Later this month, our firm will celebrate Success Week - a kitschy invention resulting from a series of fortunate wins for our company during the week of April 20th, 2017. As a small business owner, and especially in the first few years, having a string of wins can be so rare that you will feel compelled to celebrate in all kinds of weird ways. And so it was with a declaration in a journal that Success Week became an embedded part of our company culture. Mostly it’s a time for us to celebrate, grow, and appreciate all that we’ve accomplished together.
Seven years into this love story, a string of wins happens with regularity and is less headline-making, making our ears more inclined to perk up when we have a series of disheartening failures. It is those experiences, plus being a Certified B Corp, that led to another company culture dynamic – our annual All Hands Meeting. All Hands is a time for us to step back and put our lessons learned and opportunities on the horizon to positively impact the world around us in the hands of the people in the world around us. We do this to get outside our own heads on the big questions.
This year, we held the meeting in January (shout out to everyone we broke bread with that day), and we thought back then that the month of April, near Success Week, might be a good time to share some of those insights about what went well and what didn’t go well in 2019.
Then the world flipped into topsy-turvy land, and suddenly 2019 and its worries and wins feel quaint in this new context. The social construct of time for generations living through this moment has a new delineation – before COVID and after COVID, although that’s not even where we are right now... more like during COVID. While it may seem odd to celebrate right now about the successes and lessons learned, I believe that when we’re on the other side of this mess reflecting upon past insights will be instrumental to rebuilding the future. Here are a few of ours from 2019:
Road travel is a mixed bag – exhausting, but our bonds deepened. We took local investor education (under the name Grubstake) on the road, to all corners of Michigan, and, indeed, we did thoroughly enjoy it. We also came to learn just how much time and energy being in community with people in person is when you add it up. A 3-hour event could involve as much as 40 hours of investment, depending on its location. Fortunately, we went in teams of at least two, so while one drove, the other worked off a hot spot in the passenger seat. As exhausting as it sometimes felt, being in community with people who are wrapping their heads around a new topic, in-person, is absolutely incredible – how do you put a price on educating 2,194 in a single year? The question on our minds now is – can we continue to create the same deepening of bonds and curious learning in virtual environments?
Client delight is the most important thing we will EVER cultivate. Solid marketing plans, fancy print materials, a beautiful office, quality services, smart pricing, and friendly smiles are all excellent features. Still, if a client doesn’t see the benefit and delight they are looking for (not the benefit you think they should value), it’s all for nothing. Keep your eye on client satisfaction - to us that means clients’ needs are met, they’re confident about their understanding of their own lives, work is done accurately, and they enjoyed every experience. We lost two clients last year that I wish we could have continued to work with – it's a painful experience that I imagine almost everyone reading this knows firsthand. We thought we were good, but we learned how we could be better. Those experiences pushed us to do deep work on our client journey, which has already led to better outcomes. If an issue arises, listen carefully and openly, set your ego and defensiveness aside, remember this isn’t about you, it’s about them, then work to resolve it however possible. We were familiar with this process, but now we know it deeply.
Don’t underestimate the importance of a robust hiring process. We were on the fence about a hire we made early last year. After the initial 90 days with our new team member, we agreed it was not working out, and we blessed and released them. We learned harsh lessons in that process. We now start with an opportunity for both parties to try each other on like a new suit for a while and set clear expectations about what success and failure looks like upfront. We learned to prioritize training whenever feasible, but don’t bog them down in so much training that they can't do the work you hired them to do. All these lessons went into our last hire, which has been a much healthier relationship so far. Big shout out to The Hire Effect for their influence on our constant improvements in our hiring practices.
2019 had a lot of exciting moments and a lot of hard lessons we had to swallow, but most of all, looking back on it in the context of today, it feels like a year of lavishness. We had the luxury to do the work we love, to work with the people we love, to work in a space of our own, to test-fail-redo, and to think big and imaginatively about the future. Today, those are all still possible – and are indeed our everyday reality (although “working in a space of our own” takes on a new meaning) – but they feel like luxuries, not just “the way we do things.”
They are luxuries in the context of so many experiencing so much pain and uncertainty right now. The bigger question on my mind is how do we share our talents, gifts, and imagination with others so that the PCE (post-COVID era?) results in a world where many more people experience these opportunities to learn, grow, and succeed compared to before the world flipped topsy-turvy.