Vince Lombardi Was Wrong

“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing.”  That phrase has been closely associated with the legendary Green Bay Packer football coach, and often very widely quoted.  He supposedly used it as early as 1959 in his opening talk of training camp for the team.  Here in Wisconsin, publicly stating that the coach was anything less than perfect is tantamount to heresy and I’ll probably be tarred and feathered sometime next week.  Bring it.

My point is contextual in nature though.  Recently the company that I lead, Visual Impressions, was named a finalist in the Wisconsin Manufacturer of the Year awards.  There were thirty four companies that made it to the final list and in our category (Small 1 – 99 employees) there were a total of nine companies named.  The black-tie award dinner was fantastic, with Governor Scott Walker giving the keynote address.  It was the Academy Awards of companies that make stuff.

At the awards, right before they announced the winner in our division I reflected on all the great people that give tremendous effort daily at Visual Impressions.  Our talented and creative staff accomplishes more than just screen-printing or embroidering apparel all day.  They provide for their families.  As our customers aren’t just local, every order we ship drives the economic engine for this country.  Shirts that we have decorated are everywhere in the nation, and some even get shipped abroad.  You’ve seen them, you just don’t realize it.  Some of the shirts we’ve printed even have a higher purpose, such as the ones we printed after the Boston Marathon tragedy that raised a tremendous amount of money for the One Fund Boston. (Read my blog article about that experience here – When Lightning Strikes)

That’s how I know Coach Lombardi was wrong.  Winning truly isn’t everything.  It was ok in my heart when Tailored Label Products  won, and we watched them celebrate one table away.  (Congratulations to them – they are awesome by the way!)

Sure it was extraordinary to have Visual Impressions be acknowledged as one of the best run companies in the state.  That doesn’t hurt.  However, I know how incredibly hard our staff works to make Visual Impressions the leader in our industry.  It’s our daily journey that counts.  Our dedication to quality and continuously improving our process has led us to the success and growth we’ve achieved. 

It’s why we are a certified sustainable printer by the Sustainable Green Printing Partnership.  Leading the decorated apparel industry in sustainability is part of our value proposition, and we leverage that fact every day when building our relationships with clients.

It’s why we participated in the very first ScaleUp Milwaukee program which was dedicated in developing the local Entrepreneur Ecosystem.  Getting out of our comfort zone and learning something new will pay off large dividends in the future.

It’s why we love participating in local non-profit fundraising events and activities.  Giving back matters.  It’s not all about you.

It’s why our customers turn to us in the first place.  There are tons of companies that can print a t-shirt or embroider a polo shirt.  Our customers know and appreciate the level of service and dedication to quality that we provide every day.  They constantly turn to us to help resolve some challenging order, or impossible request.  Hitting homeruns for them is a great feeling.

Well, I guess that’s enough chest thumping for now.  Whew.  I feel better too.  All the tuxedos and pretty dresses have been put away, and everyone is back to work.  We didn’t get to snake through the crowd, high-fiving everyone on the way.  I would have loved to hear owner Jay Berman’s speech thanking our staff, customers, vendors and friends.  I’m sure it was a good one.  We’re still the same company.  We’re still going to be giving 110% every day for our customers, striving to improve and learn something new.  Maybe next year our name will be called.  Until then…

Lessons Learned from the Entrepreneur Ecosystem: Scale Up Milwaukee

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Recently the owners and top executives from Visual Impressions “graduated” from the initial class of a project entitled Scale Up Milwaukee (www.scaleupmilwaukee.org).  This was a very interesting class that was taught in four two day sessions by different professors from Babson College in Boston.  It was organized and led by Dan Isenberg, who is a professor of entrepreneurship practice at Babson and frequently writes for Fortune magazine.  The premise was simple, instead of focusing on start-up companies why not teach existing and successful thriving companies the skills and focus to grow their businesses and take them to the next level?  Who wouldn’t want to participate in that?

For me, there were a number of key take-aways and enlightened moments.  One of which is that if you get a bunch of top executives in a room for a few weeks you quickly learn that all of them have similar challenges.  Employee problems, hiring problems, customer retention issues, what do we do next questions, how do we challenge the competition questions, etc.  You are not in this alone.  It was interesting to note that if you look at a company, any company, and think they are perfect and running smoothly you would be wrong.  They are probably struggling with the same challenges that you are facing every day.  During the class, I loved the interaction and “here’s what we did” comments that were freely given during the discussions.  Lightning in a bottle…

A good chunk of the class was devoted to understanding the current state of each company, and actually focusing on where you want to go, what are the next steps, and developing a game plan for execution.  This fostered a lot of internal discussions at Visual Impressions; that are still continuing actually.  I think a lot of companies miss out on this growth opportunity because everyone is just focusing on getting through their day, getting through their week.  Shipping the orders in front of them keeps the blinders on.  Sure, there is always loose talk about next year or next quarter…but actually drawing up a game plan for execution?  Usually that doesn’t happen with growing businesses.  (Notice I didn’t use the phrase “small businesses” – thank you Dan!!)

I took copious notes, and I’m not going to publish them here, but I do want to share some key insights and points that were made during the lecture series as I think many companies could use some direction when thinking about growth.

As I stated, the basic idea about the class was focusing the thought process on developing a plan for growing your existing business.  Every business owner is an expert on their own business and understands their market, customers, pressures, and competition.  Using what you already know, think about these elements and try to envision what would make a successful strategy for the business.  Choose the least risky:

  1. Current Product to Current Market.  This method strives to build more on capturing market penetration with your current business model.  How can you take what you already have and bring in more sales, and capture more of your existing market?  You should consider how well your company performs currently, and what you need to do to strengthen your infrastructure to build on your success.  You should also consider your competition; as they aren’t going to give up their business without a fight.  Also, what are the current challenges with your current product?  Can it be improved?  Can you build more margin somehow?
  2. New Product to Current Market.  Think about how introducing a new product to your current customer base might increase your sales.  You already have customers and successful relationships, so what can you bring to them to bolster your sales?  What is the cost for entry with a new product?  How quickly can you bring it to market?  What do you need to do in house to handle the new sales?  What is the potential downside for adding a new product to your business?
  3. Current Product to New Market.  Think about how you can take your current sales and find a brand new set of customers.  You don’t have to invent anything new, but you do have to expend energy and maybe money finding, recruiting, closing and handling a new set of customers.  What do you need to accomplish this?  Would you need to hire a new sales force?  Increase your current infrastructure?  How do you locate the new market?  What are your competitors doing?
  4. New Product to New Market.  This is the riskiest, as you are basically launching a rocket into outer space and hoping for success with untried products and markets.  To pull this off, you need to quickly grasp and comprehend factors that are going to either lead you to success or failure.  You may need to make adjustments often and early.  Be quick and nimble in your decision making.  Here’s where the phrase “fail fast” comes into play as you don’t want to drain unnecessary capital chasing your tail.  However, the reward for success could be higher and lead to even greater opportunities down the road.  Are you willing to roll the dice?

So, what would you do?  Pick one (or more) of these and develop your strategy.  Be sure to have a crystal clear strategy surrounding the plan that details expectations, investment capital, job duties, estimations on metrics, and the most important “how will you know if you are successful” statements.  Use SMART goals.  (Specific, Measureable, Achievable, Realistic & Time Based)

Another great point that was shared during the discussions was how to handle objections.  You want to get to “NO” as fast as you can, as there is opportunity with NO.  NO is a natural part of the buying process, and presents a good opportunity to learn about your customer, your product or your company.  NO says your client is listening, and outlines their concerns.  If you address the concerns, you can get to something better…which is a YES.  Some factors of NO:

  1. Misconception.  Maybe the customer doesn’t understand the product.  Think about how you are presenting the product, its value and how the customer will use it.  Do they comprehend all the facts?  Make it easy for them to understand the benefits, and take away any misinformation.  How are you currently educating your customers about your product?
  2. Skepticism.  Maybe the customer is too cautious or uncertain that your product will work the way it is supposed to.  Demonstrate your product and show the benefits.  This is your opportunity to show them the value and build the trust that they need to say YES.  Make it obvious.
  3. Real Drawback.  Maybe the customer is correct and your product doesn’t meet the challenge that they need it to perform.  Here’s your chance to redesign it or add new features to the product to get to YES.  Or, do you have something else to offer that would work?  Here’s your chance to learn from your customer.
  4. Real Complaint.  Your customer may have had past experiences that are influencing their decision.  Ask more detailed questions and find out the circumstances.  Build your case that your product will meet or exceed those challenges.  Handle the complaint first.  Empathize.

The lesson here is how do you handle your NO’s?  What do your customers say?  Write down their objections and find the counter-argument and develop the strategy to get to YES.  This could be with more education about your company, or maybe you have to change something with your product offering.  Boil it down and focus on eliminating anything that gets in the way to the YES sales statement.

Our team at Visual Impressions is working to develop our strategy for 2014 based on the lessons learned during this class.  Can you guess what that strategy might be, based on the two points outlined above?  By the way, our stated goal during the class is to shoot for an 18% sales growth over the next year.  We used conservative numbers, and really looked at a lot of factors to determine that number.  I’m very optimistic that we can hit our target.  Of course, I’m not going to publish that strategy – loose lips sink ships – but over the remainder of the days left in 2013 we will be diligently refining our plan and working on executing it with gusto.  This is where things get exciting!!

If Two Heads Are Better Than One – What About Twelve?

This past week Visual Impressions has been participating in a pilot business development program here in Milwaukee entitled either “Scalerator” or “Scale Up Milwaukee”.  (http://scaleupmilwaukee.org/)  I feel incredibly privileged to be part of this fantastic event, and thought a brief update on this initiative would make a good blog article for this week.

The concept from Dan Isenberg was simple.  Many business pundits and experts are constantly focusing their attention on startups and use that as an indicator for growth.  As most startups fail, or take a good chunk of time to grow their business into something worthwhile, maybe the focus of the discussion should be taking existing successful businesses and giving them the tools to grow their business and hit the next level.  Taking a $5 million dollar company and turning it into a $10-20 million dollar company would have a bigger impact on the economy than taking a startup from $0 and having it reach its first $1 million in sales.  Dan’s viewpoint is rock solid and he’s calling this an Entrepreneurship Ecosystem project.

There are twelve diverse businesses involved in this first group.  Every one of them successful, and based on the insightful and laser focused comments presented during the first two days of the class, it is easy to see why.  The class is divided up into four, two day discussions.  Each segment has its own set of goals and individual itinerary, with the end goal being getting a new roadmap for success outlined that is individually tailored to each business participating.

The first class was taught by Professor Vinny Onyemah, from Babson College in Boston, (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Babson_College) the leading entrepreneurial academic institution on the planet.  His energy and enthusiasm that he brings to delivering the information is incredible.  He presents his material and guides the class into some really fantastic discussions.  Class members are keen to help each other and offer suggestions, or ask focused follow up questions that provoke some “what if” scenarios that each company can start to work on.

For Visual Impressions, we are going to be working on how we can focus our attention on what has driven our past success, and what we need to do in order to replicate that success and drive more growth.  As we are a key player in the textile contract decorating industry, our growth is going to be tied into finding new partners in the ad specialty, promotional item, and advertising industries.  Our client base is already made up of many of the leading firms in these areas.  Over the course of the class, we will determine our methodology and planning on how to attract more business from this sector and develop a successful game plan.  What is truly wonderful about the Scale Up initiative so far, has been the fantastic dialog and interaction with other companies in the group and the leadership of the class instruction.

Full credit for the Scale Up Milwaukee initiative must be given to the Greater Milwaukee Committee (http://innovationinmilwaukee.com/), Mayor Tom Barrett, University Wisconsin-Milwaukee (http://www4.uwm.edu/), and American Express Open (https://www.openforum.com/explore/) for backing the project.  This event could have been held in any number of major business areas in the United States.  To start this endeavor in Milwaukee really shows that the area is truly “Open for Business”.