Category Archives: Silicon Valley

The Question that CEOs Too Often Don't Discuss with the Board

Startup boards are complex.  While all board members own stock in the company their interests are not necessarily aligned.

  • Founders may be motivated by a vision to change the world, to hit a certain net worth target, to see their name in an S-1, to make the Forbes 500, or — and I’ve seen crazier things — to make more than their Stanford roommate.  First-time founders with little net worth can be open to selling at relatively low prices.  Conversely, serial successful founders may need a large exit simply to move the needle on their net worth.  Founders can also be religious zealots and take positions like “I wouldn’t sell to Microsoft or Oracle at any price.”
  • Independent board members typically have significant net worth (i.e., they’ve been successful at something which is why want them on your board) and relatively small stakes which, by default, financially incents them to seek large exits.  While they notionally represent the common stock, they are often aligned with either the founders or one of the investors in the company — they got on the board for a reason, often existing relationships —  and thus their views may be shaped by the real or perceived interest of those parties.  Or, they can simply drive an agenda that they believe is best for the company — whatever they happen to think “best” means.
  • Venture capitalists (VCs) are motivated by generating returns for their funds.  Simple, right?  Not so fast.  VC is increasingly a “hits business” where a few large outcomes can mean the difference between at 10% and 35% IRR over a fund’s ten-year life.  Thus, VCs have a general tendency to seek huge exits (“better to sell too late than too early”), but they are also motivated by other factors such as the expectations they set when they raised their fund, the performance of other investments in the fund (e.g., do they need a big hit to bail out a few bad bets), and their relationships with members of other funds represented on the company’s board.

In this light, it’s clearly simplistic to say that everyone is aligned around a single goal:  to maximize the value of the stock.  Yes, surely that is true at one level.  But it gets a bit more complicated than that.
That’s why it’s so important that CEOs ask the board one question that, somewhat amazingly, they all too often don’t:  what does success look like?  And it doesn’t hurt to re-ask it every few years as any given board member’s position may change over time.
I’m always shocked how the simplest of questions can generate the most debate.
Aside:  back in the day at Business Objects (~1998), I suggested bringing in the Chasm Group to help us with a three-day, strategic planning offsite.  I figured we’d spend a morning reviewing the key concepts in Crossing the Chasm, at most one afternoon generating consensus on where we sat on their technology adoption lifecycle curve, and then two days working on strategic goals and operational plans after that.
Tech-Adoption-Lifecycle-01
With about 12 people who had worked together closely for years, after three full days we never agreed where we sat on the curve.  We spent literally the entire time arguing, often intensely, and never even got to the rest of the agenda.  Fortunately, that didn’t end up impeding our success, but it was a big lesson for me.  End aside.
So be ready for that simple question to generate a long answer.  Most probably, several long answers.  In fact, in order to get the best answer, I’d suggest asking board members about it first individually (to avoid any group decision-making biases) and then discuss it as a group.
But before examining the answers you can expect to this question, let’s take a minute to consider why this conversation doesn’t occur more often and more naturally.  I think there are three generic reasons:

  • Conflict aversion.  Perhaps sensing real misalignment, like in a bad marriage the CEO and board tacitly agree to not discuss the problem until they must.  You may hear or make excuses like “let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,”  “let’s execute this year’s plan and then discuss that,” or “if there’s no offer on the table then there’s nothing to discuss.”  Or, in a more Machiavellian situation, a board member may be thinking, “let’s ride Joe like a rented mule to $5M and then shoot him,” continuallying defer the conversation on that logic.  Pleasant or unpleasant, it’s usually better to address conflicts early rather than letting them fester.
  • Rationalization of unrealistic expectations.  If some board members constantly refrain “this can be a billion-dollar company,” perhaps the CEO rationalizes it, thinking “they don’t really believe that; they’re just saying it because they think they’re supposed to.”  But what if they do believe it?
  • The gauche factor.  Some people seem to think it’s a gauche topic of conversation.  “Hey, our company vision statement says we’re making the world a better place through elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility, we shouldn’t be focusing on something so crass as the exit, we should be talking about making the world better.”  VCs invest money for a reason, they measure results by the IRR, and they can typically cite their IRRs (and those of their partners) from memory.  It’s not gauche to discuss expectations and exits.

When you ask your board members what success looks like these are the kinds of things you might hear:

  • Disrupting the leader in a given market.
  • Building a $1B revenue company.
  • Becoming a unicorn ($1B valuation).
  • Changing the way people work.
  • Getting a 10x in 5-7 years for an early stage fund, or getting a 3x in 3-5 years for a later stage fund.
  • Showing my Mother my name in an S-1 (a sub-case of “going public”).
  • Getting our software into the hands of over 1M people.
  • Realizing the potential of the company.
  • Selling the company for more than I think it’s worth.
  • Getting acquired by Google or Cisco for a price above a given threshold.
  • Building a true market leader.
  • Creating a Silicon Valley icon, a household name.
  • Selling the company for {a base-hit, double, triple, home-run, or grand-slam} outcome.

Given the possibility of a list as heterogeneous as this, doesn’t it make sense to get this question on the table as opposed to in the closet?
I learned my favorite definition of strategy from a Stanford professor who defined strategy as “the plan to win.”  The beauty of this definition is that it instantly begs the question “what is winning?”  Just as that conversation can be long, contentious, and colorful, so is the answer to the other, even more critical question:  what does success look like?

The Question that CEOs Too Often Don’t Discuss with the Board

Startup boards are complex.  While all board members own stock in the company their interests are not necessarily aligned.

  • Founders may be motivated by a vision to change the world, to hit a certain net worth target, to see their name in an S-1, to make the Forbes 500, or — and I’ve seen crazier things — to make more than their Stanford roommate.  First-time founders with little net worth can be open to selling at relatively low prices.  Conversely, serial successful founders may need a large exit simply to move the needle on their net worth.  Founders can also be religious zealots and take positions like “I wouldn’t sell to Microsoft or Oracle at any price.”
  • Independent board members typically have significant net worth (i.e., they’ve been successful at something which is why want them on your board) and relatively small stakes which, by default, financially incents them to seek large exits.  While they notionally represent the common stock, they are often aligned with either the founders or one of the investors in the company — they got on the board for a reason, often existing relationships —  and thus their views may be shaped by the real or perceived interest of those parties.  Or, they can simply drive an agenda that they believe is best for the company — whatever they happen to think “best” means.
  • Venture capitalists (VCs) are motivated by generating returns for their funds.  Simple, right?  Not so fast.  VC is increasingly a “hits business” where a few large outcomes can mean the difference between at 10% and 35% IRR over a fund’s ten-year life.  Thus, VCs have a general tendency to seek huge exits (“better to sell too late than too early”), but they are also motivated by other factors such as the expectations they set when they raised their fund, the performance of other investments in the fund (e.g., do they need a big hit to bail out a few bad bets), and their relationships with members of other funds represented on the company’s board.

In this light, it’s clearly simplistic to say that everyone is aligned around a single goal:  to maximize the value of the stock.  Yes, surely that is true at one level.  But it gets a bit more complicated than that.

That’s why it’s so important that CEOs ask the board one question that, somewhat amazingly, they all too often don’t:  what does success look like?  And it doesn’t hurt to re-ask it every few years as any given board member’s position may change over time.

I’m always shocked how the simplest of questions can generate the most debate.

Aside:  back in the day at Business Objects (~1998), I suggested bringing in the Chasm Group to help us with a three-day, strategic planning offsite.  I figured we’d spend a morning reviewing the key concepts in Crossing the Chasm, at most one afternoon generating consensus on where we sat on their technology adoption lifecycle curve, and then two days working on strategic goals and operational plans after that.

Tech-Adoption-Lifecycle-01

With about 12 people who had worked together closely for years, after three full days we never agreed where we sat on the curve.  We spent literally the entire time arguing, often intensely, and never even got to the rest of the agenda.  Fortunately, that didn’t end up impeding our success, but it was a big lesson for me.  End aside.

So be ready for that simple question to generate a long answer.  Most probably, several long answers.  In fact, in order to get the best answer, I’d suggest asking board members about it first individually (to avoid any group decision-making biases) and then discuss it as a group.

But before examining the answers you can expect to this question, let’s take a minute to consider why this conversation doesn’t occur more often and more naturally.  I think there are three generic reasons:

  • Conflict aversion.  Perhaps sensing real misalignment, like in a bad marriage the CEO and board tacitly agree to not discuss the problem until they must.  You may hear or make excuses like “let’s cross that bridge when we come to it,”  “let’s execute this year’s plan and then discuss that,” or “if there’s no offer on the table then there’s nothing to discuss.”  Or, in a more Machiavellian situation, a board member may be thinking, “let’s ride Joe like a rented mule to $5M and then shoot him,” continuallying defer the conversation on that logic.  Pleasant or unpleasant, it’s usually better to address conflicts early rather than letting them fester.
  • Rationalization of unrealistic expectations.  If some board members constantly refrain “this can be a billion-dollar company,” perhaps the CEO rationalizes it, thinking “they don’t really believe that; they’re just saying it because they think they’re supposed to.”  But what if they do believe it?
  • The gauche factor.  Some people seem to think it’s a gauche topic of conversation.  “Hey, our company vision statement says we’re making the world a better place through elegant hierarchies for maximum code reuse and extensibility, we shouldn’t be focusing on something so crass as the exit, we should be talking about making the world better.”  VCs invest money for a reason, they measure results by the IRR, and they can typically cite their IRRs (and those of their partners) from memory.  It’s not gauche to discuss expectations and exits.

When you ask your board members what success looks like these are the kinds of things you might hear:

  • Disrupting the leader in a given market.
  • Building a $1B revenue company.
  • Becoming a unicorn ($1B valuation).
  • Changing the way people work.
  • Getting a 10x in 5-7 years for an early stage fund, or getting a 3x in 3-5 years for a later stage fund.
  • Showing my Mother my name in an S-1 (a sub-case of “going public”).
  • Getting our software into the hands of over 1M people.
  • Realizing the potential of the company.
  • Selling the company for more than I think it’s worth.
  • Getting acquired by Google or Cisco for a price above a given threshold.
  • Building a true market leader.
  • Creating a Silicon Valley icon, a household name.
  • Selling the company for {a base-hit, double, triple, home-run, or grand-slam} outcome.

Given the possibility of a list as heterogeneous as this, doesn’t it make sense to get this question on the table as opposed to in the closet?

I learned my favorite definition of strategy from a Stanford professor who defined strategy as “the plan to win.”  The beauty of this definition is that it instantly begs the question “what is winning?”  Just as that conversation can be long, contentious, and colorful, so is the answer to the other, even more critical question:  what does success look like?

Kellblog Predictions for 2018

In continuing my tradition of offering predictions every year, let’s start with a review of my hits and misses on my 2017 predictions.

  1. The United States will see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s.  HIT.
  2. Social media companies finally step up and do something about fake news. MISS, but ethical issues are starting to catch up with them.
  3. Gut feel makes a comeback. HIT, while I didn’t articulate it as such, I see this as the war on facts and expertise (e.g., it’s cold today ergo global warming isn’t real despite what “experts” say).
  4. Under a volatile leader, we can expect sharp reactions and knee-jerk decisions that rattle markets, drive a high rate of staff turnover in the Executive branch, and fuel an ongoing war with the media.  HIT.
  5. With the new administration’s promises of $1T in infrastructure spending, you can expect interest rates to raise and inflation to accelerate. MISS, turns out this program was never classical government investment in infrastructure, but a massive privatization plan that never happened.
  6. Huge emphasis on security and privacy. PARTIAL HIT, security remained a hot topic and despite numerous major breaches it’s still not really hit center stage.
  7. In 2017, we will see more bots for both good uses (e.g., customer service) and bad (e.g., trolling social media).  HIT.
  8. Artificial intelligence hits the peak of inflated expectations. HIT.
  9. The IPO market comes back. MISS, though according to some it “sucked less.”
  10. Megavendors mix up EPM and ERP or BI. PARTIAL HIT.  This prediction was really about Workday and was correct to the extent that they’ve seemingly not made much progress in EPM.

Kellblog’s Predictions for 2018

1.  We will again continue to see a level of divisiveness and social discord not seen since the 1960s. We have evolved from a state of having different opinions about policies based on common facts to a dangerous state based on different facts, even on easily disprovable claims, e.g., the White House nativity scene.  The media is advancing, not reducing, this divide.

2.  The war on facts and expertise will continue to escalate. Read The Death of Expertise for more.   This will extend to a war on college. While an attempted opening salvo on graduate student tuition waivers didn’t fire, in an environment where the President’s son says, “we’ll take $200,000 of your money; in exchange we’ll train your children to hate our country,” you can expect ongoing attacks on post-secondary education.  This spells trouble for Silicon Valley, where a large number of founders and entrepreneurs are former grad students as well as immigrants (which is a whole different area of potential trouble).

3.  Leading technology and social media companies finally step up to face ethical challenges. This means paying more attention to their own culture (e.g., sexual harassment, brogrammers).  This means taking responsibility for policing trolls, spreading fake news, building addictive content, and enabling foreign intelligence operations.  Thus far, they have tended to argue they are simply keepers of the town square, and not responsible for the content shared there.  This abdication of responsibility should start to stop in 2018, if only because people start to tune-out the services.  This leads to one of my favorite tweets of the year:

Capture

4.  AI will move from hype to action, meaning bigger budgets, more projects, and some high visibility failures. It will also mean more emphasis on voice and more conversational chatbots.  For finance departments, this means more of what Ventana’s Rob Kugel calls the age of robotic finance, which unites AI and machine learning, robotic process automation (RPA), natural language bots, and blockchain-based distributed ledgers.

5. AI will continue to generate lots of controversy about job displacement. While some remain optimistic, the consensus viewpoint seems to be that AI will suppress employment, most likely widening the wealth inequality gap.  A collapsing educational system combined with AI-driven pressure on low-skilled work seems a recipe for trouble.

6.  The bitcoin bubble bursts. As a reminder, at one point during the peak of tulip mania, the Dutch East India Company was worth more, on an inflated-adjusted basis, than twenty of today’s technology giants combined.

tulips

7.  The Internet of Things (IoT) will continue to build momentum.  IoT won’t hit in a massive horizontal way, instead B2B adoption will be lead by certain verticals such as healthcare, retail, and supply chain.

8.  The freelance / gig economy continues to gain momentum with freelance workers poised to pass traditional employees by 2027. While the gig economy brings advantages to high-skilled knowledge workers (e.g., freedom of location, freedom of work projects), this same trend threatens low-skilled workers via the continual decomposition of full-time jobs in a series of temp shifts.  This means someone working 60 hours a week across three 20-hour shifts wouldn’t be considered to be a full-time employee and thus not eligible for full-time benefits, further increasing wealth inequality.

freelancers

9.  M&A heats up due to repatriation of overseas cash. Apple alone, for example, has $252B in overseas cash.  With the new tax rate dropping from 35% to 15.5%, it will now be ~$50B less expensive for Apple to repatriate that cash.  Overall, US companies hold trillions of dollars overseas and making it cheaper for them to repatriate that cash suggests that they will be flush with dollars to invest in many areas, including M&A

10.  2018 will be a good year for cloud EPM vendors. The dynamic macro environment, the opportunities posed by cash repatriation, and the strong fundamentals in the economy will increase demand for EPM software that helps companies explore how to best exploit the right set of opportunities facing them.  Oracle will fail in pushing PBCS into the NetSuite base, creating a nice third-party opportunity.  SAP, Microsoft, and IBM will continue to put resources into other strategic investment areas (e.g., IBM and Watson, SAP and Hana) leaving fallow the EPM market adjacent to ERP.  And the greenfield opportunity to replace Excel for financial planning, budgeting, and even consolidations will continue drive strong growth.

Let me wish everyone, particularly the customers, partners, and employees of Host Analytics, a Happy New Year in 2018.

# # #

Disclaimer:  these predictions are offered in the spirit of fun.  See my FAQ for more on this and other usage terms.

The SaaS Rule of 40

After the SaaSacre of early 2016, investors generally backed off a growth-at-all-costs mindset and started to value SaaS companies using an “appropriate” balance of growth and profitability.  The question then became, what’s appropriate?  The answer was:  the rule of 40 [1].

What’s the rule of 40?  Growth rate + profit should be greater than or equal to 40%.

There are a number of options for deciding what to use to represent growth (e.g., ARR) and profit (e.g., EBITDA, operating margin). For public companies it usually translates to revenue growth rate and free cash flow margin.

It’s important to understand that such “rules” are not black and white.  As we’ll see in a minute, lots of companies deviate from the rule of 40.  The right way to think about these rules of thumb is as predictors.  Back in the day, what best predicted the value of a SaaS company?  Revenue growth — without regard for margin.  (In fact, often inversely correlated to margin.)  When that started to break down, people started looking for a better independent variable.  The answer to that search was the rule of 40 score.

Let’s examine a few charts courtesy of the folks at Pacific Crest and as presented at the recent, stellar Zuora CFO Forum, a CFO gathering run alongside their Subscribed conference.

rule-of-40

This scatter chart plots the two drivers of the rule of 40 score against each other, colors each dot with the company’s rule of 40 score, and adds a line that indicates the rule of 40 boundary.  42% of public SaaS companies, and 77% of public SaaS market cap, is above the rule of 40 line.

As a quick demonstration of the exception-to-every-rule principle, Tintri recently went public off 45% growth with -81% operating margins, [2] reflecting a rule of 40 score of -36%, and a placement that would be off the chart (in the underneath sense) even if corrected for non-cash expenses.

For those interested in company valuations, the more interesting chart is this one.

rule of 40 valuation.PNG

This chart plots rule of 40 score on the X axis, valuation multiple on the Y axis, and produces a pretty good regression line the shows the relationship between the two.  In short, the rule of 40 alone explains nearly 50% of SaaS company valuation.  I believe that outliers fall into one of two categories:

  • Companies in a strategic situation that explains the premium or discount relative to the model — e.g., the premium for Cloudera’s strong market position in the Hadoop space.
  • Companies whose valuations go non-linear at the high end due to scarcity — e.g., Veeva.

Executives and employees at startups should understand [3] the rule of 40 as it explains the general tendency of SaaS companies to focus on a balance of growth and profitability as opposed to a growth at all costs strategy that was more popular several years back.  Ignore the rule of 40 at your peril.

Notes

[1] While the Rule of 40 concept preceded the SaaSacre, I do believe that the SaaSacre was the wake-up call that made more investors and companies pay attention to.

[2] Using operating margin here somewhat lazily as I don’t want to go find unlevered free cash flow margin, but I don’t think it materially changes the point.

[3] Other good rule of 40 posts are available from:  Tomasz Tungaz, Sundeep Peechu, and Jeff Epstein and Josh Harder.

Detecting and Eliminating the Rolling Hairballs in your Sales Pipeline

Quick:  what’s the biggest deal in this quarter’s sales pipeline?  Was that the biggest deal in last quarter’s pipeline?  How about the quarter before?  Do you have deals in your pipeline older than your children?

If you’re answering yes to these questions, then you’re probably dealing with “rolling hairballs” in your pipeline.  Rolling hairballs are bad:

  • They exaggerate the size of the pipeline.
  • They distort coverage and conversion ratios.
  • They mess up expected-value forecasts, like a forecast-category or stage-weighted sales forecast.

Maybe they’re real deals; maybe they’re figments of a rep’s imagination.  But, if you’re not careful, they pollute your pipeline and your metrics.

Let’s define a rolling hairball

A rolling hairball is a typically large opportunity that sits in your current-quarter pipeline every quarter, with a close date that slips every quarter.  At 2 quarters it’s a suspected rolling hairball; at 3 or more quarters it’s a confirmed one.

Rolling Hairball Detection

The first thing you need to do is find rolling hairballs.  They’re tricky because salesreps always swear they’re real deals that are supposed to finally close this quarter.  What makes rolling hairballs obvious is their ever-sliding close dates.  What makes them dangerous is their size (including an accumulation of them that aggregate to a material fraction of the pipeline).

If you want to find rolling hairballs, look for opportunities in the current-quarter pipeline that were also in last-quarter’s pipeline.  That will find numerous bona fide slipped deals, but it will also light-up potential rolling hairballs.  To determine if an opportunity is  a rolling hairball, for sure, you can do one of two things:

  • See if it also appeared in the current-quarter pipeline in any quarters prior to the previous one.
  • Look at its stage or forecast category.  If either of those suggest it won’t be closing this quarter, it’s another big hairball indicator.

The more sophisticated way to find them is to examine “stuck opportunity” reports that light-up deals that are moving through pipeline stages too slowly compared to your norms.

But typically, the hairball is a big opportunity hiding in plain sight.  You know it was in last quarter’s pipeline and the quarter before that.  You’ve just been deluded into believing it’s not a hairball.

Fixing Rolling Hairballs

There are two ways to fix rolling hairballs:

  • Fix the close date.  Reps are subtly incented to put deals in the current quarter (e.g., to show they’re working on something, to show they might bring in some big sales this quarter). The manager needs to get on the phone with the customer and, after having verified it’s a real opportunity, get the real timeframe in which it might close.  Assigning a realistic close date to the opportunity makes your pipeline more real and reminds the rep that they need to be working on other shorter-term opportunities as well.  (There is no mid-term if you fail enough in the short term.)  The deal will still remain in the all-quarters pipeline, but it won’t always be in the current-quarter pipeline, ever-sliding, and distorting metrics and ratios.

 

  • Fix the size. While a realistic close date is the best solution, what makes rolling hairballs dangerous is their size.  So, if the salesrep really believes it’s a current-quarter opportunity, you can either reduce its size or split it into two opportunities (particularly if that’s a possible outcome), a small one in the current quarter along with an upsell in the future.  Note that this approach can be dangerous, with lots of little hairball-lets flying below radar, so you should only try if it you’re sure your salesops team can produce the reports to find them and if you believe it reflects real customer buying patterns.

Don’t let rolling hairballs pollute your pipeline metrics and ratios.  Admit they exist, find them, and fix them.  Your sales and sales forecasting will be more consistent as a result.

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the "Great" Strategy You Couldn't Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.
I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.
But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.
It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.
BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.
Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)
The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.
So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.
Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)

 

  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.

 

  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.

 

  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.

 

  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)

 
If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.
If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing

The Strategy Compiler: How To Avoid the “Great” Strategy You Couldn’t Execute

Few phrases bother me more than this one:

“I know it didn’t work, but it was a great strategy.  We just didn’t have the resources to execute it.”

Huh.  Wait minute.  If you didn’t have the resources to execute it, then it wasn’t a great strategy.  Maybe it was a great strategy for some other company that could have applied the appropriate resources.  But it wasn’t a great strategy for you.  Ergo, it wasn’t a great strategy.  QED.

I learned my favorite definition of strategy at a Stanford executive program I attended a few years back.  Per Professor Robert Burgelman, author of Strategy is Destiny, strategy is simply “the plan to win.”  Which begets an important conversation about the definition of winning.  In my experience, defining winning is more important than making the plan, because if everyone is focused on taking different hills, any resultant strategy will be a mishmash of plans to support different objectives.

But, regardless of your company’s definition of winning, I can say that any strategy you can’t execute definitionally won’t succeed and is ergo a bad strategy.

It sounds obvious, but nevertheless a lot of companies fall into this trap.  Why?

  • A lack of focus.
  • A failure to “compile” strategy before executing it.

Focus:  Think Small to Grow Big

Big companies that compete in lots of broad markets almost invariably didn’t start out that way.

BusinessObjects started out focused on the Oracle financials installed base.  Facebook started out on Harvard students, then Ivy league students.  Amazon, it’s almost hard to remember at this point, started out in books.  Salesforce started out in SMB salesforce automation.  ServiceNow on IT ticket management.  This list goes on and on.

Despite the evidence and despite the fame Geoffrey Moore earned with Crossing the Chasm, focus just doesn’t come naturally to people.  The “if I could get 1% share of a $10B market, I’d be a $100M company” thought pattern is just far too common. (And investors often accidentally reinforce this.)

The fact is you will be more dominant, harder to dislodge, and probably more profitable if, as a $100M company, you control 30% of a $300M target as opposed to 1% of a $10B target.

So the first reason startups make strategies they can’t execute is because they forget to focus.  They aim too broadly. They sign up for too much.  The forget that strategy should be sequence of actions over time.  Let’s start with Harvard. Then go Ivy League.  Then go Universities in general.  Then go everyone.

Former big company executives often compound the problem.  They’re not used to working with scarce resources and are more accustomed to making “laundry list” strategies that check all the boxes than making focused strategies that achieve victory step by step.

A Failure to Compile Strategy Before Execution

The second reason companies make strategies they can’t execute is that they forget a critical step in the planning process that I call the strategy compiler.  Here’s what I think a good strategic planning process looks like.

  • Strategy offsite. The executive team spends a week offsite focused on situation assessment and strategy.  The output of this meeting should be (1) a list of strategic goals for the company for the following year and (2) a high-level financial model that concretizes what the team is trying to accomplish over the next three years.  (With an eye, at a startup, towards cash.)

 

  • First round budgeting. Finance issues top-down financial targets.  Executives who own the various objectives make strategic plans for how to attain them.  The output of this phase is (1) first-draft consolidated financials, (2) a set of written strategies along with proposed organizational structures and budgets for attaining each of the company’s ten strategic objectives.

 

  • Strategy compilation, resources. The team meets for a day to review the consolidated plans and financials. Invariably there are too many objectives, too much operating expense, and too many new hires. The right answer here is to start cutting strategic goals.  The wrong answer is to keep the original set of goals and slash the budget 20% across the board.  It’s better to do 100% of 8 strategic initiatives than do 80% of 10.

 

  • Strategy compilation, skills. The more subtle assessment that must happen is a sanity check on skills and talent.  Do your organization have the competencies and do your people have the skills to execute the strategic plans?  If a new engineering project requires the skills of 5 founder-level, Stanford computer science PHDs who each would want 5% of a company, you are simply not going to be able to hire that kind of talent as regular employees. (This is one reason companies do “acquihires”).  The output of this phase is a presumably-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Second round budgeting. Executives to build new or revised plans to support the now-reduced set of strategic goals.

 

  • Strategy compilation. You run the strategy compiler again on the revised plan — and iterate until the strategic goals match the resources and the skills of the proposed organization.

 

  • Board socialization. As you start converging via the strategy compiler you need to start working with the board to socialize and eventually sell the proposed operating plan.  (This process could easily be the subject of another post.)

 

If you view strategy as the plan to win, then successful strategies include only those strategies that your organization can realistically execute from both a resources and skills perspective.  Instead of doing a single-pass process that moves from strategic objectives to budgets, use an iterative approach with a strategy compiler to ensure your strategic code compiles before you try to execute it.

If you do this, you’ll increase your odds of success and decrease the odds ending up in the crowded section of the corporate graveyard where the epitaphs all read:

Here Lies a Company that Had a “Great” Strategy  It Had No Chance of Executing