It was one of the strangest conversations of my business career. It happened a decade ago -- and it was the push I needed to shift me into entrepreneurial mode. Here's what happened.
You know the big picture: Around 2000, the dot-com implosion was all around us. And in the IT media market, print advertising evaporated overnight. I did some job hopping around that time. During one of my career stops, a manager approached me with the following request. In addition to my existing responsibilities, the person essentially asked me to "build a new, $1 million business in 12 months."
- The manager didn't know what "that" new business should be.
- The manager had no business plan -- it was on me and a peer to cobble something together.
- It needed to deliver $1 million to the top line in 12 months -- "take 18 months if you need it" -- and a profitable bottom line that eventually delivered at least 35 percent margin.
- The manager didn't really outline what was in it for Joe (that's me), other than lots of vague promises.
Soon, it became part of my unwritten job goal: "Find me $1 million." I noodled the assignment for about a month. I never wrote a business plan. I never formulated any ideas. Instead, I stewed about the lack of vision, lack of direction... and complete lack of customer focus.
And then I reached my a-hah moment: Why should I try to build a $1 million business in a declining market for my employer -- when virtually all the upside goes to that employer?
Who Are We Each Serving?
Don't get me wrong. Over the past three decades I've enjoyed launching new products and services for my employers. But here's the thing:
- The most successful launches always involved a specific customer need -- rather than an employer's urgent revenue need, often to serve debt.
- When you put revenue and debt service first, your customers often come last. Your customers can smell it. They can taste it. And over time, they'll reject it in violent protest.
With those lessons in mind, I left the corporate world and eventually united with another peer in the industry -- Amy Katz. We consulted a bit together in the early 2000's -- and then eventually launched a customer-focused business in 2008. Then we worked for big media and learned quite a bit from peers in other departments -- the type of talent pool that a small business typically can't afford to employ.
As of September 2014, we're together again and back on our own here at After Nines Inc. -- striving to solve a few customer challenges that most companies have overlooked. Yes, Amy has spreadsheets and financial models ready. But ultimately, we're rather enjoying the creative process every step of the way.
PS: I never did find $1 million for that manager. That company ultimately went bankrupt. I wasn't around for the bankruptcy proceedings. Neither were most of the company's former customers...
Subscribe: Want to receive our blog headlines in your inbox each business day? Then subscribe to our enewsletter. Thanks to those who already have.