Giving up on the 1-Yard Line: Finding triumph over mistakes that companies make

This article was published by CMC Canada in the Summer 2019 issue of Consult.

In my many years as a business advisor and venture capitalist, I have seen companies make a lot of mistakes.  There have certainly been successes, but mistakes, unfortunately, are a lot more common.  Some of the ones that are the most damaging are those that are analogous to “giving up on the 1-yard line”, where after a prolonged period of time of working, pushing forward, and focusing on their game, a company’s leadership throws up its collective hands and says, “I’m done”.  Why is this so harmful?

First, this situation tends to occur when facing challenging tasks that are integral to the success of a company; examples include areas such as properly conducted business planning, implementation of fundamental systems and processes, and successfully attracting financial and strategic partners.  Appropriately addressing these areas tends to take far more work than business leaders anticipate; they also represent initiatives that might be entirely new.  As a result, the keen enthusiasm that is apparent when a project begins tends to fade to an attitude of “we don’t need to work this hard”.

Second, companies sometimes have difficulty focusing on priorities, as key areas tend to be far less glamorous that the “fun” aspects of being in business, such as designing a new logo, touring office space options, or chatting up prospective partners that the company has little potential of actually attracting.  Days get filled with these activities, that are more about busy-ness and less about results, decreasing the amount of available time to focus on the real work that needs to get done.  This is a hard lesson that business leaders tend to discover far too late, and can be as damaging as losing key customers or running out of money.  Full stop.

A better approach is recognizing that advisors who have “been there” and “done that” are in a unique position to provide the important leverage that companies need, to ensure that they are focusing on the right things, conducting their work at a quality level, and not running out of steam.  How can this be achieved?

  • Priorities are not always obvious. Amazing, but true.  Business leaders can get so caught up in the challenges of running the company on a day-to-day basis, dealing with staff members, and responding to customer needs that they are unsure (or unaware) about the steps that should be taken to make meaningful progress on a corporate level and might lack the experience of what is required in order to do so.  Advisors can play a key role by identifying and prioritizing task items and keeping the implementation process on track.  All of these areas are common pitfalls and represent the difference between starting something and actually getting it done (activity does not equate to meaningful progress).
  • Experienced advisors are the “acid test”. Advisors with a strong experience and qualification base understand where important initiatives need to “get to”, such as what financial partners need to know in order to make a decision.  Companies tend to take the view that “what we provide to them will be good enough”, failing to understand the woeful inadequacy of this approach.  Using raising capital or financing as an example, experienced financial partners have typically reviewed more opportunities than they can count and operate in an environment of limited money and an investment mandate that guides selection.  They very quickly slot opportunities into a category, and chances are, it won’t be the “yes” file.  Experienced advisors have a skillset that is extremely valuable; one that can help a company put its best foot forward and anticipate what is required in order to get to a successful outcome.  Be sure to probe an advisor’s qualifications to ensure that they are the right fit for the particular initiative at hand.
  • Utilize skill to get there, faster and better. Teams who spend the whole game running around on the field, for the sake of running around, don’t win very many games.  Coaches of successful teams know how and when to utilize resources in a manner where they can make the best contribution, including recognizing that there are times when specialized help is needed.  This is where an experienced advisor can play an important role, providing the necessary expertise to quarterback complicated plays and get to the endzone more quickly.  Business leaders sometimes do not appreciate the value of resources with the right experience; this fact tends to get reinforced in times of poor advice, from those who are not qualified to help, or when receiving no assistance at all.  A company might not recognize the weaknesses that result, but the external party that they are trying to impress likely does.

These lessons might seem relatively straightforward, but reality reflects something quite different, as fumbles and mishaps in all of these areas, and numerous others, are quite common.  What can make a big difference is perspective; stepping back to see how far an initiative has come, the relatively short journey that remains, its level of priority, and what success requires.  If business leaders did this more often, there would be far fewer companies walking off the field with only one yard left to go.

MEDIA: Dragons’ Den Blog Interview

Thanks to the Dragons’ Den Blog for being in touch to discuss The Worst Ways to Raise Cash as an Entrepreneur; it’s always great to share some tips and traps when it comes to building a company.

Although it’s no secret that there are various approaches than an entrepreneur could take to finance a young venture, this should be considered in a broader context. Startup companies typically receive their initial financing through “founders, family, and friends”, with perhaps some support through grant and similar programs. What tends to get lost in the process is whether or not doing so is actually a good investment.  Considering this includes determining the likelihood of: (i) the capital being repaid, at some point in time; and (ii) the return that could be generated, if any. Doing so can really only be achieved by way of developing a thorough and complete business plan, including a financial forecast for at least a three year period.

Entrepreneurs and business planning don’t always have a good partnership, however.  Business planning tends to get downplayed as “not that important” or “impossible to do for a startup”; both of which are false. When an entrepreneur prepares a business plan, they tend to insufficiently address areas that are of significance to investors, such as industry and market issues and the right business model, and instead, focus on an abundance of product and technical content.  The impact?  Little to no chance of raising investment capital.

Entrepreneurs should, instead, consider whether or not a startup is worth spending their time and money on, as it will surely take plenty of both. It is important to take the time to do so before investing one’s own capital, regardless of the source, and before asking others to do the same. As a business advisor and former venture capitalist, I have seen too many young companies that likely would not have been launched, had these questions been asked and answered in advance. Further to this point, rarely have I met an entrepreneur who actually took the time to do their business planning homework first, although I have met many who wished that they had better understood the financing implications and realistic potential of their company sooner.

Not sure how to address these important areas?  Advisors can help. Not only can they assist with putting the right business planning efforts in place, they can also help to identify opportunities to generate cash sooner, which is another area that entrepreneurs tend to miss.  Contact us to learn more.

EVENTS: Speaking at CIX (Canadian Innovation Exchange)

Pleased to be on the Speakers list for CIX, the Canadian Innovation Exchange, “where connections are made and deals get done”.  CIX is a must attend technology innovation destination, where investors, innovative companies, entrepreneurs, and facilitators converge to drive economic growth and accelerate the development and implementation of new ideas.  This two-day, internationally recognized technology investment conference includes a range of sessions and powerful networking opportunities, including the showcasing of CIX’s Top 20 Companies for 2018, a group that I had a hand in selecting again this year, as a member of the Selection Committee.  This year, the Top 20 includes companies from Ontario, Quebec, BC, PEI, and Saskatchewan.

Experience has taught me that action-based implementation assistance is an area that young companies do not always fully appreciate.  Implementation tends to require far more time than anticipated and involves more challenges than one would expect, resulting in many promising companies failing to reach their potential.  What’s critical is having access to experienced resources, be it advisors, investors, or senior level executives, who possess tried and true strategies that accelerate growth.  No matter how poised for success you might think your company is, don’t make the mistake of failing to build out your team to include experienced people who have the ability to help generate success and avoid pitfalls.

If you are a leader of a high potential company attending CIX, feel free to drop by and say hello.  See you in Toronto!

EVENTS: Speaking at the Business Builder Retreat

Pleased to announce that I will be speaking at the Business Builder Retreat in Quebec City this November, with tips to rethink your strategic plan, given the unique challenges and opportunities associated with the “new economy”.  Business leaders are facing the most robust macro-level dynamics in a generation, in terms of technological advancement, industry disruption, economic change, and financial uncertainty: are you ready?

The Business Builder Retreat is designed for growth oriented business leaders.  Experience a unique educational event designed especially for business owners on an exponential growth path. Explore topics critical to your leadership development, with a network of business owners from across Canada who understand the challenges you meet daily, competing in a world awash with unprecedented change. The focus is equally on healthy living priorities and the strategic business decisions required to prepare your company, and the stakeholders around it, for opportunities in today’s new economy. Take 24 important hours to refresh and refocus and get more of the personal and business results that you seek.

Details and registration are here.  See you at the Retreat!

When Leaders Get it Wrong

As a business advisor, I’m always amazed by leaders who don’t act in the best interest of their own company.  It’s something that happens more frequently that one would expect, and examples of this non-productive behavior include:

  • Ignoring obvious problems
  • Hiring people who don’t have the skills and ability to do the job
  • Needing to be the “smartest person in the room”
  • Not being receptive to advice that could help them to be more successful

And the list goes on.  From my perspective, the most bizarre of these are the last two on the list.  Both tend to be related to ego and insecurity issues that end up taking precedence over the company at hand.  People who exhibit these behaviors miss the opportunity to build a better company, which, in turn, would reflect well on the leader.  A complete disconnect!

Consider the following alternatives, both of which lead to better outcomes:

  • Surrounding yourself with the smartest, most competent people is one of the best things that a leader can do.  Not only does this significantly raise the likelihood that a company will perform better (to the benefit of all involved), but it also provides a powerful opportunity for a transfer of knowledge.  A collaborative learning environment strengthens the senior team, as well as the leader.  In my own experience, the smartest leaders I have known have never been afraid to say “I don’t understand it”, while taking steps to do so.  Why is this important?  Because even the smartest, most accomplished people know that there is always more to learn, and they are never diminished by saying so (in fact, it makes them better leaders).
  • Experienced advisors bring a wealth of knowledge that can improve almost any situation.  Why would a leader not be receptive to such a powerful opportunity?  Not recognizing a good idea when they see it?  Ego?  Insecurity?  Thinking that the issue has already been resolved (when it hasn’t)?  Poor judgement?!  Whatever the reason, this lack of receptiveness will eventually catch up with the company, often at the worst of times.  Investors and financial partners screen for this tendency, and those who aren’t receptive to advice often don’t end up on the financing list.

I’ve long since had a theory that there are lots of business leaders who will opt out of what is in their own best interest, as well as in the best interest of their company.  Ironically, these people are the ones who tend to need the most help, not the least, and they might just have to learn this lesson the hard way.

EVENTS: Winnipeg Franchise Expo

Join me at the Winnipeg Franchise Expo on Saturday, March 25th for Don’t Forget the Numbers: What Non-Financial Leaders Need to Know

Many companies are led by people with strong technical or service backgrounds and limited finance knowledge; this can diminish the results that leaders work so hard to generate, such as financing, growth, and profitability.  There are many financial literacy resources available on a personal level; however, the focus on business is really just emerging.  Unlike traditional accounting education that is too complex or difficult to implement, this seminar brings a plain language approach to accounting and financial management.  Focusing on the key areas that leaders need to understand, topics include how accounting “works”, financial statements, improving results, budgeting, forecasting, cash flow, and accounting roles and qualifications.  Session participants will learn:

  • How the accounting function “works”, in simple terms, as well as practical approaches that can be used to improve financial performance
  • Tips for identifying the right team members, by understanding the various roles and qualifications in an accounting department
  • Tips for avoiding the costly mistakes that leaders make, when it comes to seeking financing and capital, due to a lack of financial knowledge.

Details and registration are located here

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Finale)

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

Over the course of this series, we’ve considered a number of skill areas that are helpful to companies in the startup stage of development.  Whether they realize it or not (and many will not), startup companies need much more than technical skills and enthusiasm to build a business that will grow and prosper over the long term.  Some of the skill areas that we’ve identified include opportunity-based thinking, risk management, and the ability to handle and overcome rejection.

For those who are keen to find a young venture and start contributing, it often takes much more than skills and enthusiasm (sound familiar?) in order to find the right fit.  Startup companies can flash and burn like a shooting star in the night sky, and it can be difficult to identify which way a situation is trending until you’re on the way down.  Perspective is critical, and in order to ensure that you’re investing your valuable skills into the right situation, it’s important to understand some of the cold realities about start up companies.

  • Most will fail: Bottom line, the vast majority of startup companies won’t survive, ranging from quick failure to becoming stagnant and fading away over time.  Don’t be fooled by those who achieve quick notoriety or attention, as many a startup who graced the pages of magazines or TV screens went on to subsequently fail.
  • They consume without apology: Like a young child that relies on adults to feed, clothe, and keep them out of harm’s way, startup companies are all about consumption.  They can require (or ineffectively use) an abundance of resources, including human, financial, and time.  If you’re not careful, a startup company can consume your time and energy around the clock.
  • They often don’t know what they need: Many entrepreneurs are new to both their venture and running a business and are typically not in a good position to understand what they need in order to move forward. This is why so many advisors are able to earn a living (for those who seek help) and also why so many startup companies fail (for those who don’t).  The category that the startup  you join falls into can impact your future in a big way.
  • The work isn’t glamorous: Building anything is a “hands on”, trial and error, messy business.  Whatever the roles in a particular startup company might be, far more is required in order to keep moving forward.  Recognize that joining a young company means performing lots of less than glamorous tasks, and if you’re not willing to get your hands dirty (literally), you will likely be happier doing something else.
  • Things can change really, really quickly: Young, emerging companies require agility, in order to chase opportunities, stay ahead of market trends, and make modifications in order to get closer to customers.  What the focus is one week can quickly change, requiring the team to quickly adjust, adapt, and move forward.  Surviving in this type of environment requires comfort with constant change, as well as the ability to work within it.
  • It happens in real time: For all the planning that needs to be done in order to develop and move a venture forward, managing the business is live, not a dress rehearsal.  Teams are often small and they rely on individuals to have the ability to determine what is required and take action; there are no layers of checks and balances here.  Although this might sound exhilarating to some, the reality is that startup companies face and endure risk every single day.

If this doesn’t sound like an environment for the faint of heart, that’s because it isn’t.   Having said that, the rewards are many for those who are up for the task.  Like the childhood fairy tale, you will likely have to kiss a lot of frogs until you find a prince (or princess!); that right startup opportunity.  If you recognize that this is what’s required in order to get started, the focus can be on the journey to find “the one”, as opposed to being on the setbacks that emerge along the way.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Say Yes!)

Ice splashing in cup of water

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

It’s been said that some people see the glass as half empty, while others see it as half full.  Some people don’t even see the glass, much less believe that it actually exists!  Related to this idea are people in the business world who assume the role of naysayer; nothing is good enough, no idea will work, the road ahead is a minefield of challenges and despair.  This is perspective that the last thing that a startup business (or any company, for that matter) needs.

People who hold this “no glass” perspective are focused more on why things won’t work instead of why they will.  While it’s true that startup companies, rich with new ideas and ways of doing things, might face more challenges than the average business, it doesn’t mean that that success can’t happen.  It can, does, and there are startup companies out there who find success every single day.  The key is bringing the right perspective to “get to yes”, and in doing so, make the world your oyster.  Sounds a lot more interesting than doom and gloom, right?

Why it Matters

Since there is no shortage of people who can tell you why things won’t work, those who see otherwise are of real value.  What’s more, people who can find practical ways to advance an initiative or resolve a problem are extremely valuable.  Any seasoned executive, who’s been there and done that, recognizes just how true this “getting to yes” skill set is.

Think about the last time you were in a situation where good, or at least, interesting ideas were put on the table, only to be quickly shut down by others.  What could have been the outcome if even one of those ideas had been further investigated to find a workable solution?  Even more compelling is a situation where you see a competitor move forward with an idea that you had considered, but didn’t invest the time to make something of it.  Your competitor ended up with money in the bank, while all you were left with was a missed opportunity.

Get Started

Startup companies need people who can apply creativity, ingenuity, and a positive attitude to make things happen.  Seeing the glass as excitingly half full takes practice, something that can change your mindset over time.  Getting started is as easy as adding these approaches to your to do list:

  • Let every new idea have a life: Make it an unspoken rule that any idea that can be clearly articulated has a life; even 10 minutes of time will do.  Talk about it, consider who could utilize the outcome, what success would look like.  Keep track of the concept, so that you can rank it in priority in rational terms, as compared to other things that could be pursued.  If you can’t make this change in your current workplace, try doing so on a personal level.
  • Practice seeing the other side: Every good debater knows that there is more than one side to any situation, and solely focusing on the position of personal choice won’t advance the argument.  Have an opinion, but take the time to thoroughly understand alternative viewpoints, as this can be valuable to finding solutions to move forward.
  • Take on a project: In situations where others dump an idea, consider exploring it a bit further on your own.  You might be surprised what you find, resulting in the opportunity to take a more fully developed concept forward at a later date.  Don’t be surprised if others are impressed by what you’ve been able to achieve.
  • Learn how others get it done: Successful entrepreneurs and executives are skilled in finding ways to get things done, as they understand how valuable it is to be able to do so. Work closely with them to learn what they know; it will be some of the best experience you ever receive.

In a world that so many see as stacked against them, you can set yourself apart by shedding light where they see nothing but grey.  Even better, once you have some examples of initiatives that have been successfully advanced, despite the odds, others will begin to take notice.  “Yes” is the word, indeed.

Getting Started: Preparing for the world of entrepreneurial adventure (Opportunity-Based Thinking)

ThinkstockPhotos-82186105

Published by CPA Canada in CareerVision

One of the fundamental ways that a startup company can find success is by focusing on opportunities.  This could include new ways of doing things, a better solution, or markets where demand exceeds supply, to name a few.  Being successful in this regard requires a special perspective, one that understands customer needs and wants today, and also in the future.  It requires the ability to look beyond the company at hand and pay greater attention to the marketplace, outside your window.

Corporate jobs are often more about focusing on what’s in front of you, ranging from tasks that relate to the past (think audits and tax returns) or immediate future.  Although you might look forward from time to time, as in the case of budgeting, forecasting, or planning initiatives, sitting back and considering what the future might look like and the opportunities that could be created isn’t typically in the mix.  This is a much different range of view and represents a successful entrepreneur’s golden time.

Why it Matters

You might have been asked at some point in your life to “read between the lines” or observe “the negative space”.  Both of these concepts require a person to see what isn’t obvious at first blush, and some people find it quite difficult.  It requires looking past what’s in front of you and connecting the dots to arrive at what could be a very different answer or idea.  Apply this concept to a startup company (or any business looking to expand its horizons, for that matter), and you will begin to understand what opportunity-based thinking is all about.

Businesses need people who can bring this important perspective, in order to be successful over the long term, as many simply do not have this ability.  Missing opportunities in the marketplace has led to the failure of many companies, as well as career setbacks for a host of business leaders, entrepreneurs, and senior team members.  Prepare in advance by learning how to make the marketplace your new BFF, providing access to the powerful opportunities that await!

Get Started

In a world of glancing in the rear view mirror, you can begin to practice the key skill of looking forward in advance of when it’s actually needed; here’s how:

  • Take on forward looking projects: Bring a new approach to organizing your workload, by separating tasks or projects that require a past or present perspective, as compared to those that look forward.  You will likely find that you have far more work that involves looking backwards or at what’s in front of you, so seek out projects that look ahead to balance the scale.  Projects that involve budgeting, forecasting, and planning can be a good place to start.
  • Trend is your friend: Taking on tasks that involve research or an external focus will help you to understand what drives markets, key trends, and where the opportunities are.  Once you spend some time doing this type of work, it will become obvious just how different the perspective is.
  • Look outside of your own organization: Challenge yourself to spend a portion of every day thinking about what goes on outside of the four walls of your organization, such as with customers, competitors, and industry/market developments.  Start with 20% of your time and progress upwards from there to develop a meaningful external perspective (and, no, 50% is not too high!).
  • Check in on a regular basis: It might be relatively easy to make some changes in routine for a short period of time, but seeing opportunities that will propel a company forward only starts to happen after you’ve developed the necessary skills to do so. Whatever you call it; a mind shift, a fresh perspective, or creative visioning, it won’t happen unless you “check in” with yourself periodically to ensure that you haven’t fallen back into a focus characterized by short term, internal matters.  Change your perspective for good.

The ability to look forward in advance of when it’s needed spells opportunity, no matter how you slice it.  What’s more, it can lead to opportunities for you to play a key role in the startup companies that need this perspective more than either of you know.

Blue Chip Tip: Just Show Up

After observing some of the worst service providers I have ever seen over the past year or so, either directly or hearing about the experiences of my clients, I’m reminded of what should be a simple rule for anyone in business: Just Show Up!  It’s amazing to see the number of businesses that can’t seem to perform the most basic of tasks: return a phone call or email, demonstrate interest in a customer’s needs, or deliver on what they said they would do.  What on earth do these companies think they are in business to do?

Smart business leaders can use these awful examples as a reminder of what’s important to do every single day: Just Show Up.  Here are five tips to live by:

  • Every customer is important, so don’t treat the “small jobs” as anything less.  You don’t know who your client knows; their personal network could include business leaders, professionals, and those who need your services, and you will never get referrals if their experience with you is poor.  Speaking from experience, you can trust me on that!
  • Do what you said you would do, and don’t think that your customer won’t know the difference.  Map out deliverables in advance and deliver.  Don’t change the plan unless there is a compelling reason to do so, and only with sign off from your client.
  • Meet timelines, as your customers are depending on you to do so.  Too many businesses act like they’ve got nothing but time; newsflash: your customers don’t have time to waste.
  • Get it in writing, in advance of starting the work, so everyone is on the same page from the beginning.  Treat every customer engagement in a professional manner, otherwise your efforts will look like more of a hobby than a business.
  • Be accountable, especially if something doesn’t go as planned.  Customers will be more understanding if you take responsibility for getting the job done, as opposed to making excuses, deflecting concerns, and pulling other distractions.

Think that this list is too basic to be of use?  Experience says otherwise.  By showing up and doing the job right, you’ve already left over half your competition in the dust.  Now, just think what you could do if you really put your mind to it!