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Insights

The truth of the matter is that you always know the right thing to do. The hard part is doing it. – Norman Schwarzkopf

 

At least ASK an expert before jumping to conclusions

A few years ago, while driving to Maine for a long weekend, I received a call from a woman looking to raise money for her early stage venture. She said she offered a line of high-end cat furniture. "Excuse me?", I asked. "High-end cat furniture" she repeated.. going on to explain that hers was not ordinary cat furniture, but furniture designed with fashion, style, and comfort in mind. This struck me as so ridiculous that I started to giggle..forcing me to mute my cellphone while she explained her competitive advantages and unique market positioning. I had to pull to the side of the road to regain my composure. As nicely and professionally as I could, all the while biting my lip to keep from laughing, I explained that it was not a market I understood, and I preferred to avoid consumer products as being too alien to my background to take the risk.... and wished her well.

A few weeks later I ran into a friend of mine who used to own a regional chain of pet supply stores, and described for him my humorous encounter with the "cat furniture lady". He went on to explain with enthusiasm how cat furniture was the single highest margin product category he had in his years of retailing pet supplies, and how it represented the most passionate, loyal segment of his customer base.

Boy, didn't I feel like an idiot (a not-infrequent feeling :-). Lesson learned? - at least ASK an expert his/her opinion before jumping to conclusions. Having said this, I am NOT suggesting automatically relying on the "expert", since I have other examples where supposed experts have expressed disdain about a company that was ultimately successful. The larger lesson: get input from experts, let their knowledge temper your judgment, but don't blindly follow their advice.

 

Value is what someone will pay

I sometimes come up with metaphors that pop to mind in the moment, but don't become part of my conscious memory. (as you age, you, too, will experience this trait :-). I recently had an entrepreneur tell me how in the six months following his successful fundraising, he frequently recalled my story of the nurseryman selling trees, and how instrumental the metaphor was in getting him over the "hump" of valuation. I didn't remember the conversation, but he said it had served as an important reminder that led to a successful closing. The story?

Earlier in the year he had been having a difficult time raising money. I explained that one of the factors might have been that he was overpricing the deal (no, that's not always the reason for not reaching closure, but I knew what they were asking, and sort of "knew" it would not be where the VC's would end up). His retort: "but we've made SO much progress in the last six months... we're clearly worth more than we were asking when we started raising money".. to which I explained: You're just like the man who owns a nursery.. and has a rare tree for sale for $500. He goes the whole year without selling it, but the following year says "it's taller now... so it's worth $600"... and sure enough, five years later he has the same tree in stock at an asking price of $1,500.. never having sold it. Clearly, while the tree was "worth more" each year, it was never worth what he was asking. Don't be offended if the market doesn't agree with your personal assessment...either wait until the market smartens up... or change how you are positioning the company.... or broaden the scope of your efforts.... or accept the reality that if you want money TODAY, you need to accept what the market is willing to pay TODAY. Don't let emotions get in the way of assessing reality.

 

Dependability, Trust, & Confidence

How do you know you have a dependable team? When you no longer feel the need (nor even have the inclincation) to "check up" on each other. I view dependability the way a trapeze artist views (and needs) a dependable partner. When he/she leaps off the trapeze bar and throws her arms back, she KNOWS someone will be there to catch her, without having to look over her shoulder first. Business teams should have the same characteristic... you just KNOW your fellow team member will fill his/her part of the assigment.

I have also used a slightly different metaphor to make a similar point: there are some people, who, if on January 1 say they'll meet you at 8:00 AM on March 14th, you just know they'll be there... without need to reconfirm... and there are others who say "I'll meet you at 2:00 PM today", and you half expect them to cancel/not show up/or be late.

Regardless of the metaphor you prefer, if your team does not share the trust and mutual respect implied by these examples, then you should have a frank conversation among yourselves and change the team.

 

Stretch your limits

We used to have a dog…Gretchen….a wildly enthusiastic puppy with boundless energy and enthusiasm.  Each night, we’d tie her to our wood-burning stove in the kitchen (she wasn’t house trained, and we wanted to minimize the “damage” her eager roaming would cause).  Each morning when I came down to the kitchen, she would come bounding toward me, until brought up short by the leash.  It took only a few days for Gretchen to learn that she could only move about five feet from the wood burning stove….On subsequent mornings, she would jump out of her bed, and sit about 4.5 feet from the stove….just the amount allowed by her leash.  As Gretchen became house trained, we stopped tying her to the stove….but kept her bed next to the stove.  Every morning for the next ten years, Gretchen  never jumped past her 4.5 foot “fence”…even though she was free to do so.

I’ve used that story many times to encourage employees to not be bound by historical limits….and have used it with CEO”s to make sure their own early policies and management style didn’t send signals to their employees that there was a leash restricting their potential.

 

Stories of an entrepreneur?

After years of serving as advisor to entrepreneurs, I found myself recounting stories and anectdotes to make a point. People would sometimes roll their eyes... "here comes another of Joe's tales".... but each story came with a message... or a lesson learned... so here comes a series of short anecdotes... either real life stories or metaphors I've used. (if you are reading these insights in reverse chronological order, the "here comes" won't make sense :-).

 

What drove me to want to mentor entrepreneurs?

At my core, I'm an entrepreneur. For years I have viewed entrepreneurship as a form of religion ("a set of strongly-held beliefs, values and attitudes that someone lives by"). How did my entrepreneurial background drive me to want to help other entrepreneurs? My background includes serving as CEO of several entrepreneurial ventures... some successful, some not so successful. Many lessons were learned. I never had anyone to go to... no one to help navigate unchartered waters. It was all on-the-job training... with many lessons learned.. some very expensive ones (including the loss of a company).

Years ago, as I reflected back on what went right and what went wrong, a feeling developed that many of the mistakes I made earlier in my career could have been avoided if I had the perspective I had after my "learning" had occured. This gradually morphed into the idea of my becoming what I wish I had... a thoughtful, objective, knowledgeable advisor.. someone to help me have the equivalent of hindsight BEFORE making mistakes.

 

Where did the name "Bantam Group" originate?

While kind of a boring and narcissistic topic, it IS a question I’ve been asked fairly often (especially by Trinity graduates… who assume I knew about the Bantams), and I wanted to begin these “INSIGHTS” comments with something easy.  When I first set out on my own, and was looking for a name, I played with a number of ideas…various combinations of my name, my wife’s name, our town, our street, etc.... anything to avoid the likes of "Caruso Associates". My daughter Tammy walked into my office and asked what I was doing… when I told her.. and mentioned some of the word combinations I was toying with, she said “how about BAN-TAM?” (we had a dog by the name of Bandit, and her name was Tammy)… The decision was instantaneous, because to me Bantam connoted a bantam rooster… something small, scrappy and feisty… I knew my company would remain small, we would be dealing with entrepreneurs who themselves would be feisty and scrappy….all that was left was to find a nice looking rooster for a logo…..