from and whether they have the required understanding of the market and skill set they will be responsible for. Wherever possible, support your answer with specific details including return on investments (ROI), market share growth, sales figure or any industry rewards and recognition achieved. Past tangible results need to be highlighted.

2. Leadership: This point needs to be stressed to showcase  possession of the necessary skills to lead and motivate a team. Highlight experience, responsibility and motivational skills from the past. Forward looking investors need to know whether an individual has the ability to motivate a team during hard times, and push them further when things are going well.

3. Roles & Responsibilities: From the very beginning there should be clear allocation of responsibilities. Even though at the beginning everyone has to wear multiple hats, it is important that they are responsible for the part of the business where their strongest skill set is used.

The points mentioned above highlight some key areas to develop answers around. Ultimately, investors invest in teams, not business ideas. Use this opportunity to promote your team as much as possible. Be clear, concise and focus on results and tangible evidence of the team’s great ability to work well together.

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Steps to create a winning team

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How do you acquire customers?

“Good business leaders create a vision, articulate the vision, passionately own the vision, and relentlessly drive it to completion.” Jack Welch

The reason I ask this question is to understand how the business plans to market itself to its target segment. As mentioned earlier in my blog posts, very often start-up companies fail to sufficiently develop a well thought out, go-to-market strategy. Relying solely on a website, brochures and short run publicity tactics is not advisable. The assessor needs to understand explicitly what the marketing objectives are and what strategies they will use to reach those targets. To correctly answer this question, develop a marketing plan for the business which will help create a concise answer summarizing your goals.

The following information needs to be included in your answer.

1. Metrics: The answer to this question must be supported by  key metrics which will benchmark marketing strategies. Potential investors are looking for specific details such as market share figures, customer acquisition costs, customer lifetime value, customers required to break-even, and quarterly targets. These metrics must be established early in the answer to give it greater credibility.

2. Positioning: Next, establish positioning and the reason why that particular stance was chosen. Being specific about your target segment and clear on positioning is essential for any marketing plan to work effectively. Choosing a generic target segment like SME’s may appear appealing, however, most do not have the resources to tackle such a large target segment on their own.

3. Price Points: It is always good to know the rationale why a particular price point was used in the strategy. Setting correct price points requires a lot of data collection in the form of surveys, feedback and industry reports to establish credible and  optimal price points. Setting it above or below industry norms must be done with adequate reasons and supported by marketing tactics.

4. Promotional Tactics: After clearly establishing your objectives, positioning, and price points, it is essential to explain how they will be achieved. This relies on the promotional activities a business uses to reach its target segment.  Consistency in promotional tactics is a critical component to establish .

The ultimate objective when answering this question, is to come across as someone with deep knowledge about the industry they operate in, and a clear picture of how they are going to carve out a niche for themselves. The points listed above should serve as guiding points to help you formulate an answer which will help establish this.

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