Do You Understand Which Customers You Want to Develop?

Whenever I have the opportunity to sit down with an entrepreneur to discuss how an idea is going to be commercialized, a hot topic is “who is your buyer, and how will you win them?” Amazingly, many who aspire to start businesses (even some who have been in business) have very little strategic insight into the answer to this question. By going after the universe, in a shotgun method, the business owner shortchanges the enterprise of the opportunity to develop authentic connections with targeted customers who become loyalists. We break the broad question down into tactical components such as how to listen to customer input and revise a product or service offering. Yesterday I read a LinkedIn article by Steve Blank, the author of The Startup Owner’s Manual. Blank wrote about an interaction with a former student who claimed that following Blank’s advice on customer development was causing his company to fail:

We Did Everything Customers Asked For
“We did every thing you said, we got out of the building and talked to potential customers. We surveyed a ton of them online, ran A/B tests, brought a segment of those who used the product in-house for face-to-face meetings. ” Yep, sounds good.

“Next, we built a minimum viable product.” OK, still sounds good.

“And then we built everything our prospective customers asked for.” That took me aback. Everything? I asked? “Yes, we added all their feature requests and we priced the product just like they requested. We had a ton of people come to our website and a healthy number actually activated. .  . everyone uses the product for awhile, but no one is upgrading to our paid product. We spent all this time building what customers asked for. And now most of the early users have stopped coming back.”

Customer developmentWhat’s your business model?
“Business model? I guess I was just trying to get as many people to my site as I could and make them happy. Then I thought I could charge them for something later and sell advertising based on the users I had.”

I pushed a bit harder and said, “Your strategy counted on a freemium-to-paid upgrade path. What experiments did you run that convinced you that this was the right pricing tactic? Your attrition numbers mean users weren’t engaged with the product. What did you do about it? Did you think you were trying to get large networks of engaged users that can disrupt big markets? Large is usually measured in millions of users. What experiments did you run that convinced you could get to that scale?”

I realized by the look in his eyes that none of this was making sense. “Well I got out of the building and listened to customers.”

The idea of the tests he ran wasn’t just to get data – it was to get insight. All of those activities – talking to customers, A/B testing, etc. needed to fit into his business model –how his company will find a repeatable and scalable business model and ultimately make money. And this is the step he had missed.

Customer Development = The pursuit of customer understanding
Part of Customer Development is understanding which customers make sense for your business. The goal of listening to customers is not please every one of them. It’s to figure out which customer segment served his needs – both short and long term. And giving your product away, as he was discovering, is often a going out of business strategy.

Blank then shared the lessons learned by his student:

  • Getting out of the building is a great first step
  • Listening to potential customers is even better
  • Getting users to visit your site and try your product feels great
  • Your job is not to make every possible customer happy
  • Pick the customer segments and pricing tactics that drive your business model
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Overcoming Business Failures With Mentoring

 

According to Bill Warner, co-founder of EntreDot, approximately 26,000 new companies are formed each year in North Carolina and, in that same year, over 23,000 companies fail due to poor management and operational mistakes. Warner further states that, “The statistics are worse in rural and minority populations. This means that good ideas go to waste along with the grant and investor funds that helped get these companies started. As a result, the potential growth of revenue and new jobs is lost also.” These comments are very similar sentiments to what Dun and Bradstreet found in some surveys conducted during the period of 2007 – 2010. D&B found that the rate of business failure went up by an average of 40% during the recession years.

D&B SMB Lowest Failure Rate by State 2010

 

Many of the states with lower failure rate increases are less heavily populated states. In fact, of all the states that have seen a decline in the rate of small to medium sized business failure, only North Carolina makes the list of 10 most populous states in the country. Of states (below) with large increases in failure rates, only California is heavily populated.  

D&B SMB Failure Rate by State 2010

 

 

 

From 2007 through 2010, Western states in the West had the highest increase in failure rates. Reasons D&B provided for the uptick in failures include continued instability in the residential housing market and drop-off in the tourism, travel and hospitality sectors. Interestingly, Tennessee has been home to the highest small business failure rates for four years in a row.  

D&B Largest SMB Industries 2010

 

These trends have been occurring at a time when the number of retail establishments and corresponding retail employment have both dropped by 15-20%. On the other hand, the number of SMBs in the Business Services category more than doubled and these businesses experienced a 30% increase in the number of people they employ. The fastest growing industries for SMBs are summarized below:

D&B Fastest Growing Industries 2010

 

As you can plainly see, nothing else comes close to the growth of  the Business Services category. Bear in mind that many software as a service companies are part of this category and have been launched in only recent years. The macrotrends that become evident are that retail is on the wane, highly populated states are more stable in terms of business failure statistics, and the business services category’s growth will be a key cog in the engine of our economy.

Warner points to the following issues of significance to these small businesses:

  • Business strategy and planning to make sure their business is focused on a viable market with a winning product and/or service that has a competitive edge
  • Forecasting and financing ensuring that sales forecasts are realistic and that revenue, cost, expense and cash are well managed
  • Operational discipline and judgment to increase the chances of success by making fewer mistakes
  • Industry connections that can help accelerate the business and its operations
  • Start-up company experience that can instill the wisdom of what it takes to really start and manage an emerging business

 

He feels that these companies need the dual combination of basic business know-how and mentoring. The situation in North Carolina, where Warner and I live, is that our state has a comprehensive array of entrepreneurship education programs throughout the community college and university systems including various other private and public organizations. The problem is that we have little help for entrepreneurs once they have completed these programs and actually try to start a business. We recommend assistance for entrepreneurs who are struggling to create successful businesses, the failures should decline considerably. Entrepreneurs should be seeking out business mentors that can help them through the early years of their business.

 

Do You Have an Innovative Strategy?

 

After a very long (10 days+) break from blogging, we are back on the job for the New Year today. The time away was refreshing and helped to restore focus. One of the reasons I began writing this blog last year was to develop a discipline for getting observations about small business management and strategy out of my head and into a “written” format. At some point in 2013, we will attempt to cull through last year’s blog posts, sort and organize them, and format all of the content into a cohesive story that should make a good book. It has been over 20 years since I published my last book and it will be fun to be in print again.

Back to the matters of management and strategy…I’d like to run through a few scenarios I’ve encountered with clients recently in an effort to highlight some of the ways business owners get “stuck” in their approach. One client is in the midst of a family business transition–none of which are what one would call a “piece of cake.” As with any business worth laboring over, this one has experienced enough success in its history that all parties think it has enduring value. All parties would be right–and wrong! 

Business valuations derive enhanced magnitude from observed plans for managing risk. The risk of the owner getting hit by a bus is, for instance, substantial. With no business continuity plan for such a horrible occurrence, the company that has taken years to build can be undone in a very short amount of time. Insurance is seen as a way to mitigate the impact of such an event on the financial performance of a business and its stakeholders. However, no amount of insurance can replace institutional knowledge. Most companies are operated based on lessons learned the hard way. When the person who remembers all the lessons is no longer around, others must climb the same painful learning curve and waste precious resources in the process. Taking the time to document what you have learned and how you apply that knowledge in daily management makes your company worth way more money–even if you never plan to sell it!

hourly billing agreementAnother client is a professional services firm that is struggling with the industry standard of billing fees on an hourly basis and all the timekeeping and dysfunction associated with this antiquated practice. In addition to the record keeping requirements, there are collection processes that are time consuming, result in write-downs, and become demoralizing. What we are implementing, then, is a change in the way business is done. We will begin to charge clients a retainer and a success fee. The retainer is some minor amount that basically allows this specialized practice to recoup some monies for overhead obligations while the team works on client issues. It is meant to encourage more calls from clients to discuss everyday items so that we become an extension of their management and leadership teams. The success fee is structured up front to be awarded to us for doing a better than average job. We work with clients when they are prospects to identify    how success will be measured before an engagement begins. we put the feedback responsibility in the hands of the client, and adjust our final payouts based on results.

These two examples illustrate how matters of strategy can be brought into the regular operations of any business. In every business we’ve encountered, there are things that are overlooked or left un-addressed because they are accepted rather than challenged. What are those things in your business that need to be tackled in 2013? How will you tackle them?

Measure Marketing For Better Results

Marketing is the main subject of this week’s blog posts–in case you hadn’t noticed the pattern yet. One of the biggest challenges in marketing is to prove that efforts are generating results–and at a reasonable ROI to boot! We know that marketing can be used to initiate relationships–it is also about nurturing them and providing great leads to the sales side of the house. Being able to measure how much positive attention you are able to attract is key for a marketer to justify the marketing budget, and (in a recession, her role.)Mktg Dashboard

Leanne Hoagland-Smith, Chief Results Officer for Advanced Systems in Chicago, IL writes that,

With the Internet, the ability to measure your marketing efforts is far easier now than ever before. Websites can include Google Analytics or their own customized statistics dashboard. Then others sites and tools provide additional metrics to measure current marketing campaigns. Even WordPress has a plug by Yoast to measure Search Engine Optimization (SEO). This is a great tool for measuring the SEO effectiveness of your blog posts. I know because I have been using it for the last three years. 

Inbound Marketing Measurements

Each morning, the first action I take beyond deleting all the SPAM from my email accounts is to measure my inbound marketing through more than 20 metrics. Some of these measurements include:

• Unique Visitors to my website

• RSS feed from my website

• Twitter followers

• LinkedIn

• Alexa Ranking

 

Additionally, I also have another 10 weekly metrics plus another 15 monthly metrics.

I am currently expanding into delivering some webinars and Eventbrite provides additional statistics as does Citrix Go to Webinar. All of this data is crucial if I wish to use my limited resources of time, energy, money and emotions to increase sales.

..These numbers allow ..me.. to see trends, what is working ..and what is not working. The time investment averages around 10 minutes each day with another 10 minutes for the weekly data capture. At the end of the month, this adds another 20-30 minutes for updating and analysis.

Outbound Marketing Measurements

During the course of the last 10 years, I have identified some key benchmarks for the more traditional marketing efforts. For example, when I speak, I usually receive a client from that presentation within six months. Lately, that statistic has changed with two to four months being the average. What has also changed due to the economy is the average sales value of that client has dropped.

Another marketing effort was something I gleaned from Robert Middleton specific to sending pertinent articles to potential customers. When I employ this marketing campaign, my first time appointment rate is around 50 percent compared to the usual cold calling rate of 25 percent. As I am selective when I do engage in cold calling, my success rate is probably higher than most…

One simple action is to always ask how a potential customer discovered you. Sometimes these prospects will tell you without asking. Just this past month, I earned my first client from a YouTube video. Efficient and effective marketing is hard work. To not measure the efforts of all those actions is not probably the smartest course of action.

The role for small business owners have expanded to include measuring marketing efforts. Without knowing the results from all marketing efforts both inbound and outbound, the small business owners to even crazy busy sales professionals are missing significant opportunities to maximize their profits, reduce costs and increase sales.

As you look at what LeAnne does in her business, what ideas come to mind? Check out the tools she recommends. Determine your own marketing dashboard. Think through how to collect data, analyze it, and make adjustments. As you begin to apply some science to the art of marketing, you can calculate the metrics of success that drive revenues and profitability. Isn’t that why we all started businesses?

Sell Your Business Even if Others Can’t

In reading about the issues facing small businesses in the United States since the recession began in late 2007, I have heard about many sectors that have fallen behind historical performance levels. One that I hadn’t considered very much until this week is what is called the “business-for-sale” sector, which has seen a huge drop-off in comparison to all metrics known prior to the recession. While many have spoken about the large amount of private equity not in circulation, many of the reasons it is being withheld translate to other types of business buyers.

Whether you are representing an equity firm or your own personal business interests, it is likely that you have been trying to figure out when the economy may turn around. In classic business theory, it would be ideal to buy at a deflated price right before the economy picked up so that your investment could piggyback onto the general trend of successful recovery. Such market timing could make your investment produce very high–perhaps unprecedented–returns.

Since the economy appears to have stabilized, though not surged forward in a demonstrable way, what are these people who would otherwise be buying small businesses thinking? Observers of the business-for-sale sector wonder when they will see a positive change. They are anxious to see more acquisition activity.Buy sell dice

Hindrances to Business Sales

Whether you listen to political pundits, talk show hosts, or economists, all would concur (at least publicly) that small business is key to the overall recovery. Yet, if small businesses are not churning ownership, it is hard for them to obtain the necessary working capital to fund growth and operations. BizBuySell.com conducted a survey of 260 business brokers from around the country to attempt to determine whether market conditions were improving. A whopping 70 percent indicated that financing for business acquisitions has not improved since 2011. These findings and percentages are consistent with survey results from last year, showing a trend of stagnation.

With commercial loans harder to come by (according to the survey), many buyers can’t get the financing they need to do deals.  Business brokers say that banks have made the loan process even more difficult in 2012, decreasing the chances thereby that buyers will begin investing in businesses for sale. Mike Handelsman, group general manager for BizBuySell.com and BizQuest.com, reports that borrowing is particularly difficult for new or young entrepreneurs. Since banks and similar entities have taken the position that a track record of success is one of the top determinants of future success, newcomers to the small business arena–either startups or acquirers–are handcuffed. 

Handelsman cited other factors of concern to business brokers from the survey. Concerns about the U.S. national debt,  political deadlock (re: the fiscal cliff), long-term unemployment and small business/personal tax rates (14%) also appear to diminish buyer confidence. However, he did offer some tips for sellers:

Seller financing is not necessarily the right strategy for all business succession scenarios. But under the right circumstances, a seller’s willingness to finance a portion of the sale can dramatically increase the number of potential buyers and create more advantageous sales terms (e.g. a higher sale price). Sellers also need to plan for the sale, and make their businesses as attractive as possible to buyers.

Here are a few ways to plan for the sale and make your business attractive–

  • Install an outside board of directors, with positions filled by non-competing entrepreneurs rather than the typical CPA, attorney, banker, and family friend.
  • Stop paying executive perks out of business accounts–clear separation will help show your commitment to professional management.
  • Document the tasks and procedures performed by the executive team. When it has been documented, the business is worth far more money because it is no longer dependent on the personalities.
  • Have a CPA review your financial statements–audit if you can afford it–especially if you have never had it done before.
  • Work with a transactions attorney to advise on deal structure and terms so that you can think through tax implications that may cause you to accept certain types of offers.

Chin up! If you follow these best practices, you will be one of the first ones to sell your business, regardless of whether many others sell theirs at the same time.