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In the torrent of media about entrepreneurship, I’ve found a few shows that I really like. I like them enough to listen ongoing and to even buy a season or two!  Most of the podcasts are 45 minutes to an hour, I like to listen while doing chores at home.

First up: The Profit – a reality TV show about Marcus Lemonis, a successful CEO who now invests in small businesses and gets hands on to resolve issues.  He likes to focus on People, Process and Product.  In some cases I wonder why he bothered to buy into an existing business because he so completely transforms it, but I guess starting with a customer base is worth something.   I notice he tends to invest 200-700K in these businesses to make a difference. Re-branding is a big part of it; identifying and empowering high-performing employees is a theme; it also helps that he is building a conglomerate and can give the businesses access to prove-themselves-projects & media exposure. But it doesn’t always work, he’s done two different lighting companies, the first one didn’t seem to work out, I need to watch that episode; I saw the 2nd company which did (Hangout Lighting).  The current (5th) season is available via Hulu and you could watch it with a 1 month trial subscription. I have found prior seasons on Amazon Prime.

After watching a few episodes and thinking about my own experience, it seemed to me that the number of businesses he was investing in would quickly become unmanagable.  He figured that out already and did a show called The Partner to identify a business partner to help.  I haven’t watched that yet.

At a recent alumni function a fellow BGI/Pinchot/Presidio grad turned me on to a food financing newsletter and podcast out of Wisconsin called Edible Alpha – how to successfully grow food/beverage/agriculture companies with outside capital.  I’ve found the newsletter insightful and I enjoy the podcasts where entrepreneurs talk about their journies. The two I have listened to are small companies (<1M revenue).

I am a continuing fan of Open Book Management, which doesn’t have enough adherents yet in the Northwest that I’ve gotten to experience it directly.  Zingerman’s Deli, a restaurant, catering and more operation in Ann Arbor, Michigan, is a leading practitioner.  They have their own training wing: ZingTrain. I spoke to trainer there this week about the possibility of bringing their two day OBM training to Seattle (if you’re interested, contact me or comment on this page!). She pointed out that a quick exposure can be had on their website where they offer all kinds of free recorded webinars.   Elnian herself recorded the webinar on All About Open Book Management, and there’s a rich trove of other recordings about managing culture and performance.

Finally, let’s face it, what’s not to love about Planet Money?  Short, fun, fascinating.

I’ll add a postscript bonus – a  mindfulness podcast. I have come to like Dan Harris’s 10% Happier. He’s a media professional so he does a great job interviewing his guests, he seems to know his meditation spectrum well and he has great guests, from Robert Thurman who goes really deep on the roots of Vipassana to Catherine Price who talks about redefining your relationship with your phone.

In startup-land, there’s lots of support for how to create a great investor pitch (Guy Kawasaki, anyone?), and support for financial modeling, website building, hiring/hr, legal.  But there’s very little discussion about intentional job creation.  It seems like you have to get to be a pretty good sized company before job design and employee retention becomes a “thing” and by that time a culture is already established. More support is really needed because startup companies don’t have time to do research- they need things they can grab and run with.   So what’s out there to support a small company who wants to be intentional but doesn’t know what to intend?

Amazingly, Hitachi Corporation started a private foundation years ago as part of building relations in the US.  It closed just a couple years ago, but while operating it evolved a mission of “Discover, demonstrate and expand business practices that both measurably improve economic opportunities for low-wealth individuals and enhance long-term business value”. Bang! My holy grail for sure. They did some amazing work and a gift they’ve left behind for us is a series of two-page Business Action Guides on 24 job quality topics, including Incentivizing Continuous Improvement, Non-financial Compensation, Effective Onboarding and Mentorship, Hiring for Culture Fit and more!   Browse and download this treasure trove here.

On their way to close, Hitachi granted out the last of their endowment to three organizations: The Aspen Institute, MIT/Sloan School of Management, and Investors’ Circle.

I know the Aspen Institute FIELD program from my days on the board of a microfinance/training organization (Ventures), they’ve done lots of research on business.  They are a little more research-y, and have great materials that will be helpful to grantmakers, long-term investors and policymakers, less so the CEO on-the-go.   If you’re in a larger company doing longer-term planning it will be helpful.  They also have a program for social “intrapreneurs”.  As part of their larger Economic Opportunites Program, they’re doing a series of blog posts that have small case studies and issue studies that provide a stream of inspiration.

MIT/Sloan has the Institute for Work and Employment Research. It’s also the home of Zenyep Ton’s Good Jobs Institute.   Zenyep Ton came to my attention when I decided to chat up a Mud Bay store manager. I had heard they used Open Book Management and I wanted to know more. He told me the whole company was reading/discussing her book: The Good Jobs Strategy.  I read it and found it very interesting – she highlights Costco as one of four retailers who get it right and emphasize that high quality jobs go hand in hand with operational excellence. Dr Ton describes a virtuous cycle of investing in employees who can perform, which generates results, and that generates rewards for all. Unfortunately too often retailers focus on labor purely as a cost and instead drive a vicious cycle.  I highly recommend this book, and not just for retailers.  For handy back-reference after reading, I did find a summary/analysis here.

Finally, there’s Investors’ Circle.  IC is an impact investing angel group where I now have the privilege of serving on the board, and thus learned about the great work of The Hitachi Foundation.  With the support of their Hitachi money, IC recently merged with its original incubating organization- the Social Venture Network.  Truly, SVN at 30 years old has held the heart for doing good through business.  The two organizations are working to make the most of their synergies, the fall conference is the best way to dip into this energizing pool of “we can do it!”.  Learn more here.

In investing, folks like to talk a great deal about “multiple”s.  IE I got a “1.5X return”. In my experience, professionals are pretty happy with the ones that are >1.0, and it’s common in a successful fund to fall between 0 and 2.5.  The ‘X’ is “times”, as in 1.5 times my return. Meaning that I put in 10,000 and I got back 15,000.  Depending on how long that takes, that can be pretty good money, or not much at all, as compared to earning interest in a bank.  This money invariably costs more in time and effort to make the investment and support it, that’s why it needs to earn a higher return than money in the bank. Otherwise, the only thing left for your investors to gain is ego points, and is that what you want to pay in?

A key tenant of what I’ll call “economic development investing” is finding ways to invest in early companies and get the investment back without requiring that the company be acquired by another company.  How do we invest in companies and leave them standing?  Methods that I have seen create ways for the company to buyback its shares at a later date, as a multiple of the original purchase price.  For a global worker-owned cooperative with >20M in annual revenue and a >10 year track record of paying an annual dividend? That multiple is One.  IE, if you sell your shares back to the company, you get back the price you paid for them, and you get to keep your dividends earned in the meantime.   For little startups with no operating history and track record? I’ve seen multiples of 2X and 2.5X.

Is that a bargain? Is that fair? Is that outrageous?  Well, if our theoretical alternative is buying a CD at the local bank, it depends on how much time goes by before that startup buys those shares back.  If I can buy a CD earning about 2.5%, and my startup will pay 10-12% in interest on a loan, there’s a nice window where it’s win-win for both of us, once I get compensated for my time/effort. That ignores the greater risk that some % of my investments will go to zero, which is highly unlikely for a CD. A fund needs returns that can absorb that risk.  True Angel investing is best budgeted as an expense that gets to revolve a few times before being totally spent.

To keep my head straight as I look at these investments, I made a handy reference table.  Here’s a copy for you!

QuickRef IRR vs multiples as PDF

QuickRef IRR vs multiples   as xlsx

 

 

The problem with Payroll

I’ve had the privilege of sitting in on a healthcare innovation class put together by the fabulous Emer Dooley for the University of Washington. The learnings from that class are a whole blog by itself. In talking about healthcare, a quick reference to its significance as an expense is that it’s the 2nd largest single expanse a company has, after payroll. The unpredictability & volatility of it as an expense for self-insured companies is a significant stress point for companies not used to being in the insurance business (The AOL “distressed baby” mishap being an extreme example) but the overall expense is so high that companies as small as 3,000 employees are going self-insured. Net, that means they keep the premiums, they take the risk on the expenses, and they pay an insurance company a small % to handle the administration & billing.

Now to that “single” biggest expense of payroll –if you look at a public financial statement it’s usually there as a lump sum. This is a great example of how financial statements are written for and by accountants. Payroll for small companies is often outsourced to a third party to make sure all the appropriate tax withholdings are done and passed on to the appropriate authorities at the right time. Larger companies may bring that back in as a department. For the company itself, it’s a big expense that happens on a single day, 2-3 times a month. Reconciliation of it is complex because employees can have all kinds of individual variations with deductions, vacations or leaves, new and departing employees. For the accounting department, payroll is a BIG deal. For managing cashflow, payroll is a BIG deal. It needs to be attended to as a thing.

But what a skilled executive/manager should know, is that payroll is not actually a thing in itself. If you’re looking at your expenses, it’s not helpful to look at “payroll”. It represents an agglomeration of many functions of a company – product creation, product validation, sales, distribution, marketing, customer relations. When you’re thinking about how your resources are currently allocated and might be better allocated, you want to think about those categories, and the people/energy going into them, and the effectiveness of those against expectations for their category. If you’re looking to invest more or make cuts, good management needs to focus on those areas of company function, not just on “payroll”.

This is reinforced for me as I listen to Zeynep Ton’s The Good Jobs Strategy. She talks about her work with retail chains facing falling sales and deciding to cut payroll, without doing the analysis to discover that the falling sales were due to poor customer service. Instead of improving profitability, they got into a vicious circle that resulted in store closings. She worked with Borders for 5 years and was able to show that in many cases, increasing payroll actually increased sales. The key there is, again, that payroll is not a thing – it’s a construct made for the accounting department to manage cashflow. What they were really tinkering with was customer service.

If you run one of the many small (and not so small) businesses managing on Quickbooks, congratulations to you if you’ve developed a habit of looking at your P&L on a monthly basis and comparing it to budget and re-projecting your cashflow. Most likely, you have a line item that’s “payroll”, or “wages”. You can start by at least breaking it into sub-categories: marketing, sales, production (hopefully you are already breaking out your direct labor so you can correctly calculate fixed costs vs variable costs), administration, distribution. Things like IT and professional services- if outsourced- will show up somewhere else. Then go ahead and let all the payroll taxes sit as a lump sum because they’re not really discretionary anyway. The key here is to look at your relative investment in the various functions of your business.

If you really want to look at your overall expenses that way, go ahead and move those payroll categories into the various sections of your P&L. Keep them as distinct line items so you can add them back together when you or your bookkeeper are doing bank reconciliation against that transfer to the payroll company. You can leave payroll taxes as a line item under administration or general – they’re less discretionary, they just vary with your payroll. For finer grain detail on the total cost of in-house vs outsourcing you’ll need to consider the payroll taxes. Then a quick glance down your P&L will help you see where the resources of your company go at a high level. Are you investing enough in marketing? Whether it’s outsourced or in-house, whether it’s labor or google ads, how much is it as a % of sales? Are you spending a significant amount on production or service? If that’s the business you’re in, I hope so. If it’s not translating into sales, you can start asking why.

Fun with localism!

I recently had a fun experience doing some shopping in my local economy, which resulted in a blog that Ventures published on their site. Ventures is a training-led Community Development Finance Institution (CDFI), which means they do some small business lending but the preponderance of their work is in doing training and technical assistance. I was on the board back when they were known as Washington CASH (Community Alliance for Self Help). Read more about my adventure here!

The business of survival

I recently did a quick consultation with a friend of a friend who is an independent personal service provider. She has a reasonable hourly rate, though it’s not clear every client pays that. She’s independent because she likes the schedule flexibility, but it does mean her schedule is often not full. Looking at past taxes, her annual gross income has been 50-55K annually. It’s below the the median wage of 64K, but well above the living wage of $26,600. Or is it?

The two common challenges for small providers are 1) bookkeeping and 2) marketing. She knew her business worked on a cashflow basis but was talking to me because some months cash was feeling a little tight. After pulling some numbers together, it became apparent that her monthly expenses are almost $2000/month with rent, internet, phone, website, licensing, continuing ed, insurance, credit card processing and taxes. Lots of those are expenses that don’t come out every month, but add up. They’re also largely fixed expenses. So really, that gets her down to just above living wage as a take home.

We talked about a few marketing strategies – how she might get more referrals or remind existing customers about her service and maybe sprucing up her waiting lobby (though that’s a capital investment). It turns out it’s tricky to relocate or sublet her specific space so it’s difficult to chip away at those fixed costs. One solution she employs is some of her clients pay in cash. That contributes to difficulty in understanding her real profitability. I notice in my own efforts to hire a housekeeper that the first two have asked that I pay them in cash. Is this one of the signs the economy is not working for everyone? That those who can, go informal? Looking at risks – did I mention health insurance? She has to pay her own health insurance and that is a big chunk of those monthly expenses. It’s a significant risk to a small payer and there’s little help for her at a living wage.

Thinking about the risks of healthcare got me thinking about the risk of a major health disruption. Medical issues are the number one cause of bankruptcy in the US. It’s also another way the relatively rich stay richer – property protections in bankruptcy. If you are a property owner, you can protect some of your property in bankruptcy, and thus some of your assets. If you are a renter, and you don’t own tangible property, you’ve got nothing that you can protect, so it strikes me it’s much more likely you’ll be forced into homelessness. In fact, when I google for data to support this, what I learn is that a bankruptcy on your record is one of the things that can come up in a tenant screening and affect your ability to get a lease!

Net – there is no net, not of the safety kind. My provider just has to have faith in the continuity of her business (her track record to date is reassuring). A little effort in presentation or marketing might literally pay off. We also need to hope Obamacare and eventually medicare stay there for her, and that she doesn’t have a major health crisis that impacts her ability to work.

My takeaway for individual service providers is that it’s important to break the habit of letting personal & business expenses blur together – a habit that the tax reporting on Sole Proprietorships supports. You need to separate your business from your personal expenses, and track true monthly costs. You need to add up all those periodic one-time costs and figure out a monthly amount so you know your bottom line and not get lulled into complacency by your top line.

Modeling for Success

In my years of angel investing, many is the time I’ve been in due diligence groups looking at a projection and someone asks “so where is the marketing spend to support that growth?” Usually the answer is along the lines that folks will discover the product online, or refer their friends, that it will “go viral”, and that’s what we’re all investing for, because we believe that it’s that kind of product, right?  Another common answer is that one of the roles will really be spending 50% of their time on sales, or that sales will be part of everyone’s job.

Many years and a few hands-on lessons later, I have a more experiential awareness of what needs to underlie that answer.  Once you’re in a company, trying to manage to those numbers, it becomes clear that there’s no substance to it.  We modeled 10% month-over-month growth! Well, it didn’t happen this month so now what?  Without a plan of the measurable activities that were expected to generate that growth, there’s no way to look back and ask: did those activities happen? If yes, perhaps they’re not the right activities so let’s try some different ones. Perhaps we think they are the right activities but the sales cycle is turning out to be longer than we expected, let’s keep an eye on that and prepare to make some adjustments lest we run out of capital before we’ve figured out the true cost of a sale.  If those activities didn’t happen, why not?

Startups are fundamentally short-handed and the sales/marketing person is often not a specialist, and maybe they haven’t done sales/marketing before.  Likely they’re getting some uptake because it’s a new product or service and they get a little bit of earned media attention and they don’t know that the product won’t continue to sell itself. A few things do grow purely on word of mouth, or are fundamentally viral in that use of the product inevitable exposes new potential users to it. Even those things can be broken down into assumptions: each user uses the product x times per month and exposes Y other users to it, Z% of those decide to try it for themselves.

But sadly, the truth is things have to be sold, and over time I notice  how successful businesses build the cost of selling into the product – things like mutual funds having “12b-1 trails” that throw a small percentage to the platforms that carry them, or retail products having to build into their price assumptions about doing periodic discounting, offering coupons, paying cuts to distributors and brokers.

I felt validated to see in a recent business competition, Business Impact NW went beyond asking for a financial projection and also asked for a specific sales projection.  They work with small, local businesses, and apparently they’ve also decided it’s an important next step to making sure the business is actually successful.

So going forward, my experience is that a general question about “where’s your marketing spend?” isn’t really enlightening or helpful to the business.  A better question would be: where’s your sales plan – who will do what activities to promote the product/service and what’s your expected effort-to-reward ratio?  I have heard investors ask “how long is your sales cycle?” when looking at products that will be making dozens of large sales. Time is one measure of effort, and thinking about person-hours and intermediary fees and google ads needs to apply to the hundreds of small sales too. Helping an entrepreneur break that down ahead of time will help them figure out how to adapt as they gather more data, and set them up to start measuring/monitoring those assumptions from the start.