Carol O'Kelley | Crain's Atlanta

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Carol O'Kelley

Background:  

Salesfusion automates and streamlines marketing functions for small and medium-sized businesses.

The Mistake:

I’ve had the opportunity twice in my career, once when I was in an operations role and once when I was a chief marketing officer, to be involved in a corporate strategy project where we were really looking at the business strategy of the company. We all went around the table and nodded and swore our allegiance to a certain approach, and every time that it came to the decision of what businesses we were going to de-emphasize or edit, we came to a grinding halt. In spite of the upper level of commitment that we had going into it, someone’s resolve would weaken.

There were different reasons: somebody could just be a really passionate believer in a particular business and wanted to support the future of that business. There could also be a personal commitment or emotional tie to a business that’s been acquired or a longstanding part of the company.

Where I’ve seen those types of strategic planning projects fall apart is the point where everyone does a great job of getting excited about all the new things you’re going to do and where you’re going to double down [on a certain approach], but nobody’s willing to make the hard decisions and pull resources and pull back from a business. I think that’s a very dangerous place to be, especially for a small company like Salesfusion. We would be foolhardy to spread our resources like peanut butter, because it would mean that we’re mediocre at a lot of things, but it takes real discipline to say we’re going to be great at X.

Nobody’s willing to make the hard decisions and pull resources ...

The Lesson:

I am proud to say that thus far at Salesfusion we have heeded the lessons that I learned through those other experiences and have really been very disciplined about saying no and remaining focused on our core market. 

Specifically, we had to make hard choices about what we weren’t going to do, the businesses we weren’t going to be in. There were cases where there were geographies that didn’t make sense to enter, or product lines that we needed to exit, or industry segments that we shouldn’t be in. I found the decision for people to turn something off or to withdraw from a business was very, very difficult for most executives to make. I’ve seen multiple CEOs be unable to make [those choices]. The most interesting thing that I learned was that when you go through this process, it’s not about what you say yes to and what you’re going to do as a business. It is equally, if not more important, to understand all the things we’re saying no to.

I don’t think that I have struggled with this as much because I have heeded the lessons that I learned, and it was because of the particular perspective that I had on those two strategic planning exercises. The results didn’t sit well with me.

It's easy to think of it as backseat driving, because in those situations, I wasn’t the CEO. I tried to take that lesson to heart; now that I am the CEO and I am the one ultimately being held accountable for these types of decisions, I try to hold myself to that standard and say, “What would you tell yourself based on having gone through those other experiences?”

I understand the things that make it difficult to say no. For example, if you have a business that is generating revenue but isn’t growing, it’s easy to tell yourself, “At least it’s generating revenue.” Who doesn’t like revenue? Revenue is a good thing! It’s hard to quantify the cost of distraction. It’s hard to quantify the cost of maintaining a business that’s declining, and it’s hard to know the point at which you’re throwing good money after bad.

Now that I’m in this job, I appreciate what makes it difficult for people to make those choices, but I also want to get this right. Because I feel such a strong affinity for the folks in our target market and for the other marketers out there that I want to have a seat at the table, I really feel like I’m a steward of this business and of this platform. Because of that, I want to make good and sound decisions so that I can honor the opportunity I have to serve my fellow marketers. 

Follow Salesfusion on Twitter at @Salesfusion

Do you have a good story you’d like to share, or know someone we should feature? Email jfisher@crain.com.

And be sure to sign up for your local newsletter from Crain's Atlanta.