My Journey from Wantrepreneur to Entrepreneur
From the moment I sold Blow Pops out of my backpack in the junior high boys’ restroom, I dreamed of starting my own company. Back then it resembled Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory. My entrepreneurial vision changed over the years, but it did not diminish. I didn’t have any especially interesting business ideas when I graduated, so I did what every directionless fresh grad does. I took the job that I thought would pay me the most money, and I got very, very lucky.
I was lucky once again when I had the opportunity to be one of the first employees at a startup company, Addison Group. I was at the right place at the right time with the right people. Growing a company from five people in a tiny office to over $400M was fun and challenging, but as the company became larger and more bureaucratic, those entrepreneurial voices screamed louder in my head. When I finally had the courage to hand in my resignation, 15 years and two cities later, I wasn’t sure exactly what I would do, or how I would make my living. I just knew I had to follow my dreams. This is a distillation of important lessons learned so far from starting up my own company, JBR.
The Silver Bullet
There is one solution that solves every problem. Staffing problems? Competition? Working Capital? Technology? Back-office expenses?
The answer is sales. If your product isn’t perfect, guess what, neither was the iPhone. Sell. Perfection is the enemy of profit. Every time I take a break from a revenue generating activity to handle some other crisis, I’m robbing my organization from the lifeblood that will bring success. A CEO must be the best salesperson at the organization. Business is like war. In order to fight, you must have a war chest. Without a war chest, you will die a million deaths.
You can blame competition or politicians or taxes or working capital, but you will fail because you didn’t sell. How much should you sell? As much as it takes to achieve your goals. Starting a business is not like working a corporate job.
I have 24 hours in a day, seven for sleep, one for exercise, two for family time, one to eat, two to manage the business. Eleven hours left for sales.
Pull the String
The speed of the organization is the speed of the leader. Do you have complaints about your team? Do you wish they were more engaged, had a better attitude or sense of urgency? Then look in the mirror. Attitude reflects leadership.
“Pull the string, and it will follow you wherever you wish. Push it, and it will go nowhere at all.” Dwight D. Eisenhower
I learned that making the first phone call is more effective than requiring my staff to call at a certain time. Your staff wants to be in the battle with you, but not battling in your place. I sit with my team in an open environment. I share my successes and my failures. For startup CEOs who delegate sales to others and hide in their offices, please see “The Silver Bullet” above.
Create a culture or the company will create one for you, and you probably won’t like it. I designed JBR intentionally. Promotions every six months, vacation bonuses, platinum healthcare plan and a career ladder to partnership. However, the things that I hear our team talk about aren’t benefits and pay, but thoughtful details.
Every morning we start the day with a standing ten-minute meeting, our maximum meeting time. In the hour leading up to it, we play upbeat music and everyone gets ready for the day and socializes. My dog sits in on the meeting. Our meetings are positive information only. No complaints, problems, gossip, blaming or back-stabbing. We encourage, compliment, and otherwise lift each other up for the day ahead.
What I didn’t anticipate was how important the culture has become to our small staff. One of my most critical challenges will be defending and supporting our culture as the company headcount multiplies. I’ve seen "top-billers" destroy a positive culture with negativity, and I won’t let that happen to my team.
Our story is only beginning. It never was the story of me. It’s the story of us. Players play and coaches coach. At the end of the day, I might be the CEO, but the company will be characterized by the team, not by me.
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Jeremy Bennett has been interviewed by Crain's and the Houston Chronicle. He is the CEO of J Bennett Recruiting, a boutique Retained Executive Search Firm that specializes in Healthcare. He is a father of two and connoisseur of West Coast IPA’s.