20 Lessons I Learned in 20 Years of Business

Things I Know Now But Wish I Knew Then…

In 1995 at the age of 19, I saw a demonstration of the Internet. A Rollins College student at the time, I watched a professor send an e-mail message (think green screen) to his colleague at Harvard and get an Matt Certoimmediate response. How did something travel from Winter Park, FL to Cambridge, MA and back that quickly? I was immediately mesmerized by what I saw.

As a student, I knew I wanted to build a career that involved technology and business. The Internet was that opportunity on a silver platter. The next thing I knew, I was starting a small business and running it in-between classes at school.

Fast forward 20 years into the future and a lot has happened and changed. Google, YouTube, Facebook, and a bunch of other things came along. Thankfully, the company has grown and is on the verge of even further growth. Looking back over the last 20 years, I wanted to share some lessons learned, most often through mistakes I made. If I could go back and tell myself a few things to save myself a little trouble, here is where I would start:

1. Family Matters

Starting and running a business is not for the faint of heart. You can’t do it alone. Over the years, I have relied a great deal on my family for support and encouragement. It’s important to remember to do the same for them as they pursue their own endeavors.    

2. Someone Must be Willing to Give you a Chance

Every entrepreneur has a few customers or backers who rolled the dice and gave them a shot. I was only 19 when I started the company, but I had a couple of customers who took a chance on me well before I had earned it. I am grateful to them to this day.

3. You Have Nothing Without Customers

Our clients drive us, motivate us, and make us better. As Peter Drucker says, “the purpose of a business is to create a customer.” If you can’t do that, you don’t have much of anything.

4. You Need Great Mentors

Over the years, I have leaned on person after person to show me the way regarding the conceptualization and running of a business. Fortunately, I’ve had a number of people willing to share their insights, ideas, and experiences with me and it’s meant the world.

5. You Must Develop Perseverance

In the course of doing anything for a long period of time, you must be willing to keep trying even when things aren’t going your way. Those periods of time will come and you must be able to see beyond them and keep trying to prevail regardless of the circumstances. No one can do this for you but you can endeavor to inspire others around you along the way.

6. Optimism is a Must

Along with dark skies, storm clouds, and everything else that’s bleak, running a business requires optimism.  You have to keep telling yourself that it’s always darkest before the dawn or, as Mumford & Sons puts it, “night has always pushed up day.”

7. A Great Team is Indispensable

Any company is only as good as its people, and I have been thankful to have had a chance to work with some great ones. In the end, our people are our most precious and cherished assets.

8. Culture Matters. Most.

Kelly Rogers Appreciation

The team celebrates Kelly Rogers’ 10th Anniversary

I used to think “corporate culture” was nothing more than a fluffy buzzword. I now know much differently. Having a great group of people is nothing without a joint understanding of how we are going to do what we do. You have to be intentional about–and model–the kind of company you are trying to build and the values you seek to perpetuate. As I read somewhere recently, your personal calling is not necessarily what you do, but how you choose to do it. With the right group of teammates, your company can be an expression of that calling.

9. You Must Put Character Above All Else When Hiring

There is an old adage that you should hire for character and attitude and train for skill. I have come to believe this implicitly. There’s nothing more detrimental to a company than someone who has talent but no ability to co-exist with others or to contribute to the firm’s culture. It can have a negative cascading effect if you’re not careful.

10. You Must Have a Great Leadership Team

I’ve definitely learned the value of having great co-leaders next to me. Running a business brings all sorts of challenges one’s way. And if you’re not careful, you can easily misinterpret a dilemma and make a myopic decision. Having other leaders around me has helped me to see situations through different lenses, gotten me out of my comfort zone, and ultimately helped me to make better decisions. You can’t do it alone. I am grateful for leaders on our team like Kelly Lafferman, Rich Wahl, and Kelly Rogers.

11. Pay Your Civic Rent

A company is a citizen.  It should give to its community through contributions, volunteerism, and sponsorships. The company should do this simply because it’s the right thing to do. You should look at this as a duty, not an optional undertaking. If you do this right, both the community and shareholders can benefit concurrently.

12. You Need Heroes and Role Models

There will be many people that you will never meet but will have great influence on you. You need great examples of people in the public eye or history to emulate as you develop your business. For me, those people have included Duke Basketball Coach Mike Krzyzewski for his approach to leadership, Apple Founder Steve Jobs for showing how business is really art, and basketball legend Larry Bird for exemplifying tenacity and determination.

13. You Should Travel a Bit

I’m not a person who has a ton of wanderlust, but getting out of town and away from things every once in a while gives you perspective that is impossible to get anywhere else but away from town. An occasional change of scenery is invaluable. While you’re there, it’s important to be open to inspiration from what you see. Things like the iconic Bixby Creek Bridge in Big Sur, Seattle’s Space Needle, or the Louvre in Paris remind you that anything is possible. When you come home, bring that spirit back to the company.

14. You Must Want to Compete

Business is a battle. Competition is always lurking, but it should not be feared. Competition is a great motivator, barometer, and ultimately makes business fun. You should embrace it. Every loss to a competitor is an opportunity to improve your company and every win over a competitor is reinforcement of what you do and how you do it.

15. Cultivate Great Relationships

In the end, your relationships with teammates, clients, and partners are paramount. A business can be viewed as a collection of relationships. You must invest in those and do the best you can at cultivating them through good times and bad.

16. Never Stop Learning

Business changes all the time. So does the world. You must continue to grow and develop your base of knowledge about the world through books, articles, speeches, and conferences. Over the years, I’ve relied on the marketing, management, and leadership teachings of people like Seth Godin, Rick Warren, Peter Drucker and Jim Collins. The more you learn, the more effective you are. As Warren Buffett says, “the best investment you can make is in yourself.”

17. Develop Your Faith

I personally believe that relying on a higher power to guide you is the only way to survive twenty years of business. For me, my Christian faith has guided me, strengthened me, stretched me, and ultimately taken me further than I could ever go on my own. Faith can also help you find purpose in every day of your business journey.

18. Team Up With Great Vendor Partners

You will need a great team of people outside the walls of your company to help you grow and develop. We have had the great fortune of having truly great partner organizations help us succeed. We owe a great debt of gratitude to firms like Tews Company, Vestal & Wiler, Shutts & Bowen, and CNL Commercial Real Estate for helping us thrive.

19. Do Your Best to Create a Great Place to Work

Your employees are both your present and your future. Help them, support them, and nurture them because it will help them, their families, and your customers. Thank them, encourage them, coach them, and give them as much coffee as they can drink!

20. Rinse and Repeat

Rinse and RepeatYour business can never stay in the same place for long. Change is a must, but you must watch each and every step. So, invent and then re-invent. It must never stop.

This list of business tips, tricks, do’s and don’ts really doesn’t have an end. If you have other practices or ideas that have meant something significant to you, please comment below. I’d love to learn from you. And for those of you who have been a part of our 20 year journey, I sincerely thank you.