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.)

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Successful Management in Two Words.

3 04 2015

Rudyard Kipling in his poem, “IF,” (see http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/1757720) said:  “If you can keep you head about you while all about you are losing theirs…… then you will be a Man, my son!”

Management

I was talking with one of my mentees today regarding his question of how to stay on top of projects and tasks and making sure he doesn’t get overwhelmed, i.e. keeping his head about himself.  Clearly there is a relationship and an opportunity to quote Kipling.  My mentee is a student who is working with a team to develop a new product/service and is doing this through the Center for Entrepreneurship at Chapman University where I am a lead mentor.    Since I have many more years of experience, I shared some of my learnings and some of the tools I have used and developed.

I was taught in my early career about good management by a disciple of the late Harold Geneen who was the architect of the rise of ITT Corporation as a successful conglomerate. Over time, I developed my own spin and teach this and consult with others who want a simple powerful system to implement.  The basic principle is simply stated in two words:  FOCUS and PODFU.

Focus is pretty simple.  Make sure you know the two or three most important things to do.  Simple to say yet sometimes hard to do.   In fact, as an executive you should be even more myopic and focus on the ONE key thing that needs to get done.  When that is complete move on to the next item.   The reality is that you cannot get overwhelmed by trying to tackle too many tasks at one time.  This also entails discipline and priority setting.

Second, as a young entrepreneur, my mentee is working with other young entrepreneurs and has to learn leadership and management.  Leadership means that he needs to convey his vision and excite the team so they can be engaged and successful. Management means the ability to ensure what needs to get done, gets done and gets done on time.  And this is where PODFU comes in. The acronym is Plan, Organize, Delegate, and Follow-up. It sounds so simple yet is also surprising how many fail at this.

I suggested a few tools that he can use in his regularly scheduled project meetings.  This tool can be repurposed for operational and dashboard reviews as well. The tool is shown in the following Excel spreadsheet with the listed columns.

PODFU Chart

In the example there are four main objectives and supporting tasks to be completed by a variety of people.  In this case my mentee is trying to get a new product/service into the market and this template displays the format and the kinds of activities he and his team might undertake.  (Note:  this is notational only and not representative of his project.)  There is clarity in the metrics to determine if the milestone/task was complete, a time period, a person accountable (if you use the RACI system, the is the “A” in RACI), and a color chart indicating if the task is on target (GREEN), potentially may miss date (YELLOW), or will miss or has missed the due date (RED.)

In each meeting, those tasks due at the meeting date and ones that are due at the next meeting date are discussed. If the task is “green” then there is little reason to discuss it unless there is something that must be brought to the attention of the team.  If the task is yellow, the comments should summarize what will be done to get back on target.  If the task is red, the discussion might go deeper- we call this a deep dive- to see how we can complete the task and if the completion affects other tasks, how might the team get back on schedule.

Of course, there is more to managing and leadership than just a chart.  Yet this template presents a very powerful way to manage using only these two words:   FOCUS and PODFU.  This system can help managers be successful.

If you or your company wants to explore how this tool can be adapted to your unique needs, please contact me at dfriedman@prodigy.net, visit my LinkedIn profile at www.linkedin.com/in/davidfriedman, or call me at 949 439-4503.





Maintaining the Innovative Edge

12 02 2015

Exploding Innovation

I was having coffee at Dana Point Harbor in California with a friend and a former colleague of mine, Gary Wallace, who is a VP at Sirius Connected Car.   We were talking about business and the Feb 1, 2015 issue of Fortune magazine with a Unicorn on the cover.  The unicorn symbolizes start-ups that have cracked the $1 billion valuation mark, notwithstanding any sustainable revenue to support that valuation.  (Can you say Dotcom bubble?)

As we talked about these companies we focused on the concept of innovation.  Why were these companies successful in coming up with an idea and just as importantly, what happened to the high flyers, the innovators in the past that have gone “subterranean” and in many cases have died on the vine.   Since this is a blog and not a research tome, let’s look at some of the companies that were stars at one time but have lost their luster.  My goal in this blog is to provoke thought on how to be an innovator and to ensure that complacency doesn’t reign in the future.

Since Gary and I come from the technology world of networking, wireless, and computers, it was easy to find examples of these lost innovators.   And because I am an angel investor with TechCoastAngels in Southern California and lead mentor to start-ups through the Center for Entrepreneurship at Chapman University, I have a good perspective on innovation and what it takes to be successful. Gary, in turn, is a very successful tech executive and was one of the executives who helped build ATX/Agero into a telematics powerhouse.  He is very smart businessman with a tremendous breadth of knowledge.

We pondered if it was an issue of focus, execution, leadership, or a combination of things?  We talked about a few companies:  Nokia, Motorola, Blackberry, Northern Telecom, Jawbone.   I know the first four of them having dealt with them as an executive at telecom/wireless companies.  I know Jawbone because I was a huge fan of their headsets and Bluetooth speakers and the recent article in Fortune (same issue with the Unicorn) made me remember their previously fantastic products.

Nokia was a classic company that started in the rubber industry and through bold leadership became a telecom powerhouse and the darling of the wireless industry in the 90’s and early 2000’s with its Nokia 1100 and then the Nokia 3000 series phones.  Heck, I bought a bunch for my family.   Fast forward to 2013 and Nokia sold off its wireless phones to Microsoft.   Note from the graphic below courtesy of CNET the market shares today based on the operating systems.  And the subsequent chart on Global Smartphone market share tells a powerful story.

Smartphone platforms

Similarly, Blackberry which use to rule the “smart phone” world with its business oriented devices. Unfortunately, has lost its way and while it still produces phones it is focusing on applications and recently introduced the Blackberry Classic, harkening back to the glory days of the late 2000s.   Many people I know still like that classic design because all they do is email and text from the device.

Motorola in a sense invented cellular service.  Martin Cooper made the first private handheld call in 1973.   They came out with a brilliant design for a small clamshell phone called the Startac in 1996.  Great phone that was a must have.   In 2011 Motorola sold off its mobility division (cellular service) to Google and subsequently Google sold the division, sans its patent portfolio, to Lenovo.

Smartphone market share

Similarly Nortel, formerly Northern Telecom, once a power house in telecom infrastructure with nearly 100000 employees and a huge market cap on the Toronto Exchange, filed for bankruptcy in 2009.  They had great product and when I was an engineer I highly admired their technology.

Jawbone is a little different in that they still have a great technology and a superb well thought of CEO in Hosain Rahman.  They introduced several products that made the market but then other competitors came in to take share.  Currently they are pivoting to focus in part on the wireless fitness craze in competition with companies such as Fitbit (a relatively new Unicorn established in 2007).

When Gary and I talked we thought about our experiences with these companies and ruminated what they could have done differently.  Now this is not a scientific study by any means but here is what we thought resulted in the downfall.  And for context, remember Andy Grove’s cautionary words: Only the Paranoid Survive.

Could these companies have survived and changed?  I don’t have the answer but it is an interesting discussion.  By looking at what we believe were their failings, Gary and I posited that these four areas could have been changed.

  • This is the opposite of arrogance.  These companies relied on their past successes and thought that their view was the right view.  They became insular and lost touch with the customer.  From personal experience these companies except for Jawbone would not accommodate unique requirements.
  • Customer perspective. While these companies focused on their products they did not really listen to their customer wants and needs and did not accommodate their needs. Other competitors eager to take share were more accommodating.  Companies need to have a direct pipeline to their customers.  Engineers should visit customers.  Customer panels and advisory boards need to be implemented.  Lead users, i.e., innovators and early adopters, need to be identified and used in early product trials.
  • The telecom companies grew fast with introduction of new products and excellent technology.  But the leadership seemed to lose focus on execution.   I give credit to Nokia and Motorola for spinning off their mobility groups to Microsoft and Google to give those entities a better chance of survival.  Regardless of anything else the basic notion is that P=R-C where P is profit. Execution needs to be de rigeur for all companies through a solid business battle rhythm of managing the business, and tools such as balanced scorecards to help guide the way.
  • All the companies I mentioned and certainly those in the Fortune article achieved success through innovation.  Innovation takes place on several fronts and all characterized as “new.”  Newness and the pursuit of newness on several vectors give companies an advantage.  You can have a new product(Fitbit), new application in a market(think baking soda in toothpaste), new pricing ( Solar leasing, ATT’s Digital One Rate), new technology offering new benefits (drones, Space X, First Solar), new processes (Amazon, Tom’s shoes), new support systems, new branding, new partnerships, new eco-systems.  And the list goes on.

Achieving sustained success is very difficult.  Companies need to develop the right strategic imperatives, the right innovation centers, the right product development processes, the right customer interface processes.  Many companies can do this on their own but also many companies are so focused on today and execution they may need help from an outsider, sort of an alter ego, to help with guidance, advice and tools.    Feel free to comment on this blog or contact me to chat about your business needs.  My contact info is dfriedman@prodigy.net.





What’s in a name: Marketing or Branding or Plain Good Sense?

11 07 2014

Over the past weeks I have read several articles about P&Gs change in their organization structure.   The titles of the articles include:

The End of “Marketing” as We Know it at P&G.   (AdAge,  June 30)

Does P&G’s Reorganized Marketing Department Go Far Enough?   (Forbes, July 8)

Why Brand Management will Replace Marketing.   (Brandingstrategyinsider.com, July 3)

Let’s step back for a moment and look at the driver of these articles.  As of  a couple of weeks ago, P&G’s marketing directors and associate marketing directors become brand directors and associate brand directors.  The new role houses four functions: brand management, consumer and marketing knowledge, communications and design—thus creating a “single-point responsibility for the strategies, plans and results for the brands…simplifying our structure to free up time for creativity and better execution,”  said a spokesperson for P&G.

I look forward to reading these articles because they stimulate the mind and as we know P&G is world renown for creating the concept of brand management.  So when P&G talks, everyone in marketing and branding listens.   Yet, as a marketing executive (more correctly a business executive), I was somewhat disappointed in the perspectives in these articles in several areas.  

Now maybe I should not be surprised.  As they say, “to a hammer, everything is a nail.”    Most of the authors were from the BRANDING or advertising gurus.    Remember, in 1993 or so, P&G changed titles and responsibilities from Advertising Manager to Marketing Director because they realized there needed to be a broader perspective for the people managing their product line and brand assets. 

As a purist in marketing, I am not sure that P&G should be the final say in the right organization of marketing or branding for all companies.  But let me say up front, that I have to give kudos to P&G to recognize a broader perspective of the role of the individuals who manage the marketing and branding functions of the company and putting the onus of accretion of brand asset value on the shoulders of individuals makes sense to me. 

Here are my thoughts from the perspective of a “Big M” marketing executive and consultant and as a technology executive as well.

First, until we actually see what P&G does in terms of palpable actions, I would be hard pressed to say that P&G abandoning marketing.    Now, let’s also think about where P&G fits into the economy.  They are a CPG company yet the economy is (or has already) switched to a tech based company with the likes of Google, Amazon, Netflix, Apple and Facebook being the vanguard of the “new marketing.”  So even if P&G changes their approach, I believe that would be interesting but not convincing that brand replaces marketing. In short, both exist and which takes precedence within a company depends on the market in which they compete, the stage of growth of the business, and the strategy that the company pursues.

In one of the articles the author points out that marketing is about spending money and that marketing “focuses on activities associated with promotion and distribution of products and services.   Ok.  That is part of it.  But this minimizes the importance of marketing.  In the 1980s, marketing was about the 4Ps: product, place, promotion and pricing.  So let’s not at least forget about the other two elements.   However, in my opinion, the new marketing adds a few other Ps- especially in the tech and service world.   These Ps are product development, people (as the front line sales and support people affect the perception of the brand), and process.     I raise these points because I find that many people still have a narrow perspective on marketing and I felt obligated to set the record straight- at least looking out from my own rose colored glasses.  For many tech marketing executives who come out of the product management function, product management is the tech correlate to brand management in the CPG world.  

Second, while it is true that marketing spends money, the CMOs that I know and who are really good business people, look at that marketing spend as an investment and look at the return of that investment at both the tactical level i.e., marketing program as well as the strategic level i.e. new product revenue, margin and support of the business plan.    And in the tech world in which I am familiar, marketing has the role of brand maven as well so accretion of the brand asset value is also within the domain of the CMO.  Again, perspective and context need to be considered.

 I do believe that there are changes afoot in the marketing and branding world as evidenced by the plethora of articles written lately on the roles and capabilities.  Whether brand takes precedence or marketing takes precedence is not the real issue for CMOs and their bosses.  Will the CEO for example, give the CMO the breadth of responsibilities that are required?   If so, the CMO will be concerned about being the linking pin from the outside world of the customer to the inside world of production of goods and services.   In performing that function, the CMO will have to be an integrative force among the various corporate functions as well as have a full complement of both traditional and digital tools to increase top line revenue, margins, and brand value. That is the real challenge they face and that requires a unique individual.  

What P&G does will, of course, be important because they are thought leaders of the CPG world.  And we should also look at what the leaders of the tech and service sectors do as well because the economy has shifted to a digital and tech economy.  One thing is for certain: marketing and branding will change over the next several years and it will be good for business and open up a new horizon for would be brand directors and marketing executives. 





Marketing Secrets 101

27 12 2012

One of the members of the CMO Newtwork on LinkedIn asked the question “what is the biggest marketing secret you’ve discovered over the course of your career?

Needless to say there were lots of answers. What I found interesting was the wide variety of answers, some bordering on the tactical, others on the strategic, and others on the interpersonal.  Some focused on customers, some on the concept of samples and giving things away for “free trials,” while others suggested that organizational alignment was critical.  All the answers make sense.  Clearly everyone’s perspective is colored by their unique position in an organization as well as what has brought them success in the past.  As a CMO and C-level executive, I have my perspective.  Here are my three “secrets” which when you think about it, are nothing more than commonsense put in perspective of my company’s goals.

I always believed that the CMO is the linking pin from the outside (customer) world to the inside (production) world of the company.   This is a vital role.  Therefore my first secret is:  listen to your customer!!!! Make sure you understand what your customers want – and yes, even if they change their mind you will know it- and develop a product and product architecture to solve those needs.  Be visible with to your customers.

Second, surround yourself with energy- the energy and intelligence of others – in marketing or outside marketing- that can contribute to an innovation mindset.  Ideas are the lifeblood of marketing and you should continue to press for new ideas.  You don’t have to act on them all but you should at least catalog them and act on those with the highest priority.

The final marketing secret has to do with the real role of the senior marketing executive e.g. CMO, and in turn, other marketing colleagues.  That secret, which has to be continually on the mind of the CMO specifically, is to think strategically – be an alter ego to your CEO- and execute tactically.  That means thinking about EBITA as well as top line growth.  EBITA is the lifeblood of all companies from the largest to even the smallest.

In reviewing the dialog, I developed the following framework in which to think about marketing secrets.   The “secrets” can be catalogued into one of four quadrants and depending on the company, its goals and objectives, different secrets.

marketing quad

There are many more “secrets” to being a successful marketing exec but hopefully these will start stimulating discussion.We can use this framework to catalog the different secrets.    If you are finding    too many secrets in one area, then assume that you are missing something in an overall plan.  Again, the answer will vary based on the company, the context and to which marketing level you are speaking.

david