Your wealth is ultimately tied to the customer problems you solve

Anyone running a business should understand, with laser like clarity, the customer problems their business solves. Not only will this mean the business will be focussing on the right activities, it will also be the single greatest determinant of the business owner’s wealth.

There’s a coffee shop (restaurant really, that also does a nice coffee) overlooking a lake near where I live. When I have a new client to meet, and it is convenient for them, I suggest we meet there. For me, it’s a pleasant, neutral venue in lovely surroundings, where I can hear the founders’ story, what they want to do with their business, what they have ‘got’, and if I can help.

The customer problem the local cafe solves for me is that, as I work from a home office, I don’t want to invite the business into my own home, and I don’t necessarily want to pile out to their office (if there’s a second meeting, we can meet there), so I need a ‘third place‘ (as made famous by Starbucks) to meet.

Once the order for coffee is taken, I also want to be left alone to have a conversation with the client. I don’t want to be ignored, I don’t want to be pestered. I don’t want to feel we have overstayed my welcome just because we have finished my coffee (ooohh, how I hate that).

Coffee with a lake view

My local cafe understands this. They are friendly, attentive, chirpy even, and seem genuinely pleased to see me. I frequent the place so much they guess that the person at the front counter peering inside is probably coming to see me, or if I have arrived after the client, they point me to who it probably is.

In this way, they are going above and beyond, and they will have my business for a good while yet. In fact, the place is so thriving, that visitors usually remark ‘Wow, this place is a gold mine‘ or ‘What a great place.‘ Some come back on their own volition later on.

Contrast this to a cafe I used to visit. They seemed genuine and friendly at first, but as soon as your cup was nearly finished, they would pounce and whisk it from you asking ‘Anything else?‘ (which  was plainly delivered to mean ‘Can you leave now!?‘). Staying any longer made you feel uncomfortable. I would barely stay 30 minutes, and after a while, never went back. At my local cafe above, I stay an hour per visit, and often have 3 meetings there in one day. I like my coffee. And I like it there.

The second cafe seemed to be focussing more on solving their problems (getting as many customers in and out of the place), than paying attention to their customers’ problems (a third place to meet, a catching up place, a filling in time space, or whatever). By focussing on the wrong things, and taking a short term view, the ‘cafe-I-never-visit-anymore’ lost my business, and I wonder how many others? I passed it the other day and it had shut down. Meanwhile, my local thrives.

Now I am not a restauranteur nor am I well versed in running cafes – I often do a rough calculation of revenues at the place, notice the high number of staff and wonder how they make money – but if I was to run a cafe I think I would realise that the third place concept was well established and understood by now. Customers are not flocking there for the wonderful coffee, or even the view, but for a service that provides them that place other than home or work (even if it is nothing more than to catch up with old friends or fill in an hour reading the paper.)

If I was running a cafe, I would like to think I’d train my staff to appreciate what the third place meant. I would provide free wifi. I would encourage local business people to meet up, linger, and ‘become members’ (a simple loyalty stamp card would suffice). Yes, I would make more money from the evening meals served with alcohol, but if I am to open during the day, then I would encourage more and more to attend and keep the tills ringing over. The more that come through, the more will be enticed by the carrot cake and muffins, or to have lunch, or to come back one evening for a nice meal, give me nice reviews and to spread the word.

It’s the funnel concept of selling – tip more in at the top, and more shall be returned to you down the bottom. Tweak the conversion rates, and off you go.

In the end the value of any business – and the wealth it creates – comes down to one simple question: how well do you understand and then solve the customer problem?

For, as I have said many times before, only if you solve a customer problem (the person who pays you for your product or service) will you create value; only if you create value will they pay, and only if they pay will you even have a business.

And… if you rinse and repeat this enough over a period of time, your revenue will grow, as will profits (as long as you control your costs) and the business will be worth a pretty dollar or three. This could ultimately determine your own wealth.

If you are not born into money, or have not made it in property or mining, then probably the best way to build wealth is to create a business you own, build it up and sell it (or live off the wonderful dividends it provides). The recent Australian Rich List (self made under 40s) all made their money in business, with 42 of the 100 in tech or online business of some sort. Only 6 were in resources, and 1 in property. The next generation of wealth creators have understood the process well.

Meanwhile, enjoy the coffee.

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Why most new products fail

A better mousetrap does not necessarily sell. In fact, most of the time, it doesn’t.

If you build it, they will come.

Nonsense.

If they come, build it.

That’s pretty much the message I try to ram into new startups, imploring them to use the lean canvas, or some such method, to ‘just get out there’ and be nimble and responsive to customers’ needs, building up their business along the way.

These days, you can get a new startup going on credit card debt, build an MVP (minimum viable product), work with your first paying customers, get revenue coming in as soon as possible, laying the ground work for a possible scale up later on.

That way, you don’t risk piles of cash. Having less money also teaches you to work smart, fast and love your early clients to death. You’ll learn the fine art of on-boarding, and how small tweaks to your landing pages can make massive differences to your conversion rates and first revenues.

The fact is that most products fail.

Studies show that, depending on the category, 40% to 90% of new products don’t last. Every year in the US 30,000 new products are launched, but 70% to 90% of them are no longer sold after 12 months.

It’s also a myth that you have to be first to market. 47% of first movers don’t make it. Sometimes, even better products don’t cut through. Better, as in ones that have distinct advantages over incumbent offerings.

Why?

A classic Harvard Business Review paper (“Eager Sellers and Stony Buyers” by John Gourville) a dozen years ago laid out the reasons, yet we still see people ignoring the advice.

Gourville’s paper is a must read for anyone looking to develop and market a new product.

People are not always rational. I’m not talking about some crazy guy you see on a train or shuffling down the street. I mean all people, as a rule. Irrational.

For example: studies have shown that if you give people a 50% chance of winning $100 and the same risk of losing $100, most people won’t take the bet. In fact, you have to offer most folks a two to three times gain over a possible loss before they are swayed.

In other words, if they have 50% chance of winning $300 and 50% chance of losing $100 then more will go for it than not. But not if the 50:50 chance of winning was $100, or even $200.

The reason, says the theory, is that losses loom larger in our minds that wins. We may know what we have is not all that great, but the costs of switching means we are happier to stay with our current lot, than strike out and go for something potentially better. Unless the odds are stacked more heavily in its favour.

Put it another way, better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

“Loss aversion”, says the paper, “leads people to value products they already possess more than those they don’t have.”

This bias is called the ‘endowment effect‘. And it is quite strong.

The implication is that if you are trying to get people to change their behaviour (use your bright shiny new object rather than the one they are used to), then your new product better have massive advantages, well communicated and understood, before your potential clients make the switch.

In 2007 and 2008, I was happy with my Blackberry. It had email, allowed me to surf the net (chunkily, but it kinda worked) and the keyboard was on the outside, much like the PC I was used to. It was way better than my old flip top Nokia phone.

Then came the iPhone. No keyboard. I heard rumours the batteries did not last. It took me til 1999 to make the move, but after I’d started using it, I never dreamt of going back to Blackberry. Nine years on, I still use iPhone.

Many millions did likewise. Blackberry subsided and never recovered. Apple went on to become the richest companies on the planet, and is inching its way to a trillion dollar valuation (it will be the first company to do so, if it gets there).

The fully electric car may seem like something fantastic (no more petrol pumps) but if you are not sure there will be charging stations, are you really going to switch to the Nissan Leaf?

The 9x Effect

Company executives tend to over emphasise the benefits of the new product (by a factor of 3) while the consumer tends to over emphasise the benefit of their existing product (also by a factor of 3).

This means that the new product actually needs to be better by a factor of NINE if it is to be viewed as equivalent to the incumbent.

Which is why you hear of innovators talk about the ’10x’ effect, which means their new product may have a chance.

I recently saw a new agtech service that would (at least) save the user 10 times the cost of the product itself. It should stand a chance. If they were going for 2 or 3 times uplift, little chance.

Easy Sells

The best new products are those that require little change for the consumers, while providing massive improvements on the existing product.

Maybe this is why hybrid cars have made a greater impact than fully electric ones. The consumer gets the benefit of better fuel consumption, but still has the knowledge that a petrol tank exists, which is something they’ve been used to all their lives. In time, perhaps the fully electric car will out, but for now, the hybrid serves a purpose.

Another implication is that you need patience. Patience is a virtue, as I tell my children at every occasion, much to their annoyance. Customer acceptance of a new way takes time. Google, Facebook & AirBnB all took several years to take hold.

It also means that you should strive for 10x improvement. Find believers, get them to be evangelical about the new product and spread the word.

But, whatever you do, do not believe that simply because your new mousetrap is better, it will sell. It will most likely fail.

The trend is your friend

The Sydney Harbour Bridge was opened in 1932, and took eight years to build.

In 1926, you could see the large pillars on either side of the harbour, from which the famous steel arches would start to appear a few years later. By the end of 1928, the entry roads were clearly visible leading up to these pillars, but other than that there was no ‘bridge’ (yet), and ships and ferries could pass by through the opening as they had done for decades. [In fact, if you look at the photo above, you can see exactly that in 1930 and 1931.]

By 1931 most of the arch had been completed, and the future bridge could be imagined. A year later, in March 1932, the bridge was officially opened by the then Premier of NSW, Jack Lang.

In a film clip of the event, you can hear the cheers of the onlookers and the commentator saying “Can you hear those boats? Can you hear those sirens? What a great day this is…”

Not so merry for the ferry

Many Sydneysiders know the saying ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care‘. This slogan was coined by the Port Jackson and Manly Steamship Company in the 1920s to promote its ferries on the Manly run. Without a bridge, a ferry was the only way to get from one side of the harbour to the other.

Yet, once the bridge construction had been agreed on, and building commenced, you could literally see the thing being built above you and across the 1km+ span of the harbour.

Before the bridge was opened in March 1932, ferries took 30 million passengers a year. After, ferry patronage plummeted to 13 million.

I tell this story to remind all industries that disruption to their mainstay business is often dramatic, yet can be foreseen. But in this case, the disruption was clearly visible to the ferry companies as the bridge was literally being built above their heads!

Often disruption is not that visible. It’s slow and inexorable, eating away at your business like white ants under your floorboards. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. Putting one’s head in the sand does not protect you from its inevitability.

You may as well assume disruption is the norm. The more safe you feel, the more worried you should be. Check for white ants. Do your research. Think.

The good news is that you may have time on your side. Sydney’s harbour bridge took 9 years to build. Google took about that time to really take hold and make an impact on local advertising revenues. Same with Facebook.

It may have been that one day you looked around and suddenly Facebook and Google was all pervasive, but they took years ‘pushing the flywheel’ before they were so impregnable.

So, what are you doing in your business, in your industry, to prepare for your inevitable disruption? How are you positioning yourself so you can take advantage of the changes that are coming? Are you researching the possibilities of AI, bots, drones, AR, VR or the blockchain? All these, and more, are visible right now and making their creeping impacts.

Don’t be the ferryman, ignoring the inevitable while the seed of your destruction is being built around you. Get on a trend, because the trend is your friend.

Take it from Eddie Izzard – Quality is more important than Speed

Over the break I read Eddie Izzard’s excellent ‘Believe Me, a memoir of love, death and jazz chickens‘. Bill Gates, of all people, had recommended it as a top read, and I thought ‘now why would a serious bloke like Mr Gates be into the autobiography of an English cross-dressing comedian?’

Then I reached page 306, which I quote from heavily below.

Eddie Izzard was born a year before me, and was packed off to an English  private boarding school aged 6 after his mother died suddenly of cancer. He grew up with the same TV shows and music as I remember from the early 70s, and went to uni around the same time (although he dropped out to pursue his dream of performing).

As a teenager, while still at school, he decided one day to take a bus and a pay a visit – uninvited – to Pinewood Studios, just west of London (where they made James Bond movies and the like) walking right through the side door and exploring around all day pretending to be busy and part of things.

During his ‘lost decade’ of the 1980s he took various failed shows up to Edinburgh Fringe, then spent a few years as a street performer before finally getting into stand up. He explored and created, and slowly honed his craft. He put on shows himself, producing them from scratch and co-writing inventive nonsense with friends. Most of it simply did not work, but slowly he found his own voice and style and confidence and audience.

From the 1990s his stand up act took off and then he made it into films and TV. Now, in his mid 50s, looking back, his advice for creating new business is crystal clear …

“When I was 25, the direction of my career suddenly became shaped by my ‘Field of Dreams’ rule – if you build it, they will come. ‘It’ being quality and imaginative shows.

“Previously, this had not been my thinking. Quality was not high on my list. Speed was. But who the hell cares if you get somewhere fast? The only person who cares is you. 

“If you could get somewhere faster, then you’d just have a lot of money, a big house, a fast car and a big cat. The individual is the one who wants to get somewhere quickly. It’s what you want when you’re young. At nineteen I thought I would begin to cut through within a few years, but this was not the case. At 25 I was racing to get somewhere fast but getting nowhere.

“So I turned the plan upside down: don’t get somewhere as fast as possible. Get somewhere as good as possible.

“No one ever says, ‘This piece of creative work is crap, but it was made in a couple of weeks, so let’s go check it out.’ Contrariwise, no one ever says, ‘Now, this piece of creative work took 10 years to make and a lot of care and attention – so I must check it out because it took so long to make.’

“There is something fun about a fast trajectory, someone’s career taking off quickly. It’s all about the wind in their sails. But in the end, you want your work to last. And to do that, your work must be good…

“(My career) took 12 years to appear, and to me it felt like a bloody eternity… there was something I had to learn. It was stamina. And it was also the idea of quality over speed.

There is an eternal truth in this passage.

Do your best work, not your quickest work. It might take time. In fact, if you’re doing something new, wacky and disruptive, it will definitely take time. More time than you’d like. But in the end, only the best work wins. Keep plugging away, find your audience, keep innovating.

This experience and advice has obvious crossover to business and particularly startups. I think I can see why Bill Gates admires Mr Izzard.

Change is slow, and that’s good thing

Methuselah is a 4,849-year-old Great Basin bristlecone pine tree growing high in the White Mountains of Inyo County in eastern California.

An oft-heard refrain these days is a lament “Everything’s changing so fast!” and it would be easy to sign up to this notion.

Look how we totally rely on our smartphones these days, turning to them an average of 150 times a day. It makes one wonder what we did for entertainment, news and chat pre-2007. And yet, we’ve only had them for 10 years. It’s gone in a blink of an eye.

See how Uber and Airbnb have blasted into our market, totally disrupting and changing the way we move around the city, or stay in other cities (or have total strangers to stay with us). Uber only got going in Perth in 2014, and has over 20% of the market. Airbnb launched into Australia a couple of years earlier and has upwards of 30% across Australia these days.

And yet, even these stories prove that the best changes – the ones that stick – take time.

There had been smartphones well before 2017, and phones with access to the internet had been around for a while. The best marketing the iPhone did was to announce itself as the game changer, yet even the iPhone took a while to take off. Early versions’ battery life was poor, and not everyone liked using a finger to tap on a virtual keyboard through glass. The Blackberry ruled supreme, and had a built in keyboard. This was much closer to peoples’ existing experience, which was why it was named “the crackberry”. Its devotees were obsessed by it.

The iPhone 3 was the version that took off, launched as it was with the app store in 2009. It was this moment that saw the inexorable shift to the smartphone (which  really should have been termed the ‘app phone’, as phones had been smart before – it was the apps that made them different now). The creation of the cottage industry of app makers was the true revolution, and this underpinned the smart (sorry, app) phone’s rise. Soon Samsung and Google jumped on board.

Looking deeper into the Uber and Airbnb cases you can see that they did not exactly take off as over night successes either. Launched in 2007, it took til 2011 before Airbnb would launch in multiple cities and gain traction, on the back of some serious capital raises in 2010. Likewise, Uber, founded in 2009, took a couple of years and then a major seed round in 2011 before it could launch in various jurisdictions with UberX in 2012. Indeed, Uber was not the first ride-sharing service, and they held back looking at the rulings coming out regarding the legality or otherwise of this new form of transportation. (Others could argue that ride sharing had actually been created in the early 1900s, or even the 16th century, but that’s another story.)

The history of even these wildly successful game-changing disruptors started with relatively quiet 2 or 3 years where things were far from certain. They were learning, pivoting and inching their way to the best formula. When I meet tech founders who think they’ll take off immediately with hockey stick growth I tell them the real stories of hardship, years and years of struggle, before even the best break out. Are you up for that? Founding a startup may seem glamorous when you see the gazillionares adorn magazine covers, blaze around at Burning Man or stomp across tech conference floors delivering well honed keynotes in their black t-shirts, dark blue jeans and high end trainers. But they all had hard starts, and there were many failures, mistakes, missteps and sleepless nights. It’s not all glamour, believe me.

So I would argue that change is slow. Indeed, the best ideas always grow slowly, and that’s a good thing, because things that grow slowly tend to last a long time.

Just talk to a turtle (average age 100 years) or Methuselah, a Californian bristlecone pine tree that was seeded in 2,833 BC. She ain’t pretty, but she’s still here.

Slow is good. Slow and steady wins the race. It’s hard work. It’s not very glamorous. It’s a million small things you do, day after day after day, that get you there. There is no silver bullet. And that’s a good thing.

Get them on the drip

When we were contemplating the best revenue model for aussiehome.com, the online real estate portal we established in 1999, we considered the following main alternatives:

  1. Subscriptions – real estates agents pay regular fees to list their properties
  2. Advertising – advertisers pay for display ads on the website
  3. eCommerce – home seekers can buy/rent directly off the website

Any other revenue model you can think of is just a variation of the 3 above. Note that for each option you have a different paying customer. And knowing who your customer is, and what problem you are solving for them, as I have discussed in these pages, is critically important.

In subscriptions, your client is the real estate agent, and the users of the site (home seekers) get to use it for free. What would agents want in return? Enough enquiries (and as we learned over time, a listing edge) to justify these fees.

Advertising income means your paying customers are your advertisers. In return for the promotional investment on your site they expect to see lots of views of their ads, and click throughs. Likely advertisers would be banks, mortgage brokers, home builders and any other home-related businesses.

The final one is pure ecommerce – taking on the whole industry, competing against real estate agents, and selling/renting properties directly off the site. Back in 1999, barely 3% of all properties in WA were sold privately (ie by the owner, not through an agent).  Fortunately, we discounted this 3rd option. We did not believe the world was ready for home owners to take a punt on a new website, chancing their arm with their largest financial asset (their house). 18 years later, this is still the case. Nearly everyone selling their property in 2017 does so through a licensed real estate agent, and REIWA member. ‘For sale by owner’ sites have floundered.

Selling ads, we thought, would be tough as we’d be up against Yahoo! and others and we’d need huge traffic to pull any decent ad dollars. This would mean raising a King’s ransom in funding, and blowing most of it on our own promotions. This seemed too risky. Another good decision this, as Google and Facebook would come along and scoop up nearly all of the digital ad money in Australia.

So, almost by a process of elimination, we plumped for subscriptions. Subscriptions is no easy solution though. Real estate agents, and most small business owners, resist paying ongoing fees. It adds to their costs, and makes their business riskier. They would be far happier paying for something large in one bulky purchase (as we found out, on such things as banner ads and websites).

Subscriptions is also a long, slow row to hoe. In order to get properties on the site, you need enough agents to be paying to load them up. Only then will visitors have enough content to peruse, find your site useful and return.

This is the major problem with brand new two-sided market places. You have to build supply and demand simultaneously, and this is extremely difficult.

When you’re building a 2-sided marketplace from scratch, how can you get demand when you have little supply, and how can you get supply when you have little demand?

Uber solved this curly one by paying the first drivers to sign up in a city some income, irrespective of whether they had passengers. They realised that the minute the first passengers used the service, there had to be Uber drivers nearby. Uber knew this first experience had to work well, so their early adopters would rave about the service. They grew from there.

We did something similar. We gave away 3-month free trials to our early real estate agents, so they could plop all their listings on the site, for free, in order to get some supply up there. As soon as the first people looked on the site, there had to be hundreds of properties for sale and rent. Once a few agencies were supporting us, it became easier to get others to give us a go. Obviously, this does not produce any income, so we could not do this forever. After our first year, we stopped giving away  free trials.

Slowly, but surely, we started to earn monthly income. As agencies came off their free trials, they started to pay a fee. Not huge bikkies, but something. Once you get customers paying for your service, you are in business. They take it more seriously than a free offer. They update their listings, and then, something wonderful happens – they start to get enquiries. We could see the email enquiries coming directly off the site. (We could not see phone calls of course, but these were happening, so we were told.)

On top of this base of subscriptions income, we added some ecommerce (users could buy Landgate sales evidence online) and advertising (banner ads for agents, and display ads for mortgage brokers and the like). We then moved into web site design for our agencies (building their sites off our system), magazines and in time feed income so that our clients could be on up to a dozen sites through us. But it was the bedrock subs income that built the strong foundation.

As Seth Godin wrote recently, the ‘drip drip drip‘ of subscriptions is the most sustainable business model.

Newspapers have had to learn this. The NY Times put on 800,000 new paying subscribers since Trump was elected. Their shares are soaring, built off a base of 2.2 million subscribers, up more than 60% in the past year. Failing NY Times fake news indeed. Quite the reverse Mr President!

One thing that took me to Business News in 2013 was that their readers had been paying for subscriptions since 2002. By 2017, these subscribers were renewing at record levels, and subscriptions income was the largest single income source. A great local story of a media company taking a brave route, and prevailing.

Netflix entered Australia 2 years ago, and now 1 in 3 Australian households have a subscription. Quickflix, its Aussie competitor, started more than 10 years ago, never passed more than a few hundred thousand subscribers. Although prevailing against all other local competitors, they could not compete with the US-backed giant and shut down within months of Netflix’s entry.

Realestate.com.au’s valuation today is north of A$9 billion. I remember when it was worth $6 million, after the throes of the dotcom crash in Easter 2000. But it built itself up, and the ‘network effect’ of having pretty much every agency on board meant every agency had to be on board, and everyone went there to view properties. A complete 2-sided market of immense power, they could pretty much charge what they like. It now costs more than $1,500 a property to list on the site.

As my cofounder Nick used to say to me, “Charlie, get them on the drip.” How right he was.

Solve problem, have business

Many of us can make business seem a little bit more complicated than it is.

Setting up a business is really easy. I did it (for the 2nd time in my life) this week . I had thought of a name, which had an available web address, a line that encapsulated what I would do, and I asked my accountant to do all the legal work. I bought a new PC and monitor to set up my home office, asked my bank to create a new business bank account and Fiverr did my logo (on 3rd attempt, but I was happy with the outcome). I tested the name and logo with some people and was met with positive reaction.

I’m not fully launched yet, but I’m on my way. The website (which will be here) is still being built. However, I do have my first paying customer.

As I have written before, startups are easy, as you are buying things. Anyone can buy things. Buy a domain name, buy a logo, office, PC, some accounting services… but it’s much harder to sell things. Get money coming back in, the opposite direction.

When it comes down to it, how you are going to get money coming in is the most important question in business, because without it, you don’t have a business. You may have a not for profit, or a loss-making organisation, but it’s unlikely to become a self-sustaining business. These days, setting up a business is so cheap (my total set up costs have come to $3,200) that you can be “in business” very easily, but unless money is coming in somehow, it is not really a business at all.

I’ve met a few people along the way who are still struggling with this fact. They have a great website, lovely content, are pure and passionate in what they do, but they don’t have a business model (a way of having money come in). They’ve tried a few things, but to no avail or not in sufficient quantity to cover costs.

My advice to them is to stop thinking about what they want to do, and start focusing on the problem they are trying to solve for the customer. In business, the money flows in from the customer. In some cases, there are users and customers, different sets of people. One of them uses the service for free, the other pays for their use.

For example, when we started aussiehome.com way back in 1999, we thought we were building a web site for people like us, home buyers and renters. We were going to make property searching easier, by showing properties on maps on the web, 24/7, rather than forcing people to wait for the weekend papers. Fine, except the business model was a subscriptions one for real estate agents. They were our customers, the ones who paid us, not the users who used the site and found their properties for free.

So, in order to get the real estate agents to pay, we had to work out what problem(s) we were solving for them. It took us about 18 months (post launch) to figure this out. (I don’t advise doing this post launch, as we did.) The agents’ problem was not trying to get buyers to see their properties. Buyers seek out properties. They will use whatever means they can, including driving by favourite neighbourhoods, reading sign boards, ringing up agents, waiting for the weekend and local papers…

You can rarely force someone to buy a house they don’t want to live in. What real estate agents know is that if they get a good listing (property), and present and price it correctly, it will sell (most of the time), depending on market conditions. In boom times, properties fly off the shelves. In tougher times, they seem almost impossible to budge. The poor agent can exert little influence on the market. The market is the market, as they like to remind us.

What real estate agents therefore want, is a great listing. List and last, as they say. In order to get the best listings, agents need ‘listing tools‘, the latest gizmo or script or shiny object that will set them apart from their competitors.

Once this penny dropped, we realised what our business was.

Give our agents listing tools, to make them more competitive over the next agent, and they might just win that great new listing. Price and present it properly, and the property will sell. Or not, depending on market conditions.  Pretty much. It was all about the listing, not the selling.

We then spent the best part of 10 years building listing tools for our agency clients; great websites that ran off our platform, the ability to list on a dozen real estate sites through single data entry and XML feeds, full colour gloss magazines, apps and social media advice… anything to give them the edge in that pre-listing interview with the owner.

So – what is business really? It’s all about solving problems for customers. If you can solve problems for them, then you create value. If you create value, they will pay. If they pay, you might be in business.

It all comes down to relentlessly focusing in on the customer problem, and hammering away at that in ruthless fashion.

Never ever fall in love with your own product or service (the worst salesman does that). Fall in love with solving your customers’ problems instead.

So, after all this, what is my new business, and what customer problem have I fallen in love with solving? Agh, you will just have to wait a little while longer before I reveal… although I have left a few hints on this website.

Photo credit: Steve Fettig, Flickr

Company Directors Course – 5. Board effectiveness

CDC - board effectiveness

The final day of the company directors course focussed on board effectiveness –  what is it? how can it be managed? what’s best practice? what are some of the traps? The first half involved long time board recruiter Mike Horabin sharing his vast knowledge and decades of hard won experience. The second half involved us being put into a live case study, where we each in turn acted out as a presenter to the board, an observer of the board, and being a director on the board on a separate agenda item. It was the high point of the week, and a strong conclusion to the proceedings. 

There are so many takeaways from this course, so here are just a few more to add to those already posted about the board’s responsibilities and decision-making, duties and the law, risk and strategy and accounts, solvency and finances

  1. Boards are charged with coming to sound conclusions, concentrating on the proper items in front of them, with concise, well prepared information. They need a good mix of people and skills, have leadership from within (Chair) and provide leadership to the company. Overall, they are there to add value.
  2. Good boards provide calm decisions in times of crisis, are not rushed or panicked.
  3. They are a pool of wisdom, and are there to guide, mentor and assist management.
  4. Individual characteristics of good board members include: integrity and honesty, relevant experience, strategic thinking, good communication skills, wise and battle scarred, inclusive, good team player, adaptable, willing to change their views, courageous enough to ask difficult questions, are independent, decisive and have good instincts.
  5. High performance boards can have tough conversations but still reach decisions and be productive; they respect each other, trust and share in an open environment.
  6. The ‘magnificent 7‘ things a board needs to do are: lead with the right culture, develop the best strategy & pick the best CEO (then these others become easier ->), manage risk, monitor performance, ensure compliance & maintain good shareholder relations.
  7. The chair’s role is crucial – they are elected by the board, their relationship with CEO is pivotal, and they can only continue if they have the backing of the board.
  8. The Board should manage their own secession; most of the time they should try to get a new member on board before the other departs, and then have their position ratified at an AGM; they can come on as casual for a few months beforehand.
  9. Board committees must have clear terms of reference, time frame, its own Chair (good training ground for future chairs) and make recommendations to the main board.
  10. If you don’t agree with the way decisions are going in the main board meeting, by all means meet other board members, but make your points and do a paper to the next meeting if needs be. Talk to the chair; don’t thump tables, and if the decision goes against you, abide by it. Don’t form factions.
  11. Develop a “Matters reserve list” which shows which matters require sign off from Board, with the implication that all else can be handled by the CEO and management. Review this regularly.
  12. A board calendar should outline what needs to be dealt with throughout the year – monthly, quarterly, six-monthly and annually. Board meetings should last 2-3 hours, but can be half days, and in some indigenous organisations might last 2 days.
  13. Culture is crucial and central; it’s not fluffy, it’s hard nosed, but a good corporate culture can lead to so many good outcomes. “Culture is how people in the organisation behave when no one’s watching.”
  14. If Chairs disagree on the direction of the discussion, or how consensus is forming, ask a question. Monitor how bad news gets to the board – is it disguised? embellished? hidden? slow? Ultimately, boards need the bad news quickly.
  15. Papers to the boards are legal documents, as are your notes on them if they are kept and a legal case starts. After that you cannot destroy them, they are evidence. Minutes should be published within 48 hours of each meeting.
  16. Finally, take time to reflect as a board and as individuals, with each other – what can we do better? how did the meetings go? how good were the papers? were our decisions correct/best? have we added enough value? what can be improved?

Overall, the company directors course was a high value 5 days, and brought home the complexity and skill in group decision-making around the board table, how to search for answers, the importance of asking the right/tough questions. It’s made me reflect on how challenging it can be, but how vital it is to do well. It’s made me realise that this is something I want to do, in time, and something where I think I can contribute.

Over the next 3-5 years and beyond organisations are going to be challenged like never before with the rapid changes in technology, cyber security, digital disruption, the sharing economy, robotics, driverless cars, connected devices, the Internet of Things and much more besides. Who knows what jobs will exist for our children in 10 or 20 years time? Probably they have not even been thought of yet. Whole industries will disappear, and new ones will be created. Businesses that cannot stay relevant will fade away. Others will start up.

I would like to be the ‘digital guy’ who sits on various Boards, thinks strategically, and assists organisations make the transition from old way of doing things to the new. It’s exciting, and challenging, and something where I can probably add value. What can you add value on? Are boards something you might be interested in? If so, I highly recommend the AICD company directors course.

… and now I have to do my exams and pass this thing!

Company Directors Course – 4. Finances and Solvency

CDC - accounts

The 4th day of the company directors course was all about “the books”, and what directors need to know about them, what they need to ask, and why. For many this was the day they dreaded, but I’ve never found accounting all that bad, in that the principles (once learnt) are fairly straightforward and much of the rest is plain logic. It’s a bit of detective work, sifting through the evidence to uncover what the real story is, where the concerns are. It can be fun when you discover the truth, like solving a puzzle. OK, I sound a bit geeky, but it is made all the easier when you have an expert and calm trainer (as we did today), who is well experienced and could build up everything from first principles, so you could see how it all hangs together. I learned a lot, and I felt it filled in some gaps I did not know I had.

Directors need to be aware that they bear the ultimate responsibility for the financial performance and position of the company, so they should be asking questions if they suspect anything is not completely understood, right and proper.

Again, this is not an exhaustive list, but from memory, here are some important matters to consider as a director in regards to an organisation’s accounts & finances …

  1. The Accounts are an indicator only, like a light on your car dashboard. Some lights will not be flickering, some may never become a concern, but at times as you drive along they may indicate something. It’s very easy in hindsight to spot problems in a mangled heap of law suits and company implosion, but even in these cases a sensible director might have been querying things many years before the problems became endemic, and in some cases, ruinous.
  2. The 3 main account documents are: the Profit and Loss (P+L), the Balance Sheet, and the Statement of Cash Flows.
  3. The P+L shows you how they organisation has performed in $ terms over a past period (year, quarter or month). It looks backwards. It starts with a statement of income from sales to customers (Revenue) and deducts the direct cost of those sales (cost of good sold, COGS, such as direct labour and raw materials) to calculate Gross Profit.
  4. For a retail store, COGS would be calculated as Opening Stock of Goods plus Purchases (= available for sale) minus Closing Stock (stock still left over).
  5. Your Gross Profit divided by Sales is your ‘margin‘, and in most trading entities, it would be expected this would be positive and worth about 30% of sales or more. The higher the gross profit margin (GPM) the more margin you have, and the more profitable you are.
  6. After Gross Profit is deducted expenses, to get an Earnings Before Interest and Tax (EBIT). Often EBIT is used to compare organisations as it is not affected by how a company funds its operations (payment of interest on loans) or by specific tax rules.
  7. Various other deductions are then made, such as depreciation (to make sure you are accounting for your plant and machinery losing value over time), tax and interest, and you’ll end up with Net Profit after Tax (NPAT), the bottom line. Net Profit, if positive, can be used to pay dividends and/or plough back into the company (as reserves, a source of future funds).
  8. The Balance Sheet will give directors a statement of the financial position of the company at one moment in time (the date on the balance sheet). Notice the difference here – the P+L is over a period of time, and the balance sheet is a snapshot at one point in time. It’s as if everything in the business is frozen and added up, including all the assets the business owns (Assets: such as property, cash, receivables, equipment), all the debt it owes (Liabilities, such as bank loans, payables, overdraft, employee provisions/leave) and the amount of money in the business that is left over (Equity). Assets = Liabilities + Equity, or Assets – Liabilities = Equity.
  9. Equity can be made up of the initial share capital invested, plus any subsequent share raisings, plus any accumulated reserves and retained profits earned over time, less dividends paid.
  10. Various ratios can help you decipher what is going on, although you’d want to know why the ratios are changing, not only that they are changing. For example, ‘return on assets’ may be rising because you are generating more profit from your assets (Good!) but it might also be because you had to write off some useless assets (Bad!).
  11. The third important document is the Statement of Cash Flows, and from various cases today it was clear that the P+L might look great, so too the Balance Sheet position, but once you look at where the business is actually earning its cash from, and where it is spending it, a very different picture may emerge. All 3 documents are required for a better overall understanding.
  12. One classic case here was a WA-based winery (which later went insolvent, had to be broken up and sold off). The P+L looked fine for the 5 years presented, but digging deeper it was clear that by the 5th year in question the only reason it made a positive NPAT at all was due to some revaluation of the vine trees (upwards), which had been done (perfectly legally as per accounting standards) over the previous two years. This had come on to the books as ‘other revenue’. Meanwhile the balance sheet looked OK, albeit with some higher debt levels and some share issuing, but otherwise things looked ‘not great’, but ‘under control’. However, looking at the statement of cash flows, it was clear they were not earning positive cash inflows from their actual business at all, and that a combination of more borrowing (debt), share issuing (diluting shareholders) and asset sales (flogging off what was seemingly not bolted down) were the main reason they still had cash in the bank at all. All major ratios were trending down, and in fact the liquidity ratio (ability to pay immediate debts) had been well below acceptable levels 3 years earlier, and continued to be thus.
  13. There were certainly warning signs up to 6 years before the business eventually went into administration. This brings up one of the most sober points for directors – trading while insolvent, or trading close to insolvency. Solvency is “being able to pay debts when they fall due” and so has a timing element to it. As long as the business can pay debts as they fall due, then you are OK.
  14. How would a director know if the business might be sailing close to the wind on insolvency or not? Early warning signs may include – a reduction in cash balances, an increase in creditors (the business may be trying to buy time with suppliers), a low liquidity ratio (below 0.75 is generally a worry), net cash receipts from customers is less than cash paid to staff and suppliers, cash income from sales is less than reported book sales, an overdraft being used and rising over time, various other devices are being used to keep cash up (asset sales, share issuing, increases in debt) and dividend payments being funded from borrowing or anything other than operating cash profits. All the directors have to do is raise some questions about all this, and in the case of the winery above, questions could have been asked many years before the business failed.
  15. The insolvency issue is fundamental, as directors must not allow the business to continue trading if they suspect the business cannot pay its debts as they fall due. If the business continues to trade, the directors could be held personally liable for any more debts incurred. This is illegal! ‘Hoping things will turn around’ and ‘we’ll trade out of it’ are not valid excuses. You fail in your fiduciary duty as a director to the company if you allow the business to trade while insolvent. Pure and simple. If you suspect this, you have to have this recorded (e.g. minuted), and stop trading. But well before then, you should have picked up the warning signs and asked important questions, such as ‘why are we paying a dividend while making a trading loss?‘ or ‘how are we paying for ongoing business expansion when our receipts from customers are less than what we pay our suppliers and staff?‘ or ‘our liquidity ratio is at 0.4, and an acceptable level is 0.75 or higher, how are we going to revert back to an acceptable level?’…
  16. There are far more issues to do with accounts than these few points above – for example, there are many more accounts than the 3 main ones above, and dozens of ratios. Last point – beware the fine print. Read the notes to the accounts – there should be explanations for any asset impairment, or revaluation or anything like this that can have a material impact on results. Remember, if you’re not sure, ASK!

Company Directors Course – 3. Risk and Strategy

CDC - risk and strategy

Day 3 of the company directors course, and we had a superb facilitator, Peter Fitzpatrick, who has loads of experience, and even better, is a well versed and highly competent at providing it. He kept us engaged all day. Quite a skill. We’re 60% of the way through, and it’s a weekend, so I can take a pause to reflect on another full day with lots of learning.

Risk and Strategy are two of the most important matters a Board will focus on. Risks come in all shapes and sizes, seemingly from anywhere, and you can never exclude all risk altogether. It’s more about how aware the company is about their risk environment, what appetite they have for it, and can they act when a risk suddenly blows up in their face? As for strategy, it’s the essential role of directors to look 3 to 5 years ahead and keep the company moving in the right direction, whatever that is.

Here are my takeaways in regards to risk and strategy:

  1. There are positives with risk – they can make you look after your company better, your people, save money.
  2. It’s important to keep asking questions – never assume – rather than making statements.
  3. A board refresh will be important from time to time, so you don’t get stuck in the same way of thinking.
  4. There are various ways to manage risk, and boards have a duty of care and oversight role.
  5. The company’s risk appetite needs to be defined, with KPIs (such as ‘our maximum gearing ratio will be x%’ or our ‘days creditors will be y‘)
  6. Crisis management plans needs to be prepared, with various scenarios, and from time to time, rehearsed.
  7. A diagram/overview can place all valid risks in one chart, which can be updated, and have a risk register with more details on what they are and how to mitigate and deal with each.
  8. Have a full set of risk documents, stored, updated, and understood.
  9. On strategy, first look at Simon Sinek’s ‘The Why’ – people buy the why, not the what or how. Do you know your ‘why‘?
  10. 60% of workers are disengaged with strategy and the workplace – engage them, communicate, involve them, inspire them.
  11. Developing a strategy is 1 of the 7 key roles a board does.
  12. 4 Russian brothers can be useful: Moreov, Lessov, Ridov, Tossin (!)
  13. Allow a good time for strategy day with enough preparation. November can be a good month to hold a strat day.
  14. What’s your main game? Don’t stray from this. What are you (or can you be) best at?
  15. A good external facilitator is required for strat days.
  16. Have KPIs, get everyone’s commitment and hold people accountable.