Customers as Financiers – Part One


Dr. Earl R. Smith II
Managing Partner, The Federal Circle [3] [4] [5]

Customers can be one of your best, lower-cost sources of the financial resources essential to building your business – yet many early-stage companies totally ignore them.


The last column, Financial Strategies – Some Basic Rules, triggered a particularly heavy flow of responses … most of them describing strategies, some of which had worked and some of which had not, that had been deployed in attempts to arrange the necessary financial resources for an emerging company. Thanks to all of you who took the time to send me your ‘war stories’. I plan to weave the best of them into a future column.

One of my suggested rules, ‘If your product or service is as good as you think it is, and they want it badly enough, they will pay for developing it’ … that your customers could supply the financing for your company’s launch and early growth, drew a number of requests for a practical example. I’m going to devote this column to responding to those requests by describing the evolution of one of my own companies.

This one started, much like the others, because I had identified a major set of problems that a significant group of potential customers had. You will notice that I did not use the term ‘market’ … I have believed from the beginning that amateurs have ‘markets’ and pros have ‘customers’. I began with potential customers and a series of face-to-face contacts with senior executives at those companies. I talked with them extensively, developed a solution to a set of challenges that they knew they had, presented that solution for review and then launched a company based on an agreed upon model.

In this case, the group of potential customers was the major US movie studios. Their challenge was the confluence of the rise of the independent film producers and the financial limits on their ability to produce and distribute films. The studios need to make and distribute as many films as possible in order to spread the risk. They do this to assure a higher probability that enough of them will be winners to pay for the ‘dogs’, the studio’s overhead and generate a nice profit. The independent producers constituted an additional source of film projects. That was the good news. But there was an Ethiopian in the fuel supply.

In the late seventies the movie business was truly bicoastal. Production was centered on the west coast and mostly at the studio lots. Financing was provided by the money center banks, principally those in New York City … where I was living at the time. The banks’ position was that the credit lines of the studios were pretty much tapped out. Even though they recognized that producing and distributing more films would increase the chances of studio profits, they were uncomfortable significantly expanding the lines.

I had a number of friends in the ‘business’ who made me aware of the restrictions on the studios. I suppose, given my reputation for not being able to put down a complex problem until I’d come up with a viable solution, they conspired to prod me into going to work. Well, their strategy succeeded.

The problem was interesting, indeed challenging, as it involved two major industries with radically different cultures and perspectives on the world. The money center banks, although they had been providing financing to the film industry for decades, were mostly ‘belts-and-suspenders’ types who kept a very close eye on risk. The film industry was populated by significantly more entrepreneurial types who were willing to roll the dice ten times in order to win big two or three times. The two different cultures had been locked in a mutually beneficial relationship which was increasingly being stressed.

My first step was to get a thorough understanding of the problem and the dynamics of both perspectives. I talked to a wide range of bankers familiar with the industry and with senior executives in the film business. The principal result was that I now could see the world through the eyes of both the bankers and the studios … I could begin to craft a solution. A collateral result of this process was a partnership with a man who, at the time of our meeting, was CFO of Columbia Pictures.

My second step (and only after determining that there was a market for the solution we might develop) was to build a team of subject matter experts to take advantage of the knowledge I had gathered … and to mount an assault on the challenge. We met over a period of several months and the group was expanded to include other skill sets. Each time we encountered a new area that needed to be covered I went on a search for the best in the field.

Finally we hit on a solution which would allow off balance sheet financing of the top twenty five percent of the risk column of each film project. Although the solution was complex, the underlying enabling conditions were quite simple. In those days the top marginal tax rate in New York City was somewhere around one hundred and three percent … in other words, above a certain level of income, and if you lived in NYC, the combined governments would actually take more than you earned. But more broadly, the combined top marginal federal and state rates approached eighty to ninety percent.

© Dr. Earl R. Smith II


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Dr. Smith [4] is Managing Partner of The Federal Circle [3]. The Federal Circle partners with teams and existing companies. We help them up their game and win big in the Federal space. We also arrange funding for acquisitions and expansion by acquisition. Our model is based on the belief that, if you select the very best and work with them in a highly professional and focused manner, the results will be truly amazing.

Dr. Smith provides coaching services to C-level executives. He serves on boards of directors, builds advisory boards as business development engines and acts as a senior adviser to CEOs. He is the author of a number of books [12] and writes regularly on business, funding and entrepreneurial subjects.

Books by Dr. Smith: