This month’s installment of the Huntsville Business Journal’s series “Sitdown with Success” features Lisa Williams. “Sitdown with Success” spotlights local entrepreneurs who describe their successes and failures, with tips for upcoming business owners.
The business world is her passion, driven by a need to honor the American soldier and veterans who have and still are, fighting in many unsavory parts of the world. Lisa Williams’ business consulting company, the Soldier 1 Corporation, is all about paying tribute to veterans, and especially to her late father, who brought her and her mother to the United States after the Vietnam War.
“I vowed never to squander the unique opportunities I have as a result of my father, who was my hero, making the sacrifices he and so many others make, so I can live free and be successful,” she said.
Lisa and her husband, former State Rep. Phil Williams, started 3D Research, a defense engineering company during the mid-1990s from the back bedroom of their home. They sold it 10 years later so Lisa could spend more time with their son.
But because business is in her DNA, she still wanted to stay in the game, and today she is helping to build a culture where she can work with veterans to help them build their businesses, so they can hire more veterans within their company.
Tell us about Soldier 1 and your current consulting work.
I am a kind of CEO/president-for-hire. When companies face hard issues like whether to expand, whether to sell, whether to buy or merge with another business; or if they face unforeseen problems like suddenly losing their CEO with no succession plan; those companies can bring in someone like me who has the mentality of what a president or CEO should be doing in terms of running the company.
The president is the face of the company and sometimes while they are out there shaking hands, kissing babies, planning and strategizing for future growth, someone still needs to run the company.
I have built a business from the beginning when there are only one or two people doing everything. I have worked 24/7 to grow it into a lucrative business. And I have been there in the later stage of a business where I had to make decisions about selling, and about what comes after that.
I know how hard it is to run a company; what kind of sacrifices business owners make: the financial risks; the family risks; the health risks. If I see that an entrepreneur has what it takes to be successful, but they need some guidance along the way, I can help because I am somebody who has been there and done that through the entire lifecycle of a company.
What does it take to be an entrepreneur? Do successful entrepreneurs have a set of innate traits or qualities?
It’s always risky to start a business but true entrepreneurs take calculated risks. Meaning if you are going to jump off a cliff, you need to know whether the drop is five feet and you will need a good new pair of cushiony shoes, or is the drop five miles and you’re going to need a parachute.
In working with entrepreneurs, I find that the successful ones know what needs to be done, but they don’t necessarily know how to do it because they haven’t done it.
An entrepreneur knows they must save money. They know they must have funding, but they don’t know how to get it. They know they need a business plan, but they aren’t sure what should be in it. They know they must go out and get business, but they aren’t sure how to get out there and go after it.
Entrepreneurs risk everything, but they prepare. They know they need a business plan. They usually know their own strengths and weaknesses, but in writing the business plan, everywhere they leave it blank, that’s where their weaknesses lie, and they aren’t always sure how to turn those weaknesses into strengths.
An innate entrepreneur will sense they need to do certain things, for instance they know they need to lease a building or office space, but they don’t know what to look for in a contract.
When I mentor businesses, I am very blunt. I will hurt your feelings, I will call your baby ugly, but the important thing is you aren’t going to have time to try something just to see what happens.
You have to feel so strongly about what you are doing that you are either open to advice from someone who has been there, or know with all your body, your heart, your soul and your mind that what you are doing is right.
And entrepreneurs surround themselves with honest people who will pick them up if they fall.
What do you need to start a small business?
You need to do your research. I was a test engineer and knew I wanted to own my own business right out of UAH, but I had to uncover what it was I was going to sell. I spent two years just researching.
Know what kind of financing you will need.
Understand that you will need an accountant and a lawyer. These are mistakes people make because they think, like I did, accounting makes me want to slash my wrists – right, but that’s even more reason why I needed one.
I thought, why do I need a lawyer? I’m going to do business the right way, I won’t get sued. But in business, you can and will get sued, so you need lawyers.
Here in Huntsville, you may need security clearances, and even if you have a personal clearance, you have to get one for your company and that requires a company sponsor, and that takes time.
What advice do you have for budding entrepreneurs?
Build up a reserve of money to live on before you start your own business. It would be great if you can save a year’s salary, or if you can’t do that, have enough for the rent, a car payment and food several months in advance.
Keep your overhead as low as possible. If you are pursuing a service business, you are selling brain power, so you don’t need a luxurious office to show off. Take your brains to their office and work out of your home for as long as you can until you hire enough people to need and can afford an office.
If you are starting up a product-based company building a widget, then you will need money up front and may need a line of credit. Many commercial companies bring in investors, which is whole other process.
Look for opportunities to team up with other companies. It’s safer when you are getting started. It’s important to be on a growth trajectory but you don’t want to go into debt and partnerships can help with that.
Do you recommend collaborative workspace, which is less expensive than office space and usually more flexible?
I would love to see the numbers on how many successful companies really come out of a collaborative work environment.
An entrepreneur is going to make it whether they are in a collaborative environment or whether they are in their garage because it’s all about the persistence, the passion, the perspiration, and how badly do you want it.
It’s nice to have a collaborative environment, but at the end of the day, you have a plan in place; you still have to make those phone calls to potential clients; you still have to get out there and meet the people you need to meet. I always say, it is not really as much about who you know, but about who knows you.
And you have to do all of those things no matter where you are.
What is the one piece of advice you would give a young entrepreneur opening a small business?
It’s a simple, but tough question – how will you make money? You need a very clear plan and full understanding of how you will make money.
If you are going to build and sell widgets, how will you make money selling them?
People say, “I want to do this because I feel strongly about it. I want to help kids or help people.”
And I say, “Okay. We all want to help people and fill a need, but if you don’t have a plan for making money, you will go out of business.”
At the same time, if you want to open a coffee shop that sells pastries – okay. But if there are 15 pastry shops in the area, how will you be different enough from the others to make money selling coffee and pastries?
I don’t mean making money is the only thing in life, but money is what drives a business and, if you fail, you can lose everything.