The Big Thing Holding Back Small Businesses

Small businesses stay small either by choice, or because they start chasing growth in the wrong places.

When you strip away the layers, it all comes down to darts.

Imagine a dart board with a bull’s eye and around it is a series of wider and wider circles. The bull’s eye is where the people just like you hang out. They are the people (or businesses) who feel the problem your company set out to solve. They are usually your first customers and raving fans.

The further you go outside of your bull’s eye, the less these prospects feel your exact pain.

Why do entrepreneurs go outside their bull’s eye? When you’re a self-funded start-up, you’re scrambling — just trying to bootstrap your way to a company. You don’t have a lot of money to invest in formal marketing, so you rely on word-of-mouth and referrals, which also means you’re often talking to people outside of your bull’s eye.

These prospects may experience the problem you’re trying to solve, but they are slightly different (that’s why they’re not in the bull’s eye). They like your product or service but want a little tweak to it: a customization or a different version. You don’t see the harm in making a change and start to adjust your offering to accommodate the customers outside your bull’s eye.

Your new (slightly-outside-the-bull’s-eye) customer tells her friends about how great you are, and how willing you are to listen to your customers, and she refers a prospect even further outside your bull’s eye who again, asks you for another tweak.

Making these changes to your original product or service to accommodate customers outside your bull’s eye seems innocent enough at the time, but eventually, it undermines your growth.

Why?

To grow a business beyond your efforts, you need to hire employees (or build technology) that can do the work. As humans, we are usually lousy at doing something for the first time, but can master most things with enough repetition.

Think about teaching a toddler how to tie his shoes. The first few attempts are usually rough. It’s a new skill and their tiny hands have never had to make bunny ears before. You break it down for the child and show them how to master each step. It can take weeks, but eventually they get it. As adults, we don’t even think about tying our shoes — we’ve mastered the skill by repetition.

The same is true of your employees. They need time to truly master the delivery or your product or service. Every time you make a tweak for a new customer outside your bull’s eye, it’s like changing the instructions on tying your shoe laces. It’s disorienting for everyone and leads to substandard products and services, which customers receive and are less than enthusiastic about.

Having unhappy customers often leads the owner to step in and “fix” the problem. While some founders can indeed create the customized product or service for their new, outside-the-bull’s-eye customer, they are making their company reliant on them in the process.

A business reliant on its founder will stall out at a handful of employees when the founder runs out of hours in the day.

The secret to avoiding this plateau, and continuing to grow, is to be brutally disciplined in only serving customers in your bull’s eye for much longer than it feels natural. When you want to grow, the temptation is take whatever revenue you can, but the kind of growth that comes from serving customers outside your bull’s eye can be a dead end.

Measure and improve your scalability and growth with our FREE assessment Value Builder Score™ today.

Why Start-Ups Stall

Have you ever wondered why startup companies stop growing? Sometimes they run out of potential customers to sell to or their product starts losing market share to a competitor, but there is often a more fundamental reason: the founder(s) lose the stomach for it.

When you start a business, the assets you have outside of your business likely exceed those you have in it, because in the early days, your business is worthless. As your company grows, it starts to have value and becomes a more significant part of your wealth—especially if you’re pouring your profits back into funding your growth.

For most business owners, their company is their largest asset.

Eventually, your business may become such a large proportion of your wealth that you realize you are taking a giant risk every day that you decide to hold on to it just a little bit longer.

95% Of His Wealth In One Business

In 2000, Etienne Borgeat and Olivier Letard co-founded PCO innovation, an IT consulting firm. The company took off and, by 2016, PCO had 600 full-time employees and offices around the world.

As the business grew, Borgeat and Letard started to become uneasy about how much of their wealth was tied up in their business. By 2015, the shares Borgeat held in PCO represented 95% of his wealth.

That’s about the point that aerospace giant Boeing came calling. Boeing wanted PCO to take on a very large project and Borgeat and Letard turned down the opportunity reasoning that the project was so large it could risk their entire company if it went wrong. In the early days, the partners would never have turned down a chance to work with Boeing, but the partners had changed.

That’s when Borgeat and Letard realized the time had come to sell. They agreed to an acquisition offer from Accenture of over one times revenue.

The success of your startup is probably driven by your willingness to put all your eggs in one basket. You’re all in. However, at some point, you may find yourself starting to play it safe, which is about the time your business may be better off in someone else’s hands.

If you need help building the value of your start-up contact us today at [email protected]

Focusing On Driving Your Multiple

The value of your business comes down to a single equation: what multiple of your profit is an acquirer willing to pay for your company?

Profit × Multiple = Value

Most owners believe the best way to improve the value of their company is to make more profit – so, they find ways to sell more and more. As experts in their industry, it’s natural that customers want to personally engage with them, which means spending more time on the phones, on the road and face-to-face to increase sales.

With this model, a company can slightly grow, but the owner’s life becomes much more difficult: customers demand more time and service, employees begin to burn out, and soon it feels like there are not enough hours in the day. Revenue flat lines, health can suffer and relationships get strained – all from working too much. Does this feel familiar?

If you’re spending too much time and effort on increasing your profit, you could find yourself diminishing the overall value of your business. The solution? Focus on driving your multiple (the other number in the equation above). Driving your multiple will ultimately help you grow your company value, improve your profit and redeem your freedom.

What Drives Your Multiple:

Differentiated Market Position - Acquirers only buy what they could not easily create, so expect to be paid more if you have close to a monopoly on what you sell and/or are one of the few companies who have been licensed to provide the specific product or service in your market.

Lots of Runway - Most founders think market share is something to strive for, but in the eyes of an acquirer, it can decrease the value of your business because you’ve already sopped up most of the opportunity.

Recurring Revenue - An acquirer is going to want to know how your business will do once you leave – recurring revenue assures them that there will still be a business once the founder hits eject.

Financials - The size and profitability of your company will matter to investors. So will the quality of your bookkeeping.

The You Factor - The most valuable businesses can thrive without their owners. The inverse is also true because the most valuable businesses are masters of independence.

Take a step today in increasing your multiple with a Free Assessment of your Business Value Drivers.

One Way To Decide When To Sell Your Business

How do you know the right time to sell your company? One answer to this age-old question is that the time to sell is when someone else is willing to invest more in your business than you are.

When you start a business, nobody is willing to invest in its success more than you. You’ve already worked a 40-hour week by Wednesday and, if you’re like most founders, you’ve invested a big chunk of your liquid assets to get your business going.

You’re all in.

In the early days, you are willing to risk your business on a new strategy because the business is pretty much worthless. As the Bob Dylan lyric goes, “When you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose.”

As your business grows and becomes more valuable, you may find yourself becoming more conservative, unwilling to risk the equity you have created inside your business on your next big idea. You have reached a point where someone else may be willing to risk more time and money for your business than you are.

Peach New Media 

David Will is the founder of Peach New Media, which he started back in 2000 as a reseller of web conferencing. In the early days, Will changed his business strategy frequently, trying to find an idea with legs. After a number of pivots, he landed on selling learning management software to associations.

The business grew nicely and by 2015 Peach New Media had 40 employees and then received an attractive acquisition offer from a large private equity company. Will was conflicted. He loved his business and treasured the team he had built. At the same time, the acquirer was offering him a life-changing check.

In the end, Will realized that he had become somewhat more conservative as his business had grown and the potential acquirer was willing to make a big bet on integrating Peach New Media into another one of its acquisitions. Will realized he had reached a point where his appetite for risk in his own business was lower than his potential acquirer’s. Will decided to sell.

 When To Sell

The point where a buyer is willing to risk more than you are happens at a different stage for everyone. Let’s say you have a business worth $1 million today. Would you be willing to risk the entire thing on a new strategy for a shot at making it a $10 million company? Many entrepreneurs would take that bet.

Now imagine you have a company worth $10 million and your business represents the bulk of your net worth. Most would argue $10 million is life-changing money. Would you be willing to risk your entire company for a chance to make it a $100 million company? The marginal utility of an extra $90 million is minimal—we all only need so many cars—but the risk is significant. Fewer owners would bet $10 million for a chance at $100 million.

What if your business was worth $100 million? Would you risk it all for a long shot at becoming a billion-dollar company? It is hard to imagine any one person betting $100 million dollars on anything, but if you’re the CEO of a billion-dollar corporation with ambitious growth goals, $100 million is a bet you may be willing to make.

When someone else is willing to invest more in your business than you are, it is probably time your company finds a new owner.

Growing Fast? Here's What Could Kill Your Company?

If your goal is to grow your business fast, you need a positive cash flow cycle or the ability to raise money at a feverish pace. Anything less and you will quickly grow yourself out of business.

A positive cash flow cycle simply means you get paid before you have to pay others. A negative cash flow cycle is the direct opposite: you have pay out before your money comes in.

A lifestyle business with good margins can often get away with a negative cash flow cycle, but a growth-oriented business can’t, and it will quickly grow itself bankrupt.

Growing Yourself Bankrupt

To illustrate, take a look at the fatal decision made by Shelley Rogers, who decided to scale a business with a negative cash flow cycle. Rogers started Admincomm Warehousing to help companies recycle their old technology. Rogers purchased old phone systems and computer monitors for pennies on the dollar and sold them to recyclers who dismantled the technology down to its raw materials and sold off the base metals.

In the beginning, Rogers had a positive cash flow cycle. Admincomm would secure the rights to a lot of old gear and invite a group of Chinese recyclers to fly to Calgary to bid on the equipment. If they liked what they saw, the recyclers would be asked to pay in full before they flew home. Then Rogers would organize a shipping container to send the materials to China and pay her suppliers 30 to 60 days later.

In a world hungry for resources, the business model worked and Rogers built a nice lifestyle company with fat margins. That’s when she became aware of the environmental impact of the companies she was selling to as they poisoned the air in the developing world burning the plastic covers off computer gear to get at the base metals it contained. Rogers decided to scale up her operation and start recycling the equipment in her home country of Canada, where she could take advantage of a government program that would send her a check if she could prove she had recycled the equipment domestically.

Her new model required an investment in an expensive recycling machine and the adoption of a new cash model. She now had to buy the gear, recycle the materials and then wait to get her money from the government. The faster she grew, the less cash she had. Eventually, the business failed.

Rogers Rises From The Ashes With A Positive Cash Flow Model

Rogers learned from the experience and built a new company in the same industry called TopFlight Assets Services. Instead of acquiring old technology, she sold much of it on consignment, allowing her to save cash. Rogers grew TopFlight into a successful enterprise, which she sold in 2013 for six times Earnings Before Interest Taxes Depreciation and Amortization (EBITDA) to CSI Leasing, one of the largest equipment leasing companies in the world.

Rogers got a great multiple for her business in part because of her focus on cash flow. Many owner think cash flow means their profits on a Profit & Loss Statement. While profit is important, acquirers also care deeply about cash flow—the money your business makes (or needs) to run.

The reason is simple: when an acquirer buys your business, they will likely need to finance it. If your business needs constant infusions of cash, an acquirer will have to commit more money to your business. Since investors are all about getting a return on their money, the more they have to invest in your business, the higher the return they expect, forcing them to reduce the original price they pay you.

So, whether your goal is to scale or sell for a premium (or both), having a positive cash flow cycle is a prerequisite.

Learn more about how this value driver and others will impact business value with our FREE Sellability Score.