Processes for Growth: Sales Focus, Inc

Ascent Advisor – David Grau: What was your vision when you first started the company 15 years ago?

Tony: The model has always been to build dedicated sales teams for companies that either don’t have the infrastructure or the knowledge to provide that service, or they need a sales solution that is fast, flexible and closely managed. That was my vision going in. Fortunately, we’ve been successful for 15 years in doing exactly that.

Ascent Advisor: Has the vision changed going forward?

Tony: It has been modified a little bit. We’ve had to tweak it based on the economy.  Fifteen years ago I didn’t have any competitors so it was more about explaining what we did and who we were. Now we do have some competition and our vision is about being more competitive and developing a better infrastructure. My initial vision wasn’t launching a 50 person team or a 200 person team, it was about producing a 10-15 person team. As our company grew, it became much more important to grow our support team and provide more infrastructure and resources.  When we launch a large program, providing sales teams across the country in 45 days, we are able to control that process fairly tightly, making the launch go smoothly.

Ascent Advisor: As you look at your competitors, what makes you unique?

 Tony: The simple answer is that we’ve been doing this longer than anybody else, but that’s not the only answer. It’s about the process; I refer to it as the secret sauce that I’ve been using for 25 years. Our organization is very process driven. When we work with a new client we have an executive team that takes over that project. We have a program manager who becomes the acting sales manager for that client. Whether we are working with a small company or a fortune 500 company, we provide the same process.  We have had the opportunity to work with some of the largest companies in the world, such as BP, GE AT&T and Sprint and have done programs in Canada, London and South America.  Ninety five percent of the time we complete the process in 45 days.  It’s very unusual if we don’t.

It’s our model, our process, our ability to work with big companies and our success with companies we have worked with for 6 or 7 years that makes the difference. We have worked across the world in every industry you can imagine.

Ascent Advisor: So the process works whether you apply it to technology, healthcare, or any other industry?

Tony:  We receive inquiries from new companies every day. If they don’t have the infrastructure, funding, or product price point to do it, then the process doesn’t work. It can’t support the model. This is very seldom, but it does happen.

Ascent Advisor:  What challenges have you experienced during your rapid growth? 

Tony: Over the last 5 years we’ve grown between 30 – 90% each year. It isn’t acquiring new business that is the challenge, it’s adding 100 – 150 people a year that is the challenge. However, the challenge is not hiring those people, it is supporting those people. Ten years ago we had four people supporting the entire organization. Now we have 34 people. As we grow and continue to build, the challenge is a balancing act between supporting the organization so it can scale without adding too much overhead.

Ascent Advisor: You have been recognized for your success on the Inc. 5000, Tech 200 and SmartCEO’s Future 50. How have you managed to keep growing despite the recent economic challenges? 

Tony Horwath: We were doing well before the economy tanked, but we’ve continued to do much better and grow even in a down economy. People always need sales and revenue and our solutions give them the opportunity to launch a dedicated sales team without investing in an infrastructure to do that. Large companies have already accepted the model of sales outsourcing, but we provide another model they can implement into their company. We become an operational expense rather than an HR expense. For smaller companies, we have the expertise to get them to the next level. It is very costly for someone to build an internal sales organization.

Ascent Advisor: What do you do to attract and engage great employees? How do you help them catch the vision?

Tony: I think people buy into who we are and what we do. They enjoy the entrepreneurial environment, the constant change and the excitement. It can be trying at times but it is also exciting. The reason we are able to attract good people is that sales people like to work for a sales organization.  Everything we can do to make you successful, we will do, because that is all we care about. As a sales person you get to work in an environment that is 100% dedicated to you. If you work in one part of the country and that opportunity goes away, there will be a chance to work on other programs with us. You won’t be pigeonholed; we can move you around and put you in different programs.

Ascent Advisor: Is the culture of your company something you consciously thought about or did it evolve? How does culture serve the organization and the client?

Tony: Our culture evolved and it’s more important now as we grow than it was when we were smaller. When I started the business 15 years ago I had worked for some companies that I didn’t like. I had the big corner office and all the bells and whistles, but I just didn’t enjoy my job. I would come in and doors were shut — people didn’t converse. It was just a place where you came and worked. I said to myself, “If I ever start my own business, I am going to make sure it is a place that people enjoy.” We were able to do that early on and as we grew and brought in more personalities and more interesting situations, we put more focus on corporate culture.

Recently, we brought in someone to run our corporate culture and communications because we knew that as we expanded to 300 people across the country it would be very difficult to make sure they felt a part of our team and to make sure they stayed connected to our organization. We work very hard to focus our corporate culture.  Personal accountability is the glue that ties the company together.  Our “Above the Line” mentality starts at the top, with our executive team and continues down the line to every employee in the company.  Monetary and recognition awards are given to employees based not only around performance but personal accountability and working “Above the Line.” We developed our corporate culture to be about communication, being part of a team and achieving our goals.

Ascent Advisor: What advice would you have for a new CEO or an entrepreneur? 

Tony: When I started this company I went out and asked many people for advice. I had a young family at the time and everybody I talked to said, “Don’t do it.” They were people I respected but I am competitive in nature, and I thought I had a really good idea.

I would tell someone that if you truly believe in what you are going to do, have a passion, and are willing to work hard, then you can make it successful but you have to be ALL in. Don’t keep a job while you are trying to do it. Don’t try to do it part-time. I sold my house, and I moved my family. It takes perseverance, commitment and all those other things that people will say plus an extra 20% on top of that. It’s work ethic, as well. The number one thing that I always look for in potential employees is work ethic because that can’t be taught. Have a plan in place but don’t kill yourself on planning. I’ve seen so many people work a year or two on their business plan and plan themselves to death without ever getting out there and really seeing if it can be successful. You have to test it, you have to get that proof of concept, and then you can adjust and make it successful. If you just sit in a back room and plan your life away, you will never see results.

Ascent Advisor: What would you say is the greatest lesson you’ve learned running your business over the past 15 years?

Tony: The greatest lesson is that it is still enjoyable after 15 years. I didn’t know if I would get tired of what I am doing, but I don’t. I get to learn about every type of industry known to man.

The hard part for me has been the people side of the business, specifically HR. In this day and age it’s difficult to run a small business from the HR side. It’s a very difficult economy to keep your employees happy and satisfied. People say, “There are so many people unemployed, can’t you hire some of them?” The truth of the matter is there are a lot of people out there looking for work, but are they the people you want to work for your business? Will they accept our model and our corporate culture? Do they really believe in personal accountability? That is the difficult part that I thought we’d have a much
easier time with as we grew, to really reach out and bring in quality people. We have great teams, but it’s difficult and it’s always a challenge to find the really strong people who believe not just in what you do, but how you do it.

Ascent Advisor: How do you retain them?

Tony: We promote from within the company. One of my senior managers has been with me almost 8 years and started as a sales person, moved to a sales manager, then a program manager, and now to senior program manager. My bookkeeper started in an entry-level position and I promoted her through the years. I always use an E=MC² mentality when I talk to other people. For me that stands for: Education, Motivation, Communication, and Caring. If you do those four things as a manager you can retain and encourage your employees.

Ascent Advisor: Through your growth have there been any big surprises?

 Tony: The big surprise to me was that the business can go between industries. I started in technology but have since become an expert in every field imaginable.  Our first big client was Enron, and although it started out very profitable within 6 months they were shut down.  This experience showed me how important it is to be versatile and not put all your eggs in one basket.  We have worked with every industry imaginable and because we use the same formula for each client we are able to quickly build a sales plan, recruit a team, train them and manage them to meet the expectations of every client.  We are able to build sales teams for small companies as well as large companies and achieve the same goal.

Ascent Advisor: What is the next big challenge?

Tony: Where do we go from here? We’re poised to have another great year in 2013. We ended 2012 with 40% growth. We have several new clients on the books for 2013 that could take us to 100% growth, so the challenge is continuing to grow in an educated way. I don’t want to just bring on clients for the sake of bringing on clients. I want to bring on clients that we can build long-term relationships with. Another challenge is finding the good people in-house that can continue to build and allow us to expand. Four months ago we opened a new sales center with 30 seats. We are growing so quickly that we already need to expand it. Where we go from here is always the challenge because of the opportunities.

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