If you’re an entrepreneur and you’re not familiar with the term “sunk costs” you may have a problem.
A “sunk cost” is any past cost for something that you’ll not be able to recover. Typically, sunk costs are not included when making forward-looking decisions because those costs will remain the same regardless of what you may choose to do. In manufacturing, for example, a sunk cost might be the cost of equipment because it is a cost that has been incurred which will remain constant regardless of whether that equipment produces any product.
Think of it this way: It’s money you needed to spend that you’ll never get back.
The problem for most of us is that our forward-looking decisions become too tied to those sunk costs. We often become emotionally invested and the more investment we make, the harder it becomes to divest ourselves from those costs. In these situations, it is difficult to consider the pros and cons objectively. Instead, we try to recoup sunk costs, which makes us do irrational things.
Researchers Hal Arkes and Catherine Blumer argue that when we continue a behavior or work because of our previous investments of time, money, or effort, we fall victim to what has become known as the sunk cost fallacy (Arkes & Blumer, 1985). We place such a high value—either monetarily or emotionally—on those investments that we irrationally behave when faced with a decision that devalues those prior investments. Moreover, we look for ways to justify our choice rather than accepting the sunk costs as what they are—money we can never recoup.
Let’s look at it a more personal way.
Say you bought a quart of your favorite yogurt at the grocery store. It’s been in the fridge for a few weeks unopened, and putting away the dinner leftovers you spot it and realize that yesterday’s date is the “use by” date on the package. Concerned that it will spoil, you open and eat as much of the yogurt as you can—maybe even all of it—even though you’ve already had dinner because you’d rather do that than “waste your money” on food that will...
Jim Mitchem, an author and partner with branding firm Out of the Ether, and I explore starting a service business, the willingness to take risks, branding, continuous self-improvement, and many other things in this interview for my Everyday Entrepreneurs podcast.
I hear this often from entrepreneurs and small business owners: "I have the popular accounting software to manage my business checkbook. I can use it to create invoices and pay suppliers. I even use it to manage my payroll. It is simple, and it is just like my checkbook. I think I have it all covered. I use an accountant for my taxes, but do I really need an accountant other than tax season?"
The answer is,yes. You should have an accountant who can support your business year-round.
An accountant offers much more than bookkeeping and taxes. In fact, an accountant’s area of expertise often goes far beyond that of your neighborhood bookkeeper. While undoubtedly a bit more expensive than a bookkeeper, you should be able to rely on an accountant to add value to your business operations.
For example, an accountant will:
- Help you read and understand your financial statements. If you are just printing them off your accounting program each month without a thorough understanding of what you are reading, your business may be in trouble, and you may not even know it. An accountant can help you decipher the numbers on your financial statements and determine how to use those numbers to determine the actual condition of your business.
- Advise you on Generally Accepted Accounting Practices (GAAP). Like most business operations, accounting has a defined set of “business rules” or the “acceptable way to do things.” Although most accounting software packages provide some safeguards to prevent you from making significant errors in bookkeeping process and they do provide an audit trail for what you have done, they will not force you to follow these standard business rules. Regardless of your business size, you will want to be able to justify your record-keeping and financial reporting by the accepted practices.
- Provide a dose of business reality. As a business owner, one of the most challenging things to do is to look at the books objectively. An accountant will provide you with an objective outlook on how...
Licensors often start their vetting process with a license application to learn about a prospective licensee’s proposed licensed product, the sales potential for the licensed product, and the underlying financial health of the licensee. This may be sufficient if the primary goal for a licensor is revenue generation; however, if the licensing strategy goes beyond royalty generation, a licensor will need to consider other factors to help ensure all parties have more significant opportunity for success in the licensing relationship.
A licensor who seeks to increase awareness of its brand, expand into new categories or markets, or develop new products to help serve its business goals, for example, may not consider short-term royalty potential as the primary factor in evaluating new licensees.
Depending on a licensor’s strategy, it might also incorporate factors into its review and vetting process to gain a broader view of a prospective licensee, its alignment with a licensor’s mission and vision, and potential for long-term growth. In such situations, a licensor’s vetting process might include the following:
- Organizational Fit. A prospective licensee and the new licensed products it proposes must be a good fit with a licensor’s mission and vision. The proposed products, the manufacturing and sourcing procedures, and the marketing and merchandising strategies, must all be in alignment with a licensor’s brand, image, and organizational direction. The prospective licensor’s business practices, executive leadership, management, and customer service staff will likely have an impact on a licensor’s brand, and these factors should be considered in the evaluation of alignment with the licensor’s organization.
- Operational Stability. Stability is essential, and some licensors assess stability by the number of years a prospective licensee has been in operation or the appearance of financial solvency; however, a more in-depth dive is always required. For example, a licensor will likely want to pull Dun & Bradstreet reports, ask for financial statements from non-public companies, check several references (other licensors, vendors, and manufacturers), and evaluate the leadership biographies for relevant experience. A licensor might also want to consider a prospective licensee’s operational structure and supply chain, paying particular attention to the ability to fulfill its marketing, sales,...
The following is an interview with Eric Hilferding, CEO of ClassB, a custom t-shirt manufacturer, and printer for my graduate coursework in entrepreneurship. Eric and I first met in 2005 when I was with the Boy Scouts of America. His company was one of the BSA's first licensees in the revamped licensing program. We became fast friends and I have long admired his attention to detail, his creativity, and his commitment to service.
Q. Tell me a little about ClassB and your role with the company.
A. ClassB is a provider of custom decorated goods including t-shirts, embroidery and promotional products to primarily nonprofit organizations. The company started in 1982. We currently have 38 full-time employees. We focus on having a great customer experience. The internal motto is we sell service not t-shirts. I am the CEO of ClassB and one of the two company founders back in 1982. I have been formally running the company since the mid 1990’s.
Q. Did you have any entrepreneurial experience or education before launching the company?
A. I have zero business or entrepreneurial education - I have a BA in History. Luckily, learning about running a business was always a part of my life. I started working at around age 8 at my grandfather's lumber yard. My parents often discussed business at the dinner table.
When my mother and I started ClassB, all immediate family members eventually were employed. I read profusely to fill gaps in my knowledge. I was very lucky to have my father with his extensive business knowledge available at all times. Without his experience, I would have failed many times over. Now I realize how right he was on everything.
Another key area is my Boy Scout experience. I learned so much by making lots of leadership mistakes in my Troop and working at Summer Camp. Having that sandbox to learn is one of the most valuable things I can imagine. If not for my parents and the Boy Scouts, my only business reference point would be work based sitcoms.
Q. What are...
The most common definition of business suggests it is the “organized effort of individuals to produce and sell, for a profit, the goods and services that satisfy society’s needs” (Pride, Hughes, & Kapoor, 2013). In a manufacturing-driven society, this definition might be valid, yet it arguably emphasizes an outward-in approach to product and service development and in doing so has potentially set a generation or more entrepreneurs off on the wrong foot. So many entrepreneurs believe that the “thing”—the product or service—they have created will “satisfy society’s needs” without giving enough thought to understanding what society needs, values, and expects. The focus on the thing poses one of the most significant long-term barriers to success for entrepreneurs.
Entrepreneurs devote too much time and energy to the perfect execution of the product or service at the outset. In fact, many entrepreneurs invest—maybe even over-invest—in the thing before they understand if there’s an actual market for the thing. Not long ago, I spoke with an entrepreneur who had an idea for a new technology product and a pool of funds to develop the product. He was searching for a developer to help get this product off the ground but had not thoroughly researched the market opportunity for what he was about to create. Moreover, he had done little more than cursory research on his target customer. His focus was on product execution, rather than customer understanding. Unfortunately, this approach is all too common with startup entrepreneurs. A good product or service—one that meets a customer's desires—will be far better than a great product or service that misses that mark.
Steve Jobs once said, “Customer’s don’t know what they want until we have shown them” (Isaacson, 2011). To Jobs’ point, when new ideas for products and services are solicited from customers, those ideas tend to mirror competitive products in the marketplace or be derivations of products or services already available (Furnham, 2000). However, this should not suggest that knowledge of the target customer and customer input is without value. In fact, one might argue that Jobs and...
One of the most significant challenges for licensors is to keep the opportunity pipeline full. Regardless of the size of the licensing program, finding and qualifying prospective licensees can be a challenge. Some licensors need more opportunities to explore, while other licensors have the opportunities but do not have a defined qualification process. Unfortunately, some licensors have both challenges. To overcome those challenges a licensor might consider the following sales and business development techniques.
Let’s start with three fundamental assumptions:
- You have a strategy for each of your licensed properties;
- You’ve identified the product categories that align with your core brand message and best support your licensing growth goals; and
- You have a realistic understanding of the value of your brand and licensed properties.
While having a defined strategy for each licensed property and knowing the categories which each property fits best is a great starting point, you also need to have a realistic expectation of your licensed property’s value to a prospective licensee. For example, you may have a top brand in one category, but your brand might not bring significant or even incremental value to the market leader in another category that you’re targeting; therefore, your brand probably has less value for that category leader than it would for the number two or number three player. This will be a crucial factor in targeting and qualifying licensing prospects.
With these assumptions in mind, you can begin developing or refining the process to grow your licensing program.
Finding prospective licensees
Prospective licensees fall into two camps: Those who know and see value in your brand, and those who do not. The former is likely to be already knocking at the door to pitch new ideas, but the latter creates the biggest challenge for most licensors.
The best way to identify possible new opportunities is through Environmental Scanning—careful monitoring of the marketplace—for new licensing deals in your target product categories. You can also identify potential opportunities by noting specific changes at companies within those target categories, which might include:
- Changes in licensing, marketing, or other senior leaders;
- A shift in organizational strategy, new product line development or line extensions; or
I’ve been reading meditations from Mark Nepo’s The Book of Awakening every morning for several years. A few weeks ago, the reading from September 27 in the book struck a chord with me relative to the challenges of fear and panic in entrepreneurship. Here is that meditation and my takeaways:
“Few situations can be bettered by going berserk.” – Melody Beattie
It was the philosopher Michael Zimmerman who told the story of being a boy in school when someone passed him a pair of Chinese handcuffs, a seemingly innocent thimble-like casing with an opening at each end. It was passed to him without a word, and, of course, through curiosity, he slipped his left forefinger in one end and then his right in another.
Mysteriously, what made them handcuffs was that the more you tried to pull your fingers out, the tighter they held you. Feeling caught, he panicked and pulled harder. The small cuffs tightened. But suddenly, it occurred to him to try the opposite, and as he leaned his fingers into the problem, the small casing slackened, and he could gently and slowly work his fingers free.
So many times in life our pulling in panic only handcuffs us more tightly. In this small moment, the philosopher as a boy reveals to us the paradox that underscores all courage: that leaning into what is gripping us will allow us to work our way free.
I can personally identify with this story.
I have learned the hard way that panic begets panic. I know this to be true through all my life and business trials. I also know that the majority of the times I have panicked, especially as an entrepreneur, it has involved matters of money. But, it’s often not really about the money itself. It’s more about what the money represents—a lifestyle, security, safety, and the like, and losing those things strikes a chord of fear in us. Panic always comes from fear, doesn’t it?
As the handcuff story above tells us, the more fearful we become, the more we entrench...
The things happening in America right now trouble me in ways I cannot yet verbalize. I cannot help but think that the lack of critical thinking is at the root of many of our cultural challenges. This article in Edutopia, Overcoming Obstacles to Critical Thinking by Randy Kasten strikes a chord. I believe we need to start teaching critical thinking skills much earlier. Maybe we should start in elementary school. Would you agree?
I’ve been shaking up my podcast listening lately. Among my new favorites are:
- How I built this with Guy Raz. An interview show with successful entrepreneurs and others about how they built their movements.
- Longform. Another interview show, but this one is with non-fiction writers who discuss their writing.
- The Good Life Project Podcast. Jonathan Field’s interview-focused podcast exploring what it takes to live a good life.
- Self-made man. Mike Dillard’s podcast about men who are striving for greatness.
I finished Tyler Cowen’s The Complacent Class a few months ago. I’m still distilling my takeaways, and I will likely write a few posts about my thinking on his theories. In, It’s time to think differently about entrepreneurship, I did reference his thinking on cultural segregation and the possible impact on entrepreneurship.
With the required reading for my graduate classes, I’m finding it hard to get into reading much of anything other than magazine articles. Still, next up on my reading list are:
- The Jesuit Guide to (Almost) Everything: A Spirituality for Real Life by James Martin
- The Vanishing American Adult: Our Coming-of-Age Crisis–and How to Rebuild a Culture of Self-Reliance by Ben Saas
In case you missed it.
I just finished an 8-week graduate class in Advanced Entrepreneurial Finance. I’ve written a lot about business finance from an entrepreneur’s perspective. If you’ve missed those posts and are interested in reviewing them, they’re listed below. I have also included in several of those posts downloadable example spreadsheets for creating pro formas, calculating financial ratios, and determining customer acquisition costs.
The new season of ABC’s Shark Tank started a few weeks ago. If you are not familiar with the show, it’s a business “pitch show.” Each week several entrepreneurs pitch their businesses to a group of investors (also known as “Sharks”) hoping to secure funding for their venture. Although it is dramatized, like all reality shows, I am a fan because it aligns with my own experience as an entrepreneur and I believe aspiring entrepreneurs can learn a few lessons from the interactions those pitching on the show have with the Sharks.
Here are just a few of my Shark Tank takeaways for aspiring entrepreneurs and those looking to grow their business through outside investment:
1. Know your true opportunity.
Too many entrepreneurs go into business chasing what they perceive to be a market opportunity only to learn that the market is not significant enough to warrant an investor’s interest. Think about where the business could go, without being too unfocused, to grow. But be realistic. Just because there are millions of dog owners in the market does not mean you will sell every one of them your new dog product.
It is also critical to have a keen knowledge of your competition. You should consider how easy it might be to knock-off your product or service offering, or otherwise, move into your market. This is especially true if your competition is larger than you and the market opportunity is right. Competitors with deep pockets can be a startup killer. It is essential to understand how your business is realistically different.
Keep in mind that, investors want to maximize their returns. If you’re targeting a market that has limited potential, there’s little chance you’ll be funded if the investor doesn’t see a market opportunity you may be missing. Invest the time to understand the true opportunity before seeking outside investment.
2. Live and breathe your numbers.
Your business financials are the lifeblood of your company. Investors will want to know your...