Painful Business Events Fuel Tremendous Growth
Hey guys, pretty excited to talk to you today. This is Ken Courtright from Today’s Growth: Growing Business Today. Just spent a week on faculty over at CEO Space. I caught myself a couple of times telling a story about how some of my pain personally in business, when I look back at it, some of those most painful events are what are driving us today.
Some of you on this podcast know that my wife and I have 685 revenue streams in seven countries. They are all interdependent. That is a result of me making very poor business decisions in the ‘90s and putting us in a cooker to a point where I made a vow and commitment to find the best way to diversify income. When I stumbled on it, I exploited it a bit. With that, I caught myself telling the story this past week a couple times of how I was one time asked to describe how have we made the Inc. 5000 list a third time. We should have made it four times, but I didn’t fill out the paperwork two years ago for lack of time.
I was asked if I would jump on stage and in an impromptu session deliver a 25-year story of how we went from really fast growth five out of seven years doubling growth sales and flat for a few years, then we doubled or tripled again a few times, then very flat, almost lost everything, caused a lot of people a lot of pain, and in the last decade or so, a steady growth, and then absolute explosion the last six years. How did that happen?
I was asked by a gentleman named Adam to jump on stage and take a flip chart and do the best I could to describe what exactly we did, how we did it, and some of the fundamentals we learned along the way. I started by drawing on the bottom left a growth chart that grows up steady. That’s our first seven years. Pretty steady growth. Then it went straight flat across for a little bit. Then it climbed again for another five or seven years. Then it dipped down sharp for two years. That third spike has been a phenomenal ride. We are up to 70 employees. We are having some fun. We have definitely laid some foundation.
The question was: Could you share with the audience in 20-30 minutes some of the key points that you were able to understand and lock in that has helped us grow a multiple-time Inc. 5000 company to the point of getting a letter from the editor of Inc., saying that growth at a mature company like yours is pretty rare. Usually the people that hit the Inc. 5000 generate it off their second or third tax return year, and then they go four years out. It’s measured in four-year gaps of gross sales. Very rarely does a mature company submit their first entry when they are almost 20 years old.
I jumped on stage, took out a flip chart, drew this chart: up and to the right, flat, up and to the right, flat, dropping a little, and then up and to the right. I started by saying that I have never told his story before, but my very first presentation was in 1992. I had answered an ad for what I thought was a graphic design degree job. It was graphic design, but it turned out I had to shadow a sales rep all around the country. While he was selling, I had to draw things while the conversation was going on. Of course, in one occasion, the sales rep got sick, so they asked me to do this presentation. I said I would.
I went into a donut shop on Ogden Ave in Downers Grove, Illinois. I walk in the door. We had a product sample. I plug in the sample, and I lift the cover on it. I had practiced for a week or two a seven-page typed presentation. I lifted the cover, and this is what I said: nothing. I couldn’t speak. I was hyperventilating. I was sweating. I was soaking wet in under 30 seconds. I was in so much discomfort of not being able to speak that I put the cover on, wrapped the cord around the outside instead of putting the cord in the jacket pocket, went to my car, drove to the office, and quit. The guys at the office said I couldn’t quit. They interviewed 100 people and took me.
I said, “You don’t understand. There is no way under any circumstances that I am ever speaking to someone again like that. It is not going to happen.”
Well, lo and behold, Virgil Perry was my boss. Virgil said, “Would you just do us a huge favor? You’re 22 stinkin’ years old. Don’t be a wimp. Would you just drive your way home and knock on one more business owner’s door just to get this out of your system? Then you can go back to your old life and shadow your manager.”
Maybe it was divine intervention. I knocked on one more door, and a gentleman opens it. I was like, “Any chance I could explain this product to you? I just wanted to get this out of the way because I am a man of my word, and I told my boss I would do one more presentation.”
I knock on the door. The gentleman opens the door and says, “Yeah, you can show it to me.” Oh, crap. I did not want him to say yes. But I bring this thing in there, and I did a presentation. I rambled through it. The guy made the mistake of asking questions. I kept answering them, and over an hour, a seven-page typed presentation came out of me. I was still so nervous that when it came to the price, I couldn’t remember the price of the darn thing. It was supposed to be $450, and I sold this thing for $750. If I remember correctly, the guy wrote the check to my personal name.
The next morning, I bring this check into the office. I had the ultimate panic attack. The first lesson I learned in business was that I knew right there the gap between me selling something to someone and being a good salesperson and business owner. It was a chasm. I have to learn now. I had no patience for waiting.
The Fastest Way To Learn Is To Learn From Other People
What I did was I said, “What’s the fastest way to learn?” I know it’s learning from other people. I jumped into conferences like there is no tomorrow. If Brian Tracy came into town, I went to that conference. If Tony Robbins came to town, I went to that conference. If Zig Ziglar was in town, I went to that conference. I would not let anybody of significance come in anywhere near my town and not go see them. I was relentless. I was obnoxious. I would sit in the front row. I would take notes.
I want you to picture a stick figure in the middle of the page. That represents me. On the bottom left, I want you to picture the word “conference.” I just jumped into these conferences. I noticed something interesting. Every time I went to a conference, the presenter would mention a book or two that they had read that was pivotal to them getting where they were today. Brian Tracy definitely mentioned some, as did Tony Robbins. What did I do? I immediately went to the library and the bookstore and got every book that was ever mentioned. I absorbed them like they were going out of stock. I became such a proficient reader. I would go to seminars that had nothing to do with selling or marketing. I went to a United States Sign Council seminar in Las Vegas. Anywhere someone was teaching a premise, I was all over.
Picture bottom left of your screen that Ken is jumping into these conferences like no tomorrow. Up to the top left of this piece of paper in your mind, put the word Books. They drove me to books. I read them. I became a book a week guy. I haven’t stopped since 1993. I’m still doing it today.
I started absorbing these books at a fairly rapid rate. Interestingly enough, when I would go back to a Chamber of Commerce meeting or a networking meeting or a Tuesday morning breakfast meeting, I found all of a sudden I had something to say. I had something to say of significance because these business books overlap. They still do today. They all to a degree overlap in principles. Once you hear them overlap a bit, you really understand these growth principles at a core level.
I all of a sudden went from being the timid and shy person, sitting on the outside of conversations, and then I realized I have intellectual property inside me. At the top middle of the paper, I drew a box that said IP. Above the box I drew a bitty dollar sign. That represented a success wheel. The success wheel is I drove myself to conferences, the conferences led me to books, and the books led me to intellectual property.
I started getting attracted to and by business owners in town. Business owners wanted to know what this Ken Courtright kid had to say in his mid-20’s. I started doing a decent amount of business in the southwest suburbs of Chicago. In under two years, we had a good name for our little growth consulting business. We were part growth consultants, part sign company, part marketing company. It was cool.
I found that these business owners that wanted my opinion of everything would lead me to business and contracts. I started making money. The greatest way to raise your IP is through real business transactions. You can read all the books you want. You can go to all the conferences you want. But if you do business transactions, you learn on the fly real business. You learn real communication. You learn what works and what doesn’t work.
Top right is a bunch of people who wanted to get around me. I drew an arrow toward me from these people. On the bottom right, it completes a circle around me. I wrote business. We started doing business.
The first time around this circle, I started at conferences. They led me to books. The books built up my intellectual property, so the intellectual property led me to people who wanted to get around me. These people brought me business, and I drew a line from business up all the way into IP because these business transactions increased my IP on top of bringing me revenue.
After about five years of me jumping into these conferences, business grew. We doubled five out of seven years. Then we went flat for a couple of years. Adam, the gentleman who asked me on stage, had heard me tell a version of this before. My first flat period in business lasted a couple years. When I looked back in hindsight, I didn’t go to one single conference, one self-improvement seminar. We were flat because we stopped feeding the head. When you stop feeding the head, the body dies.
I missed what brought us here. So what I did was jump back into conferences. This time, I didn’t just go to the conferences that came to Chicago. I went to the conferences. If there was a killer conference, I found a way to get there. I put some miles in.
The second time around this success circle, something interesting happened. I started understanding the power of mentorship. I ended up connecting with a mentor named Brad. I will never forget him. He mentored me, personally and from afar, for about five years. I will never forget our second session.
Brad is a very wealthy gentleman, retired at a young age. He makes more money than the year before. He has a number of projects going on. He is an absolute stud, a strong Christian man, just a great human being. Great kids, great relationships, great wife, great family. He is amazing.
You have Two Eyes, Two Ears And One Mouth. You Can See And Hear More Than You Can Say
I remember my sit-down with Brad, and he says, “Ken, could you do me a favor? I need you to read the book How to Win Friends and….” And I cut him off.
I said, “Brad, pick a different book. I read that book.”
He said, “Oh my God, Ken, slow down. Mentor,” and he pointed to his chest, “Mentee,” and he pointed to me. He goes, “Ken, I wasn’t even at a comma, let alone a period. You might want me to start that sentence all over again.”
I apologized, and he said, “Here’s what I want you to do. It’s around Thanksgiving time. I don’t want you to do this now, but I want you to wait until January 1. I want you to read How to Win Friends and Influence People again. And I want you to read it with a yellow highlighter. I want you to put the book down after you’re done. Next January, a whole year away, I want you to read it again with an orange highlighter. When you’re halfway through the second time, I want you to call me back.”
Brad and I had a number of sessions in that time. Two months go by. I jumped on that book. I read it with a yellow highlighter. A number of paragraphs spoke to me and jumped out at me. It was tremendous. A year goes by. I remember picking up the book and getting about a third of the way through. I was highlighting with orange. I remembered it struck me right there that nothing I had highlighted before in yellow was hitting me at all. I was highlighting completely new paragraphs in orange.
I got Brad on the phone and said, “Whoa, Brad, you’re a genius.”
He goes, “Tell me about it. What’s going on?”
I said, “I’m reading the book a second time, and I don’t even remember these paragraphs at all the first time. None of this hit me the first time. Now it’s hitting me like a ton of bricks.”
He goes, “What’s the point?”
I said, “Brad, this is the adage: When the student is ready, the teacher appears.”
He says, “Yes. Obviously last year, you were not ready for these paragraphs that are now in orange.”
I am relating that mentorship episode to this success wheel because watch what happened. My first time around the wheel, I did the conferences, jammed on the books, the books gave me intellectual property, I started doing business in my community in a big way, a lot of people started referring business to me, and our business grew. Then I stepped off of the learning curve, and we went flat. The second time I jumped back in, I jumped back into the same rotation of conferences local, but I added another level of conferences nationwide.
But the lesson here is this. When I went back to the same local conferences that came through Chicago, even though it was the same speakers with apparently the same message, to me, it was all brand new. The message didn’t change, but I had changed. My business grew from an average deal of about $850 per contract to $14,000 per contract. I now had 20 employees. What I was looking for from these conferences and what I needed was completely different from the first time around. The first time around, I needed to know how to direct sell, how to communicate directly with people one-on-one, how to build a funnel. My subconscious was absorbing what I needed at that time.
Your Intellectual Property Becomes Stronger The More You Learn
The second time around the wheel, my IP was much stronger, but so was my antenna for what I needed. I needed bigger stuff. I now had a farm of employees that I was responsible for. My ears were completely tuned into different things from these guys on stage. The books that they were recommending were hitting me in a different way. When I went back into those conferences, I jumped in so hard and read so many books the second time around the wheel that the IP that I was absorbing, I would literally be puking it around people. I could not help myself when I would go to events. I would even go to a wedding reception, overhear two guys talking over at the bar about a business challenge, and I would barge in and offer solutions. The IP grew stronger because the books were stronger. I was reading more of them.
The key element here is the IP, your intellectual property, leads you to more people. Because my average transaction was $850 around the wheel the first time, my second go-around, which was about five or six years later, the average deals we were doing were $14,000. Watch this phrase: You attract who you are, not who you want. You attract to you who you are, not who you want.
If your average ticket is $850, you are going to be attracting to you in and around that level of thinking. When your average deal goes up to $14,000 per transaction, it’s a different business owner that needs that level of consulting. You are going to attract who you are, and who you are is a leader of a company managing a $14,000 transaction, not a sub-$1,000 transaction. I was attracting much bigger business owners. I was going to the State Capitol of Illinois and going to Chicago to work with First National Bank and McDonald’s and Harrah’s Casino. We were definitely swimming upstream.
Lo and behold, I go around the success wheel. The business deals that start coming in are extraordinary. But something much more important happened. The level of people that were seeking our company out and referring people to us was a much higher standard of business owner. I was the real seasoned business owner because they could smell that we were on the cutting edge of growth consulting, and we had a lot of clients with a lot of screwdrivers. If somebody presented their business challenge, they figured out very quickly that their problem has already been solved in a different industry. Since we had so many clients in so many industries, we could literally turn a screwdriver and fix their challenge immediately.
What happened? This is where my pain becomes your success. I got overconfident and started a chain of video stores and other things. We started buying property. I bought Corvettes. I let my head get too big. All of a sudden, we had a chain of video stores that was doing $10,000 net income per month per store. In a seven-month period of time, we went from $10,000 net per month to losing $3,000 net per month per store. If you have multiple stores, you run out of $10,000 bills very quickly. It took about 19 months of losing more money to the point where it took some very strategic moves over a nine-month period before we almost lost the mother ship, which was the consulting business.
Very painful lesson there. Yes, diversification is great, but you have to make sure you are diversifying properly and are not tied into an animal like Walmart, that is maybe a 90% of your income, and if that animal goes down, you are absolutely done.
We went about three years completely flat, and then we dropped for a year and a half. What did Ken realize again? What did I notice again? Guess what I was not doing after we had just had six years of massive growth, then four years of flatness? I had gotten off the conferences again. I could not believe it.
I did some self-assessment, went into the conferences again. Something very interesting this time. As I went back to the conferences this time, instead of being an attendee, the conferences invited me to speak. Now not only do I attend a ton of conferences, but I speak as faculty or as a regular speaker at these conferences.
Even Though I Speak I Still Listen To Every Speaker – Ken Courtright
Here is what is interesting. I was smart enough to understand that even if I am on faculty, even if I am going to speak at a conference, I still make sure that every speaker sees me sitting my butt in that chair listening to them. I understand that my company now today, 2016, my average ticket item is $157,000 per contract. It isn’t $850 like it used to be. It isn’t $14,000 like it used to be. It’s over $150,000 per average contract.
Guess who is sitting in the seat with his antenna up listening for completely different information from the same and different speakers on how to run 72 people, how to run offices that are in other cities? I have never been to our office. I am a control freak. We have 30 people in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. We have 33 people in Romania. I am afraid to go. I will go in there, I will start messing with things, and everybody will yell at me.
I am working on the business, not in it. Where did I get that one? From all the books, from all the people that beat over my head that you need to work on the business, not in it. You need to make sure you are never doing anything that anyone else can do. I can only do what I only can do for my company. I can only do for my company only what I can do. If I am doing something that somebody else can do, I am a bad leader. I am a bad founder. Hoping that one hits everybody. That was a major pain point for me in my second wave of growing this company.
Getting ready to dive into round three of the success wheel. I start jamming into the conferences. Now I am there listening, but I am also there speaking. Sounds great. Everybody is still today recommending books. On my last round, just in the last year, I have heard incredible books recommended from stage. Jeff Walker’s Launch, Perry Marshall’s 80/20. Guess who has read them all? Me.
I started jamming into books again, a book a week. The books again + a new one, right now, I have been digging in deeply into Google Alerts. I have been putting in great authors like Seth Godin, Jeff Walker, like these other people who are masters of things that I am still studying. I am making sure that if they are writing a blog post or getting interviewed somewhere, Google is alerting me as to the new information they are putting out. I am still jamming on the books, but I am now using technology to follow these leaders to keep me as sharp as I possibly can. The books and the Google Alerts are of course raising my IP again.
You will always see a theme from all the mastermind books you have read. We are an exact product of the five people we hang around the most. Our checkbook is in direct proportion to the five people we hang around the most. This is not theory; this is fact.
As I am going around this a third time, I start to notice something very interesting. I mentioned earlier that you attract who you are, not who you want. A lot of people that have an average ticket of $1,000 want to attract five people in their life whose average ticket is $100,000. It doesn’t fit. It doesn’t mesh. You still want to get mentorship from upstream. But you want to build your IP so these people that are further along in life than you financially want to come to you because of your IP, not because of your checkbook. You attract who you are, not who you want.
On this third time around the wheel, I got hit with a sledgehammer when I realized this. My intellectual property, because I am forced to study so much stuff to make sure what I’m speaking is true, cutting-edge growth technique, I am attracting a completely different high-level thinker. When I attract someone to me, someone we instantly know will be life-long friends, like a David Corbin or a Greg Reid from Secret Knock. Instant connection with these guys.
Another Success Wheel
Here’s what I now know. When we connect, become friends, and start working together, guess what they bring with them? They bring their very own success wheel with them. Greg Reid and David Corbin, any great leader, anybody who runs something and leads people, don’t they have their own success wheel that got them there? Of course. They may not be a conference junkie like me or a book fanatic like me, but maybe they got there through tons of mentorship or tons of books or incredible amount of schooling or they figured it out on their own.
The point is this. Take an Ed Bogle. I cannot tell you guys the size of these deals that these guys bring to us. What they are bringing to us is their success wheel. They have a lot of connections, a lot of business experience, a lot of wisdom. Wisdom is different from experience. Experience is learning from your own mistakes. Wisdom is learning from other people’s experience. Now these guys come to us, they become friends with us, and they bring with them their lifelong success wheel. They bring in larger deals because they have a larger success wheel, and then of course, our business transactions explode. I bring to them my business transactions. It’s an incredible synergy.
I was asked to try to draw or map out how I think in 24 years we went from a bitty company in 1992 knocking on doors saying, “Hey, I think you can grow your business. If you don’t have any money, don’t worry. Just give me a percentage of the growth. No cost. You’re only paying me if it’s successful.” That’s how we got our start. I was going after testimonials first, payment second. I knew I needed some social proof and let people show me their experience.
Over 24 years, I can’t even guess how many conferences I’ve been to or how many books they recommended or how many people I have sat next to, overhearing a business challenge where because of the books they read or the mentorship I received, I was able to offer them a solution. Their eyes light up, they go away, they call me back two weeks later and thank me for the easy fix. They don’t realize their business challenge has already been solved in a different industry.
I am blessed enough to understand that I am in those industries, and it is my responsibility to bring to them what I have already experienced. I have the ability to understand my success wheel, and then it is my job and my responsibility any time I get around someone to make sure each individual recognizes their own success wheel and how they are growing their IP. If they don’t, have them map out their own success wheel. Sometimes it’s linear, and sometimes it’s a wheel. The reality is there is a continuing educational program out there for everybody that fits their personality, their style. I love the people aspect of the conferences, but you can get there just as fast just through books or podcasts or reading blogs or Google Alerts. It doesn’t have to be my success wheel, but everybody has one.
I want to end with this. I have a podcast called Entropic Competition. It’s based on Dorothea Brande’s book in 1934 called Wake Up and Live! It is centered around our failure symptoms; we all have them. Entropic competition says life and business is always pressing against life and business. Life and business is not meant to be easy. If it was easy, everybody would do it. Life is simple, but it’s not easy. Business is very simple, but it’s not easy.
If you know that the most vacant room in any home is the room for improvement, if you know it’s the least visited, if you understand that, but you also understand that if you go into the room for improvement, and you make it your #1 visited room, and you build up your IP, you build up who you are as a person, then you begin to attract who you are, which is a bigger person.
We have to start turning business away. I had to raise our prices for sheer supply and demand. Sometimes we get in sticky spots because of our two big events where sometimes we can’t even answer email because of how many people reach out to us.
Because as a company, I am always feeding the head. I have trained our staff that they have to be on a rotation. They have to go to Moscow and affiliates seminars. We are always in a state of continuing education. Each and every person working for us has their own success wheel. Management has their own success wheel. My wife and I have our own success wheel, and we are going to die with our boots on the success wheel.
For now, I am Ken Courtright from Today’s Growth: Growing Business Today. Take care.