Category Archives: Business Stories

True Story: Missing Assets Equal to A Year’s Sales

You don’t think finance and accounting matter in small business? Here’s a true story, and it’s about a small business like the ones I write about, in fact one I was involved in, not a large publicly traded company. $3 million worth of assets went missing, but nobody took them. Where do you think they went? Let’s hope this accounting nightmare doesn’t come up in your business.

This really happened

I know, that seems like standard large-company stock market stuff, but here’s a true story of Creative Strategies International, which was then a medium-sized high-tech research and consulting company owned by Business International and based in San Jose, CA. Call it CSI. I should add that this story preceded the change in ownership to the Creative Strategies that is now the brainchild of Tim Bajarin, still exists, and is still in San Jose, CA.

I need to emphasize this, because I like Tim Bajarin and he’s done a great job with the company since he took it over. I’m pretty sure the corporate entity even changed, I know the ownership changed, so I assume there’s no harm in telling an old story. And I think there might be a lesson here.

Shortly after I started to work there, the New York parent company audieted. And, as you suspect from reading the title of this post, assets were missing. In fact, quite a sizable chunk of assets. In a company of 20 or so employees, selling $4 million or so per year, roughly $3 million worth of assets had disappeared.

Needless to say, the parent company was not amused. But there was no theft, no embezzlement, just bad accounting.

What do you think happened? Of course you have no idea, but let me give you a hint first, then think about it. The assets were accumulated research, not chairs or tables or computers or gold bullion, but research. Does that tell you the answer?

Don’t Book Expenses as Assets

It turned out that CSI created what we called group studies, research studies that we’d design to cover some interesting new market in high tech, develop, finish, and then sell to multiple buyers. For example, a study in telecommunications would be created and developed and sold to 10 or 20 or more companies in the telecommunications markets. If you could sell a study that cost $25,000 to 20 companies for $5,000 each, they got a good study — market forecasts, competitive analysis, etc. — at a great price, and CSI made a healthy profit. Whoknows_istock_000000551118small

So have you figured this out? As the studies were created and developed, consultants were paid real money to research markets. They took real checks home and cashed them and paid mortgages and things. They also took planes to places and interviewed people, and purchased some secondary research, sometimes developed primary research, all of which cost money.

All of this spending should have been expensed as product development expense. It was just like computer programming in terms of tax treatment and standard accounting. You aren’t really building an asset, you’re incurring an expense. Product development is almost always an expense, even though it sometimes generates technology that goes into products that get sold for money.

Somebody doing the numbers assumed that since this would be cost of sales when the studies were finished and sold, and instead of calling this money development expense and subtracting it from profits, they’d call it assets, as if it were inventory, and subtract it from profits as direct costs.

It may have seemed logical at the time, but over time many of those group studies were started but not sold. If the sales were disappointing, instead of spending the full $25,000 and finishing the study when only two clients signed up for $5,000 each, they’d just dump the project.

And there’s the rub: nobody went back to those supposed assets, the accumulated investment in product, and wrote it off. It remained on the books as assets, for several years, until the parent company audited. Nobody had purposely or intentionally done anything wrong, there was no fraud, no charges, no money recovered; just several very unhappy people.

Business Numbers Matter

I guess I’m some kind of weirdo, particularly as I was a literature major and journalist-writer before I got into business, but I like the business numbers and I think they’re important. Maybe it’s from stories like this one. No, I wasn’t the accountant, I was one of the researchers, but I was also a vice president and those were bad times for all of us, not just the bookkeeper.

The Crystal Ball and Chain

One of the somewhat hidden benefits of good planning process in a business is management accountability. And one of the problems that comes up, in organizations that introduce good planning process, is what I call the “Crystal Ball and Chain” problem. I’ve run into it several times as I’ve introduced the planning process into a new company or organization.

Fear of accountability and commitment

People in the organization sometimes fear business planning. In the background, the fear is related to accountability and commitment. Usually they don’t realize it. They state their objection as:

“But how can I possibly know today what’s going to happen six months from now? Isn’t that just a waste of time? Can’t it actually be counter-productive, because it distracts us, and we spend time trying to figure out things in the future?”

I’ve heard this from some people who really did seem to be worried about accountability and commitment, and I’ve heard it from some who were stars on the team, not worried at all about their own position, but legitimately worried about the best thing for management and getting work done.

The answer is that projecting future business activities isn’t a ball and chain at all, because in the right planning process the existence of the plan helps you manage effectively.

The solution is collaboration

Here’s a concrete example: it’s September and you are developing your plan for next year, which includes an important trade show in April. You plan on that trade show and set up a budget for expenses related to that trade show. Even though it’s September, you have a pretty good idea that this will happen in April.

When January rolls around, though, it turns out that the trade show that normally takes place in April will be in June this year. Does that mean the plan was wasted time? Absolutely not! It is precisely because you have a plan running that you catch the change in January, move the expense to June, and adjust some other activities accordingly.

In this example, the plan isn’t a brick wall you run into or a ball and chain that drags you down; no, it’s a helpful tool, like a map or even a GPS device, because it helps you keep track of priorities and manage and adjust the details as they roll into view.

It’s normal for the crystal ball and chain to appear as an objection when a planning process is introduced. The solution is simply good management. The people involved in implementing the plan learn with time how regular plan review sessions help them stay on top of things, and when assumptions change, how the plan changes. Changes are discussed, nobody gets fired, and you have better management.

The underlying idea here is directly related to the paradox in a previous post: business plans are always wrong, but still vital to good management.

Do We All Undervalue Bootstrapping?

In business schools, in popular blogs, in business publications, and in general discussion of starting a business, we undervalue bootstrapping. We teach starting a business as if every new business requires sophisticated venture capital. I understand how this can be educational. It means teaching business planning, which is the ultimate business teaching tool, and investment analysis, ROI, IRR etc. Still, of the 700,000 or so new businesses launched every year, about 5,000 had VC money, and maybe 30,000 had angel investment. The rest were bootstrapped.
Kids with Boots

Outside investment is overrated

I think the investment option is overrated. It’s better to own your own than to land investment, at least if you can pull it off. As the old song says, “God bless the child that’s got its own.” The opportunity itself should determine whether investment is required. lf it takes more resources than the founders can muster, then it needs investment.

The cliché asks which is better, a piece of a watermelon or a whole grape. But what if that comparison is skewed wrong? Which would you rather have, a slice of an orange or a whole tangerine?

I have good associations with bootstrapping. I was on the board as Philippe Kahn took $20K from his father, plus one $90k bundling deal from a PC manufacturer, and levered up Borland International without outside investment until he didn’t need it. He did it with a great product, strong demand, smart management, and cash-only sales instead of the mainstream, working-capital-hungry channels. Borland went public less than three years after it started. Palo Alto Software grew slowly without outside capital. We had to slipstream a larger vendor whose advertising budget was 10x ours. We ended up with 70% share in our niche and owning the company outright.

The luxury of owning it yourself

Bootstrapping isn’t just about owning the whole pie. It’s also about the luxury of being able to experiment and, at times, making mistakes. Philippe was unconventional. Could he have had that freedom if he’d had conventional VC financing?

A few years ago I was judging a major intercollegiate venture competition in which one team looked especially strong, it’s $5 million 3-year forecast seemed as likely as any of the others, but it didn’t need any outside investment. It was the best plan (IMHO) but it didn’t win. The judges, mostly investors, couldn’t figure out how to deal with that plan. It didn’t win the competition. It should have.

(Image: copyright Timothy J. Berry. All rights reserved.

Planning Is Telling Stories and Making Them Come True

You could call this synchronicity. A few years ago I was reading Seth Godin’s All Marketers Are Liars at about the same time that I caught Harvey Cox talking about the power of stories as truth telling in all major religions. I paused to think about the importance of stories in so many different modes of thinking and communicating; and of course, me being obsessed with business planning, I started thinking of stories as building blocks of planning.

Around that same time, people liked my post Let Your ‘Story’ Frame Your Business Plan, one of my columns at entrepreneur.com. This is moving forward with my sense of planning and stories as closely related:

Suspend your image of a business plan as a document, for a while, and think of it as a collection of stories combined with concrete specifics or goals that aim to make those stories come true.

That led to more recent posts including Stories as Business Strategy earlier this year.

As time goes by I see increasing attention to the wisdom of framing ideas in stories. Just to give you the idea, think of your marketing strategy as a story about how a specific kind of buyer solves a problem or gets something he or she wants by encountering your business. What did she want? How did he find you? What made you different? These are all stories.

A sales forecast tells a story. An expense budget tells a story. So does a set of starting costs, and a balance sheet, and a cash flow projection. I don’t know about you, but I can’t think through these numbers without imagining the purchase decision, the channel, the process, and the scale of units, prices, and costs, assets we need, debts we accumulate, and so on. I can’t be the only one who sees stories in numbers. I hope. Maybe this is what happens when former lit majors fall in love with business analysis, but I’m hoping you agree.

The best way to talk about goals is a story:

Think about your long-term objectives story. Are you looking for wealth and fame, or to do what you like? What does success look like to you? Is it getting financed and making millions, or taking off at 4 p.m. to coach your kids’ soccer team?

And the planning specifics take those stories and break them into specifics required to make them come true:

As you imagine what those stories are, break them down into meaningful, trackable parts. Set tasks associated with those stories, assign tasks to people and give them dates.

The Seth Godin book carries the subtitle: the power of telling authentic stories. I say we go it one step further: we tell authentic stories and make them come true. And that’s a really good path to better business planning.

This is Your Brain on Stories

“The people we are coupled to [meaning talking to, sharing a story with] define who we are.  And our desire to be coupled to another brain is something very basic that starts at a very young age. “

Fascinating research here summarized by neuroscientist Uri Hasson, on how our brains become aligned when we hear the same story. He researches the basis of human communication, and experiments from his lab reveal that even across different languages, our brains show similar activity, or become “aligned,” when we hear the same idea or story.

This amazing neural mechanism allows us to transmit brain patterns, sharing memories and knowledge. “We can communicate because we have a common code that presents meaning,” Hasson says.

This is a 2016 TED talk. I chose it for my Friday video because I’m fascinated by the power of stories, as more true sometimes than truth, because of the way we think.

The source for this one, on the TED site, is http://www.ted.com/talks/uri_hasson_this_is_your_brain_on_communication

Headlines: Naked, Vicious, Brutal, and So Forth

1972 Tim Berry Mexico City
That’s me there in the UPI office in Mexico City in 1972

I was 26 years old. Married, already a father, but still, so young, and so full of illusions. I still thought – although I was starting to wonder – journalism could be about changing the world for the better. And not at all ready to accept the truth as Matt Kenny presented it to me that night, beer in hand, in a bar in Mexico City.

“Tim,” Matt said, “you have to learn about 50 words that will almost guarantee you play in the papers.” He swallowed. He looked at me and frowned. “But first I have to warn you,” he said, shaking his head, “you’re probably not going to like it.”

He swallowed again, then started listing the words:

“naked, violent, brutal, cruel, vicious, rape, clash, showdown, face-off, fists, bare, nude, stripped, fight … “

I can’t remember them all. Using these words, and combinations of them, Matt told me, would guarantee much better readership. Headlines with these words beat all other news stories.

This was in 1974.  Matt Kenny, 50-something, gray hair, glasses, and quick to smile, was day editor for United Press International in Mexico City. I was night editor. Matt had been with UPI longer than I’d been alive.  We were at that bar together that night because I Matt was a nice guy, a teacher at heart, and I was annoyed at him. So he took me out for a beer, to explain. To teach. And what he taught me 44 years ago is still true today. It’s true about headlines, readership, traffic, and people. Matt’s 50 words still work.

I was annoyed at Matt because a few days before he had rewritten my lead about a Kon-Tiki-like raft trip arriving on Mexico’s Caribbean coast. I covered the story live, from Cozumel, and Matt handled it on the desk. It was a scientific expedition, a social science experiment, or so said the adventurous organizer. I wrote a lead focusing on the science, the experiment. Matt rewrote my lead to emphasize “suntanned bikini-clad” women and the co-ed journey across the Atlantic Ocean on a raft. He took the science out of it, and replaced it with the sex.

United Press International, alias UPI, was a wire service with generations of history as the “other wire service,” the competition to Associated Press, AP, which still lives today. Mexico City was an outpost. We filed stories from Mexico City to the New York editors. The system gave the editors in New York our first sentence only, as they scanned new stories coming in. From that one line they decided whether or not they wanted to see the first paragraph.

Matt was right, of course; I didn’t like it. And he was right about headlines. Matt Kenny was not unhappy or bitter or cynical or even hard-boiled. He was a pro. He did his job well. Matt’s 50 words don’t tell us anything about him — I liked him a lot, was proud to work with him — but they tell us a lot about us. I’ve seen it over and over in the years since. I see it in the coverage of politics, news, and life in general, not just in news media, but throughout social media. And in email subject lines too. That’s who we are. It’s not the media; it’s us. Now, about violence and the primary elections … do you think this is related?

(Image: that’s me in the picture, in 1972, in the UPI Mexico City Bureau, photo by David Navarro)

State Supreme Court Decides in Favor of Nasty Reviews

The Oregon Supreme Court just reaffirmed the legal protection of nasty Court Protects Nasty Reviewsreviews as free speech.

Which reminds me of the ongoing opportunity and problem of reviews. Amazon.com reviews, Yelp reviews, Google, TripAdvisor, and all of them are a combination of powerful, important, and yet also full of problems. Users care and we generally love the idea of picking and choosing based on what all those nice other people decided to share with us. And business owners care too, we live and die with reviews. But there is that temptation to write your own reviews, game the system, get your business five starts by hook or by crook. And there’s that related temptation to use reviews to hurt competition.

In the Oregon case from just last week, the Eugene Register Guard reported the court sides with online review writer in dispute with wedding venue owner. The issue was between wedding venue owner Carol Neumann and customer/reviewer Christopher Liles.

Two days after attending a wedding on Neumann’s property in June 2010, Liles posted to Google Reviews a highly unfavorable rundown of his experience at Dancing Deer Mountain. Titled “Disaster!!!! Find a different wedding venue,” the review called Neumann “two-faced,” “crooked” and “rude.”

Oops. Neumann sued for $7,500 in damages for defamation, and that suit was thrown out. Neumann appealed and won. The state supreme court just reversed the appeal. The Register Guard reported:

The state Supreme Court ruled Thursday that an online reviewer’s highly critical remarks about the wedding venue owner are protected free speech.

So reviews are protected by the first amendment. Liles’ Lawyer summarized:

Strongly stated opinions about goods and services — no matter how derogatory — are protected speech so long as such expression does not include or imply provably false statements of fact.

Interesting. And it makes sense. But I have some questions for you:

  1. How to you react to the blistering reviews that seem full of venom? I tend to discount them. I take the excess emotion as a sign that there is more there than just the words. I’m very wary of what seems like revenge reviews. I’m reminded of a seething-with-rage review of a restaurant in which the reviewer wrote “they refused to seat us because they said we were drunk.” So I don’t take that as such a negative.
  2. What do you do to deal with reviews that are written by the business owners, friends, families, and employees? Can you tell? I look for real detail and granularity to validate a review. And I also prefer places that have hundreds of reviews, rather than just a few, because it’s harder to game reviews in high volume.
  3. What do you do with reviews written in bad faith by competitors. For example, I’m pretty sure some restaurant owners write bad reviews for the restaurant across the street. How can we tell?

My Dumb MBA Mistake

I’ve made a lot of mistakes. You can’t build a business from scratch without making mistakes. It’s an entire category on this blog, more than 150 posts. This dumb MBA mistake wasn’t my worst, but it’s one of the easiest to explain afterwards, and I hope one that might help others avoid making it too. There is a moral to this story.

Mexico-City-Kainet-Flickr-ccIt was August of 1981, early morning, in the office of John Lutz, managing partner of McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City. I was three months out of Stanford with an MBA degree, working for McKinsey Management Consulting in Mexico City.

The McKinsey offices sat in a very stylish high-profile office building overlooking a critical freeway junction over Chapultepec Park, linking the fancy Las Lomas residential area with Polanco and the Paseo de Reforma main business district. The streets were wet from rain overnight, and the freeway was, as almost always, jammed. The sky was dense, a mixture of rainclouds and smog.

I needed to quit. It was so embarrassing. I didn’t like to see myself as the archetypical fancy MBA blowing off the first job. I was 33 years old, married, and my wife was expecting our fourth child. I was way too mature for this stuff. But still …

I had arranged a job waiting for me with Creative Strategies International in San Jose. From where I was, returning back to the San Francisco peninsula, Silicon Valley, seemed like returning from exile back to paradise. I liked Creative Strategies, and liked living back in the states. I wanted out of McKinsey.

I really didn’t like the job with McKinsey. It was stupid to have taken it. It was a job meant for a 26-year-old single person blinded by ambition and unencoumbered by relationships. Like most professional firms, success involved putting up with a corporate culture that spent 12 to 14 hours a day in the office, whether or not there was work to be done. The firm actively discouraged families by encouraging long-term business travel but without families, and by running 5-day strategy meetings at beach resorts and forbidding families coming along, even at the family’s own expense. I was not supposed to disagree with partners on … well, you get the idea.

I certainly didn’t belong. I’d been entrepreneurial for 10 straight years, making my own way with freelance journalism and, later, my own consulting, and I wasn’t up to faking awe for the partners. And as a family, we didn’t belong in Mexico City. I had loved that place for nine years in the 70s, it had been good to me, but I was done. My wife is Mexican, she grew up in Mexico City, and had family there, but she was tired of it too. The city was too big, too hard to deal with. We had left in 1979 and shouldn’t have gone back in 1981. I fell for the money and prestige, stupidly, because it wasn’t enough to keep me.

So, back in the office with John Lutz, did I tell him why I was leaving? That I didn’t like the job, had made a bad decision, didn’t like Mexico, I’m sorry, it won’t work.

No. I didn’t. I told him I needed a lot more money.

This is one of the best arguments ever for telling the damn truth, even when it’s embarrassing. I’m still embarrassed, but I’m older now, and, well, I think this is a good lesson to share.

So they gave me more money, and then how dumb did I look?

I still left, and I left looking really stupid. Why didn’t I just tell the truth in the first place?

So there’s the moral to the story. You’ll be in a situation where you’re tempted to slant away from the truth to make it easier, but remember before you do how bad you’ll look if the other side answers the wrong issue, forcing you to admit it was never the real problem. So here there is. It bothered me for a long time but that was 25 years ago or so, and hey, I’ve made a lot of other mistakes since, the sting has worn off on this one. I hope you find the story useful.

(Image: Mexico City via Kainet Flickr CC)

How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

I was amused to check in with Quora this morning and find somebody had asked me to answer “How Did Tim Berry Grow Palo Alto Software?” Obviously that’s a question dear to my heart. So here’s what I answered, which seems fitting for this blog today.

Business Plan Toolkit
The first Business Plan Toolkit in 1988

Slowly, carefully, bolstered by good product and reviews that validated, doing a lot of coding and documentation myself, and not spending money we didn’t have.

It started as spreadsheet templates. The first of those was published in 1984 to accompany a book “How to Develop Your Business Plan,” published by Oasis Press. In 1988 I separated from that book, and redid the templates to accompany my own book when I published “Business Plan Toolkit,” released in MacWorld January 1988. All of these early products were 100% my work, my spreadsheet macros and my documentation. It helped to have a diverse background, including 10 years as a professional journalist, foreign correspondent in Mexico City, plus a Stanford MBA. I could write about business so (people told me) others could understand.

Throughout the early years I kept up a healthy consulting practice doing business plans for some startups and some larger high tech companies, plus workshops on business planning for dealers of high tech companies. Apple was by far my best client, with repeat business in consulting on business planning from the beginning until 1994 (Hector Saldana was a steady client for years, and a supporter of the business idea, and informal advisor). The consulting supported marketing expenses. There was no Internet to speak of until 1995, so the early marketing was a combination of small ads in the back of magazines and product reviews in major computer magazines.

It was a major struggle for years.  I was sacrificing consulting revenues to prop up products. The motivator, for years, was “I want to sell boxes, not hours.”

My wife’s role was especially important during those long hard years. She didn’t give up on me. We have five kids and we depended financially on my consulting, but she stick with my idea of “boxes not hours” as I continued to use scarce funds to keep the product dream alive. We had some money to deal with because my role in Borland International paid off in 1986, but we were still struggling, with small houses and used cars. And by the way we’re still married as I write this in 2016.

When we moved it from Palo Alto to Eugene OR in 1992, I had three early equity shareholders (1% each) who agreed to surrender their shares because there was no value in them. My wife and I moved to Oregon because we wanted to. She said to me: “we put up with all the downside of you having your own business; let’s get the upside and move to where we want to live.”

By 1994 I was in deep trouble, with a quarter of a million dollars of unsold product stuck in retail, coming back from channels. The template products never made it. And in the words of Kathy Colder, a key purchasing executive from Fry’s, “Tim, your boxes suck.” At the worst point, we had three mortgages and 65K$ credit card debt.

Business Plan Pro
Business Plan Pro circa 2000

What I did then was decide not to just repackage, but to build stand-alone product instead, dumping templates entirely.  I found a local three-person programming company (Cascade Technologies, which no longer exists; its founder was Ken Barley) to take my templates and my vision and create stand-alone product for Windows using Visual Basic and an Excel-compatible spreadsheet we were able to buy as a tool, and include in the software. It added a complete interface to include the words as well as the numbers, and keep it all, even formatting and printing, inside the one application. I wrote about a third of the code myself, in Visual Basic. My vendor got a low monthly fee for 12 months, plus a percent of future revenue. We were still not able to spend money we didn’t have.

That effort was launched in 1995 and became successful as Business Plan Pro so I was able to stop consulting and dedicate myself to the business. My son Paul Berry joined me in 1998 and developed the web business with downloadable software. We grew quickly to more than $5 million annual revenues by 2000. (Paul left in 2001 and became CTO of Huffington Post in 2007 and founded RebelMouse in 2012).

In 1999 we took on a minority investment from Palo Alto venture capital, RB Webber and Associates. That was our first outside investment. In 2002 we negotiated a buyback with them because after the dot-com crash valuations had plummeted and the company was worth more to me and my family members than what an acquirer would pay for it.

I stepped aside in 2007 and asked Sabrina Parsons to become CEO while I focused on blogging, writing books, speaking, and teaching. She and the team released LivePlan in 2012 and that – a web app, SaaS, browser based has become very successful, having had several hundred thousand paid accounts already. I’m still chairman, and founder, but Sabrina and her team get a pretty free rein to run the company. Market share and awareness keeps growing and we’ve had several years of double-digit growth in revenues again, after the great recession. And it is entirely family owned.

Here is the source on Quora: How did Tim Berry grow Palo Alto software?

Do Big Tech Companies Become Too Big Not to Fail?

culture-eats-strategyI caught this one yesterday on Medium: Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast. It’s by Dare Obasanjo on Hacker Daily (great title, by the way). It’s a well-thought-out discussion of how Google and Facebook culture achieved a substantial shift of strategy in a way that others (Blockbuster facing Netflix, and Blackberry facing iPhone) couldn’t. Here’s the summary.

“when your strategy changes then your entire organizational culture will have to change as well. Your organizational culture is defined by what positive behaviors you encourage and what negative behaviors you tolerate. Blackberry couldn’t compete with Apple when teams were still motivated & rewarded for keeping corporate CIOs happy and there was no way Blockbuster could compete with Netflix when they fundamentally saw themselves as a classic retail video rental store and ignored the power of online experiences.”

That’s a good read. Dare collected details and presents them very well. There are some stories of interest there.

And it challenges an assumption that I’ve made for decades now, which is that large businesses are doomed to fail eventually because they become like big ships, unable to turn quickly, unable to react. I’ve seen IBM fall from the “Big Blue” industry giant of the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s to another also-ran today (no offense, IBM). I’ve seen Microsoft fall from the king of the world in the middle-to-late 1990s to struggling to keep up today.

It seems so hard for big tech companies to sustain growth rates when sales run into the billions. Although this post argues against it, I would have thought that Google, Apple, and Facebook will eventually slow down because they are so big. But maybe not.

I’ve never been an employee of a big (thousands of employees, maybe tens of thousands) company but I’ve deal with them as consulting clients. What I thought I saw was that as they grew, middle managers and office politics took over, regardless of what top management wanted. Decision making slowed to a crawl, and the friction through the chains of management became impossible. The culture changed in ways top management couldn’t prevent. Go to an exciting startup and people are working at all hours. Go to a big company and they left at five. Or so it seemed to me.

Can Google, Apple, or Facebook buck that history? Are big tech companies doomed to decline. Live by tech, die by tech? Do they become too big not to fail?