People often ask me about the secret to entrepreneurial success. And, when I tell them, they’re usually surprised by my answer. The two most important lessons I’ve learned as an entrepreneur are the value of listening and the willingness to adapt. It’s that simple.
I’ve focused on building a company culture where active listening, idea sharing, and empowerment are valued at all levels and where being “quicker, faster, smarter” to adapt and change is celebrated. For close to three decades, Church Hill Classics has weathered tremendous changes in the economy, in technology, and in the college bookstore industry. In every case, the keys to overcoming these obstacles emerged from “active listening” and creating an organization that is willing and able to adapt and embrace change. Want to be an effective entrepreneur? Here are the keys to success.
1.) Listen to the Customer
When I started out, I was selling Dartmouth College framed artwork to alumni and parents. A few customers asked if I wouldn’t mind framing their Dartmouth diplomas to match. The requests kept coming with many asking for “Dartmouth College” to be printed on the matting. I knew I was onto something big. Imagine if I hadn’t listened to those requests? In times of challenge, the most important step that I can take is to extract myself from the day-to-day to connect with customers, partners, and employees—to hear what they say and how they say it. Often, the willingness to listen opens doors to new possibilities and provides direction and clarity about how to proceed forward. We put ourselves in our customers’ shoes and deliver what they want. More than anything, doing the right thing by our customer is what got us here today.
2.) Make Community Connections
Over the years, I’ve really come to recognize the value of establishing local community connections and allies. When I began Church Hill Classics, I was relatively new to the Connecticut area, somewhat reserved, and the business was entirely self-funded. I wish that I had recognized then that there are many support resources for new business owners and wish that I’d actively sought out these resources and established more new contacts. Joining your local Chamber of Commerce, donating your time and products to charitable events, and co-sponsoring community activities are great ways to get involved and establish yourself locally. I also recognize now the great value of building a strong working relationship with a bank because it takes money to make money. My bank has become a valuable resource—I have learned a great deal from that relationship.
3.) Find Your Cheerleaders!
Every business owner needs cheerleaders because we certainly face times of challenge and difficulty. During those rough patches, I recognize that I have many people who are on my side and are eager and willing to help me build this success story. I’ve benefitted tremendously through the years from peer advisory groups, including Women Presidents’ Organization and EO (Entrepreneurs Organization). There are so many fantastic learning opportunities outside of the traditional classroom. I gained access to great speakers and mentors, and I also built a peer group of like-minded entrepreneurs. These resources have made a tremendous difference in my development as a business leader and have contributed significantly to the company’s accelerated growth in recent years.
4.) Don’t Give Up
Would you believe that our #1 competitor is roughly 100 times our size? I was initially terrified about how we could compete with such a giant! But, I knew we were more nimble, so we focused on adaptability and speed as advantages that we held. To grow efficiently and to manage the extreme seasonality of our business, we gathered insights from others in related industries and built our own production models and operational software including complex licensing and royalty tracking tools. We spearheaded a highly competitive manufacturing turnaround time and overhauled our entire website. Today, we lead the industry in online traffic, providing a co-branded online store for each of our partner affiliates where consumers can customize their diploma frames and see exactly what they will look like before purchasing.
In many ways, my success as an entrepreneur has been defined by my ability to “change the rules of the game.” As long as I keep my head in the game, listen to the players, and switch up coaching strategies when the situation requires, we will continue to be game-changers.