Rules added through the Jumpstart Our Business Startups Act eliminate the prohibition on using advertising and general solicitation to court investors to buy securities in certain unregistered offerings. While this has created possibilities, it has also imposed conditions.
The Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) requires companies that generally solicit investors to take “reasonable steps” to verify that all purchasers in the offering are accredited. But there’s no bright line test to verify accreditation, says Michael Lawhead, an attorney at Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth. “Reasonable steps” are objective determinations made by the company in the context of each offering and each buyer. The SEC has, however, provided vague, but important, guidelines.
Smart Business spoke with Lawhead about vetting investors.
How should companies conduct due diligence on potential private investors?
For an individual to be accredited, he or she must have an individual net worth, or joint net worth with spouse, of $1 million annually, excluding the value of the investor’s primary residence. The investor’s individual income must exceed $200,000 in each of the past two years, or $300,000 in the past two years with a spouse, and have a reasonable expectation of reaching that in the coming years. One way to verify income is to examine the two most recent years of IRS reported income, which can be obtained from the individual. Certification from the individual about future income is acceptable.
To verify net worth, look at bank statements, brokerage statements or similar documents that would show net worth for the past three months. Companies should also acquire written representation from the individual that discloses his or her liabilities.
A company could also obtain written confirmation from a registered broker/dealer or other service provider who can verify the purchaser is accredited.
A certification of accredited investor status can be obtained from an individual who invested in the company’s 506(b) offerings prior to this new rule being enacted.
What constitutes reasonable steps?
The SEC has laid out three factors companies should explore to qualify investors. One factor is the nature of the investor. Public information can be used to qualify investment companies, such as venture capital funds. Qualifying individual investors can be done by attaching a high minimum investment amount to the offering. A company could conclude that the buyer is accredited if he or she can pay it.
Another factor is the type of information available. Public filings and information from reliable third parties can be used.
The last factor is the nature of the offering. Investors gathered by third parties, such as placement agents, are likely to be accredited since the third party has screened them.
What’s a ‘bad actor’?
Essentially, a company will not be able to rely on Rule 506 if certain covered persons purchasing securities have been subject to disqualifying events.
Covered persons include the company making the offering, its predecessors, affiliates, shareholders invested at 20 percent or greater, directors and officers, and any person who has or will receive compensation in connection with the offering.
The list of disqualifying events includes criminal convictions, court injunctions and restraining orders in connection with securities offerings.
Companies are looking to law firms to develop questionnaires to investigate individuals. If using a placement agent, verify the agency has done due diligence.
What happens if there’s an oversight in the verification process?
A company won’t lose the benefit of the 506 safe harbor as long as it can demonstrate that it attempted a thorough investigation of potential investors. Not following the steps results in the loss of the safe harbor, but not the ability to conduct a private offering.
General solicitation is not as easy as placing ads and waiting for money to roll in. The burden of complying with these rules is the responsibility of the company making the offering. An improperly conducted private offering could, among other things, give investors a right of rescission, which means they could take their money back. ●
Insights Legal Affairs is brought to you by Stradling Yocca Carlson & Rauth
International expansion is a great way to grow as the U.S. economy slowly recovers, and the population and per capita gross domestic product of countries such as India and China continue to rise.
But finding funding for exports can be difficult, unless you leverage a government-backed program.
“Why turn away sales when you can get working capital assistance through government programs to penetrate red-hot foreign markets?” says Alfred Ho, vice president and enhanced credit specialist with California Bank & Trust.
Smart Business spoke with Ho about the benefits of leveraging guaranteed export financing.
What is the working capital guarantee program?
U.S. manufacturers were struggling to compete overseas, as foreign sales and receivables are generally excluded from traditional lending programs.
So, to spur exports and domestic hiring, the federal government offers guaranteed financing programs administered by the U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA) and the Export-Import Bank of the United States (Ex-Im Bank).
The loan proceeds under these programs can be used to purchase supplies and equipment, hire staff or, in the case of the SBA’s Export Express program, even attend an overseas trade show.
And because the terms are flexible, owners can use the loan proceeds to fulfill a large contract or several small deals.
How do the programs help small businesses?
The programs encourage banks to lend to small businesses by guaranteeing 90 percent of the loan amount and allow loan officers to consider foreign receivables and work-in-progress during the underwriting process.
Plus, if a standby letter of credit is required to support a bid bond, advance payment guarantee or performance bond, the collateral requirement to have one issued is only 25 percent, instead of the 100 percent in traditional cases. This provides an edge for a U.S. company in its quest for overseas contracts.
How much can companies borrow and what does it cost?
The SBA Export Working Capital program permits loans below $5 million. It charges an upfront fee of 0.25 percent of the loan amount and an annual utilization fee of 0.55 percent, which is assessed monthly.
There’s no limit to how much you can borrow from Ex-Im Bank, and its upfront fees range from 1 to 1.5 percent of the loan amount. The loan interest rate is based on the prime lending rate plus a spread. Interest rates for larger loans are based on the London Interbank Offered Rate.
What are the eligibility requirements?
Requirements differ among the programs but they all require a firm purchase order prior to advance and, minimally, shipment from a U.S. port to a country acceptable to Ex-Im Bank. Goods and services shipped must have at least 51 percent U.S. contents.
Certain products are excluded from the programs. A company must also have a positive net worth and be profitable for the last three years to qualify.
For other qualifications and restrictions, talk to your lender or visit the SBA or Ex-Im Bank websites.
How can business owners find a participating lender?
Your local SBA or Ex-Im Bank representative can provide referrals, but you can look for a Delegated Authority lender who has the ability to expedite your loan.
Your banker can walk you through the lending process and share helpful ideas. The banker should be able to suggest ways to lower the risk of international commerce.
The important thing is: Don’t venture into the international marketplace alone. Find a competent banker to serve as your guide. ●
Insights Banking & Finance is brought to you by California Bank & Trust
The world of business today goes beyond the U.S. borders, so executive education programs like MBAs have a global component. For example, Woodbury University is part of a customized MBA program through the newly formed Carl Benz Academy for employees of Mercedes Benz and its affiliate companies.
Andre van Niekerk, Ph.D., dean of the School of Business at Woodbury University, says the program specifically serves employees in the luxury brand segment in emerging markets.
“There’s always a market for high-end brands, and that fully applies to the developing world,” he says.
Smart Business spoke with van Niekerk about the challenges and opportunities in marketing luxury brands in the world’s emerging economies.
Given the uneven recovery from the global recession, how open to luxury brands are today’s developing economies?
Virtually all luxury brands are jumping, or have jumped, into the developing world. That market — that collection of economies — is reaching a near-saturation point for some. To a large degree, it’s a matter of numbers; the size of the individual markets is key. If millionaires represent 3 percent of the population of China, for example, companies will pay attention.
Of course, if you step back and ask, ‘what is luxury?’ Your immediate response might be that people who have very little define luxury. In some parts of the world, two meals a day would be considered a luxury. There’s clearly a different context in the developing world, when contrasted with the developed world.
Having said that, however, luxury brands appeal to similar demographics worldwide. The people who buy and consume what are generally recognized as luxury goods, from clothes to jewelry to cars, are simply not as affected by economic downturns as the rest of the population. There’s just less price sensitivity.
Combined with quality and aesthetics, exclusivity is central to marketing a luxury brand. But the richer the world gets, the tougher it is to keep that exclusivity. Brands can artificially impose exclusivity by raising prices. Price, therefore, confers status — the status the brand affords the consumer. It’s an implied status, creating a desire to move up. The challenge for manufacturers is to keep customers brand loyal, wherever in the world they may be.
How do cultural differences come into play, as manufacturers introduce products and develop strategies to market them?
While many recognized luxury brands have a genuine global reach and can be considered universal, local tastes and accepted local norms matter. A specific handbag may become a roaring success in the U.S. but may not be as desirable in China. Or a specific color popular in Western Europe may not resonate somewhere else. Cultural nuances are often reflected in advertising, and it’s common for brands to reword and reposition ads for each market. Some nuances simply can’t be transplanted.
Status exists in every culture, and everyone has an ego, but the drivers for status differ across cultures. The U.S. is largely externally driven, as places like Newport Beach, Rodeo Drive or the Chicago Loop suggest. Other cultures are very circumspect — you don’t wear status on your sleeve.
What impact has the proliferation of luxury brands in the developing world had on those same brands in the developed world?
That trend has given rise to knockoffs. Counterfeit goods pose a huge problem for luxury brands, especially when the population at large may not be knowledgeable about what’s real and what’s fake. Knockoffs can ruin the brand by association. That’s why manufacturers confiscate and prosecute — they actively pay for that vigilance.
Things may be changing on this front, however. In a deal with China, Ralph Lauren agreed to overproduce by approximately 4 percent. Local merchants are allowed to sell the overproduction in controlled outlets at a slightly lower price. It’s a total win — a way to spread the brand successfully and locally, while helping to undercut the market for counterfeit merchandise. ●
Insights Executive Education is brought to you by Woodbury University
Twelve years ago, EY decided to go global with its Entrepreneur Of The Year awards and establish the World Entrepreneur Of The Year program — and the results have been, shall we say, an international success. The conference, held annually in Monaco, features Entrepreneur Of The Year country winners competing for the World Entrepreneur Of The Year title.
Assembling business leaders from around the world in one place to be honored is a huge accomplishment — the wealth of experience, as well as the variety of successful leadership styles, is outstanding.
Here are some thoughts from the collection of the world’s most accomplished entrepreneurs — innovators, futurists, turnaround specialists and problem-solvers — about leadership styles. ●
“I built the company based on people, not on experience from before. They were willing to learn and try anything. We had a bunch of people who had never done this before. None of us had run companies. None of us had worked in high levels of companies. None of us were from Fortune 500s. Chobani not only became a business that grew, but Chobani was like a school to us, including myself.”
founder, president and CEO
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 United States
2013 Entrepreneur Of The World
“Early on, the business was centered on me, and I had to make all the decisions alone. Now I share those decisions with my 10 main directors. If there are differences in opinion, I make the last decision.
The other thing is that I have had to ensure that the people who are invited to work here are people with principles, values, integrity, responsibility and passion. If I don’t see a person with passion, they don’t hang around the company very long.”
Lorenzo Barrera Segovia
founder and CEO
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Mexico
“I’m a very passionate person, which will never change. When you grow, you gain more experience and the kind of problems you face change. As you grow, you need to grow with your organization.”
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Argentina
“In the startup days, you have to be very innovative, hire and retain talent, refine your business as you deploy in the marketplace, and you learn things from it. Today, with a solid track record of business success, I can focus on what’s next and think more strategic and long-term than you’re allowed to in the early days. My style has evolved as the business has matured.”
Chevron Energy Solutions
“Entrepreneurship and leadership is about always having ideas, knowing that it is possible even though everyone says it is too difficult. Maintain the positive and always have new ideas.”
Mario Hernandez, founder and president, Marroquinera
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Colombia
“To keep the entrepreneurial spirit and entrepreneurship alive once you've got past the startup base, I think it is making sure people understand why they are there. There are always things you can do to improve your business. You should be rethinking and retooling it every chance you get. The key thing is to make sure everybody in the organization understands the story, where are you going — how are you going to get there? And the belief that you are doing the right thing —people want to know their purpose. Keep the energy going, keep a strong sense of purpose.”
Dr. Alan Ulsifer
CEO, president and chair
Entrepreneur Of The Year 2012 Canada
“The skill sets of an entrepreneur involve understanding how to create business. Why not work with kids who need it the most and actually teach them and help them to be entrepreneurs? That’s what is going to grow our economy and create stability where otherwise we’re going to have a lot of social unrest.”
President and CEO
Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship
“I like to be involved. I want to know everything that is going on. But I have to delegate to my team. That was the biggest adjustment for me, and it’s not an easy thing to do. It’s that delegating to others, trusting them and reinventing yourself. Now that we’ve grown, I put more responsibility on my team and rely on my team more than I once did.”
President and founder
SME Entertainment Group
“If someone makes a mistake, what do you do? You laugh with them. You don’t yell at them. You laugh. It just keeps things light and lively and people want to do their very best. You let them know they screwed up, but you also let them know it’s OK.”
National Heritage Academies
Leaders often talk about how the traits of accountability and transparency helped make them who they are, but to retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, who served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff for four years under President George W. Bush and President Barack Obama, leadership is quite simply how you listen, learn and lead.
It’s not just a coincidence that communication is as important in the war zone as it is in an organization — and that’s where Mullen emphasizes listening to what his team members have on their minds.
Smart Business talked with Mullen about the challenges of being in command:
Q. What do you see as the most important trait that any leader must possess?
A. Integrity. Be true to yourself, and obviously true to your values. The value of integrity intrinsically has been a driver for me since I was a midshipman at the U.S. Naval Academy. It has served me exceptionally well.
Integrity encompasses being honest, truthful and consistent — both publicly and privately in leadership positions — and representing that in every situation. It is most evident in the toughest decisions you have to make.
Q. And how can you ensure integrity is present in leadership?
A. What I loved about command was the responsibility and authority that came with it. But more than anything else, the other piece was accountability — accountable leadership. That is not just having someone hold you accountable, but having enough strength yourself as a leader to hold yourself accountable.
I just found that even with those decisions that can be very unpopular, if you are true to that value of integrity, even if it may not seem to some to be the best decision, it [integrity] holds you in the best stead as a leader over the long term. And because of that, it becomes incredibly supportive of those very, very tough decisions.
Q. So what can help a leader make those tough decisions more effectively?
A. As a more senior leader, I learned to keep a diversity of views around me. The more senior I got, the more diverse the people, the recommendations and the discussions had to be in order for me to make the right decision.
I had people around me who were willing to say, ‘Hey, this is when you got it wrong,’ as opposed to the opposite, which is isolation, where nobody will tell the emperor [he] doesn’t have any clothes on.
Q. You’ve mentioned the importance of listening to others in order to help you become a better leader. How did you do that?
A. Everywhere I went, whether we had a town hall meeting or we could call an all-hands meeting, I would take questions from the audience. So, for example, when a young enlisted man would give me a question of which I didn’t know the answer, I said, “I don’t know the answer, but give me your email address. I will go research it and get back to you.”
I did that. I went back and looked at whatever their concern was. And some of those concerns generated significant changes in the military, or in the particular service they were in. For me, as chairman, that was a vital part of trying to understand what I was asking them to do, and then taking that feedback and trying to fix the problem that they raised — if it made sense to do it.
A good leader can make such a difference, and create something out of nothing, whereas a bad leader is unable to do that. The ingredient that makes a difference is leadership. ●
Retired Navy Adm. Mike Mullen served more than 43 years in the Navy, having served as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 2007 to 2011, and as chief of naval operations from 2005 to 2007. He will be the keynote speaker at the Dec. 5 American Red Cross Hero Awards. Learn more about the Hero Awards at www.clevelandheroes.com.
Consider this business scenario: You’ve landed a big account for your company by converting a highly prized prospect into a valuable client. The new client has hired you to handle a specific scope of work and is counting on your team’s ability to deliver work that goes above and beyond.
While nothing is more important than delivering great customer service to satisfy the client, you may not realize that you’re probably overlooking unrealized opportunities to forge a stronger relationship with your customer.
In today’s business landscape, most large companies offer an array of products and services. More often than not, however, your clients use you for a specific service or skill set. And unfortunately, in this scenario, most companies focus solely on the task at hand — delivering what they’ve been contracted to deliver — failing to take ample time to think about the bond they’re creating with the client and what could be next.
In more simple terms, it is one thing to provide service that keeps a customer; it is another to keep that customer and expand the relationship to become a trusted partner.
Provide value in a deliberate way
The good news is that this is an easy fix. Establish a content marketing program that allows you to distribute thought leadership to your clients.
A content marketing program will help you provide value that other service providers may not, and when clients see you as an informational resource and partner, it will be easier to expand the relationship.
Take this example into consideration: You are an insurance provider and your main product is life insurance, therefore most of the communication you have with your clients surrounds that topic.
With a comprehensive content marketing program in place, however, you can educate your clients on the recent trends in the insurance industry and how that affects the individual. At the same time, you can give them an overview of your company’s wellness program and let them know that if they joined, they could reduce their monthly premiums.
As you can see, you’re not just providing your client with the original service, you’re also providing them with both your thought leadership — aka value — and additional offerings.
Personal connections payoff
Aside from providing value to the client with the content you distribute, a strong content marketing program allows you to showcase your brand’s personality. Clients will be able to connect with your brand on a more personal level.
Providing continually updated content through the right channels to the right clients enhances your day-to-day communications. Clients start seeing you as thought leaders and partners instead of just service providers.
It will help you expand relationships and, as a result, generate new business through more products and services.
Show them more than just what they see on the surface — show them how active you are in the community, or how much fun you had during a recent company outing. If may sound trivial, but your clients do similar things, and seeing you connect with the community and/or employees will help forge a more personal connection. You never know; you and your client may support the same charity, organization or team.
Open communication also will help strengthen relationships to the point where you can capture a premium price and eliminate price-jumping clients. Clients will pay more for a valuable relationship than simply look to get the lowest price elsewhere. ●
David Fazekas is vice president of marketing services for SBN Interactive. Reach him at email@example.com or (440) 250-7056.
You would think someone like Douglas Merrill would be a heavy multitasker, with multiple devices in hand, fielding several conversations — both real and virtual — simultaneously.
But you would be wrong.
Merrill, who was the CIO at Google until 2008, doesn’t like to multitask. He says that when you do it, you aren’t using your brain’s full capacity and aren’t as effective. He recommends focusing on one thing at a time.
Billionaire Mark Cuban has his own time management strategy. Cuban, owner of the NBA’s Dallas Mavericks, says you should completely avoid meetings unless you are closing a deal. Otherwise, he says, they are a waste of time.
Both of these proven leaders have learned that how you manage your time is paramount to your effectiveness.
As a CEO, you are swamped every day with calls and emails from people wanting a piece of your time. Some are internal, some are charity requests, some are from friends or family members and others are from service providers.
To help wade through this sea of information, it’s important to have a system in place to help you free up time to think about your business and the things that matter most in life. These open times are what author Richard Swenson refers to as “margin.” They are the spaces between ourselves and our limits that are reserved for emergencies.
But for many business leaders, there are no spaces left.
The way out of this trap is to set clear goals and values for yourself and your organization. Once you do that, you will have a filter through which to evaluate everything. Everything will have an immediate yes or no answer, eliminating the “let me think about it” category completely.
The key is to establish what your goals are first and then prioritize what is important. With your priorities straight, you will find more time to put toward important things on your goals list, but don’t forget to leave time on your daily schedule. There is no way to foresee all emergencies, so by leaving yourself some margin, when something unexpected happens, you already have time built in to deal with it.
Once you have margin built into your life, you have to have the discipline to stick to it. There will always be the temptation to take every meeting or answer every email. But if you use your goals and priorities as a filter, those requests are easily either accepted or declined based on where they fall on your priority list.
If you want a life where you can experience more peace and joy and less anxiety, start looking at your priorities and establish some margin in your daily schedule. ●
Deny, deny, deny; fall, tuck and roll; or put your head in the sand?
The quick answer to this headline is none of the above. A leader, by definition, must do exactly that — lead, which means being in front of a variety of audiences, including employees, investors and customers. Not everyone is going to be a gung-ho supporter. Sooner or later you’ll encounter a naysayer who either has a point to prove or is on a mission to make you and your company look bad.
Many of these verbal confrontations come out of nowhere and when least expected. As the representative of your organization, it is your responsibility to manage these situations and recognize that sometimes a “win” can simply minimize the damage.
When under siege, it’s human instinct to fight, flee or freeze. Typically these behavioral responses aren’t particularly productive in a war of words. Engaging in verbal fisticuffs could simply escalate the encounter, giving more credence to the matter than deserved.
If you flee by ignoring the negative assertions, you’ll immediately be presumed guilty as charged. It’s hard to make your side of the story known if you put your head in the sand.
By freezing, you’ll appear intellectually impotent. Worse yet, pooh-poohing a question will only fuel the aggressor’s determination to disrupt the proceedings. You could use a SWAT-type police and military technique to elude a confronter by falling, tucking and rolling to safety, but that usually only works on the silver screen.
Perhaps the best method to manage unwelcome adversaries is to be prepared prior to taking center stage. This applies to live audiences or a virtual gathering when you’re speaking to multiple participants, which is common practice for public company CEOs during quarterly analyst conference calls.
Most gatherings of this nature include a Q&A segment where the tables are turned on the speaker who must be prepared to respond to inquiries both positive and negative.
Before any such meeting, it is critical to contemplate and rehearse how you would respond to thorny or adverse statements or questions.
A good practice is to put the possible questions in writing and then craft your responses, hoping, of course, that they won’t be needed. This is no different from what the President of the United States or the head of any city council does prior to a press conference or presentation. The advantage of this exercise is that it tends to sharpen your thinking and causes you to explore issues from the other perspective.
In some cases you’ll find yourself in an awkward or difficult situation where there is no suitable yes or no answer, or when the subject of the interrogatory is so specific it is applicable to only a very few.
The one-off question is easiest to handle by stating that you or your representative will answer the question following the session rather than squander the remaining time on something that does not interest or affect the majority.
The more difficult question is one that will take further investigation and deliberation, in which case the best course of action is to say exactly that. Answer by asserting that rather than giving a less-than-thoughtful response to a question that deserves more research, you or your vicar will get back with the appropriate response in short order. This helps to protect you from shooting from the hip only to later regret something that can come back to haunt you.
Effective speakers and leaders have learned that the best way to counter antagonism is through diplomacy. It’s much more difficult for the antagonist to continue to fight with a polite, unwilling opponent.
Finally, when being challenged, never personalize your response against your questioner; always control your temper; and don’t linger on a negative. Keep the proceedings moving forward and at the conclusion keep your promise to follow up with an answer. This will build your credibility and allow you to do what you do best, lead. ●
Michael Feuer co-founded OfficeMax in 1988, starting with one store and $20,000 of his own money. During a 16-year span, Feuer, as CEO, grew the company to almost 1,000 stores worldwide with annual sales of approximately $5 billion before selling this retail giant for almost $1.5 billion in December 2003. In 2010, Feuer launched another retail concept, Max-Wellness, a first of its kind chain featuring more than 7,000 products for head-to-toe care. Feuer serves on a number of corporate and philanthropic boards and is a frequent speaker on business, marketing and building entrepreneurial enterprises. “The Benevolent Dictator,” a book by Feuer that chronicles his step-by-step strategy to build business and create wealth, published by John Wiley & Sons, is now available. Reach him with comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.
My 7-year-old son Cole recently gave me a Rainbow Loom bracelet, which is made of linked rubber bands. It is today’s school-age children’s craze, and Novi, Michigan-based Choon’s Design LLC is churning out the kits at a record pace.
With more than 1 million units sold in the last 24 months, Rainbow Loom is the brainchild of Choon Ng, a former Nissan crash safety engineer who invented it while working on a craft project for his daughters.
And Rainbow Loom, it turns out, isn’t its original name. When it was created, it was called Twistz Bandz.
Timing is everything, and Twistz Bandz may have sounded a bit too much like Silly Bandz — the last “wrist” craze that swept the nation. Between November 2008 and early 2011, every school-age child in sight was wearing layer upon layer of Silly Bandz on their wrists. It was as hot a product as anything since Beanie Babies.
Twistz Bandz’s arrival, it seems, happened just as Silly Bandz ran into what every hot new product eventually faces: competition. Look-a-likes with similar-sounding names began flooding the market. They were cheaper, and you could buy them more readily at more retail locations. The core brand quickly diluted. So Ng did what any smart businessperson would: He changed the dynamics of the situation.
Thus, Rainbow Loom was born.
Enter social media
Within a few months, the product — which allows its young owners to custom-create bracelets — was gaining attention. Much of this was due to a full-tilt social media blitz, including videos on YouTube and an engaging Facebook page, where users could share their designs.
More recently, Ng has become vigilant in protecting his patent and U.S. trademark — battling all wannabe competitors from launching similar-sounding products and flooding the market to dilute his own brand.
His success — or failure — is yet-to-be determined. But his efforts will prove fruitless if he’s not already looking ahead to the next product. This is the dirty little secret to any hot toy craze and the core dilemma every business leaders faces: How do you remain relevant as consumers’ wants, needs and desires ebb and flow — sometimes as swiftly as the wind changes direction.
Get beyond being a fad
Success in business relies upon building a sustainable operation that will outlast any cyclical “must have” product explosion.
There needs to be the creation of an idea continuum — an innovation factory, if you will. Innovative leaders must review, measure and adapt a company’s products, services and solutions to the changing whims of the marketplace. You need to talk to customers, vendors and prospects. And you need to regularly take the pulse of the market.
If you haven’t taken at least some of the gains from today’s success and invested it into research and development for tomorrow, you’re already losing ground. Today is today, and just like the disclaimers for financial investing warn — past performance does not indicate future results.
In the end, the only thing that matters is this: Is your next big thing built to last? Or, like every other craze that’s every hit the market, will your opportunities to remain relevant long into the future fade away after the competition creeps in and dilutes your market? ●
Dustin S. Klein is publisher and vice president of operations for Smart Business. Reach him at email@example.com or (440) 250-7026.
Bjorn Rebney was not to be denied, even after spending 16 months meeting with 61 investors and walking out each time without a financial commitment to support his dream.
“I characterize myself as pleasantly relentless, and I tested the limits of my pleasantly relentless personality when I was going out trying to get funding,” Rebney says.
He had been hoping to get funding to launch a mixed martial arts business, a sport of which his passion for stretches back 20 years.
“It’s as pure and straight forward as it gets,” Rebney says. “It’s one man vs. one man in a ritualized combat scenario. Mixed martial arts is the most perfect example of those attributes, drivers and factors that we love about sports.”
Rebney fell in love with mixed martial arts as a fan, but now he wanted to turn that love into a thriving and successful business. He spent three years from 2005 to 2008 analyzing the mixed martial arts industry to figure out what was working, what wasn’t working and what he needed to do to build the right business model to succeed.
Bellator MMA is the product of all that determination. Rebney founded the company in 2008 when he located an investor who believed in his vision. Up to that point, he fully understood why it was taking so long to find support.
“It was so new and the only player in the space that worked was UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), which was privately held and closely guarded their financials,” says Rebney, founder and CEO of Bellator. “There was no way for investment groups to look at any kind of tried and true track record of other businesses and say, ‘This would make sense from an investment perspective.’”
There were two other companies involved in the MMA business at that time, both with financial records open for inspection, but in this case, that wasn’t going to do anything to help his plight.
“They were failing miserably and were losing tens of millions of dollars each year,” Rebney says. “Anyone who looked at their financial models as publicly traded companies and looked at their books would say it looked like a complete disaster.”
His tenacity certainly played the biggest part in his ultimate victory. But it didn’t hurt that he met an investor who may have been an even bigger MMA fan than he was.
“He was tracking the UFC, understood their business model and had been pitched by all of the other failed entities as they were getting ready to go out of business,” Rebney says. “When he listened to me, we clicked immediately. He said, ‘This could work.’”
Be truly unique
Rebney can point to a number of factors that help explain why Bellator appears in more than 100 million homes across the nation each week. But his ability to provide consumers with a real and different point of view from UFC is perhaps the biggest reason for his success.
“One mistake people make in business that I see often is they try to create a point of difference for the sake of creating a point of difference,” Rebney says. “Sometimes, they lose the connectivity to realizing that even though it’s different, that doesn’t mean it’s going to be attractive to consumers.
“It doesn’t mean people are going to buy the product or watch the product or log on to learn more about the product. Your point of difference has got to be substantive. It has to be something that people point to and say, ‘Whoa, that’s a great reason for me to watch this content as opposed to the other content.’”
Rebney wanted to create an organization that was built on the premise that athletes would advance through skill and competition. This would differ from how it was setup in UFC.
“The UFC uses a formula where they have a guy who sits behind a desk and decides who fights who for what and when,” Rebney says. “They choose who fights for the world title based on what they think they can sell to consumers. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that, but that’s very entertainment-centric.
“That’s like a casting agent who picks a certain star for a film because they believe people will buy tickets to watch that star perform. What I did was create a dynamic and a model that said this is going to be pure sports competition. It’s going to be tournament-based, and if you win the tournament, you’ll earn the right to fight for the world title.”
Rebney’s goal wasn’t to put UFC out of business, nor was he claiming that it had a flawed business model. Clearly UFC has experienced success with the way it does things. But being a copycat of another business, even a successful one, is not always the best way to build your own profitable business.
“More often than not, when someone just tries to duplicate that model, it results in failure,” Rebney says. “If they try to look at what that other group has done and establish a substantive point of difference, even if it’s a slight difference, it can catapult that second player into a very prominent position in the industry. And in some instances, it can catapult that second player into the first position.”
Be willing to adapt
As it turns out, Rebney’s idea struck a chord with MMA fans. In fact, the growth took off to such a degree that it became a bit overwhelming. The company launched in 2008 and today has a presence in 117 countries around the world. It has 70 employees, as well as 25 local hires that are brought in for each event the company produces.
“We were coming out of the tail end of our alliance with Fox and getting ready to make the move over to a new alliance we had with Viacom,” Rebney says. “There was an amazing amount of movement going on at that moment. I recognized very clearly that it was a seminal moment for the company in terms of what the future would hold.”
The biggest aspect of this challenge was the fact that as Bellator continued to grow and draw interest from potential media partners such as Viacom, the parent company of the Spike TV network, the company’s key leaders were spread across the country in New York, Chicago and the company’s headquarters in Orange County.
“We were crisscrossing the country with key information,” Rebney says. “It wasn’t just about setting conference calls to solidify the understanding of what needed to happen next. It was the development of content, the production of TV shows and the orchestration and operation of events that were in arenas with 10,000, 15,000 and 20,000 people.”
Bellator does 25 to 30 live events a year with million-dollar production budgets and countless support staff, in addition to the fighters. Rebney quickly understood the distance was adding a lot of unnecessary stress to everyone’s work.
“From my perspective, you can never underestimate the power or importance of being able to sit with your people in the same room and strategize with them and talk to them about objectives and goals and how to deliver on both of those,” Rebney says.
So he made the decision to move his teams out of New York and Chicago and bring them together under one roof in Southern California. It solved a big problem, but Rebney still faced the challenge of finding the other people he needed to fill positions in an industry that was still very new.
“It was a lot of times finding people for positions who we thought would be great fits because they had great intensity and motivation,” Rebney says. “But you still couldn’t look at someone’s resume and say, ‘Oh, I see in our exact business, you did A, B, C and D.’ That made it difficult.”
So Rebney had to get creative. He had to think about the potential pitfalls and challenges that exist in the MMA world and pose those hurdles to job applicants in their interviews.
“The scratch-and-sniff tactic I’ve employed has been to give people legitimate tasks that apply to our company in a real world situation,” Rebney says. “You could say, ‘This is the conundrum we’re facing. Let me know what due diligence questions you’ve got so I can supply you with all the substantive data from Bellator and what we’re trying to do. Can you get back to me with some answers and a memorandum that addresses these issues?’”
Rebney dug deeper to increase his odds of making good hires and he ended up with a stronger team as a result. But that doesn’t mean he’s eased up on his own workload.
“It was 5 ½ years ago that I took my last vacation with my wife,” Rebney says. “To the detriment of my personal life, I’ve kept my personal connectivity to the business.”
Rebney says he doesn’t see himself as a micromanager since his involvement does not stem from fear that his people can’t make important decisions on their own.
“The big difference is in trusting your people and recognizing that you’re not always right,” Rebney says. ●
- Find a true differentiator.
- Make the tough decisions.
- Find people you can trust.
The Rebney File
Name: Bjorn Rebney
Title: Founder and CEO
Company: Bellator MMA
Born: Los Angeles
Education: Undergraduate degree in philosophy and master’s degree in sports business, Ohio University; juris doctorate degree, University of the Pacific, McGeorge School of Law. Passed the California bar exam.
Why did you pursue a law degree? When I was young, I looked around the landscape of top executives, CEOs and chairmen of major companies. There was one standard thread that seemed to run through almost all of them. They had their law degrees and they were attorneys.
Who has had the biggest influence on your life? My wife. She drives me to be a better person and a better man. I’m in a very aggressive business and industry. She’s kept me very grounded in terms of interpersonal communication skills, working with people and analyzing things from a very calm perspective.
What one person would you really like to meet? I had the privilege, really the honor, of having dinner with Nelson Mandela in a small group of about six people around 15 years ago. I literally became tongue-tied. What he did and what he was willing to give up for what he believed in and his desire to achieve something was so dramatic and so powerful. I only wish I had been able to have a bit more maturity and age to have been able to ask him more questions and engage him in more conversations.
Rebney on his tenacity: Very seldom do you hear someone say, ‘Well, I came up with a business plan, and I wrote it and I had three meetings and on the third meeting, they gave me $25 million.’ It just doesn’t happen like that. As my dad used to always say, ‘If it was easy, everybody would be doing it.’ It’s not easy, but it’s incredibly satisfying.
How to reach: Bellator MMA, (949) 222-3400 or www.bellator.com