Small Business SingularityWritten on December 20, 2015 by Jon Bach
We all wear a number of hats in this small business. There are still things I do that are holdover from when Puget Systems was much smaller. Heck, one of my personal projects for next week is to change our warehouse light bulbs, and our bathroom light switches. But this week is about the big picture. This is the time of year when Brian and I hold a number of marathon meetings, looking at our financial performance for the last year, going through our end of year accounting procedures, and planning for the year ahead. We're answering big questions like "How much cash reserves do we need to handle the business we expect in 2016?" That is a big, high level topic!
As I left one of those meetings this week, I realized that I forgot all about an event we had going on that evening -- a webinar with our customers, showing them how to properly maintain their PCs. Christopher was in the conference room under lights and a webcam. Scott and Richard were handling the webinar logistics, helping customers connect and fielding questions coming in. Alicia stayed late to man incoming phone calls. They had it covered...so much so that I even forgot we were doing it! At this moment, it occurred to me that Puget Systems has undergone transformation in 2015. It no longer relies on me, the founder and owner, to initiate, plan, and execute.
I'm going to coin this transformation as the "small business singularity." If you're a science fiction fan like me, you might already be familiar with the idea of a technological singularity. In a small business, this transformation happens when the founder is no longer the sole source of initiative in the business. You need good people, and strong leadership. You need to be willing to delegate, and to trust others with the execution. You need to create an environment where people feel secure enough to venture out on their own, and learn from their mistakes (just like you did when you started the company). Most importantly, you need to make sure company culture is in line with your goals, and that everyone understands not just WHAT you want, but the WHY behind those decisions. With those pieces in place, a small business is in a great position to become a rocket ship. The pace of execution can be staggering as the decisions, planning and execution is distributed to the many. As an entrepreneur, it is exciting...and scary!
This webinar made me realize that Puget Systems went through this singularity event in 2015. As I look around, I see a number of places where this is happening. Here are examples, from this week alone:
Christopher used his 10% time to put on the webinar I talked about above. I didn't come up with the idea. I don't think I even approved it! I didn't help with any of the tools, or give suggestions on the topics. He planned it, and did it. I haven't viewed the recording yet, but I am already immensely proud of this project.
Matt researched, benchmarked, and published detailed information about the hardware performance of Solidworks 2016. He gave a 90 minute training presentation to the entire company. He published a articles about CPU, GPU, and overclocking performance... information that overnight made Puget Systems one of the best online resources for Solidworks performance. He single-handedly elevated the company as an authority in this field.
Chris championed our internal efforts to tag every single one of the PCs we sell with data about how it is being used. He curated the list of verticals, and trained our front line staff on the importance of this information. I am now using this data as a key component in creating our strategy for 2016.
Alicia worked with Amazon to get some of our part products into their warehouses, making distribution faster, less expensive, and in the future... accessible world-wide. She knows more about Amazon selling than I do!
Eric planned and prioritized our 2016 event calendar (using data from our use-case tagging, by the way). He is buying our booth space, coming up with a marketing plan for each event, and scheduling customer visits while we are in the area. Alicia is then taking care of all the flight, hotel, and car arrangements. I used to do all of this myself, so I can tell you that it is a monumental amount of work!
Josh implemented a new easter egg with our PC builds -- having the craftsman sign the inside of the chassis for each PC they assemble. I didn't ask for it. I wasn't involved beyond giving a "thumbs up" on the idea. He made it happen.
Dr. Kinghorn was buried all week in our increasing HPC business, working through Intel Phi and NVIDIA CUDA installations. He identified a design flaw in a partner's chassis, and ensured its correction.
We're having construction done in the next few weeks, to accommodate our continued growth. Chris took on the impossible task of cramming 8 support technicians into a room, without it feeling cramped, or turning to soul-sucking cubicle systems. He shopped multiple vendors, had renderings drawn, and got the furniture ordered.
Ruben was given a budget and nothing but the decree "Give us the capability of cutting and forming metal." He shopped CNC plasma cutters, full spectrum lasers, and fiber lasers. He got in product samples, learned what did and did not meet our standards, and continues to push on. This will be one of the biggest steps we've made in our history for improving our manufacturing capabilities... and I'm not the one doing it!
This represents a fundamental shift in what I do here, as well. I pride myself on getting things done. I do all our programming. I administer our servers. Next week, I'm changing our light bulbs! But going forward, the most important thing I can do is to be an evangelist both inside and outside our company, communicating a clear message of WHAT we do, and WHY we do it. With execution now delegated throughout the company, the most important role I have is making sure we are all in alignment. Micro-managing WHAT people do is futile and counterproductive. It will bottleneck decisions at my desk, and create timid employees unable to make decisions on their own. Instead, I need to focus on WHO we are and WHY we do things, so that those decisions can continue to be distributed throughout the company.
I know this is a nostalgic time of year, but I can't help but feel blessed by all the great people we have here at Puget Systems. As an entrepreneur, it is often challenging for me to delegate. I'm accustomed to being in total control, and for ALL things to come across my desk for approval or planning. But as these things move into the hands of others here, I know they are in good hands. I'm amazed and proud.