Know your culture — We’ve already talked about how important culture is, but we want to iterate. Your culture defines everything about your business, and not having a defined culture means that you’re flying blind when it comes to hiring the right people to interact with your customers. We had one client say that his business didn’t have a culture, and that’s what his customers liked. He didn’t want his business to be political, and he chose to stay away from hot social topics. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we needed to remind him that having “no culture” was a culture in itself.
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Julie Traxler and Corey Harris.
Julie Traxler and Corey Harris founded SB PACE (Small Business Planning Advising Coaching Expertise), a boutique coaching and consulting firm focused exclusively on small businesses, in March of 2020. Julie and Corey have a combined 40 years of experience working with small business owners with 20 of those years focused on coaching and consulting. They both have deep experience in Acquisition Strategy, Operational Improvements, Exit Planning, Due Diligence, Integration, Change & Project Management, Marketing Strategies, Marketing Management, New Business Launches, and Growth Strategies.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
When the global pandemic hit in early 2020, we took it as the sign we had been waiting for. We both felt the call to action to help small business owners and entrepreneurs — the two groups of people that had been impacted harder than almost anyone else by the lockdowns and government mandates. SB PACE started as a passion project at a kitchen table as we both sat down and started calling on friends and family members that were small business owners to offer help.
Those phone calls quickly grew into complete strangers calling and asking us for advice. Small business owners were confused, scared, and filled with uncertainty. SB PACE was a calming voice in the midst of chaos. Those kitchen table conversations led us to write Seriously? Now What?! A Small Business Guide to Disaster Preparedness, which is now a best-selling book, and it eventually led to our biweekly podcast, BizQuik.
We have evolved SB PACE over time to focus more on helping aspiring entrepreneurs launch new businesses and helping existing small business owners with operation and growth strategies. While we have fine-tuned and perfected our approach for working with clients, one thing hasn’t changed: our passion for small business. We have held true to our core values of building relationships, never selling services our clients don’t need, working hard while having fun, and holding each other and our clients accountable.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We had no clue when we first started about how much time it would take to build our brand and our name. We are both confident in our knowledge, experience, and skills, but we didn’t know how hard it was going to be to become an “expert” that people in and outside of our network would recognize. We set a goal to work hard at business for 6 months and then reassess our situation. At that 6 month mark, we had little to no business and revenue, but we knew we were on to something. The problem was that we didn’t know what it was, but there was something. So we kept at it. We adapted and adjusted. We tried new things, and many of them failed. But we didn’t let our pride get in our way of building our brand.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?
We don’t know if this is funny, but it’s a “how dumb were we” moment. When we first started our podcast, we wanted it to be perfect. We regularly cut recording to re-record parts where someone said something dumb or got marble mouth. We spent so much time trying to make it great, that it came off as cold. It was rehearsed and impersonal. Our brand is very personal, and our first few months of recording were not on brand. What we learned was that people enjoy the human element of our business and doing business in general. We also learned that we had no idea what a successful podcast was when we first started because podcasting was brand new to us. We had to learn and grow along the way, and it was okay that we weren’t perfect. The only scripted part of our podcast is our outro, and that’s the part we consistently screw up. We’re okay with that.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are 100% committed to being an affordable resource to any small business owner, and we know that finding extra cash in the budget for a consultant is not easy to do. When we create proposals for our clients, it’s 100% based upon deliverables. We estimate our time and price it out accordingly. If it takes longer than expected, that’s on us. For things we aren’t experts at, we white label work with professionals in our network. So, if our graphic designer charges 500 dollars for a logo, we pass along that cost to the client without marking it up at all. We’ve had experts who are much bigger and better at consulting than us tell us that’s dumb, but adding an upcharge on work we didn’t do goes against our culture and core values.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
Don’t be afraid to ask for help. There’s a reason every civilization on this planet has learned the value of specializing. There are things you’re good at, and there are things you should pay people to do. At a point, you’re losing money by doing something yourself when you should be spending that time on what you’re an expert at.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
For Corey, it’s his mom. She always supported his decisions in life (assuming they weren’t illegal or immoral), and encouraged him to be his own person, be independent, and to never be afraid of trying something new. He was an independent child growing up, and he often had to learn things the hard way on his own. Many broken bones and scars are proof. As long as it wasn’t life threatening, she’d let him try. If he’d fail, she would be there to pick him up, knock the dirt off, and try again.
For Julie, it’s a mentor she met about 10 years ago. She always had the entrepreneurial drive, but wasn’t sure how to put the pieces together. Ernie, a smart, savvy, logical thinking business owner came along at a time when she most needed guidance. He saw things in her that she didn’t see in herself. He worked with her, taught her a lot of new skills, and pushed her to try new things. Ernie gave her the confidence to go out on her own. He allowed her to try and fail and then help her understand how to do things differently the next time.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?
A good company is on par with your expectations. It doesn’t disappoint, but it doesn’t excite you. And there’s nothing wrong with that on the surface. There are many consumers who are risk averse, and they spend their money on the sure thing. And there are many employees who think the same way. There are no surprises in their day to day, and their comfort is in knowing for certain their paycheck will clear every other week. The problem is that being “good” makes it easy to get lost in the sea of competition. A great company differentiates themselves. They go above and beyond with their customers providing services or knowledge or experiences that are in line with their brand but not necessarily something they sell. A great company has a culture that resonates with their target market. Great companies have advocates where good companies only have customers.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Know your culture — We’ve already talked about how important culture is, but we want to iterate. Your culture defines everything about your business, and not having a defined culture means that you’re flying blind when it comes to hiring the right people to interact with your customers. We had one client say that his business didn’t have a culture, and that’s what his customers liked. He didn’t want his business to be political, and he chose to stay away from hot social topics. There’s nothing wrong with that, but we needed to remind him that having “no culture” was a culture in itself.
- Create your Ideal Customer Avatar (ICA) — Someone once said something along the lines of “when you market to everyone, you sell to no one.” Many people go into business without knowing who it is that they’re selling to, and the ICA is a perfect way to define that. Your ideal customer avatar is that ONE person who you market to. We walked a client through this, and he kept answering our questions with “but anyone could buy this.” Yes. Anyone could purchase his services, but by the end he had an epiphany: “My Ideal Client is just like me!” Yes! He could sell to anyone, but he should have his branding, marketing, voice, etc. aligned with what he identifies with. Knowing your ICA makes it so much easier to make decisions in your business.
- Focus on working ON your business, not IN it — When you’re a small business owner, it’s easy to be short sighted. You have bills to pay and that new employee you just hired is a no show on their second day. On top of that, your main vendor gave you zero notice that they’re discontinuing something critical to your business. We get it. Being a small business owner is often being a “firefighter.” But if you get stuck in the details and never plan for the future, you won’t ever grow. We work with a physician who is adamant that he processes every insurance payment. At some point, an employee screwed it up, and he lost money, so he does it all himself now “to make sure it gets done correctly.” But is it worth his time? We say, “absolutely not!”
- Challenge yourself and your team — If you’re a small business owner, you’re likely the type of person who isn’t satisfied with the status quo. Everything needs to be bigger and better, and that should be a part of the business you grow. Challenge your team to be better, and if you’ve hired the right people, they will want to exceed your expectations. We’ve spoken with many people who are content with their corporate jobs because they only have to put in the bare minimum to stay employed. While that may work for them, it certainly doesn’t work in small businesses!
- Don’t let your ego get in your way — Business shouldn’t be about getting credit for what you’ve created or the status you have in your community. If you manage correctly, those come with the territory. Seeking fame and fortune will blind you to the basics of your business. One of our colleagues owns a restaurant, but most customers don’t even know he’s the owner when he’s in his store. He’s busy bussing tables and running the dish machine while his managers run the business. He’s trained them well and compensates appropriately. He doesn’t want the limelight because a successful business is more important.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?
Again, this goes back to your business’s culture. When someone talks of having a social impact, many will immediately think of some progressive or political topic that they may have opinions on, but they don’t want to associate with their business. It’s not that they’re ashamed, it’s that it has nothing to do with who or what they are. But there is likely something charitable or socially responsible that aligns with their brand and they feel strongly about. Picking that not only helps with your social proof as a brand, but it will likely help you build a stronger customer base with your target market.
We have a friend in our network who decided early in 2020 to donate 10% of all profits to a charity he feels very strongly about. He was a little nervous about giving up revenue during a global pandemic, but as it turns out, there was no need to worry. Prospective clients loved that he was focused on giving back, and as a result, it drove more business to him. And many of his clients made matching donations.
What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?
First, they need to be realistic. Year over year growth isn’t sustainable forever. They should evaluate where their business is, what their personal goals are, and if either is at risk. It’s possible that sustaining a successful business is enough for them. It’s also possible that they have become bored with their current industry and are accepting the status quo. If that’s the case, look to extensions of your industry or brand. Grow through acquisition. Challenge yourself. That’s one thing we all crave: a new challenge.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
Well, let’s contradict ourselves a bit from the previous question. It should be acceptable to accept the status quo because that means you’ll eventually start to slide. But if you don’t want to grow, you can always focus on internal improvement. This means analyzing your processes and looking for ways to increase profits or decrease costs. This is challenging your staff to find new ways to build the brand whether through expanding to new areas or growing your customer base. Empowering employees and rewarding them for improvements is a way to build loyalty and ensure that you’ll be strong enough to withstand the bad times.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
Where do we start? For the aspiring entrepreneur, it’s everything. Everything! No one can begin to explain how much work it takes to build your business, the amount of hours, or how unpopular you’ll find out that you are. It’s humbling, but it’s great that most entrepreneurs start there. We’ve launched many businesses, and that’s the piece of advice we’ve learned is that it will take time. But it’s worth it. That sense of accomplishment when the simple things like being able to pay your bills without looking at the bank account happen make it all worthwhile.
As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?
There are three points in a sale that everyone needs to remember. Pre, during, and post sale. Some businesses are getting people in the doors, and others are good at making it memorable. But to keep people, especially new people, coming through your doors, you need to sell them before they show up, at the time of sale, and then after they’ve left. Word of mouth is huge, and your reputation is a big part of new and repeat business. Focus on how you are different, remember to look at what customers buy, not what you sell (yes, they are different!) and work for relationships, not transactions.
Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?
Have we mentioned culture yet? Be genuine in who you are. People are quick to call BS on a brand that isn’t true to who they are, so define your culture and stick with it. Being consistent is just as important, so don’t make your marketing or social media engagements seem like an afterthought. Put some effort into regularly engaging with your audience. Last, don’t be afraid to fail. Your brand should be relatable, and humans fail all the time. If you try something and fail, assess, own it, and do it better next time.
Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?
Don’t forget that your customers are human, and we’ve lived in a digital world long enough to have a good idea when we’re getting personalized customer service or something robotic. One of our favorite things to do is to send WOW gifts to our clients. When we’re done with our engagement, we send them a personalized gift that shows that we know who they are. It’s a conversation piece. For brands that sell smaller price tag items, a handwritten note or some polite internet stalking to make a personalized comment on social media will work.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
They never see the holistic approach to building a business. New entrepreneurs will often focus on one or a few aspects of starting a new business and completely neglect other areas they know need attention. This could be because of a lack of knowledge or it’s something they don’t want to do. Regardless, they do something like focus on building a team instead of creating a viable product or vice versa. Skipping steps when starting a business will come back to bite you.
Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Stop and take a look around your world. With social media and the virtual world we live in, we’ve forgotten that there are humans on the other end of our communications. Before you hit “post” or “submit,” think about what that interaction would look like if you were face to face with the recipient. Would you be embarrassed? Would you get punched? Do they even care?
How can our readers further follow you online?
All of our social links and all the ways you can get in touch and learn more about us are on our website: sbpace.com.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!