Start-ups Don’t Have to Fail

I think that it is patently absurd for people to accept the fact that 90% of start-ups will fail in their first year or two.  That number screams that the market for new business formation is not efficient.  Economics teaches that markets hate inefficiency and always strive to do better. But this is one statistic that never seems to change.

I have read quite a few books and a lot of articles written by so-called experts dissecting why start-ups fail and how to make them succeed.  Much of it is nonsense.

There are really only three primary reasons why a new business will fail; 1) the owner lacks basic business acumen; 2) the business is under-capitalized and 3) the business misread the market. All can and should be avoided if the entrepreneur knows what he/she is doing.  Usually lack of experience and the ability to run the business profitably is what leads to the failure.  There are a lot of would-be entrepreneurs who do not know what a successful business looks like or how to run one.

It is hard to find an article that discourages entrepreneurs and entrepreneurship. But some people need to be discouraged because they do not have what it takes.  Fortunately, most of those people could learn what they need to know even though most will not.

When I was teaching economics I used the example of a restaurant, specifically a small pizza parlor, as a way of demonstrating how profitable a restaurant or any business can be.  Of all start-ups, restaurants often top the list of those that fail most often and more quickly than other businesses. That should not be.

In the example, the restaurant’s owner stops on his way to work to buy the ingredients that he needs, flour, cheese, tomato paste, pepperoni, etc. to make the pizzas.  If he opens his shop at 11AM, he can convert all of those ingredients into pizzas and back into cash, at a healthy mark-up, by the time he closes that evening. That type of rapid inventory turn-over is almost impossible to get in any other business.

Customers at a pizza parlor are not expecting table cloths and fancy décor so overhead can be kept to a minimum. Since the pizzas come out of the oven one or two at a time, the wait staff can handle more tables than the staff at other restaurants. They may use paper plates and paper cups eliminating the cost of a dishwasher. In most cases, advertising can be done cheaply with signage, flyers and coupons.

Couple that with the fact that the other product the restaurant sells, fountain soft drinks, has a huge mark-up and you can see why a small pizza restaurant can make a lot of money.  If he owner is really smart, he will add a soft serve ice cream dispenser as well because it also has a very high mark-up and will substantially increase the total amount of sales and profit per customer.

The further away the restaurant gets from this simple model, the greater the chance that it will fail.  Nothing about this discussion has a lot to do with the pizza or how good it is. It is all about the numbers, especially money in and out; how to maximize the former and minimize the latter.

The problem with most people who start a restaurant is that they plan the menu around what they want to serve or what they think they need to serve to attract customers, not on how much money they will make. Likewise, most start-ups focus on their product. But they also need to keep their eyes on the numbers. That is where start-ups succeed or fail.

The real lesson here for any business and especially start-ups is that what you are doing is a business. To make it work you need to be focused on the bottom line. If you cannot operate the business at a profit, it cannot succeed.  So why do 90% of start-ups fail: because their expenses are greater than their income.

When someone asks me what I consider to be essential for any new business, I always include an adequate bookkeeping system so the business owner can easily keep track of cash flow, inventory turn-over, etc. It is very difficult to find that suggestion on the list of start-up essentials in any of the hundreds of articles on the subject in Inc. or Entrepreneur Magazine.

The best advice for any start-up would be to “work smart and spend your time and your money wisely”.   That is especially true if you are looking for investors. Investors are expecting you to make money and they are expecting that you have what it takes to run a business and that you know what you are doing.

There are still thousands of articles about how to pitch VCs for funding. Over all VCs fund very few companies each year and many thousands of entrepreneurs are trying to get their attention because that is what the articles tell them to do.  Pitching to VCs may be the single biggest waste of time and money that any start-up does, especially so if you have to get on an airplane to make your pitch.

On the other hand, boot strapping can be very hard and the lack of cash can hold you back, delay your progress and cause you to fail just when you were beginning to succeed.  It is a lot easier to focus on your business when there is money in the bank to pay the bills.

Being able to raise seed capital so that you can focus and move forward is also an indication of other people’s evaluation of you and what you are attempting to do.  Feedback from potential investors on your seed round is important. Comments and suggestions, especially negative ones, will help you move forward.

Fund raising for start-ups has become remarkably easy with the JOBS Act and equity crowdfunding.  There is a lot of money available. It works for most start-ups because they can control the process and make it work.  I started walking companies through the process 3 years ago. Feel free to contact me if you are considering raising capital through crowdfunding or are raising capital and never considered crowdfunding.

A start-up is not a start-up until it starts-up.  Every business begins when it makes its first sale. It is a lot more difficult to raise funds for a pre-revenue company versus one which has a product already being sold. Pre-revenue you need a great business plan and a team to carry out your plan.  A good idea for a new business is important but execution is everything.

Given that financing a pre-revenue company is difficult, no one should plan on doing it twice; once to build your prototype product and again to launch it.  So an article that suggests that should raise money to create a  MVP (minimum viable prototype) and then again to take it to market is not really not helpful.   If you are going to raise seed capital to get your company off the ground, you should raise enough to get your product into the market, sustain your company until it is profitable, cover the costs of raising more money to help it grow and usually a small reserve in case things do not go exactly to plan.

There seems to be another stream of start-up gospel that suggests if you want to succeed you need to disrupt the market or solve a problem that nags the market. It is vitally important that you understand your market but you do not have to disrupt anything.

Nothing about the pizza parlor solves any specific problems that cannot already be solved in the marketplace. There is no new technology; no bells and whistles; no Blockchain.  While in a competitive market like New York City everyone knows a good slice from a not so good slice, I have waited on line at pizza parlors in small college towns around the US for some really mediocre pizza.

I look at a lot of pitch decks and I speak with a lot of entrepreneurs. Sometimes I can tell that the person just does not have what it takes to operate a successful business.  When that happens, I usually ask a lot of questions. How will the business operate post-launch? What are the sales goals month to month and where will the sales come from?  Where is your break-even point?

From day-one, the focus needs to be not on just starting up but staying open. The reason that 90% of start-ups fail is a lack of execution by the founders. If every entrepreneur focused on running the business well, that number would plummet.

If you are thinking about opening your own business, take a moment to have a slice a pizza and consider why that pizza parlor is successful.  Do that for fifty businesses. Look at what they are doing right and what you would do better.  Quantify how much more money the business would make if they did things your way.

Once you can analyze what makes other businesses successful, you will on the road to making your own business successful as well.  Sadly, the vast majority of people who are considering their own start-up would fail at this exercise. That, more than anything is why the 90% failure rate for start-ups is with us year after year.

 

 

Suing Your Broker After the Crash

When the stock market corrects again it will be the seventh or eighth time that it has since I began working on Wall Street in the mid-1970s. Corrections are always studied and talked about after they occur.  Corrections really need to be identified before they occur because they  always result in losses in accounts of smaller, retail investors. And they always result in a spike in litigation by those customers who wish to blame their brokers for their losses.

One of the reasons that the number of customer claims will go up is that in a rising market customers have fewer losses. That does not mean that the broker’s conduct was correct, just that it did not cost the customers money or that they could not see the losses or bad conduct until the market went down.

In the normal course, customers that have disputes with their stockbroker do not end up in court. Almost all of the cases are resolved by a panel of arbitrators at FINRA. It is a lot quicker and cheaper and in the vast majority of the cases, the customer walks away with a check for at least a portion of the amount lost.

Securities arbitration was the one consistent part of my professional practice. I worked on my first claim while still in law school. I represented mostly the brokerage industry for the first 15 years that I was in practice and mostly customers for the last 25 years. In all I represented a party or served as an arbitrator in almost 1500 cases. Some were unique and interesting; most were fairly mundane.

There are a few hundred lawyers around the country who specialize in securities arbitration representing customers.  Arbitration is intended to be simple enough that any customer can file and prosecute a claim themselves. But in every case the brokerage firm is going to be represented by a good lawyer and put on a competent defense. Even if you have the most mundane claim you need proper representation.

I have worked closely with about 2 dozen customer representatives over the years and like any other profession, some were better than others.  The best have all spent some time working in house for large brokerage firms.  They understand how the firms operate, what records the firms need to keep, how brokers are actually supervised and what defenses the firms are likely to have.

Do not be afraid to hire a representative that is not an attorney.  My fellow lawyers refuse to acknowledge that a retired branch office manager can often question the conduct of a broker better than anyone else.  For most of the claims that I handled I worked with a team that included both a lawyer and a non-lawyer who had worked in the industry for many years.  The latter was invaluable to every successful outcome.

Many lawyers think that securities arbitration is about the law, which it is not, nor has it ever been.  Arbitrators are not judges. They are not required to know the law, follow the law or to read legal briefs. Arbitrators are fact finders. They want to know who did what and why.  Too many lawyers approach securities arbitration as if they are presenting the case in court. It is the single biggest mistake and the single biggest reason why customers lose these claims.

Beginning in the late 1980s there began to be a lot of product related claims where the investment was itself defective.  Prudential Securities for example put out several billion dollars worth of public and private limited partnerships. Some were defective because the disclosures were not accurate or the due diligence was shoddy; others because the advertising and representations minimized the risks or projected returns that were unsupportable.

Over the years I have seen real estate funds where one appraisal of the property was sent to the bank and a second, higher appraisal went to the investors. I have seen “North American” bond funds full of bonds issued by South American companies and funds and ETFs full of derivatives that no investor could understand. Those claims are relatively easy to win. But it does help if you have a clear understanding of what the proper disclosures should have been.

There are always claims that stem from an individual broker’s bad conduct. Sometimes a broker will place an order without calling the customer for permission first. That is clearly against the rules and a customer is entitled to be compensated for any loss that occurs. If it happens it is easy to prove as the telephone records and the order are both time-stamped. Either the phone call preceded the order or it did not.

Sometimes a broker will help a customer trade an account or recommend a lot of buys and sells in a short period of time. Trading is not the same thing as investing.  Most traders, because they are making a lot of trades are concerned about how much commission they are paying on each one. That is why most traders gravitate to one of the low commission discount firms.  When you see a trader paying high commissions per trade and making a lot of trades it is usually a problem.

When the market comes down again, some of the losses will be the result of bad products and bad brokers.  However, most of the losses that the customers will suffer will be the result of staying in the market too long.  They will not be the victims of fraud but of simple negligence, as the claims will be based upon violations of the brokerage industry’s suitability rule.

The suitability rule is something that stockbrokers and their supervisors deal with every day. Notwithstanding, lawyers representing customers seem to have a hard time explaining it and how it is violated to arbitration panels.

Simply stated the suitability rule requires that a broker have a reasonable basis every time they make a recommendation to a customer to either, buy, sell or hold onto a security.   As it is written the rule sets forth a course of conduct for stockbrokers and requires them to get pertinent information about the client’s financial situation and tolerance for risk.

The typical defense is that the customer checked the box on the new account form that said he was willing to accept some risk or was willing to accept something other than conservative, income producing investments. This customer-centric view gives defense lawyers a lot of latitude to confuse arbitrators and will befuddle a lot of claimants when they file claims after the next crash. The proper way to view the suitability rule is to focus on the investment and the recommendation, not the customer.

In the normal course the only reason for a broker to recommend that a customer purchase any security is because the broker believes that the price of that security will appreciate in value. When they think the price will appreciate no further, they should recommend that the customer sell the position and move on to something else. The broker does not have to be correct, but he must have a reasonable basis for his belief.

Brokers and investors all over the world have for decades used the same methods to determine which securities will appreciate and which will not. It is called fundamental securities analysis and it is taught in every major business school.  Most of the large firms have cadres of analysts who write research reports based upon this type of analysis. Most of those reports set forth the analysts’ opinion of a target price for the security they are reviewing.

Deviating from that analysis will always get the brokerage firms in trouble.

That is what happened in the aftermath of the crash in 2000-2001.  Many of the claims from that era were the result of conflicted research reports. The firms were competing to fund tech companies and were funding companies that had few assets other than intellectual property and fewer customers if any.

I had several prominent research analysts on the witness stand who basically explained to arbitrators that they had to make up new ways of analysis because the internet was so new. That was BS, of course, and those “new” formulas were never disclosed to the investors or for that matter, never the subject of an article in any peer-reviewed journal.

Markets never go straight up for as long as this one has without a correction. I think that a lot of people seriously believe that a market correction or a crash is coming sooner rather than later. It may happen next week, next month or next year but it will happen.  I can say that because there is a lot of empirical data to support that position.

For example: 1) price/earnings ratios of many large cap stocks are at the high end of their ranges and when that happens prices come down until they are closer to the middle of the range; 2) employment is very high meaning wages should go up impacting the profits of many companies; 3) interest rates are rising which will cause people to take the profits that they have made in stocks over the last few years and convert them to safer, interest paying instruments; 4) rising interest rates also curtail borrowing, spending and growth; 5) an international tariff/trade war came on the markets suddenly and its impact has yet to be shown; 6) the global economy is not that good which should decrease consumption and prices; 7) oil prices keep rising and gas prices along with it because of international political uncertainty which adds to the cost of everything that moves by truck, which is virtually everything; 8) there is a lot of bad debt in the marketplace (again) including student debt, sub-prime auto loans and no-income verification HELOCs; 9) real estate prices are very high in a lot of markets and in many markets the “time on the market” for home sales is getting longer; and, 10) the increased volatility of late is itself never a good sign for the market because investors like certainty and stability.

None of this means that the market will necessarily go down but all of it needs to be considered. And that is really the point.  Many so-called market professionals urge people to just stay in the market no matter what. They claim that they cannot be expected to call the top of the market. They argue that the market will always come back, so what does it matter if you take some losses now.

Any investor who has made money during this long bull market should want to protect those gains. Any broker who is smart enough to advise clients when to buy a security, should be smart enough to tell them when to sell it.  Any advisor who keeps their clients fully invested when there are indications that a correction may be imminent is going to get sued and frankly deserves it.

The brokerage industry has always had a prejudice that suggests that customer should always be fully invested.  Brokers who work on a commission basis are always instructed that any customer with cash to invest should invest. Likewise, as the industry has morphed away from commissioned brokers to fee-based investment advisors, those advisors want to justify those fees by having a portfolio to manage not just an account holding a lot of cash.

Registered investment advisors are likely to be especially targeted by customers seeking to recover losses they suffer for a number of reasons. Many are small shops that do not employ a large stable of research analysts.  Many advisors just buy funds and ETFs and allocate them in a haphazard way because they really do not understand how asset allocation actually works. This is especially true of robo-advisors that are not programmed to do any analysis at all or to ever hold a significant amount of cash in their customers’ accounts.

All investment advisors including robo-advisors are held to the highest standard of care, that of a fiduciary. Any fiduciary’s first duty is to protect the assets that have been entrusted to their care. Any customer of a stockbroker or investment advisor should have a reasonable expectation that the profits they have earned will be protected.

I am posting this article on the evening before the US mid-term elections and on the day that the US re-imposed economic sanctions on Iran. Both may have significant effects on what will happen in the stock market in the next few months and beyond. Analysts may differ on what they believe those effects will be. But that is not an excuse to do no analysis at all.

The markets are driven by numbers and any broker or advisor who believes that they can offer advice without looking at those numbers has no business calling themselves a professional.  To the contrary, any advisor who tells you to stay in the market because no one can know when it will stop going up or that it will come back if it goes down is just playing you for a fool.