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.

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Building Differentiation into a Product or Service: Creating a Sustainable Moat.

4 02 2016

product differentiationThis is a particularly interesting subject as we, investors, think about investing in a company.  And while this blog is directed to those potential entrepreneurs, the ideas suggested in this blog are equally applicable to new products and services developed by a business to increase their revenue, replace existing products/services, or compete in the market.

Many entrepreneurs – and investors alike- think that differentiation is based on the Intellectual Property underlying the product.   That may be true if the IP is really unique.  Yet, as one knows patent protection only goes so far.  If a new smaller company has a patent that “infringes” on a larger company’s business, for example, the larger better financed company can sue for infringement and cause the smaller company to lose focus on their end game.

Differentiation can enable a company to create a moat around their business that would make it difficult for a competitor to penetrate.   At best, it protects the company for the long term.  At worse, it enables protection for a period of time so the new company can establish their brand and get first mover advantage.  And, in the best case, the new company has such an advantage with their product that the larger company buys the smaller company for $1 billion or more and the founders feel pleased that they created a unicorn!!!   (We can all dream, right?)

Differentiation can take place on several levels.  The following diagram shows and input/output schematic for product/service differentiation.  In the diagram, there are 11 different areas where differentiation can take place.    The entrepreneur can focus on one or several of these areas keeping in mind that they are competing for a customer’s mind share relative to what either direct competitors can offer or other solutions that the customer may find acceptable.  For example, when I was commercializing Wi-Fi on airplanes we initially thought that the competition was the on-board entertainment system.  In fact, that was only one competitor; the other “competition” that competed for the customers’ attention included eating, sleeping or reading!!  It was evident in the rear view mirror.

Product Service Architecture for Differentiation

Differentiation can take place at one or several of the components of the product or service.  In this diagram there are 11 different areas where the entrepreneur can focus.  Most of the time, the focus is on the main platform or product and its features.  Yet differentiation can take place in the following areas as well:

  1. Accessibility: How a customer finds the product or service.  This includes channels of distribution, online, door to door, word of mouth and is part of the input process.
  2. Interactivity: Does the product or service require input from the customer? Is this input active requiring the customer to input information or is it more passive, with the input process providing the input by reaching out to other databases?
  3. Input process: Is there a unique way that the product or service uses the data to and integrates or converts the data into elements which can be acted upon by the platform?
  4. The platform: this is the core of the product and the essence of the technology. It is the engine to drive applications and features.
  5. Features: the specific features that provide benefits to the customer and are inherent in the platform.
  6. Applications: the specific uses for the product that the customer may or may not realize. These applications can be developed by the company or by partners.
  7. Maintenance and customer support: Is the product self-testing or do customers have to provide some input into testing and maintenance?  Is customer support online only or a combination of online and human interaction?  Maybe I am old-school, but occasionally I would like to speak with a human and the documentation and self-help guides are not necessarily very clear.
  8. Output process: What is the output process necessary to translate and provide an output to the customer? Can the output process be linked to another product or service from one of the company’s partners or another provider?  For example, if the product/service is a new CRM system for the small business, can that system be integrated into a marketing automation or e-commerce system from Salesforce or Marketo?
  9. Reports and Results: This is what the customer actually sees as an output and is usable.  Maybe this is a timeline, a report, a database, a social interaction, a picture or a posting, or even a data (Think of Match.com.)

In each of these elements, the entrepreneur has a few choices.  We use the concept of PPT: people, process (automated), and technology to look at ways the element is enabled, used and managed.  It is up to the entrepreneur how he/she wants to balance each of these three components because they will affect effectiveness and efficiency.

I want to point out one other way to differentiate and develop a moat for your company and product.  In a book called Profit Zone, authors Adrian Slywotsky and David Morrison point out ways that a company can protect its profit and revenue stream.  In developing and commercializing a new product the entrepreneur can think about the following elements as well.  Strategic control points are normally industry specific yet we can general from most protective to least protective:

  1. Owning the standard through technology and IP
  2. Managing the value chain- including channels of distribution, input materials, shelf space etc.
  3. Developing a super dominant position by dint of their market share in specific markets, through specific channels, or with specific products. This is probably less likely for a start-up.  Yet, perhaps the technology originated in a university and by dint of that they are super dominant in that market and want to expand beyond the university.
  4. Process including a unique way to provide information to a customer. Think Amazon
  5. People including the relationship of their customer support team to addressing issues. Think Nordstrom or Zappos.
  6. Own the customer relationship by focusing and understanding the unique preferences of a well-defined niche.
  7. Brand and trademarks. Think McDonalds, IBM, Google, Snapchat.
  8. Development lead time enabling the company to be first to market and build up first mover advantage.
  9. Cost advantage or cost parity enabling the company to compete should there be a price reaction from a competitor.

I trust this blog- perhaps a little lengthy- can provide some useful information for the budding entrepreneur and even those in corporate America engaged in developing and commercializing new products, services, or businesses.  There is no easy answer; yet having a framework or two and breaking a complex problem into smaller manageable components can perhaps lead to success………. and the next unicorn.

You can hear and see entrepreneurs pitch their products at the TechCoastAngels Celebration of Entrepreneurship at the Segerstrom in Costa Mesa on March 10.  Check out http://www.techcoastanagelscelebration.com to get tickets.  Also, feel free to continue the dialog or contact David Friedman at dfriedman@clevelpartners.net or via phone at 949 4394503.  Or retweet this to people who would like a good read.





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.