We have been a woman-owned entrepreneurial business for 35 years! It is hard to believe that our 35th Anniversary was being celebrated last Fall. When I started a software development company in the 1980’s, I actually tried to hide the fact that we were woman-owned. Not only was I barely past 25 but I was a petite girl in a field that was dominated by men. It still is. Only 25% of my developers are women. From that aspect, not much has changed in my field.
I wasn’t supposed to be in the field of software development. Armed with a business degree which my mother insisted that I get, I was going to continue my education in interior design. By chance, due to a summer job, I ended up as a software developer in the male-dominated industry of manufacturing and distribution. Try being a 26-year old woman whose mission was to instruct a roomful of factory workers on how to do their job using automation. Oddly, everything went well.
I was invited to “power lunches” which were big in those days and sizeable companies chose to implement my software solutions. Generally, when I felt out of place it was more my own doing than the way I was treated. What I found is that if you know your stuff and prove that you can do the job, you will win. Yes, you are going to run into the occasional jerk but you have to be confident in what you know and what you offer.
Today, woman-owned businesses are promoted and even “trendy”. We are celebrating our 35th anniversary as a woman-owned business, yet we did not become a WBENC (Woman Business Enterprise National Council) certified until a couple of years ago. After several of our larger customers asked, we decided that it would be a good move. It was. It is a very detailed process but it is another valuable accomplishment.
Very early in the 80’s we entered the staffing industry. Manufacturing had over 800 competitors and staffing had a handful. With only about 20,000 staffing organizations in play, the range of competitors is still very small today. Staffing turned out to be a great niche market for us. Many times, it is about finding an area that you like and pursuing it.
Back in the 80’s, there was a huge need for automation for staffing. Most of the business were handling orders and candidates completely manually with index cards. Can you imagine running a business with color-coded index cards? Tons of paper! Orders were taken on paper. I found that all very interesting and had to find out more about what made the staffing industry tick! Ownership was fairly male dominated but there were many woman business owners in the field. Some were tough competitors that were very well known on the industry. Finding jobs for people! How cool is that? At the time, little did I know that I would live and breathe staffing for the next 35 years!
That’s how business happens. When you find something that interests you and you find a way to help, your passion will drive your success. It’s a matter of never giving up and thinking positive. Starting any business is painful, especially considering that usually you don’t come into it with a huge amount of money.
What drives you? Confidence that you will meet your goal no matter how long it takes. You have to decide who you are and what you want to be when you grow up and how fast you want to do it. We chose the slower route. We add a select number of accounts per year and one of our keys to client retention is that we rewrite our software every few years to stay current. Even though we are a very dynamic player in the staffing industry, we fly low under the radar. That’s our profile. We like to say we are one of the “best kept secrets in the industry”. That’s not for everyone though. A more aggressive growth approach is another model that can be successful, just in another way.
How do you sustain a business for 35 years? You have to change when your industry changes and constantly challenge yourself. You cannot live in the past or you will not be a part of the future. You will be a “has been”. One of our millennial employees commented to me a few years ago and said, “You’re old but you are ‘updated’.” I was flattered. That’s how I like to think of our company. We’re old but we offer the latest and slickest technology to a select few. We have had customers that were startups and now that are at the top of the industry. That’s gratifying.
Employee retention is very important to us and should be for all businesses. We have a totally modern and updated office with sit-to-stand desks, high-end work café, huddle areas, games, fresh fruit and healthy snacks and other benefits for our very important employees who work hard to service our clients. Investing in your employees should be a top priority. Our employees care about our clients as much as I do. We select employees that have a similar culture philosophy. If you have an employee that does not share the company philosophy, you have to part ways no matter how good they are. Even one employee that does not fit in can drag everyone else down. It is a tough decision to let them go, but owning a business is about making difficult decisions
Now let’s talk about internal business strategy. As a CEO of an entrepreneurial type company, you have to master a few key components. First, remember that you are a company and as CEO you cannot make it personal. The company is NOT YOU. The company is everyone who works there and the clients you service. It’s not about building a legacy, it’s about building a successful organization that supports your employees and your clients. You have to be profitable and sometimes that means not taking business that is not a good fit for your organization.
The second component is that you must have processes for each area of operation. The processes should be written up in a handbook for each department. All workflows should be assessed for validity as the business changes and modified accordingly. Just because you have done something one way for 20 years does not mean it’s the best way for now. Written guidelines are critical so that teams are on the same page.
Next, know when to let go and know when to step in. You cannot get involved in everything and you are not always going to get your own way, even though you own the company. This is good. Here is where the juggling act starts. Give enough power to your people so that they can do their jobs but you still have to stay involved at some level. You may have people at the office that handle things, but you still need to be on top of sales analysis, financials and what’s happening in each department. Get a high-level briefing from all departments at least weekly.
When you implement automation, make sure you have “buy-in” and commitment from the top down. Otherwise, no matter how good the software, it will not be successful. Train your people to use it. Give them some leeway so that they can put their own spin on it, but implement specific parameters that must be adhered to. This will improve flow and allow you to produce strong reporting for business analysis and forecasting.
Want to be a woman-owned business? Just go for it and never look back! The time will never be “right”, you will probably never have enough money, and there is no way to prepare. You will work a lot of hours, there will be ups and downs and you will always ask yourself why am I doing this? The answer will always be, “a relentless passion to succeed at something you know you do well without stops”.