Do the hard stuff first. This is also known as “eating the frog.” If you tackle the hardest tasks in front of you first, you will have created an accomplishment, and that will make the rest of what you need to do seem easy. This is based on a quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So don’t procrastinate — eat the frog!
As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Jeff O’Hara, founder and CEO of PRA Business Events New Orleans (www.nolameetings.com), which produces business events, meetings and incentive travel programs.
Jeff O’Hara began his hospitality career in 1985, working part time while a student at Florida State University. His career has taken him to every corner of the hospitality industry — he has worked in luxury boutique hotels and 1,000 plus room “supertankers.” He has managed small restaurants and developed B&B’s. Jeff moved to New Orleans in 1992, and has made it his home ever since. Since leaving a corporate career, he has started 10 companies in hospitality and real estate. He is the owner of PRA Business Events New Orleans, a company that provides services to the Corporate Meeting and Incentive Travel sectors. His company has been named three times to the Inc.5000 Fastest Growing Private Companies in America and twice to the Seminole 100 list of fastest growing companies owned by Florida State University alumni.
He has backed numerous start ups as an Angel Investor, including firms in the fields of technology, biotech, hospitality, medical devices, consumer staples and alternative energy. He is an active member of the NOLA Angel Network where he serves on the Board of Directors, Lagniappe Angels where he serves on the Executive Committee, and Rockies Venture Club.
Jeff’s book “Have Fun, Fight Back and Keep the Party Going: Lessons from a New Orleans Entrepreneur’s Journey to the Inc. 5000” was released under Inc. magazine’s “An Inc. Original” label in December 2018.
A native of Kingston, NY, he received a BS in Hospitality Administration from Florida State University and an MBA from Tulane University.
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?
I started my post college career working for Sheraton Hotels, and always figured that I would have a long career working my way up the corporate ladder. As it turns out, I did not like the politics of a large company and liked being told what to do even less (should have seen this coming as I left home when I was 16). So, fed up with a new General Manager, I quit on the spot one day with no job prospects in front of me. Given the above, I quickly decided I would be better off starting my own business. Since 1997, I have founded 10 companies and worked my way through the previous economic crashes of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession — all of which were particularly hard on the hospitality industry.
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?
I always joke that I turned 30 and had a “mid life crisis”. I had been in the corporate world for 8 years and couldn’t take the politics, the idiots and the meetings that took up so much of my energy. We got a new General Manager that I really didn’t get along with, and one day I decided I had had enough and walked out with no plan. At that point my frame of mind became that I had to figure out how do this myself, because I could not go back to working for somebody else.
At the start of the journey, the middle of the journey, further in the journey — there have been many hard times. Owning a hospitality business in the wake of 9/11, Hurricane Katrina and the Great Recession (and now COVID (with the rest of that story still to unfold) crushed our industry and my business. I have been broke more times than I can count, negotiated with far more creditors than I can remember and taken on all kinds of clients that a sane person would avoid just to make it through.
But did I ever consider giving up? HELL, NO! Going back to my opening statement, once you decide that you can’t work for someone else, you have no choice but to figure it out.
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?
One of the businesses I started was developing a historic mansion in the Garden District of New Orleans into a small hotel. It had been previously owned by a woman known as the “Cat Lady of St. Charles Avenue”, and after she passed away her son had let it turn into basically a flophouse. So it needed a lot of work. Much more than we anticipated. And you could still smell the cats. By the time we got it open, we were a year behind schedule and a million dollars over budget. We were in a rush to get it open in time for Mardi Gras as the parades passed right in front of the property and I had sold out all of the rooms fully pre-paid. We were still painting when the first guests checked in on the Friday before Mardi Gras. All seemed fine over the weekend and everyone took the “just opened glitches” in stride while they enjoyed the festivities. That was until the morning of Fat Tuesday, Mardi Gras Day. It was then that the sewage starting backing up into the bathtubs in the guest rooms. I called every plumber in the book, all of them that advertised 24 hours/ 7 day a week service. After leaving about 10 messages, one plumber actually answered and he said “no chance” on Mardi Gras Day. At a loss, and with guests growing more impatient by the minute, I looked for the external sewage line, and found a drain under the building with a valve on it. I opened the valve and gallons of sewage poured out. I was suddenly ankle deep in it. BUT, the problem was fixed for the moment and everybody could go about their day (except me, who needed a serious cleaning!). All I could do was laugh at myself.
The lesson here is that we really should have had at least a week of a soft opening to work the kinks out, and pushed the contractors to make that deadline. That lesson applies to more in business than just contractors. From software launches to big client proposals, ALWAYS give yourself time to work the out the kinks in front of a friendly audience.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
There is a concept which I believe gets simultaneously overused and underused, as hard as that may be to grasp. Trust. In our example, my business is a service business. So people contract with us (as a third party) to provide services that they could conceivably source directly with our supplier. So why do they pay us to be part of the equation? They know we have the contacts, resources and operational expertise to ensure their events will execute perfectly. In short, they trust us to achieve their goals. Why do people pay 40% more for Advil than the generic brand that is right next it on the supermarket shelf? They trust that brand. Why do you choose one doctor over another? The list goes on. On the flip side so many companies push their offering from the product side without ever connecting and building the relationship with the customer to build that trust. Yet they throw it around with all kinds of slogans, “America’s most trusted brand”, etc without realizing that nobody trusts them.
Here is a story to illustrate: On April 20, 2010 the Deepwater Horizon oil platform exploded in the Gulf of Mexico, killing 11 people and unleashing the largest off shore oil spill in history. Shortly after this happened, I received a call from a client on a Sunday to say that she needed to set up a bus shuttle system at 7 AM the following morning to transport Coast Guard support that would be inbound to work on the disaster. I asked “How many people?” answer “I don’t know”. “Where are they going?” “I don’t know” “How long will it last?” “I don’t know”. Gotcha, I am on it. So I called my top transportation lead and my top bus company and told them what we needed to do. They asked me all the same questions and my response was the same “I don’t know”. No problem, we’ll make it happen. We started at 7 AM the following morning and the project went on 24/7 for 4 months, ultimately executing 110,000 moves all over the Gulf Coast. Why did this client call me on this Sunday? She trusted that we would be able to get it done. Why did a team of people and a fleet of buses show up with no information on 12 hours notice? They trusted that if I said it was needed, that it was.
You can’t create trust with a marketing slogan, it is developed by the culture that your company lives day in and day out.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
The hospitality industry and the events side of it in particular are tough careers. You have to have the right mettle and a lot of passion for it to succeed. There is a reason Event Coordinator regularly ranks in the top 5 most stressful jobs — right behind Active Military, Firefighter, Airline Pilot and Police. So it is the epitome of the old adage that you have to love what you do (it’s damn rewarding when you do it successfully, too). My advice is to always celebrate the successes when they hit, and never take yourself too seriously.
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?
Two words — Joe West. Joe spent 23 years in the Navy including serving in Viet Nam attached to a Marine Battalion, went on to a career running restaurants and then on to become a college professor and ultimately Dean of the Business School at FIU. This guy had more successful careers than entire neighborhoods. I met him when he was teaching at Florida State and we became lifelong friends. Joe was a storyteller (we have that in common, chalk it up to the Irish in us) and we spent thousands of hours telling stories over the years. But he had so many life experiences, even though he was telling you a story to make you laugh, there was always something to be learned in there too. Joe was tough as nails, suffered his whole life from blood cancer caused by Agent Orange in Viet Nam which left him in constant pain, but you would never know it. He passed away last year and is buried in Arlington National Cemetery. Every day something he said pops into my mind.
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 does a good job at whatever they offer, doesn’t make customers unhappy and generates a modest profit that keeps the doors open and pays the household bills of the owners. In the scheme of entrepreneurship it has to be considered a success by beating the odds and making a bit of money. But it is not particularly memorable most of the time. A “great” company has customers that love it, talk about it and are willing to pay more because they know the results will be top percentile. This company has passionate and empowered employees that love what they do and has margins that fuel growth and provide for its owners. It is memorable.
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 numbers inside and out. In the last year, three different companies that I invested in suddenly realized they were burning cash at an unsustainable rate. All three reported great quarterly metrics every quarter, but they didn’t realize they had a burn problem. There is no excuse for that catching owners by surprise. While operating at a loss is a normal part of a high growth company (and highly encouraged by Silicon Valley types), if you get caught at the edge of the cash cliff, the terms of new financing are harsh for you and your investors, if you can get it at all. The time to ensure a solid cash position is before you need it.
- Focus on your margins. A few years ago I read a great book called The 1% Windfall by Rafi Mohammed. Its simple premise is that if you improve your gross margin by one percent, you will increase your bottom line by twenty percent. Wow, that must be magic! A twenty-percent return just like that. And hey, a one-percent increase in gross margin seems achievable enough. It actually is just about as simple as that. Most businesses run about a five-percent net profit margin. Your fixed costs are, well, fixed, so by definition they stay the same regardless of your revenue level or gross margin. Any increase in gross margin therefore flows right to your bottom line. So if your typical net profit is five percent, an additional one percent is a twenty-percent increase in your net profit. Voilà!
We implemented this and focused on growing margins on the parts of our service that we added the most value to, and were actually able to grow 4%, not just 1.
3. The most valuable asset you have is time. It is the only thing that is not replaceable. I have been broke more times than I can count and came back. Lost everything I owned — twice. Lost loves, but new ones came along. The only thing you cannot get back once it is lost is time, so invest your time with the preciousness it deserves. Hold your schedule to this standard: The things you do should advance you toward your goals, be they personal or professional. And resist people who abuse your time.
4. Hire amazing people and empower them to make your customers love you. This is an age old concept (which many companies don’t even try to do regardless of its age….) but in this era is even harder to implement that you think. The younger generation has been raised in a way that everything has been done for them and all of the answers provided for them. So pushing them to think on their feet is a challenge, even when they are smart, motivated individuals. You have to put an emphasis on building their confidence to take initiative (and with initiative comes responsibility, another tough concept for the younger set). So you have to build their confidence to make decisions and think independently. They thank you for it after a while. Great leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders.
5. Do the hard stuff first. This is also known as “eating the frog.” If you tackle the hardest tasks in front of you first, you will have created an accomplishment, and that will make the rest of what you need to do seem easy. This is based on a quotation attributed to Mark Twain: “Eat a live frog first thing in the morning and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.” So don’t procrastinate — eat the frog!
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?
This is an interesting topic — a lot of what you see in the field is touchy feely stuff and companies doing initiatives so that the C-Suite folks can pat themselves on the back and say they are doing something. But on the ground they are really having little impact. The people closest to it see this and it has the opposite effect on morale and engagement. But somebody gets an award or a recognition and they put out a press release. How many companies brag about how much they recycle and then the stuff goes on a barge all the way to China to be processed and half of it ends up in the ocean anyway? The barge alone is exponentially worse for the environment than just putting the water bottles in the landfill.
That said, I think most people really do want a world that is a better place and are more engaged with a company that allows them to impact that. But it has to be something that really works.
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”?
I will admit, this has happened to me a couple of times. One answer is to bring new blood into the team to look at things in different ways and explore new opportunities. If the founder finds themselves at a standstill, likely the team does to a degree as well. Bringing in people with a new perspective can energize everyone.
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?
You can’t stop marketing. “Out of sight, out of mind’. Even when things are bad you have to maintain presence in the marketplace and that is not free. Although with all of the digital tools at our disposal now, it is a lot closer to free than it used to be. With that said, if times are tough for you, they are likely tough for your customers too. Badgering them to “throw you a bone” or inundating them with constant marketing messages is not going to endear you. They have their own problems. Be present but respectful, and be the one they want to come to when the times get good again (and they always get good again). But the bottom line is, marketing should only be cut right before you close the doors.
In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?
You are on stage 24 hours a day. Even in the darkest of times, you have to portray to your customers, your team and the marketplace that you are doing fantastic. If any of these groups lose faith in you, things will spiral down. People look at you and say “Wow, that guy is a success” and you are smiling and trying to figure out how to make payroll on Thursday. So a lot of this is internalized. You have to have the right kind of fortitude to thrive. Fortunately, most successful entrepreneurs have it.
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?
Years ago I took a look at where we were spending our time in the sales pipeline. I discovered that we were spending a disproportionate amount of time on clients that were not good prospects from a profitability and time investment standpoint. So I made a decision to say Thanks But No Thanks to that type of client. We then were able to focus on the customers that best fit the type of service we provide. So by reducing the amount of prospects in our pipeline, our conversion rate went up and we converted more of the right kind of customer.
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?
1) Hire great people 2) Create an environment in which they will thrive. Repeat those steps as you grow and never lose sight of it. Great people will make customers love your brand.
Be different. Every company has competitors the provide similar products or services. What makes your brand different? Do your customers know that? Do your customers talk about it? You have to find some things that truly make you different — things that customers will recognize and be willing to pay for — and be memorable in your delivery of those differentiators.
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?
You have to learn how to know your customer and what is important to them. 85% of business out there are product focused or at least product biased. Their efforts go into finding ways to fit customers into their box.
Rule #1: L-I-S-T-E-N. You can be better than 85% of the salespeople in the world by following this one simple step.
Your team spends exponentially more time with your customers than you do. You must ensure they have the skills, authority and resources to deliver amazing service, often on the fly.
What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.
It really depends on what type of product or service you offer. We are a high end B2B service provider, so our customers aren’t looking at the internet to find out about us, they are talking to their respected peers. But a slew of bogus reviews can put a small restaurant out of business.
I am not saying we don’t pay attention to it, and we have tools for monitoring it. But your level of effort should be in proportion to the potential damage.
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?
I am an active investor in start up companies, and as a result see hundreds of pitches a year from founders looking to raise money. The most common mistake is to be disproportionately focused on their product. You may have the best invention since sliced bread, but you have to prove that there is a sizeable enough market of customers that will actually pay for it. I regularly see companies that have spent years developing a product, but little or no time figuring out if the rest of the world thinks it is something worth paying for.
Another big one is underestimating the competition (I’ve done it myself). Everyone believes they have the secret sauce — and I hope they do think so or they shouldn’t be starting the company in the first place! — but you should take whatever you think of the competition and assume you are wrong by a factor of 10. At least. Competitors that look crappy to you for some reason have loyal customers that you can’t pry away nearly as easily as you think you should.
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. 🙂
Educating the masses on the beauty of the free market system.
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This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!