Entrepreneur

5 lessons learned from my company’s low point

(Editor’s note: Razor Suleman is the founder and CEO of I Love Rewards. He submitted this story to VentureBeat.)

In 2005, I hit a low and tried to quit my own business.  Customer service was spotty. Employees (including myself) were disengaged. And turnover was high.Instead of quitting, though, I took responsibility to change the trajectory of the company by listening and reflecting.  Since then, the company has experienced 108 percent year-over-year growth.  It wasn’t an easy climb, but I did learn a few lessons along the way – and they’re the sort of thing that can apply to any start-up or entrepreneur:

Find exceptional mentorship. You are the company you keep, so keep smart company.  Join entrepreneur organizations and groups. Identify CEOs and companies that you aspire to be like and borrow what you admire about them. Mentorship helped form I Love Rewards’ top priority: To recruit, retain, and inspire A-players. The original mentorship I received eventually expanded into a network and the business strategy shifted into a collective effort.

Learn from failure and celebrate success. Sometimes we win, sometimes we learn.  Encourage employees to take necessary risks and ask for forgiveness later.  Risks often result in the biggest gains.  When we learn, processes are revised and changes are implemented immediately.  When we win, celebration is in order and our egos can make a guest appearance.

If you’re after continued success, celebrating victories is actually an important step in the process. Recognition tends to result in repetition of the behaviors associated with it.

Listen closely and be responsive to customer feedback. The world that’s flying by is constantly reforming the nature of every trade.  Don’t lose sight of external changes and create a strategy that can be nimble, if need be. Make it a priority to be responsive to challenges set forth by changes in the landscape of your industry.

Clients are often the best resource for innovation. Be customer centric and continuously listen to their needs.  If there’s something they want that has yet to be created, use it as an opportunity to stay ahead of the business curve and set the standard for competitors.  By soliciting client feedback, you can pave the path for new product innovations and service offerings.  We look, listen, and rework our strategic vision annually to reflect the changes and needs of our customers and industry.  As a result, our customer retention rate is at 99 percent.

Align employees with the final vision (and vice versa). You can’t tell your employees the final destination without mapping out how to get there, because they won’t want to (or be able to) go on the journey with you.  On the flip side, employees need to be actively involved in the process. Trends are moving further away from traditional top down execution towards a 360-degree democratic approach. This year 82 percent of our staff participated in brainstorming sessions where big ideas on instrumental business decisions were encouraged.

Employee feedback is another resource for growth and innovation. Don’t underestimate any employee’s ability in this arena.  By giving employees reasonable autonomy and say in strategy, business has the potential to evolve into something much greater than was set forth in the initial vision.  By listening to employees you will also engage them, increase their loyalty and investment in the company, and generate a level of customer service that is sure to drive your bottom line.  Just look at Zappos.

Care, share, and be fair. This is one of our values and it pertains to employees, customers, and the communities we work in.  People respect an organization that gives back.  Share success with employees, otherwise your entrepreneurship will be a lonely road.  Care about your customers, they’ll be your biggest proponents.  Contribute to the community that helps sustain you by volunteering and donating to charities.  Circle back and be a mentor to someone else.  Business is a collaborative effort, so make sure to share your umbrella with everyone.


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