When did you start your business? It was the summer of 2004 – in July.
Why did you start in this business? I really began it because I had been working for an environmental consulting company and loved what I was doing. I loved the company I was working for, but they sold their business. They had a great family feel, valued their employees, and stood behind them. I really loved working there. I moved my way up [at that company] and then they sold to a large corporation and things started to change quite a bit. So I had to make a decision about what I was going to do. I was pretty familiar with the industry; I had been working for a while and didn't really see another company that was as special as the one that I was working for. But it had changed and it wasn't really the place it was before [the acquisition] that I loved so much. I decided it was the right time for me to do something else, and that was starting a business. I was fortunate that I had a lot of client support and a lot of people telling me that I should go out on my own and that made a big difference.
Is that family culture maintained in this company? I think I took a lot of what was great about the company that I was working for with me when I left. It was a benefit of having been there for seven years and really knowing that culture and growing up there in my career. I brought a lot of what was great about that organization to mine when I started it. I also grew and built upon things that I valued and loved and felt were really important. I wanted to make sure I kept ahold of that even as I grew and transitioned in my career. I wanted to remember those things that were important to me when I was just starting and moving up in my career and make sure I maintained that within our organization. But also, really listening to our staff and what is important to them and what they want, and what they want out of a culture was important and continues to be a part of how we run the business today. It is a fun aspect of gathering that information and letting people come up with wild ideas about something that they might want to do in their career, or somewhere they might want to have the business go. We don't necessarily do everything that everyone comes up with, but we enjoy the process of brainstorming and coming up with ideas and additional ways of looking at things that might be of value to the employees. Looking back, what do you think you did well that brought you to where you are today?
Establishing those core values and the standards, the things that I thought were really important, and the things I cared about and felt our clients really cared about. Making that really integral to the business was part of our success. Holding that close and true to everyone that is working makes a big difference and allows you to deliver. We are known for our quality of work, the responsiveness of our business, and adding extra value. Those things are instilled in everything we do. It is how we market, and those are the things that, at the core, are really important. A lot of that is in the details and I drive to ensure that all employees are paying attention to those things and driving that through with everything that we do.
Where do you think you are in the growth cycle? You know, we are still on the growth trajectory, believe it or not. It is something that we have been on for a while and our curve is actually very consistent, which is wonderful. As you grow a business, you are striving for that maturity spot. We have not quite gotten there yet, and we are still working towards it. And of course, looking out towards “where do we go?” in terms of finish/exit/rebirth type of thing. We are still on that upward trajectory, which is exciting and fun. And we are continuing to grow every year, adding revenue, adding staff, and adding client base. It is exciting and a great place to be. What was your biggest challenge in the start-up phase? I think there were two. One was cash flow. It's a giant challenge when you are a start-up. That is a tough one. I think the other one was just time and limited resources. There were a very small group of us when we started, and when the demand comes in really fast, it eats up both your cash and then your available time to deliver on it. Those were definitely the biggest challenges at the beginning. How did you resolve or cope with that challenge? I ended up enlisting somebody that had a much better background with finance than I did. That helps a lot. Just being on top of that, managing it and paying attention to it while I was on the client delivery side. So that was pretty key. We reached out to some family to help us out a little bit here and there on some occasions just to get by, that kind of thing. But for the most part, it was just having to be on top of that and paying very acute attention to it and really following up quickly and closely with clients when it was time for a payment due or when something was expected to make sure that it happened. That was successful, but it takes a lot of energy and time to focus on that.
You bright up a great point of bringing on people with talent to be on your team. You’re a great example of “we need the right people in the right seat in order for this company to do well.”
I think you can find out really quickly that you need help. I won pretty large contracts within the first couple months of starting the business, which was exciting, but I found myself underwater very, very quickly. One thing I knew how to do was build teams, and I knew that there were a lot of people that have a lot of experience that was different than mine and a lot of talent that was different than mine in some areas, and so bringing those people together is critical and key at the beginning. Making sure you’ve got the right people lined up to move in and help out – even if it’s on a limited basis – just to get you through those periods of time is really important.
What is the biggest challenge during your growth phase? The biggest challenge I think now with our growth phase is finding the right people. It is so important to get the right people that have their right culture fit and the right values into the organization. Our industry is relatively small and so there aren't a lot of people that have the right background and understanding. We do a tremendous amount of training, but it takes a long time to bring more junior staff up. So finding people with experience that can step in and really take a participatory role and make a difference with what is going on and take on some of that new work and new clients is probably one of the hardest things for us right now. What is the solution there? What are you trying? We are continuing to network within our larger industry and trying to find people that might be looking or might be ready for a change. We use recruiters. They do help on occasion. Fortunately [in terms of recruiting], this has been a big shake-up year. It has been helpful from the standpoint that people are valuing different things and looking for firms like ours that offer maybe a more collaborative, more employee-focused type of working environment. And so that has been one fortunate thing, a silver lining in all that has been happening lately. And we've had a little bit of success in hiring some people from that standpoint, but I think it continues to be a combination of networking and outreach and using recruiters to try to find people. It is not easy. What is your take on hiring – the right fit or the right experience? I think people struggle with that a lot. We have been pretty decided and determined on that from the beginning. We try to hire people that are really smart and fit our culture. We train them on everything else they need to know, and that seems to work best for us. And the other thing that we do that maybe is a little bit unusual for some organizations is really letting people find their place and find their way rather than hiring so specifically for a specific job and role and all that they are going to do. We sort of let people figure out what is the best fit within our organization. So, we hire someone who is bright and talented and a good fit for our organization and the rest ultimately falls into place. We don't focus so much on those other details. What do you see as the biggest challenge brought by the pandemic? I think the biggest challenge has been not being able to see people, to have face time, to travel, and not being able to sit in meetings and hash things out together. And I think [that disconnect is present] both for us and our client side, as well as with our employees internally. We build a lot of culture through those relationships, meeting in person with people, chatting in the hallway or in the kitchen, sitting down for lunch, or whatever it might be that is really informal. It is the same with our clients; we spend a fair amount of time normally traveling and visiting [them], whether it's just driving down the road to have lunch and talk about what is going on, attending a meeting, or flying somewhere and visiting a client. That face time has been gone. Of course, we replaced it with Zoom and with other video conferencing, but it's not the same and you certainly don't have those informal moments that really develop those relationships and have a lot of value. I think that is tough, and it's the same with the employees. All the employees have been working from home (with the exception of our field staff, who have been out in the field; they have been affected less because they are seeing people on a regular basis). But for our employees that are working from home, it's the same thing: the Zoom and the video conference only go so far to maintain relationships without being able to see people face-to-face. What are some things that are helpful to still maintain that employee engagement and that feeling of being in a bigger team during COVID? There are a number of things we worked on – particularly at the beginning of the pandemic. We made a big effort to figure out how we needed to adjust in order to maintain some of the things that are really important to us in terms of the values and culture of the organization, which we spent a fair amount of time working on. So, we hold regular meetings. We try to keep them short but maintain all-hands meetings so that employees can hear what is going on across the organization, and we get a lot of people to participate in those, so they are hearing a fair amount about what is going on. We instituted and facilitated [virtual] happy hours and lunches. That has been fun and way more informal, and it's been nice because employees have been able to connect and learn about what their family traditions are, what they like to do on their off time, what sport they've played or whatever it may be. So, we have been able to learn a lot more from each other through that type of sharing, which is different than what we would normally do. It is a little bit more structured, but it has worked out pretty well. If you could give one piece of advice to up-and-coming entrepreneurs that are excited to build a big and great company like yours, what would it be? I think that people shouldn't be afraid to ask for help. I will go a step further and say that bringing people on your team that are as bright or brighter than you is a great thing to do and will only help you and make you stronger. So, it is something that people shouldn't shy away from.
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