Episode 82: How to Manage Rapid Business Growth, with Rob Volpe

What You Will Learn:

  • How Rob’s team at Ignite 360 strategically helps their clients of all sizes and sectors find the “one big idea” that can move their business forward
  • How Rob learned how to manage rapid business growthafter his organization reached seven figures in just six months, and what unique challenges he had to overcome
  • How Rob had to learn the difficult lesson that “it’s finances, not feelings,” after becoming emotionally attached to his company’s monthly, quarterly and yearly results
  • How Rob “hired for his weaknesses” by bringing in an operating COO, and how that served as a major transformation for Ignite 360
  • How early, rapid growth created challenges for Rob and his team around taking on too much work, and how Rob addressed the problem
  • Why it is important to have a plan but be ready to adapt and pivot if you aren’t going to be able to achieve your plan
  • How Ignite 360’s scope has changed since crossing the seven-figure revenue mark, and how bigger numbers mean greater opportunity to make mistakes
  • How growing Ignite 360 has enhanced Rob’s leadership skills and given him a different perspective on business leadership
  • Why Rob named his company Ignite 360 with the goal of building something that would be bigger than himself
  • Why it’s important to realize that clients and customers don’t think about you as much as you think about them, and why your marketing needs to reflect that fact


About Rob Volpe

An astute observer of life and a master storyteller who brings empathy and compassion to the human experience, Rob Volpe founded Ignite 360 to deliver actionable strategy, grounded in meaningful consumer insights, presented through story and creative ways that drive results. As CEO, he leads a team of insights, strategy, and creative professionals serving the world’s leading brands across a range of industries.


Rob is recognized as a thought leader in the role of empathy in marketing and the workplace. He frequently talks on the topic, is cited in media and writes about building and applying empathy. He’s finishing his first book which explores his own journey to empathetic understanding of Americans through his ethnographic work. The book will be published in February 2022 through Page Two Publishing. Rob lives in San Francisco with his husband and three cats.




Additional Resources:

Listen to the podcast here


As always, we have another great guest with us. He’s a business owner. He’s a Founder. He’s a CEO. His name is Rob Volpe. He’s CEO and Founder of Ignite 360. I’m thrilled to have you here with me, Rob. Thank you for joining us.

Thank you, Brett. I’m excited to be here.

Fill us in a little bit on Ignite 360 because what you guys do is unique. Give people some context about your business.

Ignite 360, we are an insights and strategy firm. A lot of people need to think about marketing research focus groups. It’s simple as we help our clients find their one big idea that’s going to move their business forward. That can be in the space of innovation, “What products or services should I develop?” It can be around the consumer journey, the purchase decisions, and all the different nuances and things that go into making that actual decision to buy. It can be around branding communication strategies, “How do I talk to my consumer and who is that person?” Particularly in 2021, that is changing very rapidly, given everything that’s happening in our society.

I would imagine there have been lots of pivoting. That word has been used again and again. As an insights and strategy firm, you help business owners figure out where the puck is moved to, it sounds like, and get clear about how they can best serve the new needs.

Our foundation is around empathy, connecting, and understanding from a cognitive perspective of, “Who is this person trying to put on their shoes and see the world as them?” When you do that, then you’re able to create better products and services. We marry up empathy with strategic thinking and then dynamic storytelling.

Ultimately, what we see happen quite often is there’s so much data and there’s so much interesting information, and you end up getting lost in terms of what your client teams can get lost in like, “What do we do next?” We try to bring in some storytelling. Again, it’s that one big idea of, “What’s that rallying cry? What’s going to help move the business forward and frame things up in that way?” It’s crystal clear to them, “This is who my consumer is. This is what we need to do. Now, let’s go do it.”

From inside the strategy to, “How do we tell this story in a clear and compelling way, in a memorable way?” Ignite 360, I love it. You serve companies of what size? Help our readers get a feel for that. We’ll then get into some sharing of your experience.

We work across a lot of different sectors because we’re good at understanding human behavior. It’s less about our client’s business and more about the humans and how they impact the client’s business. Everyone from the big guys of Fortune 100, Microsoft to General Mills to Kraft Heinz, we work in healthcare. We work in travel. We work in entertainment, financial services, and a lot of different sectors. We also work with smaller companies as well, those small to mid-sized firms that are at that transition point where the entrepreneur, the founder has maybe moved on or the company has just grown so large that the understanding of who that core consumer is has been diluted.

Had gone a little muddy, right?

Exactly, or the business has grown in such a way that they can’t quite recall exactly who the consumer is, or it’s shifted a bit. We help them get back to true north and find their North Star.

That’s cool. I know that many of our readers right now can relate to this comment I’m going to make to try to tie into what you just said. A lot of us in growing our business to seven figures got used to saying yes to any revenue opportunity like, “Sure, we’ll do that.” We grow this thing that becomes a little less than intentionally designed. Our business is added on and cobbled together. We find our place and it’s like, “I need to redesign things and recreate them in a more intentional way.” You helped them get clear on that from a customer standpoint. There’s an internal business structure thing that happens that correlates with that and they got to clean house.

We do a lot of work in packaged goods, so I often revert to those analogies. There are things that everybody can relate to. If you think about the consumer that’s buying your product, that’s part of the market, but the market is also the retailer. It’s like, “How do they think about you? Where have they taken you?” As well as your own organization itself, your own mission, your vision, and your values. How has that changed over time? You always want to make sure that those things are somewhat in alignment and pointing in the same direction because otherwise, you’re going to be headed off of a cliff.

Your business mission, vision, and values change over time. If these are not in alignment, you are heading off of a cliff. Click To Tweet

A growing number of people going in different directions does not equal a successful sustainable growing company. That’s all a very helpful backdrop. We got some nuggets in there as we were just getting to know you, what you do, and how you serve the world. Let’s jump into your own personal journey from entrepreneur, from founder to CEO, this transition, the shift that business owners have to make. It usually happens around the million-dollar mark where they realize, “I’m the bottleneck. I got to start figuring out how to relinquish control and build a team and give ownership with accountability to other people.”

There’s this personal transition and then there are also some things that you have to put in place in the business to enable it to continue to grow. We want to learn from your own experience going through that journey. What are some of the challenges for you, either personally or in the business, as you were shifting their post $1 million in revenue?

We honor your 0 to $1 million in growth and all that startup and fun and grit and tenacity, but we’re just going to go, “That was great.” Now, we’ve got a growing team. We have something that seems to be working. What were some of the things that you want to call out for our readers that were important lessons for your growth through that phase?

For context, we launched in January. By July of that year, we hit $1 million.

This is 6 to 7 months?

It’s eye-popping. It was like having a fire hose turned on us in the most wonderful way. I’m grateful to our clients who trusted us, did all of that, and helped us get to that point. We were still in the Wild West phase, as I described it. We’re celebrating ten years this 2021 of being in business. I’m fortunate that there are three people still working with the company who have been with us since day one. We just did a Zoom call earlier this week to reminisce and celebrate the fact that like, “Did you realize that this is what this is going to be like, and then we would get this far?” To your question though, there are so many things. I gave a presentation. I talked about the 11 things I’ve learned in 10 years, 11 lessons.

Let’s talk about the first few of those.

Let’s dive into that. One of the big things for me was learning as I call it, “It’s finances, not feelings.” I am not the math guy. I did not have a finance background. I am the visionary entrepreneur CEO and have that perspective on things. For me, the business has a very short runway of the nature of the work that we do. We don’t book long-term engagements. It’s volatile.

I found myself having emotional responses when I looked at our PNL and monthly, quarterly, and yearly results. I thought, “This isn’t healthy.” I can’t imagine that this is what should be happening. It was driven out of my lack of education on the finances. When we got somebody in position probably in year 3 or 4 to be a fractional CFO and help with that, part of that has helped me understand the numbers and what all of this means and what a healthy balance sheet looks like. I started to manage my own reactions to things and take more of a longer-term view of the actual situation. That’s one of the big lessons for me, personally.

Along with that, I believe in hiring for your weaknesses. The very first employee that I brought in was somebody to do the bookkeeping, the back office, and send out the invoices. I could do that, but I don’t love it. Therefore, I’m going to procrastinate on it. That’s going to create real issues because we’re not going to have cash coming in and I’m going to have to pay people and scramble. When you’re working with big companies like this, you can’t get them to turn around and write you a check in a day. They’ve got specific terms that they have to meet. There was that.

EEP 82 | Business Growth

Business Growth: Hire people for your weakness. Bring in somebody who can do business tasks you could not do or do not want to do.


The biggest thing for us was when I brought in a COO to help run the business and to be an operating COO, a functional COO. Her name is Lisa Osborne. She is still with the company. She’s been with us for many years. She just brings so much wisdom, systems, and processes. It’s stuff that she loves. It’s stuff that I’m like, “We’ll get there. We’ll figure it out.” She’s like, “There’s a way to do this.” She instilled a lot of that discipline in the organization over the years. Again, that’s another weakness of mine, and filling in that gap and bringing that in.

Hiring for your weaknesses has been one of the biggest lessons that I’ve learned. It’s number one on my list. Hire for what you don’t have, what you don’t love to do. If you’re doing the things that you love, A) You’re going to do it well, but B) You’re going to work even harder and probably put even more time into it. That’s what it’s all about to help grow your business.

We tend to drift towards things we enjoy. We usually have some natural ability or some developed ability around that. It makes perfect sense. I was reflecting on what you said earlier about how quickly you guys grew to $1 million in revenue. There wasn’t a lot of history. Maybe it’s 3 or 4 years. Maybe it took 8 or 10 years for them to get to that point.

They have these almost like a badge of honor around, “I figured all this out. I learned to do all of it well.” You didn’t have to hang on to roles very much. You’re just like, “We’re here. I need somebody now.” You just gave it to them, but you did it in a smart way. I like that you’re talking about hiring people in areas of weakness or in areas where you just aren’t adding as much value as you could be somewhere else.

There are so many opportunities now. Society has evolved to this place where we do have the option to have fractional CFOs, part-time CMOS even, marketers. You can piece together what you need without having to make the commitment of a full-time hire. You still have to do the due diligence, and make sure you get on with that person and that they’re confident and capable. There are a lot of solutions that aren’t necessarily going to break the bank, where 10, 20, 30 years ago, we would have been like, “We have to reach this much to afford X.” It just took so much longer to achieve that growth.

That’s a great point, one that we don’t often talk about on this show. I want to reemphasize this. There is exceptional executive-level or senior leadership level type of talent out there now that’s available on a part-time basis. The term that you use is the most popular one now, the fractional CFO or the fractional CMO. I’ve seen fractional Chief Revenue Officers now and marketing officers and finance. Just about any leadership functional expertise that you might need, you can get it at a part-time arrangement and that’s great for businesses trying to grow.

You let that be part of your rocket fuel to get through to the next level. When you get there, you can make a decision on what you need on a full-time basis. Even buying more of that fractional person’s time because it’s often available. You had commented too about in the early days you take on whatever comes your way and you’re just, “Revenue.” I certainly did that as well.

Generally, with all of this, you have to be forgiving of yourself. As entrepreneurs, there’s so much pressure. We think we’re going to be the next Elon Musk, Richard Branson, or Mark Cuban. Maybe we will and maybe we won’t. You have to know what you want for yourself as well. You also ultimately have to listen to your intuition. I’m reminded of those early days. We hit $1 million. That’s awesome. The bookkeeper guy was like, “Do you think we could hit $2 million by the end of the year?” It’s like, “I don’t know. It’s July, so that’s very possible.” He put a thermostat on the whiteboard.

Entrepreneurs must be forgiving of themselves. There is so much pressure on what they should do next, and they must learn to listen to their intuition. Click To Tweet

Like a thermometer?

Yes. It’s like, “Where are we? What’s our progress with $2 million at the top?” That created some issues because we were starting to just take work on, whether we could handle it or not and quality started to suffer. Three months after we hit $1 million, I’m having conversations needing to apologize to a client, one in particular.

I’m a big believer in listening to your intuition. I just remember this voice inside me, just saying, “We’ve taken on too much. We’re out over our skis, so to speak. That’s creating these issues. I need to be much more mindful of what the team can handle, what I can handle, and make sure that we’re saying no when we need to and do the work that we can handle and the work that’s right.”

You said that hiring to your weakness was an important thing that you learned over those years. We may not get to all 11. That’s okay. What’s another key lesson that you learned in your growth or in the company’s growth?

Back to that thermometer, I call this lesson, “Beware the unintended consequences of good intentions.”

I like the sound of that one. Let’s talk about that.

There was nothing malicious about it. The office is here in my house because we’re a startup and I didn’t want to spend money on San Francisco rent. One of our rooms in our house is the office and that’s where the employee would come in. That’s where this thermometer was. I was out on the road a lot because of the nature of the work. I was constantly traveling because you could before the pandemic.

I’d come home and I’d see the progress on the thermometer. You’re like, “We’re close. Will we make it? It’s October or November.” It created all this added pressure. It was the unintended consequence. It encouraged me to take on things, as clients are reaching out, “Can you do this? Can you do that?” “Yes,” because we had the good intention of, “We wanted to hit $2 million in revenue. To get there, what did that mean and what were we going to sacrifice?”

At the end of the day, who cares? It’s this arbitrary number. We’re a privately held company. I don’t have investors. I’m not answering to Wall Street. Who gives the flying you-know-what if you make $2 million or if you make $1.8 million or $1.6 million or whatever? It’s like, “Are we profitable? Are we having a good time with what we’re doing? Are we enjoying the work? Are we doing great work in what we set out to do?” That’s ultimately what’s most important rather than like, “We had to hit $2 million.”

EEP 82 | Business Growth

Business Growth: It is far more important that you are enjoying running your business and achieving your goals than hitting two million dollars.


I’m glad you said that. We’re big believers in declaring, calling our shot, and putting a number out there but that’s not the end be-all. That’s to push us forward. It’s part of being in line with a clear purpose and a clear mission, a destination that we’re up to, not some random, let’s call it $2 million. It’s not about the financial number. It’s about where we’re going to serve customers. We think we’ll be around this in revenue, but that’s not the objective. That comes along with the objective.

This is one of my other lessons, “Have a plan so you can say, “Nothing goes according to plan.” You do. You need a goal so you have something to aim for. There are marching orders, but at the same time, you’ve got to be realistic. If the business takes a turn all of a sudden, it might be so. We’ve been in this situation, where suddenly hitting that number again would take a Herculean effort that is not even realistic. What damage is that going to do to the company?

Let’s re-adjust. Let’s be flexible and realistic about what it is. You need to have that plan, but you also have to know that nothing goes according to plan. That’s one of the lessons of the pandemic, certainly, and everything else that has happened. All those plans went out the window. You just write in your script as you go along.

Did you have your annual SWOT analysis before 2020? Did you have a pandemic as a threat?


Probably not. Most of us didn’t. We’ve all experienced it. You’re right. We should plan. We should anticipate. We should do all those things. We shouldn’t be surprised for one second when we have to make adjustments, but that doesn’t mean there’s no value in having a plan. There is a value and we’ve got to line everybody to it so that our effort is in sync. We’re saying no to all the right things and saying yes to the critical few. I love your comment about the flexibility. When we see a change that needs to happen, let’s acknowledge it. Let’s talk about it with our folks and get realigned to the next place. It’s cool. What’s next, Rob? This is a great list.

Where do we go from here? Along those lines, expect turbulence. There is no smooth sailing. I was reflecting on it before our meeting. Running a business is like a relationship. It always takes constant work. You don’t get to the ten-year mark as I’ve achieved now. All of a sudden, it’s all magic. You don’t need to wine and dine with your spouse or significant other anymore or take the time to listen and nurture the relationship.

The company is the same way. You’ve got to give it that constant care and feeding in order for it to grow and thrive. You have to expect that there are times when, if you think of it like an organism, it’s going to get sick. If it’s a person, it will get sick from time to time. You’ve got to be ready for that and be prepared for that.

EEP 82 | Business Growth

Business Growth: Your business needs constant care for it to grow and thrive. Think of it like an organism that will get sick from time to time.


That’s immensely valuable insight. It is an organism. An organization isn’t a living person but it’s made up of living people and the way that they communicate, processes, and systems. There’s this whole system of an organization. We call it your business. It does get sick sometimes. Sometimes, the pandemic hits. Sometimes, a part breaks. Maybe if you rely on Facebook Ads or Google AdWords, one of those providers thinks you’re evil all of a sudden and shuts you off. If things happen, you have to be ready to make the changes. You have to be ready to get well. I love that. Expect the turbulence. What have you found about the scope or magnitude of turbulence that’s the potential of the magnitude as you get bigger versus when you were only at $1 million?

You can burn through cash just as quickly and sometimes at a larger scale when you’re big as when you’re small. There’s a little bit more cushion I found but some of that I attribute to my own maturity. Again, it’s finances, not feelings. You also start to know, “These are the things I need to take action on. These are the levers to pull to increase business development and pitch more aggressively here. What are the operational expenses we can cut?” There are a few basic things that we know now to just go to and look at when things are tough to help bring us back to ride the ship, so to speak.

Maybe the existential threats are fewer when you get bigger. The impact of any one decision, it just seems there’s more potential for costly missteps or turbulence. Just stuff that happens. You go, “That was a $100,000 thing that happened.” You probably saw fewer of those when you’re at $1 million in revenue. It’s interesting to watch as businesses grow. It’s like, “We can absorb more or we can deal with bigger things,” but they are bigger things. That’s hard to deal with. What else? In your journey as a leader particularly, have any of these lessons that you’ve outlined shaped who you become as a leader over your post-million-dollar journey?

All of them have helped. Some of the leadership traits I had at a time, but they’ve made me a stronger leader over time because I understand how to weather the ups and downs, the turbulence. I’m not the white-knuckle flyer anymore. I get it, it’s turbulence. It’s wind or updraft and it’s creating bumps and it will pass. This too will pass. We’ve gotten through this. We will get through it again. We know what this looks like. That’s certainly helped me.

The biggest thing that I’ve learned is how isolating it is at the top. When you’re the founder and the entrepreneur in the very beginning, it’s not that everybody isn’t all in it together. When you become the CEO, people start to look at you differently. Everything that you say means something. They’re reading into your inflection. They’re reading into whatever look you have on your face, as well as the actual words that you say or that you write. That can be very isolating because you can’t just go and shoot the sh** with people the way that you could maybe when you were the founder or the entrepreneur because your role and your presence means something greater or different, at least than when you were at the beginning parts of the company.

Being on the top can be isolating. When you become a CEO, people start to look at you differently. Click To Tweet

You’re moving from a place of, “I’m just one of the gang here,” to, “Now, I’m in this role.” A lot of founder-entrepreneurs resist the idea or just the connotation that comes with a CEO, “That feels corporatey. I don’t ever want to be that.” I don’t think either one of us would advocate something that’s corporatey or something that’s creating more division between you and the team. There is a shift if you want to keep growing where you have to become an orchestrator of effort, somebody who’s beating the drum of vision. You have to take on these roles that everybody else is relying on. That feels different than when you were just one of the team as a founder.

I found too, it’s not just about how the team looks at me. On my business cards or on my signature on my email, I don’t mention that I’m the founder of the company. I didn’t name the company Rob Volpe 360. I named it Ignite 360 for a reason. I wanted to create something that was going to live beyond me. I didn’t want it to have to be me all the time doing all the work or being out in the field.

We’ve gotten to that point where that’s been possible that way for years now. Clients love it when I get engaged but they know that I’m the CEO of the company. When you have a founder, it has a slightly different meaning to it. The founder might be operating, still tinkering around in the day-to-day work instead of, “This is the leader of the organization.” I believe that requires a lot of self-reflection on what you as a leader want, what you as the entrepreneur want out of your organization, where all of this might be headed for yourself, and what your vision is.

That’s a great distinction. Thank you for sharing that. I don’t know where we are on the numbering. It probably doesn’t matter. Again, we can’t cover all of them. As you consider, our readers are a bunch of business owners who are approaching that million-dollar mark. Most of them are going to be in that $1 million to $10 million range and they’re thinking about, “How do I continue to build my business?” What’s the thing left that we haven’t said that you would want to make sure to share with this group?

Probably one of the lessons around clients or whoever your buyer is, they don’t think about you as much as you think about them. That’s been something that’s crushing to the ego, that, “They’re not contemplating how they could work with us every week or whatever?” The lesson to that is we have to be marketing and making sure that we’re top of mind to them so that when they do have a need, they pick up the phone. They know who to call, whatever type of business you’ve got.

EEP 82 | Business Growth

Business Growth: When your customers need something, do everything you can to stay on top of their minds in the most respectful way.


You’ve got to do everything that you can to stay top of mind with your consumer, your client, and your customer, and do it in a respectful way. We’re big on empathy. I’m always thinking about, “What would I want? If I were in their shoes, how would I want to be talked to, and addressed, and when? What would that look like?” That’s fed our business development plans and how we communicate with people.

It’s great. If you don’t mind, I’ll add everything you just said about being top of mind for your customers, your clients, and the buyer. There’s a similar need that we have as business owners to be top of mind for our people. I don’t mean us personally but for that purpose and those values. We just have to keep putting that in front of the team. There’s a very similar need internally to what you were describing externally. I just want to call it out for everybody to think about, “Am I doing enough to stay in front of the right people with the right message, whether that’s internal or external?”

Rob, this has been a fantastic conversation. Our readers got a lot of your eleven lessons. Many of them, anyway. They got a lot of valuable things from your experience. I thank you for sharing that. If people want to connect with you personally via social or learn more about Ignite 360, what are the best ways to connect with you and your team?

For me personally, please find me on LinkedIn, Rob Volpe and Ignite 360. If you search, Rob Volpe and Empathy Activist, I will come up. You can also find the company at Ignite-360.com. That’s our website. There are tons of information there. You can also email us at Hello@Ignite-360.com.

For anybody who needs insight and strategy, Ignite 360 is a wonderful option for you. Clearly, Rob knows what he’s doing in his own business. He was able to grow so quickly because he knows how to connect with empathy with the customer in a way that works. If you’re struggling with that, I highly recommend you check out Ignite-360.com and connect with Rob and the team. Thank you, again, Rob for being here with us and being such a wonderful guest. I hope that you enjoyed your time. We sure appreciate your lessons.

This was awesome. Brett, thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

For all of you readers, make sure that you share this episode and any of the other ones that you enjoy with your other business owner friends. We are firmly and completely dedicated to helping seven-figure business owners with these growth lessons and growth challenges that you are all facing. We want to help as many as possible. Please like, review, share, and do all those things. Spread the word and be with us again in the next episode. Thank you.


Important Links


Want to listen to more?  View all episodes here >