Business Discussion at Houghton College

Houghton College

Too many topics, too little time. Some of my story, experiences and thoughts on business.

Yes, I am aware that blog posts traditionally should be fairly short and concise. Sorry, this one doesn’t conform.

Coming up this Friday I’ll be having a discussion with some college students and faculty members at Houghton College in the town where I spent many of the formative years of my life. In advance of the presentation I was given a list of questions from some of the students in the business and marketing programs. Unfortunately the list is too long for me to answer all of them within the 30 minute time slot so I figured I would answer them here and share for those who’s question goes unanswered.

A little history on me…

Businesses: I started a few “businesses” when I was a child, not unlike many kids. My brother and I would make tea from the mint leaves in our backyard and sell it door to door. In a town of 500 people, who is going to say no? Following that I invented a burglar alarm that consisted of a tennis ball and a piece of string. Once positioned above the door, any burglar that entered would get a tennis ball to the face. Thanks to my dad on that one for taking out the ad in the college paper and helping me close my first and only customer. Lastly, my brother and I built up a pretty decent base of customers in the lawn mowing business. The effort, gas and profits were ours, mom and dad provided the mower. Making a couple hundred dollars a week at the age of 12 was pretty nice. None were formal businesses yet all had the potential to earn. I was a poor kid that wanted stuff and couldn’t wait for my birthday.

Aspirations: Did I know what I wanted to do early in life? Yes I did, but it was a toss up. The choices were to be a garbage man (so I could have lunch with my mom) or a businessman (so I could wear a suit and carry a briefcase). As it turns out, I get to be both as CEO and Janitor at the company.

Japanese?: What was the original goal in studying Japanese in college? I, like many, was an undecided student and wasn’t sure what to do with college. The culture, class, respect and manners of the Japanese along with the complexity and challenge of learning the language drew me to taking it as pretty much the only class I enjoyed. My senior year of high school I boarded at Houghton Academy with a lot of Japanese kids, that had a fair amount of influence as well.

College drop-out: Yep, like plenty of other entrepreneurs, I did drop out of college after a couple of years. Why? The pace of education was far too slow and my level of interest in uninteresting topics was too low. I like to work, wanted to work, didn’t want to be told that I had to take classes of no relevance and felt that I was wasting time. Why a call center? No reason, it was a job and fortunately it led to many opportunities for advancement and self-promotion to anyone willing to put in the effort and prove themselves. Plus my friends worked there.

Starting a business…

There is a lot involved with starting any business and no way for me to do justice to that in a blog post or a 30 minute discussion. Nonetheless, I’ll answer the questions asked based on my experiences.

First steps: What first steps did I take in starting my business? The first time around (1995) I was winging it, making mistakes, falling down and getting right back up. The second time around (2002) was a lot different. I knew enough to build the plan and had established solid relationships with financial and legal counsel. You can read hundreds of books on starting a business and most will say very similar things. Just like the things your parents told you when you were a kid, lots of people (me included) don’t listen to the expert advice and take the position that it doesn’t apply to them. Wrong. Take the time to build a solid business plan and don’t ever expect it to be “finished” as it needs to live and breath in order to be successful. Be conservative in your planning and understate your market, capabilities and revenue. At the same time, make sure to over estimate your expenses. Expect to work long hours, all days, all nights for months or years and, unless you are well funded, expect to do it without a paycheck.

Non-compete: When I left my last employer I was pursued legally on the grounds of non-competition and/or theft of company information. To be clear, I was competing directly but had not stolen any information, it just happened to be in my brain. Unfortunately for my former employer, I was not bound by any employment agreement or non-compete agreement and ultimately there was nothing he could do.

Biggest challenge: The answer to “What was your biggest challenge in starting a business?” For me, the first time around was a general lack of experience, funding and planning. The second time around (this time) it was inadequate documentation of process and procedures as well as the difficulties of finding superior talent. For other businesses it will often be completely different challenges depending on their industry, experience, business knowledge and level of funding.

Promotion: How did you promote yourself to the public when starting a business? Again, this will depend completely on the type of business in discussion. For my businesses it has been a mix of online advertising, focus on SEO, trade show attendance and industry relationship building. Almost all of my businesses and their success has come from attracting customers rather than seeking them out directly. Bug zappers.

Running a business…

It’s easy to run a business, right? I’d beg to differ on that one.

Keys to success: What are the key components to having a successful business and how do you incorporate your faith in business? Business success depends on a large number of things including hard work, solid planning, adaptability, experience, relationships, timing, focus and patience. Another important key relative to faith is the integration of high quality business ethics. Success will often depend on your reputation and it should be one of professionalism and sound ethics.

Standing out: What made you stand out in comparison to others running a business? Our reputation and the quality of our brand is a big difference as well as being in sync with the markets and our desire to sell value over price. Plus, we’re better than them and it gets noticed.

Frustration and failure: How do you handle frustration and failure in the workplace? To be successful you absolutely must fail and become an expert at failing often. Running a business is often frustrating and there is no easy way around it. Patience, patience, patience and a profound sense of confidence in your plan, your skills and capabilities. When others fail around you or become frustrated, some options that we employ are using the situation as a coaching opportunity to dispel and prevent it. We also use resource re-allocation whereby an associate is re-tasked in a role that is less frustrating and offers an opportunity to return to success – when possible. Sometimes you simply give them an opportunity to find a new place of employment.

Marketing: What marketing techniques and strategies do you find most effective in your business? Pretty much the same ones that we started with, including a full suite of online channel marketing. We built a strong brand, reputation and business infrastructure. Now we ride it and perfect it along the way.

Job benefits: What benefits would a job such as this one bring? The benefits can be just about anything you are looking for if you have the drive and endurance to achieve them. For me, I find it a lot more fun to be the drive than the passenger and having a hard time with people telling me what to do, this job allows me to avoid that. Second to that, the opportunity to create, build, grow and enjoy the fruits of labor are important benefits. Lastly, when you achieve your own designated level of success, there is little greater than knowing you did it, got there and have every reason to be proud of yourself.

Job quality: Would you say this is a good quality job, even if you are not as successful as others? So long as you are successful at your own level, irregardless of others, the quality of this job is second to none. However, it is also much harder than many jobs and a heavy burden to carry from time to time. I’ve often thought that if I gave up this job that I would want to be an EMT as the job quality of saving lives is one of the few steps up in my book.

International Business and VoIP Technology…

There were a few other questions not specific to the three sections above.

Overseas: Do you work with companies overseas? Yes, we are a global company with customer and vendor relations around the globe. Roughly 16% of our business comes from outside of the US.

International Business: Is it possible to take your business model internationally? How hard would it be? Yes, we currently conduct business internationally. It is harder than domestic business, particularly in retail where the import duties and taxes coupled with international fraud controls make it extremely difficult and risky.

Freshness: How do you remain fresh in a competitive and cut-throat marketplace overrun with regulations? Telecom regulations do not affect us much since we are not a provider of services rather a reseller of hardware. Remaining fresh is another matter altogether. We do not pay attention to our competitors rather we lead with our own freshness. New services, more value adds, product additions, site revamps and new markets introduced or incorporated into our existing model keep us different and on the move all of the time.

VoIP and the workplace: Would you say that VoIP (Skype in particular) is changing the workplace? Is it creating a new “business norm” in regards to decorum and expectations? Yes, VoIP is changing the workplace or assisting changes already in progress. Much more than a change in decorum, VoIP is helping to change the location of the workplace and helping more and more people work outside of the traditional office. VoIP is adding to the “Always on, always available” culture of this country and many others. For better or worse it is helping to increase the speed of life and connectivity of individuals.

Thanks for the questions, I enjoy answering them as best I can!

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