I had been living in a bubble for 10 years. It was a nice bubble; warm and comfortable with moderate success, financial reward, and general contentment. My company, a provider of biomedical editing and writing services, was growing at a steady pace; we had great employees and a growing client base. However, under the surface I knew we were not prepared for the changes that would be needed to capitalize on our growing business. We would need more people, better communication, improved marketing, a website with increased functionality, and so much more. I felt like I was the only person who understood the exciting opportunities, as well as the risks, uncertainties, and occasional disappointments of running my small business. I was comfortable in my bubble and didn't want to face my need to plan for the future.
My bubble burst the day I entered the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Program. I knew the program would push me to face the future needs of my company, but I never imagined how that would be accomplished. I expected to be presented with a series of experts who would talk about their success stories, challenges, and advice, which did occur; however, I was also assigned to interact with a group of five other small business owners for the duration of the program. The six of us would be a "growth group"; discussing our plans, strategies, problems, and trying to support and push each other to be accountable and achieve bigger things. My company provides technical biomedical editing and writing services to clients around the world, but my growth group consisted of a lawn service, a restaurant, a steel manufacturer, an employee benefits company, and a produce importer. I was certain that my group assignment was a huge mistake! I had absolutely nothing in common with these companies or their owners, and they would never understand the specific issues that I was facing! I'm sure they were thinking the same thing about me.
During our first discussions we did the usual getting to know each other and talked about what our companies did. In an early conversation with the owner of the lawn service company, I learned that he had recently added several new customers and was desperately searching for new employees who could work independently, thereby allowing him to focus on growing his business. It was curious that I also needed to hire new employees to take over critical business activities so I could get back to planning for the future of my business, but I brushed it off as coincidence.
1. Plan ahead - Growth is great but if you don't plan ahead you will be caught unprepared and won't have the resources to make the most of your opportunities.
In one of my early conversations with the restaurant owner, he was ready to roll-out a technology upgrade and creative marketing strategy that would improve the efficiency of his staff as well as the customer experience at his restaurant. I saw an immediate parallel between his use of technology and my need to improve our website so that we too could improve staff efficiency and customer experience. He accomplished this transition quickly and was reaping the benefits of his investment by the time our program ended. "Hmmm", I thought, "We'd better get busy on our website plans."
2. Don't just think about it, Do it! - Business owners have a million ideas, but they aren't worth much unless you prioritize them and actually do them.
The steel fabrication company had recently merged with another small business and the owner was now the president of four different but interrelated construction companies, two of which she had built from scratch. She was juggling not only enormous business opportunities, but also the stress of developing and merging processes that would allow her to capitalize on these opportunities without sacrificing her businesses or her sanity. Her organizational vision and energy were inspirational, and I was starting to realize that companies as diverse as those in my growth group actually face common problems with solutions that were applicable to my situation.
3. Think big - There is no reason that your company can't be the best, the most innovative, the most profitable, or the one that gets the big contract. Look for ways to make it happen!
The owner of the employee benefits company founded his company after an illustrious 9 year career in the NFL and had accumulated more than 30 years of business experience. He was hoping to reinvigorate his interest in the company and was preparing to transition his company to his son. Camouflaged with humor and based on his lengthy business experience, he provided endless insights into creating long-term business stability. I greatly admired his ability to overcome obstacles, persevere, and succeed in business. He had also become an expert at achieving a sustainable work/life balance, which I hoped to emulate.
4. Balance life and work - Running a business can be all consuming. Fuel your business by enjoying family, hobbies, or even an occasional vacation.
The final member of our group was a key decision-maker in her family-owned produce importing company. She and her brothers had inherited the company and wanted to take it to another level of success. They had just completed construction of a beautiful new building and were in the midst of major operational changes including hiring employees, developing new training procedures, and implementing operational improvements. She spoke with passion about her vision and recognized the need for mentoring and input from broad perspectives to achieve her goals. I was also beginning to recognize the value of learning from the ideas, experience, and success of others.
5. Seek mentoring and offer mentoring to others - There is not enough time in life to experience and learn everything yourself. Learn from others, join business groups, talk to your employees, read books and even a blog once in a while.
At some point in the process of talking about our opportunities and challenges, it finally sunk in that this diverse group of business owners was just like me. They were searching for ways to provide a high quality customer experience, an outstanding product, and a wonderful work environment with long-term growth opportunities for both employees and for the company. These entrepreneurs understood my excitement when new opportunities presented themselves, but they also held my feet to the ground, forcing me to provide details and plans to back up my vision. They listened to my struggles, offering options, ideas, and different viewpoints that always proved valuable. I finally realized that I had a team, and that they had become my closest business advisors! We continue to meet regularly as a business advisory board. These meetings often run late into the night with a lively exchange of diverse opinions and viewpoints, and always with sincere support and commitment to the success of each individual and company. I also realized that my growth group assignment had not been a mistake, but was in fact a perfect fit for me.
I consider it a great fortune to be part of this growth group, now Advisory Board. Without them I would probably still be living in my bubble wondering about the future, but they will never let me to fall into that trap again. They have inspired me to work toward the future and I have already implemented key operational changes and new hires, all fueled by increased growth. Best of all, I appreciate how much more rich and rewarding life is outside the bubble. Sure there are challenges and unforeseen obstacles, but now I talk them through with my Board members. With their diverse backgrounds, expertise and input I am crafting new solutions.
This blogger graduated from Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Businesses program. Goldman Sachs is a partner of the What Is Working: Small Businesses section.