Somethings are Just Out of Our Control

Two weeks ago, I received a couple positive comments about the memo sent that morning. A few people noticed it was dated September 18 and was the same content as the September 18 memo. So, I investigated.

For background, my process is:

  • Take a recent memo.
  • Delete the content.
  • Paste in the new content, link a different video, and change the date.
  • Send a test message to myself and edit if needed.
  • Schedule it.

First, I went in the Constant Contact system and yes, the memo dated October 9 was the one from three weeks prior. Second, I checked the test message I sent myself, and it was what was supposed to go out October 9. So sometime between the test and the scheduling the system reverted back, with me not having any way to know it.

Normally I would say these things happen because of human error (meaning I screwed up) but my test was correct and I also had my (almost) monthly newsletter scheduled to go out on October 11 and received an email from Constant Contact the next day saying technical issues prevented if from going out (with a lot of apologies in the message). Therefore, my assumption is, their system was at fault.

Things happen and some of them can’t be controlled. We have random acts of kindness and random glitches. You have to roll with the circumstances. The downside was I repeated a message. The upside is people noticed and I get to write this explanation. The old adage, control what you can control is true. Make sure you control enough to be effective.

“Control what you can, confront what you can’t.” (The band) Maine

Sometimes You Just Can’t Win

In the Seattle Times October 7, 2018 business section’s, “Speaking of Business” feature (a weekly roundup of quotes from the week’s most popular stories) were a couple examples of the above headline.

“We listened to our critics, thought hard about we wanted to do, and decided we want to lead.” Jeff Bezos on Amazon’s raising it’s starting wage to $15 an hour. Amazon got a lot of praise and then the Seattle City Councils admitted Socialist declared Mr. Bezos evil because he’s still rich. Others jumped on board because the wage increase came at the expense of stock grants, which were eliminated.

“It’s been a little like watching the air going out of a balloon.” Richard Lattanzi, steelworker and mayor of Clairton, PA on the unmet expectations of higher wages and better benefits due to tariffs on steel imports. The workers initially cheered because they felt the tariffs would raise all boats but now feel it’s only raising company profits not wages (correct based on other reports).

Everybody has an agenda. From the shop workers to middle-management to executives and especially the politicians. I don’t think this is different from past eras. One of my first jobs, in high school, was cleaning a warehouse a few evenings a week. I lost the job when the manager had a friend become unemployed and he got to take over the minimum wage, part-time job.

Every decision we make has repercussions, some good and some not so good. Being in business is often like raising kids. You better make sure you think through how others will perceive “what’s in it for me.”

“There are no easy answers, but there are simple answers.” Ronald Reagan

Confirmation Not Blind Belief

As part of Jessica’s training we are reviewing one chapter a week from Russell Robb’s book, Selling Middle Market Companies (which is really about selling non-micro but still small to mid-sized businesses). Chapter four had a few topics near and dear to me.

  • It started with the topic of preparing a business for sale. He strongly said sellers should not take on any big, new projects or purchases (that will hurt short-term performance but has long-term potential). In my book, If They Can Sell Pet Rocks Why Can’t You Sell Your Business (For What You Want?), I say owners should run their business on a day-to-day basis as if a sale won’t happen. And, to discuss any big plans with their advisory team before just doing something.
  • Next was his explanation of how buyers will look at EBITDA and how smart ones will factor in upcoming capital expenditures. He calls it EBITDA-CAPX and discusses this to warn sellers they can’t skimp on replacing assets that need to be replaced. For example, if a company normally replaces two vehicles a year but stops getting new ones a year or two prior to selling the buyer will factor into their valuation the cost of more new vehicles than normal.
  • Finally, he warns sellers not to delay paying their bills (accounts payable) in order to pay off long-term debt. He states sharp buyers will peg a working capital amount that will stay in the company and therefore won’t be fooled by this tactic.

One of the pieces of good news from our weekly study is Jessica is always saying things like, “I’m familiar with this because it’s just like in your books.” Continuing education is necessary, especially in industries like mine where things are so different than they were in years past. It’s good to have multiple sources of information to get both different viewpoints and confirmation of the basics.

“You can only hold your stomach in for so many years.” Burt Reynolds

 

Competition Drives Prices

Every summer we take a road trip. I’ve noticed motel prices going down over the last few years and it seems obvious why they’re doing so – there’s a proliferation of franchise/chain motels everywhere.

In Bozeman, our dog-friendly place sits in the middle of five similar places. Across the highway are five or six “lower-level” motels and in back of our place there’s a development for a two-hotel convention center. The same seems to be true in other places along our route.

So, what’s going on here that we should pay attention to? Here are a few things.

  • Saturation – Too many similar businesses means price competition. Doesn’t matter if it’s motels, sandwich shops, oil change places, or something trendy like Curves used to be. Be unique.
  • Commodity – No differentiation. If you didn’t see the name you’d have a hard time telling one from another. Again, be unique.
  • Low barriers to entry – What’d it take to get into the motel business? Pay your franchise fee, build a building, and away you go. Whether it’s skills, a product, or something else, make it hard for others to duplicate.
  • Little competitive advantage – See above about being a commodity. Other than rewards programs what’s the reason to stay at any particular place? Oh, I got it, price is the reason. Make quality and service, i.e. value, your competitive advantage, not price.

Price shopping – Which brings us to how easy it is to compare prices these days with Expedia, Kayak, Hotels.com, etc. Position yourself so competitive pricing and shopping is not an issue.

Bottom line, if it’s easy to duplicate someone will duplicate it. Be unique.

“It’s better to prepare children than repair them.” Jim Zimmerman

Asking Why – A Great Question

I’m known in my family for constantly asking, “Why?” Others will say something about what they’re going to do, what they want to get, etc. and I’ll ask, Why?

Sometimes I get the answer, “Because.” And no, that’s not a reason why you want to do something.

  • A client told me if he had the money (at the time) he’d like to buy a larger machine. Why? It turns out because he likes big machines, not because the business needed it.
  • Years ago, one of my clients bought a business with way too much inventory. Why? Because the owner loved seeing full racks of stuff (and those full racks turned into cash with better management).
  • An owner had way too many employees. Why? Seems he didn’t want to work too hard, so he didn’t pay attention, and therefore made less money.

A client of mine, in a buy-sell deal, made it a (conscious) point of avoiding the why question by giving the answer in advance. For example, “This information is needed by Friday because (let’s say, to keep the bank on schedule).”

It’s a great simple one-word question to ask about marketing tactics, purchases, hiring, and much more.

“Even the smallest act of service, the simplest act of kindness, is a way to honor those we lost, a way to reclaim that spirit of unity that followed 9/11.”President Barack Obama

 

If You Want To You Will

I caught a small amount of the NFL Hall of Fame ceremonies on TV and was particularly drawn to Jerry Kramer’s acceptance speech. He mentioned how his high school line coach, after noticing him struggle, told him, “You can, if you will.”

At first he was befuddled by it. Then he figured it out, got a scholarship to the University of Idaho, won five NFL championships, was on the NFL’s 50thanniversary team, and now the HOF.

We can all, “Figure it out.” Now I can’t be a surgeon, engineer, lawyer, etc. but I’ve figured out how I can help others, be successful, contribute to the good of the whole, and have an enjoyable life – if I will do what it takes. One of my favorite lines, to clients and others, is, “If you do the things you’re supposed to do good things will happen.”

It doesn’t matter what your vocation, the above applies. The same holds for what you do with your family, community, and elsewhere. But it does take effort, perseverance, and (especially these days in our ever-faster world) urgency.

Kramer ended with some motivation from his coach, Vince Lombardi, which is the quote below. Sports, business, family, etc. all will thrive if you’ll do what you’re supposed to do.

“After the game is over, the stadium lights are out, the parking lot’s empty, you’re back in the quiet of your room, the championship ring on the dresser, the only thing left at this time is to lead a life of quality and excellence, and to make this old world a little bit better place because you were in it.” Vince Lombardi

Control Doesn’t Mean Controlling

“I like being in control. I don’t like to listen to anything from anybody.”

The above is from the owner of a struggling business on the TV show Restaurant Impossible. When my wife and I heard it we immediately hit rewind so we could play it again and transcribe it.

I’m sure there are all kinds of fancy names for this as it’s one of the most common traits of business owners, especially founders. Ironically, in my opinion, the strongest statements about being in control come from owners of business not firing on all cylinders. No wonder there are over 1,000 books on Amazon when searching by “delegation” and over 300,000 when searching by “management.”

The top “blemish” I see in the hundreds of companies I come in contact with every year is a controlling owner who:

  • Has his or her hands in everything
  • Thinks they’re the only person who can do it right
  • Believes delegating is a sign of weakness

I recently visited my friend and past client Keith Jackson, owner of Industrial Revolution. He told me his four-person management team pretty much runs the day-to-day. On a personal note, Jessica has been with me since January 1. I turned over some client-based office work and she’s doing things I don’t know how to do, getting it done faster than I could, and this allows us to grow the business.

Being in control doesn’t mean doing it all. It means making sure it gets done and done right, and that makes the business more valuable.

“Only the educated are free.” Epictetus

The Value of Non-Compete Agreements

By Jessica (with a little help from John)

Recently I (Jessica) attended a presentation at Equinox Business Law Group titled “Non-compete, Non-Solicitation and Non-Disclosure, Oh My! Crafting Effective and Enforceable Employee Restrictive Covenants.” Victoria Bartow did a wonderful job presenting and I learned things that I wasn’t aware of, given I’m new in this industry. Here are the most important things I learned.

  • The best time to have an employee sign a non-compete is at the time of hiring. If it’s done with an existing employee there needs to be compensation, as you’re changing their terms of employment.
  • When there’s an asset purchase of the business the employee is newly hired by the buyer and no compensation is required (but can be given).
  • If you are going to have non-compete agreements for everyone in the company, make sure you tailor it to the person’s specific role. Don’t have the same criteria for the office admin as you do for a sales associate.
  • It is good practice to ask a potential employee if they have any restrictive agreements from past employers before you hire them.
  • When considering if you need an employee non-compete, an important criterion is if they have access to proprietary information that is of value to your business. For example, customer lists, sales methods, trade secrets, and business strategy are just a few. If it’s of value to your business and could hurt you if used against you, then you should have a non-compete agreement.
  • A non-solicitation agreement means if an employee leaves your company they are not allowed to solicit your customers or employees for their benefit or the benefit of a competitor. This can eliminate the worry for any owner, especially a new owner post-sale.
  • Employee non-complete agreements are generally not enforceable as you can’t prevent someone from earning a living in their chosen profession, but you can enforce a non-solicitation agreement. Non-competes with a business seller are enforceable, as there’s significant compensation given via the purchase price.

“A wise man once said, nothin’ at all” Drake

 

 

It’s Always the Little (Unseen) Things

We had a perplexing problem with one of our garage door openers, as in it wouldn’t close, which usually means the safety beam is out of whack. My friend and I tried all kinds of stuff after trying to move the sensors in case they were out of line.

So I cleaned out the lenses with a wet Q-tip, and it worked. Then it didn’t, cleaned it again, it works, doesn’t work, repeat, etc. Finally, I took off one of the sensors to clean it and voila, there’s some stuff in the lens that looks like a little caterpillar cocoon. The Q-tip pushed it aside, but it would fall back into place, blocking the lens. Once removed, no problems.

It’s often the unseen things that get in the way.

  • One of my clients had a professional evaluation of the business (not a valuation but an operational assessment). One of the items in the report was, “the employees have an informal union,” meaning they were setting their own work polices, rules, etc.
  • A company thought their top customer (25%) was in love with them. In fact, it was the opposite. They were interviewing other providers and didn’t even ask for a quote from their existing vendor.
  • A rep firm did 80% of their business with one manufacturer, they switched firms, he almost went bankrupt, we turned it around, and guess what? Ten or so years later the same thing happened (although closer to a 50% manufacturer). Blinded by success he couldn’t see the risk.

There are too many techniques (to go over here) to see most of what has been unseen. It just takes the effort to peek behind the curtain.

“You’ve got to tell the world how to treat you. If the world tells you how you are going to be treated, you are in trouble.” James Baldwin

 

Due Diligence and The Supreme Court

We all know what’s in the headlines. Behind the headlines we see the Republicans saying how great Kavanaugh did while testifying, there’s no backup to the allegations, and why did Feinstein sit on it for six weeks and go public when Ford wanted it private? The Democrats say why would she come forward to take all the abuse if it wasn’t true, what’s his fascination with the Clinton’s, and why are you trying to rush this through?

There was a huge and late surprise. In buy-sell deals (and in job interview situations or investments) the last thing anybody wants is a last-minute surprise. Diligence is a time for confirmation not surprises, much less shocking surprises.

But then people who are buying a business, selling a business, hiring, or being hired are playing with their own money. It’s not tax dollars or the hope to elect or confirm someone who will grant your side favors. It’s real money coming from or going to personal accounts.

It’s the reason buyers ask so many questions it sometimes frustrates sellers. They’re taking a drink from the firehose and want the information overload that comes with it.

Here’s my personal opinion – the politicians and extreme fringes of any political party or issue don’t care about due diligence, they care about getting their way. Those of us working to do better in the world while betting ourselves do care.

“Lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Attributed to Mark Twain, Benjamin Disraeli, and others