My Perspective on the Challenges of Growing a Business
By Bill Huseby, President & CEO
Growing a business presents many challenges that take many different forms. It’s hard to anticipate what bumps you might experience along the road when you first set out on the journey of owning and growing a business. I certainly didn’t expect all of the various organizational challenges that would come along when I decided to become the owner of SIGMADESIGN over 25 years ago. Some obstacles I find exhilarating, and some keep me up at night. When you own a business, you can’t predict all that you will face as you tackle every aspect of growing a business, but you can learn from your mistakes and share what you learn to help others grow.
Individuals sometimes ask if I miss being an Engineer. Although I am no longer doing mechanical design, I still design the organization; I solve organizational problems. Owning and operating a business as it develops and grows presents many interesting organizational problems. For reference, in 1997 there were 4 employees working at SIGMADESIGN, and today there are over 380. With growth comes a variety of things to deal with such as buildings, leaking roofs, electrical issues, remodeling, security, computer configurations and upgrades, machines, tools, calibrations, insurance, human resources, training, social events, a global pandemic, and more! Some of these I knew would come with the territory; others were a surprise to me. From my perspective, the challenges of growing a business fall into 3 main categories: Facilities, Systems, and People.
Not surprisingly, you have to manage a range of facilities with a business that provides design through manufacturing services. There are so many moving parts to owning and leasing buildings – not to mention contracts, upkeep, and modifications. SIGMADESIGN began in a garage of course! Then we progressed through several spaces in downtown Vancouver, WA before expanding to our headquarters in Camas. Currently, we occupy our HQ in Camas, two additional facilities in Vancouver, and offices in Seattle, Pasadena, and Singapore.
The former Vancouver HQ, which is now dedicated to our Test Lab Services, was a big remodel undertaking. That remodel project won a community award. The Camas HQ was an even bigger remodel project; we gutted the entire 57,000 ft2 building and made it a place where people want to come to work. I learned from this experience that if you have the right people in place, you can tackle big projects. A complete remodel can seem overwhelming at first. But, by breaking down the project into smaller parts and creating a plan, you can assign team members to handle various segments. The result is a project that is achievable and one that your team feels good about accomplishing together.
Putting organizational systems, departments, and policies in place may not be the most exciting part of business, but in the long run, this structure makes it easier for employees to complete their work and provides a safe work environment in which to do so. It’s always a constant battle between a free and agile culture and one that follows more structure and processes. Learning how to meld agility with process has helped us grow. It has also helped us acquire new clients whose products must be built consistently and with high quality standards.
Understanding when to let go is part of developing new systems and policies. I always had what I call the “Bigger than Bill Goal” in mind. Initially, I had my hand in everything and I could do all the jobs at SIGMADESIGN. Now, I can’t possibly do that! We have so many specialties that I don’t know how to do. I knew that I had to let go of things in order for the company to grow.
By giving someone else the authority to develop a new department or system that improves the company and by giving these individuals the guidance they need, these leaders can make the right decisions for the company. As we’ve grown, some significant departments developed including operations, inventory control, and customer service, just to name a few. It is a thrill to watch existing employees grow and thrive in new roles. It’s also great to watch new employees, with outside experience, adapt and add to our culture and organization!
A critical and necessary department that enables our work is IT. This dedicated group maintains many of the business systems the company is dependent on. It’s not only the computers, of which 20% must be replaced at least every 5 years. Additionally, there are continuous upgrades and new requirements. This team addresses databases, cameras, security, badge access, server access and updates, VPNs, connections between our locations, and so much more. We were lucky to have our fantastic IT department at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. They already had technology systems in place that enabled us to switch to remote work without skipping a beat. Investment in technology systems is incredibly expensive and incredibly important to the success of our business.
I’m a very social person, so this is my favorite part. One of the hardest but most rewarding challenges of growing a business is building a team that creates success. The COVID-19 pandemic caused a lot of anxiety. Constant decisions and changes were needed to keep people safe. Prior to the pandemic, we put a lot of effort into establishing the culture of our company. We’ve also invested in hiring practices that result in a great team. All of this enables trust that strengthens the company; you have to be able to trust people for a business to run effectively. We’ve continued to invest in our culture and people to ensure that as SIGMADESIGN grows, we maintain an extraordinary work environment.
Maintaining a great group of employees takes a substantial amount of coordination and training. Having a great staff means you can count on their help in any situation. When the last snow event happened, I was amazed at how the team helped with shoveling snow. There are so many examples of employees going outside of their job description to step up and help. It’s obvious to me that empowering a great team is critical to the success of a company.
Overall, I didn’t imagine the complexity and resources it would take to get things done as we grow. The magnitude of dealing with all the complicated parts that fit together to make products is sometimes staggering. As someone that started out doing everything from engineering, to maintenance and cleaning, to managing people, all of the complexities of growth are both fun and challenging. Sometimes I wish I still had time to design and make something. Yet, it is very satisfying to create an organization and owning a business gives me great pride. And while it doesn’t feel small (a small business is defined as an enterprise with fewer than 500 employees) I am proud to be contributing to the American workforce and employ great people.
Best to you all,