When did you start your first real enterprise with a legit corporate structure and the livelihoods of employees, customers and vendors in the balance?
George Otte did it at the ripe young age of 21, all on his own. That’s particularly impressive in a world where even entrepreneurs with lots of help struggle to gain headway in competitive industries. Heartening statistics about long-term declines in business failure rates aside, most new businesses fail within five years.
There’s no way to sugarcoat this. It’s a fact of life. Kill or be killed, eat or be eaten.
George and I chatted on the phone this week to talk about what he did to rise to the top of the business heap. He often couches young millennials on entrepreneurship, and helped me put together these five tips for my millennial readers:
Grow the Hard Way
Going into business for yourself is not a get-rich-quick scheme. If you’re hoping to exit your brand new venture next year with 10 times what you put in, your expectations are not realistic. Period.
Otte knows this better than most. During his first few years in business, he built a roster of more than 100 loyal customers “literally by knocking on doors and going to Chamber of Commerce events” in and around Miami, he says. No magic pixie dust falling from the sky, just old-fashioned elbow grease.
Plan for the Unexpected
They say life is what happens while you’re making other plans. Turns out business is the same way. The scariest obstacle an entrepreneur can face is an “unknown unknown” — an adverse event that they never expected and therefore couldn’t plan for. Otte has faced down plenty of unknowns over the course of his career, particularly early on. Although some were costly, serious setbacks, he says he learned from them all and is a better leader for them.
Don’t Bet Everything on Organic Growth
Otte built his telephone answering service and call center, Responsive Call Center through a series of far-sighted call center acquisitions. That was a bold call in an entrepreneurial culture that fetishizes organic growth, but Otte stuck to his guns.
“I attended an industry conference back in 2012 and was advised to acquire, rather than build new,” he remembers. “That was enough for me.”
Otte’s boldness paid off. Four years on, Responsive Answering Service has six strategically located call centers and at least 100 employees — not bad for a company that Otte essentially pieced together with spare parts.
Listen to Old Hands
Though George Otte is a confident entrepreneur, he’s self-aware enough to know his limits, especially in an unfamiliar industry. Though he’d operated call centers for a few years thanks to his work with Geeks on Site, he knew nothing compared with the answering service veterans he met at that 2012 conference.
So, instead of barging into the room with cash and ego bared, he did what any sober-minded entrepreneur should do in the presence of seasoned veterans: he sat down, acknowledged he wasn’t the smartest person in the room, and actually listened to what the experts had to say. There’s no telling what would have happened had Otte failed to seek (or ignored altogether) what turned out to be very valuable advice.
Hire People You Can Trust
George Otte is not a micromanager. He can’t be. As the head of Otte Polo, he directly employs hundreds and is responsible for millions in economic activity. In such a large organization, it’s impossible for one person to be party to every conversation, transaction or decision of consequence.
So how does Otte keep his empire on the right track? Simple. He hires great people and pushes them to realize the best versions of themselves. It sounds corny, and maybe it is, but it surely works.
The key is trust — Otte’s implicit trust in his executives’ and managers’ judgment, honesty and diligence, and those employees’ belief that Otte will treat them fairly when they hold up their end of the bargain.
“At a certain point, it becomes impossible to look over everyone’s shoulder, to keep tabs on everyone in your organization,” says Otte. “That’s when you have to let your team sink or swim on its own, and trust that you’ve put the right people in the right places to drive the right outcomes.”
Words for any entrepreneur to live by.