$1 million in 19 months isn’t the flashiest number in the world. Certainly not in the world of startups. I don’t refer to our company, Human Marketing, as a startup. To me, a startup is not your everyday small business. Small business owners typically need to get paid. They don’t have access to substantial amounts of initial capital and can’t afford to operate without profits. My immediate financial goals with Human Marketing were:
- Start with under $20,000 in debt
- Replace and increase my previous salary
- Show a positive net profit
Those goals were hit and exceeded:
- Avoided taking on any debt (outside of revolving no-interest credit)
- Increased salary
- 15% net profit
- 110% YoY growth rate
I would like to share some lessons with aspiring business leaders and owners. Most of my beliefs on how a successful business should be run are more philosophical in nature. I don’t have a high degree of confidence in existing businesses changing philosophically. But for those aspiring leaders, my hope is to inspire you in some way or perhaps get you to think about your business purpose before forging ahead. Several years back, I was lucky enough to come across the book Conscious Capitalism. It reinforced a lot of my beliefs, lessons learned in business and helped solidify the way I wanted to run a company one day.
Here are the lessons I learned and incorporate daily into Human Marketing:
- Purpose: Start with a real purpose
- Culture: If culture isn’t first, you would be happier working for a company that has it instead of starting your own without it
- Team: Treat your employees how you want to be treated (Seriously. Really actually do it!)
- Scale: Start with “scale” in mind early
- No: Learn to say NO to “opportunities”
Purpose. Starting with a purpose beyond profit and income is crucial. Organizations should have a higher purpose and reason for their existence. It's the foundation for all other essential components of the business such as culture, attracting and retaining premium talent and customer loyalty. One of the reasons I started my company was to provide a career and work environment that I searched for during my entire career but never really found. Sure, there were positive experiences (and excellent leaders along the way that helped me immensely), but nothing held my interest for more than a couple years. At Human Marketing, our internal official purpose is: "Enjoy life. Help others." We take this very seriously. Enjoying life and helping others is what drives our strong culture and team.
Culture & Team. For me, these go hand-in-hand. I focus intently on “enjoying life.” For me this means enabling each employee to enjoy their life which doesn’t exclude Monday-Friday work hours. We believe in work-life integration, not separation. Numerous happiness studies consistently have “job satisfaction” or “meaningful work” at the #1 and #2 top desires for happiness. Of course, we believe it’s very important to break from work and focus on what’s in front of you such as family. However, for those that want a career or calling and not just a “job,” we all know that the 9-to-5 isn’t reality. Life doesn’t respect 9-5 hours and business doesn’t always respect hours outside 9-5. We make it very easy to mix to the two with work-life integration. We do this with policies like:
- Unlimited vacation
- Flex work location and hours
- Not micro-managing daily activities
Anyone in our company can work the way that suits them best. They work how and where they are most productive. We believe that if you are passionate about your career, you want to integrate it into your life, not separate it.
Another value of ours is continued education. This is also another example of work-life integration. We allot time for continued education through online training and certifications. All of us are required to obtain numerous online marketing certifications each year. But we also ask that everyone, if needed, take some of their personal time to ensure these goals are completed.
These are a few examples of policies and values that work together to create what I believe is a unique culture and team of professionals and friends that find happiness in their work each and every day. Our work is not without its challenges but the consistent feedback 100% of the time from each employee is that they love their job and there isn’t anything they would ask to change.
The second part of “helping others” is almost natural. If your team is happy and motivated, they are going to do excellent work and provide customers with the best possible service, product or solution on earth!
Scale. It’s well documented that growth combined with the lack of the ability to scale is what prevents most businesses from thriving and, in some cases, halts or kills businesses altogether. With this fact reaffirmed to me over and over again for the past decade, we have been proactive about scaling processes and people in the past 19 months. However, even with that knowledge and proactive policies, I still wish I had better prepared aspects of the business to scale. It’s a tough balancing act. For me, scale came after proof. I wanted to prove to myself and others the business was viable before spending too much time scaling something that might not work. On the other hand, you can’t maintain 100% growth rates without scalable operations. With this in mind, one of our five yearly goals in 2017 is to build a leading class project management infrastructure. It's a broad, bold goal but we have specifics to back it up including a quarterly break down of milestones to achieve along the way. We’ve invested heavily (hundreds of hours) in software and processes to ensure we can scale our services-based business by 5x without issue.
Saying no. Less than two years in, we are fortunate to be in a position where we have a lot of work and potential customers coming our way. It hasn’t been easy, but I’ve learned to say no to opportunities when it doesn’t fit our growth model and culture. For example, we are currently on track to hit and exceed our growth goals. We’ve aligned customers, workload, number of employees and processes around this plan. If we said yes to all new potential customers with dollar signs in our eyes, I believe our plan would eventually fail. Employees would become stressed, quality would suffer and it would turn into a cycle that I believe most services-based businesses fall into where customers are like a revolving door. We focus intently on exceeding expectations and goals for our current clients and ensure they are taken care of first and foremost before we look at onboarding new customers. For this reason, we went into 2017 with a plan to onboard just three new customers to grow over 100%, continue to focus on expanding our relationships and value with current clients. In fact, I made the tough decision recently to implement a wait list for our services. I’ve actually had very positive feedback on this so far from current prospects!