Whether you have a burning desire to create the next revolutionary product or service, or you’re a mid-career executive preparing for your second act, you’ve probably considered starting your own business. African Americans are more likely than the general population to consider starting a small business as a path to financial freedom (27% to 16%), according to a study by Prudential. Yet, our businesses still face great challenges gaining access to capital, growing from mom-and-pops to large-scale operations, and avoiding failure.
I want to share with both newly minted entrepreneurs and established business owners that you can succeed despite the odds. However, sustaining your business for the long haul doesn’t require thinking outside the box but “shredding the box,” as innovation expert Frans Johansson says. I can think of no better guides than the business leaders in this issue, which highlights the BE 100s—our listing of the nation’s largest black-owned businesses—under the theme “Accelerate Your Business,” also the theme of our recent Black Enterprise Entrepreneurs Conference in Columbus, Ohio.
First, don’t try to succeed as a solo act. More than ever, the demands of the marketplace require you to check your ego at the door and forge partnerships with your peers, customers, larger corporations, even employees. I have always said that one plus one equals three: Bring together complementary skills, capital, and other resources to design a larger entity.
Take serial entrepreneur Bob Johnson, the 2013 recipient of our A.G. Gaston Lifetime Achievement Award for entrepreneurial excellence. Since founding BET more than 30 years ago, Johnson has partnered with large corporations or other entrepreneurs to develop a series of groundbreaking ventures that have created value and built wealth. That’s why he’s a billionaire today. Our Auto Dealer of the Year, March Hodge Automotive Group, went a step further: CEOs Tony March and Ernest Hodge put the managers of their dealerships in the driver’s seat by providing equity partnership stakes and, in turn, created a team of co-owners. The result: March Hodge has generated $488 million in sales in 2012—a 33% increase over the previous year’s sales.
Second, lay the groundwork to capitalize on opportunities. Stephen Hightower, CEO of this year’s Industrial/Service Company of the Year, Hightowers Petroleum, pursued General Motors for five years to get the contract to provide gas to cars coming off the automaker’s assembly lines. Wooing GM required Hightower to repeatedly refine his proposals, connect with company officials, and establish an unassailable performance track record. He has been a supplier with GM since 2009 and has grown his business multi-fold, counting some of the nation’s largest corporations as customers. His philosophy: over-deliver.
Third, fully embrace digital technology in all facets of your business. One company that leverages digital technology to better serve its growing roster of clients is our 2013 Advertising Agency of the Year Walton Isaacson. Founders Aaron Walton and Cory Isaacson have created what they dub “the planet’s most interesting agency” by doing as much research on their target audience as possible and devising innovative, digital-driven campaigns to snare consumers. Their approach must be working: The firm has grown from a coffee shop conversation to the nation’s second largest black-owned agency.
I have shared just a few examples that can help ensure the viability of your venture. But keep in mind that you must constantly upgrade your company and pursue new opportunities. Ensuring longevity may mean reinventing your business to take advantage of a specific niche or even exiting a moribund industry to enter a vibrant sector. Throughout the life of your business, however, you must always embrace one tried-and-true practice: Build a solid reputation of integrity and excellence.