Tom Benson was stoked. He’d found a winning formula: assemble an amazing crew, string a few ropes between the trees and send people flying through the air to conquer their fears and grow.
It began when he and his business partner, Gordon Ross, bought their first adventure park in Nanaimo — formerly the Bungee Zone — they realized there was big potential. But by the time WildPlay Elements Park had set up a few parks across B.C., Benson realized he had hit a wall. While the intention had always been to have a multi-site business, one of the things standing in his way was sheer bandwidth: Did he have capacity to deal with such a fast-growing business?
“One of the things we decided we were going to do was to franchise,” says the veteran outdoorsman. “And you know, the idea behind franchising is that the franchisee would do most of the work — they’d go and figure it out. And then you’d bring your skills and build the product and train them to run it.”
The partners felt like they’d discovered the rope that would help them over the metaphorical wall, but after expanding WildPlay to 13 locations, Benson realized he was running a business that didn’t actually fit a franchising model.
“If you’re franchising, it has to be very cookie-cutter,” Benson says. “And we’re not cookie-cutter. Our standards are really clear and they’re repeatable, but the product is … it’s so different in every place.”
So Benson scaled back, selling off franchises, buying them back — even walking away from one that cost his company a million bucks.
It was like hitting the wall … after hitting the wall. But because Benson is dialed into an excellent support network through the Entrepreneurs’ Organization (EO), he’s been able to keep climbing, bolstered by the wisdom of dozens of mentors in the local Victoria chapter.
“It’s just like, ‘Here’s where my challenge is and this is what’s going on and this is what I’m frightened of,’” he says of the EO meetings. “It’s just really open discussion that you don’t see anywhere else.”
Now WildPlay has six parks in operation across North America, and is poised to open five or six more by 2020.
Find Your Guides
Drawing on those who have specific wisdom — or those who have gone before — is a time-tested technique, and for good reason: because it works. When Viberg Boot found itself growing faster than its family-business foundation could handle, the group brought Eric Clark on board as director of operations last September.
“We’ve seen our lifestyle business just rocket up,” says Clark, whose prior experience includes guiding quick-serve restaurants toward more efficient operations.
“Viberg’s compounded annual growth rate has been above 50 per cent per year for five years running now,” he says.
The 80-year-old brand was soaring, reaching new markets globally and exploding beyond its traditional stronghold in the Pacific Northwest. But its whack-a-mole approach just wasn’t working anymore. Clark knew he had to streamline some processes — and he knew he’d have to call on outside expertise to do it.
Clark brought Chemistry Consulting on board to help with business leadership. He called in The Number to help with inventory and manufacturer resource planning systems. And he leaned on Pixel Union to help with ecommerce and an upcoming redesign of Viberg.com.
“You have to recognize what you’re good at,” he says. “And you have to recognize when you’re out of your league and you need to move up to those resources you can draw on and bring forward.”
Expand Your Knowledge
Sometimes the best advice comes through the people outside your field but inside your network. Red Barn Market’s Russ Benwell and his management team hit a wall in fledging their Latoria Walk location after just purchasing the business’s Vanalman, Matticks and West Saanich locations. To get past the block, he turned to a loose advisory group that includes an accountant, a lawyer and an HR advisor.
“That was probably the biggest learning curve, was that first store,” Benwell recalls. “We had three [stores], but to go to the fourth and take staff and develop that and try and transform the brand and introduce it to a new marketplace…”
You can almost hear the engine squealing. So the team focused tightly on marketing and community awareness, and worked to raise the profile of Red Barn’s most unique offering: a smokehouse that churns out gorgeous cheeses and meats.
Benwell and his partners informally consult with their quasi-board of directors when they’re in the middle of key decisions, and each brings specific knowledge from their field.
“It’s critical, especially when you’re in the big tough stuff when it’s a little muddy or a little dirty, and helping you kind of see your way through that,” he says.
For Gordy Bal, head of Conscious Thought Revolution (CTR), reaching out to other business leaders was an essential part of getting up and over the wall that sprang up when he realized he wanted to pivot from a traditional business model to a mission-oriented model.
Where CTR began as a technology and marketing company, Bal realized it was time to grow when he began feeling unfulfilled. He wasn’t serving his highest purpose, and it was weighing on him.
“It was no longer just about asking, ‘How can I make the most money?’ but about asking, ‘How can I make the greatest impact?’” he says.
By talking with and learning from other impact entrepreneurs, Bal has assembled a team of fellow travelers who are also journeying from focusing on changing ROI from “return on investment” to “ripple of impact.”
Now, the understanding at the centre of CTR’s model is that people’s thoughts and choices have an immeasurable impact on ourselves and others. So CTR focuses on building and investing in technology, entrepreneurs and media to fulfill Bal’s vision for a better world: accelerating the evolution of human consciousness.
Build a Team You Trust
If you’ve got the right people around you, stretching for the next stage in your business — whether it’s growing from small to medium-size or just untangling the next knot in your trajectory — will feel exciting and exhilarating, not scary. When Mike de Palma bought his company from a veteran stonemason nine years back, Flintstones was a solo operation. De Palma dovetailed his masonry experience with his background in general contracting, hired another mason, and began growing his company. Now with 50 staff and a refreshed identity as a masonry and general construction company, de Palma tips his hat to those people who treat their work like a profession instead of just a job. “Surround yourself with people who really consider themselves as professionals and that this is a career that they’re doing, no matter what it is,” he says. It fosters pride and keeps negativity at bay, and ensures your team is engaged no matter what direction you all need to go in.
Red Barn’s ownership group shrank from five to four after opening their first all-new store. The difficulty of running three well-established stores while shepherding along a new one exposed the cracks in the management team. Expansion wasn’t possible if everyone wasn’t operating from the same set of core values.
Back at the boot factory, Clark talks about the importance of learning from those who support your brand. “We’re looking for those partners that are like us,” he says, listing leathermakers Horween and CF Stead as well as Vibram soles as examples of other organizations from whom Viberg can learn. “We’re looking for the stories that support our brand. And quite often those organizations have gone through the very exact same thing or are going through the exact same things that you are. And you know, they are more than willing to share those same stories.”
Figure out Your Intention
Bal got closer to the truth when he recognized CTR’s mission was to shift humanity’s ways of thinking. Benwell realized it when the team wasn’t agreeing on the big-picture vision for Red Barn. Clark knows it from seeing that Viberg’s biggest sellers were its core products, the ones that are known and loved by customers, and not the flashy weekly releases. Benson figured it out when he realized that he needed all the operators of WildPlay parks to be aligned with the company values. And De Palma saw it when he noticed how powerfully a positive work environment and attitude could shape his team’s output.
If you’re not already clear on your company’s intention, dig a bit. What’s the big idea? Why do you do what you do? What is, as Bal calls it, your “massive transformative purpose”? This, more than anything, will help you intuit your next move when those roadblocks pop up.
Get above the Treeline
It’s difficult for business owners to know where to go next if they’re stuck in the weeds of making every single decision. One final tip for breaking through to the next level is to get above the treeline so you can see the big picture. Go up to where the noise diminishes — and where your vision becomes clearer. Entrepreneurs often feel that the business is dependent on them, observes Bal. “This mindset destroys the possibility of taking the business to the next level. It’s important to find or create processes and systems that replicate and automate tasks, so there’s room to truly work on higher impact initiatives.”
Get into the clear, where you can see farther, says Bal. Understand the difference between working on the business versus working in the business. “When stuck working in the business, you can’t ask questions like, What is our greater purpose? What impact do we want to make? How do we want to transform lives?”
Ask yourself constantly, Can I operate better? advises Clark. Are your peers and competitors in the marketplace doing something smarter than you are?
“When you look at that question of can you operate better,” he says, “you want to keep the things that your clients and customers value. You want to throw away the rest.”
This article is from the October/November 2018 issue of Douglas.