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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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.





The 7 Attributes of a Highly Successful Start-up CEO.

11 08 2015

I met Kirsten Mangers several years ago after she successfully sold her startup, Webvisible.   And over the years I have gained a strong appreciation for her abilities and most important, her style.   Kirsten is the founder of ChickLabs, an incubator that focuses on helping primarily women entrepreneurs.  She is also the CEO of Immunogum, a start-up in Newport, CA and one in which TechCoastAngels invested.entrepreneurial CEO

I was invited to a meeting at an entrepreneurial office called the VINE which is off the UC Irvine campus because I am an angel investor with TCA and one who works with startup CEOS in my consulting practice.   The key- and only- speaker, though, was Kirsten and she shared her thoughts on what makes a successful start-up CEO with a large cadre of young aspiring entrepreneurs.

I thought I would share some of those thoughts with my readers.  Clearly, the CEO is THE most important role in a company.  She is the quarterback of the business.  I want to point out, as well, that angel investors are looking at the CEO, his/her characteristics, trustworthiness, and credibility as a critical and sometimes the most important decision factor in making an investment.

Here are Kirsten’s Magnificent Seven attributes and roles for an entrepreneurial CEO.

  1. Chief sales person. Selling is required whether it is for sales of the company’s products or selling the business idea to investors. Pure and simple, it is the number one attribute.  If a CEO cannot get comfortable selling then he/she needs to find a strong complement or a replacement CEO.
  2. Culture Maven. The culture of a company attracts and retains great people.   Think about the culture of Google or Apple and you get somewhat different impressions.   But culture will help you succeed and be one of the differentiators to also-rans.
  3. Chief Strategist. As Louis Carroll said in Alice and Wonderland:  “if you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”  CEOs need to set the direction and if necessary make the decisions to pivot the company.  Early startups will go through false starts and pivoting will be essential.
  4. Teacher, tutor, and mentor. Kirsten claimed to be a whiteboard fanatic.  Where there is a whiteboard, she could share ideas and interact with the staff on a regular basis and even get others to critique, comment, and debate those ideas.   This goes along with the concept that the CEO needs to be a visible leader and wander about with the team.
  5. You have to challenge yourself and others even with ideas that seem outrageous.   Why?  You stay fresh and there may be a kernel of insight into the new idea or someone else may see another path to success buried in that idea. Someone may say: that’s crazy but what if we did this?  Challenging prevailing wisdom and valuing the diversity of though among people is critical to engage your team.
  6. Chief Reporter and Scribe. This is the issue of transparency.   The CEO of a start-up needs to create an environment where everyone on the team feels that they understand and can contribute to the business’s success.   With normally smallish teams and fewer people, such discussions keep the team engaged and motivated.  I have personally witnessed employees banding together to find solutions to seemingly unsolvable problems.
  7. Chief Recruiter. To be successful, a strong team needs to be assembled and nurtured.  As Kirsten said, it all starts with people and finding the best people is the biggest challenge.  When she interviews someone, she has asked some interesting questions to probe the character, drive, and attitudes of the recruit.   One question I like is: if you were on a three hour flight and could sit next to one person, who would that person be and why?   From this answer you can determine motivation and quest for learning, both of which are critical in a start-up

These sage words of wisdom from Kirsten will help the aspiring entrepreneur be successful and potentially be as successful as Kirsten.

Let me know your thoughts.

david





A View to an Angel…Investor that is.

12 03 2015

Entrepreneurs.  Love ’em    At the Meet the Angels event in Irvine, CA last night I had the privilege to talk with many of the Entrepreneur170 would-be entrepreneurs in attendance.  I hosted about 25 of them in a separate breakout session to answer specific questions they had regarding the angel investment process and other activities surrounding building a start-up.

Many entrepreneurs, especially those just starting out, have an impression – or mis-impression of the angel investor.  Because of the hit show “Shark Tank” many people believe that angel investors sit around and make instant decisions and throw money at companies.     That is theater and entertainment.  Let’s also not minimize the fact that the “sharks” DO invest and many companies in which they invest become successful.  However, angel investing is a little more than having many

mini-shark tanks around the country where entrepreneurs come to champion their ideas.

During one of the panel discussions one entrepreneur asked “what do the investors want to hear during a pitch.”  On Shark Tank the investors seem to ask the same questions and want to hear answers particularly relating to current revenue and revenue growth.  So I thought I would compile two lists of what I heard- and what I also believe- are things we angle investors want to hear, and things we DON’T want to hear.

Things Angel Investors Want to Hear

  • How the background of the CEO/Founder relates to the opportunity
    • Does the CEO/Founder have experience in this industry and market?
  • Skills and competencies of the management and advisory team
    • Ideally, has that team been in place for 6 months or more or better yet has this same team been successful in the past on a previous venture?
    • Is the team virtual, distributed or in one place
  • Skin in the game from the founders and early executives
  • That the entrepreneur and team are “all-in” committed to make it work.
  • A team that can execute to plan
  • Commitment and passion of the Entrepreneur (see my previous blog on this subject https://streetsavvymarketing.wordpress.com/?s=passion+of+the+entrepreneur )
    • One entrepreneur I know developed a medical device for insulin delivery because he would be able to use it for himself and his background was in medical devices
  • Strong product concept
    • What is the concept and why is it a strong one?
    • Has it been tested with customers in some manner?
  • Extensibility of the product concept
    • Is this a one trick pony or does the product have legs to spawn new products or be applicable to other markets?
  • Solid go to market plan
  • Identification of the ideal customer
  • Reasonable valuations
  • Credible evidence that the market will accept the product and it is scalable in some manner
    • This could include trials, early betas, partnership agreements, letters of intent, earlier funding.

What Angels Don’t Want to Hear

  • We are going to be the next Google and have a market cap of over $100B in only 2 years.
    • Or our valuation today is $100M because we have a solid concept and a breadboard design.
  • Our product is unique and we are alone in this space
    • It might be and that would be great but help us understand that. You might be the next SNAPCHAT and we don’t want to miss that opportunity!!
  • We have IP and no one can copy that?
    • This might be true but if you tread on the grounds of a giant company do you really want to pursue IP litigation over the next 7 years at a 7 figure cost?
  • We have a lot of downloads and freemium users
    • That is a great start but can you tell us about your conversion plans to paid users?
  • We have no competition
    • There is always competition or alternatives to your solution. The issue is how you will market the differences to get people to use your product or service vs another option.
  • Trust me; we know what we are doing
    • I am very attached to my dollars (my little financial soldiers so to speak) so I trust only those that have proved themselves to me in the past.

Certainly every start-up and entrepreneur is different.  In the early stages of a market, the team and the ability to execute is more important than the product per se in terms of sustainability of the business.  Early on, the management i.e. the CEO should have a clear view on the product, the vision for the product and business and a plan they can execute because we investors will track that to see if you make your commitments.  There should be clarity on what the ideal customer looks like.   For proof of concept, the angels would like to see functionality, a 3D model, capabilities comparison, market research to the extent practicable, feedback from current users if there is a product or input from lead users suggesting that the product or service in question makes sense and they would be interested in buying it.

We would be glad to hear from entrepreneurs on their concepts and ideas.  TechCoastAngels is always looking for deal flow and we would be glad to entertain those ideas.  Feel free to submit an application on www.techcoastangels.com.    And I would glad to talk with entrepreneurs who actually do have the idea for the next Google or Facebook!!





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.





A Template for Evaluating a Business Case and a Prescript for Good Marketing

28 07 2009

Many of those who follow me through LinkedIn or who have heard me speak, know that I am part of the TechCoastAngels of Orange County. And as a TCA member, we evaluate investing opportunities. Over the past four months I have listened to many presentations and tried to understand whether the investment made sense to me. It always struck me that the focus of most of these meetings is on the financials and metrics such as EBITA. Why? We, as angel investors, are taking a risk and therefore want to make sure the return compensates us for that risk.

The entrepreneurs who present normally have a wealth of information and mostly a solid technical understanding of their products and services. Yet, I have found that the entrepreneur sometimes doesn’t understand how to make a case for the investment. Ergo, this blog is intended to help the entrepreneur or business person by providing a template for analyzing and presenting a good business opportunity. It is far from complete though. This format and template can also be applied by business people in companies who are evaluating a new product, a new service, and even potential partners.

Before the marketing plan i.e. the “go to market” plan, can be implemented, the content of this basic template is necessary to understand what to market. This template and consists of four fundamental questions and a raft of supporting questions. Feel free to add as you see fit:

1. Is there a market? This sounds so simple but it is probably the most difficult item to classify. How many times have you heard: “If I only get 1% of all the Chinese people in X province, I will have a billion dollar business in two years? Were it so simple! The answers have to come from the following supporting questions.

a. Who is the target market? What is the specific need or pain point you are trying to solve? Can you specifically identify your customers so you can market or sell directly to them, e.g. are they small businesspeople in a geography or businesses that need to improve their accounts receivable? The former is easier to identify. The more specific and easier to identify, the better. Interestingly, the more precise the definition, the broader the market!!

b. Is the market stagnant or growing? Will you be looking to increase the size of the market or take share from the competitor and which competitor are you aiming at? (My personal opinion is to go after the expansion of the market and go after the leader in some way, and if not directly, by outflanking that leader.)

c. Consider the juncture of three elements as you consider positioning  the product and service in the market:  customer, competitor and competencies (within the company). Do you want to position your product more towards the customer i.e. a custom product or a series of products? Or do you want to position it against the competition because it is better, faster, larger, smarter or any of the other ways to differentiate? Do you want to position the product relative to special competencies that are inherent in the company today or ones you intend to add to the company over time? In defining the market, the use of this simple paradigm helps determine if in fact there is enough of a market to claim.

 2. Can you make the product or service? This question relates to the ease of which the product can be made, the raw materials to make it, the talent necessary to manufacture, and the intellectual property that can sustain a differential advantage. Specific questions to address include:

a.  What is the Intellectual property and will you be able to patent that IP? Just as importantly, is the IP sustainable? What are the unique advantages of the product or the management teams that can help make the product unique? Maybe it is their creativity and if so, how will you sustain the creativity or keep the team intact? Or is it the interface, ease of use, customer service, support, processes? Do you have the human capital and talent to build the product, specifically the technical skills on board now and in the future? Do you have a ready source for technical experts?

b. How easy is the product to build? Do you need new processes? New equipment? New delivery systems? New materials? Or can you use existing processes and materials? If you use existing processes and materials and IP, will a larger competitor come in and get to market before you will?

c. How fast can you bring the service or product to market? Is first mover advantage critical? Or is getting it right with a quality product more critical. Does anyone remember the first portable computer and who made it? It certainly had first mover advantage but neither it nor the company survived. (The answer: the Osborne computer.)

3. Can you make money? Clearly this is the operative question whether you are an entrepreneur or intrapreneur (an entrepreneur within a corporate setting). Some specific supporting questions include:

a. What is the revenue growth? Sales growth (number of units)? Is this growth realistic? (How many times have you seen business cases that went from zero revenue in year one to $200 million in year 3? How many of those companies have achieved that type of explosive success?)

b. What is the EBITA and how does it compare to other competitors at the same stage of their lives? What is the cash flow and when does the business case turn cash flow positive? To me, cash is king!!

c. What is the cost of goods? How does that cost change relative to the sales unit and revenue growth? What are the ways you are looking to improve the cost e.g. by vertically integrating, sourcing, partnerships, or other means?

d. What is the growth path, or as I like to say, ROUTES TO REVENUIE, over time that will continue to grow the business and make it flourish and minimize the risk of being a one trick pony? Have you mapped out the product and service architecture that enable you to provide more products to the market segments you targeted or find more market segments in which to sell? And while we are talking about selling, have you considered all the selling expenses and the distribution costs?

4. Can you support it? This is particularly true in a service business but equally true in a software business or a complex product. Some additional questions include:

a. Will there be online service and support? Will stores in which the product is sold support the product or will there be an 800 lines or self service on the web? How easy is it to service the product, service or software via a knowledge ware system on the web? How many of you have actually tried to solve a problem with Microsoft software by using their tech support and knowledge base?

b. Do you have an adequate training program for those on the front line, in customer service, or account support? Is the product so complex you need to have technical sales experts and if so do you have the wherewithal to hire, train, and pay them?

Let’s not assume that these are all the questions to address. Yet, this is a reasonable start in getting a good handle on whether the business will make sense. And more interestingly, by answering these questions, the marketing team will have a better understanding of “how to go to market.” And by so doing, they will have the opportunity to be successful.