Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Staying Ahead of the Hammer - How to Build and Manage Your Business to Achieve Long-Term High Growth

Staying Ahead of the Hammer - Laurence Ainsworth
The challenge for high growth companies is how to sustain growth. It's a sad fact that 40% of companies that experience high growth go through a period of contraction immediately afterwards.  The issue for High Growth businesses is often not only how to develop sales but more importantly, how to deliver against the increased sales that they've made. Put another way the growth of the organisation to deliver increased sales has fallen behind the rate of growth of sales themselves. This simple imbalance almost inevitably results in a hard landing for the business.

Over the last 5 years, we have developed a model to help High Growth businesses meet this challenge. We call it Staying Ahead of the Hammer. It's based around seven key elements that help business owners understand and prepare for coordinated organisational growth. 

Our experience using GrowthAccelerator clients as well as other high growth clients have delivered an average growth rate of nearly 50% with profit growth of 46%.  The real value of our approach is to enable sustainability of high growth.

Our approach is based on seven areas. The Keystone is helping businesses develop a Vision for their business. “A vision provides the reason why you are in business and as a decisive leader gives you the direction around which to enthuse your team and your customers.”. Next we get owners to look at the Culture of their business to see if it supports or hinders a high growth environment and the level of employee engagement.  

Having looked at what I would call the infrastructure of the business we turn our attention to Strategy and Planning. This section helps Leadership teams build a strategy and just as important develop a process to implement it. “In a High Growth Business you have little time to ponder about what might be happening in your business. Having a clear strategy and an implementation plan gives you detailed landmarks which will quickly identify when things are off course.”

The following four areas the first is Talent Management: “People are a business’s most important asset and recruiting the right people is fundamental to its success. Existing staff will fall into two categories; those who can grow with the business and those who can't. Knowing how to get the most out of these two sets of people is key to any long-term success.” 

We move on to Financial Management and Control: “Accurate and timely financial information which goes beyond the basic P&L and Balance Sheet is necessary to enable the owner or his management team to identify issues early enough to take the necessary corrective action.” Decent financial understanding of the business mechanics is a very common weakness in high growth businesses. We help businesses understand that you can't have too much financial information about your business. This is because you often confront problems where you have no information on which to make a decision. In such circumstances, it's almost impossible to make the best choice. We also use this mechanism to help businesses understand the need to look forward as far into the future as they can in order to identify potential issues before the become major problems.

Our penultimate section is on Organisational Efficiency as “There is nothing customers and suppliers hate more than inconsistency in their dealings with a company. The value of processes is that they bring that consistency to the vast majority of interactions and at the same time deliver a framework for increasing company productivity.” We also introduce the idea that businesses should be output driven (KPI's) rather than input driven undirected hard work.

The last area we look at is Business Development. This often because getting sales is the least of the businesses problems. What they do lack is understanding how to reliably forecast sales as “Accuracy in forecasting sales and, therefore, income, is vital to drive the cash flow needed to support a High Growth Business”

The model itself  has the flexibility to allow businesses enter at different points depending on what is causing them most pain. Inevitably they will have to come back to the Vision element and work back through the model.

This has been turned into a book which is released on 27th November. It is one of the few comprehensive books on high growth and what it takes to maintain growth over a number of years. Balancing these several elements is what makes this process such a challenge.  

For those of you who are interested you can get the book at Staying Ahead of the Hammer .

I look forward to hearing your comments

Wednesday, 6 May 2015

Are You Squeezing the Lemon?

I've seen in recent weeks a whole raft of articles and blogs about the need to grow your business and how you can grow sales by using various channels from Facebook to plain old cold calling. As usual this is the easy target because most businesses have a need to get more sales.

I thought therefore it would be interesting to focus on a different area of the business and one which can just as easily wipe out your profits as a lack of sales. That is your the processes you use to deliver what you sell and collect money from your customers. I call it squeezing the lemon because in or to help maximise your profits you need to squeeze every once of efficiency and productivity out of you delivery systems.

Are You Squeezing the Lemon?

The problem is often that this is the part of business operations that is often overlooked. As is collection of money. In a recession we all say that cash is kind, but its no different now that things have improved. Almost invariably as sales improve the focus moves away from collecting the money. This is the equivalent of restricting the supply of oxygen to a mountain climber. Yes they might manage to go on but it just makes it a lot harder, and is so unnecessary.

The most obvious measure is your debtor days which is simply the amount of money currently outstanding divided by your current turnover times 365. Your objective then is to keep your debtors days don as low as possible. This keeps cash regularly flowing back into your business and will support further growth.

Squeezing the Lemon isn't just about cash but your whole production and sales support processes.
For example, its making sure that you keep your product delivery times the same, and that you don't allow your quality to be compromised. Or that you have sufficient resources to deliver the same or better quality of proposals to the increased enquiries from customers and prospects.

How might you do this? I know a number of accountants have an ability to benchmark your business against similar organisations in your industry. This will give you a broad areas where you over or under perform your industry average.  If you accountant can't help you then its up to you to start finding out how your business is performing. You can do this by setting clear targets, often called KPI's, about the expected performance of parts of your business. I would suggest that you should be setting KPI's for your business anyway.
This could be as simple as:
The average response time for a query into the business.
The average time to produce proposals.
The target time to produce a sub-component.
The target for the percentage of goods delivered on time
The target for the level of customer experience

The key point here is not to take your eye off doing the basics properly and as efficiently as possible. Even a small, 5%, fall off in performance in a couple of areas can have a material impact on your bottom line.

For example, I worked in an automotive business and we had regular quarterly meeting to`see if we could reduce the time taken to produce our 10 biggest sellers. We were often able to save 1% in time by making changes to how we manufactured the components. That's 4% per year, but measured over 10's of thousands of items it has a big impact and can often be the difference between making a loss and making a profit.

The thing about Squeezing the Lemon is that you are constantly looking for improvements in performance to minimise the your costs of production. Normally we all focus on this in a downturn because with lower sales we must reduce costs. By contrast, as soon as sales rise we have a tendency to put efficiency on the back burner. Surely it makes sense to keep squeezing the lemon even when sales are up.

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business. 

Tuesday, 17 February 2015

Driving Change

As a business leader it is always your responsibility to make sure things happen. When its in the companies and therefore the individual's comfort zone thats pretty easy. Often all it needs is a light hand on the tiller to make sure actions get completed on time.

When it comes to change in the business or the push for further growth then the situation requires a much more robust approach. One of they key messages here is that you set the standard. As the leader, whether you're a unit head or CEO everybody including your leadership team will take their cue from you. So if you are less committed to an outcome than your leadership team members they will default to your position. 
English: Change Management's Approval flow Ita...
English: Change Management's Approval flow Italiano: Change Management, flusso della fase di approvazione (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
To effect change in your business you have to demonstrate you are totally committed. This means that you have to be an extrovert in your commitment to the new position whatever kind of change that might be. The more obvious your commitment, more likely you'll succeed. Whilst this public relations initiative is important, commitment alone wont get the job done. People are creatures of habit and change is unnerving, if you want to see this in action, next time you're at a conference, when you come back from a break sit where another person has sat and just see the looks or comments you get. I see it regularly where neighbours with only "on street parking" start to argue if other people park in "their space".  The bigger the change the more people will resist. To succeed in this endeavour you need a clear process to follow to maximise your chances of success.

Step 1  Do a plan of the change process. 

Plan where you are going and what changes in business practises will be necessary to get you there. As part of that process you will need to identify what you are going to do differently and how that will change what gets measured.  This part is particularly important as it will be these changes in your priorities which will be the source of most concern to your people.

Step 2 Be the First to Commit

You must be the first to commit to the changes. Having identified your new KPI's(key performance indicators) start asking for information that supports your new commitment get people used to the fact that you've changed.

Step 3  Involve Your Leadership Team

Involve Your Leadership Team
(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

This is a two part process, firstly get them together and a group and discuss your plan for change. Take feedback from the group obtain their buy-in for the change process. The second part is to meet each of your leadership team individually and discuss their own commitment to change and re affirm individual buy-in and agree how they will roll it out in their area of responsibility.

Step 4 Set up regular reviews

Use them to discuss progress and address issues where individuals commitment needs to improve. Identify the change blockers within your organisation, and set a course to neutralise them.

Step 5 Drive Change Down Through Your Business

Get your leadership team to adopt a similar approach with their own team, as you have to the leadership team.

This much more likely to deliver a successful change programme as it is driven down through the business. Regular reviews will identify issues  which can be considered and the appropriate solution implemented.  

If you need to achieve significant or rapid change its a good idea to do this through small multiple steps. You see once people make one change, the next becomes easier, the third easier still and suddenly change becomes the new norm. 

To illustrate this let me recount how this was illustrated in a recent workshop I attended. Complete strangers were paired up and the rules were simple, take in turn to make one change about your appearance, the other person then had to identify what the change was. So one person would turn their back whilst the other made a change. Initially the changes were subtle and slow as peoples natural caution to change manifested itself, it was often something like a slight adjustment of a tie or removal of glasses. By the 5th round they were rapid and even outlandish, with jackets, shoes and even shirts were being removed; people had very quickly got comfortable with change.

Change still requires significant effort but the more frequently you pursue it the easier it gets.

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business. 

Monday, 15 December 2014

Is This the Worlds Worst Sales Qualification Question?

Over recent weeks I've seen many businesses fall into this trap and rely on what I think is the world worst sales qualification question. It seems to be especially prevalent in micro businesses and in the creative industries.

In my opinion sales qualification is one of the most important aspects of closing sales. Unfortunately these days most experts seem to concentrate on closing, however proper sales qualification makes sales closing easier. Good sales qualification will help you identify early in the sales cycle those prospects most likely to commit to buy from you, and at the same time help you shorten the sales cycle. Something that we all want. Poor sales qualification, by contrast, results in the opposite leading to a lot of wasted effort and fewer sales.
English: Priit Narusk in the qualification for...
 Priit Narusk in the qualification for the Tour de Ski in Prague.  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As we come out of our sluggish economy the number of sales opportunities increases as potential buyers prepare to invest. As providers of products and services we enjoy more sales conversations unfortunately this new found wealth of prospects is ruined by one single question which kills time and is our own work creation scheme. On the face of it this question seems quite sensible and for the inexperienced sales person a good one. Nothing can be further from the truth. 

The culprit for this colossal waste of time the question "Can I write you a proposal".

Why? The answer to this question is almost invariably "yes" so off you go thinking that you’ve progressed the sale because they want you to write a proposal. In reality you've done no such thing. Ask anyone if you can write them a proposal, ask your mates, your competition even the bloke on the corner, they'll all say yes because that question means nothing. Knock yourself out, write me a proposal, in fact send me three because that question commits me to absolutely nothing but creates a whole lot of work for you. What you have really asked me for is my permission to let you rush off and write something, so why I shouldn’t say yes? It has not tested in any way at all, my desire to purchase from you.

The result from his single question is many fruitless hours putting together proposals in which your potential buyers have absolutely Zero interest. That's why its such a poor question.

If you can't resist asking this question, then at least have a good follow up question. This follow up question will help you stop becoming a work creation scheme. It goes like this "Thanks for allowing me to provide you with a proposal, can we arrange a short meeting in a couple weeks time to review it"? If and only if they agree to that meeting is it worth your while writing them a proposal.

The next time you are tempted to ask a prospect "Can I write you a proposal?" remember on its own it’s probably the worlds’ worst sales qualification question. So don't waste your or your sales teams’ time pointlessly knocking out proposals, get a commitment from your prospect first.

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business. 

Monday, 22 September 2014

Comparing the Performance of Linked In and Twitter Ads

I want to say from the start that I'm no SEO specialist or Social Media Guru. I'm a business consultant specialising in supporting High Growth Businesses. I am a bit of a pioneer, joined Twitter in Dec 2008 and Linked In even earlier I cant remember exactly but it seems like I've been on it forever. So I do like to try out new ideas to see how they might help me develop my business by getting more leads or by helping improve my service to my clients. 

The Test

I have just started with a new piece of coach management software from Adeptio and whilst talking with them we decided to set up a campaign to get new inbound leads. I already had some content on sales and business forecasting and we decided to use the idea of promoting a free e-book or report as a way of identifying potentially interested parties, you can click on the link to see the landing page. Initially we set up a single campaign with Linked In. Unfortunately that bombed, so I dusted myself down and decided to take it a bit more seriously and create two more targeted ads for Linked In and an advert  in Twitter. They were both essentially the same advert they both went to identical landing pages although they were separate URL's so we could identify the source of conversions.

Creating a Linked In Advert

You have space for an image and and advert with 25 character headline and a 75 character body. So it looks like this
Linked In Advert for Managing High Growth Sales Forecasting Campaign

I undertook two campaigns one for Accountants and one for IT community. For each campaign we produced a number of ad variants to try to find which was the most successful. We had at least 5 variants in each campaign. There are a wide variety of criteria you can use to target you ads including age, geography, job title, industry, individual company name and Linked In Group Name to mention a few. 

Creating a Twitter Advert

The twitter interface is much different with a 140 characters for a tweet, an image, a URL and a limited selection of calls to action. You can chose by location as they call it , language, category, device and gender. The twitter advert looks like this.

What I Have Learned

LinkedIn have a great deal more variables to play with which gives you a lot of options but makes it much more time consuming to create an advert. The ability to target groups is helpful but you need to have a good knowledge of which groups are appropriate to your marketing. This means spending a deal of time researching potentially relevant groups. Just using keywords to find them hasn't, for me, delivered the desired results. Also I've found the limitations of 75 characters in the descriptor section as very restrictive and in many cases I was 2-5 characters over. I struggled to communicate what I wanted in such a small space.

Linked In Audience Targeting Options

Your advert needs to perform immediately. LinkedIn serves up your advert a lot initially but if it fails to make an impact it will serve it up less and less so you get less response creating a bit of a self fulfilling prophecy. You can see below how Linked In reduces the amount of impressions pretty rapidly making it difficult if not impossible for a slow burn to succeed because its simply not shown. 

Linked In impressions Count on under-performing advert

Twitter by contrast takes a different view and will persist with impressions allowing your Ad to build momentum. 

Twitter approach impression count on ads

And engagements have risen accordingly.

engagements rise with impressions

To create or maintain a campaigns success in LI there is a lot of tinkering about with the variables to try to improve performance. For businesses without a dedicated marketing person it is a significant issue. As LinkedIn effectively kills off slow campaigns and rather than keep tinkering it's better to cancel the original campaign and start a new one. This creates even more of an overhead. The value in having more than 1 advert is you can quickly see which are the most effective and shut down those that aren't so you don't waste valuable impressions.

Twitter has a much simpler user interface but if you're outside the USA then effectively you've only got a country based selection since other than London it didn't recognise any other UK city. The image was also a bit of a problem  as it needs to be 800 x 320 minimum which is pretty big most of my pictures weren't the right size. It's also one reason why I ended up with only 1 Twitter advert.


In a nutshell, LinkedIn has not been a success both in terms of click throughs' themselves and the amount of effort required to keep adjusting components to a campaign going. At this point it's in danger of being put into the "too hard" basket.

Twitter, well  I'm much happier with the results. After a shaky start the advert has started to perform, this won't happen with LI as anything that does have immediate impact gets killed off through an ever decreasing daily impression count. The click through rate isn't fantastic by any means but it's certainly good enough for me to continue with it. In addition I get a number of side benefits from the Twitter campaign like retweets, and building engaged followers. Engagements is a much broader category and doesn't just refer to campaign click throughs' to my landing page to quote Twitter it includes  " ...  clicks to links, the Website Card, favorites, hashtags, embedded media, your profile and other Tweet details in your ad. This includes clicks you are not billed for."

I do recognise that this is not a scientific comparison but I do reflect a typical smaller business who may want to use paid promotion to create leads for their business. I think therefore that my findings may offer useful pointers to others who are looking to do the same.

So I'm definitely going to continue with Twitter. As for linked In I'll continue to persevere to see if I can find a better way of creating ads.

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business. 

Thursday, 21 August 2014

The High Growth Challenge: Are You Winning on the Cultural Battleground?

Every business has a cultural battleground, for most the battle is little more than a skirmish. Even that, for many businesses, is something they struggle to win. For High Growth Businesses, winning on the cultural battleground is vital to their survival.

,Are you winning on the cultural battleground?
Are You Winning on the Cultural Battleground? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
The first question you're probably asking is "where is the cultural battleground?". The answer is anywhere a new recruit comes into contact with your company. So in a small start up it is most likely to be the founders of the business. For a larger company it would most likely be their direct reports and for a business that is bigger still it will be the next level down. In general, it tends to be at the lowest levels of the company hierarchy where most interactions take place.  The cultural battleground is where new recruits come up against your company culture and will try to add their own influence the intensity  of the skirmish will be based on their own history and closeness to your business's culture. The further away the recruits culture from yours the more intense the skirmish.

For the business, winning on this battleground is vital, after all if it cannot integrate new staff into its existing culture readily, then individual skirmishes will persist and the existing staff will become battle weary and be even less effective in protecting your culture. More importantly for a High Growth Business, at some point this new recruit will become the company's face for other new recruits, who will want to push their own cultural norms. It is easy to see on this basis, how quickly a company's culture can be undermined and changed. Very often this can happen without the senior management being aware of the issue. It will only become apparent as they see employees become less committed not only to the company's values but also those processes put in place to make sure the culture remains embedded in the business.

So far we have only looked at this issue on an individual basis, now let's imagine the problem from the aspect of numbers. For example, over the next 18 months you expect to grow from 32 to 44 people. That assumes a growth rate of a little over 20% per annum. It involves taking on 12 people at a rate of 1 person every 6 weeks over 18 months. 

This strategy carries a risk to your current culture and customer experience; unless you can convert your new recruits to buy into your culture quickly enough, to prevent them from being polluted by other new recruits.  So in this case time is of the essence. Using our previous example, if it takes you 18 months to integrate a new recruit, you'll have a business with potentially up to 12 heretics in a group of 44 as none will have yet been integrated.  Under those circumstances it would be almost impossible to preserve your cultural values and you'd certainly lose the cultural battle. However, if you can integrate your new recruits in say 6 months then you'll only have 4 heretics in a group of 44, that's a much more manageable number.  Better still with the short integration time certainly 1 and possibly 2 of those five will be very close to integration giving you a great chance of winning on the cultural battleground.

As a High Growth Business it may be that you will be taking on new people about every month for the foreseeable future. Then this becomes a real concerted and incessant battle. No doubt your success has in part been achieved by the application of your cultural values and you’ll want to protect them to ensure your continued success, then winning on this battleground is a matter of survival. In which case to support your side you need to provide your “troops” with the best equipment. That will include:

1) A clear and strong recruitment process that seeks to take on only the best talent with the best cultural fit.
2) A comprehensive operations document which describes in detail “the way we do things here” and is what I call "The Big Colouring Book" of your business.
3) A well thought out and considered statement on your cultural values. Or what might be described as “why we do things the way we do things here”.
4) An induction and integration process which enables new recruits to understand “the why” thereby making it easier to accept “the how”.

The better prepared and supported your troops the more new recruits you can manage. If you get this right you can cope with almost any number of new recruits. I can give you two examples based on my own experience:

1) A company with a planned growth of 7 new starters per month for a year with a starting number of 120.
2) A subsidiary which, on the back of a big contact win, grew from 28 to 81 staff in a little over 10 months. 

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business. 

Friday, 18 July 2014

How a Strong Culture Improves Your ROI with New Recruits

How a Strong Culture Improves Your ROI with New Recruits
How Strong Is Your Business Culture?
Over the last couple of weeks I've had a number of discussions about how to integrate new people into a business, or "onboarding" as the Americans term it.  Where discussions got interesting was how a business’s culture or lack of it, influenced the speed with which new staff became integrated.

So how does culture influence post recruitment integration and what else if anything will have an impact? My experience with high performing businesses has confirmed the importance of culture in the process. The reason for this is that taking on new staff can be seen as the key battleground between the existing culture of the business and the culture of the new hire. The stronger the business culture then the more influence it will have and either the new hire will integrate quickly or leave.  Those with a strong culture will quickly show new starters that they will not be able to change or modify the culture. This can be seen most obviously in the military where new recruits have no input at all and must submit completely to the prevailing culture.

Those, however, with a weaker cultural tradition will have greater difficulties in getting new hires to conform, resulting in increased costs of integration and greater disruption to the business as new hires continue to argue their corner.  This is because those businesses with a weaker cultural tradition will have greater difficulty in persuading a new hire to conform to the way they do things, mainly because they don’t have clear processes or a strong philosophical underpinning as to why things are done in a particular way. Faced with inconsistencies and often contradictory assertions of the recruiting business a new hire with a strong personality may be able to readily persuade existing staff members that they have a better way. This state of affairs can easily upset existing settled staff who were happily doing things the “old way”.

Nevertheless, culture on its own will not do the job, although it helps by clarifying your approach. Just as important, however, is having a good description of not only "why we do the things this way" but also "how we do things here". I describe it as the big colouring book for your business. You might call it an operations manual or a knowledge bank. Whatever you call it having a written process is infinitely better than a verbal explanation.

There are two key reasons for this, first people tend to argue less if something is written down. It gives the words a level of gravitas that is seldom achieved with the spoken word. Second, is it allows the new staff member to try things out without the same high level of reliance on, interaction with, and consequent disruption of existing staff when you are reliant on verbal communication.
If, therefore, you are embarking on, or are indeed in, a period of high growth the strength of your cultural values and your ability to create a written operational manual will be significant factors in integration of new people and therefore your ability to maintain your growth.

Exigent Consulting provides specialist services for Managing High GrowthBusiness Turnaround, and Mentoring to the Small and Medium Business. We help business owners improve the profit performance of their business.