Once you've hired people, let them work. That's not as easy as it sounds. "The first obstacle is feeling a loss of control as [entrepreneurs] start to invest some responsibility in other people," Long says. Part of the reason for the discomfort is a simple unwillingness to hand over control. Another part comes from uncertainty in the process of finding, vetting, hiring and retaining employees who are trustworthy enough to handle the responsibility.
Long says the way to overcome this is to go step by step. Start by delegating functions you're comfortable letting go of, or those you are least uncomfortable relinquishing. "I have suggested that you don't have to prepare every check, but for the moment, you ought to keep signing them," Long says. "You have to start slowly weaning [yourself] away."
This is something you have to do, as you'll probably realize at some point. That point usually comes when your company has reached a certain sales level and you figure out that you won't double those sales by simply working twice as hard, Long says. But unless you write down job descriptions and take it slowly enough to remain comfortable, you may never be able to do it. Says Long, "[To] let go, you have to have enough confidence that what you put together will actually work."
Even while refining their focus and shedding distracting ventures, entrepreneurs trying to grow up a business also need to expand--to different markets, products and channels. For Dawn Stokes, founder and CEO of Texas Driving Experience, moving from offering only advanced accident avoidance courses for teenagers to hosting team-building events for corporations was critical in growing her 3-year-old company to projected sales of $2 million for 2007. "I'd say the next level is additional locations," says the 48-year-old entrepreneur, whose offices are at the Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth.
Stokes wants to start holding team-building events--which let clients' employees drive high-performance Chevrolet Corvettes around NASCAR-style tracks--at other raceways around the country. She also hopes to expand the teen driving school regionally. Obstacles to both expansions include building relationships with track owners and managers and finding a way to effectively market to teens. "That's the next level for me," says Stokes, who employs 10 full-time workers and has dozens of subcontracted drivers. "The money and the people are just the way to support those things."
Many entrepreneurs successfully bootstrap their ventures through the startup phase, only to be stymied by the need for additional capital. "The frustration comes with getting access to the capital they need to bring it to a higher level," says Thomae. This can also be true of entrepreneurs who financed their startups with outside money, because the ramp-up time for a second-stage venture is longer, says Thomae. "Lenders will say, 'You need another $500,000, but you're not going to see real, profitable growth [for] three or four years?' Sometimes it's a harder sell."
Getting outside funding is also a problem for many entrepreneurs because lenders and investors want a say in how the business is run. "Often, the new capital has strings attached," Thomae explains. Lenders may require that the debt-to-asset ratios stay below a certain level, while equity investors may ask for a seat on the board. These are both important reasons for having a board to begin with, learning to work with it and getting comfortable with letting go of some authority.
A startup's first exposure to sustained black ink is a critical step in growing up. Achieving profitability relies to largely on successfully navigating the previous steps. For instance, focusing helps you avoid unprofitable distractions. Building an advisory board prepares you for sharing control when you bring in outside investors.
Pili regards profitability as a key indicator of his business's maturity--even though he isn't there yet. "We're working at this," he says. "That's obviously number one." His efforts--allying with local schools and other organizations to take sales opportunities outside his store's walls and trying to attract big-name authors for events--are meant to hasten profitability.
Profit tends to play second fiddle to revenue in many entrepreneurs' plans. Pili, for instance, mentions boosting revenue by 20 percent this year before he talks about profitability. That's OK, as long as profits don't get ignored. "You need to be thinking about both," Kelley says. "Set multiple milestones so you aren't focused only on sales. You could end up selling a lot but not being profitable."
Whatever "taking it to the next level" means to you, make an effort to explore it, and don't stop with the first benchmark that occurs to you. Entrepreneurs themselves would add that these should represent your unique vision and not just be benchmarks set by investors or other outsiders.
Finally, remember to pick a next level that challenges as well as inspires. "Think big," Stokes says. "Think bigger than you actually are, be bigger than you actually are. Whatever your company is, you have to do it faster, bigger and better."