CEOs and entrepreneurs are under tremendous pressure to drive company growth even in tough markets and challenging economic conditions. Employees look to us for the strategies and guidance to tackle every obstacle and maintain momentum, and it can feel overwhelming. That’s especially true for entrepreneurs, who very often get so wrapped up in the novelty and disruptiveness of the product and the excitement of startup culture, they lose sight of what it takes to actually run a company.
I know, because it happened to me. Fresh out of undergrad, I was eager to start my own business. Everywhere around me there were entrepreneurs bursting on the scene with exciting products, poised to change the world. Because everyone was doing it, I assumed it must be easy. And I was dead wrong.
I failed early and fast when it became obvious that I didn’t know enough about how to manage all the moving parts. Despite my education, I really had no idea how business works. I didn’t understand the supply chain, how to determine what the customer wants, nor how to leverage a network. In fact, I didn’t even have a network.
So, I took a position at GE, and it was truly eye opening. I quickly saw the power in mid-market companies, how to leverage opportunities, and why you should never get complacent, especially in an established market. Having since led three growth companies that have disrupted established markets, here’s what I’ve learned from my early failure and subsequent success about what it takes to drive growth.
- Leverage relevancy. We’ve all heard of products or businesses that were ahead of their time—the market just wasn’t ready for disruption. But sometimes it takes capitalizing on a “moment.” When Bellami Hair founder Nikki Eslami launched her hair extensions brand, online influencers were just starting to burst onto the scene. After struggling for several years to market her products through Craigslist, Eslami jumped on the influencer trend, reaching out to offer free sets of her product in exchange for online reviews. That’s when the brand blew up, drawing attention from A-List celebrities like Kylie Jenner, Cardi B and Victoria Beckham. We’re exercising the same focus on relevancy right now at Leaf Home. With more than 38% of homes built before 1970, and the median age of homes in U.S. being 39 years old, fewer homeowners have the skills to perform the upkeep those aging homes desperately need. We’re filling that gap by delivering just-in-time upgrades and one-day renovations that meet busy homeowners’ budget and lifestyle needs.
- Innovate on Go to Market. In established markets, sometimes it’s not about having a revolutionary product, but instead how you go about marketing and distributing it. For example, Ray Kroc, the man who turned McDonald’s into a national household name brand, isn’t the founder of McDonald’s. But what he did do was create a franchise and real estate machine that put them on the map in literally every town across America and soon, around the world. Similarly, when Big Ass Fans came on the scene (as the HVLS Fan Company), most industrial fans were sold through distributors, rather than direct to market. But very soon, customers were calling the company to find out how to get “one of those big ass fans.” The company pivoted not only their GTM strategy to sell direct but also their brand, capitalizing on the buzz created by the market.
- Never feel entitled to growth. Too often when entrepreneurs experience that initial hit of success, they assume that trajectory will continue. That’s a huge mistake: remember that no matter what you’re doing, someone is always dreaming of a way to do it better. That means you have to stay focused, dynamic and close to the customer, and work hard to keep ahead of the pace. The hustle is never over. The moment your competition sees you relax, you’ve already lost.
- Be a true operator. Leadership can quickly become an animal all its own. Where you were once building a cool new product, now people are looking to you for insight, thought leadership or to make a statement. It’s easy to get caught up in being a figurehead where you talk about direction and strategy but never dig into the details. Yes, being a CEO means looking at the big picture, but you must also understand the processes that can help you achieve business goals. It’s essential to remain focused on aligning company strategy with investments, understanding customers’ needs and values, and innovating on even the smallest details.
As CEO, there are always going to be a lot of demands on your time and energy. But you can’t do it all, and knowing where to invest both is probably the single most important skill or capability to develop as a leader. Especially in established markets, figuring out what’s truly impactful versus going through the motions because it fits the role can make all the difference in driving the company forward.
Written by Jon Bostock.
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