Acumen Partners Articles



A tsunami strikes without warning. Only as it nears shore does the wave’s full destructive potential become visible. By the time you can see it coming, it’s too late to run for shelter. The devastation that follows is wide-spread and unforgiving.

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Are you ready for the ESSA avalanche?


If your company sells into the education market, Every Student Succeeds Act is the most sweeping change to hit the US education scene in history. We are embarking on the most turbulent upheavals in education funding we have ever seen.

Make no mistake, ESSA is now the law of the land. Schools, and the companies that sell to them, are already governed by the new regulations. Highlights of the changes include:

  • The dollars that schools have been using to purchase are in large measure still there – but they are in new places, with new caveats behind them.
  • The scientific research to prove effectiveness is different.
  • States are free to choose their own paths, which will lead to greater variability all the way around.

And that’s just a few of the immediate changes. The time to act is NOW. Priorities include:

  1. Marketing materials: Look carefully at jargon. If your company references “AYP” or “highly qualified,” they are no longer meaningful terms.
  2. Opportunity: This year’s spend-down is likely to be huge as schools need to use the monies allotted under the old system
  3. Sales Training: After this year’s spend-down, your reps will need to be retrained; the relationships they have leveraged for success in the past are in jeopardy.
  4. Districts are in a learning mode too; they don’t understand how ESSA works and will likely be much more cautious going forward
  5. Funding: Competitive grants are discontinued by October 2016.

The key is to be smart, focused, and ready-to-go! Make sure the value you bring to schools and districts is still relevant. If not, take steps to make the changes you need to make TODAY. There is no question that education vendor operations will be impacted – it’s up to you to make sure that impact is positive.



Ellen RuaneAre you ready for the ESSA avalanche?
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What is your Competitive Strategy?


You have your business plan. You may even have five- and ten-year plans for what you want to accomplish and financial goals to achieve. You’ve probably agonized for hours over the precise wording to put in your mission statement… but what’s your competitive strategy?

Michael E. Porter, renowned Harvard Business School professor and author, describes competitive strategy as “relating a company to its environment. Although the relevant environment is very broad, encompassing social as well as economic forces, the key aspect of the firm’s environment is the industry or industries in which it competes. “ Michael Porter further goes on to define earning the highest ROI in your industry as the ultimate goal for your strategy.

Fortune 500 companies consistently compare themselves to their competitors and markets. They also are clear and precise on exactly what they do and how they do it. But, benchmarking is not simply for big corporations; companies of all sizes need to have a clear idea of their strategic priorities in order to gain a competitive edge and succeed. Knowing which competitive strategy to choose and how to maximize its potential is just one of the many ways you can get noticed and be profitable in a crowded and competitive marketplace.

Strategic priorities can easily be broken down into three categories. And your company fits into one of the following categories 1) even if you don’t know it yet and 2) even though you are not a huge company like the examples we use below.

Operational Excellence: These companies strive to excel at cost leadership. They implement every tactic to improve efficiency and performance, to cut out excess spending, eradicate errors, and get products and services to their clients in the quickest, most efficient way possible. Customers learn to expect a standardized product or experience that is the same each time. Think Fed Ex, Walmart, or McDonalds.

Customer Intimacy: These companies strive to excel at offering personalization to the customer, yet still uphold a cost value to its customer. Their customers can pick and choose services to create a solution that is a good fit for their needs while still staying on budget. The company must obtain insights to their customer’s needs and the solution is not the cheapest option on the market, and also not necessarily the most innovative. These companies adapt and change with customer needs and the temperature of the marketplace. Think Amazon, Nordstrom and Mercedes.

Product Leadership: These companies constantly innovate the marketplace with products and services meant to mesmerize their customers. They create the products that customers “must have now” and the customer experience that keeps them coming back for more. Creativity and teamwork are hallmarks of their success. Think Apple, BMW and Fidelity Investments.

Where do you stand?
All businesses, regardless of size, need to choose a focused competitive strategy. Just like creating your mission statement offers guidelines for who you are as a business, understanding your competitive strategy in the marketplace offers direction and focus which leads to greater sales and success.
A good business strategy is only as good as the data used to inform those assumptions. Contact Acumen Partners today to learn more about the ways we help companies just like yours to gain clarity about your business strategy and close the performance gaps that cost you revenue.

Jack ElliottWhat is your Competitive Strategy?
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What about Taking it to the Next Level: Hiring for Purpose and Fit


Hooray! You work for fun company with a great idea and a visionary founder at the helm. And now the conundrum: Why is your company unlikely to thrive?

The vast majority of seed-stage companies which fit this description are run by a few people who share a common vision and strategy. However they often lack a second, third, or even fourth in command to implement the vision of the founder. While these entrepreneurs share each other’s passions and can work well together, they rarely include a different point-of-view or complementary action style.

Does this sound familiar? How can you improve the odds for your success? One idea: Start by assessing whom, what, and where you are currently. Then consider what pieces (skill sets, experience, temperament) you are missing. Looking at people you already know who could fill this gap is generally a better strategy for losing friends rather than growing one’s business strategically. And professional recruiters are great for sourcing and screening talent – but often require a substantial upfront payment for their services. And what if you need more than sourcing, screening, and negotiating? Do you know how to write the job description? Can you specifically describe the talents and personal acumen you want in your new team members? Are you prepared to onboard for success? There is another way. How about an objective assessment of you and your current leadership team combined with consultation on the kind of team members you need to best meet your growth goals?

An Acumen Partners Baseline assessment includes an in-depth analysis of your company, your competitive market position, and the natural skills of your existing team. Understanding these elements can vastly improve your chances for success and the data-driven report is something you can share with investors with confidence.

Acumen clients also have access to the services of an experienced recruiting team who works for you to write that specific job description and ideal-candidate profile as well as to source viable candidates. Our onboarding specialists can help you hire and retain top talent through a training program to ensure the best possible experience for your new employees and your firm. And Acumen shares the risk We spread our very-competitive fees over the first year of employment and we guarantee the placement for 1 year on a prorated basis. If the new hire doesn’t work out, you stop paying us. It’s that simple.

Improve your odds for success and allow your visionaries to do what they do best. Call today to schedule an OnTarget Baseline with Acumen Partners.

Gloria ElliottWhat about Taking it to the Next Level: Hiring for Purpose and Fit
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Success or Failure…May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor

Business pundits often use stark numbers to capture attention. They throw out statistics like:
“80% of businesses fail in their first year!” or
“95% of businesses fail within the first 5 years!”

The truth is that new businesses are more likely to be alive after 5 years than to be dead. Better yet, for each year past their 5th birthday, the likelihood of survival actually improves! That’s the good news.

The real danger faced by entrepreneurs isn’t outright “failure” per se. It is actually the “failure to thrive”. After adjusting for companies with no employees and averaging across industries, the picture of operating companies posting consistent profits (i.e. “thriving”) looks very much like the standard bell curve. If we define “thriving” as EBITDA of 10% or better each year, that means that 85% of businesses are not thriving. It implies that 30% of businesses struggle to post profits or break even each year. The rest are actually losing money on an annual basis. Ouch.

The top reasons for failure to thrive hold true across companies of all sizes. They include:
  • Inadequate cash flow/poor cash management
  • Insufficient leadership & management
  • Lack of clear focus or purpose across the organization
  • Inaccurate market perceptions
  • Poor or faulty reporting/transparency
  • Emotions/politics trump over sound reasoning

All of these hurdles have at least one thing in common. They are all solvable. If all of these stumbling blocks can be removed, why do they continue to plague companies year after year? What do the 15% of companies that thrive know that their market companions do not? What practices can non-thriving companies adopt to change their trajectory?

  • Use Data to Get Your Bearings: Thriving companies employ strategies that prioritize data in the decision making process. The best data strategies collect information from both internal and external sources. The investment they make in data best practices is rewarded by ongoing profitable operations.
  • Prioritize Efforts to Make Changes: No company can address every element that needs attention simultaneously. Thriving companies have disciplined approaches to identifying challenges, understanding the impact, and focusing resources to resolve the challenges with the highest ROI.
  • Employ a Process of Ongoing Improvement: Thriving companies have adopted some form of ongoing continual improvement. Larger companies benefit from structured approaches like Six Sigma, Total Quality Management, or Lean. Smaller companies are able to get great results from less formal improvements models such as PDCA (Plan, Do, Check, Act). The key isn’t in which process gives the best results. It is formally adopting and executing some process of continual improvement that prioritizes objective data driven insights.

Bottom line is that most companies are capable of thriving. Their failure to do so isn’t tied to the market they are in. It is the result of an inadequate understanding of the metrics of both their own company and their competitive landscape. By introducing objective data into their decision-making and planning processes, they could quickly change the trajectory of their business and join the 15% of businesses that flourish.

Steven RowleySuccess or Failure…May the Odds Be Ever In Your Favor
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Don’t Let “Shiny” Problems Blind you to the Real Problems


“Got a headache? Take an Aspirin. It won’t cure your tumor, but it might help with the pain.” If a doctor were to suggest you treat a complex condition like a tumor with aspirin, you would quickly find a more competent physician (and possibly sue for malpractice). Why is it that so many professionals treat business symptoms with the same logic?

  • Falling sales = Increase Quarterly Field Incentives
  • Thin margins = Deploy cost cutting initiatives
  • Unhappy Customers = Expand focus on new customer acquisition

Short-term actions to treat business “symptoms” are sometimes necessary. But, unless they address the underlying cause, such actions only conceal the fundamental problem. To keep pain points from returning, you have to heal them at their source.

Businesses are complex systems not unlike the human body. They provide signals when something isn’t right. Employees grumble, sales fall, and reports show up late. Typical managers interpret these signs as employee problems and take action to address undesirable behaviors. Effective leaders see these signals as indicators and use them to correct the underlying source.

View Your Business As An Interactive System

Effective leaders are distinguished from common managers by their ability to see organizations as interactive systems. Businesses are comprised of people, equipment, and processes. Each component has its own strengths and weaknesses and interacts with other components in predictable ways. Positioning components and guiding interactions is how business leaders create competitive advantages.

Failing to see your business as an interactive system makes it very difficult to connect symptoms with underlying causes. Business plans are common tools used by professionals to design and communicate intentions. Unfortunately, plan writers often fail to account for the interactions of the business functions and instead create a description doomed to failure before it is begun.

Map Your Business

Just as a physician cannot diagnose ailments without a deep understanding of the patient, business leaders must work to understand the complexities of the organizations they serve.

Begin by identifying the core functions of your company and articulating how each function communicates with and impacts all other functions. Identify the following:
  • Incoming Good and Services: How do you obtain the raw materials or critical employee skill sets to create your unique offerings? How do you identify the quality of these incoming resources? What happens if inferior quality slips by early scrutiny?
  • Production/Operations: How do you combine these materials and skills to create unique offerings? How can you tell that these production efforts achieved the desired results? What happens later if inferior quality slips past this stage?
  • Outbound Logistics: How do you get your goods and services into the hands of your customers? How can you tell that your products were delivered as intended? What happens later if outbound problems occur undetected?
  • Sales & Marketing: How do you communicate with your market and facilitate transactions? How can you distinguish between slow sales caused by your sales/marketing team and those related to earlier functions?
  • Service: How do you maintain your relationships with customers? How do you connect their experience with your company to each of your critical functions?

Know Where to Look

An accurate mapping of your business provides an excellent blueprint for connecting visible symptoms of trouble with underlying causes. Sales falling? Before firing the VP of Sales, first double-check the factors that could contribute to problems with potential consumers. Costs running high? Before cutting staff, confirm that inputs and processes are optimized for success. One of those inputs could very well be your loyal staff.

More importantly, an accurate map allows business leaders to be proactive in preventing problems and quickly responding to external market factors. Input problems are addressed long before they can impact the end customer. Production inefficiencies are streamlined before costs can rise enough to become prohibitive.

Early Action Prevents Later Reaction

Mapping out the complex relationships within your business is probably not high on your things to do list. Most business leaders are too busy responding to the latest crisis to spend time on prevention. They are too busy putting out fires to remove the fuel source from the inferno. They will get to that during the next annual planning session…if that ever comes.

The only way to free yourself from putting bandages on symptoms is to begin taking preventative measures immediately. Step back. Create a quick map of your company.  And be honest — If you have tried to address an ongoing problem more than once, it is most likely a symptom and not the root cause you’ve been trying to address.

Peter HobertDon’t Let “Shiny” Problems Blind you to the Real Problems
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Making Critical Decisions


CEO’s, CFO’s and especially CMO’s often rely on intuition when making critical decisions. But the fact is, executives dramatically increase their chances of success when they bring real-time data into the decision-making process.

Experience and instincts help executives make quick decisions. BUT fast decisions aren’t necessarily good decisions. At Acumen, we derive facts from industry data analysis. This information allows you to make more informed leadership choices.

Although intuitive decision-making is simple and quick, a lack of underlying data makes it hard to diagnose and correct problems when something goes wrong. Using Acumen’s data tools, we can drill down to find the root cause of problems and help you use factual analysis to set a new course.

Take, for example, the consumer move to shopping online. Big data has dramatically increased the market’s understanding of customers. Online retailers can track not only what customers buy, but also what else they viewed; how they navigated through the site; how much they were influenced by promotions, reviews, and page layouts; and similarities across individuals and groups. This data helped retailers like Amazon improve offerings and gain market share by advancing from strength to strength.

Today’s consumers expect digital companies to gather insights and develop offerings that business executives could only dream of a generation ago.

In fact, data can improve all our business decisions. Correctly understood, data allows us to competently drive or radically transform existing businesses when they are off track. Obtaining the right data and accurately analyzing it is key to every step of success, for every business regardless of industry.

Modern tools allow us to capture, measure, and compare data more effectively than ever before. As a result, today’s companies compete by managing processes with greater precision than has ever been possible. Accurate data allows us make better predictions and smarter decisions. We can target more-effective interventions. We can manage aspects of our companies that have previously been dominated by intuition with data-driven discipline and rigor.

Studies show that cumulative improvement is hard to obtain when executives react to problems instead of using facts to make prudent business decisions. And since most of your competitors are using data, companies that base decisions on gut feel or instinct are increasingly at a competitive disadvantage.

Data-driven decision-making is particularly effective at an operational or tactical level where risks must be managed. When aided by technology, data makes it easy to automate rudimentary tasks and decisions.

In fact, intuition-based and fact-based decision-making aren’t competing concepts. They actually complement each other. Acumen collects data across all business functions to project outcomes and validate the return on proposed programs or new products. We also use this data to guide leadership teams and build consensus using facts instead of politics and personal preferences.

Strategic decision-making requires risk taking. Success hinges on market timing, execution, and a certain amount of luck. Acumen Partners’ real-time industry data just makes your executives better gamblers.

Kamar ShahMaking Critical Decisions
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