Follow the Leaders
For Eddie O’Leary, president of web development firm COLAB, one of the best business decisions he ever made was to step away from it – to release himself from operational concerns, that is, and focus on the reason he got into business ownership in the first place.
It was two years ago when he had a serious discussion with himself. “So for me, I had to kind of put my ego in check, and I had to say, ‘You know what? There’s really somebody else who can run this business better than me, and I’ll focus on strategy and sales and the things that I really like,’” explains O’Leary.
In this case, that meant a sustained focus on growing the business and building up his leadership team – and investing in a quality chief operating officer.
Turns out O’Leary’s ego check has paid off royally. In 2018, COLAB made Richmond BizSense’s RVA 25 list of fastest-growing companies (again) and attained Inc. 5000 Fastest-Growing Companies status for the first time. Today, COLAB is in innovation mode, reaching into untapped opportunities that may not have come about otherwise.
O’Leary says the leadership work and investment in the team has “allowed me to go back and do some of the things that are really the reason that I started this company in the first place – which is to create new opportunities, explore new technologies and really grow our offerings.”
He’s particularly excited about the opportunities Alexa may bring.
O’Leary describes COLAB as a company that solves business challenges. “Our niche is solving business problems with technology,” he explains. “We typically build websites and web applications that are designed specifically to solve problems, create opportunities or create operational efficiencies. What makes us special is the fact that we have a full team of strategists, designers, developers, engineers and product managers all located here in Richmond full time.”
The reinvigorated COLAB of today augments large-company marketing teams and designs apps for voice recognition platforms like Alexa.
“COLAB has been creating a great product for a long time, but the work we’ve done in the last year or two to build up a great leadership team has allowed me to go back to focusing my time on increasing the innovative product offerings we have, such as Amazon Alexa smart speaker apps, as well as putting together our digital partnership program.”
O’Leary is particularly excited about the opportunities associated with smart speakers, smart TVs, and the Alexa and Google Home product lines, as consumers are moving away from web searches and using voice-activated tools for information instead. According to O’Leary, it’s a trend business owners need to keep an eye on.
“The growth in that area has been tremendous,” he says. “It’s [Alexa] a device no one had heard of three years ago, and now something like 42 percent of people have them in their homes.” It’s an untapped area well-suited to COLAB. In fact, the team just released the first smart speaker app for the Virginia Lottery.
O’Leary describes himself as a “CEO by default,” explaining that even though he grew up watching his father run several small companies, he didn’t feel like business ownership was for him. (His background is in political science.)
After a stint building websites and web applications, O’Leary saw an opportunity, and COLAB was born – and, though it wasn’t his initial intention, he became a CEO.
Whatever the name or role assigned to him, O’Leary is clearly a LEADER. He has the courage to act on opportunities, even if that means a bruised ego.
“I think there comes a time for some people like me when you have to recognize that doing everything yourself or solving all business challenges or being in charge isn’t what necessarily defines success for you,” he says.
Empowering others. Acting on opportunities. O’Leary a leader by default? We think not.
O’Leary has been a member of the Council since 2014 and he’s found that the relationships he has formed there have helped him make smart decisions.
“As I think back about the time when I joined the Council, I would say that our business was doing a great product, and it was a valid, legit business. But we were probably around eight or nine people and around a million dollars in revenue,” he says. Adding, “I recognized, by being part of the Council, that it was important for me to take some serious steps in order to take advantage of the tremendous opportunity COLAB had. Through my Roundtables, and through the people I’ve met, I’ve really been able to take advantage of other people’s experiences to make really smart decisions about how to grow the company.”
Virginia Council of CEOs is full of innovative leaders like Eddie O’Leary. Sign up for a Get to Know VACEOs event to learn more!
Our members enjoy a unique safe haven culture, where learning and growth are valued. They connect, learn, and grow with the leaders of some of Virginia’s fastest growing companies. But don’t take our word for it. Here are seven reasons why Members value the VA Council of CEOs, as written in their own words.
#1) Realization “I’m not alone”
“The peer network is second to none. For me, the opportunity to connect and share similar experiences with other CEOs has been invaluable. It removes the ‘it’s lonely at the top’ feeling and gives you an abundance of friendships, support and objectivity.” – R. Zacharias, CEO, Barber Martin Agency
#2) The confidential Roundtable experience
“The peer sharing experience gives you information that will help you avoid some pitfalls and really gain from their experience, which is what the Council is all about.” – J. Fitzgerald, CEO, Taradel, Inc.
#3) Like-minded peers
“The Council provides access to leaders who are like minded and share the same passion as I do as a leader. We learn from each other and share experiences about our businesses and our personal lives. This gives me an outlet to learn, grow, and build new relationships.” – B. Leach, President, Unboxed Technology
#4) Continuous improvement/time to work on the business
“It is easy for me to get pulled into the weeds as I work with issues that occur in the business. The Council serves as a continuous reminder to me of the importance of stepping back to work on the business.” – J. Boyden, CEO, Heart Havens
#5) Business growth
“When I look at our organization today and think about all of the great things we’ve done over the last 10 years, the Council has had a hand in all of it.” – H. Clifford, President, Livewire
#6) Safe, no-sell environment
“I think the Council is a valuable organization because it provides a place to meet and learn from so many other business owners in safe space where you are not constantly sold to.” – T. Hamilton, Owner, U-Fab Interiors
#7) Personal growth
“I am a better boss and business partner and more well rounded. It pushes you to be better. It offers a path out of your comfort zone to a success zone.” – C. Brodersen, CEO, Infotel Systems
Joining the Council is easy! Simply fill out our online Membership Application and we will be in touch ASAP.
We live in an age where it’s possible for companies to thrive or die based on customer reviews. “Reviews are important for almost any small to mid-sized business,” says Chris Leone, president of WebStrategies, Inc. “These days, it’s hard to be a new customer and not see an online review at some point in your buying journey.”
And like it or not, your buyers’ journeys often begin on Google. According to Leone, prospects who search for a type of service in the search engine (e.g., “staffing company VA”) are more likely to choose companies that have strong reviews associated with them.
If a customer doesn’t know your web address and chooses to search using your business name (e.g., “ACME Supply”), they’ll quickly discover reviews of your business along with your website. A search result page littered with low-star reviews doesn’t make a great first impression. Another not-so-great look? Poor ratings on Glassdoor – a well-known site where employees can rate their employers.
To sum: Less-than-stellar reviews can impact your brand image, your bottom line and the likelihood that a star employee will come calling.
Think only B2C business owners should be concerned with customer reviews? Think again. There are myriad review websites that closely examine the services and products B2B companies provide, too – from Amazon Customer Reviews to Which? to TrustPilot. If you own a business, it’s also important to monitor your online presence on sites like FinancesOnline, G2Crowd and bbb.org (Better Business Bureau).
If you’re a small to mid-size business owner with limited resources and time, where do you begin? Leone stresses that any website visible to your prospects should be on your radar. “You can find these by doing a Google search and scanning the search results page,” he explains. “Google will show different review sites for different industries, depending on what’s out there and the intent or mindset of the person doing the search. In short, act like a prospect would and take note of what you see. Then work to improve it.”
Scot Halloran, president of Trolley House Refreshments and managing partner of Groovin’ Gourmets, has an on-staff marketing employee who monitors Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, and catering and wedding-specific sites each day. “There’s quite a few areas that we have to monitor and keep an eye on,” says Halloran. “If anything positive or negative pops up, she’ll relay that back to the team. Obviously, if it’s a negative review, we attack that pretty quickly. Thankfully, that’s only happened a handful of times.”
Halloran is diligent about asking for customer feedback; in fact, he uses a local service to contact customers who’ve used his service in the last 30 days. It’s a great source for garnering positive reviews. His (thankfully) limited experience with negative reviews has taught him that folks are often quick to pull the social media trigger rather than contact a business owner directly with a concern or complaint.
Essential Steps for Handling Negative Reviews*
- Be professional and avoid getting personal
- Thank your reviewers and customize your responses
- Take the time to upload an image with your response
- Indicate you’ve taken the necessary action
*Source: Small Business Association: https://www.sba.gov/blogs/how-handle-negative-reviews
“Typically, what we find is that [a negative review] stems from not necessarily the contact you’ve been doing business with directly, but someone else in the organization that just has a beef, and rather than reaching out to us as an entity, they just go straight to social media,” says Halloran.
Halloran’s approach to reacting to less-positive reviews is based on a key core value of his business: transparency. A typical response includes an immediate acknowledgment of the concern and a thank-you for the feedback; for example, “We’ve researched the situation and found the following… Thank you for bringing this to our attention.”
Most importantly: Be diligent and vigilant, and respond quickly should an issue arise.
Leone agrees that it’s important to respond. “Do so empathetically. Your response is a great opportunity to show your human side and that you’re trying to get better. No business is perfect, and people get that. That being said, if there are recurring trends in the negative reviews people leave, you should worry less about the reviews and more about fixing the systemic problem within your business that’s causing the bad reviews.”
For 30 years, Scott Warren, Co-Founder, Owner and Director of Warren Whitney, has been working closely with CEOs. Acting as their fractional CFO, he works with clients requiring senior level business financial management or systems expertise. We recently talked with Scott Warren about:
Here’s what he had to say.
Step 1. Make sure you have good and timely input. The data needs to be submitted timely and accurately coded. The organization should have in place documented policies and procedures to ensure the data input is done correctly.
Step 2. Incorporate checks and balances into your practice. You need to reconcile your subsidiary accounts (such as accounts receivable, accounts payable, and cash) to the general ledger number. Make sure your details equal your totals. Those are the first steps to making sure that you have accurate and timely monthly financials.
First, set-up internal controls. Make sure your assets are protected. Unfortunately, the move to electronic systems has not reduced the opportunity for fraud; if anything, it has increased. Your internal controls, including separation of duties and oversight are important to the accuracy of your reporting.
Next, understand your key drivers. Think about the important components in your business or industry. Examples of key drivers are bank treasury management tools, payroll, and inventory turns. The drivers vary depending on the individual company and industry – understanding what they are has a strong impact on the balance sheet. Other key drivers may be chargeable hours, revenue per employee, sales per square foot; I could go on another hundred measures.
Then, evaluate the risks your business and industry life cycle face. Is it competition? Is it price influences? Is it a new tax law? How would a potential hurricane affect your business? What is the effect of a major system failure or breach? What should you be considering based on your position in your company’s life cycle? Delineate a list of your risks and understand the true effects they might have. Then, combine that with an evaluation of the probability of those risks. That allows you to look at the potential downfalls and impact on your business. A risk analysis allows you to reduce the impact and measure success against those risks in the future. You will also want to relate the potential impact to individual line items on the income statement, balance sheet, and understand the effect it can have on the overall financial health of your business.
The surprising mistake I see again and again is the number of owners who never look at their balance sheet. There is so much information you can gain especially when you review the balance sheet in combination with your sources and uses of funds and cash flow statement. That is how you get better insight into what your balance sheet means to you.
Knowing your assets, and reviewing your balance sheet from one period to the next, is the key to truly seeing how your cash flow is affected by the balance sheet items such as receivables, inventory or payables as well as the debt obligations. In addition, the common ratios (like debt to equity) from your balance sheet, let you know your overall financial health.
Pay attention to cash flow, cash flow, and cash flow. When you are in growth mode, your business is going to be cash constrained. We talked about key drivers earlier. You need to understand the effect these drivers have on your cash flow. It is critical to evaluate how you are performing against your budget and your strategic plan. When all of this comes together, it allows a growing business to manage expectations and make smart business choices. This is the work we are passionate about; helping our clients grow to the next level to make potential happen.
About Scott Warren
Scott Warren is a co-founder and director of Warren Whitney and a senior member of the management teams for several of the firm’s largest clients. Working primarily with clients requiring senior level business financial management, or systems expertise, he brings more than 20 years of experience in helping organizations manage change. Learn more about Scott.
Warren Whitney is a trusted Sponsor of VA Council of CEOs.
Often, people equate being an entrepreneur with freedom and flexibility. They have visions of multi-week vacations, days spent playing golf, and coming into the office late and leaving early while the troops deliver superior results. In reality, it takes extreme intestinal fortitude to withstand the emotional rollercoaster of navigating the milestones necessary to achieve entrepreneurial success. Interestingly, many of the lessons I’ve learned in business also apply to my “Dad job.”
My twin boys, who are seniors in high school, have formed a band called 5 Second Rule. Running a band is a lot like running a small business: You have to work as a team to create a product (in this case, music), budget time and money, acquire equipment (one of my sons is a guitar player and has become quite proficient at acquiring gear), market to potential clients, deliver on performance expectations…and execute.
“The allure of launching a business venture often outweighs the realization that entrepreneurial success requires risk.”
One of the things I see holding back budding business owners is the actual ability to be entrepreneurial. And being entrepreneurial, I think, starts with a unique passion for what you’re doing, expressed with a conviction and authentic enthusiasm that’s captivating to others.
The allure of launching a business venture often outweighs the realization that entrepreneurial success requires risk. Great entrepreneurs, like successful parents, take calculated risks constantly: We will never see our kids or our businesses grow into what they can be if we don’t allow ourselves, our employees or our kids to take risks. Not everyone can stomach the risk of building something new, letting something go or investing in a new idea. But those with an entrepreneurial spirit thrive on these kinds of challenges and realize that each failure is an opportunity to move forward to the next experiment.
Another key attribute I see in most successful entrepreneurs is an incredible commitment and ability to execute. In business and at home, it comes down to a commitment to execution. The commitment to being a great parent or entrepreneur consistently requires placing many important things in distant second place—things like sleep, time with friends or actually playing that round of golf.
Life balance was, frankly, mostly non-existent when we arrived home with newborn twin boys—at least for a period of time. The same was true as I grew a business. Those who lack an entrepreneurial spirit may not understand or appreciate the obsession with execution being a successful entrepreneur requires. But my commitment to doing whatever it takes to raise great kids is no different from my commitment to doing whatever it takes to build a great business.
“Most see the hurdles in front of goals. I think parents and entrepreneurs see the actions needed to get around them.”
Having an action-oriented mindset is something I find critical to running our high-growth firm. As a simple example, in year two of our business, our angel investor mentioned that we should consider moving our office to another location where space was available. Before the end of the day, we had picked up our operation and moved and were back to running the business. Many business owners would get stuck on the obstacles to getting through the move. We took action. I can apply this simple example to moving into new service lines, acquiring new talent and making impactful investments in our business. Most see the hurdles in front of goals. I think parents and entrepreneurs see the actions needed to get around them.
My business partner and I have been blessed to build a great team of people, a great brand and a great business by challenging each other to be entrepreneurial, to take action on calculated risks, and to have faith in our decisions. I’m equally blessed that this philosophy has served me well in my family life, as my wife and I have raised entrepreneurially spirited kids who are unafraid to take risks. Rock on, 5 Second Rule!
About Rich Reinecke, Co-Managing Partner, Co-Founder, The Fahrenheit Group
Rich Reinecke is the Co-Founder of The Fahrenheit Group and a recruiting industry veteran with a unique blend of large corporate experience and dynamic entrepreneurial spirit. Rich works with every level of business, from emerging growth and middle-market to Fortune 500 companies, and is key in client development and recruiting talent both internally and for clients. Learn more.
The Fahrenheit Group is a valued Sponsor of Virginia Council of CEOs.