working with a communications specialist

Audacia’s Guide to Working With a Communications Specialist—Fabulous Business Transformations Begins With Smart Preparation

You have a glimmer of a change in your mind…a transformation. Perhaps you’re considering an acquisition, a new product launch, a fundraising round, or implementing a new, game-changing internal system. You’re excited, but you’re also practical. You know big, bold moves that lead to transformation require time, energy, and money.

What can you do today to set yourself up for success down the road? You need the A-team onboard to make this work and that means you need some external expertise—lawyers, financial specialists, technology specialists, and yes, even (or dare I say, especially) communications specialists.

And if you’re extra ready to be wildly successful, you will want to be as prepared as the professionals you’ve gathered. So, here’s everything you need to know when working with a communications specialist.

Where to begin and how to set yourself up for success?

1. Find the right consultant early in your process.

Often, finding the right external talent takes time and effort up front. But keep in mind that you don’t need to save this task until crunch time. Just as you prospect for clients, you should always be prospecting for external talent. This way, when you’re ready to make that big move, you won’t lose momentum searching for the right consultant.

Have a conversation before you think it’s time. Most consultants are more than willing to sign a non-disclosure agreement (NDA) to ensure that you can have a candid conversation about your goals and expectations without the risk of giving away anything precious (And if consultants aren’t willing to sign an NDA, you should run).

In addition, starting the conversation and integrating the team early in your planning process allows you the benefit of their expertise as you build your strategy.  Working with a communications specialist early on can help you shape your plan to be even more likely to deliver the ROI that we all seek.

2. Ask for recommendations.

Prospecting for consultants can extend to prospecting for other business partners and strategists. Who has your consultant worked with before and are they willing to speak with you? I LOVE connecting my clients. Success stories sound best coming directly from happy clients and word-of-mouth is a great way to find those hidden gems who can really propel your business forward. Plus, you never know when clients might find some business opportunity together in their conversations. So, spread the love!

3. Consider company culture.

It’s also smart to consider company culture—yours and theirs. Diversity of thought and experience is critical, but if your organizational culture and theirs are 180-degrees different, chances are that you will have a hard time communicating effectively and that will make your interactions less efficient. Look for any clues about how working with a communications specialist could support or clash with your company culture and strategize accordingly.

4. Be ready for an in-depth conversation.

A good consultant asks lots of questions and really listens to your answers so that they can provide their best counsel. As advisors, our role is to hear you and help to accomplish your Big Idea. And, a good advisor will ask a lot of follow-on questions to get to the heart of a challenge.

For working with a communications specialist to be worth your while, it’s important that you can answer your expert’s questions to the best of your ability. So, you absolutely will want to treat every conversation like you’re entering the Shark Tank. Okay, it probably won’t be that bad, but be ready to have your assumptions challenged.

Remember, you can ask questions too. Do they have examples of their work available? A blog? Do they post on LinkedIn to share their knowledge? These are good places to start getting to know your consultant.

Also, don’t be surprised if that first conversation or two results in your consultant saying, “I don’t think that our firm is right for you at this time but you should really speak with ABC Consulting because they’ll knock this out of the park. I’m happy to make an introduction.” Don’t take it personally. This is how professionals do business.

5. Be ready to talk $$$.

Yes, I’m going there. Have a budget in mind. Be ready to discuss that budget. Budget guessing games waste everyone’s time. Communicate your budget requirements and expectations upfront. With budget guidance, a consultancy will offer you a plan that will get you to your desired outcome in the most efficient way, while staying within the budget you have. It will also save you from wasting time talking to the wrong consultants.

By the way, this means more than finding the cheapest vendor. An inexperienced consultancy who is cheaper, but takes a longer time to reach your goal and requires more time to get up to speed on your company or market, may be more costly in the end. It might make better sense to hire an experienced consultant who can reach your goal more quickly, but with higher bill rates.

6. But don’t fall into the trap of thinking only about money.

On a personal note, I find that some clients spend a lot of time thinking about the finances of a transformative event, but very little time thinking about how they’re going to communicate this event to customers, shareholders, employees, etc.

It’s easy to get swept up in the new idea and believe that everyone will think it’s a great idea too. But the reality is that change is change. Not everyone is going to be onboard. So, the sooner you start to think about how to communicate this Big Idea beyond the conference room walls, the better.

7. Focus on the outcome, not the time needed to deliver it.

No, this isn’t consultant-speak for “let me charge you more.” This is straight-talk. I want you to be successful as much as you want to be successful and I really don’t want you to feel like every minute you spend talking to me will cost you money. By focusing on the business outcome, rather than on the hours, you’re holding the consulting firm accountable for the results within the timeline and the budget that you have.

8. Set realistic expectations for working together.

Working with a consulting firm is not a one-way street. Do not expect that your consultant will hit the ground running on Day One and come back to you when the project is over. The best way to get as much as possible from your advisors is through collaboration where both parties are taking an active role.

You will want to think of your consultant team as an extension of your team. Invite your consultant to be present on-site, get into the weeds with you, and get integrated within your team. That’s the only way they can get a deep understanding of the challenges you’re facing and, ultimately, identify the best solution. Without making such allowances, working with a communications specialist will be frustrating for everyone involved.

If 2019 holds a glimmer of change for your firm, make sure your team is set up for wild success. We’ve consulted on transformations from product launches to CEO transitions and everything in between. Would you like to know how working with a communications specialist could propel your work forward in New Year? Schedule a discovery session and let’s discuss!

Photo credit: primagefactory

successful M&A deal

Let’s Make a…Successful M&A Deal! 5 Keys to Landing A Deal You’re Proud Of

Deciding to embark on a merger or acquisition (M&A) is one of the biggest transformations during the lifecycle of any business. Thinking in terms of resources alone, your money, time, and credibility are all on the line here. To land a successful M&A deal, you’ve got to be on top of your game.

If you focus too hard on all that’s at stake, though, you may not be in a position to make the best deal. In other words, don’t miss the forest for the trees—go in with your eyes wide open. Although it can be nerve-wracking to jump into an M&A deal, keeping the below 5 key points in mind should help you get through the process with your nerves firmly intact.

But first…let’s consider what not to do

Pushing through a successful M&A deal like acquiring a competitor or joining forces with a powerful peer is invigorating. But what’s invigorating on the day you sign on the dotted line can quickly deteriorate into something akin to buyers’ remorse if you haven’t thought things through.

Here are just a handful of the mistakes we’ve seen get in the way of a successful M&A deal:

  • Companies WAY overpaying for what they’re buying
  • Leaders forgetting that cultural fit between companies matters just as much (if not more) than securing cutting edge technology or getting a contract
  • Too little too late: companies being slow to consider market shifts and jumping in too late to address their gaps with M&A
  • Not considering the bigger corporate story—big, expensive “surprises” that don’t obviously fit are a tough sell and put you on the defensive with investors, customers, etc.
  • Failing to communicate with all shareholders. Remember, those little shops can band together to become an activist consortium

To avoid adding to this list, consider engaging a team who can lead you through any necessary course corrections. At Audacia Strategies, our core competencies revolve around helping clients consider their bigger corporate story and communicating with shareholders when making big, bold moves like this. You can also make sure everyone checks her ego a the door, by considering the following:

5 Keys to a Successful M&A Deal

1. Deal Fever Is Real.

You and your team have spent late nights, long weekends, blood, sweat, and tears pursuing this deal. You have done all that great valuation work to come up with a fair acquisition price. And now, you’re at the negotiating table (you can almost hear “Eye of the Tiger” playing in the background). And, you’re bidding against other firms… and the price is going up, and up, and up. It’s very easy to get caught up thinking, “I’ll show them. We’re going to win this thing at all costs.” It happens All.The.Time.

Successful M&A DealThe reality is while it’s good practice to come to the negotiating table with a valuation range that you’re willing to pay, it doesn’t pay to start warping your analysis just to “win.” This is how companies end up with massive write-downs a few years after a deal when they can’t achieve the value they needed to make the price they overpaid work.

It may be obvious, but even large companies are susceptible to deal fever. Want an example? See also:

Why does this happen and how can you control for it? Well, the short story is: all business deals are closed by human beings and the decisions human beings make are often influenced by emotional and psychological factors. Executives on both the buy side and the sell side can get caught up in their perception of the company and the management, for example. So, if you feel tensions running high and fear that you or your team are losing touch with your real goals, don’t be afraid to step back from the negotiating table to catch your breath or even walk away from the deal entirely.

Ask yourself:

  • What are the stories we’re telling ourselves?
  • How can we challenge these stories to get to the real story?

And remember Dan Doran’s advice: “Value is analyzed. Price is negotiated.” It’s crucial that you build your own valuation model, one that you’re completely comfortable with and can explain to stakeholders if (or when) challenges arise. One of the worst things you can do is rely on a target’s (very pretty, but very likely) biased projections. Do your own research. Do the work.

2. Due Diligence Is A Lot Like Going To The Dentist.

It is not glamorous, but it is necessary. Due diligence can be the difference between a successful M&A deal and one that feels like getting a root canal. To make this work for you, go beyond the financials (after making sure they work and are coherent, of course!) to really understand the logic behind the deal on every level. You need to consider carefully the reality of your team’s ability to create (or “unlock”) value in bringing two (or more) firms together.

3. Customers Matter.

Once you have your head wrapped around the business valuation and the inner workings of this new mash-up of a business being born, you’ve got to think about relationships external to the organization. Get into the weeds about how strong the current customer relationships are and how they affect the bottom line.

Ask these questions:

  • How much of current revenue depends on repeat customers vs acquiring new customers?
  • What is the cost of acquiring a new customer?
  • How strong is the current business pipeline?

4. Get Real About Your Competition.

You definitely want to take a look at where your target stands when it comes to market share, revenues, and profit, but also dig more deeply. Keep in mind, you are proposing a potential shake-up of the market here. Even if they’re tough to predict, consider all the ways in which this bombshell of a deal is going to have significant ripple effects outward.

Ask these questions:

  • Where in the value chain is your target excelling? Failing?
  • What changes can you realistically make to capitalize on strengths or cut the dead weight?
  • How do they stack up against their peers?
  • How do you expect competitors to react to a combined firm?
  • Will you have the wherewithal to combat a price war for example?

5. The Problem With “Synergies.”

I can’t really remember if Professor Mariann Jelinek shared this pearl of wisdom with us on the first day of my strategy class at The College of William and Mary, but she definitely shared it early and often: “When someone says ‘synergy,’ hold onto your wallet.” Throughout my MBA program and even to this day, I think no truer words have ever been spoken.

As a buzzword, synergy is overused and honestly, a red flag in most cases. Like pretty wallpaper covering an ugly stain, “these teams have a lot of synergy” is a pretty-sounding way of saying very little. As easy as it is for deal participants to get caught up in the possibilities and truly, badly, deeply underestimate the time it will take to achieve whatever they’re dreaming of, it’s equally as easy to overestimate the value of both cost and revenue synergies.

In the rush to eliminate redundancies and expand market share, a lot of details can get overlooked about what the new procedure will look like. Slow down and think things through at each stage.

Ask yourself:

  • How are we going to make more money by putting two firms together?
  • Do we have a crackerjack post-acquisition integration team ready to put our plan into action?
  • Do we have a good sense of what might go wrong in this integration? What’s our worst-case scenario?

Yes, there is a lot at stake when you’re spearheading what could easily be the biggest deal in your company’s history. But you can handle it. You’ve done the work and now you’ve got these 5 keys in your pocket. So you’re ready to seal that successful M&A deal.

Have questions? Want to talk through your deal with an experienced team? Audacia Strategies is here for you. We’ve helped businesses successfully navigate M&A deals and other big transformations. And we’re fun to work with! Contact us at info@audaciastrategies.com or give us a call at 202-521-7917 to schedule a consultation.

Photo credit: kzenon

business valuation

3 Expert Secrets for Getting the Biggest Bang for Your Buck When Selling a Business (Part 3 in our series on Business Valuation)

This is the third part in our series on business valuation. In Part 1, we give you the rundown on public vs. private valuations. Part 2 discusses 5 key factors influencing valuation. This time we are bringing you an expert’s take on common misperceptions, how to get the biggest bang for your buck when it comes to selling a business, and who is likely to be involved in the deal.  

To punctuate our fall blog series on business valuation, we interviewed a friend of Audacia Strategies, Dan Doran, Principal at financial services firm Quantive. As an experienced M&A professional focusing on small and mid-sized privately held companies, Dan has seen it all—or at least, A LOT. He and his team support both buyers and sellers uniquely positioning him to be the voice of reason when it comes to transformative business deals. Check out our full interview here.

If your plans involve selling your business—even if retirement is several years in the future—you need to carefully consider the insights Dan offers here. So let’s look at Dan’s top business valuation strategies for sellers.

1. Think early and often about how to influence your business’s valuation.

In basic terms, business valuation is a snapshot of the health of a business at any given time. We already examined in greater detail how analysts and buyers determine what a business is worth. But value can be boiled down to three things:

  • Earnings
  • Growth
  • Risk

To influence valuation, Dan works together with owners to get them thinking early on about these three aspects of their business. One challenge he often runs into is that business owners tend to think about the worth of their companies only when they are ready to go to market or when an offer comes their way. But, says Dan, “this is actually backwards.”

If you want to get the best price, it’s important to understand how you can best position yourself in the market. And if you aren’t satisfied with your current position, you need time to make improvements before you’re ready to find a buyer.

In addition, there are a lot of reasons why someone may want to know the value of a business, besides being in a position to sell. “There are number of litigation reasons, for example,” says Dan. A business owner might be going through divorce or someone might have died making the value a probate matter. Then, there’s the transaction stuff: buying or selling a company, buy-ins and buy-outs, capital needs, etc. “For all these reasons, it’s important to get to an understanding of where the market will likely price an asset (i.e., the business) at a given point in time.”

2. Mind the difference between valuation and price.

It’s also important to remember that there’s a difference between valuation and price. In the simplest terms, valuation is an analysis, while price can be negotiated. So, what this means for you is if you use an expert like Dan he will build a valuation model to predict where the market would likely price your business.

Of course, any valuation is only as good as the facts and knowledge available. “There’s no such thing as perfect information,” says Dan. In every transactional deal, there will be an asymmetry of knowledge, meaning that buyers and sellers will have different perceptions of what a company is worth. The most timely example of this is Elon Musk’s tension with short sellers a few months back.

Here’s Dan’s take on Tesla:

“This was really a battle of information,” says Dan. “There’s an asymmetry of knowledge and investors in public markets are constantly trying to gain more knowledge to predict where they think price will go. So, Elon is in possession of more facts than these investors and his position has been that the stock is going to grow, whereas short sellers are looking for it to decline. It’s been a battle of information to try to manipulate that stock price.”

But perhaps the biggest lesson learned in watching Elon Musk trying to value (or price?—it’s a bit hard to label) Tesla at $420 per share is that bringing a neutral party to the table during negotiations can help. Regardless of whether Elon was fairly valuing his company, he had no buyers in the end. A good M&A process will have some competition and likely involve negotiations around not only price, but also the terms of the deal.

3. Get the biggest bang for your buck when influencing business valuation.

We’ve discussed in a previous post, how competitive the M&A market is and how important it is for business owners looking to sell their businesses to stand out from the crowd. Our conversation with Dan reinforced this point. With fewer businesses being passed down to the children of business owners, 80% of business owners need to liquidate their businesses to fund their retirements, which means this is a seller’s market.

But where does Dan suggest putting your resources to see the biggest ROI? Well, he says, it’s important to realize that when you have a consultancy like Quantive appraise your company, “essentially what we’re doing is creating a risk profile that becomes a roadmap for what is impeding value and what we should be fixing before we go to market.”

So, again, it’s important not to wait to value your company. You want time to follow that roadmap to improve your position before going to market. “The real question,” according to Dan, “is how do we begin to drive more value and return a bigger rate on this investment?”

To answer this question, you need to think carefully about who your buyer might be and think like her. While the majority of small business owners are baby boomers (65+), buyers are likely to be in the next generation. What do these buyers want? What do they care about? Why is your company a smart investment for them?

And recognizing that we all tend to overprice our own assets can help you adjust expectations. As Dan says, selling a business is really not that different from going to market with a house. “Everybody thinks that their own house is a special unicorn. As a business owner when we go to market we want to get the most for that asset, obviously. But the market is looking at your business relative to alternative investments.”

Thinking of your business in these terms, as one possible alternative in a sea of potential investments for a buyer, you’ll want to look at several key factors to help you stand out:

    • Timing: we want to sell when the company is in a good position and when the market is in a good position.
    • Value of the company vs. how it fits into your overall portfolio: if you’re in a position where you want to liquidate your business to fund your retirement, you’ll want to have these two numbers in mind: how much is it worth and how much do I need?
    • Be ready for the personal transition: Most business owners spend more time working on their company than doing anything else in their lives. So when they sell the company, they suddenly have a lot of time on their hands. You have to look in the mirror and figure out what you’re going to do with that time. Otherwise, what invariably happens is the week before closing people look for excuses not to close. Releasing control can be hard, so make sure you’re ready.

As challenging as it can be to sell your business (which, let’s face it, feels more like “another child”), if you start early, consider how to influence business valuation, and take the necessary steps, you will be happily enjoying mai tais (or another drink of choice) before you know it.

To make the whole process less challenging, it’s smart to enlist the help of experts early on. At Audacia Strategies, we talk a lot about how to differentiate companies in a really crowded field. We can help you negotiate the best possible price for your business. Why not contact us to set up a consultation? It’s never too early to start strategizing!

Photo credit: Dmitriy Shironosov

communications strategy

Congrats, You’re the Proud New Owner of a Business! Now What? Prepare for a Smooth Transition With a Strong Communications Strategy

We teamed up with Richard Phillips of Crossroads Capital to create a webinar guiding the smaller financial buyer eying the middle market. We’ve included the link to the full 60-minute webinar at the end of this article.

In a recent blog article, we discussed a communications strategy for turning buy-side challenges to your advantage when purchasing an existing business. Smaller financial buyers looking to get their feet wet in the middle market face stiff competition. But if you play to your strengths such as flexibility on terms and show the seller that you understand her perspective, you stand a good chance of making a smart deal.

Once that deal goes through, the fun really begins! Making sure the transition goes smoothly following a merger or acquisition is one of the most delicate communications situations in all of business. Getting this right calls for a strong communications strategy. So let’s talk about how to plan for a successful transition.

Key Questions

As you begin to develop your communications strategy for the transition, you will want to keep many of the same questions in mind as when you were deciding how to close the deal. At this point, you already have well-thought-out answers to key questions such as:

  1. Why this deal?
  2. Why your organization?

But now it’s time to think about repackaging your answers. Previously, you needed a strategy for winning over the seller. You wanted to talk about why your deal was superior to those of the larger sellers. You wanted to position your organization as an asset and key to the future of the business. Now, it’s time to think more broadly about selling the deal to additional stakeholders.

You’ll need to ask and answer the following questions:

  1. What does this deal mean?
  2. What’s next?

Each of the stakeholders crucial to making the organization’s transition smooth will want to know what the deal means for them. Employees will want to know if their jobs will be on the chopping block. Investors will want to know if their risk is about to rise. Partners and community members will want to know if they can work with you and trust you to keep the business engaged in their goals. And customers will want to know if they can expect the same quality product or service they have come to appreciate.

Transition Announcement

After you have thought through your best answers to the key questions above, it’s time to devise your communications strategy for announcing the transition. Here it’s important to come up with a plan for announcing the transition and key steps to those in the “inner circle” and a plan for announcing the transition to the public. Carefully coordinate these two plans.

Timing is everything here. If the deal gets leaked to the public ahead of letting key personnel, investors, and partners know about the change, you could have a PR nightmare to deal with on top of a transition starting off on the wrong foot. This can kill your credibility and it won’t be easily rebuilt. So do what you can to control the timing of your announcements.

Employee Communication

Employees play a huge role in making sure an M&A transition goes off well. Consider holding an all-hands, townhall-type meeting for employees where the old guard and the new guard come together to demonstrate solidarity. Explain what’s next and introduce new leaders and any exciting new initiatives that benefit them. Allow employees to ask any questions in this forum and invite further discussion to establish open lines of communication too. Taking steps like these will go a long way toward engaging employees in a positive way.

Investor Communication

You’ve probably already thought about how to introduce yourself and your organization to investors. Make sure KPIs, metrics, and milestones are part of these communications. Being mindful that you can’t use numbers to tell the entire story, the last thing you want is to get caught flat-footed during these first few meetings with investors. Remember that communicating with investors goes well beyond the initial M&A announcement. An ongoing plan should be part of your communications strategy going forward.

Partners and Community

Suppliers, distributors, and community partners also play an important role in any successful transition. Get out of the building and meet face-to-face whenever it makes sense. A firm handshake and steady eye contact will help partners put a name with a face and open the door to a strong relationship. Make sure you talk to your seller about any insider tips and tricks for dealing with business partners. Are there some partners who deal only in cash? Will having cash on hand give you key discounts that will increase profitability? Is there only one supplier in the state who can sell you a particular part in the volume you need?

Customers

Last, but certainly not least, you need to communicate with your new customers before, during, and after the transition. Even if you expect little to change on the customer-facing side of the business, you want to let loyal customers know about the acquisition. A strong customer communications strategy demonstrates that you aren’t simply paying lip service to the mission and vision of the business.

In this market, realize that many of the most loyal customers may have interacted with the previous owner of the business and may even think of her as part of their team. If the previous owner is willing to attend those initial customer visits or write a letter or heart-felt email about her decision to sell, this can go a long way towards winning over loyal customers and easing their transition. This helps you pragmatically too. Losing a significant number of clients immediately after the sale goes through does not look good.

Transitioning after an M&A deal is one of the most delicate communications moments new business owners face. Fortunately, the team at Audacia Strategies loves a challenge! We’ll jump in with both feet, roll up our sleeves, and get to work developing the right communications strategy for you.

If you haven’t heard Katy and Richard’s full 60-minute webinar, there’s no time like the present! You can check it out here: Succeeding as a Small Financial Buyer in Mid-Market M&A.

Photo credit: Cathy Yeulet

buying an existing business

So You Want to Buy a Business? Turn Buy-Side Challenges to Your Advantage with Our Strategies

Buying an existing business is one of the best ways to break into a new market, acquire valuable copyrights or patents, or leverage your expertise to steer a stagnating business in the right direction. While acquiring a business typically requires more funds upfront, the risks tend to be less than starting your own business—as long as you buy smart, that is.

We teamed up with Richard Phillips of Crossroads Capital to create a webinar guiding the smaller financial buyer eying the middle market. We’ve included the link to the full 60-minute webinar at the end of this article. Here we specifically address two key insights about buying an existing business: buy-side challenges to consider and how to develop a communications approach that turns those challenges to your advantage. So, let’s get to it!

Buy-Side Challenges Facing Smaller Financial Buyers

Because the mid-market M&A environment is highly competitive, if you are a smaller financial buyer looking at buying an existing business, you are unlikely to be able to compete on price alone. Bigger, strategic buyers will be in a position to offer better deal terms and be able to outbid you in most cases. This means you need to get clear about who you are and what you offer AND you need to be creative in coming up with a strong target list, developing your relationships, and negotiating deals.

First, keep in mind that opportunities to buy are not limited to brokers’ lists or small business auctions. In fact, investment bankers, who advise smaller commercial buyers recommend looking closely at not-for-sale companies. While it is tougher to find business owners who are willing to sell here, when you do find one, it can be easier to close a deal.

One key advantage you have over bigger buyers is flexibility, so use it. Your flexibility may allow you to shape a deal that’s more attractive to the seller. Consider that small business owners willing to sell often have concerns beyond price. An owner who has built her business from the ground up over the past 40 years may prefer an agreement that includes provisions for her continued involvement as a consultant or a guarantee that loyal employees will be protected. Bigger buyers often can’t or won’t make such promises.

Because many owners of middle market businesses care as much (or more) about non-financial concerns as they do about the money, it’s important to think about the transaction from the seller’s perspective. This may be challenging since, as a buyer, you will be primarily focused on the business valuation and financials. But this broader focus will pay dividends in the long run.

As you begin discussions, keep the following likely differences in mind:

  • Personal: Business owners are often at a different stage in life than buyers and have different motivations. This makes sense if you think about when an owner might be in a position to sell, e.g., when she’s ready to retire. Also, according to recent reports, America’s business owners tend to be older (50% over 55). There may be important generational differences between you and the seller.
  • Cultural: While you may be a numbers person, keep in mind that your seller is likely not tracking KPI’s or sweating over spreadsheets. Most business owners in this environment are independent-minded and focused on qualitative measures. Many entrepreneurs build their businesses by making smart short-term decisions and keeping their noses to the grindstone, rather than thinking about their exit strategy. Sweat equity may be all they know.
  • Situational: Above all else, remember that while this may be one deal among many for you, this business owner will likely sell only once. Be respectful of this mindset difference and realize that if the seller expresses “sellers’ remorse,” resistance, or reluctance, he’s probably not trying to be a jerk—he’s trying to get things right. It can also help to keep in mind that you’re both doing something you’ve never done before. You’ve never bought this business and he’s never sold this business.

Overall, if you approach discussions with the owner of a not-for-sale business with an attitude of respect and a willingness to be flexible on the terms of a deal, you both stand to gain. Now let’s get specific about what your approach should look like.

Key Ingredients in Your Communications Approach

Keeping the above challenges in mind, it’s clear that if you approach a potential seller with complicated spreadsheets and graphs, you’re likely to be met with polite stares, if not a quick invitation to show yourself out. This is not to say the numbers aren’t important to a seller, but buying an existing business is all about how you present the rationale behind the numbers, not to mention yourself and your qualifications as a buyer.

Ask yourself: What’s my differentiator?

Although you want to buy this business, your approach should come from more of a seller’s mindset. Your goal should be to articulate your value and sell your organization to the owner. Above all, gain rapport by listening to the seller, figuring out what she needs most to be comfortable selling, and then being willing to adapt to those needs. The bottom line is you have to build credibility with the business owner or you don’t have a deal. Period.

Key ingredients in your winning pitch:

1. Articulate your organization’s value. Be ready to talk about your mission and how buying an existing business fits into the broader vision you have for your organization. Bonus points for connecting this with the seller’s values.

2. Come up with a seller-focused message. Paint a clear picture that explains why this particular business, what your aspirations are for the future, and how you are uniquely positioned to usher this business into that bright future. This message needs to be authentic. If you simply say what you think the seller wants to hear, without buying in yourself, the owner will see right through you.

3. Emphasize how you stand apart from other potential buyers. It’s not unheard of in a competitive environment, such as the mid-market, for there to be 10 other buyers offering all-cash deals. It’s imperative for you to talk about how you and your team could be an asset to the company you want to buy. Talk about the unique strengths can bring that help them achieve their vision for the business.

Again, go beyond the numbers and consider the owner’s mindset. She is considering turning over her company, which is more like her baby, to a complete stranger. You would have reservations too. Help her see past those reservations through your message.

Remember: This is Personal

Finally, as you consider how to set yourself apart from other buyers, know that making the personal connection and gaining the seller’s trust can absolutely determine who wins the sale in the end. You’ve probably heard stories about home buyers in competitive markets writing heartfelt, handwritten notes to sellers and getting the house because of the letter. The same strategy can work in buying an existing business.

But before you pull out the stationary, it’s crucial to locate the point of overlapping values early on and expand on those points of relevance throughout the process. Describe your respect for the seller’s legacy and her motivations, talk about your investment plan and growth strategies, and discuss your philosophy on performance-aligned compensation. In other words, appeal to the owner’s beliefs about what it takes to successfully run this business.

There’s no doubt smaller buyers face several challenges in buying an existing business. But the right communications approach can turn those challenges into a winning strategy. If you remain open to opportunities to show that your aspirations align with the owner’s aspirations and that you can be creative with your deal structure, you can succeed in the mid-market M&A environment.

Once you’ve decided buying an existing business is your next move, it’s time to find the right advisors to guide you through the 16-18 month process. At Audacia Strategies, we’re here to support you before, during, and after your acquisition. We live for strategy!

For additional insights on this hot topic, follow this link to hear Katy and Richard’s full webinar: Succeeding as a Small Financial Buyer in Mid-Market M&A.

Photo credit: Wavebreak Media Ltd

influencing business valuation

Could Your Business Be the Next Apple or Amazon? 5 Key Factors Influencing Business Valuation (Part 2 in our series on Business Valuation)

This is the second part of our series on business valuation. Before you dive in here on influencing business valuation, make sure to check out part one where we dig deep into types of valuation.

In our previous post, we discussed some of the complications involved in determining the value of publicly traded and privately owned businesses. And we want to emphasize that while from the outside it can seem like big corporations are dealing in Monopoly money—business valuation is not (completely) based on concrete, objective measures—strategic investors and private equity buyers do follow some standard assessment practices.

Still, business valuation remains a contentious issue and as a result, many potential sellers approach negotiations with assumptions, rather than knowledge about specific value drivers supporting a realistic assessment of their business’s worth. Since assuming is always inferior to knowing, especially during the negotiation process, it’s worth considering internal and external factors influencing business valuation.

Whether you’re thinking about selling your business in the near future, interested in keeping value drivers on your radar as you grow your business, or looking to get into the investment game yourself, there are key factors influencing business valuation to keep in mind. In addition, CEO Katy Herr will be speaking with our friends at Quantive to get their expert perspective on this timely topic. Check back for a link to the podcast where Katy and the Quantive team will dig deeper into influencing business valuation and transferring value in M&A. In the meantime, here’s a primer.

A Quick Recap

Before we look at the specifics influencing business valuation, let’s remember why this is an important question to ask. Recall that there are a couple ways to assess the value of a publicly traded company:

1. Market Capitalization (cost of a company in “real money”):

  • Market cap = stock price x number of outstanding shares

Following Apple’s ascent into 13-digit territory last month, Amazon’s total market value surpassed $1 trillion last week. Both of these valuations are based on the simple formula above.

2. Enterprise Value (cost to acquire a company):

  • Enterprise value = a corporation’s market cap + preferred stock + outstanding debt – cash (and cash equivalents) found on the balance sheet

This is the formula a buyer might use to determine what would be a fair offer to acquire a publicly traded company.

Now, investors don’t use these formulas when looking at the opportunity or degree of risk involved in acquiring privately held companies simply because they don’t usually have access to this information. Private companies aren’t required to report earnings, stock or share prices, outstanding debt, or cash in the bank. However, as a business owner, you do have access to this information and you could provide it to interested investors or buyers. In fact, strategically releasing this information will likely give you a leg up on influencing business valuation.

What’s really important to understand for our purposes is both types of business valuation, but especially market cap, rely on expectations. So let’s talk about factors influencing business valuation.

Buyers look at the following factors when deciding which valuation multiple to apply to their assessment of your business’s ability to generate income and cash flow. Here is what you can do to put yourself in the best possible bargaining position:

1. Maintain Clean Records

If you aren’t doing this for your own peace of mind and other business benefits, it’s crucial for you to get your books and records in order well (years, ideally) before you start looking for investors or buyers. At a minimum, you will want to keep personal and business expenses separate. Having professionally managed books and a solid financial audit is a smart investment if you are seriously hoping to sell one day. This will also help you understand where you are today so you can target your growth goals and mitigate business risks influencing business valuation. So, do your homework here.

Keeping clean records is the first step toward running a profitable business. But records means more than financials. Make sure all important documentation is well-organized and would make sense to interested parties outside of your inner circle.

Important documentation includes:

  • Financials (balance sheets, expenses, tax returns, credit card statements, bank statements)
  • Audits, regulations, and licensing records
  • Recent legal due diligence reviews
  • Written systems and processes, including employee handbooks and manuals
  • Key employee agreements and noncompetes
  • Customer records
  • Written and assignable customer agreements
  • Written contingency plans for emergencies and other potential disruptions to cash flow
  • Key equipment maintenance records

2. Highlight Positive Trends

Investors want to know when they can hope to see a return on their investment, of course. This means showing a projection of positive, predictable profits is ideal. But if your business is new, this might not be a realistic benchmark.

Typically, analysts and investors will look at the most recent 3-5 years of past performance and 2-3 years of projections in determining value. Be sure to point to factors within your control, such as personnel management and smart cost-cutting maneuvers, as well as external factors, such as industry dips and seasonal declines, to tell a complete story.

It’s also crucial to point out other positive trends influencing business valuation that make your business attractive:

  • Revenue growth rate
  • Consistent gross margins trending upward
  • Higher than average industry operating margins
  • History of achieving financial projections
  • Strong, sustainable, predictable cash flow
  • Consistent history of profitability
  • Solid pipeline of new business and demonstrated ability to convert

3. Be Open to Change

One of the big external factors to consider is how the business will respond to inevitable market adjustments and changes in the industry. With technology and automation bringing about rapid changes in most industries, businesses that show an ability to evolve are most likely to maximize profits and sustain additional growth while keeping operational expenses low.

For companies involved in the production of a product, evaluating your strengths and weaknesses is crucial. Can you increase efficiency, product quality, profitability, or customer satisfaction by outsourcing certain aspects of your supply chain? Should you seek out strategic partners in particular areas?

4. Make the Business Less Reliant on Key Personnel

What would happen if the CEO decided to retire, seek out another career opportunity, or take an extended vacation? If your answer is that the company would not skip a beat, then you are on the right track. Companies that rely on owners who spend a lot of time working “in” the business are susceptible to lower valuations. By contrast, those who can set up reliable processes and trusted management to serve clients can walk away leaving a new individual to run the business.

Bob Moskal at Quantive shared this example:

We worked with a facilities maintenance company to recommend and implement a host of improvements to make their business transferable. For example, we recommended they digitize their record keeping, make their financials useful for running the business not just for tax returns, and transition customer accounts to account managers so that a potential new owner could see that the company could run with the same level of success without the departing owner. Previously, this business would have been heavily discounted or not sold at all. It’s now positioned for growth and a more attractive acquisition target.  

Additionally, the following factors make a business easier for a buyer to take over and manage successfully:

  • A strong, recognizable brand identity
  • For product-centric businesses: a clear supply chain; equipment upgrades to modern, productive equipment; systems in place for identifying and implementing new technology
  • For service-centric businesses: system protocols that have been tested; an established, clear succession chain; well-documented job descriptions and processes for sharing institutional knowledge

5. Be Able to Show Large Market Potential

In one sense, how a business has performed in the past matters less to investors than the potential for future growth. Past performance is only as good as what it tells us about future projections. Many buyers focus on turning around businesses in industries where they have been successful in the past or businesses where they have key contacts who could help increase future profitability.

Because so much depends upon the expectations of individual investors, it pays to focus on factors that will likely influence the market potential:

  • Multiple, strong sales distribution channels
  • Multiple revenue streams
  • A strong industry market share
  • A written and up-to-date business plan
  • Proprietary products or technology

Because all of the above five factors influencing business valuation depend on expectations, the best you can do as a seller is lay your cards on the table in a way that puts your company in the best light. This means putting yourself in the shoes of your investors and considering carefully what would make this offer most attractive.

Finally, if you’re really hoping to get top dollar for your business when you are ready to sell, experts say it’s all about doing the pre-sale prep. Again, according to Bob Moskal, business owners will want to start with due diligence a couple years ahead of time, so they have plenty of time to take steps to correct any “skeletons in the closet” ahead of negotiating a sale.

Also, Bob recommends knowing what your company is worth before starting the process, “we’ve often seen a seller shy away when he starts actual retirement planning late in the game and realizes the value falls short. A good financial planner can help here.” You can hear more of Katy’s conversation with Bob about influencing business valuation when they sit down to record a podcast later this month. We’ll add the link when it’s available. Stay tuned!

At Audacia Strategies, we specialize in putting together communications strategies that helps our clients meet their goals. We’ll be the voice of reason as you figure out how to highlight the key value drivers and tell the story of your current (and future!) success. Our team is all about managing expectations. Contact us to schedule a consultation.

Photo credit: rawpixel

business valuation

Are Apple and Tesla Using Monopoly Money?—Business Value, Valuation Myths, and Your Business (Part 1 in our series on Business Valuation)

This is the first part of our series on business valuation. Check out part two where we dig into what influences these different types of valuation.

Business valuation is making headlines these days. With the announcement that Apple is the first publicly traded company to surpass the trillion dollar mark and Elon Musk making Twitter waves about taking Tesla private putting its value at $72 billion, it can feel like some of the big dogs get to play with Monopoly money.

Adding to this perception that business valuation isn’t always (completely) based in reality (hint: there is a big difference between what a company’s worth in “real money” vs. what it could be worth in an acquisition), consider what’s happening in the Venture Capital (VC) ecosystem. VC investors love to reward growth metrics with higher valuations. So it’s common for startups to shop VC firms looking for the best price. This practice has some experts worried that the VC industry is the next bubble.

However, before we throw our hands up, let’s look at what we know about types of business valuation and what these mean for successful non-unicorns and their investors.

Public vs. Private Company Valuation

One of these things is not like the other.

The first thing to understand about business valuation is that we can’t easily compare the values of publicly and privately held companies. Determining the market value of a company that trades on a stock exchange (e.g., Apple, Tesla, Facebook) is fairly straightforward (though we’ll see below that this method doesn’t take into account all types of value investors might want to consider).

business valuationHowever, for private companies, the process is not as straightforward or transparent. This is because unlike public companies that must adhere to the SEC accounting and reporting standards, private companies do not report their financials publicly and since they aren’t listed on the stock exchange, it’s more difficult to determine a value for a private company.

Public company valuation: generally in the press you see market capitalization (AKA market cap, in slang) used as a valuation description (see: Apple, Tesla).

  • Market cap = stock price x number of outstanding shares
  • Example: Apple shares outstanding: 4,829,926,000 x $219.01 (closing price on 8/27/18) = $1.06T

This is pretty simple, but keep in mind that this doesn’t necessarily take into account the full range of measures used to assess the potential purchase price (aka value or market value or valuation) of a business. One of the most commonly used valuation metrics for a public company is enterprise value.

  • Enterprise value = a corporation’s market cap (see above) plus preferred stock plus outstanding debt minus cash and cash equivalents found on the balance sheet

So, let’s say that you wanted to buy Apple. The enterprise value is the amount it would cost you to buy every single share of a company’s common and preferred stock, plus take over their outstanding debt. You would subtract the cash balance because once you have acquired complete ownership of the company, the cash is yours.

  • Example: Apple’s Enterprise Value

Apple’s market cap: $1.06T + outstanding debt: $114.6B – cash and cash equivalents: $70.97B = 1.1T

Okay, so how do we determine the value of a private company. Here there are several different approaches.

Headline valuation: private company valuation metric generally based on the price paid per share at the latest preferred stock round (i.e., investment round) multiplied by the company’s fully diluted shares (see: Slack).

  • “Fully diluted shares” = Common Shares outstanding + Preferred Shares outstanding + Options outstanding + Warrants outstanding + Restricted Shares (RSUs) + Option Pool (sometimes)

See. It’s complicated. And, also a bit of a black box for the average investor. It infers that all shares were acquired at the same price as the latest round, which isn’t typically the case.

Generally, this type of valuation is used because it’s impressive on paper and in the paper (or on the screen). Keep in mind that this basic formula, while it may seem complicated, avoids a lot of the technicalities of private company valuation (but if you’re interested Scott Kupor of Andreessen Horowitz did a great post on VC valuation here).

Although private companies are not usually accessible to the average investor, there are times when private firms need to raise capital and, as a result, need to sell part ownership in the company. For example, private companies might offer employees the opportunity to purchase stock in the company or seek capital from private equity firms.

In these cases, investors can assess business valuation using another common approach:

Comparable company analysis (CCA): a method of business valuation that involves researching publicly traded companies that most closely resemble the private firm under consideration. Such analysis includes companies in the same industry (ideally a direct competitor) and of similar size, age, and growth rate.

Once an industry group of comparable companies has been established, averages of their valuations will be calculated to establish an estimate for the private company’s value. Also, if the target firm operates in an industry that has seen recent acquisitions, corporate mergers, or IPOs, investors can use the financial information from those transactions to calculate a valuation.

Discounted cash flow (DCF) valuation: similar to the above method, this approach involves researching peer publicly traded companies and estimating an appropriate capital structure to apply to the target firm. From here, by discounting the target’s estimated cash flow, investors can establish a fair value for the private firm. A premium may also be added to the business valuation to compensate investors for taking a chance with the private investment.

Misconceptions About a Company’s Worth

So, what’s your company “worth?” If you’re not running a billion or trillion dollar company, you may be wondering where to start in figuring out your company’s valuation. We discussed the basics of business valuation in a previous blog article, which will give you some answers.

And, of course, you may now be wondering whether to take your company public. Or perhaps you’re thinking about raising money to fund your business. You can find out more in Audacia’s IPO Roadmap series (Part One is here).

Now that you know the basics, let’s bust a few common myths:

Business Valuation Myth #1: Valuation is a search for “objective truth.”

This may be obvious already, but all valuations have some bias built-in. Yes, investors will pick and choose the model or approach they want to use. So if you want to put your company in the best light when raising capital, it’s important to understand your target investors so you can tailor your pitch.

Business Valuation Myth #2: A good valuation provides a precise estimate of value.

In some sense, investors are not that interested in precise value. Think about it. What does the value of a company today tell you? This is a measure of what the company has done in the past. But investors are really interested in what the company will do in the future. So, the current value need not be precise to determine whether the business is a smart investment.

In fact, while this is somewhat dependent on industry, it’s arguable that the ROI is greatest when the business valuation is least precise. This could be one of the lessons learned from analyzing the VC industry in Silicon Valley.

Look at Uber, for instance, the world’s most valuable VC-backed company, with an estimated valuation of $62 billion. It’s burning through cash, losing between $500 million and $1.5 billion per quarter on a run-rate basis since early 2017. Yet the company still raised a $1.25 billion Series G led by SoftBank earlier this year, according to the PitchBook Platform.

Business Valuation Myth #3: The more quantitative the model, the better the valuation.

There are a few different schools of thought here, but often the more numbers contained in the model, the more questions investors will have. The best valuation is the one that makes sense and is clear enough to be pressure tested by investors. So beware of overly complex quantitative models and numbers that need a lot of explaining.

As you can see, business valuation for private companies is full of assumptions, educated guesses, and projections based on industry averages. With the lack of transparency, it’s often difficult for investors and analysts to place a reliable value on privately-held companies. However, this is really not much different from other aspects of business. Whether you’re a business owner considering how to raise capital or an investor looking to take a chance by getting in on the ground floor of the next big dog, business is all about taking calculated risks.

At Audacia Strategies, we love to help companies in all stages. You choose the next calculated risk and we’ll be there to support you in making bold moves confidently. Business valuation is not for the faint of heart. Get the right team on your side!

Photo credit: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

business best practices

Scale and Transform Your Firm: 4 Business Best Practices that Really Work

Audacia Strategies doesn’t just help other companies scale and transform. We are also scaling and transforming our business. (Gotta live up to our name, right? Be bold, be daring, be audacious!) When it comes to business best practices, we believe in continuous adaptation as a necessity—not something to fear.

What this means for clients is that we approach each project with a focus group mentality. We aren’t afraid to experiment. In our philosophy, that we haven’t yet worked out the perfect pitch deck is not a good reason to sit quietly on the sidelines. We do our research, of course, but we also recognize that significant insights can be gained by stepping out of our comfort zones.

business best practicesI’ve been thinking about successful business best practices that we use with our clients and that we’re applying at Audacia Strategies as well. Over time, I’ve identified a few tactics that help businesses successfully scale and transform.

Start with the Goal in Mind

“If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” ﹣Zig Ziglar

Shoot for the moon. Even if you miss, you’ll land among the stars.” Norman Vincent Peale

These quotes might belong on one of those motivational posters we all love to hate, but that doesn’t mean there is no truth to them. Often when leaders or teams are feeling lost on a project it’s because they have lost track of their goal. So start with a goal in mind and refer back to it often.

Ask yourself and key players: Where do we want to be?

For Audacia, this means living up to our core values and thinking big. One value that we hold especially close is: Bold Actions Get Bold Results. But taking bold actions and getting bold results doesn’t have to mean selling out. Too often, firms treat big moves as a zero-sum game. They see transformation as synonymous with volatility.

True, there was a time when business best practices directed managers and leaders to seek out stability as a primary tactical goal. Now, with technology and automation bringing down the cost of starting a business considerably, leaders at large corporations must learn to adapt. They need to ask themselves where they want to be and figure out how to get there without disrupting what is working well. To be successful here, anchoring themselves in their core values is essential.

Breakdown the Walls Surrounding Your Goal

Ask yourself and key players: What do we need to achieve our goal?

When we miss our business goals it’s because we haven’t figured out (yet!) how to circumvent an obstacle. This is one reason we spend time in the beginning working with our clients to do a full analysis of what it will take to hit their big goals. It might feel like overkill in the beginning, but it’s better to identify potential problems and work solutions into the plan from the start.

Besides, what’s the worst that could happen? The potential problems don’t actually arise and your project finishes ahead of schedule.

In strategizing with clients and other business partners, I welcome opportunities to consider where we might face gaps in talent, technology, or process. I don’t shy away from looking for these gaps because I trust that we can come up with creative solutions. So, bring on the Murder Board!

Scaling can happen in different ways, for example. You might not have the resources to bring in the big shot consultancy firm, but perhaps you could hire a freelance consultant to assist your startup on a project basis.

Sometimes by thinking differently about employee engagement or adjusting internal processes you can find new ways to shift time away from administrative and toward strategic tasks. Figuring out how to get more hands on revenue-generating tasks is a perfectly acceptable way to scale.

Prepare for Talent Gaps

One challenge rapidly scaling companies face is a talent gap. You hustle and hustle working your sales funnel for months, then suddenly you’re inundated with work. It could be more work than your current team can handle or it could be work that calls for a skill-set no one on your team currently has.

Ask yourself and key players: What do we need today vs. tomorrow?

If you can anticipate the talent you’ll need for when you meet your goals, you can hire talent beyond the current need and avoid gaps that hurt the bottomline. Great people are hard to find and in a lot of industries they’re even harder to keep. Bear in mind that while you can train for business skills, you can’t train for passion or engagement.

Whenever you can, hire the best. Look to hire those with diverse thought, processes, and backgrounds. Studies show that diverse workforces are more innovative. Under strong leadership, collaborative teams that value constructive criticism as much as uplifting praise will bust through any challenge you put in front of them.

Best business practices for hiring:

  • Don’t be afraid to get creative: Do you really need to go through a lengthy hiring process to find a full-time employee or can a part-time employee or contractor fill the gap? Could you outsource any part of the project?
  • Don’t forget about onboarding: I’m working on this one for Audacia. How do we bring new team members up to speed quickly? How do I introduce contractors who are geographically dispersed? And how do I help them come together on the various projects they’re each responsible for?
  • Do document key policies and processes: Start doing this as soon as possible. Make sure these align with core values and beliefs about how to engage with clients and partners. Bonus: Looking at key policies and processes forces you to be very intentional. You will be deeply aware of critical interactions and intersections within your business as well as the roles and responsibilities required for success.
  • Do spend time thinking about company culture: Build it and reinforce it every day in every interaction and with every hire, client, and partnership.

Bring Partnerships in Alignment with Strategy

A list of business best practices wouldn’t be complete without discussing how strategy and partnerships inform one another. We are better when we cooperate with peers. Of course, you don’t want to give away your secret sauce, but be confident enough in your product or service to share when it’s mutually beneficial.

Ask yourself and key players: Are there opportunities for co-marketing, surge capacity alliances, filling in vertical vs. horizontal gaps in explicit capability and experience?

When you align partnerships with business best practices strategy, you will be more likely to spot 1 + 1 = 3 partnerships. I’m talking about business partnerships that go way beyond basic synergy. It all starts with knowing your business strategy and focusing on building the right business relationships.

These business best practices are really the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more. If your firm is ready to take bold actions with a team that gets bold results, let’s talk!

Photo credit: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

managing through change

Top 5 Tips for Managing Through Change Or What I Learned While Attempting to Surf

There was a time in the not-so-distant past when executives had a simple goal for their organizations: stability. But market transparency, instantaneous communications, labor mobility, and global capital flows have swept this comfortable scenario out to sea. In most industries and in almost all companies—from giants to micro-enterprises—heightened competition from new markets have forced management to concentrate on something they happily avoided in the past: change.

Companies today need to figure out how they can capitalize on uncertainty. Success in this era means managing through change. A solid, static plan just won’t cut it. So rather than trying to plan for the inevitable and manage the change, leaders should turn their attention to managing through change.

What does managing through change look like?

Good question. I was recently thinking about this idea while on vacation—as one does. While it’s tough to come up with a one-size-fits-all methodology that fits every organization, perhaps a metaphor is a useful place to start.

Surfing and Change

My husband is a surfer. While he doesn’t get to surf as much as he’d like in D.C., we often spend vacations on the water. He surfs. I attempt to surf and spend a lot of time watching surfers and thinking about business metaphors.

On a recent trip, while I was bobbing in the ocean waiting for a wave (okay, more honestly, I was trying to catch my breath after falling and paddling back out for the hundredth time), I got to thinking about how surfing is like managing through change.

The best surfers are masters at riding the big waves. They know better than to try to manage the waves (I’m not even sure what that would look like). They don’t spend a lot of time hoping they’ll be able to stand up or planning to use the very best technique to balance on the board. They feel the flow of the ocean way more than they manage or hope or plan.

In broad terms, this is what it’s like to manage through change. Instead of bracing for the bump, skilled leaders accept that rough waters are coming, learn to embrace the change, and engage their entire organizations.

managing through change

Now let’s try to move past mere metaphor, shall we? Rather than offering a single methodology here, what follows is a “Top 5” list of best practices and guiding principles that can be adapted to fit a variety of situations calling for managing through the change.

1. Watch the sets come in.

In surf lingo, “set waves” refers to a group of larger waves. There’s a rhythm to the ocean on any given day or time of day. As you keep an eye on the horizon and watch these sets coming through, you start to get a feel for the rhythm and begin to prepare to catch a ride.

There’s also a rhythm to markets and if you watch the trends, you will get a feel for it. Managing through change means anticipating market trends and developing flexible strategies to prepare your team for what’s coming. In a highly competitive environment, that means going deeper than your competitors. Is there an untapped resource, you’ve had your eye on for some time? Perhaps it’s time to bring in that consultant or find another way to infuse fresh ideas.

In addition to being prepared for market trends, set your expectations. There are times when pulling back and being a bit more conservative is the right move. But this can be a hard pill to swallow, especially for highly competitive leaders and teams. So set the expectation from the outset: choose a date (or other benchmark) by which time to make a decision. Until then, maintain awareness, anticipate what you can, and prepare.

2. Be in position to catch that wave.

Sometimes the waves in business and on the ocean roll in more slowly than you would like. The “hurry up and wait” cycle can get old. So, make sure you are taking advantage of the waiting periods to understand where you are, what the wave (AKA change) looks like, and where you want to be at the end of your ride (i.e., you want to avoid being smashed into the rocks!).

Knowing your goal and having your exit strategy is just as important as riding that big wave as far as it wants to take you. Get in position by creating a game plan that’s flexible enough for your purposes:

  • Define success carefully. Consider the ideal goal, but also what, at a minimum, will count as a win. Be generous.
  • Do your market research. Don’t skimp on this step! Rushing into a big change without doing the right research sets everyone up for failure.
  • Understand your strengths and weaknesses. Transformation affects every level of your organization. Make sure you identify leaders early in the process and give them the tools they need to execute their specific missions. Also, look for any gaps in communication across departments. Strategize about how to create more cooperation.

3. It takes more work than you think to catch that wave.

Paddle harder (or, as my husband says/yells, “paddle, paddle, paddle, paddle!”). Once you know you are in the right position and ready to catch the wave, the real work begins. You have to dig deep and do the work to catch that wave, so you can jump up on that board. Then you have to dig deep again to maintain your balance and ride that wave.

We know all too well that market forces shift. So even if you brilliantly complete the first two steps above, the market can suddenly leave you stranded alone on a deserted island. Alternatively, if those market forces do hold in just the way you were hoping, you’ll likely run into others surfing the same wave. So you need to be ready to adjust to markets shifting AND to competition shifting.

4. Waves don’t always do what you want them to do—be ready to adapt.

Change projects, like big waves, pick up momentum as they build. If you aren’t prepared to adapt, things can get out of control quickly. This means leaders at all levels of the organization must be empowered to rapidly adapt.

Successful startups are often successful because they have mastered the art of managing through change in precisely this way. Their agility gives them a huge advantage over large competitors in a market that rewards adaptability. But even giants can adopt and modify plays from the startup playbook.

For example, what is the status of your innovation pipeline? Is there an effective process for employees at all levels to introduce ideas up the chain? Is the culture such that employees feel motivated, heard, and supported in suggesting innovations?

5. Enjoy the ride and watch the view—you earned it.

In the midst of all this, don’t forget to savor the moment. Even if you only manage to ride the wave for a short time, take pleasure in the fact that it was your hard work that helped you see this new vista. And, appreciate the hard work that it took to get there. Going through the process has given you insights that you can use in the future too.

Finally, get ready to do it all again. Change, like waves, keeps coming.

While the Audacia Strategies team can’t promise to teach you how to surf Banzai Pipeline, we are experts at helping firms of all sizes manage through big waves of business transformation. Hey, we’ll take our inspiration wherever we can get it! If you’re looking for a bold team to help you build your way through change, contact us and let’s set up a consultation.

Photo Credit: IKO / 123RF Stock Photo

strategic narrative

Stuck on Your Messaging? Start With Your Strategic Narrative

You’ve probably heard that a brand is not a logo. A brand is also not a website. It’s not even the unique value proposition (please forgive the “marketing geek” lingo) of your primary product or service. Rather, your brand is a strategic narrative communicated through your marketing message.

Successful companies focus on figuring out their strategic narrative—that big-picture story that grounds the work they do—and then look for innovative ways to express their message. Beyond this, they weave crucial talking points throughout their internal communications so that authentic messaging becomes embedded in the culture.

In other words, successful companies see marketing as more than a department occupying office space somewhere. Marketing done right expresses the heart and soul of what makes your business unique. What this means, though, is this strategic narrative actually precedes your marketing message.

So, let’s talk about that strategic narrative, shall we?

developing strategic narrativeDeveloping Your Strategic Narrative

If your head is spinning a bit right now, don’t panic! Your marketing department can help you develop your strategic narrative. I simply want you to consider the difference between a strategic narrative and a marketing message.

Your strategic narrative is your company’s story:

  • It has a beginning (your company’s “origin story”),
  • A middle (where we are and what we stand for now), and
  • A vision for the future (where we’re headed and how we’ll get there).

The narrative also explains what matters to the company. Your company values propel the story forward together with what’s unique about the organization and how those values support to customers, employees, and other stakeholders.

When employees and leaders understand each other, they unite around this common strategic narrative. Ideally, at every level, everyone involved should want to be a part of the story and help to write chapters through their experiences.

For example, here’s part of the strategic narrative for Audacia Strategies: we help firms take bold (and audacious!) steps to transform their businesses. And because we know that asking our clients to come up with bold communications often means stepping outside of their comfort zones, we promise to be there every step of the way. We want to be known as the team that isn’t afraid to roll up our sleeves and jump into the ring with you.

In addition, the narrative represents more than one particular version of the story. A robust corporate narrative helps employees and managers understand their roles. When changes are necessary, the narrative explains those changes. When faced with a crisis, the narrative should guide the response.

So how do you develop a strategic narrative?

Start with key questions.

You have to be able to answer these or…well, maybe this isn’t the right business for you:

  • What customer or market problem do we solve? And why?
  • What customer or market pain do we alleviate?
  • How is our solution or service better than anyone else’s at addressing #1, #2?
  • No really. Be honest. What makes you truly different from your competitors?
    • Note: If your answer here sounds at all like what your competitors say (check out their website, talk to them at events, do other kinds of reconnaissance), start again.
  • Gut check: If your ideal customer heard your message and your closest competitor’s message side-by-side could she tell the difference?
    • Note: We’ve slipped into discussing the marketing message here because that’s how you communicate your narrative. But here’s precisely where the narrative is useful. When you have a clear corporate story to tell, it is an excellent resource for developing your unique value proposition and messaging.

Bonus round: What do you stand for? Why are you in business? What motivates or drives your organization? Remember, your narrative doesn’t have to involve “motherhood and apple pie” to be significant, but it should speak to a more profound answer to why you are in business.

Exercise: What are the one or two words or simple phrases (no more than three words) that you want to define your organization? Think about what you would want happy clients to tell others about your business. Keep it simple.

Keep your audience in mind.

It’s natural when working on a marketing message to consider our target audience and ideal customer personas. But it’s easy, especially in the early stages of developing your strategic narrative, to forget about the audience and just tell your story. Even though you will want your story to be able to be shared from different perspectives, those perspectives all should speak to your primary audience, the client (AKA the hero of your narrative).  

Who is your target market? Get super clear here. Divide your audience into as many different segments as makes sense based on their unique problems, challenges, and pains. Think about brands you respect and their corporate stories. Do you deliver a lower price and greater convenience (e.g., Walmart)? Do you offer high quality and luxury (e.g., Aston-Martin)?

When you’ve figured out who you want your narrative to engage with, make your ideal client the star of the show. It doesn’t hurt to literally tell your story like a fairy tale. Seriously. Don’t spare the “Once upon a time’s” or “Happily ever after’s.” These can be left out of marketing copy.

Once you have your narrative—you need an elevator pitch.

To get into character here, imagine this scenario: you have 30 seconds in an elevator with your dream client—what do you say?

Start with a generic version of your elevator pitch, but then plan to tailor your message to different audiences (think of this like your LinkedIn Summary or a cover letter for your resume—is that even a thing anymore?).

The basics:

  • Introduce yourself (your name and title, if appropriate).
  • Introduce your business and why it’s unique.
  • Give one quick, meaningful statistic (e.g., we save our customers over 10% per year on average), bonus points for putting that key statistic in context.
  • Make an ask (offer your business card, suggest a follow-up meeting, etc.).

Make sure your elevator pitch aligns with your strategic narrative. Think of the story as inspiration or a jumping off point. This works for online introductions as well!

Final Thoughts

Companies sometimes make the mistake of tasking the marketing and communications department with messaging before coming up with a strategic narrative. The result?—An inauthentic marketing message with a disjointed company culture.

Successful companies understand that messaging grows out of the narrative. If your organization keeps returning to this question: What’s our message? It may be time to think harder about your strategic narrative. The loveable marketing geeks at Audacia Strategies are happy to discuss the art of the corporate narrative. Are you in?

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