Our company is by no means a massive success or a silicon valley unicorn, but we have learned a thing or two in the fifteen years we’ve been in business.

Owning a business is difficult on an easy day because quite frankly there are no easy days. For me, it is the constant worry outside the office that makes it so hard. Did I do enough today? Was that really the right call? Are my staff okay; are they happy? Is this really what I want to do in life?

Those thoughts and doubts never really go away, but as you grow there are those moments that you can only look back on that make it all worth it. Rewinding back to March 2020, the beginning of the pandemic was one of those moments we couldn’t see until now. It had been about two or three weeks since the mass shutdowns began and we had lost 50% of our business. Thirteen years building it to have half of it gone in a month. We were completely lost and had no idea what we were going to do. You see, for us, Smiledog is a family business we all depend on to support our families. 

So, we did the only thing we could do. We doubled down to ensure its survival and make sure we would come out of this pandemic thriving and never in that situation again. We are now happy to say it was the right move. 

At Smiledog, we believe in a bottom-up approach to leadership, which is the opposite of the traditional top-down approach. We support our leadership and our leadership supports the team who then supports the customers.

So with this approach in mind, we put all of our energy into creating a vibrant culture that our team was proud to be a part of. We built a sustainable financial model that will help prevent us from ever being that unstable again and created a content engine to stimulate new growth and establish our digital brand. These three things have been the key to our success throughout the pandemic, and they have truly changed the shape and future of our business. Creating these things in any business is no easy feat, but I can say confidently that it is so worth the effort as the results speak for themselves.

Create a Culture with Purpose

This sounds cliche but culture is the most important part of every business. A company without a culture is a company without a heartbeat. There is no way to survive without one. 

The misconception about culture is that it happens organically and comes from your people. Yes, they can help inspire you with ideas but in no way should you rely on your team to create the culture you want for your business. Company culture should always come from leadership, and it should always be implemented with purpose. A thriving culture doesn’t just happen, it is a strategic choice that is made. It’s a choice to make an impact on the lives of your team.

If there is one thing you can do that will have an impact on your culture, it would be to read Worth Doing Wrong by Arnie Malham. 

At Smiledog, we’ve been using ideas we’ve learned from his book for the past five years, and it has completely changed our company. We have implemented: 

  • The Better Book Club: we pay our staff to read.
  • The champion program: staff take a leading role in organizing birthday events or planning our annual Christmas party.
  • New employee onboarding checklist: a full day of culture before training even starts.
  • Propfuel: a software program that allows us to give kudos and shoutouts to everyone as well as track it all.
  • Bonuses: A robust performance-based compensation plan that is on top of the team’s regular pay.
  • Monthly coaching program: designed to help our team achieve their goals outside of work.

The 3 key takeaways we have learned over the past five years of building a great culture within our company are: 

  1. You are never finished. Culture can always be improved and worked on. Never take your foot off the gas.
  2. Rip-off, recycle, and reuse. Don’t try to invent a new wheel. Take ideas from the best and adjust them to fit your business. It will save you a lot of pain, time, and money in the long run. 
  3. Fail Forward. That is our way of saying “worth doing wrong”. Some things will not work for you and some things will. However, it is always worth trying because you will learn something from the experience. 

Create a Sustainable Financial Model

Having solid financial information is crucial to the longevity of your business. Sustainable growth is a strategic move done ahead of time by knowing your company’s past. Flying in the dark may work initially as you have the momentum behind you, but in the long term, it will become one of your biggest pain points. 

Building our financial model took us the better part of the past three years but we now have a working version in place that helps us make great decisions each and every month. It is not complete and we are always working on it, but I can tell you that we now have a full financial view of our business and such a huge weight has been lifted off our shoulders. 

These are the two main takeaways we have learned from creating this style of financial model:

  1. Cutting a business’s fixed expenses is not where the difference in the bottom line will come from. 
  • Becoming more efficient within your company’s variable expenses is where you will see the biggest impact.
  • Shifting your mindset from cutting costs to improving efficiency within your largest expenses will actually have more of an impact on your daily operating costs.
  • For us last year, 71% of our expenses came from the variable side while only 18% were within our fixed, so it’s easy to find where you can make the most impact on your bottom line. 
  1. Our second key learning from building out this financial model was a simple one that created a huge “aha” moment for our leadership team.
  • We learned that comparing percentages of total revenue versus hard costs numbers has allowed us to lessen the rigidity of our numbers.
  • What I mean by this is that we can now plan to have our wage expense as 40-45% of total revenue each month versus defining it as a hard number. When looking at the hard number, you give yourself no room for error and we all know in business, things change every day. 
  • Continuing to look at this wage example, if your company is growing, so should your wage cost. When looking at it as a percentage of the total revenue, you’re allowing room for growth. Whereas the hard wage cost number will not account for this and eventually put too much pressure on your team and cause burnout. That will end up being much more costly to you from an operational perspective than an additional 1-3% of revenue spent on bringing in new staff to alleviate the workload for your team.

Create a Content Engine for Growth

This one was scary for us because it was so far out of our realm in the beginning. We had never allotted such a high spend on our marketing efforts before. To do that for any business owner is scary because marketing is never a guaranteed thing. 

After almost two years of consistent effort, we can now confidently say that content-based marketing is the only way to go. We use a company called Foundation. Check them out, seriously. It is one of the best decisions we have made in the past two years.

The thing about content marketing is that it takes time, as anything worth doing should.

We’ve been able to start building the identity of our brand in the digital space the way we want. Like everything else in business, it is always evolving and being worked on but we have never been more seamless from a digital perspective. All of our social, website, blogs, advertising, and any other work we are doing is synchronized and consistent. 

Our two biggest learnings from implementing a content strategy are:

1. Ensure you have a platform or system in the background that you can build everything off of. 

  • We use Hubspot and love it. We started with their free CRM and expanded our account into their marketing hub option, which allows us to post social content, build landing pages, and keep high-quality analytics on everything. 

2. The second thing you want to do is ensure you have a content team that holds themselves accountable.

  • Your content team needs to be consistently sharing the results with you about all your efforts. That is the best part about working with our team at Foundation. We can look back on everything we have done and see the results. Everything we do is organized and tracked. The data we have on our company now has never been easier to access, and it allows us to make the right decisions for our company’s growth.

Wrapping up

Our journey of growth at Smiledog is not a tried and tested cookie-cutter formula. Every business is different, but the one thing I can guarantee is that by focusing on at least one of the above you will see an improvement in your business. 

We just had our highest grossing quarter with our largest profit margin of any year we have been in business. That isn’t even close to the best part. We have had the ability to increase our team lead pay by 20% and our receptionists’ pay by 15%. For us, that has been the most rewarding thing. We love our team and just having the ability to give back to them has been the most fulfilling part of all of this. 

If there is a decision in front of you that seems way too daunting because you’re unsure of the results, it is always worth making the leap. You may not succeed in the end, but you will have the new experience to take with you to the end and that is the most valuable thing you can have as a business owner. 

Stay safe and thanks for reading my two cents!