20 years. How can it be?
Of course, when I reminisce about 1996 like it was yesterday, I just sound old!
The reality is that 20 years is a LONG time, and looking back, I am amazed by how much has changed. Back then, no staffing firm had a website. No one had even dreamed of social media. Even email was relatively new.
In the past two decades, the staffing industry has greatly matured. And marketing barely looks like it did back then.
As I reflect on 20 years, I realize how much I have personally changed (and not just my hairline!). I’ve been lucky enough to be surrounded by smart, hard working people, great clients, and lots of friends and colleagues in the staffing industry.
And I’ve learned a thing or two.
Here are a few of the lessons I’ve found to be most valuable…
- Ignorance is okay…as long as you’re willing to take risks—and learn from them.
As I look back over the past 20 years, there are so many examples of “what the hell were we thinking?” We tackled all kinds of projects we had no idea how to do. We took on initiatives we really couldn’t afford.
And we make LOTS of mistakes.
But the key to our ultimate success was to never give up. We learned A TON from our mistakes, and used our experience to make better products, improve our service, and strengthen our team.
A speaker at my grad school commencement told a story about what it takes to be a great business leader. He said it in just two words, “Good decisions!” When pressed about how one becomes wise, he also responded with just one word, “experience!” And when asked how he got such important experience, he replied again with one word, “MISTAKES!”
That pretty much sums up my past 20 years!
- “Sure we can do that!”
Nothing breeds success like the willingness to tackle big challenges. In 1999, Advanced Resources in Chicago came to us as said “we love your direct mail services, but we’d really like to be able to deliver the content via email, can you do that?”
I immediately I responded “Sure, we can do that!”
And then I went to my amazing business partner, Vicki, and asked, “how do we do that?” That led to us taking on a massive project to build our own email delivery platform (HaleyMail). We couldn’t afford the project. We had no idea how to do this kind of web development (we actually when through four different companies until we found the guy who could actually build the system we needed – he’s now our CTO!).
That sometimes rash, can do, attitude drove massive improvements in our business, and it was the key to how we survived the recessions in 2001 and 2009.
- Square pegs and round holes don’t work…even if you have really good pegs.
This was my most painful lesson. When we first started to build our team in the 90s, we hired a group of smart, hardworking MBAs. We put them into a role where they would be planning marketing strategy, writing, doing a little desktop publishing and serving our clients.
And they failed miserably. Actually, they did not fail at all. I did. I put them into a job where they could not be successful. I was trying to get each person to undertake four job functions that required vastly different skills.
Despite the fact that these were smart, eager, hard-working people, I had set them up to fail. Over time, we learned the importance of specialization—and in hiring great people for the right roles. This was sort of a Jim Collins lesson for me. Not about putting the right people on the bus, but about figuring out what kind of bus we were driving!
- Don’t be afraid to change your business model.
When we started Haley Marketing, we patterned our business model off of another firm that was serving the staffing industry at that time. It was a good model that leveraged time by turning marketing services in to products and then created scarcity by offering these products on a market exclusive basis.
But as we discovered, that model severely limited growth—and it turned out to be a complete disaster in a recession. In 2001, we “discovered” the life-threatening risks of our business model, and we quickly found ways to pivot—to introduce new products and services that still had the same time leverage (this is essential to our mission of making world-class marketing more affordable to our clients), but without the same growth limitations.
- Creativity is the key to survival.
Say this with me “may 2009 NEVER, EVER repeat itself!” If you’ve been in the staffing industry for 20 years, you know that we’ve survived two recessions—a relatively mild one in 2001 and a massive one in 2009.
The challenge with being a supplier to just one industry is that when that industry suffers, you do too. In 2001, we lost more than 50% of our clients in a very short time frame—that was when we really discovered the flaw in our original business model!
Rather than throw in the towel, we reinvented our product offerings. We found ways to deliver more value for dramatically less cost. And despite a downturn in the industry, we were able to attract record numbers of new clients.
In 2009, we had to be even more creative. We had learned our lessons in 2001, and we knew that a recession meant that many companies would cut back on marketing (which for the record is not a good strategy for surviving a recession).
Instead of waiting for clients to quit, we brainstormed ways to bundle solutions—our first attempt at offering package pricing. The result was record sales. Sure we lost some clients due to the Great Recession, but we gained more than we lost by being creative with our service offerings and focusing on ways to better partner with our clients to get through the hard times together.
- Good competitors make you better. Bad ones hurt the industry.
Over the years, we’ve had some very good competitors. And others who offered questionable advice and solutions. While it’s easier to compete against the bad ones, it’s the good ones that really force you to up your game. They make you improve your products, enhance service, and improve efficiency.
I recall seeing a speaker years ago who said that every business should brainstorm ways a competitor could put their company out of business. So whether you have good competitors who are pushing you—or bad ones that are damaging the reputation of the staffing industry—brainstorm ways some other firm could put you out of business. And then implement the best ideas in your own firm.
- Giving away your best ideas is a winning strategy.
When we started Haley Marketing, we used to mail powerful educational articles to staffing executives once each month. We showed people how to market, and we gave away million dollar idea—for free. (I’ll bet some of you reading this remember those green envelopes hitting your desk each month!)
Over the years, we’ve continued to give away our expertise—through our Idea Club newsletter, our Lunch with Haley webinars, hundreds of how-to articles and blog post, and speaking at industry events. We share all of our best tips and tricks with the staffing industry…because it works. Giving away expertise is the reason that we have not had to make one outbound sales call in 20 years.
- Be obsessive. About your vision. Your goals.
My kids may disagree with this one. They think Mom and Dad work all the time. But it’s not work—we’re just really passionate about what we do. We love brainstorming ideas, discussing ways to strengthen our services, and helping our team to grow.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating work over family—we rarely missed a game, practice or any other event, and dinner together as a family was always a top priority, but people who are successful never stop seeking ways to improve. That obsession was the key to survival in the lean years and a catalyst for growth in the good ones.
- Paranoia is okay. It keeps you from becoming complacent.
I have a confession. I worry. A lot. We might have a record month, but I’ll still worry about next month. How will we continue to drive growth? What if there’s a downturn? What if a competitor launches a better product? What if a key team member leaves?
When you’re a business owner, worry is a good thing. It forces to you constantly reexamine your business. To find the flaws in your services. To seek new opportunities. To improve your culture. I’ve always been a big believer in the adage “if it ain’t broke, break it.”
And that worry I mentioned, most of the time it’s really excitement—excitement about new opportunities and new ways to make our company better for our clients and for our team. A little paranoia drives innovation, and that’s the real key to long-term success.
- Some of the best success comes from mistakes.
As I noted earlier, we’ve made a lot of mistakes over the years. But almost every time, we found a way to turn those lemons into lemonade by simply owning up to each mistake and applying a little creativity.
In the early days of HaleyMail, when we were just learning email marketing, we had more than one instance where we sent an email that should not have been sent. It could have been a grammatical error…or worse. Both those mistakes led us to discover the “oops email” – a sincere, honest follow-up after a mistake to admit the error, apologize, and share the correct information. Almost without fail, those oops emails would get better response than their flawless counterparts.
In 2014, we created a fun promotion for Staffing World. We sent a travel kit to attendees in advance of the conference with a lot of goodies to help them enjoy the trip. However, we had planned to include a mini bottle of booze in the package, and we purchased hundreds of them. Guess what? You cannot mail mini bottles of booze!
Rather than have one hell of a happy hour at the office, we decided to stick a Haley Marketing label on the bottles and ship them to Staffing World. On the opening night, our table was lined with 200 bottles of alcohol. People literally stopped in their tracks to ask if that was our giveaway for the show. We said “sure, help yourself.” You’ve never seen a line of people that long at a staffing conference!
While I’m never a fan of making mistakes, they can turn into some of your greatest marketing successes!
The experience of the past two decades have certainly shaped our firm. They’ve pushed us to our limits. Forced us to learn, adapt, and innovate. They’ve made us humble, and maybe, just maybe they’ve taught us enough to make “GOOD DECISIONS.”