Every Sunday I get a “Monday Note” email from Jean-Louis Gassee, who earlier in his career had the esteemed position of Chief Technology Officer at Apple. Besides the common sense, some of it is laugh out loud funny. Like the time he was invited to a US Meeting of Senior Nokia employees in New York, asked to present on what he’d do to revitalise their fortunes, nominally based on his experience at Apple (see the unvarnished comment in the “ps:” at the end of this blog post). He listed two priorities; One was to fire the CEO (this was the one with a finance background, ahead of when Stephen Elop was appointed). The second was to co-opt Android. I can only imagine the look on the then CEO’s face when he read that out to all the Nokia employees in the audience.
Nokia have now done both, though not before Elop had thrown the company under the Microsoft Bus and where the first million orders for their low end Android phone is set to appear after Microsoft finally take control of the company.
Another instance is when he was still at Apple, and a fellow (new) executive was asked to present their priorities to the Board. Jean Louis describes it thus (the full article, relating to priorities for the incoming CEO at Microsoft, is here):
Once upon a distant time, the new CFO of a colorful personal computer company walks into his first executive staff meeting and proudly shares his thoughts:
“I’ve taken the past few weeks to study the business, and I’d now like to present my top thirty-five priorities…”
This isn’t a fairy tale, I was in the room. I didn’t speak Californian as fluently as I do now, so rather than encourage the fellow with mellifluous platitudes — ‘Interesting’ or, even better, ‘Fascinating, great vision!’ — I spoke my mind, possibly much too clearly:
“This is terrible, disorganized thinking. Claiming to have thirty-five priorities is, in fact, a damning admission: You have none, you don’t even know where to start. Give us your ONE priority and show us how everything else serves that goal…”
The CFO, a sharp, competent businessman, didn’t lose his cool and, after an awkward silence, stepped through his list. Afterwards, with calm poise, he graciously accepted my apologies for having been so abrupt…
Still, you can’t have a litany of priorities.
Growing a Software Business
That reminds me of the first time I was given a software business to run. At Digital, we had two Distributors selling systems to resellers. Newly transferred into that team after DEC had switched the lights out on its first foray into the world of Personal Computers, I was asked to come up with a few ideas on how to grow the amount of software sold via that channel. At the time, the previous year it had transacted around £770,000 worth of software, and was the smallest Software selling “Sales District” in Digital UK.
I duly went and sat on the sales desk at the two Distributors – Rapid Recall (who were Intel’s first UK Components Distributor) and Hawke Systems (who started in the same area, but primarily with Motorola). I talked to sales people. I listened to their phone conversations. I talked to some of their customers. I talked to their product managers. After a few intense weeks of note taking, I produced a 35 page document on ways to increase the software business via the Distributors.
My then boss, Keith Smith, read it and just said “Go do it”. Shit. Where do I start? By a stroke of luck, I got as far as the end of the first three ideas – in two years – and the business was up to over £6 million/year, and now the largest Software Sales “District” in the company. From that base, I got given my next gig, which was to start the DECdirect Software Business; selling VAX Enterprise Software, armed only with a catalogue, 8 telesellers, 2 tech support, 25,000 potential customers and direct delivery from Software Manufacturing in Galway – which had an even bigger impact. It went 0 to over $100 Million in 18 months, at 89% gross margins.
Growing a Systems Business
A few years later, I got given a flatlining Distribution IT systems business to improve. That started off with a brainstorm on all the potential ways to grow the business, which ended up with 36 specific ideas on the board. What we then did was to list all 36 ideas down the left hand side of a table, and put 4 additional columns across the top:
- Ease of Implementation (1-5): on the scale, 5 was easy, 1 was hard
- Chances of Success (1-5): 5 for a Sure Thing, through to 1 if unlikely to prevail
- Revenue Potential if successful: we made an educated guess on likely business levels if all went well
- Total of (1) x (2) x (3)
We then went down the whole table, taking the teams view of scores for each of the 36 business ideas. Once done, filled in column (4), we picked 3 strategies with the highest total scores, and binned the rest. Those were our three priorities. That business went from £12 million per year to £52 million per year within 2 years, while our primary other Distributor competitor went from £10 million per year to… £10 million per year.
Likewise, much later on, applying the same disciplines to the VMware business I ran at Computacenter for 2 years (alongside looking after 1,071 other vendors as well in our team of 4), we got from 7% market share to 21% in two years, and won their prestigious “Global Solution Partner of the Year, 2012” award. The whole underlying strategy had 2 key aims, and 3 subsidiary development goals. Worked a treat:
The top 3-5 priorities are the only ones to focus on
Ever since, every business i’ve run has boiled down to 3-5 priorities, in order of impact – which is very much like organising a set of bowling pins and knowing, at all times, what you’re aiming at.
If you get down to brass tacks – and this is something I learnt from Microsoft when selling their wares – there are four key levers in any business. To improve profits, you sell:
- More Product(s)
- to More People
- More Often
- At More Margin (which is higher price and/or lowest cost)
Graphing the number of *different* products you sell per year, how many different customers you sell to per year, the average purchase frequency per customer per year and the overall margin percentages per year, all on separate graphs, will normally isolate pretty quickly where a business is succeeding, failing or (at the very least) which way it is trending. Towards future success, or alternatively, towards oblivion. Once you understand the dynamics you’re faced with, you can start addressing how you’re going to push things forward.
And i’m far from alone:
Equally applicable, I noticed on my weekly Quora Digest this morning that someone had asked how to prioritise feature requests submitted to a Product Manager. I thought the answer from Ian McAllister of Amazon was extremely good – see it in the flesh here – not least because if follows the same sort of process i’ve found has worked well down all the years in my sordid past.