Grit is the Key
If I could list one key trait in entrepreneurs or business leaders that is the biggest indicator of their success, it would be grit. One of my favorite quotes is from Mike Tyson where he says “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” You have to keep showing up. No matter how hard it gets or how bad a day / week / month / quarter / season is. No matter how impossible things seem or how you may not have the answers, keep showing up. Another quote that I like is “startups don’t fail, the founder at some point just can’t take it anymore.” Never quit. Never settle. Never give up.
I’m really proud of our team and culture at Fortress. It’s what I’m most proud of, more than any of the work or accolades or celebrations. It’s the people and the culture. As our clients and visitors have said, you can feel it when you walk in here and I love that. The saying is that culture eats strategy for breakfast and Fortress is a testament to that. Despite several seasons of not being overly strategic in our moves and decisions, we’ve managed to grow at an average of 50% each year for the past 12 years. I think this is due to building a culture where our team cares about the work we’re doing and the mission we’re on.
When I left the corporate world, I wanted to create a different type of organization, one that was culture and people first, that listened to the voices on our team no matter their seniority level, who cared about the whole person not just the performance of that person inside the office, who was a good steward of people’s time by not having unnecessary meetings or discussions that don’t produce action, and who were obsessed with making our clients more successful. I think this translates into our growth: our normal close ratio is around 35% but when we get people into the office first to spend time here and meet the team, that goes to 85%. Culture matters.
It’s Not About Me
Coming from the media and advertising world, I’ve noticed that there are two types of business owners: ones that want to be in front of the camera and the ones that don’t. While there’s nothing wrong with either of those, we’ve seen a lot of companies and brands become founder-centric and everything rides on that one person. Our philosophy is we > me and that includes me as the CEO and founder. I believe that we can go further together and I need great people around me to make this thing go. The CEO often gets all the praise (and also all the blame for the downside) but it takes a team to get things done. My job is to bring the best people together and empower them to do the best work they can. The results will follow. This also applies to wisdom and insight. I want to learn from the 20 year old content creator on our team and also the 60 year old business development guy and everyone in between. I don’t house all the knowledge and wisdom. Our collective experience and brainpower is far greater than a CEO trying to say smart things for a social media soundbite.
I’ve always been wired to latch on to people who are older and wiser and more experienced so that I could learn from them and shorten my own learning curve. Wherever I worked, I would try to get 5 minutes with the highest level person and ask them how they got to that seat and what it took, so I could figure out my path there. I’ve been fortunate over the years to have latched onto some great people and learned a lot from them in different seasons of life and business. I have a rule that I call the grey hair / no hair rule and it’s to find someone far ahead of you and learn whatever you can from them. Before you know it, you’ll be that guy for someone else. This has translated into working with an executive coach, joining multiple CEO councils, joining an entrepreneur cohort, and also pushing our team to find their outlets as well so we can all level up.
In the early stages of the entrepreneurship journey, especially when you’re bootstrapping like us, there’s hardly any money for anything – including funds to pay large salaries for top talent. I’m super proud of what we’ve built with our year-round internship program and the experience we’ve been able to provide to hundreds of people. We took the best talent and best fits from this program and developed them and put them in key positions to make an impact. One monumental shift I had on hiring occurred 5 or 6 years ago where I saw a teaching on hiring “A-Players” and the difference that makes compared to companies that hire B and C tier talent. From that day, we switched our strategy from hiring anyone that wanted to work with us to hiring very slowly and methodically, making sure values and personalities lined up well, along with looking for a proven track record of success, experience, and excellence. The results have been transformational.
Impact Over Income
A lot of organizations will use the phrase “people over profits” and we definitely focus on people and doing great work for our clients. Our focus has been doing the best work possible, telling those stories, and then having that turn into more business for us and believing that the money will come, and it has worked. Lately I’ve thought more about it. My mindset has shifted more into impact over income. How is the work that we’re doing and the relationships that we’re building and the careers we’re providing making an impact on people? We should be chasing that: making an impact on people, our community, and the world. Income is secondary to impact.
The Losses Should Hurt More Than the Wins Feel Good
This was a part of my training manual when I was working in advertising for CBS and I didn’t really understand it at the time. I loved the high of closing new deals and brushed off the ones that we didn’t win. Now with my own company, winning is the expectation. It feels good when we do, but it’s onto the next one and we put our head down and keep going. The losses started hurting more because we were putting everything on the line and missing out on an opportunity had real impact and sometimes consequences. The losses started to sting more but we quickly shifted our thinking to view losses as learning lessons. What could we have done better? What didn’t resonate? Was it pricing, experience, personality, timing, or something else? We began asking prospective clients that didn’t select us for some of their reasoning so that we could make note of it and get better.
Lately I’ve been fascinated by stoicism’s teachings and philosophies. Moderation and reservation, remaining even keel, not getting too high on the highs or low on the lows. I’ve always applied this and think it’s a necessity at the top. Your people are looking up to you and observing how you navigate tricky situations, much like a passenger on a flight looking at a flight attendant staying calm during turbulence. I remember the first 7 figure client that we signed and how I ducked out of a team meeting to take the call to find out if we won it or not. Everyone knew what the call was for and when I got back to the meeting it was like the music stopped and everyone turned to look at me. I told them that we won it, and the team was ecstatic and wanted to pop champagne (which we do a decent amount of here at Fortress), but I didn’t want to get too high on that and wanted to wait for the project to officially kick off before I got too excited. The flip side of that was when things were rocky with one of our biggest clients. Don’t freak out, don’t react emotionally, don’t say or do things you’ll regret, think of all options and next steps on what you can do to get it back right and then go from there. It worked and all ended up being okay.
Hustle Culture Doesn’t Last – Be the Lion
“Rise and grind” is the business version of “live, laugh, love.”
It’s a phrase that’s lost its meaning and is beaten to death ad nauseam. It’s so easy to get into this trap of working more hours and believing that it equates to productivity and revenue. You absolutely have to do the work and put in the hours – this is undeniable. But it’s what you do with those hours that means more. I’ve actually been trying to reprogram this in my own mind and work with my exec coach this year.
My parents came here from India with nothing and worked multiple jobs to set my sister and I up for success in America. This ingrained in me a deep sense and appreciation for hard work and sacrifice, and I always equated more hours = more output. This mentality burns most people out. Instead, be like the lion. The lion is the king of the jungle but is an animal that sprints and works hard in focused spurts, and then rests and recharges. I’ve pushed some of our workhorses at Fortress to be more like the lion and I’m still working on that part myself – focusing on intentional rest in order to go further. Some days it’s okay to leave the office before the sun goes down.
Focus & Shiny Penny Syndrome
It’s so easy to chase shiny objects. My wife did an amazing job of keeping me focused for many years. I’d uncover or be offered a seat in some venture or opportunity and be excited about it. She would always say “focus on Fortress first.” I hated hearing it at the time, but it was exactly what was needed. It helped me keep building the foundations here so we could accelerate in a major way years later. It’s easy to think you’re a badass entrepreneur and that everything you touch turns to gold and that you could become a serial entrepreneur because you are running one business well. Success in one doesn’t always translate into success in all. I own a lot of percentages of worthless companies. Focusing on Fortress and putting it first above all other ventures has allowed us to win and now gives me the opportunity to bring in other businesses and ventures into our ecosystem in multiple ways including our Accelerator in a more meaningful and strategic way.
Cut Things Out / Go Slow to go Fast
In the early days of Fortress, I had to cut ties with many people, places, and things so I could focus on what I was building. It really became a function of time. There was no time to waste. It sounds painful but it wasn’t. I thought it would be tougher to not go and hang out with my friends that were going out every weekend and doing the same things, but it really didn’t change anything in my life; if anything it made life better. This also applies to skeptics in your own family that you still love but need to tune out because they think you’re crazy and should play it safe instead
The best for last. This one is huge for me. Everyone is chasing comfort in life but that’s not where most growth happens. As business grows and stability and comfort increase, you have to seek out discomfort. The internet is full of ideas on this – some good, most of them bad. “Do these 47 things for 6 months and become unrecognizable” is the kind of clickbait that I often get in my feed these days.
Cold showers, waking up earlier, hard workouts, strict diets, fasting, reading a ton etc. But there is merit to pushing your limits in all areas of life – physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually. I love the concept of suffering now or suffering later. At some point in life, the work needs to be done. It’s either going to be on your terms now or on someone else’s later. Do the hard work and get uncomfortable. Great things will follow.