Five years, five lessons: advice for the entrepreneur
Demand Spring is five. Happy birthday to us!
While we are not an organization that’s too big on publicly patting ourselves on the back, there is a sense of accomplishment in reaching this milestone, especially when eight out of 10 entrepreneurs who start businesses fail within the first 18 months (according to Bloomberg).
As a first-time entrepreneur there have been many lessons learned along the way.
In the spirit of reflection, here are five of the most important lessons I’ve learned for those considering entrepreneurship, or who are just interested in the journey we have taken.
Hire the best and foster a great place to work
My daughter was four years old when I started the company. Just like the amazing support network required in raising a child today, a thriving start-up takes a village.
One of the things we have not scrimped on is hiring talented, experienced people. We could have saved some dollars with less experienced talent, but in a consulting business where our product is our people, we believe that our people investment drives customer retention and expansion.
Our net promoter score average from our clients is 9.8 out of 10, and to me, our talent is the driver behind this level of satisfaction.
In our five years, we have only had one person leave our company. I believe our low attrition is due to our founding principle of creating a workplace where employees thrive.
This manifests itself in many forms – employee collaboration in decision-making, ensuring people are in roles they love, a generous benefits plan for a start-up, paid time off (PTO) for two weeks during the holiday season in addition to a generous vacation plan, and using great technology among other things.
Not only is PTO good for business, I believe it’s a moral imperative. Work is not the most important thing in our lives.
Self-funded and run based on profitability and cash flow, our team has grown from myself to fifteen full-time employees and an amazing extended group of trusted freelance sub-contractors and partners.
Roughly 40 percent of our team is in Ottawa, 40 percent in Boston, with individuals also in London, Dallas, and Bogota.
And we’ve thrived in this geographic diversity. Our employees love working from home.
We do rent a virtual office every Monday in Ottawa, and our Boston employees get together approximately every two weeks. This provides a great balance of face-to-face collaboration with the balance and productivity that comes from working from home.
Has it hurt our ability to grow? Well, we’ve been growing at a clip of 65 percent year over year, so it’s hard to make that argument.
What makes virtual work for us is our decision from day one to invest in leading cloud-based technology. Our tech stack includes Salesforce, Marketo, join.me, Slack, Box, and MavenLink.
We believe in buying technology that might be slightly bigger (and more expensive) than our size so we can scale with speed and don’t go through costly migrations from technologies we outgrow.
Interestingly, one of our employees, who was apprehensive about working from home for the first time, has stated that she feels more connected to her colleagues than she has in any previous company. Cloud technology is undoubtedly one of the enablers.
An example, every Thursday morning, one of our employees (a certified Yoga instructor) runs a virtual yoga class over join.me with our video cameras turned on.
Not all of our Warrior Two poses are pretty, but the classes leave us feeling more connected to each other.
The delta between US and Canadian businesses is significant
Almost all of our consultants have significant global experience working in organizations such as IBM, Cognos, Eloqua, Yahoo, Commonwealth Financial and others.
So, we are used to working across various business cultures. That said, I continue to be amazed by the differences I have experienced in working with US companies (which make up over 90 percent of our revenue) and Canadian ones.
When it comes to marketing, Canadian companies reflect our Canadian personality – more risk averse and a lower relative investment level. I have heard it said that US businesses swing for the fences and either hit a home run or strike out, whereas Canadian companies are more content to focus on singles.
In a global business environment (maybe a little less so with the new US administration), I worry about my country’s ability to keep pace. There is no question that Canadian companies are falling behind the tremendous marketing transformation happening in the US today.
Saying no is as important as saying yes
Saying yes is a critical element in growing a start-up.
Every service we offer today was at one point a “first-time” offering. Having the courage to go where we haven’t gone before is essential for growth. That said, I have learned that saying no is even more important.
This has been my hardest lesson to learn. As an only-child I have always gone out of my way to please people. But one of our best clients taught me the importance of saying no to projects (or clients) that you are not well equipped to handle.
His point – doing poorly on a project can tarnish the shine on our apple with a client very quickly.
It can also stretch our resources to a point that jeopardizes our founding principle of ensuring employees thrive.
Relationships are everything
We owe almost all of our growth to-date from our network, customer referrals or our business partners.
As our accountant states, “people working inside a company don’t realize the value of their network. It’s when they start a company like you did, that you realize this unlocked value”. A relationship must precede every transaction.
Which is why I remain skeptical of cold-calling prospects as a means to drive new business.
The past five years have been the most exciting of my career. Building and shaping an organization with your values is a tremendous experience.
A special thanks to all of the people who have made it happen, starting with my family who have made many sacrifices along the way, and to our amazingly talented executive team, employees, contractors, and business partners.