Episode 143: The Growing Pains Of A 7-Figure Business Owner With Jeremy Harrison
Typically, business owners generating revenue in the millions may face several growing pains along their journey. The specific challenges can vary depending on the industry, market conditions, and individual circumstances. In this episode, Jeremy Harrison, the Founder & Lead Marketing Strategist at Spire, walks through the scaling journey and the growing pains of a 7-figure business owner. He emphasizes the importance of defining clear roles and bringing in key individuals to facilitate a smooth scaling journey for your business. Jeremy shares his insights on overcoming the challenge of letting go and effectively organizing work as a 7-figure business owner. He highlights the significance of surrounding yourself with the right people to foster growth and increase profitability. Tune in to this episode to gain further insights from Jeremy!
What the podcast will teach you:
- The scaling journey and the growing pains it entails
- The personal adjustments leaders from being a founder to CEO
- Overcoming the challenges of letting go and organizing work
- Defining key roles
- Getting key people in place.
- How to scale your business
Spire Website: https://www.spiread.com
Elite Entrepreneurs’ Website: https://growwithelite.com/
Watch the episode here
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I have another outstanding guest with us. He’s somebody I’ve known for a number of years, but we’ve only recently reconnected. His name is Jeremy Harrison. Jeremy is the Founder and Lead Marketing Strategist at Spire, which is an Ohio-based marketing agency. Jeremy and his team help leaders unlock growth, plan smarter strategy, and build stronger teams along with delivering on all those amazing marketing deliverables that they help out with.
Jeremy knows firsthand the joys and struggles of starting and scaling a business. He knows both those things. Jeremy has some experience working for organizations that were on the brink of shutdown and said, “I’m going to start my own thing.” Jeremy started Spire in the spare bedroom at his home back in 2006.
Spire has offices in three cities in Northern Ohio. He employs 22 full-time employees. He embraces his past and business as a powerful way to make a lasting impact on customers, employees, and the community. In his spare time, Jeremy is a private pilot, plays the piano, and enjoys family and road trips in his Jeep Wrangler. He and his wife have been married since 2000, and they have a son. Thank you, Jeremy, for taking the time to be with us.
Thanks. It’s great to be here.
We’re going to jump right into what everybody’s here to find out, Jeremy, and that is to get to know you a little bit and then more importantly, your scaling journey. What you’ve learned as you’ve gotten past that million-dollar mark and then continued to grow and learn through some of those predictable challenges that happened. Let’s jump into your agency first. Why don’t you tell us about the services you provide so that everybody has a little bit of context about your business?
We are a marketing agency based in Northern Ohio. We’ve got offices in three cities in Northern Ohio. Our focus is on businesses that are local. We serve businesses all over, but a lot of our businesses are within a manageable drive distance from one of those offices, which has some advantages in that we can sit down face-to-face with our clients, get their ideas up on whiteboards, and build a relationship in that way.
We do a lot of B2B marketing and also businesses that need leads for big-ticket items. One big part of what we’ve zeroed in on is account-based marketing and bringing that sales and marketing team together so that they can work together and create better results than pulling sometimes in two opposite directions. A lot of our digital marketing that we do for people with digital ads, websites, landing pages, social, and all that is driven toward helping them be effective with account-based marketing.
It’s a pretty unique situation you’re in where you have the physical presence in those three different locations. You serve a broad audience, but it sounds like you’re trying to connect with and impact businesses in your local area, which is fun.
When we went through the Elite Forum, a big part of that was getting clearer even on your purpose, that star in the sky that you’re always heading toward. For us, that was the idea that it isn’t about helping a business grow, but it’s recognizing that when the right businesses in communities grow, that creates a ripple effect that impacts the community. If we can help businesses grow in these communities, the communities won’t be the same. That’s an exciting thing for us, too.
You guys are leaving your mark all over. That’s awesome. Let’s get into your journey as a seven-figure business owner. You crack through that million-dollar mark, which only 3-5% of businesses ever do, and you find yourself, maybe partially saying, “We’ve done it. We got to this place.” It’s easy. No big deal. It’s like, “There are some new challenges that I’m trying to figure out how to navigate.”
I don’t know how well you remember that time going through those transitions, but I’d love to mine your experience a little bit here for some of the challenges that popped up for you or that felt newer to you and what you’ve learned to grow through those. Let’s start off with whatever jumps into your mind as one of the biggest challenges that you faced as you started to scale.
First of all, I love that you referred to it as a ceiling, and that million-dollar mark felt like one. It felt almost like quicksand in a way, where we were through it, but then we got stuck right in that range for several years. I’m proud to say that that started spiraling in 2006. For seventeen consecutive years, we’ve had our best year ever. We’ve grown every year. For several years, and it was right around that million-dollar mark, it was pretty flat growth, single digit, trudging, and feeling like we had to work so hard to stay at that level and have this marginal little bit of growth. That was tough.
There were a lot of things. The idea that you guys talked about the 3s and the 10s and the moving from one level to the next. There are a lot of new challenges that come up with that. A lot of it has to do with getting the right people in the right seats and getting clear on even how we position our product to a specific market of people. These are all things that we were working on at that time to try to figure out.
Since then, we made some key decisions, not only with people and leadership, and how we positioned things there, but also we made a hard decision to move upstream a bit with the size of clients. We realized that our marketing services had become more sophisticated and we were still trying to shoehorn those services into a package for a small business.
Everybody was frustrated because we were delivering a lot of services, but we were trying to squeeze the price and everything down in a way that would make sense for those businesses. They maybe didn’t fully appreciate what we were trying to bring and we were struggling to be profitable during that time. Making a positioning move to a little bit more sophisticated or a larger business allowed us to offer those marketing services and to do it more profitably. There are a lot of things that came along with that too, about how you position your offer and how you close the sale and all those things that go along with it.
There were lots of adjustments. You can almost equate these to growing pains. Our kids go through some things as they’re growing up and you see them struggle. Sometimes, it’s physical growing pains, but other times, it’s the mental and emotional pains as they’re maturing. There’s something equivalent to that in an organization to get through these awkward teenage years almost.
You talked about quicksand and feeling stuck. You got there, but then it’s like, “Can’t quite get through this.” By the way, congratulations on having a positive growth year every year. That’s nearly unheard of anymore. Even if it was relatively flat, to not allow that business to sink down anymore, but keep pulling up, that’s a tremendous feat. I’d like to talk about this. You felt that ceiling. You didn’t quite know how to get through it. We often talk about the adjustments that need to be made when you go into that next stage and right around the million-dollar markets’ people, processes, and systems.
A good friend of mine, who happens to be a friend of yours as well, Clay Mast, and I were talking about this the other day. He said, “There’s also a product adjustment that has to be made there.” Unprompted, you talked about the adjustments you were making in your product offering or your service so that you didn’t have to fight so hard to keep the revenue at that level. You start to get to this volume where so many clients that you have to sell in order to maintain that level, that revenue volume.
You guys made an adjustment to a higher ticket item by serving a larger business with bigger budgets. That allowed you to have fewer accounts and maintain or grow the revenue. That’s an adjustment that you had to make. Aside from the product adjustment though, let’s talk about your personal adjustments as a leader, going from founder to capable business builder or CEO and what that looked like.
That was the most important part. We had by name a lead team already established. When we went through Elite Forum, I don’t even know if we had a lead team established yet, but soon after we did. As we were moving through that $1 million barrier, that quicksand that went with it, we had established a lead team. Yet, there was a time when I approached it. I was still trying to run everything. I was trying to lead every aspect of the business. It still felt like everybody was coming back, “Jeremy, how do you want to do this? What are we doing with this?” While that can be frustrating as a leader, it’s totally self-inflicted, because I create that culture in the company.
It’s the whole thing about letting go and clearly defining the roles of other people on the team who have so much more to give and giving them a place where they can grow and step in and completely own something. You’ve mentioned my private pilot’s license. I got that a few years ago. We had a metaphor at Spire where a few years ago, the lead team challenged me that my thing for the year, the one thing that I was going to focus on was to let go.
It reminded me that when I got my pilot’s license, there’s this thing that happens when the instructor takes you up in the plane and they say, “You have flight controls.” I have to say, “I have flight controls,” and they have to completely take their hands off the controls and let me control. If I pass it back, there’s this clear passage.
The problem that was happening in my business was that I was saying that people had flight controls, but I still had my hand on the yoke and the pedals, and I was trying to control everything about that plane. As soon as a little bump, I would come in and grab the controls again. That was the key thing. I needed to leave space for them to learn how to fly the plane in a metaphorical sense.
You’ve covered a lot of ground there, not because we were flying with the airplane. You covered a lot of ground there. I’d like to tease some of that apart if you don’t mind. You talked about the challenge of letting go and being able to organize work and get the right people in the right seats, but give them the thing that they were going to be able to do. One of the first transitions that I’ve seen over and over again is that first move towards creating a real leadership team
You called it a lead team. You weren’t part of it and call them managers or directors. “Here’s our lead team,” but then you had a hard time giving them ownership. I’d love it if you could share any insights from your own personal journey about how you started to be able to let go, and how you created a leadership team eventually. Those insights are what we struggle with. “I get it. I need to let go. I need to start creating a leadership team.” How do you make it happen?
It’s still a daily struggle. Maybe the key parts would be you’ve got to get the right people in those seats, first of all, people that you trust, people that you know care about what’s happening. I need to let go of the fears that I have. I have to do this or that. I have to leave room for people to fail, but they’re not going to fail. Most of the time, they’re going to thrive. You have to leave space for them to be able to do that.You should get the right people in the right seats. People that you trust, you know, and care about what's happening. Click To Tweet
The other thing that we did is we got clear about the roles. What are the specific things that I’m accountable for as the visionary or the leader of the company? What are some specific things that a Director of Operations, Director of Business Development, or Director of Finance and Administration is responsible for? Defining these clear roles that people own so that there are some boundaries there for my own sake that I’m not overstepping them and I leave space for them within that.
I can imagine being in that cockpit with your instructor. They don’t say, “Now that you’re in the seat, I’m ready to let go of the controls.” They have to know that there’s clear ownership of the key things that allow us to continue to fly. Once they know that you’re ready to receive that, then they can say, “I’m letting go of the control. I’m passing them to you.” Before that, they didn’t say, “You’re in the seat. We’re good. Here you go.”
In taking that metaphor further. They handed me the flight controls when we were safely way up in the air first, but they didn’t say, “Go ahead and land it.” That was a separate lesson on a separate day. The other part is defining that in pieces or picked up over time.
The instructor was helping you to be successful with a thing. There was confidence that you were ready for the next step. There was a progression toward mastery. It might be a little bit different. When we hire somebody from the outside to be our operations leader, there’s a belief anyway on both of your parts. That guy or that gal is going to know how to do that. That’s why I’m hiring them to bring them in. We still got to set them up for success. We got to make sure that they squarely have the controls before we say, “We’re out.”
I’m glad we talked about you being a pilot. I love that analogy. That’s fun. You started to build a leadership team. You’re able to give clear ownership for each of the roles so that you could start letting go. Was there anything structurally in terms of meeting rhythms or other processes that you found to be helpful as you were trying to let go more?
We instilled some systems. There were systems but maybe the more valuable thing there from my perspective was scorecards. Define some clearer KPIs for each part of the team and then ways that those things get measured. There are scorecards within teams, but there are also things that I want to see every week at a high level. We worked with an advisor at one point who said, “If you’re on the beach and someone handed you this scorecard every day, are they things that, ‘Can I stay on the beach another couple of days or I need to get home right now?” Having something that allows us to track what’s happening in the company and know when we’re in a strong position or when there are things that we may need to dig into.
I’m going to make a distinction between clear ownership, which we’ve talked about a little bit, and the accompanying visible scorecard. We can call them KPIs. We can call them dashboards. We can call them whatever we want, but there are clear metrics or measurable things that those owners are responsible for. That gives you continued peace of mind or the ability to say, “I don’t have to go get involved over there. I can see that things are okay.”
In our leadership meeting earlier, there was a conversation. I can sometimes bring a perspective, if I don’t get in the weeds that is helpful that we can start looking at short-term immediate things and starting to worry. I said, “I’m not worried at all. These are things that you’re worrying about. Look at all these good things at a high level that are happening right now.” Believe me, I worry plenty for everybody. I’m feeling good about the things that maybe they were worrying about and that can be helpful, too. If I get too sucked into the details, then I can’t bring that perspective.
I love that and I love that you’ve almost turned the whole situation around. Whereas before, maybe they were the ones saying, “Don’t worry about it,” but you were worried. Now, you have let go to the point where they’re down in the weeds. They own it fully. They’re starting to see things that are maybe concerning to them.
you’ve got a different perspective altogether saying, “It looks like things are going okay.” I don’t know if this is true for you, but I’ve spoken to enough business owners about this. I have a hunch that maybe there was a little bit of ownership or emotional burden that maybe you’ve carried before. Does that feel any lighter now that you have real ownership and visible metrics? Do you feel less weight?
The most specific and the most tangible way that I’ve felt that lift is in the very area that I was least comfortable letting go of and that was the financials. I used to have this feeling that when things were rough, if I shared those things with other leaders or other people at all in the company, they would go running for the hills and say, “I don’t want to be a part of that.”
Everybody assumes that everything’s always perfect or something. That was never true. It took a long time for me to feel comfortable enough to get real with people and be vulnerable enough to talk about the finances of the business. When I did hand that to other people and allow them to help carry that as well, it was such a burden that was lifted. It was something that I know now that multiple people are thinking about all the time. It wasn’t this thing I worried about after hours when I had time to think about that stuff.
That’s a great observation and something that I see pretty regularly. You said it well. You have to care, especially about the finances. Business owners often hang onto that the longest. It’s not like it’s not important. It’s not like you shouldn’t worry at all about it. As a business owner myself, there have been times in my business where every morning the first thing I did was look at the bank balance or the cash balance.
How are we doing? Are we still alive? There’s this thing. It’s like, “I got to go check on that.” I know what it feels like personally to be at a place now where it’s like, “I don’t have to look at that.” I can check on it occasionally. I have the dashboard or whatever, but it’s not all-consuming the way that sometimes it has felt in the past. I can relate to that.
Jeremy, you learned some things about getting some key people in place, a leadership team. You learned some things about being able to give them ownership and let go. Are there any other things as you reflect on your own journey as a leader in order to be able to scale your business? What other things come to mind that might help another business owner going through their own growth journey?
We touched a little bit on the product focus and the moving upstream. You mentioned Clay said about that being a shift, as well. It feels counterintuitive that you would sharpen your focus when you want to grow your business, but you have to. I know we all know it, but we all forget it. I own a marketing agency, so it’s easy for me to tell another client that they need to do it, but then it’s much harder for me to do it myself.
The simplest example that every business owner can probably relate to if they started a business is when you’re first starting, it’s so tempting to be a jack of all trades. When I was starting, I was the only guy running Spire. We were doing a lot of websites. “You guys do websites. Do you do tech support? Can you fix my printer?” People assume all these random things are technical. You’re like one of those geek people that you should be able to do all that. I could have fixed their printer.
Sometimes it may not be quite that extreme, but we take on things that aren’t a perfect fit because it pays the bills and brings in the revenue. As the business grows, you have to get more and more focused on the thing that you maybe originally rent that you wanted to start or you need to get more focused on what the market presents itself and find that space where you’re going to say no to more and more so that you can say yes to the right things.
That’s the only way to grow because otherwise, it becomes unmanageable. If you’re trying to do too much or if you try to have too much complexity, you have to keep it more focused. That’s still a challenge to this day. I do feel like a big part of my role is I annoy people around me and I keep pushing to make things simpler. That’s so important.
You used the word counterintuitive. It completely is like, “I want to say yes to revenue coming in.” The more we say yes to a broad array of revenue opportunities, the harder it is to scale. The harder it is to keep moving forward because of the complexity. You said it. That fits perfectly, so I don’t want to belabor the point. Sometimes I want to underscore what my guests are saying. Your focus is the thing that will allow you to grow. You get so much benefit from doing similar things over and over again versus trying to go a mile wide and an inch deep instead of that powerful, focused channel of energy.
I love that you decided to throw that one on top of the wonderful lessons you’ve already shared. Jeremy, as you think about your scaling journey, it’s making sure you’re surrounded by the right people, giving them real ownership so that they can do what they’re great at and you can let go. It’s making sure that you’ve got the visibility to their metrics, so those right dashboard elements that give you peace of mind and help everybody know how we’re doing on the whole. This last thing you said was, “Let’s get focused. Let’s niche more so that we can lean in and provide value to the right group of people.” That serves them better, and it helps us to be more profitable as well. All great lessons. Anything else you want to leave us with before we wrap this up?
A general idea is like, “Don’t give up. Keep pushing.” It’s like when you started your business, pushing through those thresholds. It’s so tempting to go back a step and go back to what things were before, but you have to keep pushing forward. We were stuck in that quicksand or swamp or whatever I referred to it as. It wasn’t a ceiling we burst through. We had 35% growth year over year. It looks like we’re on track for something like that again. There were a lot of years of struggle there to break loose again. Keep pushing and focusing and it will pay off on the other side.Keep pushing and keep focusing. It will pay off on the other side. Click To Tweet
Well done on your long-term success and your more recent growth as well. Thanks for spending time with us.
Thanks. My pleasure.
Jeremy, before we say goodbye, will you let our readers know the best way to connect with you, whether that’s your company website or via social? You also do a podcast. I’d be happy to have you speak about that. Whatever you’d like to point people to.
First of all, our agency is SpireAd.com. Spire as in Spire Advertising. We do a lot with account-based marketing and digital ads, focused stuff to help people generate leads. We also did start a podcast this winter, and it’s called The Savvy Marketer. You can find that on our website. I encourage you to check that out, as well.
Thanks again for being our guest, Jeremy. Great insights.
My pleasure. Thanks.
Whether you are running around or trying to do other multitasking things that we, business owners, tell ourselves we’re doing, I’d love for you to share, like, and make sure that everybody who needs to hear these episodes are getting this valuable information from people who have been there, like Jeremy and many other guests. We’ll keep bringing great guests and hope to see you next time.
About Jeremy Harrison
Founder & Lead Marketing Strategist at Spire, an Ohio-based marketing agency. Jeremy helps leaders unlock growth, plan smarter strategy and build stronger teams.
He knows first-hand the joys and struggles of starting and scaling a business. In 2006, after working for two consecutive organizations that were on the brink of shutdown, Jeremy started Spire in the spare bedroom of his home. Today Spire has offices in three cities in Northern Ohio and employs 22 full-time employees. He embraces his post in business as a powerful way to make a lasting impact on customers, employees, and the community.
In his spare time, Jeremy is a private pilot, plays the piano, and enjoys family road trips in the Jeep Wrangler. Jeremy and his wife Kim have been married since 2000, and have a son Andre who is a junior in high school.
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