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Unexpected Key to This Start-up's Success: Southwest Airlines

In's early days, the start-up made an unusual decision about how to grow: It went where Southwest flew. Here's why it worked.
Southwest Airlines -- Chip Conley

When you start a business, the list of what you don't have is endless: cash, customers, supplies, time...

So forget that. Flip it around and focus on what you do have.

That's the approach taken by founder Brian Fox and CEO Chris Schellhorn of, a cloud-based elecronic audit confirmation service.

"Basically," Brian says, "We made Southwest Airlines our corporate jet."

Here's how, in their words:

We put a premium on face-to-face meetings with prospective customers because that's the best way to start and build relationships. You can't read body language over the phone, it's much harder to establish rapport (and it's easier for people to say "no" on the phone).

Still, like any start-up, cash was in short supply so we needed to be prudent. Southwest almost always offered the lowest airfares, so we started targeting banks and accounting firms in locations where Southwest had a hub.  Fortunately our customers tend to be in larger cities, so as Southwest has expanded its destinations, we've grown with them.

The second-biggest travel expense is the cost of changing your travel plans. Smart entrepreneurs take meetings when they can get them, but paying $150 to change a $300 plane ticket is painful when you're bootstrapping. Using an airline that offered tremendous flexibility and no change fees made a huge difference.

Reliability was and is also important. On some airlines we would end up with a connecting flight on a commuter plane... and have our flight canceled. Getting bumped to a later flight was a disaster if we then missed the meeting. With Southwest, we knew that barring an extreme situation the flight would go and we would make our meeting.

In some cases it was actually less expensive for us to fly as close as we could get and then drive four or five hours. We'd drive across Wisconsin from Chicago if we had to. When you're a start-up time is important--but sometimes you have more time than cash. Sometimes your time isn't really that valuable when you compare it to the money you don't have.

So we started telling people Southwest was our corporate jet--because in many ways, it was.

Take a look at your business. Sure, you have challenges and roadblocks and hurdles. But what advantages--geographic, cultural, networking, labor force, access--can you tap?

It's a lot easier to do more with what you do have than to try to do something with what you don't have--yet.

Last updated: Feb 25, 2013

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of

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