Episode 67: Why Did Your Business Succeed?

Episode 67: Why Did Your Business Succeed?

Introduction:

This week, we talk about how much of success is making the right decisions. How much is being in the right place at the right time? And how much is just pure luck? “I think that’s the thing nobody wants to talk about,” Paul Downs tells us, “because it implies that there’s a lot to success that is out of the control of the entrepreneur, and we’re much more attracted as human beings to stories of people who have agency and are like, Oh, there’s a problem. I did this, and I won. That’s what we like to hear.” So yeah, there’s always luck involved. But there are always forks in the road, and someone has to decide which way to go. This week we hear how a few of those key decisions played out.

— Loren Feldman

Guests:

Karen Clark Cole is co-founder and CEO of Blink.

William Vanderbloemen is founder and CEO of Vanderbloemen Search Group.

Paul Downs is founder of Paul Downs Cabinetmakers.

Producer:

Jess Thoubboron is founder of Blank Word Productions.

Full Episode Transcript:

Loren Feldman:
Welcome, Karen, Paul and William, great to have you here. I usually ask you guys about what’s going on right now, how your businesses are doing. But today, I’d like to take a step back and talk about how you built your businesses. Specifically, I want to ask each of you to tell us what you think were the three most important decisions that you made in building your businesses. Paul, can I start with you?

Paul Downs:
Sure. I think number one was to stick with a single product, and I had to make that decision twice—the first time, when I opened up, most people whose business name includes the word “cabinetmaker,” like mine does, make a variety of things for the house, like kitchen cabinets, or TV cabinets, or libraries, or built-in stuff like that. I decided I just wanted to make furniture, and that specialization served me well. In 1999, when we put up our first website, it was all about furniture. And that led to Google picking one of the images off that and saying, “Hey, world, if you want a conference table, go to Downs.” And so I then made another decision to switch from all the furniture we had been making into just making conference tables. The world rewards specialists, and so I think that that was a good decision, trying to narrow my focus rather than widen it.

The second decision that I made, that maybe wasn’t a complete triumph, but I think on the whole worked out well was to take on a partner. I made that decision in 2002, and the story of the partner includes a lot of pain, and it ended badly in terms of the partnership is no longer operating. But what that did do was get me out of a pattern of being stuck at the size I was, which was about 600,000 a year, and five guys. And for the first time, I had some help in trying to grow the business. That was actually critical, an injection of capital, and as it turned out, the addition of a person who was technologically quite savvy to my team and was able to get us set up with modern IT infrastructure. Eventually, my partner’s daughter wrote a custom database for us that we still use today, which is just an incredibly good piece of software. So even though the partnership wasn’t successful, in terms of profit and loss, it put me in a different place than I would have been on my own.

And then the third decision—and I think, Loren, you’ll remember this—was in a moment of despair, I sent an email to you when you were writing for The New York Times, offering to write about what it would be like when my business failed. That set in motion a whole sequence of events that really changed my life. And what I had not done much of prior to that moment was forming a network or reaching out to the wider world to figure out whether my troubles were unique or not. I had low expectations for success on that email, and so it was sort of a spectacular result from a very small effort. It led to my opportunity to write for The New York Times, and out of that, I was able to completely change my worldview about the value of reaching out to people and the value of forming networks. So those are my three decisions.

Loren Feldman:
I certainly did not expect to make your list. Let’s start with that one. I think that would surprise a lot of people, that writing a blog about your business would be in some way transformative. Can you tell us a little more about that? Why did that make such a big difference?

Paul Downs:
Well, there are a couple of things about it. One was sort of the Harry Potter living under the stairs aspect of, to date, to the moment I wrote that email, I think if you added up the scorecard of my business life, you would call me a failure. And it turned out that I had a different skill that I’d never really tried to use, which was writing, that was at much more of a world-class level. Like, I could just do that. And I think that saying to someone, “Blogging about your business is a good thing,” is always true, because it forces you to think about what you’re doing and to try to describe it. But having the opportunity to blog about your business in The New York Times the first time you try it, it was just just an incredible opportunity. And what it did was it put me in touch with many, many thousands of readers who had feedback for me about the things I was talking about. And it just put me on a path toward actually solving my problems, as opposed to just wallowing in them. So I got a personal boost, and I got great advice from the outside world.

Loren Feldman:
I think most people hearing this story would leap to the conclusion that the way blogging in The New York Times helped you was by exposing what you were doing to a much broader audience and resulting in a lot more sales. But I don’t think that’s what you’re saying.

Paul Downs:
No, I did not expect it to have any effect on sales, and it did not have any effect on sales, as far as I could tell. It did probably have some effect on the page rankings of our website, because I had live links into The Times every week, and that’s pretty good. But we had already established ourselves with Google as being a credible source of conference tables. So the temptation when you first hired me was to try to turn it into some PR exercise, but that’s just against my nature. Like, I’m not interested in doing that. I don’t think that’s interesting.

Loren Feldman:
I wasn’t really interested in that either, Paul.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, I mean, I tried to tell the truth about what I knew and what I didn’t know. And that worked out really well. I had some small expectation that there would be some of the trappings of celebrity to that job, aAnd that did not happen at all. Nobody really like, “Oh, here’s a new voice of small business,” and asked me to do a bunch of things.

Loren Feldman:
Well, you did get a book contract out of it.

Paul Downs:
After a few years, but it wasn’t immediate. And what was really immediate was just people who read my story taking the time to comment in The Times, and sharing their experiences in a very generous way. That’s what set me on the road toward fixing some of these problems.

William Vanderbloemen:
I’m interested, Paul, when you talk about how blogging didn’t lead to sales directly. I caught Loren in a weak moment when he was at Forbes, and he agreed to let me write for them. And I don’t know that I had a new contact come to me because they read a Forbes article and then found me, but boy, I did see direct sales from people who were wondering about my legitimacy. And then blogging on a platform with the respect that Forbes has increased my credibility. Did you find any of that to be the case for you?

Paul Downs:
Maybe. It seems like the vast majority of people who contact us are simply looking for a product. They find the website, and they start talking to us, and they don’t spend any time investigating me as a person, because we present ourselves as credible. Also, the nature of what they’re trying to accomplish is generally just to buy a thing, and they don’t anticipate any kind of long-term relationship. I have a feeling that your business is just different, and maybe your clients are different. And I would never say that my experience in any way is going to be universally applicable, so I wouldn’t want to discourage people from blogging. And if you get a chance to be in a reputable venue, you should definitely take it, and maybe it will do wonders for your business. It’s just that it didn’t move the needle, as far as I can tell, for my business.

William Vanderbloemen:
One of the things that we have fought since day one, as an exec search firm, is the fact that there’s no barrier for entry into search. You just hang a shingle and say, “I do search.” It’s kind of like used car sales. The fight for us was to build a brand that was viewed as credible, believable, trustworthy, in an industry that doesn’t require that. And I can’t say I sat down and had this premeditated idea to go to Forbes, because that would get things done, but in hindsight, that’s exactly what happened. So I guess, if I were smarter, and we were starting a business, I’d sit down and say, “What are the major perception issues my business is going to face? And how do I address that?”

Loren Feldman:
Paul, I’d like to go back to one of your other decisions, the one with a partner, which I find so interesting. That’s actually something you blogged about at The Times quite a bit. And in fact, that’s where you started, talking about how that relationship went south. And as you said, how it ended badly. Given how badly it ended, can you tell us a little bit more about why you think of it in positive terms?

Paul Downs:
Well, first I’m going to tell—for your listeners who don’t know—the brief story of the partnership. So in 2002, I’m 40 years old. I’ve got a house full of little kids. I’m trying to figure out how to scale a woodworking business and not coming up with any easy answers. Because at the end of the day, you’ve got to build everything you sell. And this guy walks in my office and basically says, “Hey, my wife and I want to get a dining set from you.” And after we went through that process, he said, “You did a really nice job. I’m recently retired out of a manufacturing business, and I’m looking for the next thing for myself. Would you be interested in being partners?”

And I was, mostly because I felt so entirely stuck in my life, feeling like I could not get out, I could not advance from where I was, because I just didn’t have the resources or the know-how or the money. And I looked carefully into this gentleman as much as possible, and found that he had a good reputation and his kids liked him. There didn’t seem to be anything obviously wrong with him. And I liked him. He was a very personable guy, and a smart guy, too. And I liked his wife a lot, too, and so I went ahead with it. And then, it turned out that he and his wife had always acted as a team. He was the big ideas guy and the personable guy and sort of the front man on their teamwork, and she was the nuts and bolts person. She was a CPA, and she actually took care of a lot of the minutiae of the businesses that they were both involved in.

And so when I realized that, I was like, “Oh, bonus, I get two people for the price of one.” And Mary, my partner’s wife, came to my office and immediately started work to set up our books and set up our QuickBooks and fix all these things that I didn’t know how to do. And then about a month after she started that effort, she just died in her sleep one night. She had a heart attack and didn’t wake up. And that was devastating to, obviously, my partner, and devastating to the partnership in a way that I didn’t even really realize until years later, which was that a really important part of the way he had become successful had been removed. His ideas of how to grow the business were maybe not well-suited toward the manufacturing environment we were in. They were more based on what had worked in the 80’s and 90’s. And then Mary, his wife, just being out of the picture, there wasn’t any voice of reason reining him in. And I didn’t know enough to question his abilities, because he was the only source of information I had at the time.

So for a number of years, we tried to grow by simply growing capacity and hoping the sales would follow and we never placed much emphasis on productivity. And then the whole thing with Google putting us in the conference table business came along, and that caused a complete shift in our direction that, again, we didn’t really know how to handle. But it was a good business, so we didn’t fail immediately. At the end of the day, we went through the big recession, and that was quite difficult, because he just had a different idea of how we should go through it than I did. And we ended up not talking to each other for a while, but—and this is entirely to his credit—he was not a bad guy. He was a good guy. Larry Bell, you are a good guy, if you’re listening to this. He had the opportunity to kind of go to war with me and destroy the company, and he decided not to do it. And he ended up losing about half a million bucks.

And then at a certain point, he took a buyout offer from my father and brother, and they bought his stocks out. So the partnership ended, a lot of money was lost, but we didn’t go to war. We never hated each other. We were able to have lunch afterward. And I learned a really valuable lesson from him, which is that there’s no amount of money that’s worth being a dick. I feel like business is a social enterprise and that there’s often decisions I make to take home a little less money and to do better by the people who work for me or my customers. And so I guess that’s the story of the partnership.

Loren Feldman:
William, how about you? Can you give us the three most important decisions in your business?

William Vanderbloemen:
I think one of the things looking back that—assuming this works as a long-term business—one of the things that I got right that I don’t always get right—I’ve messed it up a bunch of times—is before I ever started the business, or even took a step down that path, I talked to Adrienne about the idea—

Loren Feldman:
Your wife.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yes, my wife.

Loren Feldman:
And co-founder.

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s right, to make sure that she was on board. And I’ve told this story many times, so forgive me if I repeat, but I worked in churches for a long time, was a senior pastor at a great church in Houston. They took almost three years to find me in their search. I was there [for] about six. They took almost three years to find my successor. And none of that was abnormal for the church world. And then I go into business, and I see the Fortune 200 company that I’m working at go through a CEO search in about 90 or 100 days, seamlessly with good quality. I’m like, “Wow, what is that? That’s so fast.”

And I came home and I said, “Adrienne, I think I’m supposed to quit my job and start something new for churches. I mean, why can’t we build something like this, right?” And she just looked at me and said, “That’s because churches love new ideas, right?” Which, no, they don’t. But she said, “Let’s give it a try. And man, the number of entrepreneurs I’ve met—even ones who’ve built successful businesses—who have a wrecked home life is just through the roof. And I think I have to guess that as entrepreneurs, we probably have a higher percentage of failure at home than most other jobs. And so I can’t claim credit for it. I don’t always get it right. But maybe the single biggest decision that I got right in starting our business was checking at home first to see if my wife was on board with putting all of our very few eggs in a basket called this new business to see which way it would go. A house divided cannot stand. It just won’t.

That’d be one thing. Early on, when we started to take off, we were serving several very high-growth clients. And I went to as many of them as I could find, and said, “Who helps you plan for growth?” And I got a lot of different answers, but one name came up three or four times. I wouldn’t call him a mentor, but he spent sessions with me asking questions that expanded my thinking, and one in particular led to one of my three critical decisions. He said, “Look, William, here’s how I see this new idea that seems to be catching some traction. I think you will either be a one-man boutique, or this is going to scale much bigger than you ever thought. And either path is fine.” He said, “I’m a one-man boutique. When I die, this goes away. I have a line out the door, and you have to know somebody to get in. And that’s fine, I make a good living. I think I’m adding value. I’m a terrible manager. I don’t think I would do a good job of running a big business. So this is the right path for me. And that may be the right path for you,” he said. “But I don’t see a middle ground. It’s either going to be: Are you the one specialist in this thing that the whole world wants? Or are you supposed to build something out that scales?”

And we really dropped back and thought long and hard about that. You can’t just decide to grow a big business. And there are a lot of things that grow faster than we do. But Adrienne and I decided, “You know what? I think we want to try and do whatever we can to build a scalable, repeatable business and see how much it’ll grow.” We’ve also made decisions that have kept us from growing faster—as people like the Small Giants community know. Sometimes you make a decision in your business that’s not going to result in huge growth, and you’re okay with that. But the decision to say, “Let’s scale and grow,” I’ve thrown nearly every decision we’ve made since then through the lens of: Will it scale and repeat? And that’d be a second one.

The third one, which I think led to some of our friendship, Loren, is I felt like providing quality content for our audience might be the key to unlocking growth. And it’s very particular. Everybody’s about content now. I did a podcast for a business here in town yesterday, and they’re just doing a podcast because everybody’s doing a podcast. They don’t really have a “why” behind it. But in our case, we were trying to help churches find their pastor. I did my seminary work where you live, Loren, at Princeton. And you would think coming out of there, you’d be fairly well equipped. They taught me a lot of great things, but I knew nothing about how to run a staff meeting, how to hire people, how to fire people, how to do evaluations—all of the things that you need to know to run a team. And I found that there’s just not a seminary or bible college that teaches any of that.

Karen Clark Cole:
Not just seminaries. Does any college teach that? Those are basic skills, right?

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s a great question, Karen. Maybe I need to expand on my business. But I know in our little sector, it’s bad. You come out with this Master’s from Princeton, and everybody expects you to be able to build a budget. You don’t even know how to read a statement of cash. So, for me, there was this giant gap no one was filling of content that wasn’t hard to write but wasn’t available anywhere else. And so we started a blogging platform. I require everyone at our company to produce content for the company, which also means you’ve got to think about intellectual property and lots of other things.

But for us, content was king. I think if you go on our site now, we’ve gotten rid of some things that are dated or anachronistic. But there are roughly 3,000 free resources for how to build and run and keep a great team on our site. And then there are other things, like we started to do succession planning for ministry-related organizations. There’s nothing like that, so we blogged about it. But eventually, we wrote a book about it that has sold way, way, way more copies than we ever projected. So for us, it hopefully has positioned us as thought leader and not vendor, as trusted advisor and not some dude you meet in a dark alley who has a rolodex with some good names. So I would say checking with my wife, number one. Number two, figuring out whether or not we were going to do boutique or scale. And then number three, stumbling into this idea that there’s a content gap we could fill that would enable growth for the company.

Paul Downs:
I have a question: Would you have proceeded with the initial formation of the business if there had already been a well-established recruiting firm concentrated on your market? Because it seems to me you stumbled into the blue ocean, or whatever they call it. You just happened to be the first guy there, and you happened to be the right guy to do it, too.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yep. Well, I think you’re exactly right, Paul. And if we end up being any form of long-term success, I want someone to write—is it Malcolm Gladwell who wrote Outliers?—I want somebody to write Malcolm and say, “You need an appendix. Here’s a case study.” Because it was not that William had a brilliant idea or William’s a brilliant business person. It was, I happened to have an idea—I didn’t even realize it at the time—when at least 20 different little circumstances were colliding at the same time. And if I’d tried to start our business five years earlier, it would have failed miserably. If I tried five years later, it would have failed miserably.

Loren Feldman:
Why, in each case?

Karen Clark Cole:
Oh, how do you know that?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I mean, I happened to start the same month Twitter started. And Twitter took off with churches—

Loren Feldman:
But don’t you think you would have found a different way to your audience? I mean, the need was there.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I agree. He’s being dramatic.

William Vanderbloemen:
I appreciate your belief in my intellect, but if you haven’t read Outliers, you should. Most of the people who were huge successes happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Paul Downs:
I agree with that one hundred percent. I mean, I’m writing a book about another company that’s a stunning success. And you can’t look back at what they did and say, “Oh, this implies that.” There was no journey—it was just a bunch of lucky bounces. And I think one of the pieces of luck is that the team who’s there at the beginning has to be capable people who can do things. So it’s not all luck. But you were the right guy, right place, right time. I think that that’s almost always true of outliers.

William Vanderbloemen:
I think it’s true for us. Now we happened to put a lot of hard work in, we got some good breaks. And I will say, Karen—

Karen Clark Cole:
What about divine intervention? Does any of that play in?

William Vanderbloemen:
Well, I try to stay away from that on this show, but I absolutely think the structures that had been in place for helping churches find pastors had been crumbling for 20 or 30 years. You can look at [how] denomination started to sink in the mid 1960’s. They’ve been terrible. Nondenominational churches with no connection to the outside world have been growing. There are so many reasons that it all just happened to come together—even down to, I was a Presbyterian minister and I was forever getting in trouble for having these weird friends, like Ed Young at Second Baptist Church, or Joel Osteen at Lakewood Church. You could be nice and say that my contact list was “diverse.” Or you could be honest and say, “It was actually pretty schizophrenic, William. You were friends with every kind of pastor.” So for 15 years, I’ve been building this very diverse network not knowing why, other than I happen to like all these guys. And you want to use divine intervention? I think God knew why. And I think it was the 15-year overnight success.

Loren Feldman:
Let me go back to the boutique-versus-scale question. I’m curious, how tough a decision was that for you? How much did you dwell on that? And can you give us an example of what you did differently once you decided that you did want to scale?

William Vanderbloemen:
I went and visited with Sam, this gentleman who helped me expand my thinking, right before Adrienne and I went away on a business retreat for a week to a thing called EntreLeadership that my friend and client Dave Ramsey runs. It’s much, much bigger now. Back then, it was 100 people with Dave and his senior team for a whole week about: How do you build and scale a business? So we had a full week away from the office and away from work for the first time since we even thought about this, and that led to lots of long conversations. I remember, it was like two weeks after the iPad came out, or two weeks after I got an iPad. And boy, let me tell you, iPads were made for people like me who have short attention spans in long conferences, because I was just bouncing around from website to website. He was going over some kind of thing about HR and vendors. And I’m like, “Oh, forget that. I’m gonna go read the news.”

Adrienne elbowed me, and she said, “You need to pay attention.” I said, “Why in the world? What are you talking about? HR? It’s you and me, and we’re gonna hire our brother-in-law. How do you do HR with that?” And she said, “Yeah, but what are you going to do when we have 100 people working for us?” And I had never thought that big. From then on, it was like, we need to plan: Will this work? If we were to grow 5x, what will we need to have that we don’t have now? And to this day, since then, we’ve said, we need more people. We didn’t have to, but we went ahead and invested in Salesforce. We didn’t have to, but we went ahead and invested in marketing software. All of which can scale very quickly.

But maybe the biggest decision, Loren, was that from that day forward, it got real clear that if this really is going to scale, my primary job is to become less essential to the growth and running of the firm every single year. I cannot be the lid. It can’t be about me. So me diminishing a little bit every year has been a very critical component of trying to make something that will last.

Karen Clark Cole:
I mean, that’s what William’s describing,v is how you scale, right? You need to become the conductor. You can’t play all the instruments.

William Vanderbloemen:
That’s right. Well, and you know, Tony Robbins, who people have strong opinions about one way or the other, I’ll never forget. I was sitting in one of his sessions—yes, I just confessed I’ve gone to Tony Robbins’ sessions—and he said, “In my experience, there are three types of CEOs. There’s the CEO artist, and that’s the person who just loves the thing the company does. And they really like doing it—like the founder of a law firm who really still likes going in the courtroom and winning a case.” He said, “There’s also the CEO operator who founded the company and loves running a big organization. And then,” he said, “There’s the CEO owner where everything they think about is: How do I make this place run without my involvement? And you’ve just got to figure out which one you are and live into that,” and I’m trying to be that last one.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, but it changes. Like I’ve done all three. I started on the second and now I’m the third.

William Vanderbloemen:
Yeah, yeah, no, absolutely. It’s an evolution, right? But where do you want to end up? And in a Stephen Covey sort of way, you’ve got to begin with the end in mind. I love what I do. And I still, frankly, like doing a search every now and then because I’m pretty good at it. And I can usually do it really well. The sinful, prideful part of me loves to show some of the young guns, “Hey, guess what? I can still shoot a three-pointer pretty deep.” But I think for long-term sustainability, my job is to continue to evolve more and more into owner, Yoda, advisor, and less and less in the weeds of the thing.

Loren Feldman:
Karen, how about you?

Karen Clark Cole:
So on Day One, it was my co-founder and I deciding that even though it was only the two of us, and we had no plans to grow beyond the two of us, that we needed real space, like an actual office. This wasn’t going to be a started-in-our-basement kind of business. Because we were consultants, and we knew right out of the gate, we wanted to be really working in the sort of Tiffany’s of what we were doing, which at the time was called “information architecture”—designing complicated software products.

And so right out of the gate, we wanted to be able to have a lobby, a conference room, a receptionist, all that good stuff. We subleased space in the empty corner of an ad agency. So while we were still sort of off in the dungeon side of it—which wasn’t really that bad— we had all the access to the legitimate office, so that when a client would come to meet with us, we would be seen as legitimate from day one. Along those same lines, I was driving a ‘77 Toyota pickup at the time that my grandpa gave me, complete with a caved-in passenger side. You could see air as you were driving. If we were ever driving to a client site in my car, we would park three blocks away and then walk to the meeting so no one would ever see that we were just the startup. That actually worked, all of that. I like to say we doubled in size in the first year. We were four people all of a sudden.

So that was important in launching us. The second thing that we did that was really sort of life-changing in the company is we hired a CFO in year 10. We hired him on contract at first so he was just helping us hourly. And then we found out he could help more and more and more and then convinced him to come on at a low wage and take some stock in the company, which he did. It was sort of good timing for him to do something interesting and entrepreneurial.

And that just changed everything. We went from being my co-founder and I doing everything—you talk about William’s not learning how to run a staff meeting in college—we were making it all up. We were taking turns doing the books, taking turns invoicing, running all the projects, doing everything, and then figuring out: How do you know how much space to rent? Should you take a new lease? How many desks do we need? What’s the growth strategy there? All these stressful things that we didn’t understand. There’s just a spreadsheet way to look at it to make these kinds of decisions. So he came in, and Kelly and I will say, we had our best sleep ever that night—my co-founder and—not having to worry about all the things we didn’t really understand in the business so that we could focus on the delivery of the work that we were doing.

And then the third thing is, in year 17, I hired—same sort of thing—a consultant to help me create what I call now a “cultural framework,” which is to really understand what this secret sauce was, knowing that at that point, we were officially working on growing and scaling. And we were bigger than a breadbox at that point. And I knew it was going to go beyond my ability to hire and nurture people individually.

Karen Clark Cole:
So I hired an outside consultant, who’s an expert. She’s a cognitive psychologist with expertise in resilience and workplace thriving, and how do you create an environment where people can thrive? Linda was the consultant that I was using at the time, and then I managed to convince her to come on and be our chief culture officer, to really uphold and then continue to nurture and shepherd this cultural framework that we developed.

That was a huge success for us as a company, for our employees, and it still is a major differentiator. We think about culture as a business at Blink and really take it seriously and connect it to profit. We connect it to growth, retention, all that good stuff. So that was a major sort of crazy idea at the time, and it’s still often seen as a crazy idea. But now I have four years of data and evidence to prove that it’s really been a great decision. But at the time, it was seen as really crazy. Same with the CFO. At a 10-year-old company, it was fairly unusual to have somebody in that role. So big bets for us at those times.

Loren Feldman:
I want to ask you about something slightly different that we’ve never gotten into on the podcast, and I suspect some of our listeners are wondering about. You have a very impressive practice with really impressive clients. We’ve heard about NASA. I think you’ve mentioned Amazon. How did you break through? How did you go from being a small user experience firm to one that’s not a huge company, but you have huge clients. What was key to that?

Karen Clark Cole:
We’re about $30 million in revenue now, so we’re not small. We’re sort of heading into mid-size now. But we got Apple as a client in year two. In fact, it was just before year two. And I answered the phone. I mean, I’ll never forget that day. And that was the launchpad for us, because after that, we got LexisNexis. Apple hired us at the time, because what they were looking for was very specific, and that’s exactly what we did. They could have hired Accenture. In fact, that’s who we were up against. Imagine just the two of us against Accenture. We flew down there and met with them.

Loren Feldman:
You were only two people at the time?

Karen Clark Cole:
No, sorry, we were four people. We flew down and met with them, saying—this is the classic line, if no one’s used it, you must—to say, “Well, I’m going to be in the area. Would it be okay if we just meet in person?” So that they don’t think you’re overstepping, and you just happened to be in the area. And then of course, you go book your flight.

So we did that. And booking a flight to Cupertino, at the time, wasn’t nothing for us. We didn’t have any money. We were bootstrapping the whole thing. We got the job because they knew that we would be the people, the team, doing the work. And they could call us anytime, and we would respond. They knew it would be a big deal that we would take seriously. They didn’t want to get a B team or C team from some other big firm. So that really set us up. And then shortly after that, we started working with Amazon for the same reason, and Microsoft for the same reason.

There is some of being in the right place at the right time, and luck, for sure. We were in Seattle, and in the growing, crazy tech market. And that’s when Amazon was really small. We were in their first makeshift little offices working with them. A lot of it is just sort of running alongside these giants when they were small. A lot of these companies were just taking off.

Loren Feldman:
Do you know how Apple found you? I think you said they called you.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, they were at a conference on this topic of content strategy and information architecture. And a person that we had worked with in the company before founding Blink, that Kelly and I worked at, was speaking at that conference. And the woman came up later and said, “Can you recommend any firms?” And he’s like, “Well, you’ve got to call these guys. They’ve just started, and that’s all they do.” And they’re really good at it. And that was on a landline. I remember putting the phone down and running down the hallway.

Paul Downs:
It’s a story of luck, of recognizing it when it appears.

Karen Clark Cole:
Yeah, I think the recipe for success includes a lot of luck, a lot of being in the right place at the right time, but then you’ve got to add on the guts and the smarts and the discipline and the courage and all that good stuff.

Paul Downs:
Yeah, it’s the whole thing. But if you take away the luck, and you take away the time and the place, then there are people who are just as smart as you are out there banging their heads against some problem and just getting nowhere. We just never hear about them. I think it’s the thing nobody wants to talk about, because it implies that there’s a lot to success that is out of the control of the entrepreneur, and we’re much more attracted as human beings to stories of people who have agency and are like, “Oh, there’s a problem. I did this, and I won.” That’s what we like to hear. And what’s interesting is how often—

Loren Feldman:
And sometimes it’s true.

Paul Downs:
It can be true, but there’s almost always more to it than that—in my experience.

Karen Clark Cole:
So for us, those pivotal companies being Apple, Amazon, and Microsoft in the early days, I mean, they were early in their days, and that helped us be able to get in there. I wonder though, if we were starting today, there would just be a different mix of companies. They would be our launchpad, it wouldn’t be them.

For me, a huge part of that, too, is having the ability to walk with your head up looking for opportunities and seeing what’s coming and where. Where are the luck opportunities? If you’re walking around with your head looking at your feet, I think you’re gonna miss them.

Loren Feldman:
My thanks to Karen Clark Cole, Paul Downs, and William Vanderbloemen. Thanks for sharing, guys.

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