Category Archives: Business Financing

Elevator Speech Part 2: Why You?

In my post yesterday Elevator Speech Part 1: the Market Story I suggested that all business owners should be able to describe their businesses well in a single measured minute. The formal elevator speech is a reference to grad-level business plan contests, but I say it’s a good exercise for all business owners. What do you say when the person sitting next to you asks about your business? What do you say at a conference, or a local event, when your business comes up? Elevator Speech

So the first part of it tells the market story. I recommended personalizing your target by giving it a name, a personality, and a readily identifiable want or need. In the next part of your elevator speech, you address the ‘why you’ question. Why your business? What’s special about you that makes your offering or solution interesting to your target market?

This is where you bring in your background, your core competence, your track record, your management team, or whatever. For example:

  • We live and breath small business and social media. We know what it takes to get noticed in social media. And we know how it feels to run a small business.
  • We’ve been the leader in our space for more than 10 years. We have a team of dedicated developers who believe in what we do.
  • We’ve been dealing with this problem ourselves for years. We developed our own in-house solution because we couldn’t find any vendor who did it right.
  • Our founder, Chef Soandso, has dedicated herself to this kind of cooking for her whole career.

What we focus on here, in this second segment of the elevator speech, is core competence and differentiation. And, in the classic elevator speech, you have to say it fast. You make your point quickly and go on.

Make sure your point is the right point: benefits to the target customer. It’s not what’s great about you, but rather, what about you lends credibility to your ability to meet the need and solve the problem.

You might also think of this as the classic “what do you bring to the party?” question. It’s not just your brilliance or good looks or great track record, it’s fostering credibility for solving the problem.

  Its members grab the phone and call. “I need more casual stuff for the golf course, or cargo pants for hiking, or two more slack and sports coat combinations.”

 

Elevator Speech Part 1: The Market Story

(Part 1 of a series)

Can you describe your business in 60 seconds? In grad-level venture contests, and in startup groups and the startup eco-system, they call it “the elevator speech.” It’s a formal event in many business plan competitions, but aside from that specialty use, do you agree with me that every business owner should be able to do it? What do you say when the person sitting next to you asks about your business? What do you say at a conference, or a local event, when your business comes up. Microphone

I was at a grad-level business plan competition, not long ago, watching the elevator speeches. Each startup got one minute – measured by a big ticking clock – to describe the business. The moderator challenged the crowd, trying to point out how hard it is to give that speech, “would you like to do it?” And I thought, silently, “I’d love to.” Give me a crowd and a microphone and I’m delighted to speak, even if limited to just one minute. I’ve been ready to do that elevator speech every day for the last 20 years.

If you’re a business owner, and you can’t describe your business in 60 seconds, you have a problem. Your strategy isn’t clear enough. I don’t think its academic. I think it’s important. I think it’s a great exercise that everybody in business should be able to do. Let’s get simple, let’s get focused, let’s get powerful.

I’ve been writing lately about simple business strategy. What better way to condense it than in a quick elevator speech. If you can’t do it, worry.

Start your elevator speech with a person (or business, or organization) in a situation. Personalize. Identify clearly. For example:

  • John Jones doesn’t particularly care about clothes but he knows he has to look good. He sees clients every day in the office, and he lives in a ritzy suburb, where he often sees clients by accident on weekends. But he hates to shop for clothes.
  • Jane Smith wants to do her own business plan. She knows her business and what she wants to do, but wants help organizing the plan and getting the right pieces together. The plan needs to look professional because she’s promised to show it to her bank as part of the merchant account process.
  • Paul and Milena live in a beautiful apartment in Manhattan, with their two kids. Paul has a great job in Soho, Milena works from home, and neither has time for food shopping.
  • Acme Consulting has five people managing several shared email addresses: info@acme.com, sales@acme.com, and admin@acme.com. The five of them have trouble not stepping on each other. Sometimes a single email gets answered three or four times, with different answers. Sometimes an email goes unanswered for days, because everybody thinks somebody else answered it.

Notice that in each of these examples I could be much more general. The first targets mainly men who don’t like to shop but need to dress well, and have enough money to pay for the service. The second is for the do-it-yourselfer who wants good business planning. The third is simply fresh food delivery in the city. The fourth is for companies managing shared email addresses like sales@ or info@. But instead of generally describing a market, I’ve made it personal.

Sometimes you can get away with generalizing. “Farmers in the Willamette Valley,” for example, or “parents of gifted children.” It’s an easy way to slide into describing a market. However, I suspect that you’re almost always better off starting with a more readily imaginable single person, and let that person stand for your target market.

What you do, in this part, is establish a defining market story. It’s also called the problem in the set of problem and solution. And it’s a core element of strategy. And it’s a good place to start your elevator speech.

(To be continued) 

Which Comes First: Plan or Pitch?

It’s not exactly the same as the chicken or the egg, but it has some similarities.

I get this question a lot lately, so I decided to take it here to my blog.

Don’t pitch a business without planning it first. That’s a lot like trying to film a movie without having a screenplay. You have to know what’s going to happen before you start.

And I do see people, websites, even some smart people and good websites, confusing the issue by presenting a pitch as if it were something you could do without having a plan. Sorry, bad idea.

Yes, you can summarize a business idea without detail. You can summarize a strategy. Maybe you can put up a picture of a business model, and focus on a target market, and narrow the business offering. And that’s certainly a useful exercise. But it’s just a concept piece, a rough sketch.

Before you have a pitch you simply must have a rough idea of estimated startup costs, sales, expenses, and cash flow. Without that you can’t possibly talk about scale, financial vital statistics, and feasibility. It’ s not that you accurately predict the future. It’s that without those basic numbers you really don’t know what the business is. They’re wrong, but they’re vital. They pull apart the relationship between sales, spending, profits, investment, and strategy. How many employees are needed? How much space? What kind of space? Does the marketing strategy match the target market and the focused business offering?

You should never, ever put a pitch in front of investors or bankers or bosses without having a plan behind it. Just ask yourself the questions your target audience will ask. Do you want to say “I don’t know” or “we haven’t figured that out yet?” Or would you rather say what your plan says.

And of course your plan will be a living, constantly changing plan. But don’t confuse flexibility with not having a plan. Flexibility is having a plan so you know how changing one assumption or variable effects all the others.

Special reminder: maybe a lot of the confusion is caused by people who think you don’t have a plan unless you have a full formal business plan document, coil bound, edited, printed, and mounted on a pedestal. Not so. Having a plan means milestones, basic numbers, task responsibilities, review schedules, and listed assumptions.

Final thought: my favorite process is having the plan — the real plan, not the formal output document plan — and working it interactively with the pitch. It has to do with the way we humans think. Summarizing something (the pitch) often sharpens the focus, and generates new ideas. Plan and pitch, interactively, working them both. And expect them to change almost daily. That’s life in the real world.

Which, by the way, is dead center in line with the idea of lean business planning.

(Image credits: Veranis, Archman/Shutterstock)

Looking for Investment? Understand Startup Valuation

How much equity do I have to give to angel investors? If you’re a startup founder looking for angel investment, you need to understand valuation. It’s a buzzword that people use in other contexts, too, which adds to the confusion. But it’s ultimately what determines how much of your company your investors will get, and how much you keep, if you manage to land an angel investment deal. So it’s a critical question that comes up a lot.

Equity means ownership. So 25% equity is 25% of the ownership of the business. Usually that’s a matter of shares. The math is fairly simple, but important: Logically, if an investor gives you $250,000, on a valuation of $500,000, that means half your company. The investor owns half, you own half. If the investor gives you the same $250,000 on a valuation of $1 million, then that means the investor gets 25%, you keep 75%. (Technically that’s what they call pre-money valuation, and there is also post-money valuation, but I’m not going to deal with that here. You get the point.)

Startup valuation in practice

What I’ve seen in practice, in nine years of membership in an angel investment group, is that valuation is an agreed-upon guess. There are no formulas commonly accepted formulas (although there are some formulas, such as you’ll see in this post from the angel capital association; it’s just that I rarely see them used in practice). In my experience, what really happens is all about saying no. Investors say no to valuations that are too high, startup founders say no to startup valuations that are too low. When the startup needs $250,000, the founders are rarely going to accept valuations of less than $1 million, because they need to maintain substantial ownership. When investors aren’t comfortable with valuations that high, they most often simply pass on the investment. I don’t see discussions in detail of components of valuation, like one sees in home buying transactions when buyer and seller go into details of square footage and comparable deals in the neighborhood.

Angel investment deals often postpone valuation by using convertible notes. The note is debt, supposedly to be paid off; but convertible means both sides intend to convert that debt to equity shares later, so that it should never be paid off, just converted to shares. In that case, angels are saying essentially, “we believe in you enough to give you this money, but we’re not sure of your valuation, so we’ll postpone that for later.” What both sides want is a follow-on investment, they hope for more money, from venture capitalists, to set the valuation later.

 

Five things you need to know about valuations

  1. The word has vastly Different meanings: don’t you hate it when the same words mean different things? Valuation means at least three different things:
    1. What a business is worth to accountants for legal purposes, such as divorce settlements, inheritance taxes, and gift taxes. A certified valuation professional, usually a CPA, makes a guess. Most of them use financial statements and analyze financial details.
    2. What a business is worth to a buyer. Small businesses go up for sale with  business  brokers. Hardware stores, for example,  get about 40-50% of annual sales plus inventory, as a starting point. Plus a bonus for growth and special strengths, or a discount for lack of growth and special problems.
    3. The pivot point in an investment proposal: it’s simple math, but tough negotiations. If you say you want to get $1 million for 50% of your company, you just proposed a valuation of $2 million.
  2. What’s anything worth? Like your car, your house, and a share of IBM stock, something’s worth what somebody will pay for it. The valuation in A is theoretical, hypothetical, but legal. With B and C, though, valuation is as real as agreeing to buy a house. It’s not what the seller says it is; it’s what the buyer is willing to pay. And this cold hard fact drives many entrepreneurs crazy.
  3. For Small businesses, there are guidelines and rules of thumb. If you do a good search, or work with a business broker, you can find general rules of thumb for what your long-standing small business is worth. For example, a hardware story is worth roughly half a year’s sales plus inventory, with bonuses for positive factors like  recent growth,  and discounts for negatives like lack of growth.
  4. For Startups, it’s what founders and investors negotiate. Startups and investors and culture clash over valuation.  Investors care about valuation. Founders often misunderstand valuation. And never the twain shall meet. I’ve seen these kinds of problems many times:  Founders walk into the valuation discussion full of folklore and fantasy like stories of Facebook and Twitter. They want lots of money for very little ownership. Investors see two or three people with no sales history thinking their dream startup is already worth $2 or $3 million.
  5. Irony: sometimes traction, and revenues, make things worse. It’s easier to buy the dream than the reality. The same investors who’ll seriously consider a $2 million valuation for a good idea, business plan, and a credible 3-person management team – but with no sales ever — might just as easily balk at a valuation of $600,000 for a company with three years history, 20% growth, and annual sales of $300,000.  Despite the irony, it makes sense: few existing businesses are worth more than a multiple of revenues, but, still, before the battle, it’s easier to dream big. Or so it seems. I’ve been on both sides of this table, and I don’t have any easy solutions to offer.

If it hasn’t come up yet, it will. Every business deals with valuation eventually. The place any business sees it is during the early investment phases; but most businesses don’t get investment, so they can ignore it at that point. But then if it survives, or grows, valuation comes up again, because even if the business is immortal, the people aren’t: so eventually you either sell it or pass it on to a new team, an acquiring company, or your own family. And there’s the divorce and estate planning elements that require valuation. So every entrepreneur and business owner should have some idea what it is.

(Image: courtesy of wordle.net)

10 Things Angel Investors Ask About Startups

Today the angel investment group I’m a member of (Willamette Angel Conference) finished our eighth year of choosing a startup to invest in. Our investment runs $100K to $500K, roughly. It’s announced every year on the second Thursday in May. The announcement comes later in the day, not here.

Our annual angel investors process

Every year we review 40 or so submissions from startups. We look at summaries, videos, financial projections, and pitches posted online at gust.com. We invite our favorites to pitch to us live in a series of meetings. We assign due diligence teams to read their business plans thoroughly, check documents, talk to customers, test products, look at their legal situations, and so on. And eventually we choose a winner (or two or three).

My personal list of 10 things I want to know

Push PinDuring the process, we’ve had to review again what we want to know from startups as we review them. What information is essential? With that in mind, I wrote up my own list of what I look for in startups, from the outset. This is what I want a startup to tell me from the beginning.

  1. The startup team’s background, experience, and credibility. Specifically, what experience do you have with startups. Have you run a startup? Have you been an employee or team member of a startup? And of course your education, degrees, schools, etc. And your work experience. That goes for founder or founders, and main team members. If you don’t have a complete team, have you identified the key skills you need and candidates to hire? Are they likely to come on board? What are their backgrounds, skills, and experience? Who will do the administration, production, marketing, and sales?
  2. What problem do you solve, and how? I want to understand the needs and wants so I can decide for myself on product-market fit. What kinds of people or organizations have that problem, and how badly do they need or want what you are going to sell? For that you have to give me the whys and the background, the stories, not just the numbers; but numbers are good.
  3. And why you? Why are you more qualified than anybody else. How can you keep others from jumping in on your business if it’s successful?
  4. And who else? Who else is doing what you are, or solving what you solve? How do they do it?
  5. Key Metrics. What traction do you have so far? How long have you been up and running, and how many customers or subscribers or sales or visits or downloads or conversions or leads and inquiries? What are your metrics so far? Where do you see them going.
  6. Milestones met and milestones to come. I want to see both what you’ve done and what you plan to do. Your valuation today is about what you’ve accomplished already. What you plan to accomplish gives me an idea of possible future valuations.
  7. How much money are you raising and what are you spending it on. Investment should be used to finance deficit spending that’s going to generate a lot of growth and increased valuations. If you can relate your financial ask to milestones you plan to meet, then that’s great.
  8. Strategy. Strategy is focus. What markets, what products, what specific attributes of your business make this focus realistic? What markets and solutions are you ruling out, or leaving for later?
  9. Tactics. Tactics are essentials like pricing, channels, online, social, marketing, sales, financial plans.
  10. Essential projections. Sales forecast built from bottoms-up assumptions, spending budget, projected P&L, balance, and cash flow. I’m annoyed if you don’t provide these, but I should add that I’m also not going to eliminate a startup for bad financials. Bad financials are the easiest problem to fix.

I should note that I do care a lot about exit strategies, and even more so about the intention to exit. But I assume the intention is there when you seek angel investment. And I want to go from your product and solution to your market, your competition, and my guess about future exits. Exits happen 3-5 years from now. I want you to focus on your business, and I’ll decide whether I believe you’ll eventually become an attractive acquisition so we can get an exit.

Also, on financials, I look for understanding the relationship between spending and growth, how much you need spend in the main spending categories, in broad brush, to be able to grow. I expect growth to cost a lot of money and almost always rule out profits. If you were going to be profitable, you wouldn’t need investment, and you wouldn’t offer a great ROI. I don’t hold you accountable for accurately projecting your essential  numbers, but I do expect you to understand the assumptions and the drivers that you use to develop the forecasts.

And, a third point: We usually get this information several ways, starting with the summaries our startups post on gust.com. There are summaries, slides, videos, and financials. I do always want to see a business plan, but I don’t care about all the text summaries and descriptions. I do want the business plan to include strategy, tactics, metrics, milestones, and essential business numbers.

Video: Startup Funding. Bootstrap. Then “Be So Good They Can’t Ignore You.”

I stumbled on this brilliant video of an after-hours startup funding event at the Stanford business school, a panel discussion putting two of the best-known, most influential, and most successful investors (Marc Andreessen and Ron Conway) together with another successful entrepreneur (Parker Conrad, founder of Zenefits), a moderator, and a group of interested entrepreneurs. The video format is perhaps less than optimal, unless you like the rapid-access panel on the left (I do, actually) … but the content is outstanding.

Make sure, please, that you hear Ron Conway suggesting “bootstrap as long as you can.” You can find that with the navigation on the left.

And also, what both investors say about how they choose investments, what makes them successful, and valuation. And Marc Andreeson quoting Steve Martin on “be so good they can’t ignore you, and then, adding:

“Focus on making your business better, not making your pitch better.”

The original for this is on Sam Altman’s online course. Click here for that.

Some excellent quotes:

Marc Andreessen on startup funding as hit or miss:

The venture capital business is one hundred percent a game of outliers, it is extreme outliers. So the conventional statistics are in the order of four thousand venture fundable companies a year that want to raise venture capital. About two hundred of those will get funded by what is considered a top tier VC. About fifteen of those will, someday, get to a hundred million dollars in revenue. And those fifteen, for that year, will generate something on the order of 97% of the returns for the entire category of venture capital in that year. So venture capital is such an extreme feast or famine business. You are either in one of the fifteen or you’re not. Or you are in one of the two hundred, or you are not. And so the big thing that we’re looking for, no matter which sort of particular criteria we talked about, they all have the characteristics that you are looking for the extreme outlier.

Ron Conway on bootstrapping before startup funding:

Bootstrap for as long as you can. I met with one of the best founders in tech who’s starting a new company and I said to her “Well, when are you going to raise money?” “I might not,” and I go, “That is awesome.” Never forget the bootstrap.

7 Financial Facts Every Entrepreneur Should Know

You don’t have to be CPA or MBA to start or run a business. You don’t have to understand debits and credits, or be able to balance your books. But there are some financial facts you just plain need to know. Here’s a list.

  1. Every single dollar in Accounts Receivable (AR) is a dollar less in cash. AR is the standard for business-to-business transactions. You deliver the goods or service along with an invoice, and the client/customer pays you later. That money shows up as sales in the Profit & Loss (P&L), but it’s not in the bank; it’s in AR. This brings up AR aging, collection days, and a flock of related concepts that are all important because a business can die over failing to collect on AR – even profitable businesses choke on AR. Corollary: if you sell to consumers, in cash, check, or credit cards, this is not as important. And if you manage to get business customers to pay you a deposit in advance, that helps a lot too.You_iStock_000014706975XSmall
  2. Every dollar in inventory is a dollar less in cash. As with money you have in AR, money spent on inventory doesn’t show up in the P&L until you sell the stuff and it becomes cost of goods sold. So whatever is in inventory isn’t in your bank account. As with AR, companies that are profitable in the P&L can run out of cash in the bank because they got their inventory constipated. In some extreme cases, expenses get misdirected to inventory, and the system clogs up with inventory that pretends to be assets and creates a fiction that ends up with the reality of no cash in the bank. Corollary: most service businesses don’t have inventory to worry about, and those that do need inventory usually have less of a problem because they need less inventory per transaction.
  3. Every dollar in Accounts Payable (AP) is a dollar more in cash. Most businesses buy stuff on credit, meaning they get the stuff along with an invoice they have to pay in a few weeks. Almost nobody pays bills in cash immediately. Ideally, you finance inventory and AR with the money you owe to your vendors. You have to manage the pull between paying on time, paying late, and stretching AP without getting a reputation for late payments or a bad credit rating. It takes management. That satisfaction you get from paying everything immediately, and not owing anything to anybody – that’s not good financial management.
  4. Debt repayment doesn’t show up in P&L. It costs you money, but you won’t see it if you don’t track cash flow. The interest portion of payments is an expense, so that shows, but principal – debt repayment – doesn’t show up. You have to watch and plan for it.
  5. Buying assets doesn’t show up in P&L. It takes money to buy your assets (equipment, plant, land, furniture, etc.) but those don’t count as expenses, so you don’t see them in P&L.
  6. Fixed vs. variable costs matter. That’s because the trade-offs come up often and matter a lot, and this area is full of choices you can make. Do you hire the person as an employee or contract out for skills? Fixed costs are generally lower than variable costs, but they also increase the risk.
  7. Sunk costs don’t matter. It’s so not intuitive. We so often think we have to continue down some path because we’ve already spent so much money on it. It’s hard to let that go. But the money already spent is a sunk cost. You don’t get it back by spending more. So decide based on whatever decision criteria make sense, in a specific situation; money already spent is never a good reason, by itself, to spend more.

For the record, this post started as one of my answers on Quora: The original question was What are the most important financial concepts an entrepreneur should know?

Contrarian Advice on Investment Pitches from a Pitch Veteran

“We coach entrepreneurs ‘think big.’ ‘Think change the world.’ That doesn’t mean use adjectives that are not credible. Everybody’s revolutionary and everybody’s disruptive now.” 

That’s Bill Reichert, managing director Garage Technology Ventures, veteran investor, a board member on multiple startups, and someone who has heard and reacted to hundreds of investment pitches. In this talk he offers really good advice to people doing pitches now and in the future. 

“The point of the first 20 seconds is to earn the right of continued engagement. If you aren’t compelling and clear in the first 20 seconds this [pointing to a picture of a turtle trapped on its back] is where you end up.”

Bill (a former classmate, by the way) surprised me several times in this excellent talk. He’s not afraid to question standard advice, particularly what pitch coaches tell too many people too often.  For example: 

  • He advises that you don’t spend so much time on the problem. If you start with it, make the point and move on. Investors will recognize it quickly. 
  • Don’t overemphasize the story. Here too, if it’s valid, investors get it quickly. 
  • Don’t believe the common pitch-coach advice about the first 2-3 minutes. “You have 20 seconds.” (That’s around 19 minutes into this video) 

There’s 60 minutes here. Make sure you watch the first 20-25 minutes. From there, having set up some surprises, he goes into techniques. If you’re pitching, this should be really interesting to you. 

Where Startups Get Their Money

Where do young companies get money? I ran into this three-minute video over the weekend. It’s a great summary. If you’re not already up to speed on the range of startup options from personal savings to venture capital, just watch this:

(Note: Here is the link to the original on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U470xXKfDyE)

My thanks to the Kauffman Foundation for providing this, and kudos to narrator Paul Kedrosky, a well-known expert on venture capital. 

It does, however, skip over the influence of angel investment, which stands somewhere between friends and family and venture capital. Angel investors generally focus on seed money – early investment for startups at early stages of growth – for amounts less than $1 million. Several experts have different definitions of angel investment, on how many angel investors exist, and how much money they invest. As I write this, the latest available statistics come from 2013. Approximately 300,000 angel investors invested about $25 billion in 71,000 startups, mostly for seed financing and early stages. Venture capital invested about $30 billion that year, but in only 4,000 companies. (For more on that, here’s a link to a draft chapter from my latest book, on Lean Business Planning: Angel Investment.) 

I wonder if that’s just to simplify the landscape as Kauffman explains it, or, possibly, because so many people bunch venture capital and angel investment together, as if they were the same thing. 

And, changing the subject, I found this interesting number to reinforce what the video is saying. Wells Fargo Bank did a study of startups about 10 years ago and found that the average startup cost in the U.S. is $10,000. 

What Percent of Small Business Owners Manage Cash Flow?

cash-ball-chain-bigstock-5041553 (1)I’m fascinated by the numbers Denise O’Berry turns up in her post Use Metrics To Manage Cash Flow – Small Business Expert Denise O’Berry. She quotes results of a survey sponsored by the American Institute of CPAs, which surveyed 500 owners of businesses averaging less than 10 employees and less than $2 million in revenues.

According to this, the biggest worry of small business owners, is (drumroll):

The number one issue facing small business is ensuring adequate cash flow from operations, according to 83% of survey respondents.

That’s Denise quoting Bill Reeb, CPA, surprising nobody. It is sort of like saying the number one issue in health is breathing.

(Of course, this is the AICPA asking … do you think (I’m just asking, that’s all) the results might have been different if the survey were taken by, say, the American Marketing Association? That increasing sales might have shown up as the top worry? That idea intrigues me. I’m just not a big fan of facts via surveys.) 

But this gets even more interesting, as Denise adds this:

Driving this issue is the fact that 51% of those surveyed say they don’t use a cash flow budget or forecasts to help manage their business and 32% say they don’t have specific metrics in place to monitor performance on a daily or weekly basis. And only 17% agreed that daily or weekly metrics are as important to them as their financial statements.

I commented on Denise’s post, wondering whether there might be a relationship between the roughly half of business owners who don’t plan and manage their cash flow and businesses whose normal operations don’t involve the cash-flow killers, sales on credit or product inventory. Sales on credit are not credit card sales, but rather business-to-business sales in which product or service is delivered to a business along with an invoice that will be paid later. That relates to collection days and accounts receivable. And product inventory means working capital is tied up in building and holding inventory, which separates the cash flow from the normal sales less cost of sales flow shown in a profit and loss statement.

I’ll tell you what taught me to watch cash flow, always, and very carefully: the lack of it. It wasn’t two years at business school; it was a growth spurt (sales doubled) that sucked up all the cash and left me looking for a second and third mortgage to keep the business going. That’s something you don’t forget.