Episode 85: Finding Silver Linings In Business Challenges, With Justin Copie
What You Will Learn:
- How Innovative Solutions, Justin’s 31-year old business, is today’s fastest-growing Amazon Web Services (AWS) partner
- How the rapid advancement in technologies and the work environment rework caused by the global pandemic has created a meteoric growth boom for Innovative Solutions
- How the company’s former CEO served as a mentor to Justin, and how Justin’s focus on company culture and stepping outside of his own comfort have been growth catalysts
- Why the terrible, crushing moments are the ones where you can achieve real clarity and renewed purpose by finding silver linings they offer
- Why the right leadership team can help you keep things calm even when there is so much chaos going on around you and can take some of the burden off your decision making
- Why businesses often struggle to grow even if owners know what they should be doing, just because learning and implementing the processes can be incredibly challenging
- What key lessons and surprising moments Justin has experienced during the transition of ownership at Innovative Solutions and its period of remarkable growth
- Why Justin sees being a business owner as both a great honor and as an enormous responsibility to the people he’s leading
- Why pushing yourself to grow and develop as a business owner and leader is crucial for moving the needle for your organization as well
- Why great company culture is the key to bringing in new team members who truly believe in your Mission
About Justin Copie
As CEO of Innovative Solutions, Justin Copie is leading the bold move forward: instilling growth in employees and inspiring change well beyond the four walls of Innovative. Yet the 65 people working at Innovative don’t work for him. He works for them.
As CEO and leader, Justin provides safety and direction: safety in voicing opinions, trying new things, and failing, and direction in where to go on the path to success. He serves others in cultivating a culture where people can come to work every day feeling safe and free to do what they love to do, and in turn help Innovative reach its vision.
- Website: www.innovativesol.com
- Website: www.justincopie.com
- LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/in/jcopie/
- LinkedIn: www.linkedin.com/company/innovative-solutions/
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/InnovativeSolutionsIT
- Twitter: @InnovativeSol
- Elite Business Health Assessment: https://growwithelite.com/health
- Email: info@GrowWithElite.com
- Website: https://growwithelite.com/
Listen to the podcast here
I have a special guest. Not everybody can say they’re one of the premier consulting partners with Amazon Web Services, but his company can. His name is Justin Copie. He’s the Owner and CEO of Innovative Solutions. I’m happy to have you here with me on the show, Justin.
Thanks, Brett. I appreciate you having me on.
Let’s learn a little bit more about Innovative before we go any further. There are levels. There are statuses with Amazon Web Services partners, and you guys are right up at the top. Not many companies in the world do what you do. Help our audience get a little bit of orienting around what you guys do and how you help companies.
We’re a 31-year-old company this 2021. It’s crazy that our business is the fastest-growing Amazon Web Services partner and that we are seeing all sorts of growth and opportunity at the clip that we are. Being in business for 31 years, I bought the company several years ago. I’ve been with the company for about eighteen years, so a little bit more than half of its history. It’s interesting because you see waves of technology and technology adoption that come through.
We are at an unprecedented time. I have 80 employees. We have folks in 7 states and 4 time zones. We have customers in 40 of the 50 United States. We’re up in Canada. It’s an unbelievable time as customers are all looking to leverage technology and their IT infrastructure differently as they move forward. The days of, “I need to upgrade my server, change my backup tapes, or get my programmer to make an update to my system,” a lot of those things, if they haven’t already passed for many small to mid-sized businesses, they’re going to with the adoption of cloud-based technologies and this tidal wave that’s coming through this industry. It’s an exciting time.
That’s awesome. Any time in history, technology moves fast, to begin with, but then, you throw on top of that a pandemic where lots of businesses are revisiting how they go to market or how they interact with one another even on their own teams. Lots of things have gone to virtual environments, and the cloud plays a huge role in how all of that works.
It’s good for you guys and your growth. That’s exactly why you’re here. I’m grateful that our audience gets to learn from somebody who’s in the midst of growth and has been for quite some time. This isn’t the last year that you guys have been growing. You bought the company a few years ago. You have 80 employees. How many did you have years ago as a reference point?
We had about 50 to 55 employees, but the company was extremely different at that time. When you think of how businesses grow and the stages that they go through as they grow, we are in that phase. We were somewhere between $5 million and $10 million in revenue. We were starting to figure out the fact that we had multiple teams. We were starting to bring leaders in to lead those teams. We were seeing all sorts of hurdles with our people and our systems. We were starting to focus on culture.
It was a very different time than where we are where we’ve nearly doubled our business. We’ve put in place a real leadership team. We have a culture that is known throughout the country. We have systems in place that allow us to scale the business. We are moving away from fewer heroics, individual contributor-type heroics, and moving toward models that are much more sustainable, which take the burden off of any one individual.
It was different then. We had fewer employees. We had an incredible team then and we have an incredible team now. Like anything, all things must pass. If we were going to continue to grow, we knew that we needed to make change happen and we needed to pivot accordingly to be able to best serve customers.
I’m excited to be able to dig in on some of those lessons because that’s why this group of seven-figure business owners are here tuning in. They are in those stages, somewhere between the $1 million and $3 million transition and the $3 million to $10 million. It sounds like years ago, you guys had maxed out the thing that was. You had to go through a transformation to enable the next leg of the journey. That’s where we want to focus.
Let’s dive in on some of those lessons because that’s super valuable. You mentioned a couple of things that come to mind for me. One of them was you had to stop working as separate departments that have the individuals who come in and save the day all the time. You had to create company capabilities that let us do things together better. Why don’t we talk about some of that? We don’t always get a chance to hear about that.
Yeah. It only makes sense that I give the backdrop of what I walked into, so to speak. I was with the company for a good 10 to 12 years prior to buying the business. I knew where all the bodies were buried, so to speak. I knew how we got to the point that we did in 2015 as we were preparing for the actual transaction in 2016.
I had worked through a succession plan with the then-owners. There were three owners of the business. The CEO was a mentor to me. He was, in many ways, like a father figure to me. I learned so much in my career from him. The day that I bought the business, we had designed that it would be a non-event, which is interesting if you look back on it in hindsight. It was the start of a new chapter. It didn’t mean that we were writing a new book, but we needed to make change happen.
As part of that, we all knew that if we were going to scale the company, we needed to bring in members of the team that could help us do that. That was across all aspects of the business. In every department, we took a chance and an opportunity to re-evaluate how we had done things and what had led us to success up until that point.
It’s very easy for many owners to feel if it’s not broken, there’s probably no reason to fix it. The irony behind that feeling is you are never going to grow if you’re comfortable. As an owner, I challenge myself to feel uncomfortable as often as possible. That’s where the growth moments are. The best things in the world can come from those challenging times.You are never going to grow if you're comfortable. Click To Tweet
As an owner, we are twisted in a way. If you own this entity, which is all it is, within that entity, you have employees. You have customers. You have this whole money thing that you have to pay attention to. Every owner knows this. To shake the barrel up and get yourself and everybody around you uncomfortable is very counterintuitive. Why do that?
One of the things that we knew in 2016 was as we were watching customers adopt technology, whether that was they were building new software to run their business, buying server infrastructure, routing and switching, wireless, or whatever, the customers wanted to understand the next big thing, whatever that was going to be, how that was going to ultimately impact their business and how they can make those decisions best.
As a business owner, I’m sitting there in 2016. I bought this company. The company is doing extremely well. We have great cashflow. I’d taken on a tremendous amount of risk, but at the same time, I looked at it that de-risked everything. I worked in this business to de-risk it. As you grow your business, you’re hopefully de-risking. Why would I put myself in a position to take on more risk? I took the whole company on my back. I bought all three partners out and put myself in a very different position.
The reality was I felt like if I wasn’t going to change how we operated, we would die. I went through a series of things in my personal life at that time which included the unexpected loss of my brother who was three years younger than me. It was a tragic event. It has affected my family, my friends, and my life forever. It was, no question, the hardest thing I’ve had to deal with in my short time on this earth.
One of the things that I learned from it, and this was all timed around the same time, was that out of those terrible moments, those moments where life brings you to your knees and you don’t know how to go on, not if you’ll go on because you know you’ll go on but you don’t know how that’s even possible, those are the moments where things can start to become clear.
As a business owner, when I have big, difficult moments happen in my business or in my life, that’s when I see clarity. Whatever it is that’s meant to be clear at that time, I found the North Star and I can go after it. One of the things in 2016 that we realized was this thing called the cloud was on the horizon, so to speak. We needed to position the business in order to help our customers adopt that very progressive technology, which was still forming at that time and still continues to form. We needed to position ourselves over the next five years to be in the position that we are in.
You mentioned a little bit about how COVID likely accelerated things. COVID was the ultimate accelerator for technology adoption. Companies like Innovative and other business owners that I talked to in this space were forced to get our arms around as much as we could so that we could serve customers in the best way possible because demand skyrocketed.
There were only so many hours in the day, and there’s only so many things you can focus on. If we had focused on the wrong things through COVID, we very well may not be sitting here. We could have made some bad decisions. Luckily, in a large part, because of that leadership team I mentioned before that we put in place from 2016 through 2019, that leadership team helped guide us to a great path forward and some of the success that you’ve already mentioned.
I hesitated and I didn’t interrupt you because I loved hearing all of that story and that backdrop. You might not feel like it’s being vulnerable, but in some of the sharing you did talk about how in the difficult moments, the adversity somehow becomes a forcing function to get that clarity. Maybe it’s only in those circumstances that we can see so clearly because all of the unnecessary and all of the other stuff melts off. It’s gone. That’s powerful.
I was talking with another business owner who’s going through something very difficult, like an existential threat to his business. Nobody wants to wish difficult times on another human being, but when they’re in that moment where the business is completely at risk, how do you make the most of the opportunity that it is? How do you galvanize the team to bring them together?
We used to call it a foxhole moment. The firestorm is going on and we’re down in the foxhole trying to stay alive. Through fighting our way out of that situation, we create some of the tightest bonds and get the best clarity. There is something unique about those fiery, difficult situations that create something better if we take advantage of the opportunity. It sounds like you guys have done that. What are some of the keys, not just for you personally, but in bringing along this team that you’ve formed, to come through some of those challenging times to come out stronger as a result?
When you really break it down, the business moves in the rhythm of whatever state the owner is in. I have seen this repeatedly play out where if I am off, the business will ultimately be off unless I have good fail-safes or check safes that can put the business in a better position to operate when I can’t. I don’t mean that I have to take a day off so the whole business is off that day. That’s not what I’m referring to.
What I mean by it is when I am working through a difficult, impossible decision, and most of your business owners will empathize, if not completely sympathize, with this, we’re forced to make decisions that there’s no right answer. No matter which decision you make, it’s the wrong answer. It’s pick your poison. I can give you probably twenty examples of that through COVID.
You’re accurate in this assumption that our audience is nodding their heads. They’re like, “I get this.”
Only we get that. The employee that leaves our company and says, “I could go do what I’ve been doing for you. I could do that on my own.” We’re like, “Go for it. All of these things are going to be what you have to go through because I go through them every day.” Honestly, if a decision has to ultimately run through me, that means everybody else couldn’t solve it.
Nobody wanted to make that decision.
It’s only the impossible decisions that surface. When I go through a lot of that decision-making, let’s say life is also happening to me at the same time. I have life stuff going on. I’m a human being, too, so that stuff happens. Let’s compound the issue and say I have a health thing going on, too. I feel like crap because of something going on health-related. I’ve got a crappy health situation, a crappy outside-of-work situation, and a work situation that I’m working through. I can tell you I have had that happen on occasion. I’ve been unfortunate enough to have that happen.
I need a team that can ultimately do a few things. Number one, keep things calm in the business. What I find is that’s usually an easy opportunity for people to weigh out. It’s an opportunity for people to see the boogeyman in the closet that doesn’t exist. It’s where all the assumptions start. If you have a team you can set a clear set of expectations around what it means to keep everybody calm, that doesn’t mean to quiet everybody. That means making sure people see things from the right perspective.
We have a very open and transparent culture in Innovative. I believe sometimes, that makes our job even 10 times more difficult because we can’t hide a thing in this business. We even run something called open book financials, in which every person in this company knows the financial situation going on in the business and the levers that ultimately impact a lot of our decision-making. It is all rooted in this system of accountability, and that’s for another time.
Long story short, if my leadership team is there to help provide calm and also make decisions, and they don’t wait for Justin or me to come in and have to make that decision, everybody is better off. That is way easier said than done. The linchpin to it is the fact you have to have a high degree of trust among your team members. Here’s the other thing, too. Employees see right through a lot of crap in companies. I’ve been an employee of a company. I know how it is. Human beings can see through when there is a dysfunctional team or when mom and dad are fighting, or call it whatever you may. Use your analogy.
If there is toxicity or if leadership is allowing somebody in the organization to be rude, unfriendly, or play games in the office, and I’m not talking about video games, but I’m talking about those office games that we all hate like, “Why did you BCC so-and-so? Why didn’t you CC them?” which that is a game at work, all those things that come up in business that have an opportunity to erode trust are the little pebbles that get inside the wheel. They grind themselves and ultimately have the propensity to take you down if not slow you down. Those are the things we work on.
You asked, “How do you create that momentum, and how does that move forward?” I’ll go right back to it. If my team doesn’t have my back and my team doesn’t know for certain that I have their back, we’ve got a problem. Beyond that, you have to have a vision for where you’re going. You have to make sure that there is an understanding that as you scale and grow, you can’t just rely on one person to do something.
You have to have a process underneath it that ultimately creates some kind of mechanism that’s sustainable because that person will go on vacation or, worse, leave the company. All of these Business 101 things that we all know are incredibly difficult. That’s why a lot of businesses can’t grow. That’s a big chokehold on so many businesses. Those real simple things that everybody’s like, “Duh,” are not easy. It’s a hard road.
People don’t want to make time for it. If they do, they don’t realize that sometimes blocking and tackling the right way is harder than showing up and thinking you can do it. It takes a little bit of mastery to get this stuff right, which means practice, getting it wrong, refining, and getting it right finally. You talked about the importance of vision, which you say is Business 101, but assembling the right team to help move the company forward so it’s not all on you.Sometimes blocking and tackling the right way is harder than just showing up and thinking you can do it right. Click To Tweet
If you’re in a funk, that doesn’t mean the business has to be in a funk. You’ve got a well-oiled team who trust you and you trust them. They each have their specific areas of ownership with accountability. It’s all set up in a way that this can go without any one person, including you if needed. Those are all super valuable lessons.
If you think about the growth from, let’s say, roughly 50 to roughly 80 people and however many millions of dollars, you said you doubled in that time in the last few years, there’s growth. You’re having to navigate this growth. If anything, what have been the surprise moments of growth and key lessons for those who are reading?
One of the biggest challenges that I went through was the succession planning, and then ultimately the buyout and then the transition of ownership. The transition of ownership happens on paper. We did the deal on one day, and the next, it’s done. That’s not how it works in real life. In real life, there are people’s emotions, thoughts, ideas, and passions tied to a business.
I feel that I wasn’t as empathetic to that in hindsight. It has taken me a few years to get to the point where I can address that head-on and accept that I probably could have handled things differently. I could have been less black and white or 1s and 0s. I could have shown more compassion around how many of the changes that we were making as a business were potentially making the prior owners feel. That, for me, is a lesson that I’ll carry with me through the rest of my life.
I am prideful of the fact that one of the things, if not the most important thing, that drives me in business is the set of relationships that I get to participate in. I feel that I’m an active participant in every one of my relationships. I didn’t always think that way. Maybe it was a little too transactional in the way that I thought of relationships. Maybe I cared about somebody, but I was almost too caught up in how I really felt or thought of things.
As an owner, one of the interesting things that happens is you’re exposed for who you truly are when you become an owner of a business. I don’t think you can hide that. If you’re a jerk, you’re going to be known for that. If you’re a nice person, people are going to know that, too. If you have a tendency to chase the dollar bill versus help somebody, you’re going to be known for that. Those things all get multiplied, and everybody knows it because you’re sitting in a position of power.
That’s probably why I believe that owners of businesses have to do the most amount of work on themselves. I want every one of my employees to work on themselves. I want them to grow and become the best version of themselves. When you’re a business owner, people’s lives are on the line, and customers depend on you to run their entire business in the most extreme cases. For us, in our business, I look at that as a great honor but an enormous responsibility to get better every day.Business owners have to do the most amount of work on themselves. Click To Tweet
I love that aspect of business ownership. I love that aspect of being able to do this at a time when it’s coveted. It’s cool. I don’t know if it was like that in the ‘70s or ‘80s. I didn’t work in the ‘70s or ‘80s, so I don’t know. Being a business owner, being in this, helping people, and helping people grow is so much fun. The best part is in our society, it’s rallied behind. That, in 2020, is freaking amazing. I love that.
It’s pretty great. You keep saying lots of things. I want you to keep talking. One of the things that I was reflecting on is this push for your own growth or your own development. Our audience knows that I’ve talked about this before, but in case, somebody’s reading this and this is their first episode with us, the business can only go as far as your leadership capability will take it. You can extend that to the full leadership team, but at some point, the business’ growth is capped at the collective capability of the team no more so than at the leadership level and at the business owner level.
I have a similar background to you in that I spent a lot of time inside of a company and then I bought this business that we call Elite Entrepreneurs. The CEO that I worked with, his name is Clate Mask. He would always say, “I’m not the CEO that the company needs me to be twelve months from now,” because we were growing so fast, and he was like, “You can count on the fact that by the time we get there, I will be.” He had this relentless push to grow himself so that our company’s growth would not be tapped out.
I hear that same truth from you. It may be said in different words. All these people, you rely on them, but they also rely on you. If you aren’t pushing forward even on a day when you don’t feel like doing the pushups or whatever analogy you want to use, you are hurting them. There’s a bunch of responsibility that comes with leadership in general, not just for the business owner. If you’re not pushing your own growth, you’re already capping what your team can go out and do. I love hearing that and the way you’re describing that.
I do believe that. People who know me know that I say this. I know there will be a day when I am no longer fit to be the CEO of Innovative Solutions. I play the role of CEO. We made some pretty big news because I brought an individual on board as our President and COO. His name’s Jeff Valentine. He is a phenomenal human being and a great guy. He’s not a business partner, so he doesn’t own any part of Innovative Solutions or the business. He is an employee like everybody else. He agreed to come on board to help lead this business as one of those really important people to help us grow.
When people ask me, “What’s the deal? Why did you feel as though you needed to do that?” I simply say, “We’ve scaled the business to a point where I can’t take it to that next level operationally with financial management and capability.” I don’t have my MBA. I always wanted to go get my MBA. I never did. I ended up buying a business instead. Jeff, for instance, has his MBA. He is educated in financial management at a level that I’m not. He is connected to other individuals who I am not connected to that will help us continue to scale and grow the business.
To the entire organization and to the world, I’ve expressed to everybody that I don’t have all those answers. I’m so grateful that somebody was willing to join our team who is as inspired by our mission and our vision and that will take us to a whole other level. There will be a day when I’m not the right guy for that role. I’ll be the first to step out of that role. Perhaps I’ll take a different role in the company at that point, but perhaps I won’t, too. It all depends on where we go and how we get there. I’m super excited about that.
There are so many lessons in there from your practical experience. Our audience read us talking about that shift on the 1s and 3s of revenue from $1 million to $3 million, $3 million to $10 million, and $10 million to $30 million. While you haven’t shared the exact number of your revenue, we don’t need you to. It sounds like all your team knows. You have this open-book way of doing it.
What you’re saying is, “I don’t know what that next leg looks like.” Let’s say it’s from the $10 million to $30 million range. You’re like, “I don’t know what that looks like, but Jeff does.” Sometimes, we have to start bringing in people from the outside who know what that leg of the journey looks like without compromising our vision.
Thankfully, you created a strong culture, which we haven’t even talked about. You’ve got an award-winning culture. When you have a strong culture, then you increase the chances of being able to bring in somebody from the outside who is a strong leader without jeopardizing everything that you’ve built. I know there’s still a dance there. I don’t know how far into that dance you are, but at some point, you need help from the outside and you can’t jeopardize what you’ve built on the inside. There’s this nuanced thing that you have to figure out to both enable the future and preserve what you have.
No doubt. That’s well said. I agree with you completely on that. It is making sure that you’re bringing somebody in, and you reiterated this point that believes in the mission. He isn’t trying to necessarily completely take the company in a different direction but understands where you’re trying to go. He cannot only come on board and help execute toward that but also help you because there are lots of micro pivoting that happen along the way.
You can’t have somebody that comes in on day 1 and says on day 180, “180 days ago, you told me we were going to be focused on this.” There are lots of things that happen in a business that make you pivot, move, and come off of that. You need somebody that’s agile enough to do that. Jeff’s a great example of somebody like that. I’m excited because he is.
You bring in somebody like Jeff because you believe he’s going to be able to take you to places you don’t even know how you could get there.
I couldn’t get there without him. I believe that.
This balance between, “I need you to come and help us do something we haven’t ever done. We don’t even know how to name it or how to get there. You can’t screw up what we built.” It’s an interesting dynamic. That’s very good. This has been fantastic. Our audience should be furiously taking notes. I hope they’re not driving while they read this because there’s so much that you’re saying.
Go back and read it again because without lining it out recipe-like, what Justin is describing in his experience is the perfect mental map and the journey for what happens as you grow through seven figures. You have to figure out how to get it all off of you. You have to assemble a really strong leadership team. You’ve got to create and preserve a strong company culture, which he’s done. We didn’t talk about that in this episode, but that’s part of it.
None of that’s possible without a very clear vision to keep it all moving together. We can take targeted, coordinated action as one team. He’s doing all the stuff, and he is telling it in a story format from his own experience. It’s been super valuable. Thank you for spending time with us. How do these great people who are reading connect with you on social and learn more about Innovative Solutions? How do they connect?
I appreciate it. You can find me at JustinCopie.com. You can get to my LinkedIn. I’m very active on LinkedIn. I post quite a bit. You can certainly find more information about our organization, Innovative Solutions, at InnovativeSol.com. To anybody who wants to connect, I love sharing ideas. I love learning how other entrepreneurs have grown their business. You never know where connections will lead you. For anybody who’s reading and maybe wants to pick up a conversation and do a virtual coffee or something, I’m happy to do that. Please feel free to reach out.
Thanks again. Your wisdom and experience are well appreciated by this crowd. Keep tuning in. In every episode, we have somebody amazing like Justin sharing their actual insights from doing this growth journey. Occasionally, we bring an expert who’s relevant to this seven-figure growth journey, but in every episode, we’re bringing you something to help you along the way. Share, review, and like. Do all those things. Get this out to as many seven-figure business owners as possible. Join us again next time.
Want to listen to more? View all episodes here >