The last few years have been challenging personally and professionally -- but not because economists and the pundits have pronounced the U.S. economy to be weak, and the outlook bleak ad nauseam! I consider it rough because over the same timeframe, I have been forced to constantly and rapidly adapt in my role as CEO to fulfill the needs of my organization, VSolvit (pronounced "We Solve it"). VSolvit has quickly grown from a roughly five person company in 2010, to a 50-plus company expected to grow to a 100-person operation shortly. Since 2011, VSolvit and I have received national recognition -- USDA Woman Owned Business of the Year and the SBA Minority Business Person of the Year.
If such success can be achieved in a down economy, can you imagine what will be possible when our economy is roaring again? I will share the top three strategies that have driven VSolvit's success, though a quick disclaimer seems appropriate: VSolvit's success is largely the result of, and a reflection of, our team members' hard work and dedication, and the guidance they receive from inspirational mentors and coaches.
Success Strategy #1: Focus and Differentiate First, Then Grow
When VSolvit was founded, we focused on a narrow, highly specialized service based on my personal expertise in Geographic Information System (GIS) and databases. This focus differentiated VSolvit from a crowded space of Information Technology companies, and we successfully acquired new customers. Subsequently, we expanded our expertise beyond GIS to include application development, data warehousing (DW), and business intelligence (BI). This expansion was gradual and strategic; it was based on our business growth plan (a term quite familiar to the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses scholars). A similar approach can be applied to expand your customer base or industry verticals as well. Historically, VSolvit had focused only on working with the U.S. Department of Defense. Today there is a tremendous focus not only on working with commercial and non-profit organizations, but also on working across multiple industries such as healthcare and energy.
'The Lego Concept': This concept was very eloquently described in my daughter's Lego class: "After you build a strong foundation, you can build on top of that quite easily." Differentiation enables you to build a strong foundation. Today, after having built our foundation, we are aggressively pursuing growth by collaborating with other organizations and thought leaders for future opportunities.
Success Strategy #2: Set the Bar High for Yourself and the Team
Many of us start a company because we have a unique idea and we believe that we are the best person to implement the idea. An architect may start an Architecture & Engineering (A&E) firm and a GIS expert may start a GIS services company because they are respective experts in their fields. As a company grows, there is a risk that the "expertise" may start to erode as the "expert" is required (and rightfully so) to focus on other aspects that run the business, such as payroll, A/R, A/P, cash-flow, HR, Legal, and on and on and on. What once started as a promising organization that begins to grow, may lose its footing and quickly find product and services reduced to mediocrity if the expertise is not maintained. The proven cure to mediocrity is ensuring that you set the bar high for yourself and for your team. There may be people within your organization that will not like this standard, but they will filter themselves out. Setting the bar high is critical to ensuring the long term growth of your business. This strategy has been quintessential for VSolvit's success thus far, and I remain acutely aware of the inherent difficulty in maintaining this bar as our organization grows.
Success Strategy #3: Own It and Fix It
We are humans and we are prone to making mistakes. Contrary to popular belief, our customers recognize this too. A wise person once said, "If we are not making mistakes, we are not pushing hard enough." A company culture in which everyone not only owns up to their mistakes, but also fixes them, is a great recipe for success. This third and final strategy is embracing the "Own it and Fix it" culture, a concept that I, believe it or not, adapted from my then 4-year old daughter's preschool class. The beauty about this culture is that it focuses team members on the solution, not the problem, and this reduces friction between team member and their supervisors. Ultimately, this culture boosts team morale and improves customer satisfaction.
I wrote this blog after a much needed vacation that involved a road trip from Thousand Oaks, California to Las Vegas, Nevada via the Kelso Depot. The Depot's relevance and importance sharply declined with the technological transformation from steam locomotives to diesel-electric locomotives. The depot was spared demolition when it was declared a United States Historic District and repurposed as the main Visitors Center of the Mojave National Preserve.
Unfortunately, such exit strategies do not exist for many organizations. Therefore, it is imperative for business owner to ensure that our organizations adapt and grow to cope with an ever changing environment. Doing so will enhance our ability to contribute to our society, and to our country. This responsibility to evolve and grow (both as an organization and as an individual) rests squarely on the shoulders of an entrepreneur. As many GS 10KSB Scholars know very well leading a thriving business means "working on the business, not in the business."
Payal Kamdar is the CEO/Founder of VSolvit, an award winning technology services company. She is a graduate of the Goldman Sachs' 10,000 Small Business Program at Long Beach Community College District, and was selected as the 2012 Minority Business Person of the Year for the U.S. Small Business Administration Region IX. She also participates on the PHD Industry Council Partnership, LA Regional Small Business Development Center Board, was formerly vice president of the Channel Island AUVSI Chapter, and can frequently be found chauffeuring her daughters around town.