5 Lessons I’ve Learned Over 15+ Years in Business
Last week, we hosted the entire vCom team for our annual Employee Summit. Second to our Customer Summit (which we host in the fall), this is one of my favorite events of the year. It always allows me to reflect on everything that a team can accomplish together, and helps frame the vision for the coming year. For the whole week leading up to the day-long event, the energy around the office was infectious. This time around, I also had our 15-year anniversary which we celebrated last year, to reflect upon, and how our collective success should guide us through the coming years.
As I thought of good moments, challenges, opportunities, and lessons learned, the following 5 themes kept coming back as having helped us along the way:
1. Stay true to your mission:
When we started vCom 15+ years ago, my partners and I defined success as having happy customers, happy employees and building a financially successful organization. Pretty simple and probably what many entrepreneurs want to achieve. But it’s a mission that’s a lot easier said than done. Many founders focus on growing revenue at all cost, and lose customers and employees along the way, ultimately watching the company spiral out of control. The flip side is also prevalent, especially with technology companies where profitability is not given the focus that’s required, and founders simply count on cashing out some day. The hard trick is finding the balance – think of it as a 3-legged stool; without one of those legs, you might stay “up” for a second or two, but you’re not building something to stand the test of time. We have experienced the old adage: “Happy employees equal happy customers.” As we invested in our employees, they took better care of our customers, and with focus, profitability grew. What started off as employee satisfaction turned into employee engagement – giving each employee a voice and enabling them to truly be a part of the dialog and decision making process. Our annual Customer Summit is one of many practices we have used to engage our customers and give them the opportunity to help us improve and test ideas. In today’s market, if you are not engaging your customers, someone else, most likely your competitor, is engaging them.
2. No risk, no reward:
If there is one thing I have learned as I became an entrepreneur, it’s that without taking risks there is no upside. Some people, like my business partner Gary, are natural risk takers – they thrive on it. I have learned from watching Gary over the years, and it has paid off. Whether it was launching a new product that we knew nothing about, or acquiring our first company. Not all the risks paid off (thinking about some of those expensive hires that didn’t pan out), but many did. The reality is that even the risks that didn’t work out taught us, giving credence to another old adage: “You learn best from your mistakes.”
3. Evolve, innovate or perish:
What works when your’re a startup is vastly different from what it takes to take a company from $10M to $50M. Its leaders must evolve; its value proposition must evolve; and nowadays, unless it innovates, it will die. I have learned this lesson first-hand. My skills as a manager had to evolve lest I became ineffective. When we started the company, like many founders, I was involved in almost every aspect of the decision-making process. As we grew, that not only became logistically impossible; it became an anchor that held us in place. It was easy for employees to use their lack of involvement in the decision making process as a way to absolve themselves from the outcome. People became virtual robots; our company was missing out on creativity from people in the trenches, missing out on new ideas, and new ways of looking at things. Today, I recognize that my job as leader is to hire the best people, empower them, give them a clear vision of success, focus on removing obstacles that may get in their way, and hold them accountable to success. As a software and professional services organization, our company must continue to provide value to our customers, whether that’s through advancing the technology tools that we provide them, or developing the expertise on our team to help them navigate the problems their businesses will encounter tomorrow. If we don’t, they will seek other partners to help them advance.
4. Listen to your gut:
Whether you’re designing a new product, launching a new initiative, or contemplating making that expensive hire, always go with what your gut tells you. That doesn’t mean that you should turn a blind eye to market conditions, ignore customer comments, avoid employee feedback or not heed adviser input. It simply means that you are in the best position to judge your strengths, your weaknesses, your opportunities and threats. And at the end of the day, even if your gut steers you wrong, the mistake, again, is an opportunity to learn and grow.
5. Whatever you do, do it with passion:
At vCom, there is no shortage of passion. Passion is one of those “permission to play” characteristics that our people practice – passion about our customers and passion about our model. When we debate, we give it our all; when we work, we give it our all; and when we innovate, we go all out. Passion is a way of life for us, to the point where we joke about being “Uncomfortably Passionate,” and we have the scars to prove it. But like strong warriors, we wear those scars with pride. We even take things a step further and say that it’s a necessity to inspire passion and creativity in others to be successful at vCom. At the end of the day, without our passion, we wouldn’t have focused on being disruptive, being fanatic about engagement, and continuing to evolve.
I feel strongly that these lessons will continue to guide us into the future. None of them are unique to us, and all are simple – almost trivial. But they have been important to vCom. I think many leaders ignore them, and for me, they are key to any organization trying to build something to last.
-Written By Sameer Hilal, Co-Founder and COO