How a life plan charted the course of one company and its owner.
How a life plan charted the course of one company and its owner.
To all the world, Linda Yaniszewski's business looked wildly successful. The Rochester, N.Y., company she had started in 1989 to provide administrative support services primarily to the medical profession was growing faster than you can say "malpractice insurance." She had six employees, half a million in sales, and a roster of clients that seemed to multiply almost daily. It was the stuff that entrepreneurial dreams are made of, except for one thing. "I was miserable," she says.
Today, she operates a company and maintains a lifestyle that little resemble the ones that caused such anguish, all because of an act simple in retrospect: creating a life plan.
Ten years ago--a period Yaniszewski, 51, now describes as "a dark hole"--she had been working 80 hours a week without a salary and not spending nearly enough time with her three teenagers and her husband, Tom, 53. Her middle child, Scott, who is now 27, recalls that his mother routinely spent 12 to 13 hours a day at the office, including weekends. Even so, she did her best to maintain some semblance of a traditional family life. "I insisted that we eat dinner together," she says. "We'd eat at 9 when everyone else in the neighborhood ate at 6." Friends, who once called with invitations the time-strapped Yaniszewskis would inevitably decline, eventually stopped calling. "When Tom and I weren't working, we were sleeping," says Yaniszewski. Back then, Tom spent his days as a package designer at Kodak and his evenings as accountant for his wife's business, ExecuScribe. By 1997, both felt more like indentured servants than entrepreneurs.
So what went wrong? Overwhelmingly, business owners tell us that their primary motivation for starting a company is to control their own destinies. And yet a startling number of them end up like Linda Yaniszewski--with businesses that appear to control them. Yaniszewski, however, decided to do something about it. "There was so much compromise, and we really did the best we could," she recalls. "But we reached the point where it just wasn't good enough. I was 44, and I knew I didn't want to spend the next 30 years of my life like that." She can't point to one specific event that ultimately spurred her to seek help, but that's exactly what she did, with characteristic zeal. She hired a consultant to diagnose her business maladies and enrolled in an empowerment class at a leadership-training center to help clarify her life goals. She learned quickly, though, that if she truly wanted to restore sanity, her life plan and her business plan had to be far more intimately linked than she had ever imagined. Sound obvious? Maybe. But Yaniszewski had made the same assumption that traps so many entrepreneurs: If I work hard enough at my business, my personal life will fall into place.
According to Lanny Goodman, president of Albuquerque-based Management Technologies, that's backward thinking. Goodman makes a living teaching entrepreneurs like Yaniszewski that their businesses exist to serve their needs. Period. "Most of them have managed to build a good business, but they've lost their lives along the way," poses Goodman. And so he always begins his work by prompting clients to ask themselves four questions: What do I want out of life? How can the business help me accomplish that? What does the business need to look like? How do I get it to look like that? While Yaniszewski didn't work with Goodman, those questions are very familiar to her. For the past several years, she and her husband have been asking them at least once a year, and then recording their answers in a written document that informs nearly every aspect of their lives and the business.
Everyone mulls what they want out of life, but Yaniszewski learned that writing down life priorities accomplished two things. First, it gives those priorities more substance and ultimately holds your feet to the fire. It also may compel you to completely change the way you run your business. "Business is a design problem in a lot of respects," says Goodman. "And in any design process, you have to know what you want this thing to do and to really understand that deeply. Then the form falls out of that understanding." Yaniszewski discovered that ExecuScribe's "form" was completely at odds with her most treasured life goals. Tops on her list: spending more time with her family and less time at work, ratcheting up the family's lifestyle, paying herself a living wage, improving her health, traveling and entertaining more frequently, giving back to the community. All required time or money, and her business had robbed her of both for years. No more, she vowed, and made a radical decision: "If the business can't support these things, then we'll do something else."
Tom was her reality check. "Some of her goals were too extravagant," he says. He often thought her sales goals were too ambitious, and he worried that her determination to reach them would overtax the business. From a personal standpoint, he considered her passion for travel excessive. Indulging her wanderlust would have her on an airplane every weekend, while Tom would much prefer to be puttering around in his wood shop. Nonetheless, writing down both short- and long-term goals forced them to discuss and, ultimately, compromise on issues that may have become a source of conflict. "Being so different, we're forced into the middle ground," Tom says.
The next step for Yaniszewski was translating her "core values" into an action plan. She would strive to get dinner on the table by 7, which meant leaving work by 6, and she'd try to stop working on weekends. She also resolved that the family's annual summer vacation in the Adirondacks would be a real break. "Every other hour, she was checking voice mail, and we'd be yelling at her," recalls her daughter, Emily, who is now 21 and a sophomore at the University of Central Florida. Yaniszewski also pledged to exercise more and seek the advice of a nutritionist in order to lower her cholesterol and reduce or eliminate her dependence on diabetes medication. She wanted to more than double her income, and she was itching to move out of her 2,400-square-foot split-level home in the suburbs. It was, in fact, that last item that proved to be her most powerful motivator.
Yaniszewski has vivid memories of the first time she saw her dream house. She and Tom were out for a Sunday drive, casually exploring one of the Rochester area's more upscale and rural regions just north of the Finger Lakes. Linda spotted a "For Sale" sign and suggested they take a look just for fun. But when they approached the stately brick colonial framed by an expansive front lawn and surrounded by forest, she was completely smitten. "It was 4,200 square feet on two acres of woods, and there was a huge kitchen and great foyer, marble floors, and a spiral staircase," she recalls. At that point, she took a brief but significant break from reality and let her imagination run wild. She envisioned Emily on the staircase in a wedding dress, an 18-foot Christmas tree in the living room, and a string quartet playing in the foyer as a house full of fashionable guests sipped holiday cocktails. She saw herself drinking a glass of wine on the screened porch overlooking the back meadow. "You're dreaming," Tom told her. And she was, of course. Because the house would have tripled their mortgage payment, there was absolutely no way they could afford it. "But I never forgot about that house," says Yaniszewski, for whom it encompassed her dreams of a richer life.
When Yaniszewski first started her company, she offered clients a vast smorgasbord of administrative services: database management, telephone answering, resume writing, transcription--you name it, her staff did it. "We were trying to do everything for everyone and not doing anything really well," she recalls. It's a common dilemma. "Entrepreneurs tend to be highly reactive and opportunistic, which becomes more of a liability as the company grows," says Goodman. "They tend to be very sales-driven, and that's dangerous because it focuses on revenue instead of profitability." Indeed, Yaniszewski thrived on sales, often landing so many new clients that her tiny staff would beg her to slow down. "It was overwhelming because she would sell so many accounts," says Judy Debay, a transcriptionist who has been with ExecuScribe for 11 years. "You felt like you were doing so many things that your head would spin." Yaniszewski herself "couldn't understand how I could be working so many hours and making no money."
A little outside advice was extraordinarily revealing. "We needed someone to look at the business in a way that we couldn't," recalls Tom Yaniszewski. "And then the light bulb went off." For the bargain price of $2,500, a consultant taught them about core competencies, a concept that would radically change how Yaniszewski ran ExecuScribe. A routine financial analysis revealed that the company excelled at medical transcription work; it was the most profitable service that ExecuScribe offered and the one that generated the most referrals, which lowered the company's overall cost of sales. But transcription services represented only 20% of total revenue. So Yaniszewski took a deep breath and began to slash and burn, essentially "firing" 80% of her customers and eliminating 90% of her services over the next 90 days. It may sound extreme, but Yaniszewski was hewing to her life plan. Rebuilding her business to focus entirely on transcriptions seemed to be her best shot at earning the kind of money that would open the door to the lifestyle she coveted.
The temptation to immediately replace terminated clients with new ones was almost overwhelming. "Even with so much opportunity, we've got to focus on taking on one customer at a time," cautioned Tom. "Let's take on 10 and make it fly," countered Linda. "It's too aggressive," Tom warned. "You can't do it without straining our cash flow and the staff." To which his wife would offer her favorite response: "Just watch me." In the end they compromised, taking on more work than Tom felt comfortable with, but less than Linda would have liked.
In many ways, money was the easier part of the equation. Yaniszewski was a self-described workaholic and micromanager who thought she did everything better than everyone else. But those were exactly the characteristics that kept her tethered to her business. Arriving at home by 7 every night, taking a decent family vacation, not working on weekends--all required that she trust other people to get the job done.
She took her eight employees to an off-site meeting with a facilitator and shared her new vision for ExecuScribe, one in which she would loosen her grip and begin to rely more heavily on her staff. One left, one was fired, and the rest embraced the plan with relish, hoping that the company's new mission would reduce stress for everyone. "We gave permission for people to make mistakes, and that was huge," says Yaniszewski. "Our philosophy became 'try, fail, learn." She gradually began delegating responsibility to others. She gave up managing the night shift, which meant that she would no longer take calls from the company's off-site transcribers, who for the most part worked at home as independent contractors. And she abdicated client services to a new manager who attended to the day-to-day details while she focused on the things that she did best, sales and relationship-building. She created a quality assurance program and hired a trainer for new transcriptionists. Slowly, a new infrastructure began to take shape. Within 18 months, the company's revenue grew 450% and profits increased enough to allow Yaniszewski to add health insurance, plus 401(k), employee assistance, and bonus plans.
To a large extent, Yaniszewski was riding the wave of two powerful trends. In the medical field, greater concern about liability and a growing movement to outsource administrative functions were resulting in a burgeoning need for high-quality, fast, and reliable transcription of patient notes. Signing on new clients was like shooting fish in a barrel. But Yaniszewski had already suffered the terrible consequences of assuming that all customers are created equal. And so she devised a profile of her ideal customer. She wouldn't market to anyone looking for a low-cost provider because she wanted clients willing to pay for quality. Customers impressed by top-quality work were more likely to refer ExecuScribe to others, and more referrals meant lower cost of sales. The company's customers also had to be situated no more than two hours' drive from Rochester, so that Yaniszewski could meet with them face to face on short notice while remaining true to her commitment to spend more time with her family. Finally, they had to be technology-savvy because "we were sick of being everyone's tech guru," she says. By 2000, she had successfully separated the wheat from the chaff; 90% of her clients were large, private physician practices and hospitals who fit her profile; 90% of her business came from referrals. In pursuit of her life goals, she had learned how to become strategic in her business. And it paid off. Between 1997 and 2000, ExecuScribe's revenue grew from $302,000 to $1.3 million, its staff swelled from eight to 14 with 45 contractors, and Yaniszewski got the salary she wanted.
Life changed for the family during that time as well. Emily discovered the pleasure of "meeting for lunch, going shopping, or just hanging around the house on Sunday" with her mom. "She was trying her hardest for us to be a family instead of always working," she recalls. Scott, who in 1998 was finishing up college and playing on the baseball team in Spartanburg, S.C., notes that even though he was much farther from home, his mom attended more of his games than when he played as a high schooler in Rochester. "My parents would come down twice a month during the season to catch games," he recalls. And for their oldest son, Brian, Yaniszewski could finally begin to imagine a more independent life. A survivor of childhood brain cancer, Brian, now 29, had always lived at home. But part of Yaniszewski's ever-evolving life plan was to save enough money to buy a small house for her son; he moved in last December. Her only regret is that she didn't begin creating and following a life plan years ago, when her children were younger. "I think entrepreneurs just assume that the business should consume your life and that that's normal," she says. "I wish that I had stepped back sooner and thought of how I could change things to make it all work better."
As for Yaniszewski's goal to spend more time with her husband, the couple started seeing much more of each other in 1999, when Tom signed on full-time as ExecuScribe's CFO. It wasn't always a blissful partnership. "Our offices were right next to each other, and that was a disaster," Tom recalls. "She'd hear me on the phone then come into my office and say, 'Why did you do it that way?" He eventually moved down the hall. By their own admission, the two of them are complete opposites. He's detail-oriented, and her strength lies in envisioning the big picture. She's outgoing, while he's more private. She's a Democrat, and he's a Republican. And Tom's obsession with morning talk radio even compelled Linda to insist that they take separate cars to work. She drives her Mercedes C-Class and listens to classic rock while his Toyota Sequoia is tuned to Rush Limbaugh.
The drive to work is not as short as it used to be. By October 2000, the Yaniszewskis figured it was finally time to move out of their middle-class suburban neighborhood. The kids were grown, the business was booming, and a significantly higher mortgage payment seemed quite manageable. So with lingering memories of the house they had seen four years earlier, they put money down on a lot with the intention of replicating it from the ground up. On their way out to dinner to celebrate that major milestone, Yaniszewski saw an "Open House" sign pointing down a familiar road. They turned off the main road and held their breath, unsure of what to hope for. But when Yaniszewski saw prospective buyers eyeing the dream house that had served as a touchstone for so long, it was as if she was on autopilot. She boldly marched up to the realtor and declared, "You'll want to ask these people to leave my house now."
Here's the somewhat sticky thing about a life plan: You're never really finished with it until, well, you get the picture. Goals that were on the bottom of your list move to the top, some get tweaked, new ones get created, and some get crossed off altogether. You may even discover that some are at cross-purposes with one another. Which is why it's important to review it constantly, as the Yaniszewskis do--once a week for short-term goals and monthly for long-term ambitions. So where's the spontaneity, you might well ask? Doesn't excessive planning rob you of the ability to be impulsive and maybe even a little reckless once in a while? Yaniszewski insists that she isn't wedded to her plan. It's not a programmed flight pattern so much as a road map that allows for diversions. Besides, she remembers only too well what life was like without the plan. So does her son Scott.
"She used to tell us, 'If any of you decide to be an entrepreneur after seeing what I've gone through, you're crazy," he says. " Now, she doesn't understand why anyone would want to be anything else."
And the house? While Emily has yet to walk down the spiral staircase in a wedding gown, the Yaniszewskis just had their third annual Christmas party, complete with an 18-foot evergreen and a string quartet.
Donna Fenn is an Inc. contributing editor.
DONNA FENN is the author of Upstarts! How Gen-Y Entrepreneurs Are Rocking the World of Business and 8 Ways You Can Profit From Their Success, an exploration of the ways Gen Y is changing the entrepreneurial landscape.