We all know the call to entrepreneurship can come from anywhere. For Victoria Tifft, that urge to start up came to her after she contracted malaria while being stationed in Tonga in West Africa with the Peace Corps more than 20 years ago.
After that experience, Tifft told Entrepreneur, "I knew I wanted to do something with malaria research."
So in 1992, Tifft established the Hinckley, Ohio-based vaccine researcher Clinical Research Management Inc., known as ClinicalRM. Today, the company supports the development of Food and Drug Administration-regulated vaccines, pharmaceuticals and medical devices for government and commercial customers. ClinicalRM also helped create and now manages the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research's Clinical Trials Center. That facility develops vaccines for infectious diseases such as malaria.
After 20 years in business, Tifft's company has more than 330 employees and annual revenues that reached $40 million in 2010, up from $17 million in 2007. Further, she says, the company plans to double its staff in the next three years.
For those achievements and others, Tifft was recognized yesterday as the Small Business Administration's 2012 National Small Business Person of the Year by SBA chief Karen Mills at National Small Business Week in Washington, D.C. After the ceremony, she sat down with Entrepreneur to discuss managing the rapid growth that comes with success. Here is an edited version of that conversation:
Entrepreneur: You went from three employees in 1994 to more than 300. What was the tipping point for your company?
Tifft: Knowing how to take care of our customers has always helped us grow organically. As I always say to my staff, our customers do our selling for us, as a lot of our business is by referral or repeat business. So there was a certain point a couple years back that one customer told another and they told two more and they told two more. And that was the tipping point. We went from 25 or 50 folks to 150. We're at little over 330 now, and we have aggressive growth plans to double that figure in the next three years.
Entrepreneur: Sounds like there may be opportunities stemming from today, too. Are you ready?
Tifft: We're ready. We've spent the past two years building our systems, our infrastructure and our resources, while expanding geographically, not only in the U.S. but overseas as well. That way we'd be ready and poised for growth. You have to do that in order to successfully grow.
Entrepreneur: What are your best tips for how to manage rapid growth?
Tifft: Make sure that you've got a strategy and that you know how to execute your strategy. Create the plan, vet the plan out with different people and then make sure that you can execute on the plan. Because as we all know so much fails on poor execution.
Entrepreneur: What has been your biggest business challenge and how did you overcome it?
Tifft: One of our mantras is: "Do the right thing." For us, one of the key challenges is to make sure we do the right thing when it's the hard thing to do. And we stick to our guns. And make our decisions based on what's right for the customer. And if you do that every time, in the end, you'll prosper because doing the right thing for your customer is the right thing to do for your business.
Entrpreneur: What advice would you give fellow entrepreneurs who want to be in your shoes someday?
Tifft: Create a strategy. Ask yourself what is it that you want to do. And then figure out a way to do it by seeking out advice from others. In addition to the folks at the SBA, I seek out advice from all over. I just finished an executive master's degree in business administration from Case Western Reserve University's Weatherhead School of Management. So constantly look and seek the advice of others, and don't assume you know everything.