As Altitude celebrates its 10th birthday (officially this month), I look back with equal parts fondness and amazement and ahead with equal parts wild enthusiasm and fear – because if there is one constant in running a small business it is that the pace of change is dizzying.
Co-founding and co-leading Altitude has been far from textbook and rarely does a day go by where I don’t think about writing the book. About the ups, the downs, the lessons learned, the growth, the characters, the wins, the losses, the stress, the joy, the patterns that repeat themselves, the feeling of freedom and the relentless draining on my limited mindshare …
But – despite being knocked down more than an underdog at an MMA bout – I would do it all over again.
A Need to Deliver
Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you. Trust they are up to the task. Look for those who have fire in the belly and a commitment to doing excellent work.
As a nine-year-old boy on a Boston Globe delivery route, I was hell bent on getting those papers to my customers’ doorsteps on time – even during the infamous Blizzard of ’78. During that epic snowstorm I remember being so focused on not disappointing my customers who counted on the daily delivery for their news. So I schlepped in waist-high snow through the neighborhood and got each of those 28 papers delivered.
That focus on the customer, I believe, is one of the key reasons that Altitude has done what more than two-thirds of the companies that start out never accomplish – seeing their 10th birthday.
But I never could have done it alone.
Laying the Foundation
Prior to setting out on this risky adventure, my wife Michele and I had the hard conversations. “I’ll give you three years and enough rope to either fly or hang,” I recall her saying. “And when you fly, it will be my turn for three years.”
There wasn’t a trace of doubt in her voice implying I wouldn’t succeed; that gave me the additional boost of confidence I needed.
Michele gave me one-third of the confidence I needed to forge ahead. Another one-third came from that entrepreneurial spirit that lived inside me dating back to 1978. The final third came from my long-time friend and co-founder, Stan Zukowski. He was all-in from the day we hatched this idea in the fall of 2003.
I realized early on that success would not be because of me – but because of team. And that started with building a strong leadership team. Stan and I worked together at both Rodale and Lehigh University. We understood that we were tremendously different people with very different perspectives – and skill sets. Mutual respect and a firm understanding of each other’s areas of expertise enabled us to cut through the crap and get more done than imaginable. We often joked that Stan couldn’t open Excel and I couldn’t open Quark Xpress. Together we had right brain and left brain well covered and an excellent Venn diagram.
We grew slowly, sticking to what we did well and avoided taking on debt. I look back on our original business plan and our mission is still the same as it was when we envisioned it late 2003.
But it wasn’t until we brought Gwen Hoover on board as the third leg of the leadership stool that we took off.
Gwen balanced out Stan and my ego and personality, challenged us and pushed us to excellence. She helped shape our identity as an integrated marketing agency that could do for complicated, technology-oriented companies what few agencies could – or wanted to do. We found our identity and focused on building the right team to bring it to life.
Over the last decade, I’ve learned. A lot. Here are my 7 biggest, most important takeaways:
- Surround yourself with great people. Don’t be afraid to hire people who are smarter than you. Trust they are up to the task. Look for those who have fire in the belly and a commitment to doing excellent work. Jack Welch was on to something when he said the bottom 10 percent need to go every year. There is no room for mediocrity in a small business. Your clients will sniff it out, your competitors will pounce on it and the rest of your team will resent having to pull dead weight even if they don’t complain about it.
- Focus on employees. If you only look at the bottom line, you’re measuring the wrong thing. Focus first on your employees. Make them feel like they are part of something. Give everyone a voice. Manage to their strengths. Reward risk. Accept mistakes. Treat them as you want to be treated. In turn, they will treat clients better than they expect. The bottom line will fall into place.
- Run an ethical business. The daily headlines are heart-breaking and cynicism-inducing. Bernie Madoff. Enron. Yahoo’s COO getting a gazillion dollar severance package after 18 failed months on the job. And then there’s the Altitude Marketing in New York State – a Dish Network reseller that regularly dupes customers … and then we get the disgruntled phone calls about unauthorized withdrawals from their customers’ bank accounts. I made a promise to myself early on that if I can’t look my children in the eyes every night and tell them what I did at work that day, it was time to call it quits.
- Give back. I volunteer on Boards, teach classes to entrepreneurs and guest lecture at Lehigh University. We bring on interns. We take calls with startups and do business plan reviews. This takes up a lot of time but I’m a big believer in doing well by others so they, in turn, can pay it forward. Altitude had early champions – Laura Eppler from Ben Franklin Technology Partners is tops on my list – without whom I can’t imagine where we’d be. It’s really a simple concept that is often lost on too many business leaders. Today, we support BFTP any way we can.
- Find time for work-family balance. I’m blessed to have two families. My Altitude family. And my home family. The best part of my work month is personally handing everyone their paycheck, looking them in the eye and saying “Thank you.” I know I wouldn’t be handing myself a paycheck without them. And I know why I’m doing it. I’ve left more than enough money on the table by not knocking myself out working 18-hour days and being constantly on the road. Could I have a few more dollars in my retirement account by now? Absolutely. But at what cost? There is way more to life than cash. Like coaching my son’s baseball team. Taking my daughter to gymnastics. Doing the food shopping. Work-life balance is an essential value of Altitude – and one that team members really appreciate.
- Trust your Spidey Sense. Call it gut. Call it intuition. I call it “Spidey Sense.” Everyone has it – but not everyone can hear it and act on it. I’ve learned the hard way – when bad lessons repeated themselves – to trust it. Learn to snuff it out early and understand that short-term gain will not outweigh the long-term pain if you sense something isn’t going to work out well in the long run.
- Be humble and open. I often think about the great bosses and mentors I’ve had in my professional career. I thank Susan Ebert for taking a chance on me as a 24-year-old know-it-all and knocking me down a peg. Knowing how to be humble goes a long way. And Barbara Newton for showing me how being transparent with the financials in an organization gives everyone the sense that they are in this together. And Nancy Small for showing me that it’s not only OK to be compassionate as a leader, but it moves people to want to work their asses off for you. And Scott Overholt, who to this day is my first call when something goes wrong.
It’s been a crazy – in the best sense of the word – decade. And I can’t wait to see where the next 10 years takes us.