All posts by Tim Berry

Avoid Meaningless Words

From Seth Godin’s post Meaningless, published today…

There are words that now have no meaning at all…

‘Well’ and ‘so’ have been doing this work for a long time, but add to that the more syllabic words like ironically, literally, and hopefully.

And don’t forget all the adjectives, beginning with ‘very’  and ‘really’ that (ironically) make something sound smaller, not bigger.

When you remove meaningless words, the power of your words goes up.

I very much enjoy the simplicity of Seth Godin’s writing style, particularly on blog posts. He practices what he preaches.

And I’d add a lot more words and phrases: game-changing, disruptive, billion-dollar, out-of-the-box, and new paradigm, to name a few.  Awesome and amazing when applied to mundane matters that are neither.

 

You Have to Know When to Quit

I recommend you read Nat Eliason‘s piece No More Struggle Porn. He’s attacking one of the more pervasive startup myths around, the idea that the struggle itself, the overwhelming and overpowering struggle that pushes everything else out of your life, is a good thing. He defines struggle porn as:

I call this “struggle porn”: a masochistic obsession with pushing yourself harder, listening to people tell you to work harder, and broadcasting how hard you’re working.

And his take on it, in a nutshell, is this:

Working hard is great, but struggle porn has a dangerous side effect: not quitting. When you believe the normal state of affairs is to feel like you’re struggling to make progress, you’ll be less likely to quit something that isn’t going anywhere.

The Myth of Persistence

I agree with him. Emphatically. I’ve posted here before on The Myth of Persistence:

Why: persistence is only relevant if the rest of it is right. There’s no virtue to persistence when it means running your head into walls forever. Before you worry about persistence, that startup has to have some real value to offer, something that people want to buy, something they want or need. And it has to get the offer to enough people. It has to survive competition. It has to know when to stick to consistency, and when to pivot.

So persistence is simply what’s left over when all the other reasons for failure have been ruled out.

Knowing When to Quit

And, with that in mind, I like Seth Godin’s take on quitting, which is the main point from his book The Dip (quoting here from Wikipedia🙂

Godin introduces the book with a quote from Vince Lombardi: “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” He follows this with “Bad advice. Winners quit all the time. They just quit the right stuff at the right time.

Godin first makes the assertion that “being the best in the world is seriously underrated,” although he defines the term ‘best’ as “best for them based on what they believe and what they know,” and ‘world’ as “the world they have access to.” He supports this by illustrating that vanilla ice cream is almost four times as popular as the next-most popular ice cream, further stating that this is seen in Zipf’s Law. Godin’s central thesis is that in order to be the best in the world, one must quit the wrong stuff and stick with the right stuff. In illustrating this, Godin introduces several curves: ‘the dip,’ ‘the cul-de-sac,’ and ‘the cliff.’ Godin gives examples of the dip, ways to recognize when an apparent dip is really a cul-de-sac, and presents strategies of when to quit, amongst other things.

Don’t let the struggle porn startup myths get you down. I’ve been through startups. I’ve been vendor and consultant to startups for four decades, and I started my own and built it past $9 million annual sales, profitability, and cash flow positive, without outside investors. And I’ve never believed that anybody is supposed to give up life, family, relationships, and the future to build that startup with 100-hour weeks and forget-everything-else obsession. Here’s what I say:

Don’t give up your life to make your business better. Build your business to make your life better.

 

 

 

6 Common Misconceptions About Angel Investors

The question on Quora was “What do investors ‘get’ that other people don’t?” I answered that question from the point of view of angel investors, specifically … not just investors.

1. Some of the healthiest businesses are not good investments

Many people think that a good business makes a good investment. The truth is not necessarily. Many real good businesses are bad investments …

For example, the founder-driven business that generates enough cash to fund its own growth. It’s founders may choose to not exit soon enough to offer a good return for investors. In these cases, founders are better off without investors. And investors have higher risk of never seeing an exit.

2. Angel investors make money on exits, not profits.

Investors own shares in the business, not revenue, and not profits. They make money when they sell their ownership for money. Increasing valuation generates a return on investment. Profits, without the exit, don’t flow to investors in normal startup situations; dividends are for stable companies, not profits.

Angel investors make money on growth, not profits.

3. There is an interesting underlying trade off between growth and profits; you can’t optimize both. It’s one or the other.

A company that loses money but grows well in terms of revenues, users, subscribers, and so forth can be an excellent investment because most valuations in high-tech startups are based on revenue, not profits.

Ironically, investors may be better off with high-growth that loses money because their money becomes more valuable, and more important, when it is all that stands between growth and not growth. Investment is more likely optimized when it funds growth.

4. Angel investors shoot for the big win, not a minimum

All serious angel investors know that most startups fail. They don’t look for the low risk investment that might yield a more reliable return, because those startups fail too. So they look for the big win, the next big bonanza, the huge success that will pay for all the failures.

5. Angel investors want to see your numbers but don’t believe them

Market estimates, market share potential, sales, costs, and all the rest … investors want to see them because they show what you’re thinking and how well you understand the business. Ideally it shows that you understand the drivers and the fixed costs, plus cash flow problems, and all the rest.

Regarding market numbers, they are going to review them but they will look at your assumptions and decide whether they believe them or not. The best market estimates trigger the dream and the imagination of the investors.

6. Angel investors scoff at analyses like NPV and IRR

Note above that angel investors don’t believe your numbers. How naive to think a number generated by assumptions compounding on assumptions has any actual metric value. My personal opinion is that when startups believe their IRR matters, they are too green, not long enough out of school.

(Here is the link to the original on Quora)

Pervasive Startup Myth: Don’t Work for Free

Startup myth: The one about founders having to work for free to impress angel investors. This supposedly shows passion. Don’t believe it. Investors want people committed to working their startups, and that usually takes getting them paid. I’ve been getting a lot of upvotes on my answer to this question in Quora:

How do entrepreneurs live without a salary to sustain their families and pay bills?

My Answer

That startup founders are supposed to work for free, and that investors want them to work for free, even as there is capital to work with. That’s just a myth. IMO.

As an entrepreneur, I built a business and supported my family at the same time by continuing to consult in the same field I was developing software for. That’s not unusual. I did not have the luxury of not making an income. When I started Palo Alto Software, we already had four kids and a mortgage. Not making money was not an option.

So that was a lot of work. It was hard. But it’s what really happens most of the time … entrepreneurs do a lot of work on the side, in between, to build their business without the luxury of working full time for free.

As an angel investor, I expect founders to work without formal compensation only during the very earliest phases, because they have to. I expect that to be temporary. And when I invest in them, I want there to be enough money to pay them. I don’t believe startup founders working for free is a sustainable idea as they grow a business. People have lives. They need money.

I don’t like it when founders promise to work for free over any extended period. It doesn’t work. They burn out. They need jobs and income so they quit.

(Click here for the original on Quora.com)

My Advice to Startups Seeking Angel Investment

Over the weekend I was asked what advice I’d give to founders of a startup seeking angel investment. Here’s my list.

  1. First, make sure you really want angel investment. Read 10 good reasons not to seek investors for your startup. Take it to heart. If you don’t need investment, really, you are better off without it. And also, read startup sweet spot too.
  2. If you do, then next, make sure your business is a good investment. Read up on what makes a business a good investment. It’s about the team, the growth potential, ability to scale, traction, etc. Many great businesses are not good investments. Read Do you have what investors want and angel investment self assessment.
  3. Wait until you’re ready. Don’t seek investors before you have a team in place, milestones met, numbers to show, good evidence of traction and validation. Investors invest in businesses, not plans, and definitely not ideas. Sometimes they invest in people, like known startup successes with great track records; but if you were one of those, you’d know it.
  4. Know the basics. Understand the normal process. Research investors near you, interested in your industry, and target specific people and groups. Never spread cold emails all over the map.
  5. Investors  invest in your business, not your pitch. What they buy into is the business, the facts, the achievements; not the pitching. If you don’t have milestones met, progress made, concrete numbers to show, then don’t waste your time. You need an intro or profile or summary first, and then a pitch, and, if they are still interested, a business plan for due diligence. But don’t ever mistake the plan, profile, and pitch for what matters. You tell them about the business.
  6. Do a lean business plan first, before the profiles, before the pitch. It’s for you, not the investors. It’s just bullet points, milestones, metrics, and projections. You need to know how much you need, and what you’re going to spend it on, before you start. Review it and revise it. A pitch without a plan is like a movie filmed without a screenplay. Don’t sweat the big plan with all the summaries and descriptions, at least not at first. Maybe not ever. But have a plan, keep it fresh, review and revise often.

(Note: I posted this first as an answer to a Quora question.)

10 Common Mistakes with Startup Financial Projections

I was glad to be asked about common mistakes with financial projections. I read about 100 business plans a year for angel investment and business plan competitions. Most show unrealistic profitability. More people doing business plans should realize that most startups are unprofitable at the beginning; and that high growth correlates with losses, not profits. High projected profits indicate lack of understanding, not reasonable expectations of profitability.

Profitability mistakes

  1. The most common mistake is with profitability. Most of the business plans I see project profits too high, or profits too early. In the real world, startups choose growth or profits, not both. The plans I see are aiming at angel investment. And for that, the investors win on growth, not profitability. Think about it: If a startup is profitable early on, it doesn’t need investors.
  2. The second most common mistake is underestimated marketing expenses. Many successful tech businesses, especially software and web businesses, spend 30% or more of sales on marketing.
  3. Don’t underestimate development expenses, testing, certifications, and expenses of regulations.
  4. If you are selling physical products, don’t underestimate the impact of selling through channels, as distributors and retailers take their margins and often demand admin and co-promotion expenses. And distributors often pay very slowly, like six months or so after receiving the goods.
  5. Never project sales by applying a small percentage to a large market. That doesn’t work. Nobody gets half a percent of a $10 billion market. Instead, sales forecasts should be built on drivers as assumptions. Drivers might be web visits and conversions, emails sent, paid search terms, or, for physical products, channel assumptions such as distributors, chains, stores, and sales per store.
  6. Don’t project big growth in sales with only small increases in headcount. If you are going to sell $100 million in the fifth year, get a clue: you won’t do that with only $2 million in employee expenses. Divide your projected sales by your headcount, and compare that to industry benchmarks. For most industries, $250,000 per employee is really good. If you are getting $2 million per employee, that doesn’t mean you’re going to be that efficient. It means you don’t understand the business.

Cash flow mistakes

  1. Having a profit doesn’t mean you’ll have cash in the bank. Good startup financial projections need to include cash flow. Always. For more on that, see points 4, 6,
  2. Another very common mistake affects cash flow. Businesses selling to businesses (B2B) normally sell on account. A sale generates not money directly, but money owed, to be paid later, which goes on the balance sheet as Accounts Receivable, or AR. Every dollar in AR is a dollar that shows up as sales in the P&L but not in cash.
  3. Many plans underestimate the length of the sales cycle and expenses related to selling directly to enterprises.
  4. Many plans underestimate the cash flow affect of inventory. Every dollar in inventory is a dollar that hasn’t yet shown up in the P&L but may have already affected cash balances.

New Conversational Commerce App Increases Online Sales

conversational commerce appIs “conversational commerce” the next big improvement in online shopping? I hope so. I’m closely following the success of the new Octane AI conversational commerce app. It was announced this week along with convincing data on significant sales increases it generated by actual users. It works with Shopify, the shopping cart platform used by half a million eCommerce sites.

Not replace … enhance

“We are not trying to replace ecommerce websites or apps, said Octane AI CEO Matt Schlicht. “Instead we make them measurably more profitable and effective. Our new app dramatically improves the customer experience on online stores. We combine them with an automated concierge, and we have the numbers to prove it.” Those numbers, by the way …

Stores in the Octane AI private beta, including VerClare Boutique, Pure Cycles, Apt2B, Pearl Paradise, Filly Flair, Sweat Tailor, and Epic Rights, on average had 1 out of 9 Messenger messages sent convert into a sale, over 75 percent open rates on messages sent to customers, and recovered twice as much abandoned cart revenue. Stores in the private beta have made over $750,000 in new revenue.

“Conversation is actually one of the most natural and oldest ways to shop,” Octane AI VP Product Megan Berry told me. “What’s amazing about conversational commerce is the ability to do that at scale through messenger apps and chat. All of your customers can get personalized, instant attention with the help of messenger, automation and artificial intelligence.”

Messenger marketing for ecommerce

How does it work? CMO Ben Parr adds, “Octane AI is a bot concierge for your store that lives on Facebook Messenger. An Octane AI bot answers customer questions, recovers abandoned carts, and increases sales automatically — their customers see a 7 to 25 percent increase in sales on average. Imagine talking to a store on Messenger and automatically getting product recommendations, shipping notifications, and all of your questions answered. They are leaders in conversational commerce — using conversation, messaging apps, and voice platforms like Alexa to improve the shopping experience.”

The Octane AI website links to specific case studies with detailed numbers. VerClare Boutique founder Cristina Vercler says the app increased her business’s monthly sales by 14%. Pure Cycles founder Jordan Schau said “Octane AI has enabled us to talk to over 10,000 of our customers and has grown our revenue online by about 14%.” And there are more real numbers on the website at octaneai.com.


For the record, I don’t do paid commercial endorsements on this blog. I never have. Occasionally I promote my own books and software, but even that is only a handful of posts among more than 1,800 posts here. Octane AI is special because the Megan Berry I quote above, VP Product, is my daughter. I’ve also known and respected co-founder Ben Parr for years. And as of last year, I am also an investor. So that’s bias, and I’m proud of it.

 

Business Success: Talent, Skill, or What?

I received this question: Is succeeding as an entrepreneur a matter of luck or do only the talented ones make it?

And this is my answer:

Luck isn’t enough, and talent isn’t enough either. You can have either one, or even both, and still fail. What you’re missing, with your question, is the work. Business success takes work. You can succeed without luck, and also without talent; but not without work.

 

Interested in other answers to this question? They are on Quora, my favorite question-and-answer site.

10 Business Plan Myths That Hurt Your Business

The need for good business planning is as strong as ever, and the potential benefits are as important as ever. Every business owner ought to have a business plan. But the best strategies for business planning are different than they used to be. And these 10 pervasive business plan myths get in the way, much too often.

This post includes the 8 business plan myths that I listed on my March 2 post on the SBA Industry Word blog, plus two others that weren’t included.

Why does it matter? Because business planning, done right, is a management tool that can help you steer your business.

1. A business plan has to be long (false)

Not necessarily so. A business plan can take whatever form is most useful, even if that’s just a few lists and tables.

2. A business plan is hard to make (false)

It doesn’t have to be. List your key strategy points and key tactics, and a few important major milestones (like deadlines, tasks, the new launch or new website, and necessary hires). Include projected sales, costs, expenses, and cash flow. Voila! You have a business plan.

3. Nobody creates business plans anymore (false)

Well-run businesses use business planning the right way. They keep a simple, lean plan up-to-date and refreshed. The review and revise it monthly. In straw polls I’ve taken for years at management workshops, the best 20% or 30% of the companies represented have a management process that includes a lean business plan as well as regular reviews and revisions.

Smart startups use basic business planning to help them see starting costs, projected early sales and spending, cash flow, and key strategy points and milestones before they launch. Then, they review these monthly.

4. Business plans are for only startups (false)

True, well-run startups generally use business planning to help figure out which steps they need to take, and which resources they need. But that doesn’t mean mature businesses can’t use business planning to constantly set milestones, strategy reminders, and forecasts. Mature businesses keep a business plan up-to-date, and review and refresh it often. The more a business grows, the more it can benefit from good business planning.

5. You can’t plan because change comes too fast (false)

In the real world, a good business plan manages change. It isn’t voided by change. You keep the plan current by making revisions as real events unfold.

It’s like dribbling in basketball: if you plan to go a certain direction, and the other team blocks you, then you go a different way. Having a plan means that you’ll have the information you need to make quicker, easier, and more natural revisions.

6. Forecasts are useless (false)

Forecasts are almost never accurate. But having a forecast gives you a tool to instantly compare what you expected to what actually happened (we call that plan vs. actual analysis, or variance analysis). Then you make business decisions to adopt to change.

Are sales better than expected? Then you look at the causes, and adjust marketing and other expenses to take advantage. Not what you expected? Use your plan vs. actual analysis to make the best changes.

7.   Having a plan means you have to follow it (false)

There is no virtue whatsoever in just sticking to a plan because you have a plan. It has to make business sense. Good business planning is about a bare-bones plan and tracking with review and revision to make it useful.

When things change, your plan changes. The benefit is in the tracking and information that serves like a dashboard, helping you manage the change and make adjustments.

8. All business plans need market research (false)

I read and review lots of business plans from mature businesses that don’t include fancy market research. Business owners have to know their market, and taking a step back to review your market is a good idea. But with good planning process in a business, you can stay on top of your market. You don’t need to include market research in every version of your business plan.

Only in special cases will you need market research to prove your market to outsiders. For example, startups looking for investment, or businesses applying for loans, might need market research. Mature businesses know their market and plan without the research requirement.

9. Investors don’t read business plans (only half true)

I was in an angel investment group for eight years. We didn’t read business plans for all the proposals that came in. We rejected many on the basis of summaries alone. For those that interested us, we invited them to present their pitch decks. From there, we narrowed the list down further.

For those that remained, the business plan was a vital part of due diligence. And for all of them, they should have had their bare-bones business plans made before they wrote their summaries and pitch decks. Without the business plan, the pitch and the summary are like movies made without scripts. Ultimately, seeking investors without a plan doesn’t work.

10. Nobody needs a business plan

Does every business need a plan, strictly speaking? No. But every business would benefit from good business planning.

People, even experts, still say nobody needs a business plan, but only because they are locked into the decades-old mentality of the big business plan document. If we redefine the business plan the way it should be, as a flexible record of key strategy points, tactics, milestones, and essential numbers, then all those experts would agree with me – that every business deserves a business plan.