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Telling Your Company's Financial Story

By Kira Spivak

Reprinted with permission from MasterCardBiz.com

http://www.mastercardbiz.com/2013/12/23/telling-your-companys-financial-story/

What is your company's story? What type of entrepreneur are you? What do your financials say about you and your company? For about 8 years, as a financial analyst for a Small Business Investment Company (SBIC), I sat in on hundreds of meetings, listening to entrepreneurs pitch their companies to the SBIC partners for a loan or investment. Soon, the partners and I began to characterize the entrepreneurs. We would enjoy the mad scientists seeking to get their innovative products to market, the sales guys who talked a mile a minute about the growth possibilities, owners simply going through a personal transition to retirement, divorce or merger, and even absentee owners. Almost every company had a financial snapshot that we could compare apples to apples. However, the partners quickly began to seek the story behind the financials that would give us reason to believe that one company might be less risky than another. Oddly, I discovered that some owners were less prepared to tell their company's financial story than one would typically be for a job interview, even though they were asking for money.

There are no hard and fast rules for pitching your company, but perhaps I can motivate you to think more about getting your story across and your act together in a way that might increase your chances of inspiring a loan or investment.

Presentation and Success Stories

Although many owners approach the presentation to request a loan or equity investment as a sales presentation, keep in mind, your investors aren't simply buying the product. Rather, although product is important, lenders and investors will highly prioritize assessing risk and opportunities for their return. As you craft your presentation, I encourage you to think about what your messaging says to them about risk and return. Once the financial pieces are in order, another value you have to offer any lender or investor is a positive partnership story for their fund or bank that they can market. Since the recession, I've noticed increasingly friendly outreach from banks like First Bank's "When I was young I wanted to ___. Start and grow the business of your dreams today." (Firstbank.com, flash photo) On many websites, like Wells Fargo's "Our Approach," in the commercial lending section, you can read the bank's marketing for your business. Although you need to choose your financial partners carefully, don't lose the successful storyline for both you and them. One CEO I know masterfully paused a somewhat technical renewal meeting, with underwriters present, to thank the bank for being a part of his company's success story that year, in what was a somewhat uneasy year. In that moment, he gave them even more reason to continue to lend to this "success story" from both sides.

Grey Areas, Advice and Caveats

Don't miss the following grey areas that investors/lenders analyze when considering a candidate:

  • 1. Is the company overly reliant on any one person? Does the owner want to retire or take a scaled back role? Is there a company without him/her?
    Caveat: Don't play deity. It's better to say "We've got a great team."
  • 2. Is the owner believable and experienced?
    Caveat: Don't ignore the hard times. Think of inspiring sport movies and be the company that made it through the tough time and is stronger for it.  Be specific, so that you can speak to their opportunity for return and possibly potential risks that are no longer an issue.
  • 3. Diverse customer base.
    Caveat: Solid customers are important. However, if you overly emphasize a single customer, it might seem like your company is dependent on one customer for its existence. Further, customer concentration can reduce the amount that can be borrowed against contracts.
  • 4. Is the company focused or disorganized and "all over the place"?
    Caveat: If your presentation is not well prepared and you are too excited about the hundreds of random things going on in your company, investors can feel a bit drained trying to follow you and slap an easy "unfocused" label on your head. Investors are uneasy with investing in success that happened by accident.
  • 5. Does the owner understand the financial aspects of the business or is he just a salesperson? Does he/she have "skin in the game" financially? Really look at your financials side by side for the past 5-10 years. Look for negative and positive trends and be able to explain what was really happening in your company at that time.
    Caveat: Don't bow out of the entire finance function by saying "I'm not the accountant." Don't downplay personal investment you've made (your house, credit cards, bootstraps, etc.)
  • 6. Competitive advantages.
    Caveat: Don't say, "We don't have competitors" because it sounds na´ve. Rather, describe the ways you compete or intend to compete in the future, if competitors step into the ring.
  • 7. Do they have a realistic forecast and/or budget?
    Caveat: You might feel uneasy handing over an entire forecast in your first meeting. However, a condensed snapshot and letting the investor know that you have thorough details and projections if discussions continue, will message to them that they will not have to waste huge amounts of time doing all of this for you.
  • Investors and lenders can only ask questions based on their own experience. Your presentation should provide answers to the investor about why they can feel good about risking their money with your company and how that will result in their investment return and a success story for your relationship. Those specific reasons to take a chance on money and partnership and the stories behind your companies are what make the finance world so interesting to me. Good luck!

    Kira Spivak, founder of CFO Services, has been easing the minds of CEOs and their investors for 19 years. After gaining experience as the Manager of Equipment and Assets for Brannan Sand & Gravel Company and Director of Finance for Renewable Choice Energy, Kira founded CFO Services, LLC in 2007. Ms. Spivak is currently the CFO for Rocky Mountain Excavating and Concrete, Inc., where she has enjoyed the growth phases of transitioning from a small to mid-sized business through challenging economic times. In addition, CFO Services continues to provide financial solutions to corporate clients and investors in a variety of industries.

From Strategic Plan to Success
4 ways to keep your team moving toward the goals you've set

By Seth Talbott

Reprinted with permission from CitiBusiness.com

Tell me if this sounds familiar: you realize your business has a problem—customer attrition, perhaps, or an ineffective web strategy—and a reactive approach isn't cutting it. You need a plan that's strategic and long-term.

So you rally the troops, come up with a plan, set due dates, assign responsibilities and then . . . not much happens. Maybe you crossed a few items off the list, but in reality, you failed to implement the plan.

If that scenario rings a bell, you are not alone. One of the biggest challenges for small businesses is the disconnect between long-term goals and the tyranny of the urgent. The boss and the employees become distracted by daily firefighting, and the project tasks take a backseat and eventually die of neglect.

For a business owner, the issue is getting the staff to make room in their schedules and develop the professional skills to be more strategic and planned vs. responding to day-to-day fires. Here are four ways to keep the plan and the staff in sync:

Strip Out Jargon & Be Obnoxiously Specific

Too often, our plans are filled with buzzwords that do more to confuse than to enlighten. Goals need to be clear and tangible. Rather than saying, "We need to make the website more engaging," create specific goals such as getting 10 retweets, or 100 Facebook likes, or 15 comments on the blog. Instead of saying, "We need to be more profitable," say, "We need to increase profits by X percent." Then break that down into ways the goal can be achieved: reducing costs, charging more, renegotiating contracts, getting better volume pricing, and so on.

Start With Small Tasks

This will build momentum and help people gain the experience and confidence to tackle increasingly larger projects. Give an employee a task with a narrow focus and a deliverable, and never assume that the person knows everything you know. Let's say you ask for a competitive pricing analysis. Drill down. Help your staff member make sure he or she is comparing apples to apples, figure out what a pricing model is, and so on. Show the person what you want the final spreadsheet to look like so that the information is precise, presentable, and easily absorbed.

What Can I Do To Help?

Avoid the misconception that you've issued a mandate and now people are going to go off and make the plan happen. Staff members may fear they've been set up to fail. You want to make sure they know you're willing to impart whatever information you can to them, and that they can come to you and ask questions without it being an irritation to you.

Different employees will, based on their experience, need different levels of hand-holding or clarification. One employee may have 14 tasks and 10 slots for activity and need your help deciding how to prioritize. Another may be tasked with reducing production costs, but never had experience in negotiating a price reduction. A third may be running into task-related problems with Judy in marketing or Fred in accounting, and needs your authority to work through them. Be a leader who sets high expectations and holds everyone accountable, but is also right by their side when they need help.

Report On Progress Regularly

Celebrate small wins on an ad hoc basis, and also provide status reports at set times—a couple of times a week to start, then once a week ongoing. People find regularity therapeutic. Think of it as professional Metamucil. And when people see you being consistent and disciplined in your tracking, analyzing, reflecting, and reporting, they will tend to emulate you.

As a leader, you have to constantly remind everyone of what you're working on and why it's important. You can't expect a group that has been in constant firefighting mode to suddenly become strategic planners without guidance and accountability. You are trying to institute change within the daily busyness, and it will take time to develop new grooves in the wood when years of previous activity have worn deep patterns.

While not easy, it can be done. And once you and your team have enjoyed the discipline of executing on your plans, you'll look back and wonder why you waited so long to make the change.

Washington-based serial entrepreneur Seth Talbott is a consultant and the CEO of Longevity Medical Clinic and the CEO and founder of AtomOrbit Software.

© Citigroup Citibank, North America Member FDIC

8 Cardinal Rules for Enterprising Entrepreneurs

For Citi, by Linda Descano

Over a year ago, I began my quest to find answers to my two most pressing entrepreneurial questions: What does it really take for an entrepreneur to be successful? And what does it take for a business owner to be the best of the best?

My conversations have taken me across the country: I've traveled from New York and Boston to Portland and San Diego, to Chicago and Dallas, to Miami and Washington, DC, and to Philadelphia, where I was invited to deliver a keynote address at the National Association of Women Business Owners 2012 Leadership Conference. I've spoken with business owners from different industries in all stages of business growth. And, I've spoken with a number of Women & Co. readers, maybe even you!

To commemorate the end of my "virtual listening tour," I have distilled my insights, wit, and wisdom into the following 8 cardinal rules for enterprising entrepreneurs:

Work On Your Business, Not Just In Your Business

When you are surrounded by your own business day in and day out, it's important to take a step back and make sure you are handling all aspects of the business. Time and time again, I heard stories from entrepreneurs about how they were so focused on their product or service that they overlooked something important in their business' finances, in the fine print in legal documents, or in the marketplace. Their lesson learned? Make sure you understand the "business of being in business," which means to invest your time and energy on the management side of running a business. And, while you definitely should tap experts in accounting, finance, and the law, you need to educate yourself on those issues so that you can provide appropriate oversight. Paying attention to the little things is important. After all, your reputation and livelihood are at stake!

Keep Your Personal & Business Wallets Separate

The old adage that business and pleasure don't mix also holds true when it comes to your business' finances. So, make sure you set up separate accounts for your business. It is better for your business and essential for financial clarity. And, when you set up your business account, make sure you handle your business finances with intent. That is, handle your finances in an organized - not haphazard - way. When it comes to money, keep your financial pockets deep enough to get you through the tough times. Have some in savings and a credit line available. You want to be well positioned financially at all times.

A great business starts with a solid business plan and a clear picture of what you bring to the market and what problem you are solving for your client or customer.

Form An Advisory Board

Most of the business owners that I have talked with have advisory boards—and they view their board as essential to their success. I find that most business owners formed their board to complement their "weak areas" and provide an ongoing, structured means of soliciting feedback. Some, in fact, formed their advisory board before they had even printed their first business card! An advisory board can help validate your plans and provide you with new insight. And, you have a core group of people who truly know your business. It's like having your very own sales team. To be effective, make sure your advisory board is made up on people who have different disciplines and life experiences. You want a variety of backgrounds.

Network With Intent

Networking is an important activity whether you are a business owner or corporate executive. However, it is particularly relevant for entrepreneurs. Successful business owners—the best of the best—view attending functions and joining business organizations as part of the job. Networking is more than just for forming connections—it also helps you build awareness for your business. But, there's another, less talked about, business reason. Entrepreneurship has inevitable moments of loneliness and challenge. The stronger your personal and professional networks—the easier it will be to deal with decisions and challenges.

Find Your Business Iowa

So what does Iowa have to do with your business? Indulge me and I will explain. In her book, Take the Lead, Betsy Myers shared how a relentless focus on "winning Iowa" by the 2008 Obama for President campaign brought clarity to an organization "under siege" and provided a strategic "filter" for deciding what to do as well as what not to do. You have to have focus to succeed. This is something the best of the best do very well. Think about it. Every day, at work and at home, we weigh competing demands and opportunities. It's not only difficult but can be overwhelming at times. Sound familiar? Try having a focusing question to create clarity. For the Obama campaign, it was "Will this help us win Iowa?" Then, it becomes easier to make trade-offs. Keep distractions at bay. Keep your eye on the ball. Find your Iowa.

Remember That Not All Money Is Created Equal

This advice came from business veterans as well as people running early stage start-ups. You need to know when and how to raise capital, (both equity and debt), and how to wisely put your money to work on things that adds value. You should be spending as much time researching what investors and lenders want as you spend understanding what your customers want. Understand the approach that angel investors take vs. mezzanine debt investors. The more you know, the better positioned you will be to tap the capital markets and make the appropriate asks. Money is a tool. Make sure you understand how to use it.

Plan, Plan, Then Plan Some More

Most business owners spend a lot of time planning before they take the plunge and start a business. That makes sense. But, the need to plan doesn't stop when you business is up and running. You need to still need to plan for business cycles, life events, retirement, and more.

Evolve & Adapt To Thrive

The reality is that to survive, to thrive, and to be the best of the best, you need to keep moving and changing. In my travels, I have found that the best of the best are always doing research and speaking to customers, partners, and more. They leverage all types of resources to stay inspired and bring a fresh perspective to their work. A great business starts with a solid business plan and a clear picture of what you bring to the market and what problem you are solving for your client or customer. Then, a great business keeps evolving and adapting.