COMING TO THE STAGE
In the early 1990s the legendary Apollo Theater was catapulted into mainstream popularity with their television production It’s Showtime at the Apollo. They introduced to some and presented to others many entertainers and performers with their signature announcement, “Coming to the stage … !” It didn’t always mean the amateur performers would be ready for their nationally televised debut or that the crowd would be ready for them, but they were, no doubt, up next. Did they perfect their act before standing in front of the audience? Were they dressed appropriately to be taken seriously on national television? Did they have the technical precision and expertise to make a smash hit right from the start? Whether or not they had all those things covered, when they heard “Coming to the stage … !” it meant their opportunity had come. And ready or not, they needed to make the best of it.
A start-up business can and should operate in the same manner. Whether launching a new product or creating a new promotion for an established venture, you won’t always be able to tell when it’s the right time, but when you hear your calling you need to make a move. The moment may not always seem right and sometimes the environment may even create obstacles for your entry into the market. But once you have decided it is your time, you need to make a bold move and get started. Get to the stage, in good times or bad times, with your bright ideas and push to create opportunities to make it happen the way you have so often dreamed that it would.
Even in uncertain times you can build a business and be successful. You won’t always be able to predict what will occur in the market that will affect your business but you must be ready. Since there is never a “good time” to start your business or push out with your idea, assess your timing, tolerance and the environment and make the best of it with a bold move. Get to the stage now! Is the market ready for you? Are you ready for the market? Unless you are willing to put your dreams on hold like most people do, find the courage to start from where you are. Make a bold move and get to the stage now! Now is the time that you can win it all—by creating a solid plan, taking action, and making a series of bold moves required to gain momentum on your current or planned business. It won’t be easy and it won’t always look good, but if you can weather the storms that will surely confront you in the early business years, you can come out on top. If you can secure financing, attract talented professionals, and create lasting impressions with clients, then you are trending in the right direction. Do you have a “Coming to the stage” story or moment? I’m sure you do and it lies deep within you. But the challenge is to get it out, so plan on making bold moves!
My “Coming to the stage” moment occurs throughout the pages of this book as I recount how our firm got started and offer tips you can use to create your own version of success. I know you can do it because I did it, and I achieved my definition of business success in a very short period of time. As a matter of fact, I will share lessons I learned and applied over a 500-day period—less than a year and a half—that led me to build a new business that grossed approximately $3 million in 2009, in the midst of a depression-era economy. It didn’t seem like the best time to quit a job and start a new venture but I did. It didn’t seem that I could attract financing to buy my own building in a depressed market but I did. It didn’t seem that people would give me a chance and work for me as I followed my dreams but they did. I was making bold moves, trying to get to the stage where I could make my own decisions and be the titan in business I had so often read about through other people’s stories.
For us, the business is construction management, which many people have never heard of. It’s a professional discipline that orchestrates and synthesizes all of the elements of the building process for an owner. Construction managers become the eyes and ears of an owner, who may have money to build a new project but not necessarily the time or expertise to negotiate and manage issues associated with architects, contractors, communities, and building departments on new construction or renovation projects. We manage the building process on commercial projects largely consisting of public sector city and state government entities where construction and development is usually fraught with all kinds of problems, including environmental concerns, land rights, community workforce demands, contractor pricing and evaluation, architect and engineering drawing interpretation, project scheduling, and subcontractor and vendor diversity and utilization, as well as legal contracting dispute resolution. This is our business and our firm is called NobleStrategy! We know this business can be tough for owners and that it requires a planned, tactical strategy to execute any project with so many complex issues. We believe if we can think strategically for the benefit of our clients, we can cause them to win with our approach. As long as our approach is true and steadfast, we consider it noble. Once we start with a noble approach, we end up with a noble strategy for the client win! A noble approach … a NobleStrategy.
Our quick rise to prominence occurred during the worst recession the United States has seen since 1931. With banks failing, businesses closing, and employee layoffs on the rise, we were able to jump into the market, build a successful brand, and make a major contribution to our industry from a virtually unknown status a few years earlier. Facing major corporate collapses and a shrinking economy, and tagged by rising unemployment, President Barack Obama implemented three government-funded stimulus plans to keep major industry and employers afloat. But the planned residual effects didn’t exactly trickle down to small business. Nonetheless, we planned to succeed and that’s what we reached for. We made some great moves along the way, creating relationships that propelled our firm. But we also made some decisions that did not bear fruit.
One of our worst decisions was pursuing work for a government entity that was really all about politics without really being concerned about what was required to assist with business growth. We made the honest mistake of trying to do our best job for the client and, in the process, ended up offending a favored contractor. I didn’t realize it at the time but our pressing attempts to confirm work and contracting commitments wasn’t appreciated by those who had the influence at the time. We quickly learned that politics and political favor rule the day and play a very important role in business. We never had the opportunity to grow with the agency and, ultimately, decided not to pursue any more of their work. The good news is, because we were growing but still small, we could quickly change direction and deploy resources in a more efficient manner. Even with the grim financial news that permeated our daily lives from late 2007 through 2010, our firm somehow found a way to prosper and actually grew to record success.
In the first three formal years our business operated, we were able to increase revenue and staff by at least 30% each year from 2006 to 2009. We built a strong brand in an overcrowded market and established a reputation for creative solutions for clients, causing them to win. I was ecstatic when I learned that after six months in operation, we had grossed almost $750K. This was really a confidence builder. We came out of the gate and nearly made three quarters of a million dollars. What a rush! While it may have seemed that we were always ready to come to the stage with our brand and solutions, all the conditions were not right for us to start when we did. However, if you wait for perfect conditions, you may never get started. I wasn’t going to wait any longer than I had to and grew quite impatient trying to prepare for the right time.
I had formulated a well-crafted extraction plan for quitting my job and starting the business. My extraction plan included strategically placed vacation days, education, and a few key milestones I knew I would have to meet before I was ready to board the “pink slip express” from my job. Folks who quickly left the district, or got fired, were known to have punched a ticket on the “pink slip express,” which was a one-way trip to the unemployment line! My introduction to the market and preparation to start a business actually started prior to the birth of that extraction plan, back in 2002.
July 1, 2002, I took a job as the director of the design and construction department at a major school district in New Jersey. With close to 100 facilities—consisting of 86 schools and various technology centers, sports facilities and warehouses—an annual budget of over $990,000 was required to operate the organization. At the time, New Jersey’s landmark Supreme Court decision, Abbott vs. Burke, declared that underserved school districts in New Jersey should receive the same funding for education and facilities as the “better off” suburban districts. Among other things, the Educational Facilities Construction and Finance Act of 1999 required the state of New Jersey to fund the Abbott school district’s long-range facility plans (LRFP), including land acquisition, renovation costs and the construction of new school buildings and additions. In our district, the LRFP was valued at close to $1.6 billion, which involved building 40 new schools and 30 major renovations throughout the district, including approximately $100 million in local health and safety upgrade projects.
It was a great time to be in the center of all the action and I was there! But I knew that was not all that I wanted and still yearned for more. Before the end of the year, in August 2002 and after a consultation with my accountant, I had put my plan on paper and created my initial Limited Liability Company (L.L.C.) filing to start my venture. Although I had no formal office, no dedicated phone line, and no employees—or customers for that matter—I had the beginning of my dream, in physical form.
In the school district I worked with a largely unionized workforce that included some very talented individuals who had been taxed by the system and were only concerned with doing enough to exist until retirement. It was really shocking to hear folks who had seemingly bright futures complain about their work environment and decide to do nothing but say, “I’ll just keep quiet, do my next 14 years and retire.” I can’t say in all cases that I blame them for adopting that survival mentality in such a large organization. Working in large public agency environments requires you to play a numbers game of cost benefits analysis all the time. Considering the strong incentive of pensions, covered health care, and retirement savings, if you worked at one of the large agencies, it almost didn’t make sense for you to leave after six or seven years. Many people, who probably had greater dreams, perhaps did the analysis and decided that, financially, it would be more worthwhile to stay there another 13 or 14 years, even if they were not happy with the conditions.
I knew I did not want to adopt that just-exist-until-retirement mentality so I had to have a plan to get out and get moving toward my own “stage” in a short period of time. I learned all I could about local politics and created all the relationships I had the opportunity to during those early years. I also filed and paid taxes on any consulting work that may have come my way during the initial years. Whatever I did was included in my new firm resume and recorded on my client job list since I knew I would be required to show actual clients I had worked for. Whether I was consulting with my church to find audio-visual professionals for a planned sanctuary sound system renovation (new speakers) or providing advice and counsel on how to raise enough money to renovate the building’s relief facilities (church bathrooms), it was included on my client job list. Even if someone asked for my opinion on local zoning ordinances and how they might approach their building plans, it was included on my client job list.
Believe it or not, a coworker at the time wanted to build a dog house in her back yard but was limited by rear yard and side setback zoning ordinances that restricted the size of the doghouse she could have built. I did say my business was construction management and perhaps you have heard the saying, “There is no job too big or too small.” That was me in the beginning.
I reviewed her plans, consulted the zoning ordinance and instructed her on where to turn to petition the town for a zoning variance from the ordinance and how to select architectural professionals for her project. I know it was just a doghouse but this was the beginning of me providing my service to owners and clients who needed assistance and resources to pull together what was necessary to get their projects moving.
I continued to provide services for smaller, private projects and grossed about $2,500 in 2003, $7,500 in 2004, and about $11,000 in 2005. Not a whole lot of cash but certainly part of my extraction plan to show the track record necessary to obtain minority business certifications with state agencies. At that time the state division of commerce required you to have been in business at least three years and be able to prove you had filed tax returns showing activity or revenue for each of those years.
Next I calculated how I would market to my target audience after my initial business planning detailed my immediate needs. I knew I would need cash down the road and started to educate myself on buying investment property. My wife and I purchased our first investment property in 2002 for $75,000 in Hampton, Virginia and that purchase would become the genesis of start-up capital for my venture through a mortgage refinance. During that time I was on fire reading books and my favorite was Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. I soaked up all I could on investment, money and business and received a pretty good financial education through my accountant/advisor and my self-study habits. While I was feeling good about how things were moving, I still didn’t know when that magical time would come when I would be ready to quit my job and jump into entrepreneurship full time.
In December 2004 I received what I considered an unfair employee review from my boss and was very concerned about my future. I reached out to my support system, asked questions and, ultimately, requested a meeting with the superintendent of the school district to discuss what happened. Uncertain of how I would be received and unclear on what happened leading up to the meeting with the superintendent, I knew I would need to be prepared for the worst-case scenario—unplanned termination. As I prepared for the meeting, I envisioned it going down the way it happens in the movies—
the young upstart professional walks into the boss’ office, makes a couple of demands that fall on deaf ears, then whips out a prepared resignation letter and signs it on the spot! It looks like a pretty cool display of power when it happens in the movies.
My meeting did not go that way at all. However, I did walk in with a prepared resignation letter and thought I was prepared to pull it out and sign it if things didn’t go my way. Well, I didn’t use my letter on that day. Instead, during the conversation, which really wasn’t a conversation at all, I quickly learned that the cards were not in my favor, considering the loyalty and relationships I thought I had built but, apparently, had not. The superintendent expressed his allegiance to my boss and told me I needed to work it out with him. I left his office dazed and amazed as I wrestled with how this would all work out. Not knowing when the right time would come to quit and launch the business, I continued to prepare and started to market more heavily for new opportunities. A couple of days later I was called into the business administrator’s office. In a very casual manner I was told that the superintendent wanted my resignation because he felt I was no longer a team player. Wow! Ouch. I hadn’t exactly expected it, but I had just been fired!
It was negotiated that I would stay on in my position until the end of the school year, June 30, 2005. I left the business administrator’s office thankful that I had received my sign from God to move on to better things, but I felt very uneasy about the immediacy of it all. It was a shock because, while I had prepared for the possibility of being terminated and thought I was ready, what if I was not? Ready or not, though, it was indeed time for me to prepare to come to the stage with my bright ideas and concept for a new business. I summoned the courage to call my wife and tell her that I had just been liberated, but I knew she would be concerned as we had not had all the time we thought we needed to make sure we’d have a smooth transition. Nonetheless, my time in the district was up and it was time to perform on my own. While I tell folks I was ready to go and left the district to start my firm at just the right time, in reality I received a gigantic kick out the door from my boss.
Perhaps if I had not been pushed I might not have written this book. As my hysteria began to subside and the questions about how I would provide for my family faded, I heard that familiar call I knew required me to make a bold move, whether I was prepared or not: “Next, coming to the stage … !
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