$50,000. In debt.
It was 9 P.M., June 2008. I was sitting alone in the office, sweaty, exhausted, and worried. That sinking feeling in my stomach got worse as I calculated the bills my business owed. I had no one else I could turn to: My business partner left, and I had no employees.
Up till then, we were doing great, and the business was becoming increasingly profitable. But then the economy crashed, and our business was hit hard.
There was only one thought running through my mind, I have to make this work.
I started working 10-12 hour days, only stopping work close to midnight. Because I couldn't afford to hire, I ran a one-man-show: I took customer calls, fixed the trucks, dealt with taxes... I was basically the CEO, the executive, and the intern, all in one.
Between work and after work each day, I would also read tons of books and attend my Master's degree classes, so that I could expand my knowledge, and apply what I learnt to my business. All this hustling came with a downside: My then girlfriend left me, saying I was too focused on growing the business.
Thankfully, I started to see the light at the end of the tunnel. New business trickled in at first, then it surged, and it hasn't stopped ever since. I hired my first employee, my second, my third... 7 years later, I now have a $30 million home service business with over 170 employees in 9 states.
I'm grateful to have learnt a lot of lessons over the years, and that's why I share my experiences on publications like Inc. Hopefully, entrepreneurs like you can learn from my mistakes, and use these insights to grow your businesses faster. Here are the top three things that have helped me to achieve business success all this while:
1. Be an unscalable CEO
Yes, as the owner, you absolutely should focus on high level vision and strategies, and delegate as much as you can. But there's one thing I will never outsource, no matter how busy I am: conversations with my team. It might not seem like the most productive use of time...but let me tell you, if I can spend even 5 minutes talking to one employee, and getting them all excited about my company, and they go on to do great work for the rest of the week, it's more than worth it. By communicating your vision with your team on a personal level, you're empowering them to feel like they, and the work that they do, matter. That's why I have group lunches with my employees once in a while. And, I'm also planning to have conversations with 20 employees per week, until I speak with all 170+ employees in my company.
2. Have 100% integrity in business (not even 99%)
It's easy to make the quick buck, especially when times are tough. I get that. But in the long run, you lose. Because once you start slacking off, it's a slippery slope from there: just look at Enron, or more recently Theranos.
In my daily meetings with my staff, I always hammer this point home, as that's the compass which guides us in making decisions. That's also why we do a vigorous background check on potential hires, and why we don't hesitate to fire employees who steal. Our focus on providing the best services without cutting corners is why we get 60 percent of our business from referrals.
3. Aim for the moon, but plant the seeds
Dreaming big is great, but focusing on the fireworks alone is a recipe for disaster. Instead of scaling too quickly (which is the No. 1 cause of business death, by the way), take your time to grow.
Specifically, invest your time in "planting the seeds": Test a wide variety of strategies, and see which ones work best. before putting in the money and resources to ramp things up. This allows you to fail on a small scale, and gives you valuable information on how to fine-tune your strategies. For example, we are aiming to hit $100 million in revenue by 2020. But it'd be foolish to do a major roll-out in multiple markets, right off the bat. Instead, we focus what we know works (our core market), and at the same time, we run little experiments that help us predict the best markets to expand into.
Business can be easy. But doing the right things is what separates the best entrepreneurs from the rest. I have a long way to go, and I am excited to keep learning and growing.