Little Steps to Sweet Success

A friend of mine has a company he started several years ago and he’s on an unbelievable roll. If he’s not there already it won’t be long before his top line revenues exceed nine figures. When I first met him his business was grossing nearly $10 million. Not only has he seen a gigantic increase in his sales, but his profitability is off the charts. I fully expect to read about him in Forbes one of these days. How has he done it?

My friend is not a particularly flashy guy. He didn’t design fancy strategies or engage in crazy risks. Instead, he concentrated on taking little steps. You or I might see them individually as pretty mundane. But when viewed collectively these small steps have become giant leaps, propelling his organization to dizzying heights. What have I learned over the years about how my friend has built such a successful company?

In the early days my friend was the classic bootstrapper. He literally did everything. He and one key associate were the “executive” level management. They paid attention to the little details and obsessed over their customers. I remember urging my friend to spend more time working “on” his business than “in” it. Over time he took this to heart and began to be more strategic. But initially he was the chief cook and bottle washer as well as the CEO.

Also in the beginning, this man was allergic to debt. He re-invested his profits and made sacrifices to get through the leaner times. I suggested that he procure a line of credit to which he responded, “Why? I don’t need it.” I explained that at some point in the future he would need a lending relationship with a bank and that he should establish it sooner rather than later. He could borrow against it and then pay it right back if that would make him feel better. Ultimately he did obtain a line of credit and it was eventually quite helpful in accelerating his growth.

My friend was very particular about the business he would take. There were opportunities abound, but he showed great discipline in staying in his lane. He did not set out to be the biggest company in his industry, nor did he care if he developed a national footprint. By only taking assignments that he knew he could handle, he avoided the pitfalls that many entrepreneurs have made (including yours truly) by gobbling up every piece of business they could. At first I thought he might have an affliction of limited thinking. But I was wrong. Though it wasn’t articulated, it was obvious that he had a winning formula that was taking shape as a result of his intuition.

Over time, my friend learned how to scale his company. He gradually created the infrastructure necessary to meet the needs of more and more customers. Today he hires more than 50,000 people a year to staff the industrial operations of his customers. He attributes his continued growth to his ability to identify and value talent. The “value” part is especially intriguing. He genuinely cares about the team he has assembled. It would be easy to view 50,000 workers as a commodity. But he doesn’t. My friend goes to great lengths to make certain that everyone is treated fairly and with respect.

Above all, he’s played it straight as long as I’ve known him. He makes certain that he only hires team members who are legal and I’ve never seen him cut corners. Over many breakfast meetings and other encounters, I’ve observed this man to be grounded in principle and integrity. We’ve all heard about high-flying businesses that came crashing down when it was revealed that they had been involved in some form of cheating. My friend is Mr. Straight Arrow and has marched to that tune from Day One.

Overall, I think I can ascribe his level of success to his ability to execute. Some leaders are born to perform – my friend seems to do so effortlessly. I’m sure he’s stubbed his toe along the way. But I’m not aware that he’s made any major mistakes that would have jeopardized his future. I can’t say that he was studious about creating strategic plans and organizational charts or subscribed to the Harvard Business Review. Maybe he did. My guess is that he simply exercised a great deal of common sense and had an amazingly deep understanding of his industry.

My friend is a living example of how taking little steps can lead to sweet success. What he has done can be instructive for the rest of us as we grow and flourish as entrepreneurs.

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This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Master’s Degree

What would you think of an entrepreneur who says that he or she will give his strategy to his/her competition? The sporting metaphor would be the equivalent of a football coach giving away his playbook. Is this total insanity? Why would we lay out our game plan for competitors that are trying to beat our brains out? I’m not advocating that we do this but I do believe that the hype over being secretive about business strategies may be overblown. Why? Because I don’t believe that the strategy itself is as important as the execution of that strategy.

It’s completely true that most entrepreneurs need to spend more time working on their business than in their business. Translation – entrepreneurs need to be more strategic and less tactical, which is not an easy task in small organizations. But what trumps everything is the effective and successful implementation of a strategy. If we lay out our strategy for a competitor, that doesn’t necessarily mean that our competitor will beat us with it. Our strategy was developed with extensive input from a number of stakeholders in our company. It evolved through our culture and is nuanced by a wide range of variables that are specific to our enterprise. It’s highly unlikely that our competitor can implement our strategy as well as we can

So, if it’s principally about execution, how does an entrepreneur ensure that this process achieves success? Execution is a mixture of tangible and intangible factors. First, the team must have confidence in its abilities; in the strategy; in the data that is foundational to the strategy, and in the resources that must be brought to bear to implement the strategy. Hand-in-hand with this confidence is the trust factor. Team members must totally trust each other to fulfill their roles and be accountable accordingly. Without this trust, the execution of a strategy is impossible.

Sound strategies are often developed with the experience of members of the implementing team in mind. A strategy to manufacture and sell a particular type of product assumes that the engineers designing it and the equipment operators on the line have the minimum level of experience needed to turn out a flawless finished product.  In addition to experience there’s an assumption that team members have certain skills that will be married with experience to deliver the product at a cost and level of quality that results in happy customers and a financial profit to the company.

Strategy execution involves a myriad of mechanics. Translation – there’s a well-thought comprehensive process that enables a step-by-step methodology from start to finish. This process encompasses everything from market research, engineering and design, procurement of raw materials (still assuming a manufactured product for illustration purposes), production, quality control, marketing, sales, shipping, customer service, billing and collections . . . the list goes on. The point here is that the mechanics of implementation are vital to successful strategy execution.

Finally, the team must have a winning mindset. This goes beyond confidence. It’s about truly believing that without question the strategy will win. It’s about visualizing success. True believer team members celebrate their impending success on a daily basis. The culture is upbeat and positive. It is focused on honoring the team AND the customer. The winning mindset transcends confidence and envisions the strategy as already implemented in perfect order.

The ability to execute a strategy defines an entrepreneur and his or her organization. Some can and many cannot. Entrepreneurs who can consistently blend all of the right ingredients are masters of implementation.

This blog is being written in tandem with my book, “An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By,” available on Amazon.com in paperback and Kindle (My Book), as well as being available in all of the other major eBook formats.

Football Playbook