On this week’s episode of Atlanta Small Business Profile, Ted Jenkin welcomes Lee Heisman, CEO of Atlanta based IT company, Savant. Ted and Lee discuss the services an IT company provides, what it takes to launch and flourish a service-based business, and the biggest mistake Lee believes entrepreneurs make when starting their business.
Ted Jenkin: Hey, I’m Ted Jenkin, small business expert for ASBN, doing our interview today with Lee Heisman who is the CEO of Savant, and Lee, thanks for coming on the program today.
Lee Heisman: Thank you Ted, absolutely.
Ted Jenkin: So I know that you run a big IT services firm here in Atlanta. How did you even get into the IT services business?
Lee Heisman: Sure. So you know, many years ago, I had a different business and I grew that business to about 120 employees, down in Marietta, Georgia. I actually outsourced my IT services then and for nearly more than a decade, I outsourced my IT services and I knew everything I didn’t like. I knew exactly what it was like being a customer and when I sold that business goodness, over 13 years ago, I said you know what, I can do it better than the way I was serviced. So I had a real passion for what I didn’t like and what I thought I could do better so I opened up Savant.
Ted Jenkin: So you actually had a business. You decided to exit a successful business and start at ground zero again. For the person that’s watching this at home, what’s it like to go back to ground zero and start a business from scratch again?
Lee Heisman: Well number one, it’s humbling because you’re doing everything yourself. But it’s also reinvigorating. Being from Philadelphia myself, you remember Rocky III. You know, he got very successful and he was fighting the robot in his living room and he lost I think to Clubber Lang, if I’m incorrect and they said you have to go back, you have to go back into the ground zero and then he went back into the ground zero and he ended up winning of course. But that’s what it felt like, it almost felt like Rocky to me.
Ted Jenkin: So a lot of people out there, hear this term of IT services. What do you actually do for clients day to day? What do you do as an IT services company?
Lee Heisman: Sure, you know Ted, that’s actually one of the most asked questions to me is people really don’t understand and I always analogize it to football. You know, I talk about the offensive line. You know, you don’t know the names of the offensive linemen in the NFL until there’s actually a problem or someone gets sacked. And you don’t exactly know, hey what do I pay my IT company for?
So we are really that technical firm for a company that’s getting larger and growing and is growing beyond their own capacity to manage their network. We do all of the behind the scenes work, the networking, the computer work, the servers, the cloud. We let our companies and our customers run their business. We let them make their widget, so that they could actually focus on that side of the business and let us worry about all the technical business.
Ted Jenkin: It must be nice to be able to just call somebody and say, “Hey, fix my computer, I have a problem,” and get back up to speed.
Lee Heisman: But that’s exactly what we do.
Ted Jenkin: So you’ve gotta find good technicians that are out there and obviously in today’s marketplace, like labor is tight. It’s tough to find really high quality people. How do you go about as a CEO of hiring the right kind of people to be in your business?
Lee Heisman: Sure, so any friends that are watching today and even you, I pride myself on being considerate, being courteous to people all the time. This is the one segment of my business that I become very, very selfish in, and I only go out and hire people that I like, that I get along with.
It just happens to be over the years that I’ve hired quality and amazing people that I enjoy being around, my customers and clients enjoy being around them as well. So it’s a very selfish move. I’m always looking for people that I tend to connect with.
Ted Jenkin: But it makes the company better right? People get together more often, they follow that common vision and I’ve heard this term before that culture eats strategy for lunch, and so at an IT services firm where you have 40 or 50 people that may be on a desk, how do you build that culture so people want to come to work every day?
Lee Heisman: Sure. Well you know it starts with what I just talked about. If I didn’t get along with all these people, if I didn’t work well with them, and they didn’t work well with each other, it wouldn’t work. I always say the analogy, you can’t make a great omelet with rotten eggs.
So it all starts with that employee and if those employees really fit with you as an owner and what your vision is and then the omelet just comes together beautifully afterwards.
Ted Jenkin: I like that analogy. So they say that the dream is free, but the hustle is sold separately and so for somebody at home that’s thinking about, hey, I want to be an entrepreneur. I actually want to run my own business one day. How do they do it beyond that dream? How do they actually do it? What do they need to know to be a successful entrepreneur because you being successful not just running one business, but two businesses now, how does somebody do that and get off the couch at home and get started?
Lee Heisman: It’s a great question and I’m sorry to bring our interview down a little notch or two. I will tell you that the grind is real, you’re exactly correct and the failure is even more real. You feel it every day and if you would evaluate your days and you evaluate your weeks, I fail more times than I succeed on a daily basis, on a weekly basis. I have to go back on a monthly, possibly even a quarterly basis to look and reflect back on hey, look at those little pieces of success that I’ve had.
So if I really look at it on a daily basis, and you need to walk away every single day from work feeling good, entrepreneurships not for you. But if you’re willing to put the grind in and realize, hey I might not feel good today, next week, maybe even next month, but I’m willing to wait for that moment of success, that moment of joy when I have a little more success, that then you can consider it, absolutely.
Ted Jenkin: So you have to remember out there, you have to be willing to be able to fail. That’s actually a key piece to be a successful entrepreneur.
A lot of people end up having ideas at home. This idea that they think could change the world or it could be a great business. But when you look at a business and you think about marketing or products or service. Which one of those components matter most to having a successfully run business?
Lee Heisman: Ah Ted that’s a good one as well. Great offerings of all my multiple choices there, but I’m gonna choose other and I’m gonna say, my employees 100%. I can always land clients, we always have opportunities, but as we talked about the employees and the culture, man those are my most valuable assets of my business, 100% my staff that surrounds me.
Now you still gotta pay the bills and you still have to get the clients of course. But the clients will come and go. The employees are the ones I feel, they’re the diamonds in the rough.
Ted Jenkin: I feel like for most business owners that I’ve met over time, that marketing or customer acquisition is really the hardest part of the business. That you can have a great product or a great service that you offer, but if you don’t have customers, it doesn’t work.
How do you go out and find customers or for somebody that’s thinking about starting a business, how could they find customers today for a business like yours, IT services?
Lee Heisman: Sure so you know for us, we’re again unique in this realm. We don’t do a lot of social media. Our business has been founded on keeping clients, not necessarily getting a lot of clients. We’re not a built sales machine, we’re a built support team.
So once we get a client, we rarely if ever lose that client. But it’s mostly word of mouth from our good clients that we’ve had. When someone is looking for a heart surgeon, they’re rarely looking online for a heart surgeon and we are the heart and blood and the heart and soul of our client’s offices.
So usually when something as intimate as looking for a technology solution, people are usually calling other business owners that they know, so it’s really word of mouth for us.
Ted Jenkin: So it’s really referrals you would say to people. Do a great job for the few customers that you have. Get them to get more customers for you, that’s really the best way still to market.
Lee Heisman: 100% and you know, we talk all the time over at KSU and I know we spend a lot of time over there, we’re on the board and I teach some classes at the Entrepreneurship Center and what we always talk about with the students over there is we consider ourselves a white glove service and the reality is, I don’t want to have everybody in the market. I just want to have the right customers that fit the model that I have.
Ted Jenkin: That’s right. So as an owner, you’re thinking every day about profit and whether, or not you’re losing money or making money and how to grow top line revenue. How do you take a step back and celebrate the victories, when you have a win, you acquire a great customer or your employees do extremely [inaudible 00:07:01]. How do you celebrate the victories as an owner of a company?
Lee Heisman: Sure, sure, so I think celebrating is most important with the ones that you love. And when we talk about our family, we talk about our work family, we always do it together as a company. So every summer we do a company event where it’s just the company themselves. Obviously we always have our holiday parties. But I’d say throughout the year, we do numbers of celebrations, not only with just our staff, but half of the events come with staff, their spouses and/or their significant others because most of the significant others at our office, the ones that are married to them or boyfriends or girlfriends, they’re missing their spouse half the time. So we feel that it’s really important for that family to be together.
Ted Jenkin: So a lot of people out there work nine to five jobs and a lot of people here, well entrepreneurship isn’t nine to five and so how do you put the balance with a family of work and personal and trying to have some degree or separation between those blurred lines?
Lee Heisman: Sure, so they’re not blurred to me. I don’t … People reference work life balance all the time. I’m gonna call it work life juggle.
Ted Jenkin: Work life juggle. [crosstalk 00:08:00]. Work life juggle.
Lee Heisman: Yeah, so you know there isn’t, I’m going just to this side, or I’m going to that side, you have to be very flexible of course. I say, you have to be liquid. So even with I’m with the family, if an emergency comes up, you need to be available. But if there isn’t an emergency, then you can focus on that. So it’s a constant juggle, it’s not exactly a balance in my opinion.
Ted Jenkin: What do you see being the biggest mistake that entrepreneurs make? New entrepreneurs start a business, obviously you’ve run, started two successful businesses. What’s the biggest mistake people make out there when it comes to becoming an entrepreneur?
Lee Heisman: Sure. So there’s a lot of them of course and as I said, I’m making them on a daily or even weekly basis. But I see a lot of new entrepreneurs create a different level of expectation Ted. Sometimes people think I’m starting a business. I have an amazing product or whatever service that I’m offering and they’re expecting people to just line up, instead of building that intimate relationship.
So my biggest piece of advice is today’s world of technology and emails and social media, they don’t take … People don’t take the time anymore to come in front of someone. They don’t take the time to either visit their office, get in the car and drive and spend some personal time, even if it’s five or ten minutes.
So one of the biggest mistakes is minimizing the intimacy and I feel you should make it more intimate by spending more personal time.
Ted Jenkin: Well we appreciate you coming on ASBN today and talking about your profile and you creating a business. One last question I wanted to ask you is, if you could be any street sign, what street sign would you be? If there was a street sign that was Lee Heisman, what street would you be?
Lee Heisman: Wow, that’s a good one, you caught me on that one. So I’ll run with yield.
Ted Jenkin: Yield, I like that.
Lee Heisman: Yeah, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve just turned 47 yesterday.
Ted Jenkin: Okay 47 young now as an entrepreneur.
Lee Heisman: 47 young and as I was younger, my street sign probably would’ve been the go, speeding, no question about it. But now I yield. I want to yield and really think about my decision before I leap off that bridge and move to the next stage of my career and into our business.
Ted Jenkin: Well thanks for coming on the program today, we appreciate it. Congratulations on all your success.
Lee Heisman: Thank you so much Ted, thank you.