The 5 C’s of Clairvoyant Companies

6 03 2016

Keys to successNo one is psychic at TechCoastAngels.  Yet, we believe there are keys to success for start-ups.  For the past couple of weeks, myself and 6 other angel investors from TechCoastAngels of Orange County have screened more than 120 entrepreneurs in preparation for the  “finals” of our fast pitch competition at TCA’s upcoming Celebration of Entrepreneurship event to be held on March 10.  We have listened to these entrepreneurs’ 60 second pitches which would be provoking enough to take a meeting with them and listen to their pitch decks. In my last blog, I shared the early pitch decks of 7 Unicorns courtesy of CB Insights.

For this blog, I want to put it all together and share what I see are the common themes that came out of the pitches and the pitch decks.  Now, while we have been focusing on start-ups, the principles enumerated in my 5 C’s of Clairvoyant Companies are equally applicable to on-going companies, large and small.

1.       Conveying the story.   The first “C” relates to conveying a story of what problem(s) the company is solving and telling a succinct story to entice the listener to ask for more information.   If it is a start-up, the entrepreneur has to put the listener in the shoes of the person having the problem and convey the solutions.  In the pitch deck (or business plan), the CEO (or presenter) provides the details on how he or she will execute on the plan and drive financial results.  Conveying the story clearly applies to ongoing companies as well, particularly if the company wants to attract new customers and brand itself in the market as something special.  Just think about the stories being conveyed by Nike and Under Armour or your favorite consumer or business product.

2.       Customer Clarity.   The second “C” relates to the target customers.  Who is the ideal customer?  Can you describe them and how do you find them?   If you think about Airbnb, the customers are both the person wanting to rent his property for a short period of time, to the other customer, a person wanting to rent a room or house.   The marketing and business plan should clearly indicate the problem the customer is facing and the solution offered.  Additionally, the company needs to present a cogent case for their marketing tactics to drive awareness, adoption and use.  Without clarity on the customer and how to find them and motivate them to action, financial success will not be achieved.

3.       Competencies of the Company.   This third “C” relates to the existing or needed competencies within the organization that can drive the financial results.  It also relates to the intellectual property (IP) that is required to support the business or product.    How do you acquire and sustain the competencies that are needed for success?  Do you hire software developers on your team to build the product or can you outsource that skill?   What is critical based on your strategy and your competition?

For an on-going company, this is equally as critical.   A competitive analysis and environmental scan may lead to the conclusion that skill sets that were once required are no longer required and new skills must be added.  That may lead the company to a training program, a partnership, or replacement of existing resources with new ones.

4.       Competitive Advantage and Moat.   This fourth “C” is pretty evident.  No company operates in a vacuum.  Both startups and on-going companies need to be aware of the existing and potential competition that exists.   A competitor in the future may not be apparent  today but may have the competencies, technology, leadership and resources to compete in a new and growing market.   Five years ago would GM or Lexus have considered that Tesla would be a competitor or that Google would enter the realm of cars with their automated car program?  A few short years ago, who would have thought that Red would be the camera of choice and used in three of the Academy Award nominees for best film?

With technology and apps changing so quickly, competition can change just as fast.  Technology is the new enabler helping young entrepreneurs compete with established companies and with each other.  Recall what Andy Grove, former Chairman of Intel said:  Only the Paranoid Survive.  Whether you are a startup or an established company, be paranoid and keep your eyes open.

5.       CEO vision and passion.    We at TechCoastAngels say that we have to like the horse (the business concept) but must LOVE the CEO (the jockey and her team.)  As we screened the candidates for our upcoming event, we looked for a CEO with passion and vision and who can relate to us, the investor.  We wanted to find someone who had a history of success, was decisive, yet approachable and coachable.   We believe we found those characteristics in each of the 12 finalists.

Think back to the great leaders of on-going businesses or coaches and CEOS of sports teams.   Who is your model for a CEO with vision and passion?  I personally thought Lee Iacocca was great when he resurrected Chrysler.  Jack Welch turned GE into a world class company with his vision to be #1 or #2 in his markets.   Steve Jobs showed the world a new vision for technology. And Alan Mullaly took Ford after the great recession to a new level of respect and performance.

What else did these CEO’s have in common?  They had the ability to execute a plan.  They were also the keys to establishing a culture in a company that was hard to replicate.  In many ways, they became the icon for their brands.  And they were highly regarded by their employees and feared by their competition.   In a startup it is perhaps hard to discern whether the CEO can execute, yet we can judge their past successes with other companies and who they select as operational execs, advisory board members, and board of directors.

As we near our Celebration of Entrepreneurship, I trust that these blogs and the ideas herein will help executives of start-ups be successful and also be used by executives of on-going companies to help them guide their companies to business success.  I would be glad to continue the dialog on what makes a successful company.  Feel free to reach me at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net and if you enjoyed this blog please like it, repost, and retweet it.





Confessions of a Successful Entrepreneur: Dan Rodrigues

10 02 2016

Kareo 2The other night I was asked by a colleague who had a question from a reporter at INC Magazine what are some success tips for entrepreneurs and additionally what are some tips when you run into trouble.   I have written about tips for budding entrepreneurs in my blog on The Business of Business in the past and have written on behalf of the TechCoastAngels as well.

Serendipitously, the day after I wrote my comments to the reporter, I had the opportunity to listen to an interview by Andrew Bermudez of Digsy (www.getdigsy.com, www.meetup.com/OCfounders), of Dan Rodrigues, CEO and founder of Kareo (www.kareo.com).   Dan’s company, Kareo, has raised more than $100 million and is the fastest and largest growing company in Orange County, CA.  His company provides a cloud-based platform for independent medical practices and currently has more than 35000 providers served by more than 500 employees.

I want to share Dan’s perspective on how he grew his company and the road he had to travel.  Let’s lay out the journey in three chapters: Genesis and Euphoria; Reality of Funding and Growth: and the Path to Success.   And in each chapter there are lessons to be learned and tips for the entrepreneur.

Genesis and Euphoria

After Dan sold his first company, Scour, he started a software development consulting business.  During this time, he worked on a project for a client in the healthcare space. Through this project, he learned about healthcare IT.  Yet he also applied his knowledge of the consumer, gained from his stints at Vizeo and Real Networks, to the business.   He took the knowledge and the project and built the beginnings of Kareo and the first customer was the company for whom the original project was designed.

Lessons  learned:

  1. An inquisitive mind can yield interesting insights into new ideas. In this case, Dan used an inductive process to define the requirement to serve one customer and used that platform as a base of expansion to other similarly situated companies.  Entrepreneurs can take a custom project and move it to a generalized solution which might give you an immediate customer base.
  2. Integrate different perspectives to develop your business. Dan leveraged his prior experience in a different market space and was able to apply that knowledge to make Kareo different than other software companies in the same space. In a later chapter, Dan directed Kareo to be an online provider of SaaS services to this market.
  3. Build relationships as they will be valuable for funding as well as support and resources. Dan was able to use past relationships built over time to get to VCs on Sand Hill Road and High Net Worth individuals to help provide the initial funding.

Reality of Funding and Growth

Initially, Dan bootstrapped Kareo and now with some funding and the opportunity to gain more, the business seemed off to a solid start. And while you might read about Dan’s story thinking that it was all wine and roses, the truth is that Dan had some tough days early on with Kareo. In 2008, Dan received a difficult call from an investor who was unable to deliver a promised next round of funding. With no time to find another investor and significant bills to pay, Dan made a very tough decision. He reduced the company from 35 employees to 7, and found a new path for Kareo. During the entire year after, Dan did not take a salary as CEO so that others could be paid.  The goal was now survival and the focus was getting customers, reducing product expenditures, and finding more efficient ways to support existing customers to reduce cash burn.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Never take anything for granted. An investor can change his mind and funding may no longer a certainty.  The business environment might change too and entrepreneurs need to be fast, fluid, and flexible.
  2. Spend wisely and carefully. Kareo built a company and moved into expensive office space.  How many of the readers can relate to the euphoria of getting funded and spending lavishly with those funds?  I know I have been in companies that did not spend wisely and had to retrench.
  3. Learn the way to manage the business in the most efficient manner.
    1. Develop good solid cash management and make that a core competency
    2. Build a support infrastructure in synch with the services your company provides and find ways, at least initially for minimizing spending on infrastructure. Try to build a solid online help solution, provide excellent documentation, a good knowledge base.  But also have an additional second layer of support if needed.  Train people to do double duty.
  4. Learn to sell online. Other software in the healthcare market was sold through VARS.  Selling online gave Kareo an edge and reduced the cost of acquisition.

Path to Success

With revenue ramping to $3 million, and cash flow positive, Kareo was on the path to success.  During this phase, the goal was to grow the business through disciplined growth using the lessons learned during the prior chapter.   Over time, Kareo started adding back employees, expanding its product set, and increasing sales.

Lessons Learned:

  1. Maintain the discipline of cash management. Remember the lessons from when growth and cash flow were hard to come by.
  2. Define metrics for success. Share these metrics with your team and manage them religiously. Metrics used by Kareo included cost/customer, payback on margin, return on cost of customer acquisition, churn rate, and lifetime value of a customer.  Note: these are very similar to other SaaS and technical service companies that use subscription services as their business model.
  3. Hire the right talent. It is difficult in some ways for a small company to recruit good technical talent in Orange County vs. in San Jose.  There is frankly more talent there by virtue of the number of companies in the tech space.  Don’t let that be a daunting task.  Dan created a culture in Kareo and a solid reputation of being a progressive company which attracted talented individuals.  On the flip side, retention might be easier in OC and probably is for Kareo given their culture, the fact that the smaller company can provide a solid platform for growth of its employees, and Dan’s vision and leadership style.

According to Dan, when the company had fewer than 50 people it was easy to attract a great talent pool because of the excitement.  When the company had between 50-200 people, Kareo started to compete for talent as employees looked for other exciting opportunities or felt they had the ability to move out on their own.  After growth to 200 employees, Kareo had established its reputation and talented individuals wanted to work there.

Lessons learned:

  1. Recruit a top level executive team. Building the team is critical to any company and is especially true for start-ups and growing companies.  Some of the executives were recruited from outside of Orange County and complemented those from the OC.
  2. Find leaders who know others and can attract talent and capital. This makes it easier to sustain growth.
  3. Change the culture with changes in the business. Dan indicated that culture changes at different stages of growth.  When you have between 1-10 people you are in survival mode.  As his company grew, it felt more like a family.  At a certain point as additional employees were on-boarded and new geographic locations were opened, the culture changed because not everyone knew each other nor worked with each other on continual basis.
  4. The company is a platform for growth for its employees. Reinforce and support educating employees, building their skills, and adding to an employee’s competencies.  I know many executives who don’t want to invest in employees because they are fearful of losing them to competitors.   I personally believe Dan’s approach is the better one and creates a culture and brand that ensures talent will stay with Kareo.

Dan was asked what he would do differently if he could do it over again.   After reflecting Dan accepted that there were mistakes and missed opportunities.  So let’s frame them.

Additional tips and lessons:

  1. Build a business first and a product second. This means don’t normally chase individual customer requests and spend money on unique features and services for different customers.
  2. You need to keep the lights on even if the product stands still for a while.
    1. Under invest in the product and invest in the business side. From my viewpoint, this is a difficult lesson for many engineer-founders.  Therefore make sure you have a good solid business partner as the ying to your yang.
  3. Companies need to be agile and reorganize at transition points and at changing stages of growth.
  4. Companies need the right advisors and investors. While the CEO is focused on growth and getting the product into the market, advisors and investors have the opportunity to look forward and may see minefields ahead.  The CEO needs to heed them.

On behalf of TechCoastAngels, Andrew Bermudez, and Dan Rodrigues, I trust you find this blog and its contents useful for entrepreneurs in their own quest for success.  Please share and forward to others.

Let’s work together to build a strong entrepreneurial eco-system in Orange County.   And if you want to talk further feel free to contact me at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net.  Hope to see you at our March 10 event on celebrating entrepreneurship at the Segerstrom (www.techcoastangelscelebration.com.)





Celebrating Entrepreneurship

10 01 2016

EntrepreneurshipI was sitting at lunch with a few of my friends and thinking about the start of the New Year.  Of course, we all made resolutions to eat better, exercise more, and to enjoy life by having more balance and more fun. As we start this New Year, we wish people success and prosperity.

Wishing and hoping are not strategies for success.   A clear purpose and course of action properly executed is essential.  I mentioned TechCoastAngels’ upcoming conference on Celebration of Entrepreneurship (www.techcoastangelscelebration.com)  in March, 2016 at the Segerstrom in Orange County.   As a member of TechCoastAngels, entrepreneurship and start-ups are part of my daily life.  But why should this be important to everyone, particularly entrepreneurs and others in the entrepreneurial eco-system?   And is it entrepreneurship only that is critical or should corporate venture, i.e. internally generated new products and business funded by larger corporations, be considered critical as well?

First, entrepreneurship in the OC is happening.  While not at the scale of Silicon Valley, the OC/LA area and the San Diego area are pretty high on the list of both VC and angel funded companies.    Here are some examples.  In the OC, we have accelerators/incubators (for example KF, FastStart Studios, EvoNexus, Octane); University supported entrepreneur programs (Chapman’s Leatherby Center and UCI), angel groups (TechCoastAngels, Kieretsu), and a newly formed Institute for Innovation aka The Cove at the tech campus of the University of California at Irvine.   Clearly,  the infrastructure is in place for the entrepreneurial companies to flourish.

While invention and innovation are sometimes accorded to startups and venture investment, there is another area which cannot be shortchanged.   Corporate Venture, those companies funded by corporations who have accepted a strategy of growing by new products and services, is also rampant in the OC.  Witness the growth of Broadcom which focused on internal investments in wireless and mobility technologies.  Or Vizio, which has migrated from a big screen TV company to a broader consumer platform.    Or Edwards Life Sciences which continues to innovate in the medical device field.   And there are countless others.

Between innovation through start-ups and innovation from existing companies, Orange County has the pieces in place to become a hub of innovation.    From what we have seen, medical device, social media, software, and consumer services are being developed by many young entrepreneurs still in college and supported by the college community, yet there is a new group of “older generation” entrepreneurs that are also getting into the act by developing products and services.    Many of these new entrepreneurs are driven by the economy to strike out on their own after leaving corporate life.   Grandpad, a hardware and software platform funded in part by TechCoastAngels, is led by Scott Lien who left the corporate world to focus on helping seniors use technology in a more personal manner.   Parcel Pending, founded by Lori Torres, is focusing on automating the package delivery system and has traction in several geographic markets.  It’s another company funded by angel money in the OC.

Innovation and the ability to grow business are critical for the long term success of our national and local economy.   At our upcoming event you will be able to hear about how ideas were generated, ways companies have been able to grow, and hear from entrepreneurs and investors alike in how to build their companies or portfolios.  If you are an investor, it will be an eye opening venue for networking and hearing the investment pitches from more than X outstanding new companies. If you are an entrepreneur, perhaps the conference and discussions during the conference will spark some new ideas or help gel some of your thoughts on your existing business.

For others who might attend, consider this.   Entrepreneurship and intrapreneurship  are exciting.  You are never too old to feel the urge to create something new.   Innovation is infectious and fun.  Sure, it is very challenging and sometimes gut wrenching but as they say, the glory goes to those that try.  In that vein, I want to leave you with this inspirational poem called “if you think you can” by Walter Wintle, which epitomizes the ethos of the entrepreneur or intrapreneur.

If you think you are beaten, you are,
If you think you dare not, you don’t.
If you like to win, but you think you can’t,
It is almost certain you won’t.

If you think you’ll lose, you’re lost,
For out in the world we find,
Success begins with a fellow’s will.
It’s all in the state of mind.

If you think you are outclassed, you are,
You’ve got to think high to rise,
You’ve got to be sure of yourself before
You can ever win a prize.

Life’s battles don’t always go
To the stronger or faster man.
But soon or late the man who wins,
Is the man who thinks he can.

And maybe you, too will be the founder of a Unicorn or be an investor in a unicorn company and have a private island next door to Larry Ellison.   Hope to see you at the Segerstrom in March.





What Makes a Company Great

21 12 2015

Company cultureI was at a very interesting meeting hosted by Brett Olinger and Susan Howington, founder, Power Connections on Dec. 16, 2015.   There were about a dozen high level executives around the table with titles ranging from VP to COO to CMO to CEO.  Susan got us together to talk about business issues and she asked a relatively simple question: What makes a company great? And the subordinate theme of what kind of company would you want to work for or build?

As a tech executive and one involved in the entrepreneurial eco-system in southern California, I would have imagined that I would hear about things such as the latest and greatest technology that captures people’s hearts and minds.  Or maybe I was hoping to hear about the great opportunities for career advancement or companies doing social good.

I did not hear of specific industries, technologies, functions, unique characteristics of the leaders or anything that you might glean from an employee survey.  Remember the ones commenting have been and are successful executives.   After listening intently – and contributing as well- I captured their thoughts into three areas:  Culture, Leadership, and Customer Focus.   And I have to admit that is probably the order of importance because to me, culture is a platform upon which to build and enact leadership and a customer philosophy.  As you read the following, just ask yourself about the companies for which you worked.  What made them good?  Why did you like coming to work?  What drove your passion?  What made these companies great for you?

Culture

Culture was the number one item.  Culture was a necessary but not sufficient condition for making a company great.  Think about Tony Hsieh of Zappos.  He has instilled a clear culture in that company that focuses on the customer.  Do what is right for the customer. Certainly his vision and bent is the customer.  But without a cultural underpinning, Zappos would not be as successful as it has been.

Culture is also unique to a company.  It is hard to duplicate and is normally set by the CEO.  Think about other companies that are successful and have a truly unique culture.  Think about Disney and the culture about Imagineering.  Think about Intel and the culture of innovation.  Think about 3M and their culture that they encourage people to invest their time on new ideas.  Without a culture of innovation and support for innovators, many companies may not achieve success.

We discussed other components of culture as well.  Those components included telling it like it is……. but respectfully and constructively.  (As an aside, I can certainly relate to this coming from Brooklyn, NY and have seen direct cultures like New York and oblique cultures like I have seen in the Mid-west.)  Another element was pushing employees to the next level, i.e. making them believe they can succeed and giving them opportunities to succeed.   In the process of encouraging people, the culture must also accept failure (fast failure is preferred) and must set up a reward system for those that are successful.

Culture is also critical as the underpinning of being customer focused.   Think about a company that is just focused on the bottom line versus a company that is trying to help a customer and wanting them to be happy.  Think about your experience with Zappos.  Or if you have web service or webhosting from 1and1, think about the great customer service you have received from them.  Was it easy to talk with the company and its reps?  When they talked with you did you believe that you were the only person in the world on their mind or did you feel that you were imposing by asking them a question?   We heard a story this morning about how Steve Wynn chose people to work for him.  Applicants were told to go to another part of the building and when they got there, Steve was sitting behind a desk, rose to greet the applicant and wanted to see their reaction.  If they were friendly and responsive, they were hired.  True?  I am not sure but it makes a good story.

Leadership

We all know that leadership is critical.  Leadership starts with the CEO and filters down to people in the organization.   The leader sets the culture.  When I was head of marketing at US Cellular, our founding CEO, Don Nelson, was a great leader.  He selected an eclectic group of people, set the objectives and measured results meticulously and religiously.  But what distinguished him was his willingness to listen to his people, set and change vision and set a clear direction for the company.  The result, during my tenure was that the company grew fourfold in revenue in only five years.

Think back to the CEOs and possibly mentors you have had in your career.  What has distinguished them?   This morning, the executives around the table believed that not only did the CEO establish and set the culture for the company, in essence being the chief culture officer, but also set a clear and compelling vision for the company.  As the Cheshire Cat said, “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will get you there.”  Leaders know where they are going.

Coupled with the vision is the ability to articulate the clarity and alignment of the messages across the entire company, and in my humble opinion, do it in a personal way.   As companies grow, become more complex, and are geographically disbursed, having a common vision and alignment of messages are critical to ensure everyone is marching in the same direction.   In this case organizations become both effective in generating profits (the end game for most) and efficient in doing so.

The group believed that a great company has a servant-leader.  A servant-leader focuses primarily on the growth and well-being of people and the communities to which they belong. By focusing on people first, it empowers employees to be successful.  It also has a mentoring quality enabling employees to trust the leader such that when these employees are pushed to success by the leader, they trust that their best interests, and in turn the company’s, are aligned.    To be a true servant leader, two other elements must ring true.  The leader must be authentic and must be transparent.  There should be no hidden motive or ego at play.

 Customer Focus

As a businessman and marketing executive, I have written extensively and talked about customer focus.  The customer, the one who buys your company’s products and services, must be foremost in your mind.  Companies who are customer focused truly understand the behavioral drivers of the customer and why they buy your products and services.

The executives at our meeting believed that great companies connect with the customer.  These connections may come from a better user interface, or the way they train their front line people to interact with customers.    We bandied about the concept of Customer Experience Officer because customers, who are not happy, not satisfied, become disloyal.   And, all of us recognized that retention of customers is critical to a company’s success.  Further if you connect with the customer and relate to the customer, if a company makes a mistake there are positive “chits” that have accrued over time and forgiveness by the customer of any faux pas is normally granted.

Note that customer focus relies on a specific culture.  Again, think back to Zappos or think about any experience you have had at a retail store or an online store.  Systems are critical to help achieve customer focus but in reality it is the people, those front line sales people and customer support people that guarantee that the customer is important. Most of us go to Starbucks to get coffee.   Think about your experience.  They ask your name and if you visit the same store more than a few times, the baristas and others will get to know you.  How do you feel?  Pretty loyal I would assume.

Starbucks, Zappos, US Cellular and other companies have realized something very critical.  The people who interact with the customers ARE the brand.  Leadership sets the vision and a customer centric culture is established.  Yet customer focus is executed by the people.   All of us agreed that great companies are those that have this passion for the customer, exercised by supporting a customer first philosophy on the front line.

Going back to the original question posed by Susan Howington of What makes a company great, it comes down to three areas:  culture, leadership, and customer focus.   All three are interrelated.  In short, great companies balance the needs of customers, employees, and owners.  What companies would you want to work for?  What makes a company great in your mind?  Let’s continue the dialog.

For more thoughts and ideas, feel free to contact me at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net  or visit us at www.clevelpartners.net.  I will also guarantee that if you write or call me, I will pick up the phone and talk with you.  Why?  Because we, too, love our customers and we have implemented a culture in our company of helping and sharing.