Don't Make Yourself Comfortable

Remember your pals in high school--the ones who wrote "Don't ever change!" in your yearbook? For your business' sake, forget them.

When Peter Carlisle first started representing athletes in his sports law practice back in 1995, things were fairly straightforward. With a focus on sports like baseball and soccer, the Portland, Maine, entrepreneur and attorney just didn't give much thought to anything nontraditional. But when droves of Gen Y kids around the country started trading in their bats and cleats for snowboards and skateboards, Carlisle couldn't ignore the opportunity: "I figured that within a relatively short period of time, I could establish a pretty secure position within this new and burgeoning industry."

Indeed, a little research on Carlisle's part revealed that Gen Y's spending power and influence on music and sports-and the potential for growth within those sectors-was far greater than he could have imagined. And with the door wide open for those entrepreneurs representing extreme athletes, Carlisle took the lead: In 1997 (a year after snowboarding became an official Olympic sport), he abandoned his law practice in favor of sports management and began recruiting extreme athletes, and Carlisle Sports Management emerged.

Carlisle's story might be unique, but his philosophy ought not be. In other words, the old "If it ain't broke, why fix it?" maxim just doesn't fly when it comes to owning a business. If you hope to grow beyond breaking even-or even beyond being somewhat profitable-don't get too content with your current business model. Smart entrepreneurs constantly evaluate their company's direction, looking for new ways to generate revenue and capitalize on emerging markets before the competition knows what hit it.

"The best executives are always making shifts," explains Leslie Kossoff, founder and principal of Silicon Valley, California-based Kossoff Management Consulting. "As the business grows, entrepreneurs feel so locked in, their focus becomes more linear and fear-based, especially in these economic times. The challenge for established executives is to re-expand-to open their minds the way they did when they first started the company."

The bottom line is to remain flexible and willing to accept change. "Flexibility should be the competitive advantage of small businesses," says Dr. James Reeve, Deloitte and Touche professor of business at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. "Smaller companies need to be continually involved in environmental scanning, competitive scanning, market scanning and meeting on a periodic basis to review their strategy."

Look at it this way: If Carlisle hadn't anticipated the popularity of extreme sports four years ago, he never would have attained the dominant position in the industry he now holds. "In a very short period of time, these sports have grown [hugely popular]," says Carlisle. "Five years ago, you wouldn't imagine a mainstream corporate marketer sponsoring a snowboarder or skateboarder."

And though Carlisle still had a lot to learn after making his change-for one thing, he'd never picked up a snowboard in his life-he found ways to adjust to his new market. "The first year or two was difficult," says Carlisle, who now expects sales of nearly $1 million for 2001, 15 times more than his 1997 sales. "I would go to events or speak on panels, and they would view me as someone from the outside-a professional coming in. We had to hire people who knew these sports in order to develop credibility."

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This article was originally published in the July 2001 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Don't Make Yourself Comfortable.

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