7Summits CEO shares strategy behind company’s rapid growth

7Summits chief executive officer and founder Paul Stillmank.
7Summits chief executive officer and founder Paul Stillmank.

Imbued in the fabric of Milwaukee-based 7Summits is the pun-intended phrase “shift happens,” an adage that chief executive officer Paul Stillmank said describes the company’s journey to becoming one of the fastest growing companies in America.

Stillmank, who founded 7Summits in 2009, built the Salesforce consulting firm on the premise that all kinds of organizations, both for-profit and nonprofit, would leverage online communities and data sets for growth. As a Salesforce platinum partner, the company uses data and predictive analytics to figure out where a business is stuck and how it can obtain more market share.

By 2012, 7Summits had $6 million in sales before reaching more than $11 million in 2013. That same year, the company received a growth equity investment from a private equity firm. In 2019, the company landed on the Inc. 5000 list for the fourth time in a decade. Today, the company has 200 employees across 30 states and works with companies internationally.

Stillmank recently spoke about his company’s success at BizTimes Media’s M&A Forum, an annual event that provides business leaders with insight and strategies to help them buy or sell a business. He advised the audience that companies seeking capital infusion, private equity partnerships or longer-term M&A outcomes should focus on scaling their company sustainably.

Sustainable scale can be achieved through three core principles: a focused go-to market, a defined offering set and a predictable bookings motion, Stillmank said.

“You have to have a way of telling your story and going to market, but it can’t just stay the same; the market changes,” Stillmank said. “I’ve been doing this for 10 years and you can’t just keep saying the same thing.”

7Summits senior vice president of experience design studio Bill O’Neil (left) and chief executive officer and founder Paul Stillmank.
7Summits senior vice president of experience design studio Bill O’Neil (left) and chief executive officer and founder Paul Stillmank.

A focused go-to market not only means developing a story that clients can digest, but also a story that employees can deliver in a uniform way.

“We’ve built playbooks that help our teams go talk about what we sell and how a particular company in a particular industry can take advantage of it,” Stillmank said. “If you have a good go-to market and you have a very defined set of things you sell, your catalog, those are essential elements to build a business.”

Another early strategy Stillmank used was taking a snapshot of sales data every week and then building a historical picture of how his team’s sales data behaved over time. With this data, Stillmank can anticipate what sales will look like ahead of time and predict, for example, how long it will take a new hire to reach their quota.

“Not only are you growing leaps and bounds but you’ve got the data to tell me you’re going to keep doing it,” Stillmank said. “Not everybody has that so that’s why the predictable data piece is so important when you’re sitting in front of M&A people.”

Over the past decade, 7Summits has had to reinvent itself, revamping its offering set and go-to market to show that its strategies can be scaled and deployed for even the largest of companies.

“We had to swap out the engine while this thing was in flight with a full team of folks with salaries and everything,” Stillmank said. “All these things were changing, but what held it together was the core tenets of the culture.”

For Stillmank, culture isn’t just team-building activities and amenities in an office space. It’s ensuring that everyone on staff understands not only the company’s mission, but also its strategies for attracting clients, which leads back to his core principles.

“To me all of these things are cultural,” Stillmank said. “Core values, culture and purpose is all part of it. My entire staff understands this go-to market. They all live it, breath it, they all understand what it means to empower a customer or enable an employee.”

Stillmank began cultivating the company’s culture within the first two years of starting 7Summits. For example, he had the entire staff read the book “Mastering the Rockefeller Habits” and then applied those principles to shape important aspects of the company’s culture.

As a team, the company created a three-year strategic plan and sized it down to annual, quarterly and even weekly priorities for the company and each individual. The entire team meets 15 minutes every day and for an hour each week to establish what Stillmank calls “a true rhythm to the business.”

When Stillmank started 7Summits, the first step he took was deciding to go “all in.” This meant investing a significant amount of money in the business, including hiring an accountant, a company to manage payroll and a law firm to formalize his business.

“A lot of times people are afraid to spend that money and take that big bite because you’re taking a risk,” Stillmank said. “But I believed in my idea.”

Fast forward four years, 7Summits was quickly growing and Stillmank needed to reassess how to manage his company’s growth. He also had a considerable amount of personal goals he wanted to achieve, including paying off his children’s college education and taking care of his son with autism.

He knew there were several routes 7Summits could take to maintain growth, such as venture capital, private equity or staying the course and growing from profits. Stillmank hired an attorney and a banker and consulted with trusted executives from other companies to come up with a prospectus for his company.

“To be honest with you, I would like to say that I’m the smartest guy in the world that knew all of this, but I was peeling an onion,” Stillmank said. “I needed to go out to sample the market and see what’s possible here.”

7Summits ultimately partnered with San Francisco-based private equity firm Sverica International Management, LLC. Stillmank said he didn’t anticipate making that move when he started the company, but knew it was the right decision when the opportunity presented itself.

“All of a sudden … a company is coming in and saying, ‘We really want you to stay and run this and grow it, but we’ll let you get some money off the table,’” Stillmank said. “But I maintained a major ownership stake with these new shareholders.”

Stillmank stressed the importance of doing thorough research before making these decisions. 

“There’s companies that are doing cool tech stuff in Milwaukee that don’t understand these steps and this is what this M&A Forum is about,” Stillmank said. “Do those individuals realize the value of what they’ve done and how that might turn into some private wealth for them and others?”

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Brandon covers startups, technology, manufacturing. He previously worked as a general assignment and court reporter for The Freeman in Waukesha. Brandon graduated from UW-Milwaukee’s journalism, advertising and media studies program with an emphasis in journalism. He enjoys live music, playing guitar and loves to hacky sack.

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