2017 in Review: Lessons I Learned As a Small Business Owner



When I set out to start my own business (which is a crazy story in and of itself—I'll tell you about it another day), I expected many things.

I expected it to be hard, stressful, and to have crazy ups and downs. Having spent fifteen years inside of a small family-owned business, I was familiar with the realities of business ownership. What I didn’t expect was how absolutely fulfilling and life-giving it can be to hew from solid granite a living, breathing entity comprised of dreams, desires, personality, and the beauty of a team working together to achieve a common goal.

I’m going to share with you four distinct ways that this has played out for me and my team in 2017. How my company morphed from one man (me) into an evolving team of passionate, driven individuals working for the good of the company and clients.

Point #1 - Leadership teams, vision-casting, and core values are valuable.

Scaling Invoq has been fun, but it's also been a huge challenge (insert sarcastic, exhausted laugh here). This year I have learned one of the best lessons of my entire life. Here it is (drum roll, please): It is much better to have a TEAM that is invested in the company and can help make decisions than it is to walk the road ALONE. 

Moving to a leadership team consisting of myself, Benjamin Bachman, and Kristen May has been an excellent decision. I'm able to get their input, and I know that it's coming from a place of trust, knowledge, and personal investment in both the culture and long-term health of Invoq.

The beautiful and terrible thing about building a leadership team is that realizing how much information is in your head and not written down in clarity for the rest of the team to grasp or understand. Because of this, I've chosen to focus on creating clear and well-defined short- and long-term goals for the company.

Currently, the Invoq leadership team is in the process of working through and implementing the EOS system from Traction: Get a Grip on Your Business. As part of this process, we are laying out a 10-year vision, defining our core values (actual values that we hire, fire, and review team members on, not random feel-good mumbo-jumbo), and putting measurement tools into place for critical numbers inside of our company.

Invoq Marketing's leadership team: Jon, Benjamin & Kristen—funny photo

Invoq Marketing's leadership team: Jon, Benjamin & Kristen—casual photo

Point #2 - The right team creates the right culture; the right culture attracts the right team.

As a crazy entrepreneur that loves the challenge of building a business, I often experience a weakness that I believe is common for entrepreneurs—creating a culture that naturally attracts the right team members. Culture begins with the things you value most.

At Invoq Marketing, below are things that we care about the most. They are, in essence, the values that define our culture.

  1. We're ready to win as a team and lose as a team.
  2. We're always learning, risking, and willing to fail.
  3. We're prepared to move heaven and earth to win for the client.
  4. We're willing to share new ideas and challenge other team member’s ideas.
  5. We're always consuming coffee. (Some team members actually prefer tea—we roll with it.)

Every entrepreneur and small-business owner needs to understand this: You cannot change who people are. No matter how hard you try to "fit" them into your culture, you'll never win. Instead, you must focus on building the right culture with the right team.

Point #3 - You shouldn’t take everyone on as a client.

I love to solve problems and help clients grow their business to the next level. However, I have found a few reasons that I shouldn’t work with certain clients and prospects.

The reality is tough. If you are building a company that does something unique and special, there will be potential clients that are a terrible, horrible, no-good fit for you, and you shouldn’t take their money. They are going to pull more resources, energy, time, and money from your company than they contribute. Don’t settle for people that don’t want the unique thing that you are offering.

Here are five things that will help me to eliminate bad-fit clients—

  1. They don’t have a growth mindset. Invoq is listed as a “marketing” company. However, this is a bit of a misnomer. When we partner with our clients, we are partnering with them to drive long-term company growth. We are investing a lot of energy in understanding their business and the levers that we can pull to either start or accelerate growth.

    By default, growth creates tension and pressure in other areas of the business. When you increase the number of leads that a company is getting, you put pressure on the sales team to work those leads. And as the sales team closes those leads into customers, it creates pressure on fulfillment to manufacture, fulfill, and care for more customers. Thus, when we do our job well, it creates friction, tension, and stress inside of the client's company.

  2. They can’t lead the change that needs to happen. As the friction, tension, and stress build, it is imperative that the people we are working with have the power, desire, and ability to lead the change and growth that needs to happen inside of a company. That may be scaling a team, changing or streamlining processes, restructuring products or services, etc. If the people we are working with can’t facilitate this change, the relationship will start to fragment, and it will crumble over time.

  3. They have the wrong business model. Inbound Marketing and the HubSpot platform excel at a specific type of sales process. Inbound Marketing is specifically designed for a long, complicated sales cycle that requires significant client education and results in a high-value sale. When I work with clients that don’t fit this model, we struggle to see eye-to-eye on the best way to get results. We are taking a tool designed to accomplish something specific and trying to bend it to another business model, and the results have not been fantastic—not a winning scenario.

  4. They aren’t big enough. I love to help people. I really do. But this strength has resulted in some issues. Marketing is an "economy of scale" game. It takes a certain level of effort to get started. When I talk to people that don’t have enough revenue to invest the appropriate amount into this growth opportunity, we end up getting into trouble.

    Marketing, when done properly, is a long-term investment. It's not a quick-cash generation process like advertising, so there must be cash flow to invest for around six months before clients start to see return on their investment.

  5. They are too big. Sometimes the reverse is also true. Sometimes a company is too big to work with Invoq the way it's currently structured. It can be hard to walk away from a big opportunity (not to mention a stellar revenue source). BUT don’t change your business model for one customer with a lot of cash. It will get you in trouble. every. time.

Point #4 - Taking care of customers is good—but taking care of your business so that you can take care of your customers is better. 

This is a point that can be easily misunderstood. In this day and age, customer service is paramount and is a huge key to success. However, customer service, customer delight, etc. must be within the confines of what's best for the business.

One of the things that we've been learning is that it's very easy for us to over deliver on points (effort/hours) that our customers' purchase—sometimes consistently delivering 150% of what a client had purchased. This makes customers happy but creates financial issues for our company which will eventually impact our ability to take care of clients over the long run.

I've always been taught that taking care of customers is the number one priority. That's mostly true, but it's incomplete. Taking care of your business so that you can take great care of your customers is the number one priority.

The sum of it all.

I must say, writing year-end posts about the things I have learned throughout the year is one of my favorite things to do. I’m looking forward to all the new things that I will have the opportunity to learn in 2018. Because guess what? The fastest way to learn about leadership, team building, finances, life, and relationships is to start a business.

Here's to a new year of growing and learning!

Invoq Marketing Company Team Photo—Ugly Sweater Day 2017

Want to learn more from Jon? Check out his other posts.

Topics: Small Businesses Advice From Our CEO