Information Experts (www.informationexperts.com) is based in Reston, VA. Information Experts (@InfoExperts) is a trusted strategic communications firm. CEO Marissa Levin sat down to talk to Ascent Advisor (@AscentAdvisor).
Ascent Advisor – David Grau: You have experienced great success and rapid growth; to what do you attribute that, both personally and as a company?
Marissa Levin: Over the period of almost two decades we have experienced both great growth and decline, so we are not a company that has had straight growth all the way through. Like most companies, we have our ups and downs. We are dependent on market shifts, we are dependent on government agendas, and we are dependent on whether it’s war or peace time. I think one of the great things about being in a small business is that we are very nimble and we are able to pivot quickly when there is a shift in the marketplace. That is one of the things I attribute to our success and growth; it gives us the ability to remain viable regardless of what is happening in the market. Growth is great, but the ability to remain viable and to be able to see yourself through difficult times is just as important.
Ascent Advisor: How do you go about anticipating the kinds of shifts and meeting what you anticipate is the future demand?
Levin: I am personally connected to the CEO and executive community. I’m very engaged in the sectors that affect our business, whether it’s from an industry sector (such as being involved in many government organizations) or whether it’s being involved in the vertical markets that we serve (such as e-learning, creative services, strategy, and human capital). I make sure that we are kept in the loop on the things affecting the work that we do. For example, right now in the government space there is a lot of uncertainty and stagnation. We have responded and adjusted accordingly. The most important thing to me is not being on an escalating growth period. Rather, it is to make sure that no matter what is happening around us in the environment, that we remain a viable company focused on quality.
Ascent Advisor: Why did you write your book, “Built to SCALE: How Top Companies Create Breakthrough Growth Through Great Advisory Boards?”
Levin: I’m the first person to come to market with a model on how to build an advisory board. I put in my first advisory board about 3 years ago because we were stuck at the $5M mark. I’ve always believed that a leader’s greatest strengths are not only to have the vision of where you need to go but to also recognize when you need to ask for help. I’ve always been someone who seeks out advice, leadership and counsel. There is more that I don’t know than what I do know. I am all for surrounding myself with others who have already experienced what I’m going to be going through, who have insight and connections that I don’t have. I wrote the book and built the model: SCALE – Select, Compensate, Associate, Leverage, and Evaluate/Evolve/Exit. I did this in response to my own needs. When I wrote the book I interviewed and researched about 150 CEOs on how they use their boards and the lessons they have learned. All of that is captured in the book; it explains the model and has all the tools and templates that a business owner needs to develop their own board.
Ascent Advisor: When you first started, what was your vision for the company?
Levin: When I started the business 18 years ago I did not have a vision of a multi-million dollar, multi-disciplined company. At the time, I was working for another person and they had kept my net worth at $34k. I made the decision through support from my husband that if I was going to be working 14-16 hour days, I was going to do it for someone who appreciated it — me. I started my own firm and never looked back. My company came from a place of knowing what I didn’t want and recognizing that I had been working for someone who did not align with my own core values system. It was my fundamental core values and my own sense of self-worth that drove me to start the company.
Ascent Advisor: Did you have a clear sense of what you wanted from the beginning or did it evolve?
Levin: My background is in education with a Master’s Degree in Curriculum Development, Adult Learning and Instructional Design. That was the genesis of the company and what I loved to do. Many business owners start because we have a skill or a passion. I define entrepreneurship in six words: See a need, fill a need. That is what I did when I started Information Experts. I went out and found a need, I found the client, and I came back and did the work. We all start our businesses by being practitioners. If you do a good job, then you find yourself in this predicament where you have more work than you can handle and you need to make your first hires and you evolve into management. The business continued to grow and eventually I was managing and leading and guiding the strategy and the vision. Before I knew it, I had some employees and I was at three million dollars which is kind of the natural evolution of a company that is bootstrapped.
Ascent Advisor: You obviously provided a service that people really wanted.
Levin: Yes, but again, we still responded to market shifts. When we started we were all classroom-based and instructor-led training. It wasn’t until John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco, announced that e-learning would be the killer in our niche that we became an e-learning firm and we had to reinvent ourselves overnight in response to a market shift. It doesn’t matter how great your product or service is if it becomes obsolete. There is no business without a customer.
Ascent Advisor: What is the vision today, going forward?
Levin: We have four practice areas: education and training, human capital, communication strategy, and program management. We also provide conference management services. These all fall under the umbrella of integrated communications services. And we have a tool – The Tracker- that we have developed internally over the last few years in response to the pain we had designing and developing web-based training. It cuts the design and development time of e-learning tools by 60%. It’s the first online development tool in a collaborative environment; we initially used it internally for our own projects and our clients liked it so much that they wanted to start licensing it. We are now evaluating how we are going to bring that product to market and actively seek investors for the technology. It’s a beautiful tool and it does a lot of things that no other tools on the market do. However, we are not a product company so I am evaluating if I am going to spin the product off into a separate entity. I am currently looking for investors for the tool to take it to the next level.
Ascent Advisor: Given your rate of growth, what have been the biggest challenges?
Levin: There have been many challenges but I think as a CEO one of the things that I pride myself in is to maintain a great culture. This is not always easy. There have been times when it has been excellent and other times when it has been strained due to organizational changes or lack of work. To me, this is the most painful challenge of business ownership – have a stressful environment due to circumstances beyond our control. Any company that says they’ve never experienced culture shifts during difficult times is being dishonest.
Two of the major challenges of being a business owner are:
(1) There are people who get you to one level, but they aren’t necessarily the people who can get you to the next level. I talk a lot about the Peter Principle which is when you have an employee that rises to their highest level of incompetence. You have someone who has been with you for a long time and you continue to promote them for their work and their loyalty and you give them additional responsibilities until they hit this ceiling where basically they are unable to fulfill the job. This is because there are three things that are required to fill a job– the GWC principle: do they GET it, do they WANT it, and do they have the CAPACITY to do it? Often when you promote someone through the ranks over years and years, a couple things happen. First, their salaries end up escalating so high that sometimes they out price themselves. Second, they might reach a maximum capacity level. You have a situation where you love who is working for you but they aren’t the best person to get you to the next level. As a business owner you constantly need to weigh your loyalty to one person vs. your loyalty to an organization and personally for me that is a really hard place to be.
(2) I am a really big culture fanatic. I believe that culture drives growth. We have experienced a radical culture shift in the past 18-24 months and it isn’t something that I have been comfortable with. We have landed contracts that have required us to staff locations around the United States and I’ve had to accept that it has changed our culture. We had a very collaborative culture for a long time. Now I have people who are working offsite that I don’t know very well personally and that doesn’t sit well with me. How do you manage a virtual culture? That is something I am learning as I go. I don’t have all the answers. I am learning now how to integrate people who are offsite. They are in different geographical regions with different cultures than the D.C. region. It isn’t just a cultural challenge from a company perspective; they are in different regions of the US. The D.C. market is insulated in many ways from the rest of the country. Our unemployment rate is much lower, we have the highest ratio of dual income households, and we have the wealthiest counties in the country. Some of my employees’ locations are a stark contrast and I need to be able to get inside their heads and understand what drives them from a cultural perspective.
I am very aware of what my personal weak spots are as a leader and I’m trying to do the best I can to backfill those weak spots with expertise from outside.
Ascent Advisor: How do you attract great employees and keep them engaged?
Levin: I hope it is our reputation of the way we treat people and the type of work we do and the innovation and confidence in my leadership. We are a small business so we can’t offer a lot of the benefits that larger companies can. We offer a lot of work/life integration; we call it “responsible flexibility.” We allow people to accommodate personal needs. We don’t micromanage or babysit.
Ascent Advisor: Are there challenges you face that you wish employees understood better?
Levin: They are aware of the challenges and successes we have. I rely very heavily on a core leadership team. I don’t want a lot of bureaucracy. I have a core leadership team and they have managers that work for them and the rest are resources. We do our best to inform people and we strive to do a better job.
Ascent Advisor: What is the next hurdle for Information Experts?
Levin: We are definitely focused on the Tracker. How do we get traction with what we have created? We also need to focus on where the bulk of the revenue is going to be coming and where we should focus our business development efforts. We are like any other government contractor and are concerned about sequestration. A lot of the outcomes are out of our control and are things we will need to respond to with hard but necessary decisions to ride out the wave of shrinking budgets and a stagnated environment. However, I believe we are well-positioned to endure the difficult times and we will continue to be a small business leader in our space.