As the greater Washington region prepares for the promised cuts in government spending, the question is whether the private sector will be able to pivot and provide new employment opportunities.
This will depend upon whether our region’s private businesses can grow. To help our local business owners get ready to meet this challenge, I asked the members of FounderCorps, a group of experienced entrepreneurs, for advice on this important topic: how do you grow a business?
For most of them, the answer is straightforward. To grow, a business must create something that people want and keep giving it to them. Alex Murphy, founder of WorkHarmony, a company that builds apps to bridge the skills gap, got to the heart of the matter: “Growth comes from doing something much better than anyone else.” What you offer a customer must “make a difference” to the customer.
Chris McAuliffe, co-founder of Theragen, sells medical products and innovations. For him, success always comes from the same place. “You must be better than your competition” in satisfying your customers.
Eric Koefoot, founder of PublicRelay, a public relations monitoring and analytics service, believes in “obsessing” about customers and whether they are happy with the product and services they are getting. If they are happy, they will tell their friends, new customers are created, and the company develops an even better reputation. For him the bottom line is simple: “without super happy customers, growth is virtually impossible.”
Mark Walsh, a board advisor to many well-regarded start-ups, adds that keeping customers happy is more efficient than finding new ones. “Taking care of your current customers is the easiest and cheapest path to growth.”
It’s also important to recognize that not every potential customer is necessarily a good one. Narrowing the customers on which the business will focus will accelerate the ability to achieve a higher level of competence.
Lee Weinstein, CEO of technology sales and consulting firm NewbridgeTuring and member of the board of directors of EagleBank, believes that the customers a business turns down are sometimes more important than the ones it serves. Having laser beam focus on customers’ needs makes it easy to satisfy their demands.
Many I asked pointed out that once a good customer fit is identified, the challenge is then on how to replicate this fit again and again, while growing the team, finding new customers and entering new markets. “There is no Miracle Gro for business,” is how Yonald Chery, chief technology officer of DataTribe described it. To succeed, there is no magic potion or secret sauce. Growing a business was just repetition of a formula that works.
The greater Washington region has a vibrant business community; indeed, it is the number one region for business formation in the United States. But, many of its most committed business owners are involved with serving the federal customer. Because of the nature of government purchasing rules, issues of customer attachment and building relationships are typically not part of the process of building businesses, because federal contracting rules are designed to eliminate the direct relationship between individual customers and vendors.
When we talk about having the region’s private sector grow, it is important to note the elemental truth of business growth in the private sector: connecting with the customer. It is not intuitive for a large portion of our workforce and business leaders here. We need to find as many opportunities for our region’s experienced business owners who sell to private customers to share what they have learned.
Is our region entrepreneurial enough to survive a shrinking government? It is not a lack of entrepreneurship that will challenge us. It is whether we can adopt to the dynamics of business growth through customer connection.
Jonathan Aberman is a business owner, entrepreneur and founder of Tandem NSI, a national community that connects innovators to government agencies. He is host of “What’s Working in Washington” on WFED, a program that highlights business and innovation, and he lectures at the University of Maryland’s Robert H. Smith School of Business.