What is this thing called 9Stucks?
9Stucks is a dynamic business diagnostic tool. It identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform.

Founders: Are You Stuck Before You Start?

It’s exciting to be in the mix at the 2014 Mass Challenge Mentor matching process http://masschallenge.org/accelerator.  
As a mentoring service to the hard-working finalists in the nation’s largest Accelerator, I’m republishing this post.
This post was originally published in 2012; nothing has changed. Enjoy and comment! 

Where Start-ups Get Stuck – and How to Avoid Going There

Between us, my long-time friend (and fellow blogger) Andy Palmer and I have started a lot of companies. We also advise many other companies and look at even more pitches from start-ups.  A shared observation is that while a few start-ups shine (or at least glimmer) and go on to some success, other start-ups seem stuck before they start.  Why?

Here are our observations on where start-up founders get stuck and our advice on how to prevent Stuck situations, presented Q&A style. This post also appears on Andy’s blog.

Q.  Andy, where are the most common places you see founders getting stuck, and why?

Andy Palmer, Start-Up Specialist

I see a lot of founders get stuck at the very earliest stages – by being distracted by fundraising.  I’ve said before – over and over again – founders should focus on developing their business first and not worry about fundraising nearly as much as they would probably like.  It’s natural to be nervous when you don’t have any money in the bank.  But it’s a healthy discipline to figure out how you are going to create value for customers who will pay you instead of spending time thinking about how to extract money from venture capitalists or seed investors.  As an angel investor, I’m always looking for people who are mission-driven and focused on their customers, as Jim says below, instead of worrying about what potential investors might think.

 Q.  So how can entrepreneurs avoid getting distracted by fundraising?

Just focus on your business and your customers.  Wake up every morning thinking about how you are going to create value for your customers. Go to sleep at night considering which of your customers you helped that day and how.  Be maniacally focused on your customers’ needs.  It sounds simple – and it is – but executing this when you are starting from scratch – with no product, no credibility, and no people –  is really hard. It requires all your energy and your concentration.

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Your Company’s Spring Training: Who’s On 1st? Where’s What?

RedSoxI Don’t Know (wait…he’s on third). Major League Baseball’s Spring Training kicks into high gear this week. Red Sox position players reported on February 18th and today (Feb. 20th) is the team’s first full squad workout. The players know their positions. Some players are versatile and can rotate around the lineup; however, once they are all on the field and in position, there is no confusion about their roles and what’s expected of them.  That’s the way it should be. Clear responsibilities set by management and known by their teammates.

Can you state that your senior team and all your employees are clear about their roles and responsibilities? Abbott and Costello highlighted the frustration and tension when there is a lack of clarity about ‘Who’s on First’. Here’s a contemporary take on the skit:

Role clarity has a distinct impact on your company’s overall performance.

If that sounds like Business 101 common sense, then why is it that in many of the Stuck companies where I have worked, there is a great deal of organizational fuzziness and they are Stuck in the Slow Lane?

What causes role ambiguity?

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Founders: Are You Stuck Before You Start?

StartingRace

Where Start-ups Get Stuck – and How to Avoid Going There

Between us, my long-time friend (and fellow blogger) Andy Palmer and I have started a lot of companies. We also advise many other companies and look at even more pitches from start-ups.  A shared observation is that while a few start-ups shine (or at least glimmer) and go on to some success, other start-ups seem stuck before they start.  Why?

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Strategic Crossroads (Part 1): The Encampment

CoveredWagon

Imagine the scene: the CEO and a collection of company shareholders, directors and senior management team members have piled into their corporate Covered Prairie Wagon. The wagon is lumbering down the winding, bumpy, rutted path called the Shareholder Value Road.

Or…instead of a crowded, hot Prairie Wagon (did the Pioneers hang those ‘Little Trees’ air fresheners…), maybe it’s just you bouncing along in your own personal buckboard.

No matter what you’re driving, at some point on the journey all corporate wagons come to a major crossroad – a Strategic Crossroad.  Generally, more than one Strategic Crossroad is encountered on the long Shareholder Value Road. You can hit them:

  • early in the adventure
  • at a mature midpoint
  • unexpectedly
  • and/or near the end of the trail

Whatever the natural stopping point, critical choices have to be made – you (and your traveling companions) have to pick a direction and move on. Chances are you will have to ‘make camp’ for a bit while the directional choices are identified, evaluated, debated, argued, rejected and decided. In some extended encampments, the travellers may need a lot of provisions!

There could be many signs in front of you…

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The 7 Potholes of Business Partnerships

Pothole

I’ve been contacted a number of times this year by business partners who are bickering with each other and/or struggling over the condition of their business.

It seems like there have been more of these calls than in the past…maybe my blogging is the little nudge that pushed the business owners to either phone or email me.

Do you and your business partners get along?

  • Yes? That’s great! You are in good shape. If you want to maintain that success, I suggest avoiding the potholes by reading this post.
  • No? Did you get along when you started out, but not anymore? What’s changed?

There are 7 reasons (7 Partner Potholes) why conflict creeps into ‘partner’ type businesses and causes successful companies to fray or even break up after many fruitful years of existence. Conflict among business partners can become burdensome, intrusive, even crippling to the day-to-day operations of a company. Over the course of my business career, I have seen and/or worked with companies that have had ALL of the 7 Partner Potholes.

How can these situations be fixed or avoided? Are there some partner conflicts that can’t be fixed?

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Lucky or Unlucky? Winning Leadership Traits

A significant reason for writing this blog is to hopefully prevent companies from developing any of the 9Stucks conditions talked about.  When I see or read something worth sharing, I will share it here and on social media.

Author Morten Hansen is interviewed in the very brief HBR Facebook clip featured below.  He teamed up with Good to Great author and leadership expert Jim Collins to write Great by Choice. If you haven’t read the book, the 5-minute clip is a good introduction to their research findings on sustainable leadership.

What can leaders do to succeed when having good or bad ‘luck’?

They need to have what the authors term “Productive Paranoia”.   The discussion also addresses an approach to innovation – creating the future via ‘empirical trials’.  Good stuff.  ’Good to great’ actually. Enjoy.

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CEOs: Don’t Be Left Behind, Make Your Company Relevant

stuck in another world

Is your company stuck in the past…is your industry slowly (or quickly) changing? Have your customers’ needs moved away from your old product/service offerings? These changes can build up, and then erupt. Companies become Stuck in Another World if: They don’t recognize or react to evolving industry forces and trends They have lost their core strengths and competitive advantages […]

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Aggressive Competition? You’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat

Shark

In New England, nothing shouts “Summer!” more than the first report that sharks have been spotted off Cape Cod beaches. Great White sharks.  Six more were spotted this week cruising close to the shore in Chatham, MA.

When the island of Martha’s Vineyard was used as the setting for the 1975 movie Jaws, the movie rolled out a tide of beach fears that have never quite receded. Scenes from Jaws have caused adults and children to avoid swimming in the ocean, or panic and run from the water when seeing a harmless sunfish off the beach, or learn the pounding technique for scaring a shark away.

Are your competitors sharks? When new competitors are 100 yards off your company shore, or seemingly right next to your plant (boat) do you immediately think you ‘…need a bigger boat?’

My experience has shown that management reacts in one of three ways when confronted with intense, encroaching competition:

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5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 5): The Sacred Cows

cow

I know you’ve run across Sacred Cows (“SCs”)…we all have in our business careers or personal life.

Dictionary.com defines a Sacred Cow to be: “an individual, organization, institution, etc., considered to be exempt from criticism or questioning”.

This is the final post in my five-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions can negatively impact the value of a family-owned company. I saved this particular subject for last. I find that the presence of ‘bad’ Sacred Cows is the most emotional and highly personal of all of the previously discussed performance inhibitors found in this series. 

Good SCs, like a popular brand or an established, competitive business practice, are legacies that should not be messed with. However, ‘bad’ SCs:

5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 4): The Bubble

Bubble

I recently returned from my college reunion… swept back in time to the days when living in my college bubble was a secure yet liberating environment.  Those were happy personal times – times of discovery, growth, socialization, and empowerment.

Based on my experience working with ‘stuck’ companies, executives caught in a company bubble might not be having as much fun. Operating in a company bubble suggests you are isolated, cut off from outside perspectives.  Is your company operating in a bubble?

This is Part 4 in my multi-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions can exacerbate family business underperformance.

If there is a weak independent board of directors/advisors, or one doesn’t exist, then governance and decision-making at the top of a family owned company is concentrated and insulated.  Due to the historical, generational ownership structure, there is a tendency that a family business could be prone to operate in its own unique bubble.

I’ve seen first hand where the lack of solid governance makes a difference. Similar to the other issues covered in this ‘Pesky Plights’ series, the absence of good external, independent governance could have negative implications on company execution.

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5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 3): The Handoff

Handoff

I ran outdoor track both in college and high school. Since I was a fast runner (back in the day) I always ran one of the legs of the 4×100 and 4×200 relay teams. Our relay teams practiced daily on perfecting the handoff – passing the baton. We had the relay leg transitions down pat. Unfortunately family-owned businesses may not plan for a leadership transition and may bungle, delay or simply avoid the handoff to the next generation of family leaders or to non-family executives.

This is the mid-point in my multi-part series that explains how 5 particularly disabling conditions unique to a family business can exacerbate business underperformance.

This post is about companies with non-existent succession/transition plans. When owners can’t or won’t let go, four of the 9Stucks (Ditch, Moment, Slow Lane, and Another World) get really amped up and push the stuck company into a deeper hole.

Family company leaders often stay in their roles too long.  But staying too long is not the problem; being in a zone of leadership indecision creates troublesome ripples throughout the entire company.

FamilyCo was one of my stuck manufacturing clients. I was hired by the company/family to do a ‘fresh eyes’ assessment of their business. The company wasn’t in trouble but it had hit a wall and was stagnating. It didn’t take me long to figure out there were issues with the senior team, the company’s competitive position and a number of important operational functions.

The children told me: “Dad was the driving force to get the company to where it is today, but now we think he has blinders on; he doesn’t acknowledge all the changes in the industry, the shifting customer demands or the need to upgrade our facilities, systems and equipment. He is living in the past. You (me) need to talk to him about letting us run the company.”

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5 Pesky Plights Hurt a Family Business (Part 2): The Strategy Freeze

PolarBearsFighting

Innovate and grow or maintain the status quo?

The process of making this basic strategic choice can be an exciting journey forward, or a source of conflict in a family-owned company.

Why? What causes a family company to be frozen in its tracks over this fundamental question? And what can be done to thaw the ice, or better yet, prevent the business from becoming Stuck in the Moment?

You may be thinking…’Conflict among the shareholders of a private company over strategic direction is common and good.’ You’re right! Debate over the best go-forward strategies and tactics can be healthy and productive. In companies that are not family owned, the conflict tends to resolve itself in a timely and orderly way. This is especially true in companies with outside institutional investors who don’t tolerate indecision for extended periods of time.

In some family-owned companies, the strategic discord festers and lingers. A ‘strategic fog’ permeates the boardroom, family gatherings and the company’s hallways and cubicles. Critical decisions are delayed and significant opportunities ignored. The disagreement can go dormant but then suddenly explode. This can be debilitating to the business and to the shareholders.

What has always intrigued me is not the presence of a rift over the strategic direction of a family business. My question is why the conflict becomes so pervasive and common.

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5 Pesky Plights Hurt A Family Business (Part 1): The Seesaw

Seesaw

Family-owned companies are plentiful in number and unique in character. Like any other type of company, these businesses are not immune to being infiltrated by the 9Stucks. In fact, a family business is fertile breeding ground for a unique 9Stucks mix that is often configured with a twist and a flair for the dramatic.

I’ve regularly experienced 5 missteps of leadership that can exacerbate the 9Stucks:

  1. Family needs vs. business needs: They are strikingly out of balance.
  2. Strategic direction is stymied: Conflict over growth vs. maintaining the status quo freezes the business in its tracks.
  3. Transition/succession plan is non-existent: The owners can’t or won’t let go.
  4. Governance and decision-making at the top is concentrated and insulated: There is a weak independent board of directors/advisors, or one doesn’t exist.
  5. Sacred cows graze in the company’s organizational pasture: Top leadership spots are based on birthright or longterm ‘family favorite’ status rather than skills. These sacred cows crowd out talented non-family leaders.

One blog post can’t do justice to these 5 ‘pesky plights’ so I’m creating a 5-part series.

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Bring On The Stuck Company Cast

AdmitOneTicket

9Stucks is a business diagnostic tool that identifies nine distinct yet interrelated business challenges that cause a company to underperform and restrict innovation. The 9Stucks are patterns…recurring conditions I’ve seen and experienced fixing stuck businesses for the last 20+ years. These 9Stucks are real, not theoretical.

One reader of the 9Stucks blog said to me: “I may be stating the obvious, but when I think about your 9Stucks, I think about PEOPLE. Don’t the people in a company have a big impact on creating, causing or maintaining all of the stucks?”

Hmm, good catch…

People are the driving force behind the 9Stucks.

They are the actors and actresses who have leading and supporting roles in an organization’s stuck performance, a performance that can carry the same degree of drama as any stage play.

Introducing the  Stuck Cast.

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Quick! Exit! Uh…not so fast

Exit Green

Exit Planning is a trendy topic, especially for owners of stuck companies who often develop the itch to sell their business when raw emotions push aside rational thought.

Exit Planning means helping prepare the company and shareholders for an ‘exit event’ (aka Sale).

The idea of “It’s time to sell the business” becomes more top of the mind when the owner(s) of a stuck company grow weary of dealing with their own personal collection of stucks. Here are some points of frustration…

Since I have been asked about Exit Planning/Selling a business frequently in the last couple of months, I thought I would share an email I wrote to the CEO of a stuck company who was contemplating selling.  Here goes:

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How Scrooge and Marley Became Unstuck

shutterstock_61848628

Scrooge and Marley PLC was stuck.

I don’t identify my clients by name, but given the widespread publicity and overall notoriety of this particular company, I felt it would be beneficial to reveal the real ‘story behind the story’. This is a case study about how Scrooge and Marley PLC became unstuck.
Jacob Marley died while he was still employed at the company. There was no key man life insurance; they were too cheap to buy a policy. After Marley’s death, Scrooge became the sole shareholder and he decided to run Scrooge and Marley as he saw fit.

Little did Scrooge know that Jacob decided to maintain a Board observer role.

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CEOs: How To Deconstruct A Stuck Company Stew

PirateJPG

Is your company’s value ebbing or declining?

Do you know ALL the reasons why your company is underperforming, or can you only pull apart some of the reasons?

Figuring out why shareholder value is deteriorating can be easy if the issues are really obvious. It can be hard and confusing if the overall situation is a quagmire.

The 9Stucks collection identifies the most common causes of why a company isn’t meeting shareholder expectations. For those of you who have looked at the 9Stucks, each standalone Stuck is straightforward and uncomplicated. Most of the significant, contributing issues that cause a company to be stuck are not hard to uncover if you know where to look.

However, the 9Stucks are usually not limited to just one or two. A stuck company always has A COLLECTION of the 9Stucks. The breadth of the collection determines the overall organizational ‘stickyness’.

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CEO: Does Your Team Have Control of the Ball?

corporate pigpile

“The only players who survive in the pros are the ones able to manage all their responsibilities.” – Tom Brady, Quarterback of the New England Patriots

Football, rugby, or any other sport organized around a finely-tuned playbook, requires players to understand roles and execute plays in both familiar or unplanned situations. Each player has defined roles and responsibilities based on his skills; that player is fully aware of his role, the roles of others and has studied the plays. A solid playbook enables a cohesive team to maintain control of the ball and win.

Does your company’s playbook have:

This all too common, weak people/process combination creates lots of broken plays. Basic things like roles, skills, processes really should be a given in any organization.

But if that’s what’s ‘supposed to be’, then why have I regularly seen many corporate fumbles, pigpiles, tangled situations and outright conflict over ‘who does what and how’?

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How To Boost Cash Flow: 11 Recommendations That Worked

Want more Benjamins? Read below.

BuildingCo was constantly in a cash crunch.

The company manufactured a line of building products, had one production facility that supplied 12 regional warehouse/distribution centers and was founded by two entrepreneurs. BuildingCo was well positioned in a steadily growing (at the time) geographical region of the US. To help fund the company’s growth, management used a combination of outside capital from 2 private equity groups, mezzanine and senior debt.

However, as the velocity of growth accelerated, the company regularly bumped up against their line of credit availability.

They were running on cash fumes.

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Emotional Venting in a Stuck Company. Episode 3: Operations

UnderTheHood

This final episode explains emotional venting related to internal confusion over the company’s OPERATIONS. When I stick my head under the hood of a company and listen, I often hear lots of clanking, banging and rustling from the CEO, Board, and investors about:

  • the overall business model
  • cash (or the lack thereof)
  • the capital structure (translation – too much debt, not enough equity)
  • pricing
  • costs: fixed and variable
  • business processes, weak systems, old equipment
  • the basic forces of producing and executing

Recap of Episodes 1 &2: Episode 1 pointed out the emotional ebbs and flows associated with LEADERSHIP in a stuck company.  Their voices express what they live everyday.

Episode 2 gazed outward at the emotional toll inflicted on the business by a host of ever changing dynamics broadly called EXTERNAL FORCES. What’s happening to us?! Can a company be a victim? Maybe so, but maybe not…

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Hostess Brands: Stuck in Their Own Twinkies

IMG_2758

“Serving up family time, one smile at a time.”

- Tag line from the Hostess Brands website

Today I’m announcing that …

Hostess Brands Joins the Top 20 Stuck List

The creator of Twinkies becomes the latest iconic corporate brand to ‘get listed’. Here is my Top 20 Stuck List ranking so far:

  1. Hewlett Packard - Call the Handyman: These Garage Doors are Broken
  2. Yahoo – What Marissa Mayer Should Do To Unstick Yahoo
  3. Hostess Brands
  4. TBA (Hint: baseball team from Boston)
  5. Numbers 5-20…More to Come (any suggestions?)

Hostess filed Chapter 11 (again) this year. Do you Wonder (sorry, bad pun) what happened to drive them back into court a second time? How is it possible that a well known, ubiquitous US corporation that sells millions and millions of sweet, spongy, crumbly, powdery, chocolate and squishy things each year can’t pay its bills?

Find out why Hostess is Stuck and my Top 10 recommendations to fix the company once and for all.

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Emotional Venting in a Stuck Company. Episode 2: External Forces

StormyWeather

CEOs and employees of stuck companies reveal three recurring themes when I interview them during coaching sessions. These themes launched a series of three blog posts about ‘Emotional Venting in a Stuck Company’.

Episode 1 illustrated the importance of listening to the emotional reactions of a stuck company’s key people about LEADERSHIP – the unfiltered, raw, spill your guts variety. Their voices express what they live everyday. Episode 3 will cover internal confusion about OPERATIONS.

This second Episode documents the wide range of emotion about a company’s EXTERNAL FORCES. External forces have a decided influence on your corporate strategy.  The key external forces that impact your organization are:

  • economic
  • political, governmental
  • social, cultural, demographic
  • technological
  • industry specific
  • customer behavior
  • competitive pressures

The external forces can be an impending threat or they may present strategic opportunities for your business. Your interpretation of and reaction to these external forces directly impact the strategic decisions you make. 

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Emotional Venting in a Stuck Company. Episode 1: Leadership

TimeToListen

“When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”— Ernest Hemingway

When you are trying to figure out why a company is underperforming, where do you begin? What should be your starting point?

You can learn a tremendous amount right away by simply talking with, and listening to, the company’s people — the CEO, the management team, the employees, the investors, the Board, and other key shareholders.

Although that sounds obvious or even trite, it’s just common sense.  Listening carefully to what people are saying, absorbing it, and twirling it around a bit is a necessary prelude to delving deep into data.  If a company is stuck, emotions may squelch thoughtful, deliberate action, especially if the stuck situation has been going on for some time.

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Stuck in the Rough: Is Your Company Overgrown With Weeds?

WeedsPatio

Growth is great, but not when unchecked growth sprouts weeds in your company’s halls, cubicles and production space.

I recently worked with the CEO (Rob) of a company (ServiceCo) that provides outsourced business transaction services to large corporations.  Rob should have been ecstatic with his record level order backlog.  Carefree, happy days were ahead!

But Rob wasn’t happy. He was pretty glum and for good reason.

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