What I’ve Learned in 20 Years of Owning a Business
Sue Kozak, CEO and Co-founder of MNJ Technologies shares business lessons learned over two decades of running a technology business.
Twenty years ago, my husband Paul and I decided that a failed house deal in Arizona was the sign we needed to start our own business. We came up with our company’s name, MNJ Technologies, over our dining room table, and worked together to build the business from the ground up. We’ve weathered difficult economic conditions and a global pandemic, and learned a lot along the way while still growing the business.
I don’t come from a business background: I studied to be a teacher in college before entering the world of technology sales. When we founded MNJ, Paul wanted me to be in charge, and he’s always been proud to say he works for me and that we run a woman-owned company, which was more of a novel concept back in 2002 than it is today. However, I’ve felt very welcomed in the technology industry as a female leader, and I hope to encourage more women and couples to embrace their entrepreneurial dreams.
Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned in my journey over 20 years with MNJ Tech:
- You have to take a risk.
- We take risks every day, on our customers, on accounts that could potentially become past due, and even on our employees. Risks can end up paying off, and you wouldn’t have known that if you hadn’t taken the risk in the first place.
- You can’t make everyone happy.
- This applies both internally and to your customers and partners. The sooner you can accept that, the more stress you’ll be able to avoid.
- A good reputation goes a long way.
- Maintain your personal and your company’s reputation, as you never know when you may fall on hard times and need to turn to other people.
- Be fiscally responsible.
- It’s critical to keep the business’ bottom line in mind. It may be hard at times, but you need to stick to your company budget and make smart fiscal decisions.
- Have good processes in place.
- I learned a lot from Paul about this, since he’s a process person. Establishing strong systems and processes will make your life much easier.
- Be a good listener.
- I’ve been a therapist as much as I’ve been anything else. Being able to listen to people and hear what they are saying will give you insights into how your business is doing and where you may have room for improvement.
- Be ready to pivot and change.
- It’s exhausting but we’ve done it for 20 years. It’s not like we’ve spent that whole time selling a single product. It’s like saying if you bought your phone yesterday, it’s already old– you need to be ready and able to pivot because technology is always changing.
- Hire smart people– or at least, people who are smarter than you are.
- This is super important to me. You want to make sure these people share the company’s vision, or that their vision is in alignment with the company’s vision, to ensure that they will feel fulfilled. Of the people who have come and gone over the years, many haven’t shared the same ideas and ideals, and I think that there needs to be some common ground between the company and employees so that people can work for an organization whose goals they believe in.
- Be honest and have good communication with people.
- People know that they can come talk to me or talk to Paul at any time. Being accessible to your team is important in keeping the lines of communication within your company open. Likewise, being honest with your team is essential to building and maintaining trust.
- Be sure to see the forest through the trees.
- This is one of my favorites. I can get focused on one thing and lose sight of the big picture, but it’s important to remember (or hire people to remind you) to keep your eyes on the prize when the little things get overwhelming.
- Don’t be afraid to ask questions.
- There’s really no such thing as a dumb question, especially if you’re in the early days, and asking questions is an excellent way to learn.
- Never too old to learn.
- You’re never too old to learn something new, and you can learn a lot from everyone around you.
- Be prepared to wear a lot of hats.
- This is especially important in the early days– you’ll have to step outside of your job description and take care of things that might not technically be your duties, but since there’s no one else who can, it falls on you. If you want people to respect what you're doing, or understand that you understand where they're coming from, I think you'll have to live a day in their shoes. I know how to do just about every role here as a result.
- The customer is everything.
- Without customers, your business will fail, so it’s important to maintain those relationships and take care of them as much as you can.
- Be thankful when things are good, and even when they’re not good.
- It’s the journey that’s important, and the personal growth you can achieve along the way is priceless. I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago.
- Learn how to hold people accountable and make sure everyone is carrying their own water.
- I don’t like being tough, but if your team isn’t being accountable and taking care of their tasks, then growing the company is going to be much harder than it already is.
- Do what has to be done.
- It’s not always a fun job, but part of being a leader is making tough decisions, even if you don’t want to be the bearer of bad news.
- Things happen for a reason.
- I’ve learned a lot over the years, and that’s taught me how to see people clearly. Even though we’ve made mistakes in the past, things happen for a reason and I wouldn’t change those decisions if I could, because I learned from them and they gave me valuable lessons.
- Relationships drive sales, not the other way around.
- Fostering good relationships will naturally lead to growth and increase in your business. Focusing on growing sales won’t necessarily produce strong relationships, which makes it easier for businesses to come and go over time.
- Promote work-life balance for your employees.
- This is a hot topic these days and for good reason. It’s important for everyone in the organization to have a good work-life balance, and if you model that behavior at the top, it’s more likely that the rest of your team will follow suit.
Overall, it’s been a memorable journey, and I wouldn’t change anything about it. At the end of the day, I’m surrounded by a positive group of good people who I can take care of, and that’s what’s most important to me.
About the author:
Sue Kozak is MNJ’s chief executive officer and co-founder. In conjunction with the president and COO, Sue is responsible for corporate growth, customer delight, employee engagement, and strategic initiatives. Sue plays a vital role in the culture development of MNJ. Sue passionately supports the advancement of women in the IT industry.