Tag Archives: bonuses

True Story of Business Disaster With a Compensation Plan Lesson

This is a true story. Names aren’t included for obvious reasons. Don’t ask.

Once upon a time a product-obsessed software entrepreneur who didn’t like sales hired a sales-oriented entrepreneur who liked selling software. It seemed like a match made in heaven, as they say. Both of them could focus on what they liked doing.

dollars flying

The company was just starting. The software guy owned it, and paid the sales guy’s salary, and they both agreed on some very attractive incentives for the sales guy if he could double sales to a million dollars in the next year.

So they agreed, and both of them went to work. As time went by, the product-obsessed software guy focused on his computer and the code, while the sales guy made calls in the next room. When the code was ready, they worked together to create packaging. They had somebody duplicate disks (this was before the Internet) and assemble packages. And the product launched. The sales guy made more calls, and a major distributor agreed to carry the product. Soon after, several major retail chains agreed to carry the product.

When the year ended, the sales guy had made his million dollar quota. And two months later the company was swamped in debt, broke, and threatened with bankruptcy. About a quarter of the million dollar sales had been sold into the channels, but not out of the channels to actual end-user customers. So it was coming back.  And the distributors expected the broke company to buy the software back for what they’d been sold for, less a substantial amount for shipping and co-promotional marketing.

What happened?

The worst thing was that the software packages didn’t sell well from store to end user. The sales guy got it into the channels, and the stores put it on the shelves, but people didn’t buy it. And channels don’t take those losses. They send the stuff back.

To compound that problem, neither the sales guy nor the software guy knew about sell-through reports. Had they asked, the stores would have given them advance warning that the stuff wasn’t selling, called sell-through reports. Then they would have known disaster was brewing, and maybe they could have slowed things down, changed the packaging, or at least known what was about to happen to them when the stores started shipping the product back to them. (Which is a great example of the old adage: you think education is expensive? Try ignorance.)

And the second worst thing was that the sales guy had done deal after deal to get product into the channel by offering distributors and retail chains deep discounts and special deals with freebies, like two units for the price of one, or 5 for 3, and so on.

So, although sales had in fact passed the the million-dollar mark, after the returns were netted out it was only about $750,000. Plus, costs had gone from about 20% of sales to almost 65% of sales. And the $250,000 received for the software that hadn’t sold through had been spent.

The compensation lesson: the sales guy had been offered a huge bonus for getting sales to $1 million. The gross margin had nothing to do with it. And returns weren’t even considered. So he met his numbers, and it was a business disaster.

The whole fiasco reminds me of one fundamental principle of compensation: whatever the compensation plan rewards is the behavior it encourages. If sales is all that’s mentioned, then sales — not management, not information, not optimizing your company’s position — is all you’re going to get. Do you give commissions on sales, or gross margin? Do you pay commissions when the sale is made, or when the customer pays? Do you have a return allowance that holds commissions up?

(Image: Losevsky Pavel/Shutterstock)

Pendulum Swings Against Business. And Banks. And Bonuses

Two Very Important Sentences:

Fred Wilson of AVC posted my favorite line from the president’s press conference yesterday; and the whole post — brilliant blogging, in my opinion — was this simple quote:

At the same time, the rest of us can’t afford to demonize every investor or entrepreneur who seeks to make a profit. That drive is what has always fueled our prosperity, and it is what will ultimately get these banks lending and our economy moving once more.

Good point. Thanks Fred, and thanks Mr. President. Somebody should say it.

A Catch 22 on Banks

Talk about on again — off again — on again:

  1. They wrote all those banking laws back in the first great depression when banks were caught speculating with depositors’ money. So banks weren’t allowed to invest in, say, a good business plan. Instead, they had to have collateral. The world wanted banks to play it safe.
  2. Then in the great boom days of the last 10-15 years, banks were set free and they started using “yoopeee” as their philosophy of loan management. And we loved it. We said “Yoopee” too. That is, until they crashed and burned. And got bailed out with our money.
  3. Now there’s a credit crunch and we want the banks to lend again. So do I. But do we want them to make bad loans, or risky loans? Isn’t that what got us into this mess.

And How Did Bonus Become a Bad Word?

OK I know the answer; anybody who hasn’t been living in a cave knows how bonuses got a bad name: excess and greed in large business. Bailouts and bankruptcies and lavish bonuses don’t go together. Thank you, big business, thank you, big banks, and, specifically, AIG; but they’re not alone.

But what about the rest of us, in small business, where a bonus is a reward for a job well done? Where people get an extra month or two of salary if — and only if — the company makes a profit? Bonus isn’t a bad word, or shouldn’t be. No profits, then no bonus.

This isn’t lavish excess. This is sharing profits, working and thinking as a team. And it’s a good thing, not a bad thing.