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Ready to Take Your Business Up a Notch?

You might think you're doing your best in business. But sometimes extreme measures are the only things that'll help you grow.


The wind sounded like a hurricane, thought Jim Cope as he stared nervously at the green and brown patchwork quilt spread out far below him. Usually, his feet were firmly planted on the ground in Walnut Hills, California, where he runs his landscaping business. But within seconds on that day, Cope, 46, would plunge in a parachute to the landscape below.

You still have a chance to back out. Nobody has a gun to your head. Cope reminded himself that he was jumping tandem--with a partner attached. And I know he doesn't want to kill himself. Emotions swirled through Cope. This is the test. Are you going to do this? Then the landscaper leapt out of the plane, tumbling across the sky.

Even in the best of times, entrepreneurs have gone to extremes, hoping to improve their businesses. But these are strange, often turbulent times, and as the 21st century continues to evolve, entrepreneurs who want to evolve with it will frequently find themselves going to the edge. Are you ready?

Of course, to take your company to the next level, you don't have to make a 10,000-foot jump to Earth. Cope employed an extreme coach to help him manage overwhelming situations, but your idea of extreme might be toiling tirelessly to finish a 14-day project in three.

So take a deep breath, and consider how your company might inject jet fuel into some of its practices. After all, extremes aren't just limited to wacky sports or caffeine-spiked sodas.

Extreme Customer Service

The ultimate customer service is "the ability, when faced with adversity, to still be able to serve the client," says Richard Buckingham, author of Customer Once, Client Forever: 12 Tools for Building Lifetime Business Relationships. Untold numbers of entrepreneurs were faced with adversity September 11, 2001, and David Volpi, 47, was one of them. His Tampa, Florida-based company has a little over 100 employees, but he thinks of it as having a staff of 20,000: His 3-year-old AdvanTech Solutions is a human capital management company that manages tasks for other entrepreneurs.

With airplanes grounded immediately after the terrorist attacks, Volpi couldn't even use his own charter jet to get paychecks to all his clients' employees on time. Considering the circumstances, they probably would have forgiven him. But Volpi has 100 clients in Texas and 40 in North Carolina, and, he says, "at least 50 percent of these employees don't have electronic deposit. They still need that actual paycheck."

The checks were expected Friday. With planes still parked at 4 p.m. Thursday, Volpi made the decision. Four employees "quasi-volunteered," he says, to drive the checks to their destinations. Two employees departed from Tampa, another left from Texas, and another left from North Carolina. "It was like a relay team," says Volpi.

The checks were passed off from one employee to another in Macon, Georgia, and Biloxi, Mississippi, around 2 a.m. When Volpi's team delivered the checks on time, "My people were treated like they had walked on water," he says.

No wonder. Extreme customer service these days is rare. "There's a quest in business for profits and a tendency to not focus on customer service," says Buckingham. "Clients become interchangeable. But you shouldn't be in business to make money; you should be in business to further your customer service goals, and in doing that, you'll make money."

Extreme Public Relations

The 1992 publicity stunt dubbed "Malice in Dallas" of which Kurt Herwald, 47, was a part is still spoken of in reverent tones among media experts. Herwald is CEO of Chandelle Solutions Ltd., a Greenville, South Carolina, company specializing in turnaround crisis management. But a decade ago, Herwald headed Stevens Aviation, a South Carolina corporate aviation company with the slogan "Plane smart."

Then one day, Southwest Airlines began using the slogan "Just Plane Smart."

One of Herwald's employees fired off a friendly letter, jokingly suggesting that instead of suing Southwest, Herwald should arm-wrestle Southwestern's flamboyant CEO, Herb Kelleher, for rights to the slogan. Kelleher loved the idea, and Herwald was blindsided by the volume of phone calls from journalists, eager to know when this arm-wrestling match would happen. At first, Herwald wasn't so sure it would. Corporate aviation is a conservative industry. But Herwald came around, later realizing, "People have more of a sense of a humor than you'd give them credit for."

Prior to the match, Southwest produced films of Kelleher training on a diet of Wild Turkey and cigarettes. In an auditorium packed with 4,500 Southwest employees and passengers, the opponents geared up in a boxing ring. After much fanfare, Herwald, then 38, finished off his 61-year-old opponent in about 30 seconds.

Then both men announced that they would each keep their slogans. Indeed, Herwald admits: "It was fixed." But it had been fun, and it showed that entrepreneurs can solve problems without going to court.

The publicity was jet fuel for both companies: At least 450 newspapers ran the story, including The Wall Street Journal; Tom Brokaw interviewed Herwald; even the BBC got into the act. Within three years, "we went from a $28 million company to doing over $100 million," says Herwald, who in part credits their growth plan, but adds: "A little bit of celebrity in the industry never hurts."

What will hurt is trying too hard to manufacture publicity. "You need to be aware that on any given day, hard news can blow you away," says Mike Mulvihill, executive vice president at Carter Ryley Thomas Public Relations & Marketing Counsel in Richmond, Virginia, which managed public relations for Herwald a decade ago. "You can do everything right in planning a publicity stunt, but you can't control what happens in the world. If there are major fires, murders, accidents or plane crashes, you're toast."

In which case, abort. "You have to be sensitive to what's going on," says Mulvihill. "You don't want negative publicity."

Just Extreme
Tom and Mary Clare Mulhall are your ordinary, conservative Chicago-bred entrepreneurs. Mary Clare, 47, used to be director of the test kitchens for Quaker Oats. Tom, 48, was a tax accountant, and now he's president of the Chamber of Commerce in Palm Springs, California. Oh, and the Mulhalls own the Terra Cotta Inn, a luxury, clothing-optional resort and spa.

It may be clothing optional, but Tom admits, "Everybody goes nude."

When you have an extremely unusual business, you have to go to extremes every day, from your sales pitch (typically 15-minute phone calls, allaying customers' concerns about vacationing in the buff) to your customer service: The Mulhalls encourage a family atmosphere, sans the kids; and they tell each customer on the phone, "No grouchy people are allowed to come here."

Every day at 4 p.m., Tom puts on his bowtie--just his bowtie--and goes to the swimming pool, where he serves the customers strawberries and grapes, poolside and in the pool. Talk about an extreme niche market. Tom says there are only two other luxury clothing-optional resort and spas in the country, both in Florida. At first blush--and you will blush--you might think this 17-room hotel wouldn't make much, but the $129- to $169-a-night rooms have been virtually packed for the past four summers, bringing in more than $600,000 in 2002.

Maybe all entrepreneurs should consider being clothing optional. Think of the money the Mulhalls save on uniforms.

Extreme Hiring Practices

Ask Adam Honig about his former business partner, and at age 35, Honig sounds like a war-weary veteran. All he will say is the guy was a jerk. He must have been pretty bad, because today Honig's Westborough, Massachusetts, company, Akibia Inc., has an official "no jerks" hiring policy.

No slackers need apply either. It has been said that your odds of getting into M.I.T. are better than of working for Honig, who has built the 4-year-old consulting firm specializing in CRM services into a $17 million firm. Honig has created a six-step hiring practice that includes the interviewee giving a 20- to 40-minute presentation based on a case study and meeting with a panel of eight junior and senior staffers. If even one of those eight thinks you're a jerk, you're a goner.

"We define a jerk [as someone] who seems uncooperative, selfish or nonteam-oriented," says Honig. "We hire really, really nice people." He adds that customers appreciate it, too.

Extreme Teamwork

In the summer of 2001, Robert LoCascio, CEO of New York City-based LivePerson, was inspired when he learned that within days, President George W. Bush would vacation in Crawford, Texas. LivePerson is a real-time Internet communications tool; the company, which made more than $7 million last year, has technology many businesses use to chat online with their Internet customers.

If LivePerson managed to arrange an online chat between the president and the citizens of the world, publicity for his company would soar--as would sales, thought LoCascio. But it would take extreme teamwork. LoCascio had just three days to get LivePerson set up at the Coffee Station, the only restaurant in Crawford--a project that would normally take two weeks.

With Bush planning a month's vacation, it might not seem like LivePerson needed to make a mad rush for Crawford. "But we didn't want to miss the president--especially by one day," says LoCascio, who wasn't exactly being briefed by the Secret Service on Bush's schedule. Meanwhile, with the company hoping to go public soon and not yet making a profit, LoCascio wanted to do something dramatic, now.

And so LoCascio and four employees gave up their weekend plans and put in 15-hour days; meanwhile, the entire staff of 45 was put on alert. There was a second phone line to be installed (in rural Crawford, not as easy as it sounds), a computer kiosk to be set up, programs to be written and video to be installed--and a LivePerson employee was sent to Crawford to mobilize support to get the townspeople, as LoCascio puts it, "jazzed about technology."

Bush never did drop by, but LoCascio is still beaming: He only spent $2,500 on the project, and 100 media outlets mentioned LivePerson. Site traffic increased by 150 percent, and sales went up 10 percent. A few months later, the Internet company posted its first profits.

Deadlines can be very motivating, says Christopher M. Avery, Ph.D., author of Teamwork Is an Individual Skill: Getting Your Work Done When Sharing Responsibility and president of Partnerwerks, a team-building consulting firm in Texas. But it was also important that LoCascio was in the battlefield with his staff. Think of the staff's needs as much as your own, advises Avery, explaining: "You expect your employees to be on your team, but are you on their team?"

Extreme Personal Development

You think reading Who Moved My Cheese? is enough to propel your company to the top? Sometimes, you need more. Which is how Jim Cope found himself hiring Rich Fettke to be his extreme coach. Fettke is a business or life coach--but to the extreme. He specializes in taking groups of executives and entrepreneurs to places like Yosemite National Park to scale mountain cliffs.

Nobody gets hurt--safety equipment reigns supreme--but the idea is that his clients discover something about focusing, courage and the benefits of working with a team, reports Fettke, author of Extreme Success: The 7-Part Program That Shows You How to Succeed Without Struggle Often the lesson learned, says Fettke, is, "If I can climb up a 50-foot cliff, I can dial up an executive sales vice president."

But for entrepreneurs who need more--and Fettke takes individuals climbing Mt. Diablo, an almost 4,000-footer in Northern California--there's always bungee jumping or even skydiving. Enter Cope, who went mountain climbing the day before leaping out of the plane. "I've had a hard time relaxing," he says. With five employees, Cope is doing more marketing, sales, payroll and employee relations than planting flowers and trees, he says. "Margins are low, so if you screw up just a little, you don't make money," says Cope, whose Cope Landscaping is currently an $800,000 business.

And so, like many entrepreneurs before him, Cope felt it was time to go to the extreme. For Cope to cope with stress, he would have to place himself in a controlled stressful environment, like jumping out of a Cessna. "I think it improved my ability to think under pressure, and to face my fears," he says. "If you can attempt something that makes your guts scream 'Don't do it!'--that can help you take your business to the next level." And isn't that what all entrepreneurs want?

Is It Time to Change Your Focus?
In the frenzy preceding Y2K, Rochelle Balch's Glendale, Arizona, technology consulting business, RB Balch & Associates, peaked with $3.5 million in sales, and her client roster included companies like American Express and U-Haul. She'd started her business in 1993 after being reorganized out of her position in a technology consulting firm. Having worked previously as a computer programmer, Balch decided to go out on her own.

Initially, Balch's business focused on hiring programmers that she subcontracted out to large corporations. At the time, there was a need for experienced programmers, and Balch was there to fill the need. Her programmers worked at clients' sites for varying amounts of time that ranged from three months to four years. All the while, she remained homebased, even as her company grew in size and sales. She'd market her service directly to IT managers, and the business did exceedingly well.

But in 1999, Balch began noticing a trend among many of her clients: They were beginning to subcontract a lot of their engineering jobs to companies overseas because of the cheaper labor. Balch knew that spelled trouble for her business in the future unless she could figure out a way to shift her business to the demands of the market. "I think as an entrepreneur, you need to go with the flow, as the economy and the market changes," says Balch. "We need to be able to change our business to meet the market demands."

It's that kind of willingness to make an extreme change that has helped Balch find a new niche providing computer, networking and hardware and software support to small and homebased businesses as well as to individuals in their homes. Her consultants provide service to the Phoenix area. The shift in focus has gone well--sales for 2003 are expected to exceed $1.3 million.

A change in focus for Balch's business also meant a change in her marketing strategy. Whereas before she was marketing directly to the IT managers of large corporations, she now markets her field support business in the yellow pages as well as with an e-mail newsletter that she had initially started for her employees. That newsletter has been transformed and now provides business and technology tips for other small-business owners and offers monthly specials to her clients.

Balch has also been able to evolve her business using emerging technology to run her business more efficiently. Her employees work from home, and they all have cell phones so Balch can reach them easily. "We implemented a new scheduling system that's online and Web-based, and it combines three independent systems I was using before," says Balch. The new system allows her employees to check their schedules online, and she's able to submit work orders and e-mail invoices to her clients.

Even though sales may be down from her peak in her last business, restructuring her business proved to be a wise move: Balch's profit margin is higher. The lesson for anyone stuck in an old way of doing business? "If we think that what we have and do is so great and wonderful that we can always do it the way it is--it worked for me before, so it's going to continue to work--that's the wrong attitude," says Balch. "Just because it worked in the past doesn't mean it's going to work in the future." --Gisela M. Pedroza

Geoff Williams is a writer in Cincinnati. Contact him at

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