25 years later, if I'd had only known then?

I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned from others along the way regarding building a company and working with people.

January 17, 2013

Twenty-five years ago, at the age of 18, I started a remodeling company. I had one employee and wore all the hats in the business. Today, Sun Design is having its best year ever, with revenue nearing $10 million and employment of 50 talented folks, 10 of whom are on-staff designers. I have stepped out of all day-to-day management. We usually have 20 or so jobs in design and around 15 jobs in production at any given time. We just opened our second location. I would like to share some of the lessons I have learned from others along the way regarding building a company and working with people.

Create and protect your company culture. I heard the other day the quotation, “We all fly the same planes,” from an airline. What makes people never want to fly one airline and only want to fly another? It is not the plane. It is the people, the culture, the systems, and the processes they have put in place that make you want to use their service. It is the way they make you feel and the experience you have. Decide what you want for your culture, define it, and protect it. Like weeding a garden, it is an ongoing process.

Cultivate people. Most of our success and growth has been from people performing their jobs better than I could. Everyone—from my business partner of 20 years, who is now president, to our management staff, to our designers, to our administration, to our project managers, and to our carpenters—they are all better than me at their job. Get out of your own way and allow others to succeed.

Have fun. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Be inclusive. Involve the people around you: your clients, your peers, your trades, and your family. You alone having fun doesn’t make others have fun; you have to include them in the fun. Enjoy the journey, not the destination. You get to decide every day how you are going to show up.

Never stop learning. Be curious and learn from others.

Marketing is not an option. Although it is impressive, it should not be a badge of honor to say that your business is all “word of mouth.” I saw this paralyze a lot of businesses when the economy slowed down; they became victims of not having the tested strategy or budget to expand their circle of influence. Never stop marketing.

Love what you do. Think about the last time you purchased something from a store or ate in a restaurant. You probably had one of two outcomes: They clearly loved what they did, they were enjoyable to work with, and they were energetic. The other outcome might have been that they acted as if you were bothering them, and they only did what they “had” to do. Don’t be the latter scenario. What you do is a choice. Follow your passion—it will make you more successful. Not passionate about something? Delegate it or stop doing it altogether.

Give thanks. Live with gratitude and in service to others. Make it a daily focus to appreciate the people around you at work and at home.

Be humble. If you think no one can do it better or quicker, you are probably wrong.

Be present. Put your phone down! Don’t check your email or phone while you are talking to someone or in a meeting. Pay attention. Having dinner with your family? Make it a work-free zone.

Be interested. Not interesting. Be interested in the people around you and the people you meet.

Listen more. Talk less.

Create new habits. We wake up every day and often do things out of habit that we don’t even think about. Be aware of your habits. Which ones support you? Which ones don’t? Become conscious.

Engage others. People buy emotionally and justify logically. Be emotional, be open, be honest, and share your stories. Don’t just spout off the facts, the features, and the benefits.

I realize some of these learned lessons seem pretty obvious.

There is a difference in knowing them, living by them, and putting them into daily practice. This continues to be a challenge as we go through changing times. I will continue my list in next month’s column. PR

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