Relentless Lori Blaker Takes Her Family Business Global
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Welcome to another edition of StartupNation Radio, where we discuss how making it to the top of a family business is harder than you think.
There are some who say that you’ve got it made when your family owns a business. Your career will be a cake-walk. Our guest Lori Blaker, CEO of TTi Global, had quite the opposite experience. But nothing would stop her as she inherited the leadership role from the prior generation and grew TTi Global to a super startup with a global footprint.
Family businesses like Blaker’s are responsible for approximately 50 percent of the U.S. Gross National Product (GNP) and make up about 90 percent of all U.S. small businesses. Blaker knows as much about growing a family business as anyone. Anything but ordinary in the automotive industry, Blaker’s rise from second generation worker-bee to company CEO and visionary is filled with inspiring triumphs, calculated risks, big wins and riding the tide of globalization. Blaker’s game-changing strategic moves have elevated TTi Global, once an old school Motor City business, to a true leader in its field of staffing, training and learning products for personnel in the automotive industry.
Her father, John Brzezinski, started the company in 1976 and Blaker became his first employee. She spent countless hours typing service manuals for the automotive industry while learning as much as she could about the business, all the while thinking of ways to make the business bigger and better.
As the company grew, Blaker made it a point to work in every department so she could understand the inner-workings of the business. When she landed in the accounting department, she took it from a manual process to an automated one. It was then that her dad first noticed she truly had a knack for business. However, he didn’t make it easy for her, as Blaker had to prove herself at every turn.
In retrospect, her dad was trying to do two things: First, he wanted to make her as tough and prepared as she could possibly be. Second, by forcing her to earn her advancement, it demonstrated to the rest of the team that she was the real deal, not just an entitled family shoe-in.
Listen in to the dramatic turn of events when Blaker assumed the leadership of the company and how she propelled the business to Europe and Asia and over $100 million in revenue.
Key takeaways from this show include:
- Earn your role. If you’re in a family business and you want to move into a leadership role, know that the bar may be set higher for you than non-family employees at the company. Even if it’s not, you should always show your fellow employees that you’re willing to work the hardest and smartest to get to the top. This way you have a shot to replace the jealousy that sometimes comes from non-family members with respect and good vibes all around.
- Be prepared. Every time you take a meeting, be sure to prepare as much as possible. This will ensure your best outcome from the meeting, enhance your company’s brand and your personal brand, and to be frank, give you peace of mind while you deal with all of the other sources of stress that exist for entrepreneurs.
- Listen to learn. If you really want to have command of your business and be positioned to take advantage of all opportunities, you have to listen to your customers’ needs and identify their pain points. Listen more than you talk.
- Think globally: You may find that the bigger opportunity for your business is actually over the horizon and beyond the U.S. shores. And, in this up today, down tomorrow economy, being able to draw on your revenue from other markets that might buoy your company during domestic downturns could be a huge stabilizing force for your business.
- Spend more time with customers: Make sure that you go out to your customers and sit with them to pull insights from them. Being attuned to their needs and not just assuming you know what’s best for them will always tighten up your business offering.
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JEFF: It is indeed time for StartupNation Radio, this show brought to you by Comerica Bank. We’ve got the Sloan Brothers in studio, and we’ve got an amazing story; someone who took a job, actually was the first employee at the family business and ended up becoming the leader of that business.
RICH: You can’t deny stars.
JEFF: And stars emerge, don’t they?
RICH: Yeah, they do. We’re going to talk to one on today’s show.
JEFF: We’re going to talk to a star, we’re going to learn her story, and we’re going to hear how she did it, how she made it happen. Maybe you can too. Stick with us on this edition of StartupNation Radio.
JEFF: Okay, welcome to a very cool edition of StartupNation Radio. Our listeners, Rich, and Rich Sloan—and I’m Jeff Sloan. Listen, our listeners love hearing great stories. They love the human interest part of this course. Everyone tunes in, they get some tips and nuggets that they can apply to realizing their own entrepreneurial dreams but it’s really great when it comes to an inspiring story, and we got one today!
RICH: We sure do, Jeff. You and I have been entrepreneurs all of our lives. We love this stuff. And part of what makes us so excited about the life of entrepreneurship is when we get to spend times with our peers who are living it also and who have these amazing stories of emerging and rising and triumphing, that’s what we’re doing today here.
JEFF: Right. We’re going to talk in particular about someone who rose through the ranks in a family business. Now, on the one hand, the knee jerk reaction might be, oh that’s easier than starting a business of your own. But I’m telling ya, making it through a family business can be particularly tough.
RICH: Yeah. That’s a complicated environment, it requires a whole set of skills.
JEFF: It is indeed, and we’re going to hear it from somebody who took it from the first employee all the way to the top. And without further ado, Rich, we’re going to bring on Lori Blaker. Welcome to StartupNation Radio.
LORI: Thanks for having me.
JEFF: So you were the first employee at your father’s business. First of all, tell us about the business, and tell us about your first “job” at your father’s company. What was your title? Haha, right?
LORI: Proof and editor. That’s what I did, proof and editing.
JEFF: Tell us a little bit about the company and about your dad’s vision for it and how it came to be that you joined the company.
LORI: Sure, my dad originally started– electrical engineer in the aerospace industry but he always wanted to have his own business, serial entrepreneur, and he had tried a number of small startups that didn’t work out and actually he started writing service manuals for the automotive industry because that’s when electronics were really starting to hit the industry back in the late 70s, early 80s. And he actually started writing service manuals to pay the bills because he was unemployed because his latest startup had flopped.
JEFF: Clearly he wasn’t a StartupNation Radio listener, that would not have happened.
LORI: Were you guys around back then? I don’t know.
JEFF: I don’t know. By the way, so when was this, roughly?
JEFF: I was a wee lad. So he was writing his manuals and Lori, given that you said your title was editor, he brought you on at some point to make sure—
LORI: And that was before computers. I typed thousands and thousands of pages of service manuals, automotive technical manuals every year, and then I had to proof and edit and that was like I said, before computers, remember you had the little tape you’d have to go back and forth and correct your errors and it was just a painful, painful process. I would like to say that I was my dad’s first paid slave laborer.
JEFF: Ahh, and how old were you at the point that you joined the company?
JEFF: 21. Fresh out of college?
LORI: Well I hadn’t finished college. I had been going to OU, Oakland University, and I had gotten married and I had just had the birth of my first son and my dad needed help and he said ring the baby along, you can type while watching the baby at the same time. It was a good situation for both of us.
RICH: Now, Jeff, for our listeners, I just want to make sure that you can appreciate that this is a serious success story and we are absolutely going to continue to talk about the path that Lori was on here, but the company today, TTi Global, it’s over 100 million dollar company and it’s run by and envisioned/headed by Lori. So this is a major enterprise that emerged from these beginnings.
JEFF: Were you entrepreneurial when you were younger? Did you do the lemonade stand or anything else?
LORI: Oh gosh, yeah. I was the most sought out after babysitter in the neighborhood. I think I started work when I was 11.
JEFF: So you had this work ethic in you, and when I say entrepreneurial, did you—it’s not always about making money—did you want to go out there and start a business of your own?
LORI: Well yeah, it’s about drive and determination and wanting to accomplish something. That was the most important aspect of it. I really wanted to try and build something and feel that sense of accomplishment. It wasn’t so much the money, it was just the drive to build and the drive to see that vision come to life.
JEFF: Just to really gauge how much of an entrepreneur you were, when you were 12, did you read Donald Trump’s first book, The Art of the Deal?
LORI: No, I was probably too busy babysitting and making money, hahaha!
RICH: You know what actually, that right there is a great comeback because the point is, she was doing it. She wasn’t reading about it. She took action as a little kid.
JEFF: Well, speaking of taking action, there must’ve also been a moment where you went from taking a job to edit the material to sing, I can be and I want to be, you know, in the leadership of this company. I want to take it further. I mean something happened to go from “I’m going to help my dad and I’m going to get paid some income for doing this job” to grabbing the bull by the horns and taking it to the next level. Do you remember was there a moment of epiphany? What was the catalytic moment?
LORI: The company started to grow, we’re talking a small business here, and we had a handful of employees and I would see what—the other employees were doing and I would take a look at that, there’s no reason I can’t do that. And I made a point to learn other than the technical side of the business, actually understanding the vehicle system, I never got to that level, but all the different aspects of running the business, organizing the business, and how the work got done, I made a point to work through every single one of those operations so that I understood it and I could do it myself.
And then it got to the point where, well, I understand the various aspects of how this business runs, why can’t I step into a management role? And so I basically took over the accounting department for the organization. We were still doing all manual accounting work and I took us electronic, so that was probably the first time that my dad looked at me and said, okay, maybe she’s got some ability here.
JEFF: Okay, stop right there because we’re going to go out to a commercial break. We want to pick the story up from there and we want to learn some of the steps you took, how the vision was formed, and what you did to execute the vision in order to take this business to the next level, because it’s fair to say you certainly took it to the next level, isn’t it?
LORI: Oh, for sure.
JEFF: For sure. It is indeed and that’s why you’re on StartupNation Radio, and that’s why you’re listening, so stick with us, we’re going to be back with more Lori Blaker and her amazing story right after this break.
JEFF: Alright, welcome back to StartupNation Radio, brought to you by Comerica Bank, you’ve got the Sloan brothers in studio, you’ve got Lori Blaker as our guest on this show. We’re hearing about her amazing trajectory from 21 year old first employee at her father’s company to company leader and growing at internationally and significantly by any measure and Lori, you were telling us about the fact that you joined your father’s company, you’re starting to talk about how you went from being in a first job position to taking the helm of the company.
Tell us, so you were creating manuals. Tell us what the business was again, the outset of the next segment so people understand what the business is?
LORI: At the unsought, obviously the business is morphed considerably since then. When my dad was running the business, we were providing all the technical writing and development services for the automotive repair manuals for the company at the time. So we would analyze the vehicle systems and write the repair procedures for those manuals.
JEFF: Now, continuing on this path, this accelerated path that you were on to take the leadership role of the company ultimately, you mentioned where there was a moment your father started to recognize you had something. What you were about to say was he started to support the advancement of your career. Before we get to that, there must’ve been a moment when you realized it too and I think more interestingly, I want to try to draw out a few. Was there a moment where you said, you know what I think this company can be more and I think I can be the one to make it more.
Did you start to set yourself up on a path or was it just happening organically because you were there working hard, you had the natural ability, and your father recognized it, or did you say to yourself, “I’m now headed down this path.”
LORI: I had to have it out with my father at one point. We had increased our—we were writing service manuals, then we were approached by a customer to actually provide trainers, technical instructors, to go out and train dealership technicians on vehicle systems and how to repair them. So that was a whole separate business line.
RICH: That’s called opportunity comes knocking.
LORI: Exactly. My dad uncovered it and got it launched but it wasn’t really going anywhere and I could see that from the numbers… I could see it wasn’t really growing, so I kind of stepped in and took a look at what was going on and without evening asking, just started digging in, contacting customers, contacting trainers, asking what they were doing, did they need any more support, was there something else that we could be providing that would make them more successful because obviously the more training they did, the more revenue we would generate. I just basically took over that whole division and it just started flourishing and growing.
It just took off. It was great. And that—I worked at that for a couple years and it was very successful, very profitable, but I was looking and you know my dad still wasn’t really noticing what it was I was doing and how I was doing it and I was working so hard at that time, it was just crazy. And I look around one day and I thought, you know what I can do a whole heck of a lot more than just this and he’s not giving me the opportunities.
So one day I walked in and handed my dad my letter of resignation. I said, “I’m leaving.” He looked at me, obviously surprised, shocked.
RICH: Did you mean it, Lori? This was it. This wasn’t a way to get his attention.
LORI: Yep, I’m not going to get anywhere, other people are getting promoted into more exciting opportunities and here I’m sitting. And I knew that I would have to strike out on my own if things didn’t change. So I wouldn’t—
RICH: Plus, you had all the savings from your lemonade stand when you were 11, so.
LORI: Haha! I didn’t know what I was going to do, but I was fed up. I guess I was hoping that things would go my way. But anyway, I went in and I handed my letter of resignation and he looked at me, says, “why would you want to do that?” I looked at my father, because I said, “you know what, because I’m never going to get anywhere in this company.” And he looked back at me and said, “well what is it you want to do?” And I looked at my dad, I looked at him straight in the eye, and I said, “I want your job.”
JEFF: How long had you been at the company at that point?
RICH: This is like that money, Jeff, in the movie Braveheart, when Longshanks, down the king of England, says if he could take that one castle, he could take the entire north. And your father at this moment must’ve been saying Lori, wow. This is a force to be reckoned with.
LORI: Yeah, he sat back in his seat and he looked shock. And mind you I’m like the only female in this whole management group of all males and me.
JEFF: And you’re working in a male dominated industry.
RICH: I can just picture it, you know, people smoking in the office, yeah, exactly.
LORI: It was crazy. So he sat back and said, “okay, well,” he said, “you know, we can work on this. But you’re going to have to prove yourself.” And I said, “well, I’m not worried about that. That’s the least of my worries. I’m the hardest worker you have here.” At that time, I mean I would go home and get the kids settled and go back to work at night because you couldn’t work remotely back then. Work till 1, 2 o’clock in the morning. So that didn’t scare me.
But he was always a tough—
RICH: Let me ask you a question about that. I want to really understand who you are and what made you tick and what made this happen. You went back to work at one, two in the morning, but at that point, up till the point where you said you wanted to take the leadership role of the company, you were technically just an employee, right?
LORI: Unofficially. I was running the training division.
RICH: Right, but you weren’t the owner of the company and you certainly weren’t the leader of the company. You didn’t have control over it; you didn’t have ownership over it. It was your family business so there was that going on. There was—I mean some of it was your emotional attachment to your family business, I’m sure.
LORI: Of course.
RICH: But more than that. You had an amazing natural work ethic, didn’t you, that separated you from the pack?
LORI: Of course, and I wasn’t going to fail and I was going to make that division the best it possibly could and a star of the organization. You just don’t give up. It’s that drive, that determination, I keep referring to. I loved what I did. I loved interacting with the customers; I loved interacting with the employees. I loved everything about what I did.
RICH: Right, so let’s establish this. You’ve would been that way if you had been at any other company at that point in your career, right?
RICH: That’s the way Lori operates, that’s the point I’m getting at.
JEFF: She sets the standard.
RICH: Right, so your dad says to you, “okay, we can work on this.” What happens?
LORI: Right. So I thought he was tough before then. Oh, he just like was unbelievably hard on me afterwards. This was like probably 1990. And I mean he questioned every decision I made. I—you know, everything I did, he scrutinized, he was tough, he was really tough. In fact there was one day, I think I put up with it for about eight, nine months, and I walked into the office one morning, just beat. Walked in the front door, didn’t even have my coat off. Every morning, he would grill me on what I did the day before, why I did what I did, blah, blah, blah, question everything. And I looked at him and said, “you know what, you could at least have the common decency to wait until I’ve got my coat off and had a cup of coffee before you start into me every morning.” I said, “this is getting a little ridiculous.” I turned around and I walked away and then I wouldn’t talk to him for the whole rest of the day. He felt so bad, I think I finally got the point home.
JEFF: Where do you think he was coming from? He didn’t want you to have the role? He was toughening you up? You think he was testing you?
LORI: I think it was a combination. Trying to make me as tough as he possibly could and secondly because I was a family member and I was the only family member other than him in a senior role, he wanted to make sure I was the best I could be.
RICH: How many employees were at the company at the time?
RICH: So even a team of twenty—
LORI: Two or three million dollars in revenue.
RICH: Yeah, so he probably had pressures on him. There were probably others that thought they might be on the succession or plane of the leadership plan, here you come in, a family member, and you know, you get the preferential treatment, right, you get the silver spoon. But not really the case, but he had to be careful of appearances; he had to keep the team motivated.
RICH: And so on. Now, at this point we’ve got a company where you’re about the take the leadership role. You’ve got two to three million in sales, you’ve got 20 employees.
JEFF: How many countries are you in today?
RICH: 24 countries, revenues of–?
LORI: Approximately 100 million.
RICH: 100 million, okay, and the year at the point of time that you took over.
LORI: The end of 1991. Officially.
RICH: So we’ve gone from two to three million, 20 employees, ’91, all the way to where we are today. We’re going to hear how you did that when we come back from this break. Stick with us on StartupNation Radio.
JEFF: Okay, welcome back to StartupNation Radio. In the midst of an amazing interview, Rich, as we said before. We love learning about entrepreneurship. We love learning about how to do what it is that needs to be done in order to be successful but it’s always great learning about it through an amazing story.
RICH: An inspiring story.
JEFF: And we’ve got that with Lori Blaker who had moved along, took her first job at her father’s company, moved up in the ranks. She was the hardest working by her own qualification, the hardest working employee at the company, proved herself, got past her father’s wrath, got toughened up, got ready to go, took over the leadership position and went from two to three million sales, 20 employees in 1991 to an amazing international company.
RICH: 100 million in sales, plus. For our listeners, if you want to find out more about Lori’s story or something you heard about last week or want to know what’s coming up, even, post a question, get in touch with us, recommend another business, go to startup nation.com, click on the radio tab, and right there you’ll be able to find more information about this show and interact with us there. We really want you to do that. This is a StartupNation filled with you, and you are the entrepreneurs we want to help, so make sure you jump in there. But, Jeff, back to Lori Blaker and TTi Global.
JEFF: And amazing things about this, Rich. This is a story that has many elements in it. An element of how you can grow and succeed in a family business where many people think you might have a leg up, the standard can be higher. This is a woman who is in the operating company in the auto industry, in the early 90s and so on when you know—
RICH: Different environment.
JEFF: For a woman to have a leadership role in the company, amongst the good old boys that lead the balance of the companies, the majority of the companies in this space. And to take the company and to take it global and international as she did is amazing. So Lori, welcome back to StartupNation Radio. We’re hanging on bated breath now, we’re going to learn—
RICH: There you were.
LORI: It gets more exciting, let me tell you.
RICH: So there you were in the early 90s. You assumed the helm of the company, you were in the neighborhood of three million in revenue in the neighborhood of 12 million employees or so, but today the company is much bigger. Connect the dots for us.
LORI: Sure. At the end of the 1991 when I took over running the training division, there was actually still was the service manual division and there was a non-family member heading up that division. So basically in a way, my dad kind of pitted us up against each other; he didn’t but he did. My division was moving along very successfully and the other division wasn’t. And at the end of 1991, it was December, my mom and dad decided to head to Florida for a whole winter.
And I think that was my dad’s test to see how we did without him at the helm for extended periods of time. My division continued to grow, I was adding different types of services, we started designing and developing training programs, not just providing instructors, so we were growing, I was adding new customers to the base. My division was moving along and the other division was still pretty stagnant, was losing money. So my dad came back and early April of 1992, came back from Florida and he was home three days and he died suddenly.
So he was only 56 years old, so, it was kind of a shock.
JEFF: I would imagine there’s a picture on the wall of him right behind you.
LORI: There is, was actually in the lobby because I want everybody that comes in to see. He’s right by the front of the building where everybody walks in.
JEFF: That’s obviously tragic and unsettling and shocking and sad and all the things that go with that, emotionally and it can be destabilizing in many ways. Now there you were. You know, and I mean—
RICH: It’s interesting, Jeff, in family businesses this whole concept of succession planning is a really big deal. How do you pass it onto the next generation? It wasn’t really by his design, but frankly by Lori’s ambition and capability that he actually had a succession plan in place.
JEFF: I’m sure among the many other emotions you were feeling at that time, you were probably also feeling, I better—I need to be careful what I wish for because now here I am. You didn’t have the opportunity to continue that organic growth, you all of a sudden, it was tossed in your lap. Did you feel at that moment, I’ve got this, or did you feel, oh my god?
RICH: You’re saying, did you freak out?
LORI: Both. Obviously I was very confident in what I was doing, but then he died so suddenly it was like, when I was in my early 30s, at that point you know everything about everything and you know, and suddenly he had died and we had just gotten a small business loan to build our—the building that we were housed in and you know we had that line of credit and we didn’t know how the bank was going to react to him passing away so suddenly and… you know, at times at night laying in bed I was scared to death. I thought oh my gosh, how am I ever going to do this? But I’d get up every morning and focus and I knew what I needed to do. But it still, it was intimidating to begin with.
JEFF: Before your father passed away, if someone had stopped him and said, do you have a successful business, how would he have answered the question?
LORI: I would say, we had challenges because the service manual business was not doing well at all but my business was doing so well it was covering that and more. He knew we had challenges but I would say he would’ve said that he was doing well. Obviously he went away to Florida, and that was one of the things I guess at that point I didn’t understand why he was doing that because he had a division that wasn’t doing well. I would’ve stayed.
JEFF: Overall, he must’ve felt a relatively good measure of success. He must’ve felt he had achieved something and he had kind of gotten there.
LORI: I think going to Florida prove that.
JEFF: Now let me ask you the same question. At that same time, unbeknownst—if you didn’t know that someone had asked your dad that question, what his answer was, someone came to you and asked, is your family’s business successful? Forget your public facing answer, in your own mind did you feel you were successful at the time?
JEFF: No. And I knew those were going to be the answers. And that really—that’s right, because that’s the thing: you had a bigger vision. You believed you could do more and I think that’s common in a lot of these family businesses. Let me say it differently. In the success stories, the big success stories, that’s kind of what happens. One family member takes it as far as they can take it, they feel good about where they’ve landed and the successor comes along and has a bigger vision, is able to build on that platform.
RICH: I think you’re describing something bigger than family businesses as a phenomenon. There’s certain programming in entrepreneurs, take it to the next level. You always have a moving target of being able to move bigger and more.
JEFF: That’s a good point. Yep, and so you took the foundation and took what he would qualify as a success and because of your own expectations of yourself and the business you were able to take it further. He must’ve had to start with a vision. I mean, did you have, at some point, a vision of significant growth? Or were you just trying to write that division that wasn’t performing very well? Was it more minutia, more myopic, smaller focus, addressing the issues, or did you start to formulate, you know, here is where I can go with this in a bigger vision kind of way.
LORI: That’s what I had, with the bigger vision. We had been working with a few of our customers and they had international training operations and I had begun sending trainers and developing programs for overseas markets. And at that time we were working quite a bit with Ford because they were getting ready to establish their presence in China so they had been a number of fleet deals, sending a thousand vehicles over for city taxis, things like that, and we would send people over to do the training and train the technicians and how to repair and maintain these vehicles. I had already gotten a taste of global operations and I could just see that that’s where opportunity was for us.
Because there were so few companies that could do that. You know, that could locate the appropriate people and send them to the markets and have that connection with the local markets and be able to design the markets—you know the local division. I could see that was the future and at one point I went over to China so I could take a look at the lay of the land, so to speak, because Ford was really starting to get active there and we knew they were going to at some point be establishing a rep office there. I went over and at that time there were still thousands and thousands of bicycles in the streets, but you could see—and you just know it was going to turn. And it was a wide open market.
JEFF: Let me stop you there. How important was the relationship that you had with your customer Ford?
LORI: That relationship was key. We had a couple other customers at that point that were key, but Ford was key because they had significant growth plans in the Asia-Pacific in the early 90s.
JEFF: What I find really interesting, now you’ve got division, you’ve got some validation, you feel like you’re heading in a direction that’s got real merit, you’re getting excited at this point, it’s not just about attending the minutia or helping a division that isn’t growing very well. Now you’re heading somewhere and you see the light.
We’re going to find out how you take it from having the vision to making it happen. We have one segment left, let’s make good use of it. Great story, we’re coming back with more with Lori Blaker and her amazing story on StartupNation Radio. Stick with us.
JEFF: Alright, welcome back to StartupNation Radio. I don’t want to waste a second of our time. We’re going to call out our sponsors—Comerica—
RICH: You usually do, by the way.
JEFF: There’s a little more air, a little more time to chat.
RICH: Yeah, a little more air over there.
JEFF: Yeah, but no room for any of that on this show. We’ve got a great story right in the middle of it. We’re about to hear how Lori Blaker, who realized a vision for her family business now makes that vision happen. Lori, what were some of the key steps now, now that you had this vision, you were on a path, what were some of the key things you did when you look back on it, the key moves, to take a company from two to three million in sales to over 100 million and 24 countries.
LORI: I think our global expansion was significant, not only for growth and development of the company around the world and additional revenue and whatever, but it actually insulated us during the big automotive downturn in 2009, ’10, and ’11. We had some of our best years in that time which was unheard of for an automotive supplier. Taking a look at how we went global—it took a lot of research, it took a lot of digging. It was important that every new market we went into, you would find key individuals, as far as accounting, legal advice, and you had to do your homework and study the currency laws and transfer requirements.
And it took an enormous amount of networking. And not just meeting with lawyers or accountants but going to industry events in that local market and talking to the people that are there, that are working there every day.
JEFF: Every market is different, Lori. You’ve got to weave into the culture, talk the local talk, work with people the way that they work.
LORI: The first market we went into, I actually hired a big expensive law firm, to help us do the incorporation and set up the accounting systems and make sure we were complaint with the employment laws. And so I watched every single step that they took and it cost us, you know, a significant amount of money to get through the corporation but I learned so much and so when we went to our next new market which I believe was Thailand, I was able to do that on my own with support from local legals, counsel—
JEFF: She’s a fighter.
RICH: The nerve!
LORI: And for a fraction of the cost.
RICH: Of course, fraction of the cost, and getting it down faster because your team is working until 1 a.m.
LORI: Exactly, we worked 24 hours a day then, haha!
RICH: As the company stands today, what percentage of your business—call it 100 million dollars of revenue, what percentage of your business is generated for international versus domestic US revenue?
LORI: Between 60 and 70 percent now.
LORI: It is international.
RICH: Jeff, this is actually a huge thing. Back in the day, StartupNation flew three full 747s of people in a promotion with British Airways over to the UK to learn about opportunities globally for their businesses and it was really a huge wakeup call for small businesses in the U.S. who just think locally. There is no era like today’s era when the global business environment is available, especially for companies like yours, Lori, that have something that works in other markets. But the majority of her business and growth is beyond our shores. That’s just not the way most entrepreneurs think right now, and maybe we should be. Maybe a lot of us should be.
LORI: It’s not just a market or a region, how do you think globally and how do you utilize that for your benefits. Right now I have got teams, web design and develop training programs. I’ve got a team in the US, I’ve got a team in the UK, I’ve got a team in India. We can work 24 hours a day now on design and development and course materials because I have a global team. You just have to look differently at the way you’re running your business. It’s not a U.S.-centric business, it’s a global business.
You have to pull yourself out of the little niche you’re in and look at things all over the world. So it’s not a US business, it’s a global business. And it’s hard to express that but I look at one big business, not pieces of business.
RICH: Excellent. I want to take a little bit of a left hand turn here and talk about a different aspect that perhaps you can comment and provide advice on, but as Jeff referred to a little bit earlier on this program, you navigated through a very male dominated space to lead this company as a woman. And there are maybe other women entrepreneurs who are listening to this show who are looking for some inspiration. Any special advice to be a woman entrepreneur and to nail it like you have?
LORI: I think you have to have a really tough skin. You can’t let comments bother you because obviously that happens frequently. You know, people aren’t always nice. Those first huge projects, I wanted a major OEM—as I was walking out of the building, I heard someone make a very derogatory comment about how I had gotten the business. At the time it really hurt because I worked my tail off to get the business and won fair and square. It was like a knock in the stomach but I just told myself at that point it didn’t matter, it doesn’t matter what anyone else thinks, you have to focus, you have to play hard, you have to play fair, and I found that as I went into meetings, you know with the OEM companies, I had to be on top of my game. I had to do my research, I had to make sure I understood every facet of not only their business, but my business.
RICH: What you’re saying Lori, is you actually had to be better than them. You had to be the smartest person in the room.
JEFF: At least she felt she did. The reality she didn’t—
RICH: You know what, Jeff, there is nothing like being the most prepared person in the room, male or female.
JEFF: You can say it that way, you can say it another way. Results speak for themselves.
LORI: I wouldn’t necessarily say the smartest but the most prepared. Another important thing was I listened to everyone. I let them talk more than I—I would ask a thousand questions. And that’s how I would learn, what would their business challenges were, where were their pain points? That’s where you spot opportunity. I ask, whenever I go into a meeting, I ask a thousand questions and I let the customer, their team, talk, talk, talk, talk. And that’s how you learn. And you understand them. As people, you understand their business, and you learn to understand and figure out where their pain points are because when you can identify pain points, that’s an opportunity.
RICH: Boy, I’ll tell you, for anybody out there listening, let’s break this down. I love the tip, do more listening. People in general just don’t intuitively do that these days. Everyone feels the pressure to say something.
JEFF: That’s a huge epiphany for you, Rich.
RICH: You know what, I’m guilty, of course. I’m learning right along with everybody else on this show.
JEFF: It’s true! Listening is so important. And it’s a discipline.
RICH: It is.
JEFF: That’s great advice.
RICH: I want to make one comment here, Jeff. When we started talking about this topic of being a woman and what might be coined a man’s world and that extra bit of motivation, perhaps, that Lori was talking about where she wanted to show that, I am every bit as capable and good and will win business here, as any man would. There’s something about any source of extra motivation—you and I for example are from Flint, Michigan. You know what, it’s not a celebrated town by any means, but it makes me motivated to prove that some boys from that town can make good, you know?
Any extra source of motivation is valuable.
JEFF: Lori, we could go on and on and on. I wish we had five more hours. For those you out there listening, want to learn more about the story, go to StartupNation.com/Radio, there’s going to be more information there. We’d love to have you back. I want to ask you in closing this question: where you are today, 100 million dollars in sales, global company, 24 countries, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera—would you now say in your own mind that you are a success?
LORI: No. There’s always—haha!
JEFF: I knew that was going to be the answer, you’re an amazing entrepreneur, you’re afflicted with the same disease that Rich and I are—it’s never good enough. But you know what? It drives you every day. That ambition is what gets you up in the morning. I love that Lori, and I know there’s several more 100 dollars in your future, I have no doubt about it. What an amazing story, very inspiring, we’re happy to share it with our audience. Thank you for sharing it, Lori.
LORI: Thanks for talking to me today. It’s great to share.
RICH: And congratulations because in our ways, in so many ways that go beyond business, you are a major success.
JEFF: Absolutely. Whether you want to say it or not, Lori, there’s no question about it. Thanks Lori. Alright, Rich, wow. There’s some learning to do there. We say StartupNation is all about getting the information and getting the inspiration. People need to start their own business to make it a success. Great show on StartupNation Radio.
RICH: I hope our listeners between this week and next week use that inspiration and get out there and start it up!