Thinking Big by Starting Small

I am a huge proponent of thinking big. I believe that entrepreneurs should embrace the practice of BHAG – that is, setting Big Hairy Audacious Goals. When I mentor other entrepreneurs, I frequently challenge them to think much bigger than they are comfortable. When we are grinding away each day it’s easy to get tunnel vision. It’s easy to become mired in the little things that consume much of our time. As a result, we may forget how big our vision is supposed to be. But here’s a little secret. We can support the notion of thinking big by actually starting small.

I started my real estate career fresh out of college as an apartment manager in 1975. After several months, I had figured out how to operate my 234-unit property in a reasonably effective manner. It wasn’t long before I wanted a greater challenge, and I convinced the owner of the company to allow me to prospect for new property management assignments. I did the research on the market and identified several properties that I thought might be candidates for our services. Then I started knocking on doors. Shortly thereafter I was successful in signing an agreement with a partnership that owned an 18-unit apartment building. I was ecstatic! If I recall correctly, the management fee was a paltry $150 per month – I’m sure we lost money on this property – but I worked tirelessly to prove to the partners that they had made a good decision. They apparently thought so because they expressed their satisfaction to other property owners, and before long we landed a 39-unit building. This was followed by 64-units, 66-units and 120-units. Within a few years we were the dominant management company in that particular market.

Flip the calendar forward a few decades and our development business had been successful. We saw a void in the market for the re-purposing of historic structures into affordable housing in small Midwestern communities. The approach involved utilizing several complicated funding structures that had rarely been utilized. I was certain that the concept would work and had big plans for its implementation. However, to manage risk and to “de-bug” the program, we decided to start small. We acquired four small historic buildings – a former grocery store on the courthouse square of a small town; a couple of hotels built in the late 1800s in two more small towns, and an historic mercantile building in the downtown of a slightly larger town. When fully developed, we had buildings of nine, ten and 18-units – quite small by development standards. Today we are successfully delivering affordable housing that is much larger including properties of 93-units, 139-units and 184-units.

At one point in the early 2000s, we were fortunate enough to be asked to step into a number of smaller affordable housing partnerships as the replacement general partner. At the time the upside wasn’t obvious. We were paid a small upfront fee to take on this role, but the property management fees weren’t significant and the opportunity to monetize these assets (as in sell them) was many years away. My partner wondered several times why we were “messing around” with such small assets.

Here’s what I’ve learned. By taking small steps in the beginning, we have been able to realize big dreams. Over the course of my career, I’ve been involved with procuring the management of nearly 70,000 multi-family units. Our organization has developed affordable housing at a cost of hundreds of millions of dollars. Those small replacement general partner positions are now resulting in substantial sale proceeds some 15 years later and more. Starting small in all cases helped us build credibility. It helped us build relationships. It allowed us to experiment in a controlled and low-risk fashion. There’s no question it helped us learn what we needed to be successful.

We entrepreneurs are impatient. We covet hockey stick growth. I can tell you that my sense of urgency is off the charts (a fact that my colleagues will attest to emphatically). And yet, had we swung for the fences and tried to hit home runs every time, I’m convinced that our success would not be at the level it is today. Climbing the mountain was hard and it would have been a lot easier for us to simply take a helicopter to drop us at the top. Except that no helicopter can fly high enough to the peaks we want to reach.

Our thinking must be in terms of BHAG. However, we are smart if we use small steps as the building blocks to realizing our big vision.

You can also listen to a weekly audio podcast of my blog. What you hear will be different than what you read in this blog. Subscribe on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. You can also click on this link – Click here to listen to Audio Episode 131 – An Entrepreneur’s Primer.

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

Urgent Care

Allow me to set the scene. We are about to embark upon a major project that could make or break our company. There are a wide range of complexities involving this project and it will require a supreme effort from our entire team to successfully bring it all together. But there’s just one problem. Invariably someone on the team is not as responsive as necessary or doesn’t seem to possess the same sense of urgency as does everyone else. As a result the ball gets dropped and we fail. Alternatively, others on the team step in to pick up the slack which creates resentment and hard feelings. How do we effectively deal with this rogue team member that is at the center of all this?

There are a number of steps that can be taken to stack the deck in our favor when it comes to ensuring responsiveness and urgency. Step one is to develop clear written roles and accountabilities for each member of the team. Considerable thought should be given to this process so that a high level of precision in role definition can be attained. Being as comprehensive as possible in describing a role will produce clarity. Vague and generic verbiage muddles the picture and may lead to confusion later on. As team members we have overall roles and accountabilities. For major projects it’s a good idea to dive even deeper into a separate set of intentions for each of us relative to the specific matter at hand.

Step two involves gaining a commitment from each team member. One of the best ways to accomplish this is to hold a team meeting to reaffirm the vision for the project. For example, suppose we are developing a proposal to win a major piece of business. We assemble the team that will be creating and implementing the proposal and paint the picture of what it looks like when we win (vision). In the meeting we review team member roles and accountabilities and ask each person to make a verbal (and maybe even written) commitment to do their part in this endeavor. It’s critical that this commitment be made among those on the team and not just to the enterprise.

The third step is for the team leader(s) to make an assessment of the capabilities of each team member. The roles and accountabilities have already been established for each position that will participate in the project. Will the individuals who fill those positions be able to perform the tasks assigned to them? And do they have the tools and resources that are needed to prosecute their roles effectively? If it’s determined that a team member isn’t equipped for his or her role – i.e. skills, training or experience – then that person becomes the weak link in the chain. A decision must be made at the outset whether or not to replace that team member with someone else, or be prepared to provide greater than normal support for that individual.

Finally, team members should be encouraged to set their own deadlines so long as they are compatible with the overall project timeline. When a deadline is imposed by others, there’s always the opportunity for someone to claim it to be unrealistic. Accountability is first to one’s self and then to the team. Self-imposed deadlines are congruent with this approach to accountability. As team leaders it’s equally important for us to be aware of all deadlines and check with team members well in advance of them. Then if there’s a chance that a deadline will be missed we can muster additional resources or take other steps to make sure that the train still runs on time.

Instilling responsiveness and a sense of urgency within a team is a process. When we clearly define roles and accountabilities, obtain commitment, assess capabilities and resources, and work with team-member established deadlines, the process should put us in a position to win the prize we are seeking.

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

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

An early motorized version of a LICH ambulance.

Urgently Patient

We entrepreneurs are a pretty restless bunch. Most of us have an ultra-high sense of urgency. I know that I certainly fall into this category. I plead guilty to always wanting things to happen a lot faster than they do. And I do realize that this creates a level of stress for the people I work with. But I’m also one of the most patient people you’ll ever meet. Huh? Does this seem like a complete contradiction? Let me explain.

My urgency meter moves quickly into the red zone when I encounter bureaucracy or if there are delays in implementation. I guess I feel like we’re all living on borrowed time and there’s a lot I want to accomplish before my time is up. Thus, anything that wastes time or energy causes anguish for me. Recently I worked with a state agency on a particular matter that took two months to finally resolve. I had a pleasant conversation with the government employee and suggested that there must be a faster way to conclude the matter. She explained that two months in government time is “lightning speed.” Unfortunately she’s probably right. In the private sector the matter would have been handled in a matter of days or perhaps even hours. Fortunately I have a great relationship with the head of this agency. At the time of this writing, I’m working with him and his team to create a more expedited manner in which to deal with issues of the kind I encountered.

Here’s a key point. My sense of urgency is with the process. I want things to be efficient. I want things to be cost-effective. I want the manner in which something is accomplished to happen quickly. In my world there’s no place for analysis-paralysis or indecision. We don’t need a committee to make decisions. It’s important to get input from different members of the team and their buy-in is critical. But someone must then step-up, take charge and lead. Poor communications is a killer of initiative and creates bottlenecks. If communication isn’t clear and concise, time is wasted when clarification is sought. All of this is process-related.

I said I’m a patient individual as well as having a high sense of urgency. Here’s another key point. I am patient when it comes to results. I’m in the type of business where results don’t materialize overnight. I have come to realize this after more than 40-years in the trenches. My philosophy is that if we take care of the basics and fundamentals through well-designed systems and processes, the results will take care of themselves. I can wait months or even years for the results because that’s often what it takes.

Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Suppose you and I are farmers. We must get a crop in the ground by date certain or we’ll have to wait an entire season to plant again. We know the steps that must be taken. The soil must be tilled, the seeds drilled into the furrows and covered, fertilizer must be applied and the crop must be irrigated. We’re racing the clock to get in and out of the field. There’s no time for a committee to decide what crop we’re going to plant and where, when or how we’re going to plant it. We work our process with precision and complete the planting with days to spare. Now we wait patiently for the crop to grow, nurturing it as required by our process until it’s ready for harvest.

We can have a high sense of urgency and be patient, all at the same time. Our urgency lies with developing and implementing an efficient process, and our patience comes in waiting for the results.

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



There’s no Question and Answer this week. Because what I want to write about is of a most serious nature. The husband of my oldest friend in the whole world was diagnosed with late-stage brain cancer just a short time ago. Of course he fought hard but today we mourn his passing and celebrate his life. And it brings into focus a much bigger point that must be made. How exactly are we living our lives? What are putting off until tomorrow? In my book, An Entrepreneur’s Words to Live By, the entire first chapter is about living today like we’re going to die tomorrow. In honor of my friend and her husband, please allow me to excerpt a few thoughts on this subject from my book.

A goldfish will only grow as large as the container in which it lives.  Humans are no different. Living today like you’re going to die tomorrow is all about capacity. By definition capacity is the ability to receive or contain. Most people will tell you to live life to your full capacity – regardless of its size. Truly amazing success comes not when you fulfill your capacity but expand and surpass it.  You have to get a bigger fishbowl.  But how?

1.    Create a sense of urgency in your work life and in your personal life. Become much more adept at planning and time management. In turn you will become more proficient at prioritizing. Remember that you are doing this not just to live to your capacity for life, but to expand your capacity for life and then live to it.

2.    Learn how to live in the moment. The past is good for pleasant memories and as a learning tool. The future may never come. Tend to your priorities. If attending your son’s little league baseball game is a priority, then by all means, be there. If participating in a brainstorm session with your work colleagues is a priority, focus on doing your part in the brainstorm.

3.    Don’t worry. Think about and find solutions for what you can control and ignore the rest.

4.    Eliminate the propensity for procrastination by making certain that you clearly understand your goals and objectives. Then identify and prioritize the tasks that must be completed to achieve your goal. This makes it hard to put off doing what needs to be done.

5.    Become aware of unnecessary actions and wasted motion in your life. Then look for ways to replace them with greater productivity which is another way to expand your capacity for life.

6.    Understand that quality downtime is critical to being able to live in a healthy and productive manner. You are no good to yourself or the people who depend upon you if you burn out.

7.    Make an inventory of what your family and business associates would need in the event that you die. Then, take the steps to put your affairs in order. This will give you the peace of mind to live each moment to the fullest.

The question I ask myself at the end of every day before I go to sleep is, “Do I have any regrets?” I am so blessed because I can honestly answer this question with “No.” I believe that my friend and her husband would also answer it the same way. Can you?

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


The RPM Game

Question: I’m finding that I’m becoming less patient as I get further into my career. Sometimes my impatience doesn’t serve me well. Any tips on how to be more patient?

Answer: I’m right there with you . . . I hate to wait. As a matter of fact my sense of urgency is off the charts – my colleagues can certainly attest to that! It’s the worst when I’m in my car. I think that once upon a time a wicked witch put a stoplight curse on me because I seem to hit every red light known to man. In my world, things need to happen right now and right away. I have a perspective that life is a fleeting moment in the overall scheme of things and there is too much that I want to accomplish in a short period of time. So I’m not very tolerant of things that slow me down.

Yet, I actually have become more patient in many respects. What I’ve learned is that my impatience at times has caused me to try and muscle through situations where a more patient and finessed approach would have been much more effective. My sense of urgency remains as high as ever, but I’ve become more intuitive at backing off and being a bit more gentle and methodical in moving forward. At some point in the past I realized that my impatience with the people around me wasn’t helping them advance the cause. Instead it was frustrating and flustering them. That quite literally gave me pause.  

My sense of urgency is now tempered with my willingness to slow down and make sure that the people around me have clarity and understanding about the situation at hand. If they don’t, it’s my obligation to patiently take the time to help them gain a clear perspective. I liken this to the simple act of shifting gears in a car. In a lower gear the engine revs up and runs harder. When shifting into a higher gear, the RPMs drop and the engine doesn’t have to work as hard. The more impatient we become the harder our engine has to work.

Slowing down long enough to ensure that others have a clear picture of the road ahead is in itself, a practice in patience. And this actually allows us to shift into a higher gear and go even faster.

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