Decision Vision Episode 83: Should I Grow My Company? – An Interview with Alicia Butler Pierre, Equilibria, Inc.
Most companies want growth, but as Alicia Butler Pierre discusses, there are numerous decision points around growth which must be addressed. Is your back office infrastructure prepared for growth? How did you handle the risks of unexpectedly rapid growth, such as Zoom experienced in 2020? Alicia and host Mike Blake discuss these questions and much more on this edition of “Decision Vision,” presented by Brady Ware & Company.
Alicia Butler Pierre, CEO, Equilibria, Inc.
Alicia Butler Pierre’s career in operations began over 20 years ago as a chemical engineer in several chemical plants and oil refineries in her native Louisiana. Her passion is in designing processes that help people, places and things flow more efficiently. Alicia is the founder and CEO of Equilibria, Inc., a 15-year-old operations management firm specializing in business infrastructure for fast-growing companies. Her company is currently the world’s largest and most comprehensive repository on business infrastructure for small businesses.
It is at Equilibria where she invented the Kasennu™ framework for business infrastructure and software by the same name. She has since successfully applied this framework in over 30 different industries and counting. Alicia has a B.S. in Chemical Engineering from Louisiana State University and an MBA from Tulane University.
Her ability to blend scientific, business, and mathematical methodologies to solve complex operational problems enables her to bring a unique, tactical, and realistic perspective to her clients, who have also included larger enterprises like The Coca-Cola Company, Lowe’s, and Shell Oil Company.
Alicia is also a certified Lean Six Sigma Black Belt and has produced over 350 articles, podcast episodes, case studies, videos, and white papers in the areas of business infrastructure, process improvement, and operational excellence. Combined, her content has over three quarters of a million views across various online platforms.
Alicia hosts the weekly Business Infrastructure: Curing Back Office Blues podcast which recently celebrated its 100th episode. She’s also the author of the 2x Amazon bestseller, Behind the Façade: How to Structure Company Operations for Sustainable Success. Committed to doing the right things the right way, Alicia’s mantra is “to leave it better than you found it.”
Connect with Alicia by visiting her website.
Michael Blake, Brady Ware & Company
Michael Blake is Host of the “Decision Vision” podcast series and a Director of Brady Ware & Company. Mike specializes in the valuation of intellectual property-driven firms, such as software firms, aerospace firms and professional services firms, most frequently in the capacity as a transaction advisor, helping clients obtain great outcomes from complex transaction opportunities. He is also a specialist in the appraisal of intellectual properties as stand-alone assets, such as software, trade secrets, and patents.
Mike has been a full-time business appraiser for 13 years with public accounting firms, boutique business appraisal firms, and an owner of his own firm. Prior to that, he spent 8 years in venture capital and investment banking, including transactions in the U.S., Israel, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
Brady Ware & Company
Brady Ware & Company is a regional full-service accounting and advisory firm which helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality. Brady Ware services clients nationally from its offices in Alpharetta, GA; Columbus and Dayton, OH; and Richmond, IN. The firm is growth minded, committed to the regions in which they operate, and most importantly, they make significant investments in their people and service offerings to meet the changing financial needs of those they are privileged to serve. The firm is dedicated to providing results that make a difference for its clients.
Decision Vision Podcast Series
“Decision Vision” is a podcast covering topics and issues facing small business owners and connecting them with solutions from leading experts. This series is presented by Brady Ware & Company. If you are a decision maker for a small business, we’d love to hear from you. Contact us at email@example.com and make sure to listen to every Thursday to the “Decision Vision” podcast.
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Intro: [00:00:01] Welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast series focusing on critical business decisions. Brought to you by Brady Ware & Company. Brady Ware is a regional full service accounting and advisory firm that helps businesses and entrepreneurs make visions a reality.
Mike Blake: [00:00:20] And welcome to Decision Vision, a podcast giving you, the listener, clear vision to make great decisions. In each episode, we discuss the process of decision making on a different topic from the business owner’s or executive’s perspective. We aren’t necessarily telling you what to do, but we can put you in a position to make an informed decision on your own and understand when you might need help along the way.
Mike Blake: [00:00:39] My name is Mike Blake and I’m your host for today’s program. I’m a director at Brady Ware & Company, a full service accounting firm based in Dayton, Ohio with offices in Dayton, Columbus, Ohio, Richmond, Indiana, and Alpharetta, Georgia. Brady Ware is sponsoring this podcast, which is being recorded in Atlanta for social distancing protocols. If you like this podcast, please subscribe on your favorite podcast aggregator. And please consider leaving a review of the podcast as well.
Mike Blake: [00:01:06] So, today’s topic is, should I grow my company? And, you know, as we record this episode on September 11, 2020, we’re still in the throes of this pandemic, social upheaval, murder hornet environment, where most of us have kind of taken the roundhouse punch. And we’ve been staggered and we’re kind of standing up as we start to adapt to to this new normal that we find ourselves in. And whether this new normal lasts a few more months until a vaccine is discovered or this is a new normal that is simply an adaptation that we’re going to have to live with as evolving creatures of nature we’re just going have to adjust to, we are starting to adapt to it.
Mike Blake: [00:02:04] And, you know, whether you have been substantially impacted from a business perspective by the pandemic and the environment, or whether that impact has been minor, or even the opposite, there are some businesses that have done extremely well during this time period. In fact, I was just reading in The New York Times yesterday a product that has enjoyed unprecedented growth has been guitars. I don’t know if that’s necessarily limited to electric, acoustic, hollow-body, Stratocaster, Les Paul, whatever. But, apparently, guitars all across the board have skyrocketed. And, I guess, what’s happening is that, now, with our are semi-forced quarantine is forcing all of us to get in touch with our brooding teenage hippie self and sitting on the front step and knocking out a few chords. And that’s all I know about guitars. I’m a keyboard player.
Mike Blake: [00:03:09] But even if you’re in a business that’s booming, you know, the conversation of growth is something that has to be on the table. And if you’re going to recover, chances are you did have to take two steps back to to save your business, frankly. But at some point, you want to recover, at least, back to where you were. And that means growth. It’s also worth knowing that there are many examples of companies that were born in recessions or that used recessions or even depressions as a platform for growth.
Mike Blake: [00:03:46] One thing I’m advising clients, prospects, people on the street who are afraid I’m going to infect them, I’m advising anybody who will listen long enough is, you know, there are opportunities here. Any time that there’s disruption, there’s opportunity. Any time that asset prices are low, which is definitionally a recession, there’s an opportunity for growth. There are people that are available that haven’t historically been available. There are companies that are available for acquisition. There are other assets for sale, intellectual properties, equipment that may not have been affordable a year ago. And if your business plan, if the market, if your balance sheet can support it, it is absolutely an appropriate time to think about growth. And indeed, if I predict that the companies that come out of this thing the strongest are going to be the ones that start to think about and act upon growth opportunities now, particularly, when it is counterintuitive.
Mike Blake: [00:04:49] And so, as we typically do, as we always do with our show, we’re bringing on a guest that is an expert on this topic that is going to help us kind of think through this process and help us understand how she thinks about growth, how she thinks her clients think about growth. And our guest today is Alicia Butler Pierre, who is founder and CEO of Equilibria, Inc., a global operations management firm specializing in designing business infrastructure and processes for fast growing small businesses.
Mike Blake: [00:05:17] Alicia is also a Six Sigma black belt. And I hear that term all the time. I have to ask her what that actually means. Maybe she’ll break up a board for us on the air. Alicia is also the author of Behind the Facade: How to Structure Company Operations for Sustainable Success. In which she demystifies the process of building a solid business infrastructure using narrative and storytelling to demonstrate how her proven method has enabled her clients to achieve measurable success. Alicia also hosts the Business Infrastructure Podcast, which airs live every Sunday at 9:00 a.m. So, there’s some courage. She actually goes live. We make sure we have a chance to edit or press the delete button. In the Business Infrastructure podcast, Alicia gives entrepreneurs access to the resources that boost bandwidth, increase capacity, and scale operations profitably.
Mike Blake: [00:06:06] She holds a Bachelor of Science in Chemical Engineering from Louisiana State University and an MBA from Tulane. Alicia’s content has received over a quarter of a million views on slideshare.net alone. Her ability to blend scientific business and mathematical methodologies to solve complex operational problems and able to bring unique, tactical and realistic perspective to her clients who have also included large enterprises like the Coca-Cola Company, Lowe’s, and Shell Oil Company. Now, you understand why I want her on the show. Definitely a woman after my own heart. Alicia loves traveling internationally and studying ancient civilizations. She lives in Georgia with her husband. Committed to doing the right thing is the right way. Her mantra is, to leave it better than you found it. Alicia, thank you for coming on the program.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:06:52] Wow, Mike. Thank you. What an intro. I’m honored.
Mike Blake: [00:06:56] Well, it’s your fault for doing so many things. I don’t do this stuff. I just report it, which — So, before I’m going to jump in, I’m going to ask you, what ancient civilizations are you a fan of?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:07:15] Oh, gosh. The ancient Chinese civilization. So, I’ve studied quite a bit about the terracotta army. I have actually worked on a restoration project in Luxor, Egypt. So, ancient Egyptian, the Olmec civilization, Maya, Inca, Sumerian. And, of course, I’ve studied about the Greeks and the Roman civilizations, obviously. But some that are lesser known. So, for example, there was a civilization in Angkor Wat, which is in Cambodia. So, there’s several ancient civilizations. And a guiding principle that I’ve learned from pretty much all of them is that there’s nothing new under the sun.
Mike Blake: [00:08:00] Well, I guess that is true. Mark Twain says that history doesn’t repeat itself, but it follows a definite pattern. And you’re right, you know, there’s a lot there. And, folks, I promise, we’ll get into talking about business, but we’re going to geek out about archaeology and anthropology for just a minute because I like it. I’ve been studying Viking and Old Norse civilizations. I’ve been teaching myself Swedish on Duolingo for about the last year-and-a-half or so. And it really is interesting. But I haven’t done digs. I haven’t been raising Viking ships or trying to find burnt out long houses and [inaudible] from under, anything like that. So, you’re really the Indiana Jones type rolling ball and everything else. I’m not.
Mike Blake: [00:08:47] But you really do learn that even, in my case, the period I’m studying is 1,000 to 1,500 years ago. Your periods are older than that. But even those those cultures that were technologically far less sophisticated than we were still had a philosophy, an understanding about life and existence that is still useful for us today. The tools changed but the people don’t.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:09:17] Absolutely.
Mike Blake: [00:09:21] So, now, let’s give our audience what they actually tuned in for. So, I got what I wanted in this. But let’s start with talking about growth. And why growth? Why do people seem to be obsessed with it? People are always writing about it. And to put it bluntly, if I have a company that’s already doing fine, you know, why take the risk of growing? What’s kind of your take on that?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:09:52] Well, Mike, the way I oftentimes describe growth – and this is how, honestly, I describe so many things, because we seem to live in a world of polarity. So, if we think of growth, what’s the opposite of growth? It’s death or decay. And so, people want to be associated with those who are growing, those who are successful, those who seem to be on the up and up and have exciting things going on. Even if you are stagnant in your business, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but just know that people, instinctively – it’s a part of human nature. I think, it’s just innate in us as human beings – we want to be associated with growth. Because growth is exciting. We’re showing an upwardly mobile path. It’s how we can attract even more customers.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:10:47] People, again, even as customers, we want to be associated with companies that are on the up and up. Not with those that are, “Oh, yeah. They’re pretty stagnant.” Or, “No, they haven’t been keeping up with the times.” We want to be affiliated and associated with companies that are doing revolutionary and very innovative things. So, that answers the piece about why growth. And I’m sorry, what was the second part of your question?
Mike Blake: [00:11:13] Well, it often engenders or, at least, growth is often associated with risk. And I think that’s the question. But to answer your question to me is, why take the risk?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:11:24] Why take the risk? If you are listening to this podcast right now and you do own a business, you’ve already taken a risk. Everything is a risk. It’s just a matter of what can you stomach. And for most people, they can’t stomach the idea of becoming an entrepreneur or investing in a small business, becoming a small business owner. So, we’re not talking to those people. We’re talking to those who have actually taken that risk and said, “You know what? I have a product or a service. I believe in myself. I believe in my capabilities. I’m going to build a business around this product and/or service. And I’m going to see how far I can take this.” From the moment you make that decision, Mike, every single thing that you do involves risk.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:12:14] Even if you don’t own a business. Any time you get in your car every morning or every day – excuse me – to make a run whether it’s – well, we’re in the pandemic right now so, so many people are more homebound than they would normally be. But just something as simple as getting outside every day and taking some mode of transportation, whether it be train, plane, automobile, that in it of itself is a risk.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:12:43] So, I think it’s your ability to stomach risk. And, obviously, some things are far more riskier than others. But at a certain point, if you really want to see your company grow, you obviously have to make the decisions that will support your ultimate vision for your company. And yes, that certainly involves risk. But again, almost every decision that you make in your business involves risk.
Mike Blake: [00:13:15] You know, you said something that I want to touch on because I think it’s an important point that the listeners to the show, I think, probably are entrepreneurial in some respect. And if you’re not an entrepreneur, that doesn’t make you a bad person. The world would be very chaotic if every single person tried to be an entrepreneur. We’d never get anything done, right? And one thing that’s unique about American society is we’re the only society I can name that elevates the entrepreneur to the status of folk hero. But if that’s not your bet, that’s okay. We need people that are risk takers. And we probably are people that we need to sort of hand risk off to and say, “Hey, I’m taking this risk.” You kind of figure out how to make it work.
Mike Blake: [00:14:06] So, let me ask this, there’s a widely held belief that a company can pursue either profit or growth. There’s sort of this choice that you can either be profitable or you can be growing. Do you believe in that choice?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:14:23] Why not have both? But I will say this, when you first make the conscious decision to start growing your company, it may very well adversely impact profitability. And here’s why. When we think of growth, that means an investment because I specialize in business infrastructure, which looks at your people, your processes, then your tools and technologies. Investing in growth means that you have made a conscious decision to also invest in more people, upgrading technologies, upgrading to different or new pieces of equipment or types of tools, as well as getting your processes and systems well-defined. Those require financial resources. So, that will show up as line items on your profit and loss statement. So, these are expenses and those expenses will also grow.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:15:19] So, initially, your bottom line may take a hit. But that’s in the immediate short term. The idea is that as you invest in those people, processes, and tools, and technologies that you will start to be able to handle the additional business that comes your way. And you will, in fact, achieve profitability. But just know that when you, again, make that conscious decision – and that often comes in the form of a strategic growth plan or strategy. And then, you have the specific tactics that are needed to implement that strategy. One of which, again, includes you have to have more people. That’s almost always, Mike, one of the very first decisions that people make, which talk about risk. That is a huge risk. Because what if you want to get it right? Especially, if a smaller company, even micro enterprises, those decisions are so critical and you almost can’t afford to get it wrong. You have to get it right because those first hires are so critical to whether or not your strategic growth plan will, in fact, be a success.
Mike Blake: [00:16:39] Yeah. And I imagine, really, it’s a matter of massive scale, right? If you’re a two-person firm, you find one person. If 33 percent of any company’s labor force under performs, I don’t care if you’re Coca-Cola or a three-person company, that company is going to be in trouble.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:16:56] Yes. Absolutely. Now, you just said something –
Mike Blake: [00:16:59] Because you can’t hide that [inaudible].
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:16:59] You just said something really important. And this is something else that I am on a crusade to educate people about. And that is, you mentioned the word scale. So many times people use those terms interchangeably. But, for me, they mean two different things. When I think of growth, I’m thinking of, usually, all of the marketing related activities that you’re going to drive more customers to your business, to your company, to your organization. When I talk about scale, scale is almost like hypergrowth. It’s growth to the 100th power. Scale is more so about the operations.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:17:43] So, Mike, if you make that appearance on a popular daytime TV show or you are featured on a very popular radio show and, all of a sudden, you have this influx of business coming your way, coming to your website, for example, do you have the operational capacity to meet that demand? And if you don’t, you’re in trouble. So, it’s one thing to talk about growth. It’s a totally different conversation to talk about scale.
Mike Blake: [00:18:15] And that actually segues very nice to the next question I want to ask, which is, in your opinion, is growth more often intentional or you kind of get dragged into it? And what I mean by that is – you know, I advise a lot of startups – that one of the ways you can recognize your startup has legs or not is you think about a Great Dane. And if you’re trying to walk that Great Dane and it just sits down in the middle of the sidewalk. And you pull, and you pull, and you pull, and it just sits there. It won’t budge. That’s a startup that’s got fundamental problems.
Mike Blake: [00:18:59] On the other hand, the startup where the Great Dane then takes off and rips your shoulder out of its socket and you’re chasing it down the street like it’s Marmaduke, basically. That’s a startup that you know has legs. But then, you are growing the startup. The startup is sort of growing you. Right?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:19:18] Yes. Yes.
Mike Blake: [00:19:18] And, I guess, it’s a long segue into the question of, is there a useful distinction as to whether or not growth is sort of driven by the entrepreneur? Or is growth, typically, sort of pulling you along for the ride and then your task is to figure out how to harness and organize it?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:19:41] I think it’s more of the latter, Mike. And I just had this conversation with someone just yesterday, a startup company. And I usually don’t talk to startups. And we can talk about that later if you’d like. But when you’re starting out, you know, the old school traditional thing that we were told was always make sure you have a business plan. And what’s funny and this is what I shared with these co-founders yesterday, I said, “It’s going to be really interesting if you’re still around five years from today to be able to look at where you are five years later compared to when you first started out going and pulling out that original business plan. And I can guarantee you, your business will probably look completely different.”
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:20:27] So, it’s important when you’re starting out to do that marketing research, because, obviously, you want to make sure that there’s a market for that Great Dane in the first place. That there actually will be demand. But what will almost always happen is, no matter how much research you do in advance, no matter how much you may validate the idea for your product or service, at the end of the day, it’s not until you actually get started. You’re out there marketing and promoting and really publicizing your product or your service. Ultimately, your customers will tell you what they really want.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:21:07] Well, I see this Great Dane, Mike. And you’re telling me that this Great Dane would be great to assist me with X. But I really want it to do Y. Now, the decision – getting back to Decision Vision – do you decide to continue going with the way you originally set out to start that business and how you originally intended to be able to facilitate the use of that Great Dane in your business? Or, do you pivot to support what people are telling you they really want? And that’s not something we’re always prepared for. Because we may have built our processes and systems and we’ve designed our business around the X concept. And then, all of a sudden, we have to pivot to Y. This is exactly what almost every business has had to go through in terms of this decision making process when it came to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:22:10] I’m sure you – I know I did – and, probably, everybody listening to this podcast right now, we started off January 1st, 2020 with these grand plans and this vision for how we were going to run things in our lives and our companies in 2020. And then, the shutdown happened. And everything, everything changed. So, you then have to decide, how can I pivot and still meet the needs and the demands of my customer base? So, yes, growth can be intentional. But you can also be pulled in a direction that you weren’t anticipating that could be brought on by something like a pandemic
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:23:01] Let’s think about the toilet tissue companies. Think about Clorox wipes. I read an article about Clorox, the Clorox company. This is a couple of weeks ago, an article that I read. And I don’t remember where exactly I read this article. But they said that they would not be able to level off the demand for – they would not be able to meet that demand until, probably, they project the year 2022. Now, this is a company that this product has been around for quite some time, Mike. But then, all of a sudden, this demand just escalated. And they had to scale their operations even more just to be able to meet that demand.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:23:47] And there’s certain things that you can do to try to taper off the demand just so that you can attempt to keep up. So, a common strategy that companies will use and this kind of ties into that law of supply and demand. As your demand starts to increase, if you aren’t able to supply that demand, then you might try to raise your prices. But in this kind of an environment, you can only go so far with that and you can only do that for so long before, eventually, you have to make the decision to scale your operations so that you can meet that demand.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:24:19] That was a very long answer. But I hope it kind of painted this picture of you can go in, you can start off with your strategic growth plans to where you plan out and intentionally plan to grow. But just know that there can be outside forces that you just cannot anticipate that may steer your company in a completely different direction. And, honestly, it’d be foolish to not listen to what the people are telling you they really want.
Mike Blake: [00:24:53] Well, that brings up a topic that I’m going to make sure we get done before the end of the year. I just need to find the right gas, which is, should I pivot? Because a lot of companies do pivot. And I agree with you, a lot of companies are either being forced to pivot to survive or they realize there are opportunities out there that are encouraging them to pivot. And that in itself is a massive company defining decision. And you’re right, pivot and growth actually can sort of be dancing partners.
Mike Blake: [00:25:25] And, actually, that answer does, again, nicely segue into the next question which is, can you effectively be forced into growth? Can you be forced into growth to keep a customer, to keep employees happy, to do something else? Maybe you wouldn’t necessarily want to grow, but you truly do either have to grow or you are going to grow or die. And you did sort of intimate this with the first question. But are there concrete examples where you’re kind of our box in the corner where you like it or not, you’re going to grow?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:26:08] I guess, for me, it’s so hard to fathom why someone would not want to grow their company. But let’s talk about that scenario. So, let’s say, if you produce bicycles. You have a company that makes bicycles. And you are able to land a distribution deal with your local Target or Wal-Mart. These are huge companies. And if they see that your product is doing well and, you know, maybe they agree to a distribution deal in just a few of their locations within the city where you may live. If it’s doing really well, they may then come back to you and say, “Mike, you know what? We like to expand this distribution deal outside of just the Atlanta market. We’d like to distribute this throughout the entire southeast.” Are you ready for that? Do you have the operational capacity to be able to handle that? Are you going to tell them no? Or do you tell them yes?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:27:15] And it does tie back to – and which is why I love the name of your podcast – it always goes back to the vision for your company. The reason why I think it’s so difficult for me to fathom why someone would not want to grow is because I think it might be more of a matter of your personal preference. As an entrepreneur, you may start your business saying, “You know what? I know I can start it. But I may not be the person to take it to the finish line.” Some people have that ability to recognize that within themselves, that they can manage it as long as it remains a small company. But as it grows to medium size and then, ultimately, into a much larger enterprise, they recognize that’s not their vision for themselves within their own company.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:28:01] An example that comes to mind really quickly is the owner of – excuse me – the creator of PowerPoint. The presentation software, the slide show software. There’s a documentary – oh, gosh. The name escapes me right now. But I can definitely get it to you in case you want to share it with your listeners – Something Ventured. That’s the name of the documentary, Something Ventured. And the creator of PowerPoint, they reached a point where they were approached by an organization that said, “Listen, we love this presentation software. It’s brand new to the market. No one else out there is doing it the way that you all are doing it. Let’s scale this thing.” And that creator said, “You know what? I knew at that point, this would have the ability to impact the world, the way business is conducted around the world. I know I don’t have the skills to lead a company that large. And I’m going to gracefully bow out and and work with some investors to bring in someone who does have that skill set.”
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:29:18] So, I think, Mike, maybe the other point to make here is that, sometimes you have to just accept that your company and the vision for your company is bigger than just you. If you have something that truly can positively impact mankind in a positive way, what right do you have, honestly, to prevent or to stagnate its growth? Why would you do that to your company?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:29:49] So, a lot of times, as entrepreneurs, we have our egos. And our egos can get bruised. But at the end of the day, you have to recognize through a period of self-reflection – or process of self-reflection, rather, am I causing more harm than good for my company?
Mike Blake: [00:30:10] And maybe at that point, you’re really forced to then choose to define your company, too. Because while I think your point is well taken, I do think there are also companies that – you know, there are lifestyle businesses. And the company grows, they lose that lifestyle. They don’t want to do the company anymore. Etsy, I think, is a great example. I think you see a lot of companies on, say, Etsy, where they make their crafts, their garden gnomes, or quilts, or whatever it is else they sell on Etsy. But they don’t have the inclination to manufacture 10,000 quilts a month. They like to sell one a month. And maybe that’s when they realized it’s just a money making hobby. And then, what you’re doing is, I think, you’re really choosing to say, “This is effectively a moneymaking hobby. Not really a business per se.”
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:31:07] Great point. Does your company remain a sole proprietorship or does it eventually become a corporation?
Mike Blake: [00:31:17] So, let me ask you this, and this may be a blatantly unfair question but I’m going to ask it anyway because I know you can take it. And that is, have you been presented with opportunities to grow in the past that you decided not to pursue?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:31:30] Yes.
Mike Blake: [00:31:30] Or, maybe one you thought you might not pursue. And you talked about one of those and what your thought processes were. Why did you decide not to pursue that particular opportunity?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:31:47] The opportunity to work with much larger corporations exclusively has always been on the table. But my preference, my vision for this company, is to put small business operations on the map. To put business infrastructure on the map. Because I’ve talked to too many entrepreneurs, small business owners, over the past 15 years to know that there’s definitely a need. They just don’t know that it exists. And that’s been the challenge for me, personally, with my company is just getting small business owners to understand why the heck they even need processes and systems in the first place. Whereas, the larger corporations, the Delta Airlines and UPSs of the world, they already understand the value of processes and business infrastructure and systems.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:32:44] So, that has always been on the table. And I do work on contracts from time to time with those types of companies. But it is not a work of business or a body of business that I personally go after. So, if I do get involved with a project, let’s say, I’ve done, for example, quite a bit of work with Coca-Cola. I have never approached them as a vendor directly. My relationships have always been through another third party who’s helped to facilitate that introduction.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:33:19] And another part of it, Mike, honestly, is because it’s a pretty tedious, long sales cycle when you’re dealing with these much larger organizations. First of all, you have to get into their vendor databases. And, honestly, it is all relationship based as everything is in business. But, especially, when you’re doing business at that level, also in the government sector, it’s all relationship based. And you may develop a book of business and actually start to grow your business around that one government or one large corporate client. And all it takes is for your primary point of contact to retire, to be promoted to another area of the company, for whatever reason decide, “You know what? I have another opportunity to go work somewhere else.” Now, all of a sudden, you’ve lost that relationship and, potentially, that entire contract that you’ve built your business around.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:34:24] And I see this happen often with so many small businesses. They get that one big contract. They grow their business around that contract to meet the needs. Kind of like going back to that bicycle example we were talking about. There’s danger in putting all of your eggs in one basket. So, just as personal financial planners always tell us, to diversify our portfolio. As small businesses, we also need to diversify our client portfolio and not have all of our eggs in one basket.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:34:59] So, for me, the way my business looks on the inside from a client portfolio perspective, the majority of the work is geared toward small businesses. But even fast growing small businesses, I don’t even focus exclusively on one market or one industry. It’s, are you a fast growing business? That’s pretty much it, which would probably make most marketers cringe. But that’s what’s worked for me and for the way we’ve been growing Equilibria. Now, that does also include I don’t shut the door completely on working, you know, with a nonprofit organization, some type of government entity, whether it be at the state, local, or federal level, as well as the large enterprises.
Mike Blake: [00:35:55] Now, I’d like to then go on the flip side. What is a growth initiative that either you’ve done or you’ve helped a client undertake? And can you walk through the anatomy of making the decision to go ahead and pull the trigger on that growth initiative? What were the biggest concerns? How did you work through them and how how did it turn out?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:36:19] One company that I worked with – and, you know, I’m going to try to speak as anonymously as I possibly can without revealing too much about them. This is actually an example with a very large organization, a global company. And they are in the insurance space. And they were making a decision. And this ties in, actually, to a previous question that you had, Mike, about whether or not to grow via acquisition. They were courting another company that was in a different line of business, but certainly could tie, you know, in terms of diversifying their different revenue streams. It certainly would provide another boost to their bottom line.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:37:11] And so, they started courting this company and they hired another very large consulting firm to come in and do a five year strategic growth plan. And I worked with them in helping to coordinate and really think about, on the back end, who are the people, what are the processes, and what types of technology upgrades have to be taken into consideration in order to make this acquisition possible? So, whereas, the consultants were doing the market research to understand how large is this market? What could this add to top line revenue? I was approaching it from a perspective of, “Okay. If you do make this acquisition operationally from a back office perspective, this is what would need to take place. And these are the associated costs that you would be looking at. But you can definitely achieve economies of scale by making this acquisition.”
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:38:20] Long story short, they presented this five year strategic plan to the board. It was approved. They acquired the company. And they have been doing fairly well as a result of this acquisition. It takes time though, because when you’re merging two different companies together, you have two different cultures. You have two different target markets. Even though they figured out a way to cross-sell across these two companies, it took some coaching and a significant amount of education on both sides to educate customers on the acquired company, of the benefits of this merger, as well as companies on the company that was actually making the acquisition.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:39:13] So, I would say, it really did take about three to five years for that acquisition for all of the kinks to be worked out of that particular acquisition. But it has certainly been profitable. But I think the key is conducting that research and going into it with an appreciation upfront of what it will take from, again, a back office business infrastructure perspective to really make it happen.
Mike Blake: [00:00:00] So, Alicia, a question I want to make sure we get to also is, do you have a view on opportunistic growth and how you handle that? And what I mean by that is – and I’m sure you’ve encountered this – is sometimes you’re doing your thing, literally, minding your own business. And then, suddenly, wham. There’s an opportunity to grow the business in a way that you didn’t expect. It could be a new resource becomes available. It could be an acquisition. It could be a big customer you weren’t expecting asked you to bid or to make a proposal.
Mike Blake: [00:00:33] And so, my question there is, can you be prepared for that? Are there some things you can build into your business processes to make sure that you are prepared for it? Or, are those opportunities kind of dangerous because you’re not prepared for them? And, therefore, maybe you should look at them with a lot of skepticism because they could be a trap. And they don’t give you the kind of warning and kind of smooth process to work through in terms of evaluating those opportunities.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:01:09] That’s a great question. And one of the first things that comes to mind is, you know, being that this is the Decision Vision podcast, is coming up with some type of an evaluation checklist. I remember years ago I downloaded this bid/no bid checklist from Microsoft Office’s website for templates. And I used to use that, honestly, to evaluate different opportunities because, just as there’s no shortage of ideas, there’s no shortage of opportunities that can come your way.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:01:46] But to give a more personal, very recent example, Mike, because of everything that’s going on with the pandemic, I have long wanted to move to 100 percent remote operations. Doing that primarily through the use of software. But what’s happened pre-COVID-19, whenever I would try to bring up this subject or the idea of, “Hey, you know, can we just do these sessions remotely if it’s a consulting engagement?” And I would say about 90 percent of the time the client would say no. They would insist on meeting in person. Well, now we’re at a point where that isn’t always an option anymore, the ability to to meet in person. And so, this actually opened the door to exploring this idea of actually developing software.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:02:41] And so, quietly, I haven’t been saying much. I’m revealing it, honestly, for the first time publicly right here on your podcast. But that’s something that my team and I have been working on in the background ever since the shutdown started earlier this year. And we’re hoping to release it – we’ll definitely have a prototype released by the end of this month, September 2020. And if all goes well and there does appear to be a sizable demand in the market for it, we’ll definitely plan to have a more full, complete rollout, hopefully, by the end of the year.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:03:16] But that is a very classic example of opportunistic growth. If you had asked me if I would have pursued that or I could just tell you right now that was not even on the radar or within the realm of possibilities for 2020 as January rolled around. And we’re all kind of making out our plans and we have our strategic goals and the different tactics that we’re going to put in place to implement those goals and those strategies. That was not a part of it at all. But because I had always kind of had this one thing, this idea of software and remote operations on the back burner all along, it just literally accelerated that effort.
Mike Blake: [00:04:06] Well, first of all, thank you. This is a worldwide exclusive reveal here on a new product introduction, so thank you for the scoop. We do appreciate that.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:04:16] This is an exclusive.
Mike Blake: [00:04:18] I’ll include you in my acceptance remarks on the Pulitzer Prize. You know, it’s interesting, I think there are a lot of companies that feel like they’re kind of backed into a corner. And this is sort of a hybrid topic here on both gross and kind of pivoting. And pivoting as a show, as I mentioned before, is something we’re going to do, I hope, sooner rather than later.
Mike Blake: [00:04:43] But, yeah, I mean, this environment we find ourselves in, like it or not, is shoving opportunities in some cases down our throats. And what was it about you, your team, your organization that gave you the confidence kind of to them go along with that? Because you could have simply walked away. You could have simply said, “No. This isn’t what we do. We’re not ready. We can’t handle it.” But you obviously made the opposite decision. What was it about you and what you have going on that made you say yes?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:05:23] Just seeing the direction in which everything else was moving around us, and not just within the local community, but the world at large. It’s the direction that everything is going in or going toward. Everything from education and just looking at the different trends from very large companies. I remember Twitter, Coca-Cola, many of these companies are saying, “You know what? We’re going to work remotely for the remainder of 2020.” Some companies have even said, “We’re going to remain remote even when things do – ” I don’t know if there ever will be another going back to normal. But whenever we get to, I guess, a better sense of normalcy or something that’s close to what we used to think of as being normal. Many companies have already made that decision. This is the direction that we’re headed in.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:06:18] And I think with technologies like Zoom, what’s been very interesting, Mike, as you and I both know, Zoom has been out for many years. I know I’ve definitely been using Zoom for, at least, the past six to seven years. But think about what has happened with that company alone as a result of the pandemic. All companies now, and not just companies, you have all kinds of organizations. I’ve even taken some exercise classes via Zoom.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:06:47] But the reason I bring them up is because, again, going back to your original question of opportunistic growth and knowing whether or not to take advantage, or even explore, or take seriously certain opportunities that are presented to you, I really do think it’s a good exercise to go through some type of a checklist to help you evaluate each of these opportunities as they are presented to you. And in true fashion to the title of this podcast, Decision Vision, as you go through that decision making process by answering the questions on a checklist, at the end of the day, do the answers to your questions and the ultimate decision that you make as to whether or not to pursue a particular opportunity, does it speak to the vision that you have for your company? And if the answer is no, then, obviously, you don’t pursue it.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:07:46] Another approach to take is, when you’re going through that evaluation process to come up with some type of a scoring system. And based on what that final score is after you go through that evaluation process, and answer different questions, and maybe score the answer to each question, if it’s below a certain threshold, that might mean you’ll make one decision. And then, if it’s above a certain number that you’ve identified, that might mean you make a different decision. But I think, obviously, you have to have some type of mechanism in place to assist you in that decision making process.
Mike Blake: [00:08:28] Now, you bring up Zoom, which is a fascinating case study. I’m not sure if one company has benefited more from the pandemic than Zoom. And like you, I’ve used it for about five years or so. But Zoom really was the dog that caught the car, didn’t they? And, really, there’s a case study of what can happen with, you know, growth is great. Right? But it sounds like there can be such thing as too much growth and how you manage it. And, you know, Zoom run into issues and questions nobody even bothered to ask them, at least, which was about security. What do you think about that? And I don’t mean to pick on them. I use them. It’s a fine product. But are they an example of something that’s a common phenomenon that you actually can grow too fast?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:09:27] You absolutely can grow too fast. You have to be able to supply the demand. You know, kind of going back to what we talked about earlier where we were talking about the law of supply and demand. As demand increases, do you have the operational capacity and the bandwidth in your back office operations to be able to meet that demand? Here’s the thing that happened with Zoom – and I’ve had this conversation with quite a few people because they wonder, “Well, why Zoom?” There are a ton of screen sharing applications that are out there, like Microsoft Teams and Google Hangouts and Skype.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:10:05] Zoom plays nice with so many other tools that are out there. And what I mean by that, Mike, is that they integrate seamlessly with so many other tools. For example, there’s a scheduling tool that I use called Acuity Scheduling. When I send a link to someone who may say, “I want to schedule a consultation with you.” That person is sent a link. From there, they book a date and time. They’re automatically sent a calendar appointment that has the Zoom meeting information already included. We’re done.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:10:44] So, what happens is, unfortunately, with a tool or a technology like Zoom, it’s web based. So, hacking was on the rise. And you have people, unfortunately, who, they don’t want to see you be successful. And so, they may intentionally try to sabotage that success. And that’s a big part of what happened with Zoom. It wasn’t just external threats. They had internal threats as well. And I only know that because I know some folks in the programming and development world who’ve clued me in on it wasn’t just external things that happened to them. There were things going on. There was some sabotage going on within the company as well.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:11:32] Another example, though, Zoom isn’t the only company that has fared well. You know, look at gun manufacturers, ammunition, Clorox. I think we may have talked about Clorox also before. Clorox, I read an article about them. They said they won’t be able to keep up with demand until 2022 just to be able to get back on track. Hand sanitizers, companies that traditionally make the protective personal equipment, PPE, all of these companies have seen demand not even just double, but probably quadruple in a very short period of time.
Mike Blake: [00:12:17] Yeah. And that actually segues into the next question I want to talk about, because I know you’ve advised clients on this. And we’re talking with Alicia Butler Pierre of Equilibria. And the question is, you know, — your view on seeking capital to grow and sort of the timing or sequence of seeking capital to grow. I mean, there’s all the venture capital thing. You have a startup. Somebody writes you a million dollar check. You hope it works out. But then, there’s more established businesses and, maybe, they’ve never borrowed money before or taken outside money, or maybe they have. But losing somebody else’s money is not something that most people think is a good thing. Where do you come down on that? Do you find that you tend to advise your clients to maybe look at raising capital as a last resort? Or, are you more likely, do you think, to advise your clients to, maybe, get out in front of that question early?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:13:23] That’s also a really great question. Most of the clients that I work with already have the capital that they need. Because they are growing so quickly, they have that incoming revenue. However, there definitely are instances where you have to go and apply for a bank loan, tap into a line of credit, maybe explore factoring options. Having all of these financial instruments at your disposal so that you can facilitate not just the growth, but the ability to be able to scale.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:14:01] A lot of people, when it comes to scale, scale might look like having to hire more employees all of a sudden. It may mean getting out of a very small three room office suite that you have in a building to actually leasing an entire building. It could look like having to upgrade all of your technology. So, rather than investing in outside servers, you may have to have your own built in server dedicated exclusively to your company. It looks and comes in many different shapes and forms. And capital is most certainly needed oftentimes to facilitate a lot of those different areas.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:14:46] So, what I always advise people – and this is anyone who’s giving you money, whether it’s a venture capitalist, an angel investor, even if you were to create a campaign on something like Kickstarter or GoFundMe – people want to know what is the plan. Number one, why do you need the money? How much do you need? And how is that money going to be used? How quickly do you expect to be able to pay us back? Those are the four main things. So, you have to think through those things.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:15:24] I always encourage my clients when they are or if they do get to that point to really think about the people, the processes, and the tools and technologies that all require a significant upgrade and think about the associated expense with each of those upgrades. And that’s going to give you a really good idea of how much money or how much capital you might need to raise or apply for. Let’s say, for example, if you’re applying for a bank loan. But you have to be able to answer, you have to know how much you need, how that money is going to be used, and the other two questions that I mentioned.
Mike Blake: [00:16:09] So, let me switch gears here. And we’re running out of time, so I want to be respectful of the time you’ve allocated to us. But let’s fast forward now into kind of looking at growth and process or even a little bit in the rearview mirror. When you have grown or your clients have grown, how have they found their workload and stress have changed? Have your clients – or maybe you have personal experience – found that they’ve really just bitten off a lot and they’re working harder than they ever did? Or, is there some other phenomenon at work? What is your experience of that?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:16:55] Speaking from personal experience as well as the clients that I worked with, it is stressful. I am not going to to sugarcoat it. Get used to not having any sleep. But I will say this, once you are on the other side, it will all have been worth it. But any time, especially when you are hiring new people and upgrading technology – let’s just take technology first as an example. I’m sure, Mike, you’ve had this experience yourself. Let’s say, when you decide to upgrade your phone. What you may think it shouldn’t take no more than, maybe, an hour to buy a new phone, and all the data is transferred, and life is good, right? Everything’s going to work. Everything’s going to go without a hitch. Right? Wrong.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:17:50] A lot of time, with technology, I swear it’s almost double or triple the time that you originally think it should take. So, just imagine doing that on a bigger scale where you’re upgrading all of the laptops. You’re upgrading from that free Dropbox account that you may have to an enterprise level of Dropbox. And something doesn’t think the way that it should. It comes in so many different forms. And it is stressful because it’s requiring even more of your time that you already don’t have.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:18:28] From a people aspect, now you have to not only continue doing the work that you’ve been doing, but you have to take time out of your day to actually train these new people that you’re hiring. I’m going through this literally right now. And I’m surprised I can’t even remember the day of the week it is, Mike. Let alone the time of day. Just because I am admittedly sleep deprived right now because I have added a couple more people to my team. I was outsourcing everything. I should point that out. I’m at a point now where I realized I have to have dedicated resources. So, now some of those outsourced positions have now become employees. It’s scary. And I have to take time out of what I am already working on to make sure that I train them properly.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:19:26] So, I’m in the processes piece you have to make sure everything is documented. That takes time. So, when you hire new people and you upgrade these other technologies that you have in place or even invest in newer technologies, all of that needs to be documented. All three of those areas, the people, the processes and the tools, it’s all going to place even more of a demand on your time, which may already be limited. But just know, again, once you get on the other side of that and everything starts running like a well-oiled machine, it will be so worth the effort.
Mike Blake: [00:20:09] What’s your view on the notion when a business grows, the owner can be somewhat detached? You have to delegate and a person can only scale themselves so much. You know, do you think that that’s a danger because the owner can no longer kind of do everything themselves? They have to entrust key assets, key relationships to their employees. And how can business owners who have grown their businesses feel like they still have a pulse on what’s going on when they can’t see, hear, and feel everything that’s going on?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:20:56] Interesting. Interesting question. It ties in very nicely to what you asked me earlier about risk. That comes with the territory. You may still know everyone. You may still know every single one of your employees by name. Let’s say, especially if your business is still classified as a small business, according to the SBA, you may still know everyone by name. But it is impossible to know everything that is going on. And, honestly, Mike, your role as the CEO is the visionary. I don’t know that you would want to be tied into the nitty gritty details of every single thing that’s going on.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:21:46] As the CEO, you are looking at everything from that 50,000 foot level. You receive Intel, true, you know, in the form of dashboards where people are reporting certain key bits of information to you. And you’re making sure that you have these, whether it’s daily check in meetings or either weekly meetings. You’re having these check in points. But it’s not a good use or effective use of your time to be bogged down in every single thing. Plus, you want to be able to give people the autonomy that they need to get their jobs done. And by putting in mechanisms or procedures where they constantly have to check in with you for every single thing that they’re about to do or are thinking of doing is just not an effective way to manage your growing company.
Mike Blake: [00:22:43] And then, speaking of managing a growing company – and we’re coming to the end here -but I do want to ask this question, which is, what skills do you find that owners find that they must develop in order to manage their larger company, that maybe they’re able to get away with not having or not being very good at before?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:23:04] I would say three things. Number one – and it goes without saying – leadership. You must have those leadership skills. Two, communication. And those two things really do go hand in hand. That’s something that we learn a lot. You know, I’m a Toastmaster so those are the two pillars of Toastmasters, leadership and communication. And then, third, I would say, Mike, is delegation. You have to start delegating. And that is so tough to do because we instinctively think, “Well, no one can do it as good as I can do it.” But you have to train people. And it may take them a while before they get it to the level that you were expecting or looking for, but you have to start somewhere. You have to begin delegating. Yes, leadership, communication –
Mike Blake: [00:23:58] And it may take me a while – sorry. Go ahead. I misinterpreted your pause as an end. Please continue.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:24:05] Oh. No. I’m sorry. I was just repeating those three points, the leadership, communication, and delegation.
Mike Blake: [00:24:13] And one thing that strikes me about your answer, too, is that give yourself a break too. Is that your employees will take a minute to catch on. And as a business leader, I’ll take a minute to catch on, on how to train. Not all training methods work equally. Not everybody responds to the same training the same way. And those are skills that are in process, our development and process as well.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:24:45] That is such a great point. Because even right now with the employees that I have recently taken on, they have different preferred modes of communication. One, we communicate through Slack with another person. This person loves to communicate through Twitter, through direct messaging on Twitter. And then, there’s one more person where everything is email and phone calls. And you do have to make some compromises. And the one thing that I ask is that we’re, at least, able to all come together once a week for a group or a team meeting.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:25:23] But in terms of if they just need to get something or let me know of something just kind of on the fly, they have different ways that they prefer to communicate. I should even say that I don’t want to give the appearance that they’re dictating to me how they prefer to communicate. It’s just something that I’ve noticed that of all the different ways that I’ve presented that we can communicate, you can definitely tell where the preference lies for certain people.
Mike Blake: [00:25:53] Yeah. And to the extent that you can make yourself flexible to accommodate that, you know, that can be the right answer. One answer is you can say, “Look, everybody’s got to communicate by email or by Microsoft Teams or whatever. The end.” But if you can’t do that, you can’t work here. And there are companies that will do that. But sometimes the easier thing is, as the leader, change yourself. Say, “Okay. You know what? I can have a couple of windows up on my computer. I can have a second or third monitor added so I can just sort of monitor these things. And just work with people in whatever their kind of natural environment is as long as it’s not disruptive and counterproductive.”
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:26:39] Right. And the great thing for me is that, this is all coming up as notifications on my phone. So, I don’t even have to be in front of my computer. If someone sends a message through Slack, it automatically comes up as a notification. And I can respond to it right away. The same thing with Twitter. The same thing with email. I can just go and check all of these things really quickly through my phone.
Mike Blake: [00:27:08] Alicia, this has been a great conversation. As always, I want to be respectful of your time. If people want to learn more about how to approach, and assess, and manage growth, what is the best way for them to contact you?
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:27:23] The absolute best way is through my website, which is aliciabutlerpierre.com. And when they get there, that basically serves as a hub for all of the different things that I have going on. So, if you want to learn more about the podcast, you can get to it from that site. The same for the book as well as my consulting services. There’s also links to all of my social media profiles as well. So, everything is contained within that one website.
Mike Blake: [00:27:54] Very good. One stop shopping.
Alicia Butler Pierre: [00:27:56] That’s right, Mike.
Mike Blake: [00:27:56] So, that’s going to wrap it up for today’s program. I’d like to thank Alicia Butler Pierre so much for joining us and sharing her expertise with us. We’ll be exploring a new topic each week. So, please tune in so that when you’re faced with your next executive decision, you have clear vision when making it. If you enjoy these podcasts, please consider leaving a review with your favorite podcast aggregator. That helps people find us that we can help them. Once again, this is Mike Blake. Our sponsor is Brady Ware & Company. And this has been the Decision Vision podcast.