Business Failure: Autopsy and Recovery

Failure and setbacks in a business venture can take many forms, from a botched new product or service launch, to cash-flow insufficiency, losing the lease on the perfect storefront or office location, to the appearance of an aggressive new competitor. Business failure is painful and humiliating.

Even if the pre-launch planning and start-up capital are inadequate, significant research and planning and usually a large sum of money (that may have been borrowed) are nevertheless invested with the hopeful intention of bringing a new product, service, or company to life. If things don’t pan out, it’s inevitable that those involved feel crushed and demoralized.

The intricacies of launching and operating a business can cause any venture to falter, even if the founder is not directly responsible for the downfall. The many moving parts of a new venture can cause the founder to overlook essential factors, resulting in a failed launch.

Yet, in some cases,  it’s possible to recover and relaunch after an autopsy has been performed and you and your team (if there is one!) have figured out why things unraveled and how to avoid that problem and maybe others, too, in a second attempt. Common stumbling blocks include insufficient operating capital, an ill- conceived business model, an inadequate assessment of what target customers value and improper pricing.

Many Freelancers and entrepreneurs, after allowing themselves to grieve the loss, are able to move forward with determination and a better plan (and additional resources, most likely) to do much better in the next iteration. Take a look at these common causes of business failure and make note of the lessons to learn:

Unanticipated start-up costs and low sales revenue

Whether you self-financed and bootstrapped your business or borrowed from a bank or investors, you can find yourself in financial quicksand if your projections of start-up costs were underestimated and expectations for customer acquisition were blue-sky optimistic. It’s very easy to rack up big credit card debt and then succumb to panic that leads to making reckless decisions, such as second- mortgaging your home or borrowing from friends and family, as you struggle to successfully launch and create adequate business revenue. Unfortunately, you might find yourself unable to repay as expenses mount and customers are slow to arrive.

THE LESSON IS, do your homework. Thoroughly research the amount of money that will be required to launch your new business, or new product/ service, and make a rational plan for how to acquire the funds, whether you go to the bank, self-finance, ask to borrow from selected family and friends, or take on partners.

Regarding target customers, your first task is to figure out who will buy what you propose to sell, whether products or services. Is there a viable and growing market? Moreover, can you access those prospective customers, something that can be a challenge in the B2B sector.  Realistic financial projections will protect you, especially a Break-Even Analysis, which helps you predict when customer sales can be expected to pull into profit-making territory.

Finally, develop a profit-making business model. You must anticipate the start-up costs, be able to access the targeted customers, you must have the right method of delivering the products or services and pricing must be acceptable to the customers and profitable for the company.

Receivables collection problem

“They’d take sometimes 3 – 4 months to pay and it was killing my cash flow,” she said. “I couldn’t pay my suppliers without difficulty. (The company) refused to pay with a credit card. I was trying to get paid.” Lara O’Connor Hodgson, Co-Founder of the NOWaccount

As counter-intuitive as it seems, a business owner can have orders flying out the door and be totally broke. The problem, as described above by Lara O’Connor Hodgson, is that customers can be slow pay and the difficulty in collecting accounts receivable has put many businesses under.

THE LESSON IS, healthy cash-flow is essential to sustaining a viable business. Investigate the NOWaccount, which guarantees that invoices will be paid on time and in full (both you and the customer must have good credit). Those in a service business (me!) are advised to ask clients who contract to pay a project fee for an assignment to pay 15 % – 20 % of the total fee at the contract signing and link additional payments to project milestones or specific dates (at 30 day intervals, for example). The final payment owed should be no more than 25 % – 35 % of the total fee. In this way, you will receive regular infusions of cash and be much less vulnerable to a payment default by ghosting.

Powerful competitor

Facing a big new competitor is scary, but take a couple of deep breaths and take heart. If you’ve been in business for at least a year and managed to attract customers and deliver your products and services adequately, then you have a chance to hang on and continue with a growth trajectory. Just don’t panic; shift your adrenaline to market analysis instead. In reality, your competitor probably does not offer better quality products or services but rather has resources (like a generous advertising budget) that your organization lacks.

THE LESSON IS to 1.) analyze your competitor’s operation and determine the obstacles you need to overcome or what you need to do differently, i.e. smarter; 2.) refresh your customer knowledge to learn how their expectations and concerns may have changed to make them susceptible to switching their business to the competition; and 3.) avoid competing on price, which is usually an unwise strategy for smaller operations.

Larger companies have more money to work with and that allows them to hire more employees, offer a wider range of products and services, roll-out splashy marketing campaigns, stock more inventory and more flavors or colors and also offer lower prices because they can afford to buy in volume from the wholesalers.

Your defense is to brand your business well and customers reasons to think twice about opting for the competitor. Because no two businesses are alike, you must define for current and prospective customers why they’ll do better by doing business with you.

The heart of branding is defining and constantly communicating a company’s unique selling points, so you must 1.) understand the competition’s unique selling points and 2.) learn to clearly define and articulate your organization’s unique selling points so that you can build on the attributes that set your company apart and potentially make you valuable to customers.

When you understand your competition’s unique selling points and update your customer knowledge to learn as many specifics as possible about what resonates with them, at least theoretically, about the competitor’s unique selling points, you’ll see how to tweak your offerings in ways that reflect your company’s “house style.”

New and small businesses should definitely put an emphasis on excellent customer service. The digital revolution has not meant that customer interactions aren’t essential, even though face-to-face communication has become more limited for many.  To the contrary, customer service is even more vital in today’s business world.  Present a customer first attitude and create a pleasing customer experience. Go the extra mile to surprise and delight and your business will quickly become trusted and loved.

If you have employees, you also want to ensure you are the best employer in the industry. Having motivated and skilled staff will provide benefits for your customers and that will translate into benefits for your ability to successfully compete.

Some of the most successful entrepreneurs have suffered the frustrating experience of a business failure. For Scott Adams, creator of the world-famous Dilbert cartoons, life’s path wound through many jobs, failed startups, useless patents he applied for and countless other indignities. In his memoir, Adams shares lessons learned about keeping himself motivated, healthy and happy while racking up the failures that ultimately led to his success.

It’s fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure.”  Bill Gates, Co-Founder and former Chairman and CEO of Microsoft Corporation

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: American Gothic (1930) by Grant Wood (1891 – 1942 Anamosa, Iowa, USA) courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago. The painting depicts an Iowa farmer and his daughter.

Follow the Winners

In one of my favorite lines in one of my favorite movies, The Godfather Part II (1974), Michael Corleone (youngest son of the Godfather) says “Keep your friends close, but your enemies closer.” That advice was quickly adopted by those in business, who interpreted the line as a warning to keep a sharp eye on competitors.  No one wants to be blindsided by the competition and made vulnerable to the loss of revenue and market share.  That fear can keep one awake at night.  But how much time and effort should be spent looking over one’s shoulder and how often does such behavior result in anything that’s actionable or profitable?

Some business experts recommend that rather than obsessing over competitors, perhaps wondering what you might copy, instead study successful business leaders in other industries. When looking to keep your organization relevant and vital, strategies implemented by leaders at successful companies in industries other than your own can provide lessons and inspiration that will benefit you and your business.

To launch and sustain a profitable business, it is essential that you offer products or services for which there is a growing market, that you recognize and articulate a strong value proposition that attracts customers and that you devise a smart and efficient business model to put it all in motion and deliver the goods.  It makes sense to study innovative entrepreneurs from a variety of industries, so that you can learn what worked for their organizations and think about how certain of those strategies and tactics might be applied to your venture.

You might start this unique form of competitive intelligence by walking into a bookstore and browsing through the business section. You’ll be certain to find at least one or two interesting books, perhaps in memoir form, written by entrepreneurs who overcame significant obstacles and setbacks, only to prevail and build multi-million dollar organizations.  You might also look for speaker programs at nearby colleges, local chambers of commerce, or other business organizations that from time to time are known to host speakers who tell the story of how s/he built a successful enterprise.

Finally, since so much in life hinges on relationships and developing a strong and supportive network, remember also to reach out to those whom you know.  When you stop and think, you’ll realize that you cross paths with business owners and leaders on a regular basis.  We see and interact with these smart, successful professionals at neighborhood association meetings, at the garden club, at our place of worship, while at the gym and when serving on a not-for-profit board.  I’m willing to wager that you’ll be able to develop a friendship with at least two of these individuals and find opportunities to talk business now and again.

So extend yourself and get to know a little better the people with whom you regularly interact.  Start with some friendly small talk and and work your way toward having real conversations that lead to developing relationships.  At some point, you may be able to segue into a conversation about business, at your organization and theirs.  If you reach the level of trust that includes sharing stories about business challenges and tactics, you’ll be fortunate to have found a friend and perhaps also a mentor.  The experience will be much more satisfying, and effective, than spying on and obsessing over your business rivals.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

Image: Nike, goddess of victory, awards Heracles (Hercules) with the prize of a laurel wreath for his win at the 776 B.C. Olympics. Courtesy of the British Museum in London.

Market Research: Benchmarking and Your Positioning Strategy

Every few months it makes sense to do some benchmarking and find out how your services,  marketing message buzzwords and delivery systems compare to that of competitors.  Whether you are a start-up or a veteran entrepreneur,  market research in its many forms is an important barometer of the environment in which your business operates.  Fail to keep your finger on the various pulse points of the marketplace and you can miss the boat on either a lucrative opportunity or a shift in business practices or customer priorities that will leave you out in the cold and scrambling to catch up.

As we approach the fourth quarter,  it is useful to start thinking about the new year and how you can refine and confirm your services offered,  targeted clients,  business model and delivery of services.  The results of your benchmarking research can be used in the marketing or operations sections of a business plan,  to create a marketing or operations plan or to measure the success of a current ongoing plan.  Start the process by following the advice of the late,  great business strategy guru Peter Druker,  who famously noted that getting the right answers begins with asking the right questions.  Some important questions to pose include:

  • What drives targeted clients to hire outside help  (that is, Freelancers)  to perform the types of services your organization provides?
  • Who is providing that service for them now and what is the level of satisfaction with the deliverables?
  • What would those clients like to see included in the service itself or in its delivery that is not now being provided?
  • Does the client anticipate any changes in demand for this service within their organization?
  • What does the client feel is a fair price to pay for these services?

In market research,  there are primary and secondary sources of information.  Primary source information emanates directly from the client or competitor. Secondary sources are anything that has been published.  Because Freelance solopreneurs typically do not have market research budgets,  a DIY low or no cost strategy will be necessary.  Primary information can be collected from current and prospective clients through surveys and questionnaires that either appear on your website or are emailed separately to those who you feel will respond.  Provide an incentive to participate,  such as a free half hour consultation.  Also,  clients,  prospects and referral sources can receive from you an invitation to have coffee or lunch,  so that questions about their organizations’ needs and priorities as relates to your services can be asked and answered.

Competitors are another source of primary information.  If you attend a seminar outside of a competitor’s working geography,  he/she will likely be comfortable about sharing information.  Over time,  certain competitors that you encounter on a regular basis at business events may drop their guard just a bit and share a couple of pearls with you.  It is for that reason that establishing good relationships with competitors is a smart idea.  What they share will be limited,  but it could be beneficial.

You may want to begin your research with secondary information.  The easiest DIY market research tactic is to visit the websites of four or five of your closest competitors,  that is other Freelancers who offer similar services to clients that could be yours,  if you play your cards right.  It’s a good idea to monitor the sites over the course of months or even years and make note of any additions or deletions of services.  Changes in the available services of more than one competitor could very well indicate a change in client priorities and should prompt you to start asking some questions of your clients.  Periodic explorations of client’s websites is also a good idea.  A new service could suddenly appear and give you a new opportunity to make money.

Take your secondary research a step further and do an internet search of clients and competitors. You may find articles and press releases that yield useful information.  Periodic checks of competitor’s LinkedIn profiles is also a great idea,  especially if the two of you share a connection.  That will grant you access to a competitor’s page without making that person a connection.  Lots of juicy details about the competitor’s activities may await you.  How can you create a second degree,  strategic connection?

Give your business an important reality check with some good market research.  Obtain information that helps your business identify niche markets or glean more billable hours from current clients.  Use the December Christmas build-up weeks to conduct your investigations and make plans that will set you up for a successful new year.

Thanks for reading,

Kim

 

Love Thy Competitor

If you are the type of Freelancer/business owner who believes that a primary business goal is to annihilate and destroy your competition,  then you’re likely destined to become a less successful entrepreneur.  Research can now demonstrate the wisdom of the adage,  “keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

A 2004 study conducted by James Westphal,  professor of management at University of Texas/Austin,  examined CEO friendships in 293 U.S. companies and found that regardless of the intensity of competition within a given industry,  rival CEOs who formed friendships enjoyed distinct business-related advantages over those who shunned competitors.

According to Westphal,  not only is it possible to make friends with competitors,  it’s advisable.  He explained the advantages of friendships among rivals this way:  when business owners get together,  what do we do?  Talk shop.  We compare notes,  discuss what’s new in the industry,  talk about the economy and how it’s impacting customer behavior.

In other words,  by going to trade industry conferences and meeting,  greeting and getting to know rival Freelancers,  you’ll obtain information and get exposure to perspectives that can help make you more successful.  So think about following a bit of counter-intuitive advice and realize that business is not always a zero-sum game.  A competitor’s win does not automatically mean your loss.

If getting chummy with the competition makes you feel a little queasy,  then get friendly with a competitor based in another locale.  The distance will create a boundary that could make it comfortable for the two of you to trade ideas about cheap and savvy advertising options,  how to make your clients happy,  or how to take advantage of,  or protect yourself from,  market trends.

In some instances,  you may decide to collaborate with a competitor.  It’s potentially risky,  but forging a strategic  collaboration with one of your competitors can benefit the bottom line and help both entities to thrive.  It can be a smart expansion or survival strategy for Freelancers and other small business owners who are trying to remain viable.  Maybe there is a partnership you can set up with the right semi-rival?   It’s called coopetition.

Get to know a fellow Freelancer who works in your own,  or a related,  field.  It’s preferable if each of you has discrete strengths,  with limited potential for overlap.  Meet for coffee and broach the subject of joining forces to make money.  How can you combine your strengths and approach clients with an innovative and more desirable package?  There’s nothing better than giving clients more reasons to do business with you.

Collaborations can work in a number of ways.  Just a couple of months ago,  a lady named Julie presented me with an idea where we can add-on or up-sell certain of each others’ services.  There is potentially a complementary need in a market segment that we share and Julie wondered if some selective cross-promotion would be beneficial.  Together,  we’re hoping to gain entry to clients where separately neither could get in the door.

Another form of coopetition is establishing a referral relationship with a near-rival.  Accountants and bookkeepers have done this forever,  with much success.  Their functions have similarities,  but each party knows and respects the boundaries and knows how to work together.

Nevertheless,  do not be naive.  Take precautions and clearly define boundaries and expectations.  Watch your back and work only with someone you know to be trustworthy.  Also,  do not underestimate the potential for difficulties in establishing and sustaining a coopetition arrangement.  Assumptions about appropriate customer service or corporate culture can derail your best intentions.  Careful planning and execution are crucial if coopetition is to work smoothly.  In close collaborations,  a written non-disclosure, non-compete agreement will be essential.

Finally,  remember where friendship ends and business begins.  There will be sensitive issues that are best kept to yourself,  like new business initiatives or the  “secret sauce”  of how you deliver your unique services.  Keep your antennae raised as you and a worthy competitor mull over ways to share resources or expertise and boost profits in the process.

Thanks for reading,

Kim