getting embarrassed by Small Company in front of customers
getting burned and stuck with Small Company’s software source code
worrying about loose cannons in Small Company’s organization
working with Small Company’s legal paper.
Small Company hates things like:
working with Big Company’s cumbersome processes
getting whipped round navigating Big Company’s large organization and jumping through hoops
waiting for the whale to speed up
failing to get real deals cut
getting RFIs from Big Company and worrying whether Big Company is playing around with others
answering the RFI question about financial stability of Small Company
getting paid six months late by Big Company.
The Story of Us doesn’t have to end in tragedy. “Us” requires hard work, like courtship. It requires an honest assessment of values and one another’s strengths and weaknesses. It requires regular communication. It requires bridge building skills on fluctuating ground, and should be viewed as an opportunity for those up to the challenge.
Entrepreneurial situations in large companies differ from that of startups, yet one thing that they seem to share is that they often represent “hope” in one way or another. In the case of large corporations, these new initiatives can not only turn out to be profitable “ventures” but also boost morale and reward key employees through growth opportunities. Yet many of these new initiatives have difficulty getting off the ground. Frustration is common. This post provides a peek at some of the situations, complexities, and steps to resolution that I have seen.
First, here’s a picture of a common situation in a large company faced with the prospect of starting a new initiative or business line:
Perceivably significant yet amorphous business opportunity
No money committed / no budget
No or limited organizational resources
Established products and sales & marketing channels
Mature and complex business and product approval processes.
What adds a level of complexity to the situation (and sometimes leads to insanity for those working directly within the environment) is that:
Venture requires substantial investment to ultimately succeed
Finance cycle of start-up opportunities (opportunity timing) does not align well with the long, finance planning cycles of large companies (sometimes can be 14+ month delays!)
Star players in the current organization have limited availability for the new organization
Articulating and aligning on a business opportunity requires collaboration by many functions, and these functions are separate and overloaded in the current organization
Sales and product development processes often need to be understood at more than the surface-level.
Here are some ideas for addressing many of the above issues:
Recognize that it’s not usually possible or desirable to speed up the process by cutting corners
Break the process into smaller pieces to get rolling
Search for the right sponsor and core team
Secure a portion of time for each of the star players
Give the employees a real chance to make things work
Consider getting a commitment for small amount of money to get rolling
Start to articulate what the business opportunity looks like and document it
Consider using a facilitator that can pull the pieces together, help layout program plan, and frame strategic issues and options
Paint the vision for the org structure and build emotional attachment to the cause
Involve those from sales and product development that will be eager to provide input and testing grounds
Aim for pioneer sales and business development deals with lighthouse accounts (concrete wins)
Rinse, refine, increase committment, and repeat.
It may take a leap of faith to get things started. But the leap of faith can be smaller than the temptation of the opportunity as a whole. Sometimes the keys are to look for forward motion and to take some initial steps as opposed to wanting to knock it out of the park too soon.
As many times I have written a “business plan”, it seems the flavor of it can vary quite substantially. I think the notion of this catches a good number of people by surprise. And why shouldn’t that be the case? Many textbooks and templates seem to cover business plan outlines with relatively similar structures. My suspicion is that the perspective that gets lost in the mix is intent. The intent of a business plan affects its format and content dramatically (more than outline). For this post, I thought it would be good to share some perspectives on why the process and plan should vary.
Business plan as a process – The process of vetting ideas, getting buy-in, and achieving alignment is most important in these situations. Example situations are new business launches in larger companies (e.g., intrapreneurship). Business plans can often take the form of workshop sessions and Powerpoint documents as opposed to a traditional textual Word document. See a popular post of mine, “In Consulting The Process Is An Essential Part Of The Deliverable“.
Business plan as a sales document – This situation is particularly appropriate for fund raising (e.g., angels, VCs). Key goals of the document are to establish trust with prospects, enable the investment idea to be shared via networks, and persuade people of the merits of an investment opportunity. Often need a mix of instruments here (Powerpoint & Word docs, napkin drawings, demo), depending on the team, industry, and phase of product development (e.g., technology feasibility, commercial feasibility, ramp-up).
Business plan as a hypothesis test or investigative framework – An entrepreneurial way of looking at a business plan is more as a framework or series of hypotheses tests. Questions may be: do customers really want product aspect A, do customers prefer this variation over that one, do customers perceive me as Y relative to my competitors, and will the dog eat the dog food? The business planning effort can be more organic than written and involve focus groups, customer prospect interviews, etc. But the framework process should be systematic in determining which hypotheses are true/false to prove out aspects the business over time.
Some other ways that come to mind are viewing the business plan as a communication tool, a dissertation (that must be closely inspected), debate tool, product development stage gate requirement, and RFP response requirement (e.g., for government grants).
How do you view you business planning efforts? To what extent could you benefit from new ways of thinking about them?
The introduction of new product or service lines into an existing customer base is a challenge that companies often face with new business development. Sometimes the opportunities can be readily quantified using traditional financial analysis (e.g., using net present value, scenario, and waterfall buildup methods). At other times, there may be hazards of trying to quantify an opportunity too early in the process before conceptual alignment of the stakeholders. For example, people can simply get stuck “in the weeds with the numbers”.
In this post, I share a method that I have sometimes found useful as a first step in framing and getting alignment among parties (especially when looking at new product development situations involving platforms upon which multiple products or product lines can be built). To be honest, I am not sure if there is a name for the type of chart I describe below, but I call it a “frontier chart” (which is derived from investment portfolio theory from finance).
The basic idea is that there are a set of lower risk projects out on the left side of the chart which have more known (potentially lower) expected returns. In contrast, projects on the right side might have higher risks but also higher, expected returns. So as an example of a project on the left side, a software company may have early customer engagements with a straightforward, add-on product that it directly developed (say a GPS mapping tool). As an example of a project on the right side, that same software company may be looking to introduce new platform capabilities such that indirect, 3rd parties can develop applications (e.g., Apple’s “there’s an app for that”). The later project venture is more risky, but the payoff could be larger than the former project.
A key benefit of using a frontier chart is that it can help to get buy-in on the high-level things and projects that people tend to agree with. There will be plenty of time later to put on our “propeller hats” and get bogged down in detailed numbers and execution tactics.
The ability to facilitate a company’s management team to move forward is priceless, and sometimes facilitation can be more difficult when introducing new products or services (which is outside of the core, day-to-day business). Consider using frontier charts and thinking about platform strategies (the latter which may be topic for another post).
When thrust into a situation where either resources are constrained, there are competing management choices, and paths forward are unclear, I often find a consulting method of "finding and relieving the bottleneck" useful.
For example, suppose a startup is trying to figure out how to ramp up sales from its first (non-repeatable) deals. Or suppose a company cannot determine whether sales or operations processes are the primary lever for stabilizing revenues. Yet another case might be that there is an incubator unit within a larger company that is underperforming – how might you approach the problem of fixing the situation?
At its core, "finding and relieving the bottleneck" is an analytical method used in production and operations. There are a couple of predominant ways that I look at operations by default, the former being a more quantitative method involving system & process flows and things like Little's Law, and the latter (which I strongly recommend) method using visual inspection and interviews with client management. Here I'll address the latter.
So back to the case of ramping up sales for a startup, where its first deals are largely non-repeatable because they were unique and early in the learning curve. Suppose you have 1-hour with client management. How might you help to tease out how where to start looking for improvements?
In a nutshell, the bottleneck method approach might simply be organized around finding where one gets the biggest bang for the buck in terms of making a change. I might ask the client if they had another resource or an additional day in the workweek, which of the following would ultimately result in more sales:
Refining Strategy – this might involve breaking the customer base into segments based on type and prospect awareness profile. Where's the lowest hanging fruit? What kind of marketing and sales material is each segment getting? If you had a choice to improve the marketing collateral or sales processes for the higher priority segment, which would you choose? Are there backlogs in the system (e.g., uncalled sales lead prospects), which would indicate bottlenecks? If you made the change, would it really address the end goal, e.g., getting more sales?
Changing Management Approach - in many situations, entrepreneurs may make the first sales, but they often have problems transferring knowledge on how those sales are made. Alternatively, they may have problems letting go of other areas that could be delegated or outsourced (e.g., finance and accounting, inside sales, meeting scheduling, and/or field sales). Would it be helpful to have someone shadow key executives to distill the sales processes and real value propositions that various customers are buying? If we could clone key people to offload some of the burden, would there be enough prospects and deal flow to make things worthwhile?
Adjusting Technology or Product - if the product were made less complex or if we simplified choices, would we get better yield and flow from the awareness to interest phase of the customer purchase process? Is there a way that we could get people to sample or experience the product before purchase to skip people past bottlenecks of overanalyzing things too much up-front?
Obtaining Financing for Expansion– if you focus time on more sales versus financing for expansion (presuming company has sufficient sales), what would you do and why? What if choosing one path doomed the other? Would the chosen path still be worthwhile? What kind of results could we expect by financing a new online versus a physical market for services delivery?
Optimal diagnosis clearly involves a mixture of tools and approaches, but the bottleneck method is an important method to learn in consulting because it can be increasingly used in facilitative situations where a client has substantial implicit knowledge (and such knowledge must be better formulated explicitly and transferred for company operations to scale).
I've also used this method in management situations (as opposed to in consulting situations only). The method can be particularly good when troubleshooting a problem that cuts across functional areas.
What are your thoughts? Have you ever used this type of approach? If so, how effective was it for you?
Excellent post by Jeff Nolan on business development functions. More of a unique post in the blogosphere because the business development function is defined fuzzily (word?) across the industry as a whole in my mind. I agree with Jeff in the sense that this position is often troubled in tech start-ups. I would go further to say it is a position that is often troubled in many tech firms in general.