There’s an old saying about growing a successful company: What got you here won’t get you there. Meaning that the skills you used to grow you company to where you are now – solid salesmanship, great customer service and quality work – aren’t the same set of skills you’ll need to grow to $1 million and beyond in revenue.
You’ll still need them, sure, but as you scale up your company, you’ll need to learn how to hire (and fire) employees better, how to retain your most talented people, how to choose the right jobs and how to manage your time (because you won’t be doing every single thing in your company anymore). If you want to take your company to the next level, this section is your guide to help you get there. – Chuck Bowen
Say goodbye to junior high
Grow your company past its awkward middle school phase and start building true value.
“ A mature business is the company we dream of,” says Ken Thomas of Envisor Consulting, a green industry consulting firm based in the greater Atlanta area. “It’s a company that lives with a clear vision and strategy, empowered teams and operates with objectives-based management. This is the stage when owners can step away for a period of time and the company will perform as well if not better than if they were there.”
There comes a point in time for every business when the owner makes a decision: Am I comfortable where I am as a small business owner or do I want to take it to the level where I can step away? In terms of value, the mature business stage is where you’ll realize that goal.
“Mature businesses have great value because an owner can leave behind the systems, team and processes so the company will continue to thrive,” Thomas says.
The business is most owners’ greatest asset. So maximizing its value can ultimately result in the ability to retire comfortably, achieve life goals and leave behind a legacy.
But how do you build value? By becoming a different type of leader, developing a winning team and creating a standard production system, Thomas says.
Adolescence is so awkward.
Business growth is a lot like the life stages we experience. There’s the start-up/growth phase, adolescence, maturity and then succession (or decline). “In life, we grow up naturally, but in business it’s not that simple,” Thomas says. “Businesses don’t grow themselves. It takes leaders to do the right things during each stage to propel the company to the next level.”
And let’s be honest here: No one wants to be in junior high forever. Adolescence is tough.
If you’re reaching for $1 million and beyond, you’re probably in that awkward stage. Everything’s a little wonky. The symptoms include: shrinking profits and/or cash flow, doing more work than you’re selling and reinventing the wheel every day. “You feel the way to make more profit is to work harder,” Thomas says.
Every mature business has been there. “The key is to understand that you’re in this stage and then get out of it,” Thomas says. “You have to cross through this transition phase in business and there’s no way to get to maturity without it.”
The transition phase is when owners must focus on developing a team and processes so they can stop working so hard in the business and begin dedicating more time working on the business.
The people on your bus.
Jim Collins talks about making sure you’ve got the right people in the right seats of your “bus” in his book “Good to Great.” “Good people are your company’s greatest assets,” Thomas says.
To build a winning team, you’ve got to make tough decisions. The people you nurture into leaders, along with those working in the field, must align with your culture. Before you recruit individuals, find out exactly how they work and how they can contribute to your team.
Try profiling tools such as the DISC personality test. “It’s a great way to evaluate whether you lean toward being a driver, influencer, steady or compliant,” Thomas says. “I’m a high driver and not a great detail person. As I began to build my team, I profiled every person I hired for my management team and made sure they filled in my weaknesses. As a team, we had a great synergy.”
Thomas refers to this favorite quote from Lao Tzu: “Knowing others is intelligence. Knowing yourself is true wisdom. Mastering others is strength. Mastering yourself is true power.”
Begin by understanding your own strengths and weaknesses. “Hire people who have your weaknesses as their strengths,” Thomas says.
As you grow, be careful not to promote people into positions where they will fail. Thomas refers to the Peter Principle, which states that people are often rewarded with promotions based on their performance in their current role, rather than the abilities relevant to the new role. “Just because you have a really good foreman doesn’t make that person a good operations manager,” he says.
Also, hire slowly and fire quickly. Spend the time to do due diligence, including thorough background checks. And don’t stall in releasing someone who is not performing. Thomas says, “When someone is let go, most everyone else in the company knew they needed to go and were waiting for you to do it.”
Give ordinary people a shot at extraordinary.
Standard operating procedures (SOPs for short) provide a roadmap for those talented people on your “bus.” We all bring different skills, backgrounds and personalities to a business. These differences are a good thing if everyone knows what the plan is.
“The key is to build a production system that allows people to be the best they can be, and it’s up to every company to design a system of delivery and processes that will allow everyone to be successful,” Thomas says.
Over the years of growing successful landscape companies Thomas has built what he calls the Green Dot Operating System. It is a combination of philosophy, vision, strategy, processes, information tools and key metrics that any landscape business can adopt in order to be more successful on the road to maturity.
Good systems deliver predictable outcomes – satisfied customers, happy employees and a profitable work. Within the operating system, Thomas has developed the Start Clean Finish Clean Process. Each job in our businesses follow a predictable path from start to finish. First, there’s the lead. Then design and estimating followed by the sale, which includes the contract scope, terms and a job package so you can “start clean.” This information is then handed off to production to produce the work.
Next is the work in progress, and “that’s where most of us live as a small business. We’re out in the field,” Thomas says. Finally, there’s the close-out phase that includes communication with the client, accounting, a job close-out checklist and a final review so you can “finish clean.”
Between each of these steps is a transition when a sale moves to the next phase. When the team understands processes and expectations and if everyone is on the same page, then projects can be ushered from lead to close-out in a smooth manner with consistent results.
No matter the size of the job or business, SOPs are the ticket to setting expectations for clients and employees, ensuring quality and capturing profitability.
“You have to win every single play,” Thomas says. Every process within SOPs needs a skilled, committed employee to execute it. “You can leverage these processes to deliver your product and grow your company as large as you want,” he says. – Kristen Hampshire
Let’s (not) stay together
Finding the right clients, and letting the rest go, is crucial to growing your business.
Jason Craven, founder, president and CEO of Southern Botanical in Dallas, says he used to make the same mistake many entrepreneurs do when they’re first starting out. He would jump at any opportunity, whether or not it was a good fit for his company and his goals.
“I took on everything and I never said no, and I got myself into a lot of situations where later I was kicking myself,” he says. “So, it just got to the point where we were growing that I understood where I was successful and where I was not successful and I kind of started to pin those together.”
He says it doesn’t matter if you do residential work, commercial work or snow removal; you have to define your niche and stick with it. And while it can be counter intuitive for an entrepreneur to think that way, Craven says it’s the only way to successfully grow a business.
Southern Botanical brought in $23.8 million in both residential and commercial work in 2015, and sits at number 73 on Lawn & Landscape’s Top 100 list. As the company has grown, Craven has had to let clients go, and as uncomfortable as it is, it’s best to do it respectfully and carefully.
“Generally, we’re pretty selective of the projects we take on because we know not every client is right for us.” – Jason Craven, Southern Botanical
“It’s never easy to let a client go or let a team member go, but it’s inevitable and a lot of times necessary to take the next steps for your company and for yourself to work on bigger and better things,” he says.
Do your research.
Doing some work on the front end will not only help you prevent situations in which you need to fire a client, it will also help you grow your business. He starts by learning everything he can about a potential client before he even meets with them. “Generally, we’re pretty selective of the projects we take on because we know not every client is right for us,” Craven says.
His team checks property values on both the residential and commercial sides with a target number in mind. That tells them if a client will be able to afford Southern Botanical’s services. They also look at the current state of the landscape as well as the property’s location. For Southern Botanical, some jobs are worth taking just for the marketing possibilities like ones on prominent corners or in neighborhoods where they want more business.
The proximity of the job to the company’s office is also important when looking at location to cut down on drive time. While customers are often willing to pay for drive time, it makes it hard for supervisors to maintain a property during the hot Texas summers.
Look for cues.
The first meeting with a client can tell you a lot about whether or not you want to work with them, Craven says. He has noticed that often the husband and wife don’t agree, or the husband will be condescending to the wife.
“That’s really frustrating to listen to and it’s indicative of how you’re going to be treated later on when you take on the work,” he says. “Pick up on cues and clues for how people treat each other or how people treat you when you’re meeting with them.”
You want to look for someone who will be happy to maintain the work you do if you’re installing landscaping so that you aren’t embarrassed to park your trucks in front of it, he says. But there are also armchair quarterbacks or hobbyists who might know a little bit about gardening or landscaping, but think that they know more and could become overly involved.
At the end of the day, Craven says he needs to protect his people. “I wouldn’t ask my folks to do anything I wouldn’t do personally,” he says.
How to fire a client.
If you do have to fire a customer, Craven recommends honoring your commitment, maintaining your reputation and making sure that salespeople know what to say if a client gets upset. Scripting responses and role-playing is a good way to prepare.
Give customers enough notice to hire someone else and recommend a few reliable companies in the area. And don’t burn bridges. Your reputation is one of the most important assets at your company.
“Treat them like you want to be treated,” he says. “Do it in person and be ready to explain why. Have them understand why and that it’s not personal. It’s a business decision and it’s really tough for you as well. If they understand that you’re having a hard time with it and you’re struggling with it, they’re going to be more empathetic as well. – Kate Spirgen
The path to retention
To keep your best employees, make your company a place people want to be.
Successful retention starts even before an employee’s first day, says Angela Talocco, employee training and development specialist at Swingle Lawn, Tree & Landscape Care in Denver. Have a plan in place to welcome and train a new employee before they begin their career at your company.
It all starts when the new employee walks through the door. Schedule their start time when you know you’ll have someone available to meet and welcome them. “Don’t make them wait while you’re getting crews out or have a meeting going on,” Talocco says.
Then give the employee a general orientation with information that every staff member needs to successful. This could include paperwork and information on your company’s history, mission and values, and structure.
“The ultimate goal of this employee orientation is for every employee within your organization to have a clear understanding of your company and what success looks like as an employee at your company,” she says.
Talocco also recommends providing both general and job-specific training, so you’ll have multiple training plans for different positions at your company. Go over the job description with a new hire and outline expectations and daily procedures like how to set up a jobsite, bidding and selling, customer service and safety.
“This should leave employees feeling confident, not confused,” she says. “It should prepare them for what their day to day will generally look like.”
Make sure to give employees the chance to ask questions and get hands-on experience where they can learn and practice the skills you’re teaching. You can also have employees shadow someone who has been successful in the areas you’re training.
This process might take a few days or even a few weeks but it ensures that your new hire will be prepared for their new position, leading to happier and more productive employees.
Talocco also recommends ongoing training, whether it’s professional or personal. “Encourage your employees to train one another in order to foster peer-to-peer learning as well as to get your employees cross-trained,” she says.
“Encourage your employees to train one another in order to foster peer-to-peer learning as well as to get your employees cross-trained.” – Angela Talocco, Swingle
You can also bring in outside trainers like vendors who can provide information on new products. And so that employees can learn on their own time, provide a place in office where you share information, resources and upcoming education opportunities for licenses or continuing education credits.
“Having this kind of place lets employees know that you are not only invested in their growth and development, but also that you are willing to help make resources readily available to them,” Talocco says.
Showing that you’re interested in your employees helps them buy into the company. Provide feedback and follow up on the training you’ve provided. Check in with new employees in 30, 60 and 90 days with a short conversation on how they’re doing and how you can provide them with any additional information they might need.
You can also implement a yearly review process in which you and your employees can discuss their strengths and areas where they can improve. And offer them opportunities to provide you with feedback. You can send out an employee survey to gather suggestions, solutions to problems and things they appreciate about the company.
“Asking for input, while difficult, can really show employees that you value their input and it can also increase their job satisfaction and the likelihood that they want to continue working for your company,” Talocco says.
Taking a personal interest in staff shows that you care for your people and helps build company loyalty. Get to know your employees and learn what types of benefits they’ll appreciate. Here are some ideas:
- Flexible work schedules or year-round work
- Medical or dental insurance
- Paid time off
- Flexible spending accounts
- A paid day off for their birthdays
- A turkey for each employee during the holidays
- Holiday parties or company picnics
Look at what drives your employees and go from there. The goal is to make your company somewhere your staff wants to be. “This does not happen overnight and there is no one-size-fits-all solution,” Talocco says.
Retention is an ongoing process so start by having a plan, following through and taking the time to evaluate what is and isn’t working. – Kate Spirgen
Hour by hour
8 steps to best manage your time.
When it comes to managing your time wisely, Jennifer Lemcke, chief operating officer of Weed Man, says it’s something that should become a natural habit. “You really don’t think about it; you just kind of do things,” she says. “That’s my mantra. I just get going and get busy and do things.”
That means attacking every day with meaning as soon as you wake up. “We have a choice when we get out of bed,” she says. “We put our two feet on the ground and it can be a good day or a bad day.”
And when your two feet hit the ground, you should think about how you will invest time in your business that day.
“The problem is, if you don’t invest the time up front, you end up kind of getting into this flywheel type thing and you keep doing the same things over and over again,” Lemcke says.
The right focus. Your employees want to grow their wealth and their personal knowledge, and they’ll need your time and attention to help them do so. But if you aren’t managing your time wisely, it can be difficult.
“By focusing in on the right things, it allows you to help others achieve their personal goals,” she says. “People want to be part of a winning business, so if you’re not growing, you’re going to start losing some key people.”
Time investment will also help you develop those around you achieve their own personal goals.
“Sometimes making money is just not really all that anymore,” Lemcke says. “There’s only so much money you need to be happy.” She says seeing the people around you achieving their personal goals are just as rewarding.
And remember, don’t get discouraged when you encounter difficulty. “You’ll stumble along the way, but stay focused and organized,” Lemcke says. – Katie Tuttle
Lemcke’s tips for managing your time
1. Stay focused. When a project is at hand or staying focused is important, don’t get distracted. She says this is also relevant for personal goals, not just business goals.
2. Stay organized. This helps you stay focused. Lemcke says she keeps color-coded binders so she knows where to find what she needs.
3. Disconnect when needed. Turn off your phone, stop checking your email and ignore your office phone if you’re trying to stay focused on the task at hand. Knowing you can’t look at or answer anything until you’re finished will keep you motivated.
4. Engage with the right people and disengage with the wrong people. Don’t engage with people who aren’t aligned with your way of thinking. If you get down and out or frustrated about a project, you want to be able to engage with the right people.
5. Develop a business plan. Lemcke says developing a business plan is one of the things she believes in whole-heartedly. If you don’t have a plan, you won’t know where you’re going, whether it’s the long term or short term.
6. Develop personal/family goals. Lemcke says a lot of small business owners will run their personal goals through their business, but she feels it can be a mistake if you’re trying to grow your business. Keep personal goals separate to make sure that when you’re ready to grow your business, you have a healthy balance sheet.
7. Systemize your business. Building systems and plans will help you keep an eye on the details but not be over-involved in them.
8. Measure results. You owe it to yourself and your crew to keep tabs on where you are. It’s also a good gut check if you get unfocused. It helps you get back on track.