Julie Traxler and Corey Harris of SB PACE: “Know your limits, and understand the priority of your undone tasks”

Know your limits, and understand the priority of your undone tasks. It’s simply not possible to get it all done on a day to day basis, but if you understand what MUST get done versus what you’d like to get done, you can operate much better in your business. And understand how important your physical […]

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Know your limits, and understand the priority of your undone tasks. It’s simply not possible to get it all done on a day to day basis, but if you understand what MUST get done versus what you’d like to get done, you can operate much better in your business. And understand how important your physical health is to your success as a business owner. The better you take care of yourself, the more energy and focus you’ll have for your business.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

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.

What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

Our aha moment was when complete strangers started calling us and asking us for help at the start of the pandemic. There was so much confusion and entrepreneurs and business owners needed guidance.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

Because both of us grew up in small business families and had strong work ethics instilled in us at young ages, we were probably always destined to be entrepreneurs. Both of us have been inspired by our moms, who played pivotal roles in our independence and our desire to help others succeed.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

The value our clients receive from our services. We have extremely competitive pricing, which makes it easy for small business owners and entrepreneurs (both aspiring and established) to work with us. But if you’ve been in business for more than a minute you know you can’t compete on price; that can’t be the differentiator. What sets SB PACE apart from other service providers in the market is our strong belief that it’s critical to teach our clients how to have a strong business and how to become self-sustaining. We are always working to fire ourselves, and in order to do that, our clients need to know what we know. We are happy to provide that education through a blend of consulting (do it for you), consult/coach (do it with you), and coaching (guide you on how to do it).

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

During 2020, almost 100% of the work we did was free. We didn’t charge small business owners while they were going through the hardest year of their business. We both had savings to help pull us through the year.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

  • Resilience — Our first year of business was filled with ideas that didn’t pan out, for a variety of reasons. We didn’t execute correctly, we took too long to get to market, and on occasion the idea wasn’t good. We reviewed each situation as it occurred, learned from them, and pushed forward. We didn’t let the losses deter us from our overarching goal.
  • Adaptability — As we’ve built out SB PACE we have learned from our mistakes, found areas that worked well and leaned into those. We didn’t stay committed to something simply because it was what we thought we should be doing. We adapted to meet the needs of small business owners and the market. You’ll find very different companies and business models if you were to compare our original business plan with who we are today.
  • Risk Taker — When we started SB PACE, we had a very intentional conversation about how we were going to approach the business. We committed to six months and then to reassess. At the six months mark, we weren’t even close to where we thought we would be, but we knew we were heading in the right direction, so we pushed our chips to the center of the table and kept building. It would have been easy to head back to corporate jobs, but we wouldn’t have been happy.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

This question makes us laugh out loud. Of course, we can. Early on with SB PACE we worked with a “marketing guru” (never work with gurus!) and she encouraged us to launch a program called Business Essentials Academy. The program was very good, but we were probably eight or nine months early on releasing a program like that. Building the program was easy, but selling it was another story entirely. We didn’t have brand recognition. Nobody outside of our direct networks knew who we were. We couldn’t sell the program, so we ended up giving it away to friends. Everyone who attended loved it, but we can’t help but think how much better it would have been had we waited until we knew more.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?

We got a little lucky when we started SB PACE in that we didn’t know it was supposed to be hard. We were having so much fun working long days, brainstorming, building, and doing this exciting thing. But our expectations were way off base for how quickly we would have revenue coming in the door. We estimate that during our first year we worked just about 6,000 hours. Yes, 6,000! Those are some long weeks, but there was no shortage of work, and we were moving quickly. We didn’t really find our groove until day 367, and on that day, we signed three clients in the same day. But getting to day 367 was grueling. There were a lot of lean months with no revenue. And we learned some valuable lessons along the way. We now know that support never comes from where you think it will come. And that’s okay, because that means you’re going to expand your network with like-minded people, which is what happened with us.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Because we both come from small business families, it made it easier to keep pushing forward. There were a lot of times when it would have been easier to quit, but because we both made the commitment neither of us wanted to let the other person down. We knew going in it wasn’t going to be easy, but we also knew that it would be worth it to have freedom and to build a business the way we wanted to build it and to have something that aligned with our values.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?

This is different for both of us.

Corey: I don’t pay attention to the highs or the lows. I know they are both going to happen. And even though I enjoy the wins, I don’t really celebrate them. On occasion I’ll celebrate them to make Julie happy, especially if it’s a big sale that she’s landed, but overall I don’t get too high or low.

Julie: I feel the highs and the lows. Every single one of them. There are times when I try to approach things with the mindset of “how would Corey react to this” because I know it’s without emotion. Another approach I use is to remind myself not to get comfortable with the wins, because I’ll lose my edge. And I remind myself that the losses aren’t permanent and find a lesson in them.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks for your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

We come from the school of thought that it’s always better to spend someone else’s money if you have the option, but it’s really a personal decision. There is a certain amount of pride that comes with bootstrapping, but it often comes with a long timeline to build the business to where you may want it to be. With few or no investors, you have complete control over your business, but you may lose out on networks or knowledge that investors can provide. There’s also the risk factor. Many people feel that bootstrapping is best because if they fail, they aren’t negatively affecting anyone but themselves. They would feel guilty for losing someone’s cash, but in theory, the investor has calculated the risk, and their return on their investment has been factored in. Don’t worry about letting other people down. They’re adults and can make their own decisions. Run your business the way that best fits your personality, brand, culture, and your vision for your business.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Start with a solid foundation. The foundation of your business is essential for long term growth and success. The foundation feels less important when you are first starting, because you just want to start your business. But the reality is, it is very challenging to successfully grow your business to a 7 or 8 figure business without a foundation. And that foundation is a key element to exiting your business for a substantial profit. So what do we mean by “solid foundation”? Well, it’s having a business plan that is regularly reviewed and updated. It’s core values, mission statement, and a value proposition. It’s understanding clearly who our ideal customer is and how you’re going to market to them.
  2. Be clear on how you will differentiate yourself. If you’re starting a new business you need to stand out from all the noise. And there is a lot of noise. When we started SB PACE, we assumed “if we build it, they will come” and nothing could be further from the truth. First, you have to be noticed. Just existing doesn’t mean you will be noticed. How are you different? It took us almost a year to learn to differentiate ourselves from our competition and then another four or five months before we found our stride. Being able to differentiate yourself in a noisy market is the difference between staying in business or closing your doors.
  3. Pay attention to the competition. Follow them on social media. Set Google alerts for news articles on them. Watch how they speak to your ideal customers. Understand their moves, and how quickly they pivot or adapt to changing markets. And you’re doing this not so you can copy them, but so you can beat them. If you copy them, you’ve missed step 2. But if you are paying attention you can learn how to beat them. You can identify what’s missing in their marketing strategy, and then you can capitalize on this. Early on with SB PACE we were so busy building that we didn’t pay much attention to what else was happening in the market. Seems crazy, and it was, but for the first nine or ten months it was fine. But then we started to look more closely at how competitors were doing things. We started asking questions about other people’s strategies. We spent more time learning and looking for the edge, and once we were able to find it, things started to take off.
  4. Understand basic financials. We can’t tell you how frequently we talk to small business owners who have no idea what their financial situation is. They don’t look at their numbers regularly, and even if they did, it wouldn’t matter. They don’t understand them and are afraid to admit they aren’t strong in this area. We had a client who learned 9 years into being open that his business was profitable. 9 YEARS! He had no idea if that business was adding to or draining his family’s bank account. We aren’t suggesting that every small business owner has to be a financial wizard, but you should know enough to understand how to read a profit and loss statement. You should understand what your industry averages are and how to calculate things like Cost of Goods. You need to regularly track and review your metrics. Managing by the numbers is the only way to ensure that you’ll be successful.
  5. Perform a SWOT Analysis. We have every one of our clients perform a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis as part of the process. While we consider this to be part of the business foundation, it stands on its own because it is so important to the success of your business. Our process for completing a SWOT Analysis is to not only identify items in every bucket, but to also define what each item listed is and then to create an action plan around the top five prioritized from each group. This action plan gives clients a clear path for how to improve their business simply by looking at things that they already know but don’t give much consideration. We have a client who is an accountant and we completed a SWOT with him. He took the action plan and immediately started executing and has made dramatic improvements in his business. And since your business evolves over time, we suggest performing a SWOT every 1–2 years.

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?

The most common mistakes that we’ve seen all revolve around not starting with a solid foundation or realistic plan for the first 12 to 18 months of business. Many of the entrepreneurs we work with get discouraged early on because sales aren’t through the roof when they open their doors. Sure, there is always an initial bump when you are officially “open for business”, but our experience has been that it’s rare for those numbers to continue if there hasn’t been significant work done before opening from a brand building and marketing perspective. We actively work to temper the expectations of new entrepreneurs. Yes, we want them to be ridiculously excited about what’s happening, but we also want them to understand that a slow start doesn’t mean a failed business. Building that foundation and plan will give you powerful tools to make decisions over the course of the first year as you work to build a successful business.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

Know your limits, and understand the priority of your undone tasks. It’s simply not possible to get it all done on a day to day basis, but if you understand what MUST get done versus what you’d like to get done, you can operate much better in your business. And understand how important your physical health is to your success as a business owner. The better you take care of yourself, the more energy and focus you’ll have for your business.

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. 🙂

We strongly believe in the freedom that comes with being an entrepreneur, with owning your own business and calling your own shots. At a time when it seems that there is less and less certainty, we would love to see even more people betting on themselves and starting businesses. Small businesses are the backbone of this country.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

There absolutely is. We each have a power list of people that we admire. For Corey it’s Adam Carolla. He embodies the spirit of SB PACE. He’s an entrepreneur who never stops hustling. He’s always working and he continues to innovate. He stands up for what he believes in and both of us love that about him. For Julie it’s Andy Frisella. Andy is the GOAT when it comes to persevering and coming out on the other side of adversity. The businesses he has built are strong and built on solid foundations.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

We’re everywhere. All of our links are at SBPACE.com, including our social handles, our podcast, and our blogs.

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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