BTSB: Colin Campbell of Stratosphere Consulting

Below are some excerpts from our conversation with Colin Campbell, founder and CEO of Stratosphere Consulting, a national consulting company with an expertise in Case Management which made it to #488 on the INC 5,000 list thanks to their 1,000% growth over the past three years.  Operating as an entirely distributed company with no corporate office, Stratosphere has doubled their workforce for the past three years in a row.  

Colin shares what it is like managing what he calls “constant organizational change management” in such a fast-growing company, how he works on the business while still staying relevant to those working in the business, and his thoughts on process improvement in small businesses.

You can listen to the full episode by clicking the audio image below, on our website, or on iTunes (more podcast players coming soon!).  Know someone who would be great on the Big Time Small Business podcast?  E-mail in at podcast@chenmarkcapital.com.

Why not you?

I’m about the averagest dude in the world, and the fact that I’m doing this is all wrong to begin with.  I didn’t go to business school.  I was never even a manager, and then just, you know, started my own business. What the heck?  And, it’s, amusingly, worked out.

There’s always a silver lining

I think probably the best part about [the crash] is every key employee who was there in ’07 is still here.  Michael Lynch who’s my managing partner came aboard in 2007 before this all hit, and he’s still there. Melissa Morbillo, who’s the resort manager now, was the director of sales, came the year before.  They’ve all lived through it and they’ve all powered through it.  I have my two guys in maintenance, John and Owen, have been here both for 60 years.  They’re not 60 years old. They’ve been there for 60 years.  John just turned 81. Owen’s going to be 78 years old, and they’re still climbing under buildings. The tradition that’s there, the employees that have been there for decades, they stick by you and they do whatever they can in tough times, and you try to do the same and reward them for that. I’m just really proud of all of them.

Again, I sort of strayed away from it, but I’ve never really worried about making a lot of money. I wanted to just do the right job.  And I think sometimes, that’s come back to haunt me in that, at different times, when we had tough times, if I’d put more aside, or if I’d focused a little bit more on the war chest for the tough times, I think we’d have been in better shape now than we are. But, hey.

Don’t think, just do

In terms of just having processes defined, it can be as simple as a checklist on a Word doc.  It doesn’t have to be [crazy] for a small business.  It’s just a grocery list, so let’s not be too worried about it.  Whether it’s public or private sector, a lot of corporations business processes are actually tribal knowledge.  So, just writing things down that are in your head is a great start.

Thinking gets you in trouble.  That’s what it comes down to.  We talk about decision fatigue and things like that.  The more you have to think, the more prone you are to making mistakes.  A good process isn’t something you have to think about.  You just say, “Okay, what’s next? Oh yeah, this. Go. Do, do, do. Done.”  The process itself wasn’t the thought equity.  It was actually the resolution of the work.

We don’t need to get it 100% right.  Let’s just think through the things we have.  Sooner or later, something else will come up, and it won’t be in the process, so [we’ll] add it.  Next time, it’ll be there.  That continual sense of process evolution is really the key.

It’s not about getting it perfect.  Perfect is the enemy of the good, but also, good is the enemy of great.  Those two together really give a great juxtaposition of where we adjust those tolerance dials.  Good is good, but it’s not great.  It’s really filling in the margins around good to make it great that really helps you excel at something.

Work with, not for

I want to maintain, even as we grow, the sense that we’re a small company–that sense of cohesiveness.  That’s not really earth-shattering news.  Everybody wants to try and maintain that.  I’m sure Amazon and Google [aren’t] saying, “You’re employee number 17,502, go you.”  Everyone wants to get up in the morning with the belief, and hopefully, accurate belief, that what they do matters.  And that’s really what I’ve tried to foster a recognition of in the work we do.  Fortunately, we do a lot of work in the public sector, state and federal levels, and a lot of what we do directly impacts people’s lives, hopefully for the better.

So, that’s something to recognize as an employee that we’re not just building some application for some company.  The user of this is actually going to get a benefit, and not just some marketing scheme on behalf of some conglomerate.  I’ve been very vocal about saying that if you work with Stratosphere–and I use the word “with” very meaningfully here–we want you to bring and develop your own brand of who you are in the marketplace.  I would rather have 30 people that are known in the industry, that happen to work with Stratosphere, than 100 people that work for Stratosphere. 

If you like distilling, don’t start a distillery

A lot of entrepreneurs talk about either “buying their time back” or “firing themselves”, and that’s moving away from being that distiller to being a business owner–being that person who delivers code and develops applications to someone who advises on that.  I get my hands dirty.  I’ll help build.  It is one of the ways that–and I still believe this–it keeps you honest as a business owner, an entrepreneur, who has a number of highly trained, very skilled, very smart people working [with them].  The last thing you want to do is become that person who doesn’t really understand the realities of what’s happening.  So, I love to jump back in–just where it’s reasonable and can be done–to stay legitimate, as it were.

I also know that not everyone really wants to run a business.  It’s hard.  It’s a lot of work.  It’s a lot of hours.  It’s a lot of responsibility.  If you’re just independent doing your own thing, all right, that’s not too bad.  But if you really want to grow a company at size and scale, you’re talking about having people’s livelihoods depending on your decisions, and that’s a whole other level, and one I don’t think we really, really thought too deeply on until we were in the thick of it.

You know, once we started hiring people, I said, “All right, it’s no joke now. It’s real.”  We want to make sure that we have enough work for people.  We’ve held on through some pretty lean times to people that we knew were good, and wanted to keep within our family, [times] where I think a lot of consulting agencies might have just cut people.  So, it’s meaningful to the people we have with us.  Yes, they can go off and do their own thing.  They could have done that any time.  They didn’t have to join us at all.

Embrace the journey

I don’t think there’s a “made it” moment.  I don’t expect to have that moment.  That moment, if I reach it, I’m going to hopefully recognize that’s a lie. It’s a false peak.  There is no peak, you know?  Amazon’s still trying, right? Google’s still trying, every day, to get bigger and better and do things differently for tomorrow.  Once you say, “Ah, I’m the best,” you’re probably going to get knocked over pretty quick.  If you’re remaining static, you’re probably falling behind.

Have a great week,

Your Chenmark  Team

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