The value of guidance: Find the right mentor now

By James S. Cassel

The adage “No man is an island” applies as readily to small or middle-market businesses as it does to an individual — perhaps even more so. According to a 2018 survey by SCORE, the network of volunteer business mentors, mentored businesses are 12% more likely to remain in business after one year, compared to the national average. In terms of revenue, businesses that sought guidance saw a “seven to eight-fold increase compared to those who were not mentored.”

If a small or middle-market business is to get ahead in a competitive environment, it should become familiarized with the wide range of resources that provide quality business mentoring and senior-level advice. These run the gamut from business coaches and advisory boards to formal boards of directors.

Depending on the type of mentoring engaged and the experience and skill set of the mentor, the benefits of receiving guidance cover a broad spectrum from obtaining direction on high-level matters such as strategic planning, to enhancing employee satisfaction.

Business operators can gain invaluable expert advice, tapping into the experience of others and harnessing a wealth of well-honed know-how. Unbiased and frank opinions — which can be hard to elicit from people on your payroll — are also available through mentoring, coaches or advisors, as are the diverse perspectives and innovative ideas essential for a company to stay relevant.

Hard as it can be for some corporate egos to digest, good advisors can teach you things you didn’t know, be a sounding board and expand your knowledge base. They act as an objective source with no dog in the hunt. If a company isn’t committed to learning and being innovative, it’s only a matter of time before it starts slipping behind more zealous competitors.

Mentoring is also a means to expand your network, gaining contacts and opening doors which might otherwise stay locked.

When selecting the business advisors most appropriate for your business, consider whether formal or informal, or a mix of the two, is the best fit.

A board of directors, for example, is a governing body that can provide high- level direction and advice as well as set policy, but this is a formal arrangement and you will have to answer to them. If you prefer a more informal, flexible approach, an advisory board can provide advice about achieving immediate business goals and on issues happening on an operational level.

If you want an even less formal but by no means less effective relationship, high-quality mentoring organizations abound. Joining Vistage Worldwide Inc., a group that provides “valuable perspectives from a trusted group of peers, professional guidance from an accomplished business leader, and deep insights from subject matter experts,” can be useful. Being selected by Endeavor, which is dedicated to matching entrepreneurs with personal mentors, is also an excellent opportunity.

One of the best mentoring organizations out there is SCORE. It offers volunteer business mentors, most of whom are retired business executives with decades of know-how, battle-tested experience and lots of time on their hands to help a fledgling business. Best of all—SCORE is free!

Other options include business coaches and one-on-one mentors who come to your business and can glean a helpful inside perspective.

Many giants in business not only benefitted from good guidance, but without it they might have fallen short. Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg was mentored by Steve Jobs who in turn was mentored by Mike Markkula, one of the early executives at Apple. Jack Welsh at GE had acclaimed author Ram Charam as his business advisor and mentor.

At Google, executive chairman Eric Schmidt served as mentor to the then young co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin. Interestingly, this mentoring relationship began when Google was already a giant and going strong—proof that expert guidance is vital at every stage of a company’s development.

Mentoring comes in many forms, but regardless of the option(s) pursued, there is no doubt that the result for a business can mean the difference between sinking or swimming. Don’t hesitate; find the right mentor now.

James S. Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle- market companies. He may be reached via email at or via LinkedIn at

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What early-stage companies should do when capital starts to dry up

By James S. Cassel

Capital is plentiful and the economy is humming, but don’t forget what happened in 2001 and 2008. Suddenly, companies that did not have a path to profitability in the short term were squeezed hard, often into extinction.

Venture and growth capital firms realized that the money they had committed from investors could soon dry up, so they started making tough decisions. For VCs, the lifeblood of early-stage companies, protecting only the best ventures became the mission.

As we move closer towards a possible recession, the time has come for early- stage companies to begin preparation for survival should investor capital become scarce.

What can early-stage companies do to prepare when capital starts to dry up?

The first step is a thorough review of your business model and cash projections. You should evaluate how much capital you have, how much you can preserve, and if your present capital can take you to break even, or to being cash-flow positive.

Be honest about what you see. You may discover a sale is inevitable, and if so, the earlier you start the sales process, or find a partner to help keep you afloat, the better your chances of not having to go into bankruptcy/reorganization or liquidation.

Secondly, if you expect to raise capital down the road, you may want to expedite the timing and do it now. With the economy humming, venture capital might be more available today, but as soon as a recession hits, and maybe even sooner, many will find it next to impossible to raise more capital.

You must also be careful not to let valuation be a hindrance to taking in new capital, or even to taking less of an investment than you had hoped for. A down round in terms of financing is often better than no financing.

Thirdly, you want to monitor and address your burn rate. For example, rather than reaching a milestone and then going off to raise more capital, your challenge is to develop ways to become profitable or cash-flow-positive with what you already have. By addressing this before your cash runs out, you have valuable time to begin moving towards profitability, or at least to break even in terms of cash flow. Again, long-term survival is the goal when capital starts to dry up. You’re looking for the chance to prosper later.

Now, even if you are able to raise capital, you should also have a contingency plan. Consider what happens if you don’t reach your benchmarks even with a capital infusion. You may want to allow for an earlier exit, or you may want to go to market selling your company for less than you’d hoped for.

Despite your best efforts, you may still find yourself out of capital, and if a recession hits, you’ll need to make tough choices. Maybe it will come down to deciding if you should run a sales process to at least get some value while you still can. Or, maybe it will be better to consider liquidation and get out with what you can, while you can, returning unused cash to investors. Something may be better than nothing.

Depending on your capital structure, you might have to change your original financial structure to get some relief. You may find that converting debt into equity is the smartest play, but another option might be restructuring in conjunction with offering better terms to potential investors, which might be your last-best effort to secure much-needed additional capital. Whatever move is best for you, remember to engage with an investment banker earlier in the process rather than later, as they can provide invaluable advice.

Money remains relatively accessible for early-stage companies, but it will dry up sooner than you think. Surviving a capital dry spell when you are running an emerging company means preparing early and acting quickly when the winds suddenly change.

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Why Do Investors Keep Funding Unprofitable Startups?

When I got my start in the startup world, I thought success meant becoming profitable in around five to seven years, preferably sooner. It was an assumption, and you know what they say about assumptions.

To be fair to me — and I love being fair to myself — the vast majority of venture-backed companies in my space were experiencing this lifecycle. First there was the seed round that catalyzed growth. Then came series A, B and C to continue scaling and ultimately reach profitability, or at least a short path to profitability.

D rounds were rare, and I haven’t heard of an E or F round. After D it seems like venture capitalists don’t bother with the alphabet anymore.

If the brand couldn’t raise funding, that was the end. Or, if the startup had plenty of investment but couldn’t pave a short path to the black somewhere between A and D, VCs would pull out and cut their losses.

Without funding, brands that still couldn’t become profitable would arrive at painful crossroads: stop growing, lay a bunch of people off or get acquired. The acquisition outcome was best, but it didn’t guarantee the company would maintain its identity or that the employees would keep their jobs. Usually the acquiring corporation hacked the startup apart and retained only the aspects they believed were most valuable.

Over and over again I saw some version of this story play out. It seemed like profitability was essential for a startup to survive past that five-to-seven-year period.

In recent years, however, I have noticed an increasing number of exceptions to this pattern. At one of the last startups I worked for, we passed our series C and were still far from being in the black.

During a company meeting, our CEO asked our CFO when we were expected to become profitable. The CFO shrugged and said he didn’t know. After the CEO pushed him a bit, he estimated it would be some time next year.

It’s been about two years since he casually threw out that figure, and the company still isn’t profitable. Recently they raised a D round, but it will most likely not be enough to push them into the black.

When I met up with some of my former co-workers for dinner a few months ago, they said the brand still wasn’t profitable, and they had no idea when it was projected to start making money. They didn’t seem worried about their job security, though.

The implication was that more money would come. There were plenty of venture capitalists out there who would fund them indefinitely. Being profitable just wasn’t the top priority.

This revelation was bewildering. What was I missing? Was I the only person who thought it was problematic for a company to rely on funding for well over seven years, perhaps 10 or more?

Fortunately I wasn’t alone. Both online and in person I connected with many colleagues who didn’t understand why some startups folded — and they lost their jobs — after failing to make money, while other brands tapped into a seemingly limitless supply of VC funding and figured out profitability at their leisure.

To get answers, I reached out to investors and other experts in the startup world. Here are the big takeaways from my conversations with them:

The Amazon Effect

For about two decades Amazon relied on investors to grow and stay in business.

“One of the main reasons for Amazon’s success was their ability to raise capital and have a story where people believed they would be profitable,” said James Cassel, Founder and Chairman of investment banking firm Cassel Salpeter & Co.

This faith ultimately paid off. In the first quarter of 2019 the e-commerce giant reported about $60 billion in net sales, and it seems like they will maintain these types of massive profits for the foreseeable future.

Now investors are betting on what they believe might be the next Amazon. To draw this comparison, almost all of my sources mentioned two names: Uber and WeWork.

Uber was founded about a decade ago, and it isn’t remotely close to being profitable. In an article for Forbes published in June, Columbia Business School professor and former Accenture partner Len Sherman wrote, “Until and unless Uber can find ways to overcome the numerous weaknesses in its business model, the company will never be profitable.”

If Uber does fix these problems, however, there is potential for investors to make a killing. Like Amazon, maybe it needs another decade.

WeWork is a similar case. Business Insider recently reported that the company lost $219,000 every hour of every day during the 12 months leading up to March. But, again, perhaps the brand needs another decade.

These indefinitely funded startups don’t need to be nearly as titanic as WeWork or Uber, though. The company I mentioned earlier — the one I worked at that is past series D now — had something like 100,000 customers by the time I left. Compare that figure to the 95 million people who used Uber in 2018.

Growth Over Profit

Investors often evaluate startups based on growth, not profitability. Even if the company is burning way too much money, building a big base of customers quickly is attractive to venture capitalists, said Alan Wink, Managing Director of Capital Markets at accounting and consulting firm EisnerAmper.

Sometimes founders need to sacrifice short-term profit for customer acquisition spend and expansion that could provide long-term profit. As long as revenue is high, they have a chance of getting more funding.

“Going for profitability too early often means limiting growth,” said Techstars Co-Founder David Cohen, who was also an early investor in Uber.

Choosing not to be profitable in favor of growth — even for many years — can be a successful strategy, so long as that profit can make a huge splash.

“Amazon is a great example of a company that reached that tipping point, and it paid off big time,” said Clearbanc Co-Founder and CEO Andrew D’Souza.

Motivations Other Than Profit

It’s common for profit to be one of the last issues investors consider. Algorithm Research Founder Ketaki Sharma claimed that, according to her analytics and experience in the business, most venture capitalists choose a startup based on their sector focus before scrutinizing the startup itself.

If an investment firm specializes in healthcare, for example, they try to completely dominate the landscape by pouring money into as many healthcare brands as possible. That way their competitors are left with a smaller slice of the pie and less potential profit. This approach can increase the valuation of their portfolios, and in the investment world this metric is often more important than profit.

Investors can still make money from unprofitable companies. VCs frequently sell shares or take part in acquisition deals.

Another factor is what Glimpse Group CEO Lyron Bentovim called “hype.” “Investors will invest money to have the Uber logo on their site,” he said.

When VCs are able to advertise that they work with hot brands, they gain an advantage when pursuing the next promising startup. Even if they lose money on an unprofitable but hyped startup, having such a brand in their portfolio could attract companies that ultimately turn a profit.

Recovering From the Recession

Many of the people I spoke to noted an improved economy and one of the longest bull markets in history as a factor for this increase in potentially risky investments. It doesn’t seem like a coincidence that these types of funds have flourished as we recovered from the recession of the late 2000s.

Several experts cautioned, however, that there could be another recession that would cut off access to much of this capital. These comments were in line with predictions from economists and politicians such as Elizabeth Warren.

Shouldn’t We Care More About Profit?

Just because it’s become more acceptable to deprioritize profit doesn’t mean this attitude is ideal.

“There’s this behavior pattern where people have forsaken or forgotten profitability in exchange for growth at any cost,” said Fresh Technology Chairman Matt Bodnar. “Some companies will implode, and we will look back and say that was ridiculous.”

The investor community is constantly enabling startup founders to spend irresponsibly. We shouldn’t fool ourselves into thinking growth and profitability are mutually exclusive. After all, there can only be so many Amazons.

Bio: I am the Content Marketing Manager at Public Goods and an official member of the Forbes Communications Council. I am also the author of “Teach Me How To Die,” my self-published novel about a widower who travels through the afterlife.

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A charge, a guilty plea and when victims can see money: update on a $322 million fraud

By David J. Neal

Here’s what happened recently in the multi-platform legal untangling of 1 Global Capital, the Hallandale Beach merchant cash advance business at the center of a $322 million investment fraud.


A plan of liquidation for 1 Global was filed last week in federal bankruptcy court by Greenberg Traurig’s Paul Keenan, who said the investor approval vote drew 2,425 out of over 3,600 investors, the highest he’s seen in a consumer case. That plan would go into effect in mid-October. The initial distribution of $100 million to investors will be made in early November.

But that’s a pittance compared to the amount of the fraud discussed.

“There are 3,600 investors who are going to lose money,” said 1 Global Capital’s bankruptcy court-appointed independent manager James Cassel of Cassel Salpeter investment banking firm. “These are Ma-and-Pa investors who put all their money in this.”

And 1 Global’s former CEO Carl Ruderman took money out, according to documents in several cases.

In the admission of facts accompanying former 1 Global CFO Alan Heide’s guilty plea (see below), Heide says Ruderman began to use the cash coming in from new investors to pay large commissions; to pay earlier 1 Global investors, Ponzi-scheme style; to operate Ruderman’s unrelated businesses; and for Ruderman and the Ruderman family’s “lavish” lifestyle. This, while 1 Global was operating in the red.

After a judgment gained in August by the Securities and Exchange Commission, Ruderman owes $32 million in money gained fraudulently; a $15 million civil penalty; another $750,000 cash; and 50 percent equity in his Aventura Bella Vista North condominium, which online property records say he bought for $2.7 million in 1999.

Ruderman has not been charged criminally, which is why he’s referred to as “Individual No. 1” in other parties’ criminal case filings.

1 Global sold itself to investors as operating similar to a payday cash advance place, except with a customer base of small businesses. Instead of repayment in one lump sum, payments came in the form of automatic withdrawals.

Numerous lawsuits have been filed to get something out of businesses that defaulted on the cash advances.

  • Jan Atlas, a 74-year-old Fort Lauderdale attorney, has been accused of using his corporate legal skills to help Ruderman continue doing business as they were. Atlas has been charged by information with one count of securities fraud.

Ruderman and an attorney came to Atlas when questions came up about whether 1 Global was selling a security and if it needed to register an investment offering with the SEC.

The allegations in the information document say, “Atlas came to understand that (Ruderman) and Attorney No. 1 were not interested in accurate legal advice based on real facts, but instead wanted false legal cover that would advance their desired outcome and allow them to profit from 1 Global.”

So, prosecutors say, Atlas gave them what they wanted in a May 17, 2016, opinion letter in which he “intentionally made false and misleading statements” and did the same in an Aug. 25, 2016, opinion letter. And that Aug. 25 letter, the allegations say, was used by 1 Global to keep raising money under false pretenses.

An email to the Miami Herald from Atlas’ attorney, Margot Moss of Markus/Moss’ law firm, said, “Jan is a good man who had a wonderful, successful career. But like all of us, he wasn’t perfect. He has quickly accepted responsibility for his actions in this case and shown genuine remorse. He will do everything he can to make this right.”


  • As mentioned above, former 1 Global CFO Alan Heide has pleaded guilty to one count of conspiracy to commit securities Fraud

Heide’s admission of facts says though he knew 1 Global wasn’t profitable and knew Ruderman was misusing funds, he kept “providing false and misleading statements to investors as to the financial health of 1 Global Capital, including making statements that gave the false impression that 1 Global had an independent auditor.”

Heide will be sentenced on Dec. 13.

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4 Ways To Prepare Your Cash Flow for Changing Business Cycles

By Mark Henricks

Having a healthy cash flow is a part of having a healthy business. Here are a few ways you can stay on top of your cash flow to ensure smooth transitions between business cycles.

Healthy cash flow is always critical, but it assumes even more importance when the economy is in flux.

After a decade of steady economic expansion, the possibility of a downturn should be considered in your business’ cash-flow plans, says James Cassel, co- founder and CEO of Miami investment banking firm Cassel Salpeter.

Questions about how long the expansion will continue, uncertainty as national elections loom and the effects of tariff wars are all affecting business owners’ moods, says Sonya Smith-Valentine, owner of financial consulting and training firm Financially Fierce in National Harbor, Maryland.

“I’ve noticed there’s a lot of unease, in general,” Smith-Valentine says.

“Everybody’s wondering what’s going to happen after the election. It’s making people hesitant.”

Not only should business owners start planning for a shift in the economic winds, they should start now, says Andy Cagnetta, CEO of Transworld Business Advisors, a Fort Lauderdale-based business broker.

“The speed at which things happen these days is much faster than it used to be,” he explains.

With that in mind, here are four ways to manage your business cash flow through the ups and downs.

  1. Watch your customers

From her experience riding out the last recession as head of a small law firm, Smith-Valentine suggests business owners worried about future business cycle shifts focus closely on their customers. As the 2008-2009 downturn built, she had to switch from mainly representing consumers suing credit bureaus to defending individuals against lawsuits filed by lenders.

“Luckily I saw the change coming,” she says.

By being sensitive to trends in her practice, she was able to switch emphasis to the part that was growing. And that let her maintain and even grow cash flow despite the downturn.

  1. Reduce your business

In addition to seeking new markets, Smith-Valentine worked to cut costs. She used an automated phone system instead of a human receptionist, reduced office supply orders and combed her spending for inefficiencies.

Having good timely data is crucial. One mistake we see is businesses letting that slip so they’re getting information 60 to 90 days old. That’s too late.

James Cassel, co-founder and CEO, Cassel Salpeter

“I was paying for access to two different programs when I only needed one,” she says. “I got rid of one of them.”

  1. Refine credit terms

Customer credit is another area cash flow managers examine to prepare for economic uncertainty.

Cassel stresses the importance of watching customers’ performance carefully, and taking action swiftly if a fast payer starts paying late. However, he says that rather than cutting off customers and driving them to rivals, it may be wiser to help customers through a rough patch so they remain with you.

  1. Keep cash and credit

It’s also important to maintain healthy cash reserves and, while business is good, consider obtaining a business credit card or expanding an existing credit line. It’s obviously easier to get credit approval when cash flow is strong than when a business is struggling to pay its bills.

Cagnetta’s firm maintains its line of credit even when cash flow and reserves are ample.

“We don’t have any money against it right now,” Cagnetta says. “But we keep it for a couple of reasons: To be strategic if we decide to buy something and in case of a rainy day so we have reserves.”

Other Cash-Flow Concerns

As Cagnetta noted, opportunity can arise in any economic environment. If a competitor struggles, it may offer the chance to acquire a rival at a bargain price. When competitors go under, surviving firms may be able to hire sought- after talent without buying the whole company, Cassel adds.

And in addition to scrutinizing receivables for slow payers, pre-recession may be an ideal time to encourage faster turnaround on invoices from healthy customers. Cassel suggests companies consider offering a discount for paying in 30 days instead of 60 days or otherwise accelerating payment.

“You have to be careful,” he says. “Some customers may get the discount and then slip back and still want the discount. So you have to stay on top of collections.”

Being careful is a central theme of how to manage cash flow during uncertain economic times. Growing too fast or taking on too much debt before a recession can hamstring a business. But being overly conservative and reining in growth when competitors are exploiting a continuing expansion can push a business to the back of the pack.

“It’s a balancing act,” Cassel says. “But you cannot bury your head in the sand like nothing’s going on.”

All told, information may be the most valuable commodity when preparing for a shift in economic fortunes. Even more than cash or credit, what distinguishes winners from also-rans when business cycles evolve could be having the data that will identify trends and suggest the optimal course of action, Cassel says.

“Having good timely data is crucial,” Cassel stresses. “One mistake we see is businesses letting that slip so they’re getting information 60 to 90 days old. That’s too late. You need to be managing your business daily, weekly and monthly, not quarterly.”

Read more articles on managing money.

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WeWork’s Options for Raising Cash Are Narrowing Fast Ahead of Its IPO

September 11, 2019
By Erik Sherman

What if they threw an IPO and nobody came?

In a week marked by “will they are won’t they” speculation about an upcoming IPO, and leaks that the We Company is considering slashing its once $47 billion valuation to some $20 billion—or maybe less—questions surround the high flying company’s future prospects.

But what might be the more pressing issue is how the company plans to solve its ravenous cash flow needs—now.

WeWork needs cash

The need for an IPO or some alternative all comes down to WeWork’s need for cash. Money has been flying out the door. In the company’s amended S-1 filing with the Securities and Exchange Commission, We saw in the first six months of 2018 a loss from operations of $678 million on $774 million in revenue. By the same period in 2019, it was a $1.4 billion operations loss on $1.5 billion in revenue.

In theory, WeWork could make money, according to Barry Oxford, who covers real estate for D.A. Davidson. “WeWork’s office space in and of itself is cash flow positive,” he said, comparing the revenue and operating expenses of the spaces. Oxford does worry about how well the business model would work in a recession. “Can WeWork get to cash flow positive and have enough of these spaces up online and stabilized before a recession or does the recession hit them before they’re stabilized, causing a lot of disruption to their business model,” he said.

The company has aggressively tried to build out its presence and secure more regular revenue, gobbling up cash in the process.

“This company right now probably needs to raise money to be around in five years … based on what they disclosed in their registration statement,” said James Cassel, chairman and co-founder of investment bank Cassel Salpeter & Co. “Their business model is to lock into these 10-, 15-, 20-year [building] leases.” Doing so allows the company to spread expenses for building out its co-working spaces over time, making the expense manageable. But the constant expansion means a need for ready cash.

We’s cash flow isn’t enough to keep things going. In the first six months of 2019, the company showed a net positive cash flow increase of $844.7 million, but only because it received $3.4 billion in cash from financing. Without the infusion, the company would have seen a decrease of more than $2.5 billion.

As of June 30, 2019, We had cash and cash equivalents of just under $2.5 billion. In other words, without an infusion from financing of that size, We would have been out of money and, potentially, out of business.

We is spending so much on marketing, overhead, and capital expenses for new locations, it doesn’t have enough operating profits to cover the bills. To keep on its current course, the company absolutely needs enough extra money to see it through the next few years until—hopefully—business dynamics turn around in its favor.

How much is WeWork worth?

An IPO was an obvious choice, especially at the $47 billion valuation the company sought. Additionally the company had lined up a $6 billion credit line from a group of banks, contingent on a successful IPO, Bloomberg reported.

But WeWork’s image has taken a beating with guaranteed control and sweetheart deals for CEO Adam Neumann. Many investors and market watchers pored over the S-1 and balked.

There were reported talks of at least two valuation downgrades in an attempt to make the deal more palatable, possibly bringing the IPO down to as little as a third of its original size. However, major investor SoftBank Group would have had to take a $4 billion write down and a $5 billion loss on its Vision Fund investment vehicle, according to Bloomberg. That would be particularly problematic as SoftBank is trying to raise money for a second fund.

“The fact that [We is] even considering going out with a valuation of a third of the last round suggests that the additional infusion is important to them,” said Chester Spatt, a professor of finance at Carnegie Mellon University. “These losses are clearly putting pressure on them to find some sort of funding solution.”

WeWork’s Strategy

The circumstances raise the question of what else We can do to bring in the money it needs. One approach could be to change the business model and stop the current drive for growth. “Then they have the ability to [plan] and see what they need to do to be able to get their existing operations cash flow profitable,” Cassel said. But Neumann doesn’t seem likely to scale back.

Another possibility is going to debt markets to sell bonds, which may be harder than it sounds. Data from Bloomberg shows that a bond that WeWork had issued in 2018 with a date of 2025 had been trading a few percent above its face value since the company released its IPO filing. News of the potential IPO postponement caused the value to drop below face value by 2.5% before returning to face value at the end of Tuesday trading. As of midday Wednesday, the bond was down an additional 3.4%

“It means they won’t be able to borrow money [easily or cheaply] as a private company,” said Barrett Cohn, CEO of private market investment bank Scenic Advisement.

Or there could be a rescue, possibly by SoftBank, either through financing for a bridge period so the company could stay afloat or an outright takeover. That would take billions and would seem unlikely to appeal to SoftBank, which would rather start its new fund than prop up the existing one.

The other options don’t look good. Or, as Cohn said, “They need to IPO.” Whether investors will show up is another matter entirely.

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5 things you should never cut corners on when growing a successful business

By James S. Cassel

When Wendy’s founder Dave Thomas was asked why his company’s burgers were square, he replied, “Because we never cut corners.” Thomas’ grandmother Minnie reportedly instilled this value in him, and his reply is a reminder that with some aspects of your business, you can’t afford to cut corners. Reducing effective marketing, customer service, employee benefits, and cybersecurity, or not nurturing your company’s core DNA, will cost you.

A study by marketing service OutboundEngine found that a staggering 50 percent of business owners admit to not having a marketing plan. It reports 55 percent of owners of small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs) spend less than 5 percent of annual revenue on marketing, and over 58 percent of SMB owners spent just five hours a week or less on marketing.

If the study is accurate, these companies are heading down a slippery slope. Keeping your company top-of-mind is fundamental to success and growth. Resources spent on strategic marketing is money you should get back with a healthy return.

Too often when times get tough, owners make ill-advised cuts to marketing/PR/ad budgets because they don’t understand the importance of these fundamental tools for stabilizing or growing a company. A business’ future viability requires not just cost controls, but revenue enhancement. Ill- advised slashing, or not putting in the time, effort or resources to successfully market your company will slowly deplete your business.

Remember not to under- or overspend, but work with your team to get your message out effectively.

Now, take a moment to consider the last time you reached out to a company and think about that customer service experience. Was it easy to find someone to handle your problem? Did the company resolve the matter quickly? If you’re a smart consumer and the answer was “no,” you likely moved on to another company to get that product/service.

Companies like Amazon and Lexus consistently rank as top customer service providers. Look to their efficiencies and strategies as a road map to your company’s customer service success. This is your front line of defense against bad-word-of-mouth and negative reviews online. Whether you’re building a culture of customer service, choosing the right vendor to handle inbound calls, or selecting digital customer service providers, in today’s era, with a negative review just a few clicks away, customer service is more important than ever.

Another area to support is your team, maybe your most important asset. If you hope to recruit and retain the top talent, potential and current employees need to know you’re willing to invest in them. Everything from company retreats, education, vacation time, and other benefits, matter.

Securing employee buy-in is directly correlated to how much you value your team, and how you treat your employees may ultimately affect how they deal with your clients and customers. If you have underappreciated employees, you’ll be faced with costly turnovers, problematic recruiting, or discover your employees are unwilling to deliver the level of service essential to your success. Little things matter when it comes to building esprit de corps. Don’t skimp here.

Underneath everything your company does, there should be a recognizable identity. Remember your mission and never forget your principles. You must know what your core DNA is, then you need to build and nurture that. And, if your company is growing, but its identity is being diluted, you have a problem. It’s time to regroup to ensure that the one good thing you are known for, is the one thing that never changes.

Finally, highly publicized trade secrets thefts and the Equifax and Capital One data breaches show there are malicious actors out there looking to target you next. Skimping on adequate cybersecurity measures to safeguard your customer data, trade secrets and intellectual property will end up costing you customers, while saddling your outfit with financial liability and huge image problems. All this can mean the death of your business.

Every company owner is faced with the task that only ends when the business ends: Ensuring that your operation is lean and efficient. But as you’re trimming costs, remember not to be pennywise and pound-foolish. There are certain things your business just can’t afford to do without.

James S. Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co.

Here are key business issues that presidential candidates must address

By James S. Cassel

With the 2020 election fast approaching, presidential hopefuls set on wooing business owners need to devise a courtship strategy based on more than platitudes. Given that many entrepreneurs are supportive of various Trump economic policies, and according to some polls, from a financial standpoint, feel he has their “best interests at heart,” candidates must address foundational issues — including taxes, regulation, labor, tariffs, the environment, healthcare, and income inequality — while remembering that this is still a capitalist democracy, not a socialist country.

First, although many business owners cheered President Donald Trump’s tax reform, there remains a sense that middle-market businesses benefited little, while big business and the wealthy were its main beneficiaries.

Candidates should define their plan for equitable taxes and which temporary breaks they would make permanent. It’s also important to remember the economic effect of both tax increases and tax breaks on the deficit, which recently hit a record $22 trillion and is still growing. This also needs to be balanced against social needs.

Regulation is another important issue. Under this administration, deregulation is driven by the requirement to eliminate two regulations for every new one added.

Business owners are generally supportive of deregulation as it can substantially impact their bottom line. Candidates should reassure business owners that under their leadership, government would be responsive, reasonable, and committed to eliminating red tape, while keeping in mind that many regulations are in the public’s best interest and end up saving money in the long term. For example, many states and companies do not want a rollback of auto emission standards due to the negative effects on climate, and ultimately, the economy.

Another key issue involves labor. Trump’s anti-immigration policies worry many business sectors, including agriculture, construction, and restaurant and hospitality, which rely on this labor.

Candidates should adopt level-headed approaches to this sensitive issue, neither avoiding it, nor demonizing immigrants — who are part of the ever- changing tapestry of this country and grow our economy. Without immigration, we would not have the same GDP growth.

Also, burdensome tariffs (ultimately a tax paid by consumers); a current, if fragile, truce in the U.S.-China trade war; and the looming threat of more tariffs, are part of the new reality for entrepreneurs, manufacturers, and farmers. Given how tariffs affect the supply chain, impacting the U.S. and global economies, candidates must develop a clearly articulated policy aimed at defusing tensions with China and other nations, while not ignoring trade problems and the transfer/theft of intellectual property.

Another issue, the environment, is a sore spot for green-minded business owners who decry Trump’s environmental record — including pulling out of the Paris Climate Accord and undermining the Clean Power Plan.

The environment has economic and global repercussions: It impacts insurance rates for businesses, can shut down supply chains, increases food costs, drives mass migration, and is not a matter that can be kicked down the road anymore. With the environment, a stalemate that continues to stagnate results in disaster for generations to come.

A sixth area is healthcare. While the administration has made clear its intention to repeal Obamacare, its proposed solution remains elusive, and we have yet to see what the courts will do. Uncertainty is a death knell for business owners.

Finally, presidential hopefuls should consider that increasing income for lower earners translates into more buying power and a stimulated economy. The current federal minimum wage is $7.25. Despite Trump’s campaign promises, it has not been increased in 10 years, although many companies have raised wages out of necessity to secure employees.

It is not sustainable to have to provide taxpayer-funded assistance in the form of food stamps and other benefits to those who are working 40-hour weeks, but still can’t make ends meet.

Thoughtfully fleshing out issues that matter to business owners will enable presidential hopefuls to stand out and gain support. These are tough issues, but they cannot be ignored by either the administration or candidates. In the political arena, where blustering, posturing, and unbridled contention are the modus operandi, a moderate, cool and balanced voice of reason could be an irresistible magnet around which America rallies.

James S. Cassel is a monthly contributor to Business Monday of the Miami Herald who writes about issues affecting the middle market; the views expressed are his and not necessarily those of the newspaper. Cassel is co- founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., an investment-banking firm based in Miami.

How Might Rising Gas Prices Affect Your Business?

Elevated fuel costs are affecting everything from manufacturing to employee commutes. Learn how these business owners are offsetting rising gas prices.

By Julie Bawden-Davis

With rising gas prices currently sweeping across much of the U.S., there’s a good chance that your company will experience the effects in one way or another. Rising gas prices have a trickle-down effect on the price of many goods and services in a wide variety of industries.

“When fuel costs rise, producers tend to increase their sale prices,” says Brian McHugh, owner of McHugh Construction. He and his crew use half-ton or larger trucks that burn a significant amount of fuel.

“Our margins are better than businesses like retail, so we don’t currently have to raise our prices. If the increase gets dramatic enough, we would consider wrapping those expenses into the final sale price,” says McHugh. “In order to stay profitable, businesses with lower margins and price points are finding it necessary to increase prices or establish better purchasing terms.”

Effect of Rising Gas Prices

Michael Black is president of Goliath Trucking, a long-haul trucking company. Rising gas prices have had a profound effect on his business.

“Since our company is a direct consumer of high volumes of fuel, rising gas prices have caused a need for increased operating capital,” says Black. “The additional cash required to operate adds up quickly.”

It’s hard for businesses to escape the effects of rising gas prices, adds James Cassel, chairman and co-founder of investment banking firm Cassel Salpeter & Co.

“If your company produces or uses petroleum-based products, such as plastic, costs will increase,” Cassel says. “Freight costs will also rise as many carriers add a fuel surcharge.”

Rising gas prices also make it more difficult for employees to commute to work, believes Robert Sadow, co-founder and CEO of Scoop. (The company works with businesses to create managed carpool programs.)

“Your employees have the onus of finding alternative, more affordable methods of transportation,” Sadow says.

Kamil Faizi, owner of Challenge Coins 4 U, which creates custom military challenge coins, agrees.

“Commuting eats into employee paychecks, which can affect your company’s bottom line,” says Faizi. “You may need to pay employees more to offset rising fuel costs.”

Rising Gas Prices Lead to Increased Operational Costs

As fuel prices increase, it’s likely your business will have to absorb the added costs.

“Many companies will need to compensate for rising fuel costs by raising prices, especially if the increased gas prices continue,” says Hanna.

Increasing costs to the consumer will be necessary for Black.

“The margins in the trucking industry are too tight and competitive to take on the added fuel cost,” he says. “Increases must be passed along on the freight bill, which ultimately leads to the consumer paying more for products.”

To minimize the cost of rising gas prices, here are several countermeasures you may want to use at your company.

Adopt a work-from-home program.

At Challenge Coins 4 U, rather than spend more on employee compensation to offset rising gas prices, the company implemented a work-from-home program two days a week.

“As a way of handling rising gas prices and employee commutes, we allow employees to complete their work at home,” says Faizi. “As long as their work is being completed in a timely manner, there is no problem. I have found this to be an effective strategy that has never let me down.”

Start a managed carpool program.

“Managed carpool programs help consumers save on gas costs and offer the added benefit of improving employee-to-employee relationships and limiting employee attrition,” says Sadow of Scoop. “For instance, carpools can introduce people who ordinarily might not interact at work, which creates an increased sense of community in the office.”

Sadow suggests implementing an employee carpool system to offset rising gas prices sooner than later.

“Get something going as soon as possible so that the program can grow and scale,” he says. “It’s much better to add people to an existing program than to build one from scratch when you have hundreds of employees.”

If you don’t have many employees interested in carpooling, Sadow suggests pairing up with companies in your area.

“If a handful of companies get together and implement a solution across their organizations versus simply their own, they’ll better use existing resources and won’t compete for parking,” he says.

Examine fuel efficiency.

If your business involves transportation, you can help minimize the effects of rising gas prices by taking a close look at the various elements that affect fuel efficiency.

For instance, consider streamlining routing and dispatch. The shorter the routes and better informed the drivers, the less fuel your company vehicles will use. Dispatchers that track traffic in real-time can reroute drivers for better fuel efficiency.

“Ensure that the route is planned in the most efficient way possible and that the trucks are packed full for shipping,” says David Lecko, CEO of DealMachine, an app for real estate investors interested in off-market properties. His company uses drivers who report potential properties.

Other factors that affect fuel efficiency include vehicle speed, how often and for how long a vehicle idles and how well-maintained the vehicle is. Regular maintenance can improve fuel efficiency.

Plan ahead.

“Proactively manage the risk of rising gas prices by taking into consideration the effect of price changes during the budgeting process,” says Hanna. “When developing budgets, complete sensitivity analyses to identify how changes in key inputs or outputs impact the bottom line.

“Use these analyses to develop action plans,” continues Hanna. “By proactively developing a plan, business owners will be better equipped to manage fuel increases and other changes that might impact their bottom lines.”

It’s also possible to offset rising prices by increasing the purchase of products or raw materials now that are used by your company, believes Cassel.

“Try to hedge or buy futures, if available,” he says.

How to protect your company from the trade wars whack-a-mole game

By James S. Cassel

Are the trade wars a game of whack-a-mole? It certainly seems like it. You knock one down and another unpredictably pops up. What’s next? The EU? Japan? Australia?

It’s anyone’s guess, but just because farmers were partially bailed out of a multibillion-dollar problem caused by the current trade war with China, doesn’t mean you or your business will be so lucky.

The time has come to evaluate how your company will be affected by the escalation of disputes with two of our biggest trading partners, China and possibly Mexico. As it pertains to Mexico, we have a reprieve for now, but in the game of whack-a-mole you never know what’s going to pop up next.

So, here’s what you should be doing to ride out the disputes:

First, take a hard look at your business to determine where you are exposed. Ask yourself tough questions. Will these trade wars affect your supply chain or customer base? Do your company’s products use technology developed by Chinese companies, and if so, can that technology be used against your company to steal trade secrets or surveil your customers? Do you own or control a factory in China or Mexico and what will these trade disputes mean for those operations?

If you’re selling to China or other countries, this is a good time to determine if tariffs will mean your prices will increase to the point that you are no longer competitive. Will increasing prices affect your volume and margins?
You should monitor the changes to learn what your company can endure and what it can’t.

You must drill down and evaluate what issues might arise for your business. If you depend on Chinese business partners, or even employees, it’s time to reconsider how dependent you are on them, and whether there are any viable alternatives in the short term, and maybe even for the long term. If you are primarily doing business with Mexican partners and a tariff is instated, alternatives may prove scarce.

Another issue to consider is one that so many U.S. companies already know. The price of doing business in China will many times mean giving up or compromising your intellectual property. So, in deciding if and how to cut ties with China, you must be careful to ensure you are not creating your own competitor in the process by figuring out how best to protect your intellectual property.

Mexico presents a different challenge. Its proximity to the U.S. and lower labor costs will be hard to replicate elsewhere. It might only be possible to move manufacturing back to the U.S. and suffer increased costs and capacity issues in the short term. Though some of those expenses may be partially offset by lower shipping costs.

If you do have a factory in China, now may be the time to consider moving it to Vietnam or another part of the region. You will have to calculate the viability of moving that factory, as well as the time it will take to move your operation. You may even wish to take it a step further and consider that now might be the right time to replace your workforce altogether by investing in robotics to streamline operations and reduce the number of employees.

You may also want to renegotiate existing relationships to lower costs, modify your business model by increasing your prices, or get suppliers to absorb the added costs that come with tariff increases. Do some research to find out if there are any suitable substitute suppliers. Try and find businesses that offer similar costs and capabilities that you can work with.

Some say the trade wars will go on until the next election; some predict it will last even longer. Whatever the outcome, your work begins now. Those who get caught in the crossfire later may find themselves with surprise competitors built on stolen intellectual property, sagging sales or increased costs that will simply price you out of competition.

James S. Cassel is co-founder and chairman of Cassel Salpeter & Co., LLC, an investment-banking firm with headquarters in Miami that works with middle-market companies.