Lessons Learned from 20 Years in Business

by Frank L. Williams

I have a hard time believing that Pioneer Strategies is celebrating 20 years in business this August. On the one hand, it seems like I just started the firm, but on the other hand, it’s hard for me to remember doing anything else.

Anyone who has been in business for more than a few weeks has experienced their share of ups and downs. Assuming they are teachable, they’ve also learned a few lessons along the way. With that in mind, this column will focus on some lessons I’ve learned since founding Pioneer Strategies in August 2001.

Look beyond first impressions. Some of our best and most profitable clients have been companies and organizations that we probably would not have sought out. In one case, the type of business was so out-of-the-box that I would never have thought of approaching them – but they were facing a challenge that we helped them solve. In another case, I never would have imagined that a small initial project would develop into a professional relationship that is still going 20 years later.

Top-level buy-in matters. If a client’s management team understands the value of what we do, believes we can help them and is committed to providing what is needed to get the job done, we are generally effective. If a client’s management is detached or disinterested, our job is much more difficult.

Expect the unexpected. I filed the initial papers to reserve our first corporate name on August 1, 2001. Less than six weeks later, America was forever changed by the terrorist attacks of 9/11/01. Many of the businesses and organizations I was talking with put everything on hold due to the economic uncertainty that followed 9/11. If it had not been for one large client that fell into my lap, we might not be in business today. Fast-forward to March 6, 2020, when Pioneer Strategies welcomed a new part-time employee who was also working to complete her college degree. Just a few weeks later, she was working from home due to COVID-19. These are but two examples of the unexpected challenges I’ve faced since forming Pioneer Strategies. As business owners we should hope and work for the best but be prepared for the unexpected.

Stay in your wheelhouse. My inner entrepreneur is naturally inclined to explore new ideas, and it would be easy to spread myself – and my company – too thin.  Experience has taught me that not every good idea is one worth pursuing. Additionally, if a potential new client or project presents a major deviation from our bread-and-butter expertise, we may be well-served to refer them to another firm that is a better match. We cannot be all things to all people, and we better serve our clients when we focus on our core areas of expertise.

Focus on your people. One of my favorite business adages involves an interaction between a CEO and CFO. The CFO, who is focused on the bottom line, asks, “What if we invest in training our people and they leave?” The CEO, who is focused on the big picture, responds, “What if we don’t, and they stay?” I’m a firm believer that any leader who desires to grow their organization can best do it by helping the people in the organization grow. Our small team holds regular professional development meetings. Our team members are encouraged to create and follow personal development plans. We provide them with resources and training to grow their skills. As for the “what if they leave?” question – one of our team members recently moved on to another job. While we were sad to see her go and will miss her, we are proud of her, are glad to have helped her prepare for the next step in her career and look forward to continuing our professional relationship.

Persistence is paramount. Owning a business is challenging. Any business owner who is being honest will tell you that they have wanted to throw in the towel more than once. If they are still in business, they obviously didn’t throw in the towel. They persevered. They rolled up their sleeves and got it done. Successful business owners are persistent, and we love to work with others who share our persistence and sense of urgency.

Be teachable. As a business owner, I learn new things every day. I grow and learn every time I plan a professional development session for my team. Learning is a lifelong process. If you’re not learning, you’re lagging.

These are just a few of the lessons I’ve learned over 20 years in business, and I’m sure this list could continue to infinity if I kept writing. I’m excited about seeing what lessons the next 20 years have to offer!

Frank L. Williams

Frank is the founder and president of Pioneer Strategies.