Virtual Reality

On Tuesday, February 12, 2013 I had the privilege of moderating a panel discussion on outsourcing at an event held by the Entrepreneurs Forum of Greater Philadelphia (EFGP). The program was entitled “Virtual Reality: Using Outsourcing & Virtual Business Models to Achieve Peak Performance.” The objective of the panel discussion was to give potential buyers and providers of outsourcing services an overview of trends, opportunities and challenges in outsourcing. Particularly for the growth companies that the EFGP serves, we hoped to provide an overview of the resources available through outsourcing as a company grows and evolves, and to provide guidance in navigating the decision of whether to outsource and how to outsource.

Key discussion points included:

  • The value proposition of outsourcing: While there are many benefits, the overarching value proposition is to be able to focus on your core competency. As Tom Peters said, “Do what you do best, and outsource the rest.” This might have been expanded to say, “Do what you do best, and outsource the rest TO WHOEVER DOES THOSE THINGS BEST.” Patrick Gibbons, co-founding partner of The Emerson Group, eloquently described Emerson’s wildly successful business model that provides outsourced services while itself relying upon outsourcing for non-core functions.
  • Outsourcing levels the playing field and enables smaller, earlier-stage businesses to successfully compete with larger encumbents. Joel Cardis, Inhouse-Counsel.net, described several examples he has seen in his role as outsourced general counsel, while explaining how his proactive role with his clients is a modern twist on contracting out for traditional legal services.
  • Outsourcing is continually evolving, and within each functional area (finance, IT, marketing, logistics, etc.) outsourcing is at a different stage of maturity. Outsourcing services are moving up the ladder from handling routine or transactional tasks to more value-added, knowledge-based and strategic activities. Staffing, a form of outsourcing, has progressed from temporary factory workers, to temporary office workers, to interim executives, and now to “fractional” executives, or “executives as a service,” evangelized by panelist Sue Cyliax of Chief Outsiders. Similarly, staffing solutions have evolved into managed services, whereby the management of an entire business process or functional area is outsourced, such as recruiting process outsourcing, represented by panelist Emily Biscardi, founder of Xelerate.
  • Advances in information technology – namely, cloud-based and mobile applications – have made outsourcing more practical and pervasive. As Anthony Mongeluzo, President of ProComputer Services (and EFGP President) noted, the “cloud” is really just a new name for something that has been around for a long time, but broadband technology has made it possible to move vast amounts of data digitally and wirelessly to and from the cloud. Sam Vinovich, a colleague of mine at Fesnak and Associates LLP, described Fesnak’s use of cloud accounting technologies Intacct and Bill.com to remotely provide a robust accounting and financial management solution.
  • Outsourcing is not a job-killing practice and should not be confused with offshoring. It is creating whole new career paths for professionals. For example, a controller in a middle-market company may have no upward mobility if the CFO she reports to stays in her job for a long period of time. But at a firm that provides outsourced accounting services – where her area of expertise lies within the firm’s own core competency and reason for being – she has unlimited opportunities for advancement. And outsourcing provides a wide spectrum of experiences to the professionals delivering the services, which in turn adds to the value proposition for buyers of those services. To use Mongeluzo’s metaphor, an IT professional at an IT outsourcing firm is an “alley cat” that has been exposed to all sorts of ever-changing experiences in the outside world. An in-house IT professional, in contrast, is a “house cat”: limited to the experiences seen inside his or her company, confined by that one company’s vision, resources, budget and existing technologies.

It was a dynamic panel discussion that I was pleased to be a part of. Judging from the audience questions and feedback surveys, it was well-received. Being in the outsourcing field, it is easy to forget that outsourcing is still not necessarily mainstream, at least not in all functional areas, and business professionals still have a number of questions about how it all works and can best be leveraged in their organizations. The panel discussion was a great opportunity to continue to educate the marketplace and evangelize the benefits of outsourcing. Thanks to EFGP, the panelists, and all who attended the event!

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Transforming How Accounting Gets Done

Last week was our firm’s annual meeting, when our managing partner provides all employees with a recap of the past year and a look ahead at the next year’s goals. Each service line partner presents a similar perspective on his or her own practice area. Because we are adding new employees all the time, this also gives our most recent hires an opportunity to understand the firm’s capabilities outside of his or her own group.

As I prepared my talking points, I reviewed the first bullet on my PowerPoint, showing the mission of our Financial Management Outsourcing group: “To provide financial insight and leadership to help entrepreneurs, executive teams and investors take their organizations to the next level.” In years past, I have started my presentation by reciting this mission statement. While we certainly remain true to this longstanding customer-centric mission, I was suddenly struck by the following thought that seemed more appropriate as the kick-off of my presentation:

“We are doing nothing less than transforming the way accounting gets done in emerging growth and middle market companies!”

I have posted previously on the value proposition of finance and accounting outsourcing, so I won’t get down into the details again here. Doing so was not on the agenda for the annual firm meeting. But what I did say was this:

“Imagine you are talking to an entrepreneur about her great new product. And then she says she plans to build a factory to manufacture it. You would say, ‘You’re crazy! Find someone else to make it! Outsource it!’ You would give her similar advice if she wanted to hire several employees to form an IT department, or someone to process payroll. Yet with accounting, the default choice still seems to be to hire people internally. And THAT is what we want to change – to make outsourcing the default choice for accounting and finance, like it is for manufacturing, IT and payroll.”

Seems pretty self-evident to me. I am more enthusiastic than ever about the accelerating trend, and I look forward to being with others that share this passion at the CPA2Biz DigitalCPA Cloud User Conference later this week. Stay tuned for insights gained from this three-day event.

Consumer Product Companies Get It!

Last week I attended the Consumer Healthcare Products Association’s annual Market Exchange. Although it was the third time I have attended this event, I am always struck by the extent to which consumer product companies have embraced outsourcing and virtual business models. These companies, particularly those at an early- or emerging-growth stage, outsource product manufacturing; order fulfillment, invoicing and logistics; payroll; information technology; accounting and finance; public relations; and even some aspects of sales and marketing. Each year, the ecosystem of outsourced service providers at the event seems to expand.

Management guru Tom Peters said, “Do what you do best, and outsource the rest.” So what is it that consumer products companies do best? Develop, grow and manage their brands. Once a brand strategy is defined, outsourcing plays a prominent role in tactical execution within key functional areas. With a relatively small internal team, revenue-per-employee hits previously unheard-of levels.

Consumer products certainly isn’t the only industry that exemplifies the virtual business model. Technology and life sciences companies clearly “get it,” and businesses in every industry use outsourcing to some degree. But the power of virtual business becomes very clear as you hold in your hand a physical product that was neither manufactured nor shipped by the company whose name the product bears. Yet the brand occupies a place in the consumer’s mind, as a brand by definition must.

Virtual Number Two

I recently read an interesting article by Jack Welch in Fortune magazine, in which Mr. Welch used Mitt Romney’s selection of a running mate as a springboard to discuss the essential criteria for a vice president. The piece was written before Governor Romney selected Paul Ryan, but the article remains relevant in its identification of the attributes of a solid “number two,” whether in politics or business.

As they say, it’s lonely at the top, and Mr. Welch notes that some CEOs feel isolated in their decision-making. This is particularly true for entrepreneurs in early-stage companies that may lack an experienced management team. The concept of a “number two” often implies a clear second-in-command and successor to the CEO. But aside from the succession planning that good corporate governance requires, not every CEO is ready, willing or able to explicitly identify his or her “number two” to the rest of the company or the outside world. Still, the CEO should be able to draw the necessary support from each member of his or her executive team.

Two of the criteria Mr. Welch identifies for a “number two” are having “guts” and being a “partner” to the president or CEO, and I believe every one of the CEO’s direct reports should have these attributes. “Guts” means having the courage and confidence to carry out the difficult responsibility of sharing with the CEO bad news, negative messages percolating among management or employees, or even constructive criticism. In short, it means not being a “yes-man,” and being willing to express disagreement. On the flip side, though, being a “partner” means expressing that disagreement only in private, while always standing as one with the CEO in public. As Mr. Welch notes, it also means that none of the CEO’s direct reports should allow their offices to become places to “slip initiatives through.”

The CFO may or may not be the explicit or implicit “number two” that is ready and able to step in as CEO if needed. Regardless, the CFO – like all members of the executive team – must have “guts” and be a “partner” to the CEO. It falls to the CFO to communicate the hard financial realities of decisions, particularly in a high-growth (and high burn rate!) environment.

Can a Virtual CFO fill this role? Yes! In fact, a Virtual CFO is uniquely positioned to deliver hard messages to the CEO. While a member of the executive team, a Virtual CFO also brings the outside perspective of a consultant and is free from the concerns of internal political dynamics. In early-stage, emerging growth and lower middle market companies, engaging a Virtual CFO enables access to a level of talent and experience that generally is not affordable or necessary on a full-time basis. With this level of knowledge and experience, a Virtual CFO can be an all-around counselor and coach to the entrepreneur/CEO.

Of course, both Virtual CFOs and full-time hire candidates must be evaluated for the necessary attributes. CEOs should encourage their existing CFOs to be candid, and should foster an environment where the CFO feels comfortable sharing conflicting points of view and expressing disagreement in private.

CEOs and CFOs, please share insights about your relationships, and your perspective on the balance between “guts” and “partnership”.