Entrepreneurs of fast-growing firms cite culture as key to success

Bravo! Entrepreneur: Panel discussion

Hiring employees who have a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset can work wonders when it comes to business growth.

“It’s the difference between, ‘I don’t know how to do that,’ and, ‘I can figure out how to do that,’” said Elmer Moore, executive director of Scale Up Milwaukee and founder of Milwaukee Denim Co.

That’s one thing Moore and other entrepreneurs of fast-growing companies will outline at the Bravo! Entrepreneur & I.Q. Awards during a panel discussion about their secrets to success.

The panelists who will join Moore are: Kurt Heikkinen, president and chief executive officer of Montage Talent Inc.; Dave Durand, CEO of Best Version Media LLC; and Joseph Taylor, partner at Penrod Software LLC. The Bravo! Entrepreneur & I.Q. Awards, which honor Milwaukee’s top entrepreneurs and innovators, will be held May 31 at Potawatomi Hotel & Casino as part of BizTimes Media’s BizExpo.

“What’s the net that you put under someone to make them comfortable?” Moore asked. “In a fixed concept, there’s actually no failure. The growth mindset is not only exposure to failure, it’s guaranteed failure.”

The trick is figuring out how to make failure less painful, but also more uncomfortable, so the employee progresses out of it, Moore said.

“Employees do need and do deserve some boundaries and some framework to affect decisions,” Heikkinen said. “What we have done over time is give them those boundaries and that framework.”

Montage has been growing at a 50 percent annual clip. But Heikkinen said it’s important not to pursue growth at all cost, since some clients would not be a fit for Montage’s client profile.

“Who are the target markets we will serve, what does the core set of problems look like and what does a zebra look like, where zebra is our ideal client profile?” Heikkinen asked. “Growth for the sake of growth can actually be destructive to the business.”

Moore agreed, citing the fact that in manufacturing, a growing business like Milwaukee Denim needs to be careful not to sell more product than it can actually afford to fulfill.

“You can grow yourself to death pretty easy,” he said.

In his work at Scale Up Milwaukee, Moore has seen a number of companies come to the conclusion that hiring is the most important aspect of their growth, he said.

“In the very beginning when we started in engaging companies, asking them what they need to grow, the answer was uniform and the most obvious answer, which is money,” Moore said. “Working with them for many years, it’s turned out that the best resource, biggest asset and biggest opportunity all relates to human capital.”

It would be challenging for any company to grow without hiring. And hiring the right talent can be a challenge.

Culture has been the key to finding the right talent at Penrod, Taylor said.

“We spend just as much time understanding technically what people can do as we do how they’ll fit in culturally,” he said.

Penrod asks interviewees about 100 questions, some of which relate to its culture, such as work-life integration, taking vacation and individual responsibility.

“We make sure they understand that hiring, firing and promotions are all a reflection of our culture and living up to that culture,” Taylor said. “We’re also more than willing to admit that we’re not the right fit for everybody and that’s OK.”

Finding the right people and putting them in the right seats on the bus helped Penrod achieve 990 percent three-year growth and $5 million in 2016 revenue, according to the most recent Inc. 5000 data.

Durand said two things have fueled Best Version’s growth: having a scalable program, and having a strong culture that can grow with the company.

“We have a simple thing that is duplicable and we have the systems within our company that can multiply that,” he said. “It doesn’t all of a sudden just happen to us,” Durand said. “We very deliberately calculate how that growth is going to happen and how we’re going to capture it.”

The culture at Best Version is just as deliberate, with three pillars – strong professional will, compassionate heart and fun-loving spirit – built on a foundation of humility. The company’s name stems from its mission to advocate for its employees becoming the best version of themselves, Durand said.

“One of the things you cannot measure in Myers-Briggs tests and all the tests employers do to see if an employee’s going to be good, is you can’t measure virtue in those things,” he said.

While Best Version has grown rapidly to nearly 500 publications across the U.S. and Canada, Durand tries to retain that entrepreneurial mindset he started with.

“In a corporate world, most often, people can use ‘or else’ as the reason for something,” he said. “But entrepreneurs usually lead with the possibility of ‘What if? What’s possible? How great can the next day be?”

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Molly Dill
Molly Dill, former BizTimes Milwaukee managing editor.