Northwest Arkansas, a cradle of entrepreneurship, is well-versed on the importance of the small business community. The region helped birth three Fortune 500 companies that still call it home.
“Small businesses are critical to the success of Northwest Arkansas and the rest of the nation. If you don’t believe me listen to these stats,” Andy Wilson, operational leader at Cross Church said as he opened The Summit panel discussion on Thursday (Feb. 5) in Rogers.
His stats were these:
• There are 28 million small businesses in the U.S.;
• 70% of all small businesses are owned by a single person;
• 57% of all workers are employed by small businesses;
• 44% of the U.S. payroll comes from small businesses;
• 77 million make up the small business workforce; and
• 60% to 80% of all new jobs are created by small businesses.
He asked three of the region’s small business entrepreneurs — Rick West, CEO of Field Agent; John Rausch, CEO of Rausch Coleman Homes; and Dr. John James, former CEO of Acumen Brands — to discuss leadership qualities, culture, and how they might reinvent the future.
“General Colin Powell said a good leader has to be able to simplify things, cut through the arguments and debate and ensure that everyone in the chain can understand the mission,” Wilson said.
West, joked that Field Agent is a company full of Millennials who don’t care about lengthy mission statements but simply want to understand why. He referenced a Ted Talk by Simon Sinek that his team at Field Agent was able to follow.
“We learned early on that if we could really understand why we are in business, people would follow the ‘why’ and not the ‘what’ we do,” West said. “We are tech company at heart and we are changing the way data is gathered and used.”
James, the founder of Acumen Brands, spoke about the company’s biggest success story, Country Outfitters. He said it’s a joke to try and wrap up the leadership or mission in just a few words.
“It took us six years to get there. It’s about finding holes in the market and iterating to fill them. It started out pulling medical scrubs off of shelves and selling them online but we kept iterating until we hit upon the winner,” James said. “We are about trial and failure that’s our culture. We say if you’re not embarrassed by your beta version of your product then you probably launched too slow. We break things and move fast.
Rausch joked that breaking things and moving fast might work for tech companies but he doesn’t recommend it for homebuilders.
“We value our customers because we know the home they buy could be their largest purchase of their lives. Our mission is to build the best home we can for the value. That never wavers,” he said. “That message doesn’t start with me, it starts out in the field. Our organizational chart is inverted and I am on the bottom,” Rausch said.
Wilson asked the panel to think about what it is their employee base wants from them as leaders.
“Day in and day we can talk about details but what employees really want from me is to know where we are going and more importantly do I have the confidence to know that we can get there,” West said. “It sounds really simple that’s it in a nutshell.”
Rausch said for him it’s about providing clarity (transparency) and empowering employees to go for it when there are constant changes happening in their industry. Wilson added that without transparency from the top, barriers can build below that can render a company ineffective. James agreed, saying his employees seek out a confidence and assuredness from the leadership.
“You may have to fake it ‘til you make it, but leaders have to exude confidence,” James added.
REINVENT THE FUTURE
Wilson asked the panel to talk about how they might reinvent the future at their respective companies citing a quote from “Good to Great” author Jim Collins in that the future can’t be predicted but it can be created.
James recalled a time in Acumen’s past when they were looking for what turned out to bey the Country Outfitter success story. He said they were moving quickly and failing fast but when they saw a ray of light the whole team rallied around it. He said it doesn’t take long for consumers to tell you what they think. But it’s critical to listen and adjust quickly.
West said at Field Agent the important aspect is to stay between the rails because the data world is vast. He said the way Field Agent is recreating the future is not by coloring the data differently or analyzing it with a story. He said Field Agent seeks to find solutions to problems or questions that exist. That means staying focused on the questions and finding solutions through crowd sourcing. It doesn’t start at the top but it builds from the bottom.
James said creating a culture where thinkers are not afraid to fail is the best to keep creativity alive within a company.
“We started out great at Acumen but we lost some of that when raised a little money. It took some time to get back to the mindset,” he said.
Rausch said creativity thrives in areas of necessity and that’s seldom at the top of any organization.
“For us, our best ideas come from the field and things we see in the industry. A leader has to be willing to listen and try the ideas of others. … They also need to surround themselves with experts and mentors that will be honest and provide crucial feedback even when you don’t want to hear it,” Rausch said.
The entire panel agreed that customers can’t be discounted in the creativity and innovation equation and businesses of all sizes have to listen to what customers want and exceed those expectations whenever possible.