Business Lessons

Fight Early and Fail Fast: 15 Business Lessons in 15 Years

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The company I co-founded, HB Agency, is celebrating 15 years in business. As a business owner and organizational leader, I've had to make critical business decisions and personal choices over the years. Some have worked, others have not.

In the spirit of celebration, here are 15 important business values I've learned along the way -- and sometimes the hard way -- that have value for business owners, entrepreneurs and CEOs. 

1. Choose a great business partner. 

So many partnerships end in a mushroom cloud. I have had the good fortune of sharing ownership of HB with Nicolas Boillot, the smartest person I know and someone I trust with my life in his hands. At the start of our business relationship, we defined clear organizational roles for each other. While those have shifted over time, the clarity with which we define and execute our responsibilities has not. 

2. If you have to cut, cut to the bone and cut quickly.

We learned this lesson the hard way in 2001 and we almost lost everything. It might sound harsh but this philosophy is all about keeping the entity strong. And a strong entity means future opportunities and stability. Running a business is an investment, and you must treat it with the same long-term perspective.

Related: 9 Lessons You Won't Learn in Business School

3. If you're going to fight, fight early.

Too many times I've seen prospects gloss over trouble spots and other agencies skirt reality in order to win business. Then everyone wants to poke their eyes out when all of those issues surface mid-project. Deal with the difficult stuff at the start, even if it means you don't win the work. And continue to deal with it as issues emerge. Clients and staff appreciate honest conversation.

4. Invest in sales training.

Choose an approach, learn it and keep practicing. Winging it is for the JV squad. You're a varsity player so put the work and the investment in. It will pay you back tenfold.

5. Fail fast and often.

Don't be afraid of failure. Lots of little failures will make you stronger. Every failure delivers a valuable lesson. Embrace it.

6. Small problems can become big challenges.

When you know something isn't right, address it immediately. Letting a snide comment slip is like overlooking broken windows or graffiti. Over time, those problems grow into much bigger problems. Nip it in the bud as soon as possible.

Related: Leadership Lessons From Apple CEO Tim Cook

7. It's all about customer service.

HB is a professional services organization. That means that our clients look to us to solve their problems. And our creative and strategic acumen aside, it's our behavior and attitude that makes the difference. Life is too short to be an ego maniacal, self-centered dink.

Bend over backwards to make the client experience consistently great. For us, that's defined by the HB Way. Come to our lobby and give it a read.

8. The cup is half full.

Maintaining a positive attitude in the face of adversity is critical. Do not ignore flaws and challenges you may need to overcome. Rather, stay focused on where you need to go with a spirited and optimistic perspective. It's infectious.

9. You're financially independent and you don't need the business.

Numerous times in the last 15 years we've faced financial challenges, or needed to make hard decisions around "sexy" clients that made no sense financially. And even though we may have needed the work, we stood strong and negotiated a fair deal for everyone, or walked away.

Stay centered on that idea of financial independence, without arrogance, and you'll always make the right decision. It's empowering.

10. Treat them like family.

Treat people in your organization like they are your own family (at least the family you like). The business of professional services is all about the human capital in your organization and they deserve your support, encouragement and leadership. They are everything and without them, you will fail.

11. Blood.

I know many entrepreneurs who let their business drive their family life into the ground. Make time to nurture the people closest to you outside the office. When it's all said and done, those are the folks you'll be sharing time with and relying on.

Related: It Takes 3 to Run a Business

12. Fill the pipeline.

You may not have control over who says yes and who says no but you have control over your own behaviors. Make the calls. Go to the events. Create lots of content. Promote yourself. Do everything you can to fill the pipeline with qualified opportunities because new business solves so many of your problems. Never stop kissing frogs.

13. Read.

Every success and failure that someone else has had is a lesson for you. Personally, I love non-fiction -- history, business, biographies -- and every book I've read has a nugget of wisdom that I can use immediately. Bonus suggestion: Give a book. If you read a great book, buy a few and send them to clients, prospects and colleagues.

14. Get help.

Mentors and advisors see things you'll never be able to see. Ask people you know, respect and admire to help you. Share your deep, dark secrets and biggest fears, then watch how quickly they will point you in the right direction.

15. Never get lazy.

No matter how good things look you can't take your foot off the throttle. The minute you stop paying attention to the details, pushing yourself and your colleagues, or start feeling complacent, you're asking for trouble. Keep running.

Related: 7 Signs a Great Employee Might Be a Bad Boss