Who ever thinks about where they will be 15 years from now? Who really thinks about tomorrow? At 32, I put it all on the line and became the fourth generation in my family to take the entrepreneurial plunge – starting my first company, CBI Group.
I was asked to share a little bit about what I have learned over the last 15 years of running my own business, CBI Group and the Outside-In® Companies. Perhaps I can pass on some wisdom you might find useful, or a musing that you find entertaining? For me this is pretty darn cathartic! Write it down. Get it out. And keep pressing play and come back at it again tomorrow, right? That is what most entrepreneurs do best. As Churchill said, “Never, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever, ever give up.” These are my words to live by through thick and thin.
As I think back I get emotional. I have had servers stolen, office roofs collapse, 9/11 on my first day. I have had floods and fires on Super Bowl Sunday! Through all the good, bad and disaster, here goes 15 thoughts from reflecting on 15 years in business.
- Most business are not pink unicorn businesses. Few entrepreneurs have million dollar business ideas, let alone billion dollar ones. So think about it as you sip your Starbucks, while shopping using your Amazon Prime account to compare rates with Walmart. To be the next Facebook, you have to have a scalable idea, a really great brand promise that is very defendable, and be a very skilled leader/founder that knows how to scale. Most of us mere business mortals build our businesses and keep them for a long time. Progress, profit, growth, real break through impact and change come slowly! And not all businesses will sell, merge or be acquired. Day after day we run our companies.
- What is success, anyway? The funny thing about success is that it looks easy. And is often viewed that way with envy and jealousy. However, show me an overnight success and I guarantee you it is the exception to the rule. Success is a judgement, anyway. Success comes with hard work, luck, perseverance, and fortitude that few can stomach. I am at year 15. Success is all relative.
- The stages of growth are challenging. If you’re lucky to navigate the growth stages, to learn from them, and frankly survive your inevitable inability to adapt and change fast enough, you have learned this too. As leaders we must change our approach/style/focus and even our goals for each phase of growth. And no one tells you this when you start! I started this business with a flip cell phone, an 89 page business plan, and a card table desk in a friend’s office break room. (Thank you, Jim!) We grew, added staff and then one day nothing worked. We adjusted and changed and then we hit another growth wall. Years later, I am now better informed on what goes into next growth stage and the challenges that we will face as a company, and that I will face as a leader. The lucky ones get a chance to learn from their mistakes and live to fight another day. Some great insight on each phase of growth can be found at here.
- Just how often can I change my style and role, anyway? Day 1 I did everything… Sales, marketing, customer service, hiring, billing, taking out the trash, you name it. Where did all of these employees come from anyway? 15 years, three brands, thousands of employees and customers later… think of all those budgets, strategic plans, and years of promise and change? Today, I spend my days teaching and coaching leaders and employees in through making tough decisions for their business. Our values guide me in my work and help others to forge their own path and make their own decisions. Some days, I still sell, market, answer the phone, and take out the trash. BUT, I come back resolutely to our strategy. Where we are going? And why? And then I align everyone to the plan and to the current operational plans for the business this quarter. And my role will continue to involve — what will year 20 look like?
- Hiring more people is an entrepreneurial answer to just about everything. We get excited about growth and enjoy opening more offices, generating more sales and of course increasing headcount. BUT, I’ve learned what you really need to do is to solve problems with better scalable systems and technologies! That is where value and scaling can come into play.
- Define your why. Coming to work without a real purpose or perhaps to just make money is a hollow place to be. Customers, employees, and vendor/partners get excited when your business exists to serve the greater good. Why do you get out of bed? Defining that in your business attracts folks to your business and keeps them coming back.
- Go find someone who has solved the problem before. If you know me as stubborn, you would not be the only one. My biggest learn over the last five years is all around this point. For years I solved the problem with what I had, my way of thinking and my team. Instead? Go get the answer, find folks that have solved it before. Gather perspective. Then make your path forward with that information. So much time, energy, resources and money have been wasted on starting from scratch! This is a problem when you have a culture that prides itself on innovation and creativity. I’ve learned that simple is often more elegant.
- Not everyone is going on the ride with you. Or at least the whole ride. My dad, Alan Burkhard told me once, “Not even your mother made all 27 years with me in the business.” Life changes. Business needs change. Folks do different things, they move, change careers, get married and start businesses. Or they disagree with your thinking and business direction… and they leave you. Get used it! However, treat them like they will be with you forever. I had less then 2% turnover in core staff the first 7 years. Man, I used to brag about it. Then we changed business models and great legacy folks left me. My heart was broken at the time. No one goes on the ride with you the entire trip. Get used to it. I have.
- Make it really hard to get in your business. But easy to leave. This is a borrowed family mantra. But it works really well. In other words, hire slowly. But throw folks a party when they leave. Loyalty and allegiance are good things. Unless that is all that is left. And it happens. Staff and the jobs they are in do not remain a good fit for long. We are really lucky if your current duties align with your interest more then a few times a year. Work is cyclical and project based. Most businesses change everything fast. Try and stay aligned to the purpose. Try to keep your quarterly goals relevant as the business changes month to month. Do your quarterly or six month goals seem outdated when you go to review them? Welcome to the pace of change today. Agile employees, agile rolling forecasts, agile performance reviews or feedback sessions. Everything must be portable, flexible and easy to move. Including you.
- Be way more conservative and realistic. I have suffered from and am often overly optimistic. I am reformed at this point. But at 32, I could sell, I could talk fast, and I could and did try to outwork others. So most of the time, I was lucky enough to outwork my optimism. But the truth is I have had to be much more honest around planning scenarios. Today, work cast scenario planning really matters to me. And I prefer realistic and conservative thinking today. And it is hard this way. Running a business can be more fun when your a gambler who goes for it all of the time. No rules in the early years of the business is fun for others right? Until you fail big time. And I have. So, today I balance long-range strategy thinking (and dreaming) with a dose of reality.
- Have you really mastered being a leader? I hear it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master anything. Humbly, I am triple that in real world practice as a leader. And I still have so much to learn.
- I wish I did not wait so long to be direct. Tell the truth. Let folks know where they stand. Give them feedback. We all crave it. Stop hinting someone to death. Love them up or out. Your team deserves to be successful, challenged, and to be the best they can be for you. Or move folks on to their next successful place. That is a leader’s job – or at least one that cares about their people.
- Running a business is cyclical. Economic swings, job markets and times/politics change. I always felt I was too small a business to worry about how much market share I had. BUT, I wish I had learned earlier on that the market changes. And how I run the business needs to change with it. There are times to go for it, and times to be very conservative and play things tight to the vest.
- I had no idea I could be this patient. If I had to give my younger 32 year old self some advice it would be, “This is going to take a while. You’re going to need to sacrifice everything. Put it all on the line, everything, your house, your marriage, your key relationships… Younger self, are you ready for all of this? Time, patience, fortitude, moxie, perseverance. At times you go numb. At times you come to the office but take the day off mentally. But most days the world will not let you. Entrepreneurs need to be relevant and focused almost every day to make it. And that says nothing about success or making it big time!”
- Everything changes. Good days fade. Bad days take longer to go away. Business is terrific. Then change happens. Some years you grow and don’t make money. And in flat years you’re running a better company and the bottom line is sweet! Change keeps coming. Employees come and go. Customers are bought and sold, go bankrupt and move out of town. Customers’ needs and wants change. Multi-million dollar business lines dry up. New products grow up before your eyes and become your big bell winner, your future. Rookies become managers. Managers become senior leaders. I have learned that being a student of change is my one true advantage. Embrace it, drive it, and know status quo is deadly in the long run!
So my 32 year old self was full of himself. Glib and confident. Boundless and endless energy on reserve. Every problem in the business was one I created. I celebrated those early fiascos, they were fun to try and resolve. Everything was about the vision for what I wanted to build with that early team. We were going to reinvent and create a space in staffing and professional services. We vowed to make culture important (believe it or not when those words were foreign in most business’s large and small). I worked endlessly. For two years straight I worked every single day. My theory was an hour worked today is an hour I would get back when I exited the business. The exit plan was scheduled for year nine! Well, six years later I am still at it. Today it’s much more about the journey than the destination.
p.s. if you’re interested, here are my 10 musings from our 10th anniversary in 2011!