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As a small business owner and father of four busy children, I rarely find time for reflection, but when I do I’m often surprised at something I learn, recognize or see in a new perspective.  As my business approaches the twentieth anniversary of its formation (est. New Years Eve, 1994), and simultaneously launches a re-branding exercise, we brainstormed that a blog post reflecting on these milestones would be timely.

After twenty years, you definitely accumulate a lot of stories—some funny, like having our new Pakistani contractor teach us curses in Urdu over lunch; some sad like a death in the family or customer-base; even some a little scary:  like a naïve employee innocently bringing a gun to work!  But I could fill pages with that stuff and struggle to find a message or key learning.

What’s Changed?

So I looked at what has changed since we started this adventure.  We are older, greyer and unfortunately, fatter.  But also a little wiser.  We have hired staff and grown in good times; cutback staff and shrunk in lean times.  We have diversified to reduce risk, refocused to improve efficiencies.  We have implemented and revised processes countless times.  In some respects, it feels like an endless cycle with no endpoint. 

But when you think through the details and the outcomes of these individual decisions, they made sense, generally had positive results, and moved us onward to some next phase.  In a way, a key reflection here is that we embraced change and lived by the old 80s/90s Japanese management mantra of “continuous improvement”. 

As a technology firm, we can honestly say that from a technology perspective, almost EVERYTHING has changed.  We started up around the time the Internet became available for commercial use.  That means we pre-date Windows 95, smart phones and Wi-Fi!  We pre-date Y2K and the Internet boom and bust.  We hung our shingle when gas was $1.11 per gallon and Software as a Service did not exist.  Technologists were debating the merits of the World Wide Web standard for the new “Information Superhighway” over the trusted Wide Area Information Services (WAIS) used in academia.  Sergey Brin and Larry Page, the founders of Google, had not yet met and had nothing to index!

As a start-up, we vowed to bring “Information Technology that Adds Value” to customers of all sizes.  We had worked on too many IT projects that added no value, or seen our executive team defer the projects that really added value due to fear of change.  We didn’t start in a garage, but in the spare bedroom of one of the founding partners.  As a poorly funded start-up, we tried hard to stay true to our mission statement, but sometimes we felt more like the brothers from the 80’s sitcom Newhart--Larry, Darryl and Darryl committing to “anything for a buck”.

We often found in those days that few small businesses wanted or trusted technology to do their important work.  And the few that recognized the opportunity could barely afford it.  Or they could afford the acquisition but not the operation, maintenance or change management.  We made two choices:  target larger businesses in general, and when targeting smaller entities, focus on systems where they can really see value early.  This was the origin of our focus on Customer Relationship Management (CRM) which was then known as Contact Management or the new-fangled Sales Force Automation.   In fact, in 2000 we rebranded to reflect our focus on “Field Technologies”, reflecting the use of these tools for in-field sales and service staff.

One dramatic change from those days to today is that technology cost has dropped considerably.  Software that cost seven or more figures in those days is accessible to small businesses for, on average, $65/user/month or $780 per year.  But wait, today’s version also brings more functionality too—like mobile usage, integration to your website or other value-added services, infinite customizability.

What Hasn’t Changed?

Our Mission:  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  Perhaps surprisingly, we have stayed true to our original mission (”Information Technology that Adds Value”).  That means we turn away work that doesn’t make sense…or at least offer more sensible alternatives.  As one of my mentors used to say, “I’d rather turn you down than let you down”. 

Problem Solving:  Great problem solving skills are timeless.  We learned structured methods during the 80s Kaizen era, and continue to preach the fundamentals of problem statement, current situation and root cause analysis to our team…many of which weren’t born when we acquired these skills.

Perfect Enough:  As chronic perfectionists, we sometimes found ourselves paralyzed by the inability to achieve “perfection” in a project or process.  We’ve learned over the years that the majority of value in a change or solution often comes with implementing its basic components.  Often the last details that perfect a solution are esoteric, rarely used or even unnecessary. But often those last details drag on consuming valuable time and energy.  Having the organizational maturity to step back and recognize when something is “perfect enough” is extremely valuable.

What IS Success?

As a small, privately held business, we get the opportunity to define success on our own terms.  No venture capitalist or board of directors is pushing us to grow in multiples to enable their exit strategy.  We danced with mergers a couple times in the past--twice with large national/international buyers and once with a smaller regional firm.  Often the post-sale lifestyle contributed to the final decision to part ways.

We also had a period where we overvalued growth and pursued goals that appeared within reach but were complicated by external factors.  This forced us to re-evaluate our definition of success to be more balanced.  We value long-term relationships, work-life balance, and a familial atmosphere that enable income growth as well as other forms of accomplishment.

One definition of success that we use often scales well to individuals, tasks, projects and annual business plans.  We establish a short list of objectives, prioritize those objectives with weighting and then score the achievements of those objectives on a common scale.  If your projects, tasks and plans are all scoring over 4 on a scale of 5, things are going well.  Rewards will follow.

Conclusions

After all these reflections, I think it's time to round-up our key learnings from all our achievements and mistakes.  Here are my key learnings from 20 years:

  1. Learn something new everyday, or you risk becoming a dinosaur.
  2. Don't assume you know what motivates somebody, ask them.
  3. Hire the smartest and hardest working people you can find--people who argue and challenge your authority and wisdom.  Give them objectives and positive feedback.  Fire the YES men/women.
  4. For those of you who are perfectionists, learn the phrase "Perfect enough!"
  5. Have fun.  If you can't have fun everyday, what's it all for?

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