William Vanderbloemen, President/CEO, Vanderbloemen Search Group
In March of 2010, I left my job, my wife and I put our life savings on the table, and we started a business. We were committed to building it from scratch – debt-free and with no venture capital. Our new business – a search firm serving churches – faced challenges from the beginning. The idea of executive search was a new one for churches, and the economy at the time wasn’t too forgiving to young start-up businesses.
Five years later, we’ve been astounded by the good fortune and success we’ve seen. We just posted our fifth straight year of growth, with an annual average growth rate of 50 percent. In fact, every one of our 20 quarters since the start of the company has seen quarter-over-quarter growth.
As I think back on the success we’ve enjoyed so far, here are five key lessons about starting a business I wish someone taught me five years ago:
1. Virtual is overrated.
In the early days of the company, we did a lot of virtual work with contract labor employees. But about a year in, a few employees decided to move to Houston to work from our office. That meant more office space and more overhead, but we immediately saw a surge in the quality, efficiency, and speed of our work. Full-time, in-house employees give full-time effort and are able to collaborate daily. There’s just something powerful about working together in the same space.
2. What got you here won’t get you there.
Beyond being the catchy title of Marshall Goldsmith’s book, this is a profound truth for any organization. What was perfect for your business when you had five team members, or $1 million in revenue, probably won’t work for you once you hit 25 staff members or $10 million in revenue. This applies to both the systems and people you have in place. If you grow ten times tomorrow, would your systems and people be able to scale with you?
3. Culture trumps competency.
I used to put far too much value on a person’s resume. As I look at my team now – the most talented team I’ve ever worked with – I realize that some of my highest-potential team members wouldn’t have been hired if I only looked at their resume.
Now, culture trumps everything. Every time we hire focusing on cultural match, the rest has fallen into place. Additionally, we do everything we can to drive our culture and company values into everything we do.
4. Growing businesses are violently allergic to overhead.
Avoiding overhead consumes your thoughts when you’re starting a business. I remember considering splitting a roll of duct tape in half so I could get two rolls for the price of one. But as our business grew, my eye for the lovely topline of income blurred my focus on costs. We didn’t go crazy, but we did find ourselves paying for things we didn’t need. I realized how easy it is to drift into corporate excess as time goes by and business grows. We’ve been fortunate to grow at a consistent and robust rate, but we could have had more profitable growth if I had continued to pay careful attention to leaks in overhead.
5. Repeated growth eats rapid growth for breakfast.
When we first started out, I was fascinated with rapid growth. The allure of percentage growth caught my eye. I was envious of my friends who had started companies that grew “faster” than ours. But a couple of years in, I saw a number of those friends’ businesses fold.
What I didn’t realize was that the real key to sustained growth and health is repeated growth, not rapid growth. According to the Build Network, 72 percent of all new jobs created in the US since 2008 have been created by 1 percent of all companies. That 1 percent has a singular commonality: they have all grown year over year for five straight years. Repeated growth is the singular predictor for future growth.
It’s been a great five years. But I wish I had known these five things when I started the company. Anyone starting a business now would do well to pay attention to these five lessons.
About the Author
William Vanderbloemen is the author of Next: Pastoral Succession That Works and President/CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group, a for-profit startup that leads in executive search for churches, ministries, and faith-based organizations.