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5 Things You Need to Know When You Start a Business


By Jason Robbins, CEO

I’ve learned a great deal in my 20 years with ePromos. I started the company with a clear mission to help customers promote their brands and use modern technology to serve them. I used some of what I learned with my undergraduate and graduate degrees in business, but there was so much that had to be learned on the job.

Here are five key lessons I’ve learned since starting ePromos that I think would be beneficial to any entrepreneur, young or old.

#1 Talent makes or breaks a business.

You can’t build a company alone. Many entrepreneurs (like myself) get out of the gate by brute force. At some point, doing everything yourself starts making things worse. You get stressed, there is little engagement from those who work for you, and you hit a plateau. You can put great processes and systems in place so that operations can run smoothly; however, when you want to grow, adapt or evolve on a strategic objective, you can’t keep the ship running and also invent the next thing.

You need great people to keep the ship sailing, and you need great people to start figuring things out with very little input from you. There is no pride in doing everything yourself. If you want to be a $10 million company, you are going to need some people on your team who have been there.

I learned that it’s best to hire for attitude and train for skill. It’s the attitude that typically gets in the way for people, not their intellect. You can have the smartest person on your team, yet if they have a bad attitude, it can be like a cancer growing in your organization, poisoning it from the inside and costing you big in missed opportunities. Conversely, people with great attitudes take obstacles in stride as part of the journey; they don’t focus on blame and what should be that is not. I am lucky to have a number of great leaders who have been with me from the beginning, who have become managers and adapted to new roles because they have a great attitude. A huge bout of success is due to these types of great attitude players.

#2 Setting fewer goals per quarter leads to a higher success rate.

As a new business (or even an existing business) the list of things to do and new ideas developed daily can run like a ticker tape. For years we tried to manage these ideas while growing and running the day-to-day business. Many times we’d meet and think we were clear on three-five goals, then we’d realize we were working on about 10 goals, and nothing really got finished. Effort was spread so wide that we didn’t accomplish anything meaningful.

You may have heard about leading and lagging indicators… For example, if you want to lose weight, you can’t just weigh yourself and expect change. The lagging indicator is the weight, or, the final success measure. The leading indicators are the calories in and out. If you are taking in more than you are burning each day, for example, you are aware of this and know that the weight won’t drop. You don’t need to wait a month to check in and find that you haven’t made progress. It’s the same thing when running a business. Make sure to define a leading goal, and follow through each step of the way through to completion.

In the past few years we’ve learned two great lessons. The first, is to identify realistic goals with which both the progress and result can be measured. The second is that the recipe for success is having very few goals combined with daily and weekly discipline checks. Stay on top of this and you’ll be very much aware of how things are going along the way. It makes it easier to not lose focus and to re-align when necessary.

#3 Define the what; let your team figure out the how.

When I first started out, not only did I decide what we were going to do, I also would work with my staff to figure out the steps and how we would do it. I was heavy handed and came off as the guy who needed to be the smartest, who needed to do things his way in order for it to be done right.

As a leader, you may feel that you know the best way to tackle a problem. You may want to continuously give great advice,to get involved in all details of a project or process. But that is not your role. Your role is to remove obstacles for the group that is figuring out how to hit the goal. I realized at some point in the development of the company that even though my favorite thing was creative problem solving,  I had to stop. I stopped, but then I started second-guessing. Finally, I realized that while it might take a little longer, my team – the people I hired for their brilliance –  almost always got there (and often times got there faster than I would have). Even better, they did it on their own, freeing me up to continue to lead and set direction and remove other obstacles.

The freedom this method provides to a team also makes a huge difference in engagement. Imagine a company where the boss comes in and tells people how to do things. That isn’t fun for smart, capable people. They want to try. They want you to give them the proverbial video game controller and play themselves vs sitting there watching you or having to follow specific instructions. This is particularly important with Millennials. Give them the freedom to figure out the how, and they will be engaged… otherwise risk bad attitudes and high turnover.

That’s also why lesson #1 is so important: having the right team. Not all employees can run with this freedom. It may be their personality or maybe engrained in previous life experience, but sometimes if you feel you have a good person, you have to explain to them that they are allowed to take chances and have fun trying. It can be a challenge to relinquish control – trust me, I know – but it’s the only way to succeed. It’s really a nice human thing to do. No one should come to work to be told what to do with an attitude. Good morale and ethics are always, always good for business.

#4 There is a target client.

You can’t be all things to all people – no one can – and it’s counterproductive to try. Not everyone will be interested in your product or service, and sometimes you’ll need to establish what market you’re after. It is as much a choice to determine what you are going to be bad at as it is to determine what you are going to good at. “Good at” is the enemy of “Great.” By embracing what types of clients you do not wish to serve, you can better serve and evolve to thrill your target audience.

As a company that started online with Google search providing many of our initial leads, we were forced to be all things to all people. We wanted every sale, and we wanted all customers to be treated with the same love and passion regardless of size. We realized that we couldn’t make a profit if we were going to overserve the smallest customers. We also realized that we couldn’t make a profit even on huge customers if their requirements were too costly to service.

So the biggest lesson here is to find out why your best customers like you and find more like them.

#5 You must accept what you cannot control.

I wasted a lot of energy, resources and time over the years just complaining and worrying. While it’s so logical that we can’t control 99% of what happens, many of us still spend time talking, thinking and expensing energy over things that happened that we can’t change and over things that haven’t happened yet.

How much time are you spending on thinking about something in the past, that is over, that you can’t change? In my experience, business is going to unfold for you, and you can either see things as good and bad or just see things as they are. You can move forward, or you can stop progressing and dwell on the past. I meditate daily, and I’ve developed a skill that helps me be mindful of if I am thinking in the past or future. I continue to meditate because I view mindfulness as a muscle that needs to be exercised.

There is always a silver lining. Accept what you cannot control; learn from what you can. Embracing mistakes will make your company better. Embracing the attitude that mistakes are welcome will help you make the world a better place through your people, through your team. It’s been said that mistakes are just lessons, repeat until learned. At ePromos, we try to learn from our mistakes and move on.

So there you have it… five tidbits from my experience. These past 20 years have been hard work and fun. Best of all, I have grown into a better person. I’m grateful for the opportunity to lead my own team – to help all our wonderful staff build their careers and make their positive contributions on those they impact. I love the promotional products business because it give us a chance to use our creativity and advice to help our clients look their best and make their own impact on the world. We are all interconnected, and I really appreciate that. I look forward to seeing how our ePromos family evolves in the next 20 years and thank everyone for the opportunities they have given me to grow and learn as a leader.

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