Entrepreneur Mike DuBoseApril 26, 2007
April 26, 2007
Mike, you are an entrepreneur. How do you define that word?
Webster defines an entrepreneur as a person who organizes and manages a business, assuming the risk for the sake of profit! I agree with the risking everything part. Certainly, starting your own business is a big gamble.
After risking everything for the sake of profit since 1981, I tend to give a different definition of an entrepreneur. Part of me wants to say that an entrepreneur is someone who is dumb enough to risk everything—including their relationships and possessions–to start and make a business profitable. In this definition everything would be the operative word!
I have heard you say that you are as defined by your successes as your failures. What do you mean by that?
I would love to tell you that I experienced overwhelming success from the time I started my businesses more than 25 years ago. But that’s not the case! To be honest, most of what I’ve learned about building a successful business has come to be in the past 10 years.
While I want to share with you what I believe to be the elements of success, I think it’s important that I first tell you where I went wrong. Looking back on my life as a business owner, I have probably made more mistakes than I have made good decisions!
I started my journey as a business owner in 1981 and opened two retail computer stores, a wholesale distributorship, and training business. This came on the heels of working with seven state agencies, two governors, and a private non-profit—not a lot of experience for a novice entrepreneur, if you know what I mean. I was pretty much flying by the seat of my pants since I had no real-world business experience! But the money fairy and the dream of owning my own business sucked me in!
In 1985, my businesses, like many technology firms at the time, failed! It became one of the darkest periods of my life, yet one of God’s greatest gifts. While it was a tough and painful lesson, going out of business and closing a company taught me a lot of the core principles of what was needed to run a successful company.
I refer to my dear friends, mentors, and colleagues–Dr. Failure and his cousin, Dr. Mistake! And, definitely don’t forget my brother, Murphy, who is always waiting around the corner to come to my aid without warning!
At 57 years old, I have changed my opinion about mistakes and have learned to see them as opportunities, since something good usually comes from all conflict. It’s important that you admit your mistakes, and then, once you’ve eaten a little crow, ask yourself, What can we learn from this?
I am sure people ask you all the time, How did you become so successful? How do you answer them?
I don’t believe that any single element makes a business successful. Rather, I believe that many elements combine to make a business great—something like the movie, The Perfect Storm starring George Clooney, where three fronts came together to form one perfect storm.
And while embarrassed with the recognition of being successful, I often refer to a small box I saw in a Charleston store that had this inscription on the top, The secret to a successful business is? When you opened the box, the answer was found inside, Hard work!
What would your employees say about working for Mike DuBose?
A smart business owner surrounds himself with other people who work hard so you can work smart! I believe one of the key elements to success is to find passionate, smart, outstanding people and put them in the right positions.
We view our employees as our customers and family. They must be treated as well as our customers so that they service our customers in the same manner. Therefore, pay employees well, provide them good fringe benefits, and give liberal paid time off and a shorter work week – we require 37 hours. Even think about a profit sharing program as an incentive that rewards hard and smart work.
It is sad to say, but many businesses do not recognize the importance of looking after their staff, but rather treat them like a piece of meat or a statistic on a balance sheet. Our society is also moving away from the classical office where you have face-to-face contact with your peers and leaders. Some employees in the business world are becoming just another e-mail address among hundreds on the cold computer screen. The word Delete may take on a whole new meaning in the future!
I strive to be a caring leader. Caring is the core of effective leadership or the critical component in every relationship. So, one of our goals is to create an environment where all our employees enjoy what they do; are challenged in their work; and, are situated in the right seats. If a good employee does not like what he is doing, we try to find him work in another area of the company.
With the start up of your most recent venture, Columbia Conference Center, you now own a rather diversified portfolio of companies.
I now own several companies that include Columbia Conference Center located between St. Andrews and Piney Grove Roads which provides meeting space for corporations, government, non-profits, and individuals; Research Associates that provides grant writing services for 60 school districts and 250 schools nationwide; and The Evaluation Group that evaluates programs. We also have an internal corporate travel agency. So, we have different businesses with varying missions and strategies.
My latest business venture involved starting from ground zero to build Columbia Conference Center which opened in 2003. I incorporated everything I learned into that business and assembled an extraordinary team.
Are you happy with the way things have gone at CCC?
While I am far from perfect and I do not want to appear to be bragging, our four-year customer evaluations have resulted in ratings of 98% good-outstanding, and 88% of our business is word-of-mouth or previous customers. As a business owner, that is what I am seeking – customers who are happy, returning for additional business, or telling others in a positive way about our service.
I know that my competitors would like nothing better than to eat my lunch and take away my customers! So, I have to respect them, study their activities, stay one step ahead, and learn from them. In fact, at CCC, we have established a system of referring business to certain high quality competitors, and they, in turn, send business our way, too! The adage You scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours can build your business. So, we don’t fear competitors, but rather respect and partner with them when the opportunity arises.
Our message at Columbia Conference Center is simple – We give the customer what they want — when they want it — in a caring and high quality way. And, every customer is different and we customize our services to each individual and organization. Using Total Quality Management or TQM as our model, our goal is reasonable perfection and for every customer encounter to be rated as outstanding. I use the word reasonable perfection because you can get so focused on perfection that you lose sight of what’s really important—the customer’s and employees’ satisfaction. It is also important to have fun!
A customer forms an impression about the quality of your business by each encounter they see, hear, and exper
ience. Drop the ball on any one part throughout the process, and their overall impression diminishes! Two weeks ago, we executed a perfect event for a customer who rated us outstanding on every service but one. We royally messed up the customer’s billing, and the customer downgraded and chastised us because of the mistake.
Do you have any advice to business owners when it comes to marketing?
Effective marketing is another critical area that entrepreneurs need to carefully consider and one of the keys to success. It simply takes money to make money. You can have the best products, staff, and services in the world, but if the customer who needs your service or product is not aware of your company, you are dead on arrival!
For years, we spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on advertising and marketing Research Associates. As long as the customers were coming in, we never really measured the effectiveness of that investment! So I began to carefully analyze the return on every dollar we invested in marketing. And guess what? I realized that we were sending 20,000 brochures into one state, and I only got one customer from those 20,000 brochures. What that equates to in real dollars is that we spent $7,000 to advertise our training services and wound up with one customer who spent $600! We learned that a successful small business needs to carefully and factually track the effectiveness of all of its marketing efforts.
And there is no one-stop-shop, cookie cutter marketing and advertising program that works for all businesses. Your marketing and advertising must be individually tailored to your business. And, your marketing must be top notch by using a first class graphic artist and high quality materials.
I hear you are writing a book.
Yes, I am writing my own book–Building a GREAT Business. The book combines what I’ve learned from authors like Jim Collins, Jack Welch, Zig Zigler, and Ken Blanchard.
While my book contains some of the latest research on best practices in the world of business, it also includes my own mistakes, views, and screw-ups – and, yes, some successes. My main purpose in this book is to leave behind some of my philosophies about running a business. As I drafted the first several chapters of the book, I often thought about re-titling it to Dumb and Dumber!
What is your philosophy on leadership?
Having a successful business begins at the top and radiates outward. Jim Collins in bestseller, Good to Great, said that employees want their leaders to be fair, trustworthy, caring, ethical, and honest. He determined that great leaders’ primary characteristic was humility. I have become more of servant leader and quietly work behind the scenes.
One of the best books I have read is The One Minute Manager by Ken Blanchard. The bottom line is that an effective leader should be a caring coach and let employees know what they need to work on and also look for the things they do well on an ongoing basis – not once a year. They need to know your expectations. I still have a long way to go to be the model, effective leader that Jim Collins describes, but it’s fun trying as I learn and grow.
If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything?
While on one hand, being an entrepreneur can be a wild, exciting adventure, it can also develop into a dreaded disease where we expend every ounce of energy into the game where we worship the business. It can create a negative stress that will surely lead to diseases and it can rob you of the most precious assets – your marriage, family, and children. I was blessed that my wife did not run me off! I can tell you without a doubt that money, power, and fame will never scratch that itch that some of you seek. And, nothing you do in the business world will result in peace in your life.
But, if I had to choose being an entrepreneur over working for someone else, I would always choose the route of the entrepreneur, knowing that it would be more painful, but in the long run, very gratifying!
You can visit some of Mike’s businesses at www.columbiameetings.com and www.grantexperts.com