We’ve been doing some bragging this year. It’s our 20th year in business. One of the best parts of celebrating this milestone is the great perspective it provides. Had I known when I started the business with my brother that we’d be doing it for two decades, I suppose we would have done a few things differently. So in no particular order, here are some lessons we’ve learned:
Don’t let great people go. We’ve lost some amazing employees over the years. Some were outside my control, but many weren’t. I should have been a much, much better boss. I put a happy customer ahead of a happy employee. It was based on a good intention but was poor execution, and short-sighted.
Don’t let bad employees stay. Sometimes we were afraid of the consequences and didn’t act quickly enough when we had a bad fit. Family-owned businesses are apparently notorious for “quick to hire, slow to fire” – we had our share of these, and the pain and aggravation could have been avoided.
There are good clients and there are not-so-good clients. Nothing shows your employees you truly value them like firing a bad client. I don’t like doing it, but I refuse to ever let a client abuse one of my employees. That’s MY job.
Patience wins out. We have waited years for a hostile client to leave a company so that we could win their business. We’ve waited years for the right employee to join us. Having a long term perspective really helps avoid unnecessary anxiety about timing. If not now, then later. It’s not the end of the world.
Great service is worth paying for. If a client refuses to work with you over a tiny difference in fee, they are doing you a favor by not hiring you.
Don’t cut corners. We had a sales tax audit by the board of equalization back in the early 90?s. My books were meticulously kept by a great employee named Theresa who was always accurate and careful in her handling of our materials. She could have cheated and not paid some tax, I suppose. But it would have created fines and embarrassment. So the audit was quick and painless and reminded me that it’s easier to do the right thing than to try to get away with the wrong thing.
Any company that values your service will pay you, and pay you promptly. A company that doesn’t pay you promptly doesn’t respect you.
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. The “dotcom years” were brutal for us, nearly 97% turnover in a 2 year period. But what it forced us to create was a company that could survive the loss of several key employees. And why we never, ever hope for that to happen, we don’t lie awake at night worrying about it. How did we do it? Decentralization of responsibility, heavy audit trail, emphasis on team service delivery, meticulous attention to process, and employing databases and systems instead of relying on preservation of knowledge through company “folklore”.
Owners should have distinct areas of responsibility. My brother and I fought like, well, siblings for the first 4 years of the business. Then we decided to manage separate aspects of the business, emphasizing results rather than stylistic differences. The last 16 years have been wonderful, and my relationship with my brother has never been better. He’s my best friend and I trust him 100% absolutely and completely. Having a business partner isn’t easy for many people, and most tell me they couldn’t fathom working with a sibling. We made it work, and it is one of my proudest achievements.
Don’t settle, don’t coast. Sitting back and doing things the “way we’ve always done it” could have done us in at several points along the way.
It doesn’t feel like a revolution when you’re in the middle of it – the dotcom craze did feel surreal, but many times we had been in the middle of a transformational period and not realized its significance. The first year of the iPod didn’t seem like a big deal, but it was the beginning of a revolution. Same thing with the iPad.
Jumping onto the latest trend isn’t always worthwhile: had we “bet the company” on CD-ROM’s, or Web Sites, Interactive Media, Digital Video, Social Media, Search Engine Optimization, we would likely have had to “pivot” several times, which can be tough on a business. We’ve remained consultative over time.
We still stand by 4 goals in what we do: have fun, help people, always be learning, make a profit. If you’re in a professional service and not maintaining all 4 of those goals at once, it’s hard to sustain it.
Spend the client’s money as though it were your own money.
In 1994 I asked one of my clients named Annie what they liked about our company. I expected it would be our fees, or perhaps our response time, or our service, or our technical competency. She answered very succinctly and it confused me to no end. She said “we like you”. I didn’t even think of that as a choice. They liked working with us, and so they kept working with us. That simple concept has been hard to scale, but it remains a key factor in what we do.
If you’re a client of ours and are reading this, thank you so much for helping us get here.
If you’re a former employee that I shouldn’t have let get away, I’m sorry you had to experience my management learning curve.
If you’re a current employee, you know how much I value you and appreciate your contributions. Special acknowledgement to David Brockman who I hired in 1992 and who I still work with today, thank you for your loyalty and for being a part of our business family these many years.
If you’re a prospective employee, visit www.mann.com/careers now!
And if you’re a future client of ours, let me know how we can help. I’m on Twitter @hmann