The Million Dollar Company


Some say that the million dollar company is the least sustainable of all. Hmmm? In my experience, yes, it was a tricky time. After paying the rent and the equipment loans etc we could only afford so many staff. And the mix had to be producers, staff who could add to the billable hours that brought in the money.

It would be fair to say we were a volatile, erratic business, sometimes profitable, more often not. But we had big dreams. We were in a cul de sac where we needed to attract a big contract (or three) so we could afford to bring in someone who would only work at business development, finding and winning big contracts. Someone who would not build a single widget to add to the billable hours. We didn’t feel we could earn those bigger contracts because we were just a few, though eager and able, people. We knew that hiring this new ‘contract finder’ would mean that we carried their biggish salary, possibly, a long time. It was indeed a cul de sac. Round and round we squirmed.

One day, just like in the fairy tales, I had a crazy ahaaa. What if I found a big contract, that I figured we could not complete with present staff but had the knowledge and most of any equipment we would need? Bid anyway. Convince the reader of the bid response that indeed we could and were a viable contract choice. Once we had the problem of having too much paying work, well, that would be the best problem of all. Wouldn’t it? I went big. I found and bid and won a contract for $600,000 plus. Most would have agreed there was no way we could do it, but I said we could. It was like the one about what would the dog do if it ever caught the car it was chasing. Yuh, we caught the car. Yikes!

The staff were assembled in the boardroom. I had a chart drawn on the whiteboard. People on one axis, projects on the other, with the middle all blank. The chart as shown said that all projects are stopped and that all staff had been fired. It was an amazing moment as the team grappled to absorb what the empty chart might bring. Soon enough one person asked, ‘what does this mean?’. I explained that we had just won the massive contract. A collective, ‘oh wow’ combined with an ‘oh, oh’ swept the room.

After an appropriate moment of silence I told them all that they were fired. I then said we have all these jobs, the ones they knew about, and this elephant, that needed leadership and completion. I then invited them to ‘self select’ a solution. After about 20 to 30 seconds of silence, one person, a rather unlikely person, stood up and put his name as project leader for the new plum project. He stayed at the whiteboard and invited a particular person to lead the mechanical, another to lead the electronics and another to lead the software development. What followed was a barely controlled frenzy as the staff filled in the chart, took on responsibility, negotiated alliances, solved the matrix in the most elegant way. Wow, does not even come close to the feeling in the room when it was realised that all of the new work could be absorbed with only one addition, clearly defined now, to the staff.

We leapfrogged the million dollar dilemma. Within weeks we started to advertise for the ‘contract finder’. We were, after all an over $1.6 million company at that point.

Is this the only way to get past the $1 million dead zone? No. But it worked for me.

Joseph Seiler MCC