Transcription of Entrepreneurs Roundtable Meeting held at Napa Cafe on Thursday, October 11, 2018
Courtesy of Jon W. Sparks
Editor, Inside Memphis Business
Contemporary Media, Inc.
Memphis magazine | Memphis Flyer
We are a technology company, founded in 1996. Twenty-two years later, I can say that 22 years in technology business is like dog years. I feel like I’m 150 years old. We’ve learned a lot since those startup days. You discover things about yourself and your business when you go through adversity. That’s part of the backdrop of this whole millennial thing.
In 2003 we discovered an embezzlement and dealt with it. (Just for everybody’s edification — this is really kind of cool — our accounting manager who stole the money went to federal prison for nine years. Very proud of that.) You know what’s interesting when you run a business is that things are not perfect all the time, are they? Raise your hand if you’ve got a business that just hums along. I need to meet you. I want to take a picture with you because I don’t know how that works.
The backdrop of this millennial discussion is approximately four years after our embezzlement crisis. Four years and it was the weirdest thing — I had this feeling that things weren’t really right with my business. It just felt like there was uneasy restlessness amongst my employees. I want you to get this locked in your head: In 30 days in the summer of 2007, we had one, two, three, four top sales performers in my company — 80 percent of my revenue for the prior year — walk out the door. Hold that thought. Then one of my technicians, one of my best people goes in the hospital for a liver transplant and never comes out. Another friend of ours goes on vacation to Gulf Shores, never came back. Saturday-Saturday funerals.
You haven’t lived until you go to funerals trying to console your employees when your own heart is breaking. On top of that, my wife got diagnosed with a potentially serious health problem. I thought I was losing my mind at that point, I really did. I was so traumatized by those events of that summer, I remember being afraid to turn the lights out in my bedroom. You’re looking at me like “Is he crazy?” Yeah, a little bit. Why would I do that? Because I was afraid of what the next day was going to look like.
What’s interesting in running a business, particularly a small business, is that you can take things very personally, and I did at that point. I was mad at those guys. I understand turnover. Turnover is part of business, but did it have to happen in these 30 days? All these guys at once? You’re probably thinking, “Why did all those guys leave? Because he’s a jerk?” I may be that, but one of the guys started his own business. He said, “You inspired me. I want to start my own business.” Great! Another guy went to work for a supplier. Another guy went to work for a customer. I forgot what the fourth one did. It wasn’t malicious. It wasn’t anything like that.
But we had this problem. The thing we had to do was take it away from being personal with me, all about me, I, I, I — to we. We got jacked around, so as a company, what are we going to do about it? (I’m getting to the point on millennials, I swear to it. I really am.) With that backdrop of a business in so much distress, we had to figure out a strategy.
I gathered a team, and I said, “What do you guys want to do? Do we want to go out and get some industry veterans come in? Rebuild the business, quick fix?” How many people have done that maybe in your business?
We decided not to do that. We wanted to wipe the slate clean and look at the world in a different way and change the way we had done business. You’re going to like this part, millennials, guess what we did? Here it is: We decided rather than hire industry veterans, let’s go build a farm system (I’m a big baseball nut). Get the young talent in there that we can train for the long haul. When I was recruiting I got dramatic sometimes. I set these people down and I said, “You need to understand what’s going on here. This is a business in great distress. I’ll make a deal with you. You help me get this back on track, this will be a story you can tell your grandchildren.”
What did those millennials do? This is the part you’re really going to like. We hired them in the summer of 2007. Are you ready for this? Four years later, in 2011, we took the company from $11 million to $25 million in sales amidst the worst economy in 80 years. Can I just say I believe in millennials?
Some things to consider: The millennials are different from past generations. Obviously social media plays a big part of that, doesn’t it? You know as baby boomers, we look at y’all, and we’re wondering what is up? “You have no communication skills. All you do is screw around with social media all the time. You make statements and form opinions because you’re engaged with social media.” Understand this, baby boomers, social media didn’t exist when we were their age. It’s a different world. That’s the first thing I had to figure out with our folks is it is a different world.
What doesn’t work with millennials? Baby boomers, do you remember when we were all getting out of college and everything, your first job or whatever it was? Second, third maybe. How did you get motivated? How were you managed, particularly in sales? How that worked? In the ’70s, I know for me it was all about intimidation, threats, cussing. You don’t make your numbers, you’re out of here. No conversation. Do or die. Here’s a news flash. That won’t work with millennials. I can assure you of that. That’s the first thing I would suggest to you. Get over the strategies of the ’70s in trying to manage these folks, because it won’t work.
Some other things to consider too: Millennials — who did such a great job of bringing us back and growing it and everything — don’t want you to limit the opportunities for them to work in your business. They want to grow their careers. Baby boomers, is that much different from us all those years ago? It’s the same thing. They really want the same thing. Once you consider that, when you’re recruiting millennials, I want you to think about the opportunities for them.
Now, here’s a big one. Millennials do not like to obsess about work 24/7. They don’t want to be labeled by their job. I’ll give you an example. My oldest sister, God bless her I love her, spent 38 years with IBM. Never did I have a conversation with her that didn’t include IBM. She wasn’t Delores. She was IBM, Big Blue. When she walked in the door, I could see the blue. Millennials don’t want that at all. They don’t want to be labeled by their job. Even though we have some really good millennials that are still with me from the old days, they’re proud to be with the company but they don’t want to be labeled. That’s them.
Here’s something else, and this is a big deal. I wrote about it in the book and all. You need to treat millennials with respect. Now I’m sure every baby boomer has been frustrated one time or the other with millennial children and whatever. Is that a fair statement? That’s why you came out today. I don’t know that I have the secret. I could just tell you though that you need to consider the respect issue. What do I mean by respect? We talk about the old days, walking to school ten miles in the snow. Was it easy when we were growing up? Probably not.
But consider this. My son, a millennial, started Christian Brothers High School in the fall of 2001, one week before 9/11. Think he was a little traumatized like we all were? And then seven years later he sees his parents’ portfolio shrink more than half. He sees fear in his parents’ eyes for this market and the economy and everything. My point is, life has not been perfect for them either. You want respect from them? Give it to them.
All right, here’s one other thing and I’m going to be careful here. Millennials do not like to called the entitlement generation. They do not want to be the participation trophy generation. You need to get over those labels. That’s what’s worked for us. Now, do I occasionally harass my millennials? Yeah. All day every day, but it’s not without respect and having fun with them. That’s different.
What else works? Meet them on their terms. Here’s what really worked for us. I’d like y’all to consider this for your businesses and wherever you are. Millennials, this is the most tech savvy generation in the history of mankind. What does that mean when you’re hiring and trying to recruit and everything? You need to be able to challenge them to be able to do more. There’s plenty of energy. There’s plenty of IQ, technical IQ in particular. Challenge them. Don’t limit to what is expected, but demand more. You’ll be surprised with the results.
Then here’s something that’s really a big deal, and I do it all day every day, and so do my millennial employees. Give back to the community. Again, millennials don’t like the 24/7 obsession about work. When they’re not working, they want to do something good for the community, a lot of them. Feed that. Get them involved. Put the energy to use for the non-profit or whatever you’re doing. That has worked very well for us. Giving back to the community. More than just a job; it’s got to be more than that for them.
Let’s look at this and hold everything. There’s a practical side in business for millennials. I mean, they are the future of the business. Newsflash, baby boomers, we’re not going to live forever. If you want your business to have the future, recruiting millennials is not an option. Working with them is not an option. Managing, you’ve got to do it because when you have them and you recruit them, you have young people, they can go on many many years beyond you, and your business can live for a lot longer.
What I would suggest to you all, business owners in here in particular, is to start right now to develop an employee farm system. Target and recruit the millennials. They’re the key to your future. You need to have a healthy amount of young people in your business. The other part of it too is it’s a great balancing act, with having the young talent, energetic and everything, with the experienced folks. That’s already worked for us.
Also, it’s a great image for your customers in many cases. In my case in particular, our customers look more like my son than they do me. Our suppliers look more like my son than they do me. Our customers relate to him, honestly, more than me. Just consider that.
What else? All right, this is a hard part baby boomers. Be patient with millennials. Don’t look for a quick fix. Repeat after me: Patience. It’s hard though, y’all. I understand because we did come from different worlds and everything. What’s worked for us is acknowledging that we are from different worlds. My son harasses me about things about the old days of ISI, and I harass him about the current days of ISI. You can have some fun with this, but I tell you if you’re a church-goer, pray for this. You’ve got to have patience. Nothing happens overnight.
With us, yeah, we had that wonderful moment there, moments from 2007 to 2011 that those millennials mowed it down. It was the greatest thing I’ve ever seen. This is why I wrote my second book. They had no experience in the industry, pulled them out of nowhere, trained them up and inspired them, and then they set record sales. I believe in millennials because I know it works. It has for us. Recruit those millennials for your longterm sustainability and your business will be able to project the future. You’ve got to absorb that whole line of thinking, and you have to execute.
By the way, let me tell you the epitome of belief in millennials. In January next year, I am turning my business over to my 31-year-old son. Do you like that? I’m doing what I feel like is best for the business and not me. I’ll leave you with this — I need three words for you to think about: Pray for me. Thanks a lot, gang. I appreciate it.
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