Venture Capital – I

Venture capitalists rely primarily on an Initial Public Offering (IPO) for their big payday, but now, because of the recession, that window has been slammed shut. Does that mean venture capitalists are temporarily out of business?

Absolutely not, according to a recent report by PricewaterhouseCoopers. Venture capitalists have simply modified their strategy to accommodate the current economic conditions. As a result, U.S. venture capital investing has remained within historical norms through the third quarter of 2008. In fact, venture capitalists entered into more deals in the first three quarters of 2008, than in the same three quarters of all years since 2001. The trend for venture capital investments is up…and so should be the spirits of any company looking for venture investments.

In addition, the major changes the venture firms are making are likely to work better for most new companies, such as:

  • The life cycle of the average investment is now longer (due to lack of IPO exits). Earlier venture investments were planned to end in four or five years—now they are looking at eight or nine years. This means that venture firms may invest additional capital, over a longer period, to assure continued growth of your company until “payday.”
  • On the front end of the life cycle, the venture firms are typically investing sooner in the seed and early stage start-up phase. This means they may initially invest smaller amounts than they might have in prior years. This is good news for many ready-to-start companies.

Of course, the requirements for acquiring venture capital is about the same as they always have been—that is, a great idea, and an outstanding management team. Oh yes, you also must have a willingness to work harder than you ever thought you possibly could. Venture capital is not for everyone, and it is very difficult to obtain, but for those companies that need a sound investor to help grow their business, venture capital is necessary—and available.

The time has never been better for new company start-ups, and in future posts I will be giving some guidelines on how to prepare to seek venture capital.

Do You Have “Trigger Thumb”?

With all of the mini-keypad devices in our arsenal of technical gadgets, many users are experiencing a new form of tendonitis and joint disease currently referred to as “trigger thumb.” Loggers have experienced a similar problem for decades, as they aggravate their forefinger by operating the “trigger” on a chainsaw. Constant use of their forefinger results in a painful condition long known as “trigger finger.” I assume this is where the term “trigger thumb” came from.

Regardless of the origin of the term, “trigger thumb” is no laughing matter. It can develop into a very painful condition. More and more doctors are seeing patients with this condition. If the problem is not addressed early enough, it can develop into a degenerative condition with possible long-term disability.

So, how can we avoid “trigger thumb” and still get the benefits from our electronic gadgets? Here are some suggestions that a few of us might benefit from:

  • Determine how important each use is. Do you really need to have that text conversation with a friend while shopping in a store—or driving?
  • If you have to send a message, make it as short as possible. Don’t participate in long texting conversations.
  • When you start to feel any pain or discomfort, stop using your device and rest as long as possible.
  • If you already have a joint condition, like arthritis, don’t use your keypad any more than absolutely necessary.
  • When all else fails, see your doctor. They may prescribe anything from rest to surgery, but, hopefully, the problem can be corrected.
  • This last suggestion is the best of all—take a holiday! Put your devices in a drawer for a few days and do something out of the ordinary…like reading a book, going for long walks, or having face-to-face-conversations, and the like. This is not only good for your thumbs, but for your mind and your whole body as well.

I can’t imagine anyone giving up their electronic gadgets…we’ve come to rely on them too much…so we’ll just have to face the consequences. Maybe voice-recognition Blackberrys are just around the corner—of course that probably wouldn’t work while you’re texting during your boss’s staff meeting.

What is Business’s Responsibility to Society?

“Children born today, on average, won’t live as long as their parents. That’s the first time in our society that has ever been forecast.” These were the words of Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne in a speech to the attendees of the 2007 National RV Trade Show in Louisville, KY. He was referring to a recent report by the U. S. Surgeon General, which pointed out that illnesses due to physical inactivity—type 2 diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and obesity—are a growing crisis.

Kempthorne expressed special concern for our children’s loss of connection to nature. The secretary pointed out that technology is keeping our kids indoors and sitting on the couch playing virtual games instead of being outdoors playing real games. Their are too many kids (and adults) that need to put down their Blackberry’s and go picking wild berries.

I wonder…when a company develops a new time-consuming gadget—from cell phones to the latest game-player—do they ever give any thought or consideration as to what physical effect their new gadgets will have on the users, or society in general? Apparently not, according to Alan Cooper, a highly regarded development engineer in Silicon Valley. In Cooper’s book “The Inmates are Running the Asylum”, he presents the premise that “…despite appearances, business executives are simply not the ones in control of the high-tech industry. It is the engineers who are running the show. In our rush to accept the many benefits of the silicon chip, we have abdicated our responsibilities. We have let the inmates run the asylum.”

As long as the engineers are developing “things” that sell well, the executives are happy—delighted, in fact. The possibility that these “things” are contributing to the potential breakdown of mankind—both socially and physically—is totally ignored, as long as the money keeps coming in.

Do you know what the highest grossing entertainment product in the world is? According to the Guinness Book of World Records, the highest grossing entertainment product in the world grossed $310 million in 24 hours—it was a video game. I also just saw that the number one Christmas gift this year is…video games.

It is easy for all of us to say, “It’s the parent’s responsibility to oversee their children’s lifestyle and activity.” Yes, that is true, up to a point, but through aggressive advertising, PR events, and peer pressure, it’s not that simple. The cell phone companies are constantly adding new features to attract kids, video games are getting more realistic and exciting, Blackberrys are de rigueur to a younger and younger group, computers are now a necessity for most school kids—and then, of course, there is television.

Where does the responsibility of we business people enter into this picture? Shouldn’t we consider some of the real impact of our products on society while we are developing them—or not?

I would really like to hear the views of others.

It’s Here! “Be Your Own Turnaround Manager”

Again, I will do a little shameless self–promotion. I have written a book titled, Be Your Own Turnaround Manager: A Common Sense Guide to Managing a Business Crisis, and it was released today.

For many years, I specialized in helping businesses that were in crisis and heading towards bankruptcy. Several of these business crises appear as case studies in the book. Although this book is directed toward small businesses with employees, I have presented many fundamental business precepts that can be valuable to any business.

To give you some idea of what this book is about, I have included, below, some of the front-page copy that is on the publisher’s web site:

Is a Business Bankruptcy or Other Business Crisis Looming on Your Horizon?

Be Your Own Turnaround Manager is one of the few business books that deals with the issues that small businesses face daily, but that no one wants to talk about. It helps you recover from small problems so they don’t become disasters.

If your business is already mired in a crisis, Be Your Own Turnaround Manager provides an alternative to filing for bankruptcy.

Be Your Own Turnaround Manager  doesn’t present any new management fad, magic formula, or acronym approach that can save your enterprise once it is in crisis—it requires a step-by-step business recovery plan.

Regardless of whether you’re a small business owner, run a non-profit organization, or a segment of a larger corporation, any business crisis you face can be managed long before it gets out of control.  The business recovery plan set forth in Be Your Own Turnaround Manager helps small business owners answer these questions:

  • What do I do when I can’t pay my bills?
  • How do I face my employees when there is no money for payday?
  • What do I do when I can’t pay my past due bank loan?
  • What if the bank no longer wants me as a customer?
  • How do I know if I have a real business crisis, or just some “hard times?”
  • How do I know when I should file for bankruptcy?
  • How do I handle HR and government agency demands if my business is in crisis?
  • With my business in crisis, what do I do first?
  • How do I plan and execute a crisis management/turnaround program?
  • How do I know when I need outside help?
  • How do I execute an orderly shutdown if I just don’t want to go through a crisis turnaround program?
  • What is a business recovery plan and how do I implement it?

These concerns, and many more, are addressed in Be Your Own Turnaround Manager. Actual case histories are presented and referred to extensively as examples of how others solved these kinds of problems. In addition, checklists are included in each chapter to assist you in developing real solutions to your own problems.

For information about this book, or to receive a discount, go to the publishers web site at beyourownturnaroundmanager.com It is also available at Amazon.com or through most major book stores.

Small Business Can Learn From Big Business

I just read a comparison between the market values of the two largest U.S. automakers and Japan’s two largest automakers. The market value of GM and Ford combined is $8.1 billion. The market value of Toyota and Honda combined is $146.3 billion—over 18 times greater than the U.S. big two.

Why is the American auto industry on life support, while Japan’s is alive, healthy, and prosperous? Most of Japan’s cars, that are sold in the U.S., are built in the United States. Japan’s auto makers belong to the same U.S. unions, pay the same wages, charge comparable prices for their products…and yet, they are many times more successful. Why do you suppose that is?

To find the answer I think we only have to look as far as the customer satisfaction surveys conducted by J. D. Powers, Consumer Reports, and the like. American automobiles just do not satisfy the consumers as well as the Japanese automobiles do, and they haven’t for a long time. According to the surveys, Japanese autos are better designed, higher quality, and just built better. In other words, Japanese automakers provide more value for the money.

How does this apply to small business?
Value for their money is also what our own customers and clients search for. It doesn’t matter if you are a one-person web site design studio, or General Motors…if you do not provide the best value for your customers or clients money—you will fail. It is as simple as that. Maybe it is time for all of us to take stock of what we are delivering to our customers and clients.

Toyota does it; Honda does it; Costco does it; Avon does it—why can’t we?

What Can We Learn From Costco?

In their November 2008 issue, Fast Company magazine featured an interview with Jim Sinegal, CEO and cofounder of Costco. While most retailers are whining about the economy, in August Costco had an increase in same-store sales of 9%. The reason for this is very simple; there are no secret programs, or special incentives to buy there…just good old-fashioned business sense. Here are the key points in Jim’s interview that we can all learn from.

  • Don’t gouge your customers. The interviewer pointed out that some suppliers still balk at Jim’s policy of not marking products up more than 15%. So much for supply and demand marketing.
  • Treat your customers well. Jim: “Customers shop with us for value. They don’t shop with us for cheap prices on cheap merchandise. They expect us to deliver value on quality….The final analysis is, the customers vote at the checkout.” This is something for all of us to remember.
  • Treat your employees well. Wall Street complains that Costco treats its customers and employees better than they do their shareholders. They pay their workers an average of $17 per hour, and 90% of health insurance costs, for both full-time and part-time employees. Yet, revenues have grown 70% in the last five years, and their stock has doubled.
  • Know your competition. Jim: “Hardly a week goes by that I’m not in a Sam’s.” Do we study our own competition that closely?
  • Try new things. Sales on Costco’s e-commerce site are expected to hit $1.6 billion this year, a 33% increase over 2007. Coffins are one of their big e-commerce sellers. Who would have thought?
  • Do not be afraid to fail. Jim: “You don’t have enough space in your magazine to talk about all the things that we’ve tried that didn’t work out.” How bold are we about trying new things?
  • Manage by walking around. Jim: “You know, there certainly are days when I’ll visit 12 (stores). I will be traveling to our warehouses every single week between now and Christmas…I try to approach the visits from the standpoint of the customer. Does the building have the right goods out? Is it well stocked and clean and safe? Nothing is a bigger turnoff than poor housekeeping.” Spending quality time with our customers and employees is going to be one of the keys to surviving this recession.
  • Be innovative. Jim: “We just reconfigured our cashews. They were in a round canister, and we put them in a square canister. It sounds crazy, but we saved something like 560 truckloads a year of that one product.” In today’s chaotic world, innovation is not optional.
  • Keep overhead low. Jim answers his own phone and sends his own faxes. I read somewhere else, a while back, that Jim uses the same desk, in the same small office where he started 25 years ago. Many of us can take a lesson from that.

Obviously, Costco is a reflection of its CEO and the values he brings to his business. But then, aren’t all our businesses a reflection of the values of the owner?

Something to think about.

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