Entrepreneurial Banking

There is a long standing feud between bankers and entrepreneurs. What, one may ask, is the point of contention? Money, of course! Banks have money and entrepreneurs would like some of it in the form of loans to fund their start-ups. However, many in the banking community  consider start-ups far too risky. As a result of tougher credit standards enacted during the recession, less small businesses than perhaps at any prior point are qualifying for loans–even if they have strong management teams, revenues, and a significant upside.

What if banks awakened to the possibility of viewing start-ups as a diversification in a portfolio of loans? What if entrepreneurial ventures became appetizing to banks exactly because they represent a potential upside that is greater than the average loan return and, therefore, worth a strategic role in an array of credit decisions? Joy of all joys!

bank caricature

Recently, the Evening Standard profiled Ana Botin, head of Santander in the UK . The article featured Botin’s views on why her bank vowed to support small to medium sized businesses across the UK. It was 

reported that Santander “didn’t want to play it safe and that they had in fact spotted a gap for high growth, risky companies who needed financial support without losing a chunk of equity.” Despite being a big player in the savings and mortgages arena, plus enjoying success in the retail sector with 14.6 million customers, the bank had made a bold move to more aggressively support SMEs.

Kelly Dolan, writing for Entrepreneur Country, reports witnessing Botin open an event organised by Santander Breakthrough in Oxford last year in which she shared her personal story of entrepreneurial beginnings in venture capital and consulting prior to embarking on her current banking career.  Dolan also noted the “passion Botin displayed when speaking on the founding story of Santander, once a small Spanish bank that prided itself in helping local businesses get off the ground. Ana then spoke metaphorically on how she had witnessed how similar the banking industry was to an army, and that as CEO it was her mission to break down barriers and infiltrate the ranks so that bankers could finally begin to understand the importance of UK SMEs and why they were so crucial to British economy, which would of course reflect on the success of the bank. And for anyone that may have doubted her rhetoric on the day, you only had to spot Ana laughing and joking away with fellow keynote and Ella’s Kitchen Founder Paul Lindley during the interval to see that she felt right at home conversing with entrepreneurs. Ana’s presence and the Breakthrough event as a whole, which the bank runs for free across the UK to enable entrepreneurs to seek knowledge, network and share ideas, demonstrated to me that Ana had big plans for small business owners, along with a serious dose of empathy due to once being in their very position once before.”

 

Noting how rare Botin, her story, and Santander’s appreciation of the SME market are, Dolan questions whether more banks European banks should get into the “game.” I wonder the same thing about banks in the United States. It certainly seems that many of the larger banks seem disinterested in any deal that is truly entrepreneurial, disdaining the risk though the potential “hockey stick” growth is certainly desirable. Community banks seem slightly more supportive, and venture banks more so still. Let’s hope that many more will observe Santander having success and reconsider their own models!

 

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From Idea to Commercialization in 4 Days

When not consulting with small businesses who have revenues, I often volunteer time with a start-up nonprofit named EntreDot. The entrepreneurs with whom I have the pleasure of interacting through this connection are amazing. Within the innovation centers that the organization operates, there are many second career entrepreneurs. However, a different demographic intrigues even more: high school students. This past week, I had the opportunity to advise students at Wake Forest Rolesville High School in how to launch a business. What a blast!

While adults often underestimate what a young entrepreneur can do, this group has been a very pleasant surprise. The students were allocated into teams to prepare a business pitch in five days. Coming into the week, they had not previously been working together. One of the student teams did not even begin their business until Tuesday and only then as a result of teachers requesting they form a separate team because their original team had grown to too many participants. Faced with a four day deadline, this group of young entrepreneurs launched Bands For Boston. Bands For Boston is a social cause enterprise that is selling wristbands to support the Boston community in the aftermath of this week’s tragic bombings at the Boston Marathon. 

Bands For Boston

The student team used the debit card of one of their own to order the first 250 bands on Tuesday. By Wednesday, they had enough pre-orders that they went ahead and ordered an additional 250 bands. Through networking, social media, and some joint promotions, the team looks to sell over 1,000 bands in their first 10 days in business at a price of $5 each. Initially, they plan to contribute 60% of the proceeds to the American Red Cross to support relief efforts. They are hoping that, as volume grows, they will be able to raise the percentage contributed to 80%.

A process was followed by these young entrepreneurs that is significant for new small business founders of any age.

  • Ideation – The team first thought about doing lanyards for key chains, but thought that they couldn’t get enough traction. Once they decided to do the wrist bands, their thoughts gelled and they were able to unite around an idea that evoked passion. Quick math showed the team that, if they would put forth the effort, there was enough demand for what the proposed to create sales substantive enough to reward their efforts.
  • Conceptualization – The next effort the team went through was to identify target buyers. The first concentric circle they considered were student peers, followed by neighbors and Twitter followers. At each level, they were able to verify demand. They they put together a business model to order from an online source and deliver the bands to those who purchased on a pre-sale basis.
  • Creation – The proof of concept for the idea came into focus as the first set of bands arrived, were distributed after school, and new customers were identified as those who saw others wearing the bands. They had established some name recognition and were on their way to a business.
  • Evaluation – At the three day mark, they began dealing with inventory, marketing, and finance issues relative to reorders, expanding their reach to other geographic markets, and planning how to scale the business.
  • Preparation – The team was now confronted with the challenge of how to launch on a broader basis and put into place the team responsibilities that would facilitate growth. They are pursuing relationships with sports teams in the Boston area to have promotions at games whereby the bands could be given away to early attendees and sold to subsequent ones.

Commercialization is now the challenge of the team. They are trying to figure out how long these bands will be popular and what they may do for an encore. In the meantime, they have tapped a latent demand while helping a community and earning some income. Kudos!

Wannabe Entrepreneur – Or Real Deal?

 

What’s the difference between an entrepreneur and a “wannabe?” In many settings, there are people who talk a good game, but don’t really have the follow through to launch a business. Erica Douglass, a 20s something entrepreneur who already sold a a business for over $1 million, has identified 5 traits that differentiate earnest entrepreneurs from what she terms “wantrepreneurs:” 

Wannabe

1. A willingness to learn anything.

You’re never going to be successful if you externalize what’s wrong (I can’t hire a developer because I don’t have any money/no one will give me money, and therefore I can’t start or build my product.) It’s a poor attitude.

Isn’t it better to hire someone who knows what they’re doing? In the future, yes. Right now, though, you don’t even know how to tell whether someone knows what they’re doing or not. Plus, without a spec or prototype, you’re going to spend a whole lot of extra money and time having someone else do it wrong over and over again (because again, even the best developer can’t read your mind.)

Once you understand how building a website works, you can dip your toes into code. Read up on the differences between Python, Ruby on Rails, and PHP. Pick one to learn. Spend a week learning the basics. Then spend the next couple of months hacking on weekends. This will help you figure out whether that developer you’re about to pay a fortune to actually knows what he or she is doing.

The point of this exercise is three-fold. One, it gets you familiar with how to articulate your vision to a developer. Two, since you have more time than money, it shows everyone (including prospective developers) that you’re serious and committed to this project. And finally, if you can get something up there, even if it’s just a sketch with buttons that don’t work, you can start showing it to prospective customers and asking them to commit to paying for it. (Note that I didn’t say “Asking them how much they would pay for it.” I said “Asking them to commit to paying for it.” There’s a huge difference. Only one path will show you whether your idea will actually be successful.)

2. Going above and beyond to build something that people want.

If you haven’t been in your market for years, and you have an idea for a product that requires the market–your potential customers–to think about things in a totally different way, that’s the most likely path to failure. So what’s the better option? Finding out what’s in the market and what people hate about what’s out there. Then, instead of trying to “shock” them with something totally new, just incrementally improve on what’s out there.

3. Not knowing where your next dollar is coming from, but going forward anyway.

Startup founders and entrepreneurs are inherently scrappy folks. The people I hear who “pooh-pooh” consulting and “trading dollars for hours” are the ones most likely to fail on a project. If money gets tight, scrape together as much consulting work as you can and live as frugally as you can. Yeah, it’s not ideal to do consulting and try to run your own business, but you do what you have to do.

Ask yourself this: Do you believe in your startup idea so much that you’d be willing to sell your car and drive a beater for the next year in order to fund yourself for another month? If the answer is no, you need to decide: How committed are you to running your own business?

4. Being willing to launch and ship even when it’s not perfect.

This has been the hardest one for me. There’s always one more feature to build, or something that customers expect that you don’t have. Customers (or potential customers!) can even get emotional and/or upset that you don’t offer something they expect. And if what they’re asking for is completely unrealistic and/or it would take your product in a direction you’re not interested in going, cut them loose. Part of the answer is about setting expectations. The other part of the answer is being willing to let go. 

5. Clearly articulating your vision of the future…and getting people to believe it.

The best entrepreneurs and business owners are evangelists. They are passionate about their market. If you have the presence to get other people excited, and sharing in your vision, you can do anything. Great employees will turn down other, more lucrative jobs to work with you. Customers will show up, because your passion will come through.

 

When and Why to Withdraw Money From a Start-up

Working with entrepreneurs all day every day produces a certain fixation with what is most important to their survival. Unfourtunately, what is best for the business may not (in the short run) be what is best for its founders. Constantly, with existing operating businesses, there is the challenge of how much to compensate the owners and be fair about it. With start-ups, the goal is to get to the place that one can get paid at all. 

Recently, I ran across the story of Vinyl Me, Please. This new business is seeking to capitalize on the revived appreciation of vinyl records. While the number of records sold nationally has increased each of the past five years andby over 17% in 2012, the co-founders are trying to realize the benefit of the trend in their own business and wallets. They still are not earning a living from their efforts, though the prospects of doing so are better than at any prior point.

Vinyl recordsJeff Cornwall at Belmont University writes that, “The niche that Vinyl Me, Please fills is to bring new and interesting music to a new generation of vinyl record enthusiasts.  Each month the subscribers to Vinyl Me, Please are sent a brand new, hand-wrapped vinyl album from a relatively undiscovered artist. In addition to the monthly vinyl record, subscribers are assigned a personal music consultant who gets to know their musical tastes and preferences.  Every month the consultant creates a personalized playlist specific to each subscriber. Vinyl Me, Please brings together in one service what today’s young music enthusiasts want.  Their customers love the sound of vinyl, they like to interact on social media with friends about new music to try, and they like the surprise factor they get from services like Pandora.”

As a daily user of Pandora (and demographic that grew up with LPs), I can truly appreciate this business concept. Interesting to every new venture is how to make the most of market trends to create customer experiences that are profitably delivered and fun to pursue. Cornwall observes of the Vinyl Me Please business model that, “although they have identified what their market wants, their model has proven to be a challenge to scale to a large enough size to pay the founders a consistent salary.  They need to grow to at least 700 subscribers to reach this important milestone.”

He goes on to provide an account of his interaction with one of the co-founders, Matt Fiedler, and what he feels needs to occur next in their business development:

“The biggest challenge we face is keeping the personal touch,” says Fiedler.  “We think this is what makes the experience unique to a lot of people and is something we’re going to have to fight through in order to achieve true scalability.  We need to find a way to maintain a personal touch but be able to bring a massive number of customers into the system without it straining the resources of the company.”

They have recognized that it will not be possible to continue to hand wrap the albums as the business grows.  They also are looking at ways to make the personal consulting more efficient.

“We have plans to set up an internal database that allows us to categorize and sort music to create a more efficient process around creating playlists,” explains Fiedler.  “We are also looking at rolling out a playlist-only offering that will help us capture more users and, at the same time, start paying our consultants without dipping into the revenue that comes in from standard, full-membership subscribers.”

This commentary demonstrates the need for business launches to be very iterative, flexible, and responsive. Finding some group who will purchase your product or services is not enough; sustainability comes with staying attuned to original and ensuing target market needs.

 

You Can’t Handle A Business Plan!

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.

-Dwight D. Eisenhower (Thirty-fourth President of the USA)

 

Eisenhower was a military leader of renown prior to becoming president.  His comment on the value of planning illustrates a key point that many who disdain planning would do well to heed: a plan is not the goal, but rather the exercise of thinking strategically through one’s options given a defined situation and set of resources at one’s disposal.

Serving entrepreneurs and existing business owners, I have seen the outcome of both lack of planning and belief that planning unto itself is a cure-all for potential challenges that may come the way of the enterprise. Tim Berry, author of Three Weeks to Startup, writes that, “If you’re serious about starting your business — even if you don’t have anything down in writing — you’ve already started to plan.” Yet, starting to plan is not the same as writing a business plan.

There are several planning steps that I would recommend prior to writing a business plan:

  1. Refine your idea. Think through how your business model would affect potential customers. Have a preliminary strategy in mind for each segment of your target audience.
  2. Conceptualize a winning strategy. Think through what is already available in terms of direct and indirect competition. Adjust your approach to the market based on what can win consistently.
  3. Create value before your first sale. Test your hypothetical product features and benefits, along with pricing model and go-to-market system. Secure feedback and revise your offering accordingly.

Once you have thought through these three main ideas, you are then ready to evaluate how best to launch a business. Evaluation is the point at which your first business plan should be written. Berry recommends “Your plan is for you first. Don’t make it for anybody else. Do it because it helps you divide and manage big goals into practical steps. Instead of looking at it as a document, think of your business plan as a place on your computer where you collect ideas, useful stories, lists and numbers. It’s a place where you keep track of the market, your milestones, goals and projections.”

Business planI could not agree more wholeheartedly! A plan is not a monument; it is a living, flexible document that needs to be modified on a recurring basis as long as you are in business. Early on, Berry recommends the following key components of planning:

  • Milestones: What’s supposed to happen, when, and who’s responsible.
  • Basic numbers: Simple spreadsheet projections for sales, costs and expenses.
  • Strategy: Strategy is about deciding how to focus a business offering on a key target market. It can start with just bullet points. I’ve seen it done well with pictures. It’s mostly a reminder for you and your team.
  • Cash flow: Because profits don’t guarantee enough cash to pay your bills, you need to manage cash from the beginning. Month by month, account for what you spend and what you deposit — not profit as it appears on the books, but money as it shows in the bank.
  • Review schedule: Set aside time for a plan verses actual review once a month to compare what you planned would happen in your business to what really happened. Be brief and practical.

Regardless of your market niche, whether you have attended a “hack-a-thon,” or who is on your start-up team, take the time to consider each of these components thoughtfully. Incorporating them into a plan that you are committed to revisiting and continuously improving will enhance your chances of launching a successful new business!