My American Dream: Growing a Business

I was up for PR blog of the year and came in second to Gini Dietrich. Best thing that ever happened to me. It introduced me to this inspirational business dynamo who has become a great friend. You’re going to enjoy this gutsy Community Week guest  post as Gini explores the strain of moving from entrepreneur to business leader.

Ah…the American dream. We all want to work for ourselves, in some fashion. If we work for The Man, it’s to have autonomy to do what we think best for the company. If we work for ourselves, it’s to have work/life balance and the flexibility to come and go as we please. But the ultimate American dream is to grow a business so we can make a gazillion dollars and have all of the joys of balance, doing what we think is best, and flexibility. Right? Wrong.

Growing a business is hard work. It’s the hardest work you’ll ever do. A lot of us start businesses because we’re really good at our trade and because we see value in doing things differently, but can’t affect change working for The Man. What we don’t realize is that, once you decide to grow a business, you no longer are good at your trade – you must become good at being a company grower. You don’t realize that you now work for many people – employees, clients, partners, and vendors. You don’t work for yourself. And figuring out how to grow a business is not an easy thing, unless you have some crack idea (Facebook) that catches on despite your lack of business acumen.

For the rest of us, however, designing business growth is just that – a carefully calculated plan. And, if you’re a typical entrepreneur, calculation, attention to detail, and planning are not in your vocabulary. You’re great at the big picture, innovative ideas, and leading people toward the vision, but you’re terrible at process, procedures, managing, and standards.

Which brings me to a growing pain I am experiencing right now at Arment Dietrich: Creating process and holding people accountable to the bigger picture. It’s very uncomfortable and completely out of my capability…which means it’s hard work. Really hard work.

Deep down I know that I’ve gotten the business to the size I can get it alone. I also know that to create sustainable growth that isn’t totally reliant on me, there have to be some standards of work that create consistency. And I know people just need to know what the expectations are so they can reach (or, ideally, exceed) them.

So why is this so darn hard?

Sure, it’s easier for me to fix a situation when a client is upset. Sure, it’s easier for me to write a strategy brief than to spend time coaching my team. Sure, it’s easier for me to find a new client to make up for the gap in our budget forecast. So, then, why do we have staff? Why am I growing a business that is sustainable and not reliant on me? Oh yeah…because easier doesn’t mean better.

So here I go. I’m holding people accountable. I’m following a carefully designed process for our staff meetings, for individual meetings, and for client meetings. I’m communicating over and over and over and over and over again our vision. I’m realizing this isn’t about Gini Dietrich, but is about the business. I’m empowering people to follow their ideas through to the end. I’m being totally transparent about our financials so everyone has a stake in the game. And, together, we’re going to grow this thing into a force to be reckoned with…no matter how hard or uncomfortable it makes me. The comfort will come as I continue on my journey of turning from a great communicator to a better company grower.

Gini Dietrich is the founder and chief executive officer of Arment Dietrich, Inc., a firm that uses non-traditional marketing in a digital world.  The author of the award-winning Spin Sucks (@SpinSucks), Gini has delivered numerous keynotes, panel discussions, coaching sessions, and workshops across North America on the subject of using online technology in communication and marketing.

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  • Gini, Your dynamism and commitment to building AD is an inspiration.

    I know what you mean about having to move from personal responsibility for everything to helping your team to grow. It’s an incredibly difficult process and one that I’m only just beginning to experience as my own “virtual agency” starts to take its first steps.

    There will be victories and there will be set backs. But you’ll keep going forward if you believe.

  • Jon, you’re exactly right! As long as you know what you’re trying to achieve, and can clearly articulate it, the rewards overwhelm the set backs. I have to remind myself all the time that where we want to go cannot be romanticized in my head or, even when we get there, I won’t be happy.

  • Gini, I would say “working for the man” would not be so bad if “the man” happens to be someone with a vision and work ethic such as yourself!

    Killer post to kick of Monday morning! Rock on!

  • Gini,
    As an entrepreneur when do you know that it’s time to have a team rather than going it alone? There are so many things I’d like to do with my business, but I can only do so much solo. How do you balance the costs (time, energy, money, leadership challenges, etc.) with the benefits of having a team (and all that team can do for the business)? When do you know it is time to grow?

  • I’m in the process of realizing this now but there is only so much that you can do as a single person in your business. Making it grow all by yourself, though, is that much harder since there is just not enough time in the day.

    The hard part is finding people that you trust and have common goals with but, once you do that, it’s well worth it to give up some of the control you covet with your own business. The group effort is far greater than the sum of its parts.

  • Gini,

    It always great to get a glimpse inside your head. Whether it’s on Spin Sucks or your guest posts like this one. It’s kind of funny how we try so hard to get away from The Man and grow our own business, then one day you wake up and realize, “Wait, am I now, ‘The Man’?”.

    I’m in the beginning stages of the growing my own business process but it’s inspiring to see that it’s been done before and with energy and honesty it can be done correctly.

    Thanks for inspiring me today Gini.

  • I can really identify. Our company is in a similar position. When I worked for The Man, I always avoided going the management route, because I was always able to lead from below, set the vision for the team, and drive it most effectively as an individual contributor and mentor. Not an option when you own the business. Now, I have to step into management.

    I’m looking at it as a new way for me to grow–another set of skills to develop. Luckily, I have some partners with more experience managing than I, so I can use them as mentors! Good luck!

  • The hardest part? Learning that it doesn’t have to be done my way to be done right.

  • Gini, this is truly inspirational! I’ve been doing the “startup” thing for most of my career. The key to success as the CEO for a growing small company is two fold:
    1. Funding – you are solely responsible for securing sufficient funding (investment, cash flow and otherwise) to sustain the business.

    2. Hiring people good people who compliment your weaknesses and coaching them to succeed so they can be productive independantly without micro management.

    Thanks for sharing this!

  • Nathan: WOW! What a nice compliment. Thank you!!

    Mary Kaye: I knew it was time to hire when I couldn’t handle all of the work I wanted to do without dropping some balls. Having employees is a blessing and a curse. But I’ll let you in on a secret: The sooner you learn to delegate and focus on the vision, the more quickly you’ll be able to grow. It took me five years (yes, this until this year) to figure out to do that, do it effectively, and know what the vision is so I could focus.

    Johnny: I’ve come to realize, by myself, I can get the business to $3MM. Which would be great if that’s as big as we wanted to get. I agree that it’s hard to find the right people. At first you’ll hire your friends. Then people in the industry you really respect. Then you’ll become much more professional and hire based on skills, culture, and values.

    Joey: I still refuse to be The Man! I think what my team here would tell you, if asked, is that we’re extremely entrepreneurial, I hardly ever squash ideas, and people get to execute their ideas. Hopefully that continues to keep me away from that awful title!

    Neicole: You are SO LUCKY to have partners who can help you through the managing and leading learning curves. For entrepreneurs who don’t have that, I always recommend groups such as Vistage or Entrepreneurs’ Organization.

    Pamela: When I got married my mom said to me, “It doesn’t matter if he doesn’t make the bed the way you would make it, as long as he makes it.” She’s so right…and I follow that mantra through the business, too.

    Steve: Thanks for your tips! I’ve bootstrapped this business but it’s time to go look for outside funding and that has become my sole focus.

  • Gini- Thank you for this post. I actually am at this point now where if I take on a few more clients, I am at that crossroads of “do I hire” or do I turn business down. Quite frankly, both thoughts terrify me! I know that if I’m going to grow (no pun!!) that I’ll have to hire but as you know all too well, that’s a whole new ballgame.
    Thanks for a great post.. sometimes it helps to know you’re not alone!!

  • Kristen: It’s a super scary thing to hire people! My advice? Find someone you worked with in the past. Someone you had a great relationship with and already trust. Then you can figure out how to build from there by defining the company’s culture and values and interviewing for people who fit those and who believe in the vision. If you have a vision, know where you want to go, and can clearly articulate it, the people will come.

  • Gini, Thanks for sharing insights on your dream. Although we currently have 20 on staff at our agency in Atlanta, we have been larger and certainly much smaller and it’s never been easy at any level. I have a lot of respect for my clients that manage hundreds and tens of thousands. I can’t imagine and really don’t envy them. Like you, I am living my dream as a small business owner.

    Having owned my business with partners for 30 years, I can say it’s more exciting now than ever to envision and plan for growing the company. Through social media I have truly found my tribe. There are so many passionate and talented professionals I’ve met that I look forward to collaborating with that hardly any project scale is beyond our capacity.

    You are probably seeing the same thing. So many questions are asked about the ROI of social media and for me the most important return has been the tremendous talent now available and the opportunity for referrals and strategic partnerships.

    Good luck with the continued growth of your business and the ongoing realization of your American dream.

  • Billy, such a great anecdote here about how you’re using social media. We’re finding the exact, same thing! We don’t have to hire people immediately when we win a new piece of business…rather we can find people with the right expertise and “test” them out. In some cases it works really well and, in others, well…we’re glad we didn’t hire them!

  • Gini, What a great story. Your communicating your vision over and over and over… is absolutely crucial. When we are helping clients change their approach to managing their business, we liken that need to communicate over and over to pushing the Queen Mary away from the pier – you know it is moving but it is sure hard to see it move, and it requires a great deal of faith in yourself that it is, in fact, moving.

    I also totally agree that it is hard work to grow your business structurally. This is a bit like the “physician, heal thyself.” It sure seems easier to tell clients about the hard work they have to do than to practice that same level of planning, organization, expectations and vision on ourselves. Hey, we can take shortcuts that work, we’re the experts! Well, alas, that doesn’t work. There aren’t any shortcuts to growing a business the right way. Thanks for the reminder and encouragement!

  • Elizabeth Sosnow

    Superb post, Gini. Being a business leader is really an exercise in becoming a “follower” in many ways, as you point out above.

    It reminds me a bit of being a parent, actually. Before you have kids, you focus on what you’ll do with them, the “wrongs” from your own childhood that you’ll “right,” etc.

    Then you have a baby, and you are routinely reminded of how much growth you still need yourself.

    But those lessons (parent and business owner) are undoubtedly the most precious to me. Thank you for reminding me of that today.

  • Growing a business and managing a business does involve different skill sets ~ though there are foundational capacities necessary for both, being great at one does not preclude that you’ll be great at the other as well.

    Years ago I worked in the Human Resources Department for a National Retail/Wholesale Grocery Company. We had a Corporate arm to our business and also a Franchise program.

    The department/people responsible for growing the Franchise program tended to solicit individuals from the Corporate chain with exemplary performance in the grocery store. Financial ability to enter the program mattered too – but the thinking seemed to be that if you can keep the store clean, the shelves stocked, and your part-timers busy and even effectively so … then you’d be the perfect Franchise owner.

    This often did not roll out as anticipated though. These individuals soon discovered that showing up, turning on the lights and going about the daily tasks of grocery store operation was now shrouded in an overlay of the importance of complying with governmental legislation, which meant, of course, having to be aware of and fully comprehend said legislation.

    It meant that back door deals with suppliers of your choosing was no longer acceptable, which meant building relationships with Corporate Buyers, Warehousing Representatives and Company Truck Drivers. And then spending hours on the phone when said deliveries and orders did not show up as scheduled.

    It meant creating Health & Safety Committees, Training Employees, scheduling fairly and equitably, hiring fairly and equitably … in short, many of these owners did not appreciate all the key aspects that came with their new role as business owners, and some simply did not have the capacity or the interest to learn.

    You’re wise to solicit individuals to your team that will effectively manage aspects that would serve as barriers and hurdles to your passion and skill set. If you have to work at all, best that the contribution be meaningful and significant.

    @Elizabeth: you are so right about parenting. I have learned from personal experience that, over time, one of the greatest gifts a child will bring into your life is their ability to bring every hurt, every insecurity and every vulnerability you have ever stored within you – to the surface. And as you heal each one and become the best you that you can be ~ you are providing them a beautiful gift in return.

  • Wow, this blog and subsequent comentary has turned into a “Must Read” for anyone growing an early stage business! Congrats Gini!

  • Entrepreneurs, by nature, are doers. They are task-oriented and enjoy taking action. The risk is that they micromanage every aspect of the business and try to be involved in every decision. Their language is riddled with I, me, my instead of we, us, and team. Until they can leave the company for an entire month, they have not fully transitioned from employee to owner. The challenge isn’t process and procedure because the right people in the right place can accomplish this. The challenge is letting go.

  • Gini, I found this blog today that says it all. It’s a very concise outline of the reality for enterpreneurs.

  • George: Thank you! Great analogy about the Queen Mary. I always think about it as driving. I have a plan to get to a destination, but I have move the steering wheel, sometimes in large movements, sometimes slightly, to get there. And you are so right about not being able to take shortcuts. So. Right.

    Elizabeth, when I got married my mom said to me, “It doesn’t matter that he doesn’t make the bed the same way you do. What matters is he makes the bed.” I imagine that philosophy works with kids and it definitely works with employees.

    Sally, as usual, you provide great insight. My friend Carol Roth has a book coming out next year that you pretty much summed up. Our country is full of entrepreneurs, yet the majority fail. Why is that? Because of what you just described – taking your skill set and building a business out of them requires something most of us don’t consider. Thank you for the insight!

    Steve – you’re right about this becoming a must read for any entrepreneur! And thanks for the link, too. I’m saving that one to refer back to later.

    Mike – I learned early on that my team wasn’t “bought in” to client work because I was doing the networking, writing the proposals, closing the business, and then handing them the execution. I THOUGHT I was doing them a favor. I was VERY wrong. Letting go is exactly what everyone needs to learn to do.

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