Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Basis for Altus' methodology published in Harvard Business Review

Regular readers of this blog know that we (Altus Alliance) have been working with Mark Leslie for 2 years putting into practice the framework that Mark and Chuck Holloway have been developing over the last few years that we anticipated would be ground-breaking for the tech startup world. Mark has previewed this framework with some select audiences in the venture community which has led to several people very positively about it. These have included VC’s such David Cowan, Ross Mayfield, Tim Oren, and Jason Ball. There was also a recent post by Ed Sim on “When to hire a VP of Sales that espoused ideas strikingly similar to Leslie’s framework. One of the most popular posts on this blog has been “What does Vinod Khosla know about Web 2.0 that others don't?” that recapped my take on the applicability of Leslie’s framework in the Web 2.0 context. With the recent publication, we have drafted a news brief that we’re sending out to a few of our contacts that I’ve previewed below.


Venture Consultancy, Altus Alliance, delivers on the promise of the Sales Learning Curve – published in the Harvard Business Review this month.


For the last 3 years, over 30 companies have sought out a new method to grow their companies and challenge the traditional strategy of startups who are taught to raise as much money as possible, grow a sales force and “get big fast.”  One of the core elements of the new approach is that the cheapest and most sustainable form of capital was revenue.  Another, is that when you introduce new products, there’s an inevitable period of “bumping around in the dark” while you refine your product, marketing and sales strategy and execution where you want to avoid over-investing in sales resources. In other words, slow down the initial trajectory in order to speed up the path to scalable and profitable revenues. These guiding principles formed the basis of a venture consultancy (Altus Alliance) focused on helping early stage companies gain revenue traction in a manner that preserves and expands their limited cash reserves.


At the same time, in the Bay Area, the former CEO of Veritas (Mark Leslie who is a current Stanford Graduate School of Business professor) was formulating a ground-breaking framework published this month after years of development in the Harvard Business Review (HBR). This framework had a strikingly similar premise to what Altus was implementing with its clients in Seattle. Mark is a member of an extremely small cadre of entrepreneurs who have taken a company from zero revenue to well over $1Billion while sitting in the CEO seat. With billions of dollars of venture capital residing down the street from Stanford University on Sand Hill Road, Leslie and his Stanford colleague Charles Holloway (the Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers Professor of Management) have been attempting to answer a fundamental question, “why does it always take longer and cost more to build a high-tech company than anyone ever expects?” For all the intellect, experience and graduate degrees in the venture capital industry, the sad truth is that 80 percent of venture capital investments do not pan out.


The answer (at least a key one), according to Leslie and Holloway lies in the Sales Learning Curve laid out in the pages of the HBR which they hope will prove as powerful a construct in the high tech sector as the Manufacturing Learning Curve (MLC) was to the manufacturing sector at an earlier time. Today, manufacturers wouldn’t think of running their operation without tracking the MLC because of the dramatic improvements in productivity that it offers. Similarly, Leslie and Holloway believe the SLC holds the potential to change fundamentally how high tech companies are managed, and they believe that it will lead to more high tech companies reaching the promised land of “positive free cash flow.”


“Because new-product launches often take longer and cost more than expected, many promising offerings are prematurely aborted. Smart companies give themselves time and money enough to climb the sales learning curve before ramping up the sales force.” Harvard Business Review, July 2006


Leslie refers to the type of sales people you need at the early stages as “Renaissance Rep” as opposed to “Coin Operated Rep” that you want when you have a proven, repeatable sales process. Renaissance Reps have strong entrepreneurial and product management skills and also must be resourceful, able to develop their own sales models and collateral materials as needed. In addition to its SLC practice, Altus has set itself apart by offering its clients direct assistance as “renaissance reps”, closing initial deals, iterating and improving on the initial sales process and generating initial revenues.


In 2004, the principals of Altus Alliance and Mark Leslie had the opportunity to meet and found great commonality in their respective experiences. Mark’s SLC thought leadership provided a more formalized structure to the approach Altus had been using in its work with clients. Since that first meeting, Altus became the first firm to become practitioners of the SLC framework. This approach has been at the core of Altus’ approach (even before hearing of the SLC) and has led to numerous successes with its clients including four successful exits in the last year alone.



The following is an abstract of the Sales Learning Curve paper published in the Harvard Business Review that I highly recommend reading (you can get an earlier version on our website from when Mark presented at a CEO briefing we hosted):

The Sales Learning Curve by Mark Leslie, Charles A. Holloway
Harvard Business Review - July 2006 Issue Reprint # R0607J

When a company launches a new product into a new market, the temptation is to ramp up sales force capacity immediately to gain customers as quickly as possible. But hiring a full sales force too early just causes the firm to burn through cash and fail to meet revenue expectations. Before it can sell an innovative product efficiently, the entire organization needs to learn how customers will acquire and use it, a process the authors call the sales learning curve: The company--marketing, sales, product support, and product development--and its customers transfer knowledge and experience back and forth. As customers adopt the product, the firm modifies both the offering and the processes associated with making and selling it. The more a company learns about the sales process, the more efficient it becomes at selling, and the higher the sales yield. As the sales yield increases, the sales learning process unfolds in three distinct phases--initiation, transition, and execution. Each phase requires a different size--and kind--of sales force and represents a different stage in a company's production, marketing, and sales strategies. Adjusting those strategies as the firm progresses along the sales learning curve allows managers to plan resource allocation more accurately, set appropriate expectations, avoid disastrous cash shortfalls, and reduce both the time and money required to turn a profit.

Monday, July 10, 2006

Sun Valley Angel Investor event

Yesterday, we wrapped up the angel investor event in Sun Valley orchestrated by the Keiretsu Forum. The weekend offered the attendees a chance to golf, hike, raft, bike, relax, etc. before heading home and making way for Gates, Buffett, Murdoch, the Google guys and the rest of perhaps the biggest collection of billionaires in the world at the Allen & Company conference that takes place each year in Sun Valley. Given the short notice of the event, it was well attended with angel investors coming in from Seattle, Boise, San Francisco, Denver, D.C., Atlanta and Sun Valley. They heard presentations from 3 companies in a wide range of arenas – Voxilla (operates in the VoIP space), Festival Media (trying to do what NASCAR did for stock car racing in the festivals business), and Positron (exclusive licensee of some killer Dept of Energy IP in what’s called “non destructive testing”). They all did a nice job presenting but I was most intrigued by Positron. If they can execute, they are going to be picked up by someone like GE.


Friday evening, I hosted a gathering at our place that was highlighted by a fireside chat with Debbi and Paul Brainerd. Paul is credited with creating the desktop publishing industry by founding Aldus which created the landmark PageMaker product. Aldus was purchased in the mid-90’s by Adobe for over a half billion dollars. Paul turned his attention towards philanthropy and became one of the key people who turned Seattle into a hotbed for philanthropic innovation along with a few others such as Scott Oki (longtime MSFT exec who started Microsoft’s international business), Jeff Brotman (co-founder of Costco) and of course Bill Gates. Paul and Debbi are amazing people who’ve done tremendous work with the Brainerd Foundation, Social Venture Partners, IslandWood and many other organizations. They spent most of their time talking about SVP and IslandWood – both stellar organizations I’ve had first-hand exposure to.


It was fun to see all of the relationships that were built throughout the few days people were in town. As I’d hoped, I thought there’d be benefit in cross-pollinating angel investors from around the country. There were already discussions about doing this more often as well as having collaboration from a few angel groups around the Northwest that are interested in joining forces with the Keiretsu Forum. For example, there is a great angel group in Boise that has many seasoned entrepreneurs and successful executives who’ve moved to the Boise area. One of their leaders (Phil Bradley – CFO of ProClarity which was recently purchased by Microsoft) attended the event and is the kind of seasoned entrepreneur enriching the startup community in Idaho which is still growing. He saw a number of synergies with the Keiretsu Forum that could benefit Idaho’s startup ecosystem.