Ask What You Should Be Aiming For

When I created CCAW, I decided to go with an asset-light business model. In so doing, I was attaching myself to suppliers and vendors. We relied on them for operational execution and inventory planning. I referred to them as partners because without them our business couldn’t operate. Knowing this, I made a point of having strong relationships with our partners. I assumed that what mattered most to them was the size of our relationship (i.e., our sales with them). I tracked sales with each partner and constantly talked about ways to sell more.

One day I was talking to an executive at one of our partners. I casually asked, “What does a great customer look like to you?” I was trying to find out if we were doing what was needed to be a key customer and be included in some of their strategic decision-making. His answer was not what I expected: “The ones that pay their bills, and on time. You can buy a ton of stuff from me, but if you never pay or pay late I’d rather you never buy from me.”

I learned that we weren’t their biggest customer, but we were a key customer because of our flawless payment history. Constantly buying inventory required lots of capital, and they had challenges with keeping everything in stock and having enough operating capital (this is the exact reason we didn’t want to hold inventory). I made calls to other partners and they all confirmed that they put a high priority on timely payments. I had assumed all companies were like us and paid on time. Wrong. We were operating in a space where people didn’t pay their bills on time.

We had great accounting processes, but I’d never thought of accounting metrics as key to our strategy. That changed. I put our payables process higher on the list of important metrics and made those metrics visible. Payables was now a huge competitive advantage we could use to enhance our growth strategy.

In hindsight, I wish I’d asked for input earlier. I was aiming for what I thought mattered most (sales), only to find out that my partners valued something different (cash flow). When we started to lead conversations with potential partners with what mattered most to them, we signed up more of them and our growth rate increased.

If you’re a founder trying to do something great, you’ll probably need help (from partners or investors, for instance). Early on, ask them what’s important to them. Don’t assume! You’ll gain valuable insights and cement your relationships with stakeholders.