Get Out of Your Cave to Grow Your Business

Running a company is often lonely and isolating. And for entrepreneurs, isolation can be a huge impairment to growth. You spend so much time hunkering down and focusing on day to day management that you narrow your perspective and cut yourself off from potentially game-changing ideas. That's why it's so important to get out of your cave. Debra Ruh, the CEO of TecAccess in Rockville, MD, did exactly that last month in Shanghai, China. Dell, in partnership with Intel and Bloomberg LINK, invited her and 74 other women business owners worldwide to be part of the Dell Women's Entrepreneur Network. The group attended the World Expo in Shanghai, and Ruh says the trip "changed my life." By networking with other women business owners, she learned what she needed to do to take her company to the next level.
TecAccess, which has $2 million in sales and 16 employees, works with large tech companies like Dell to make sure that their technology and services are accessible to all users, including those with disabilities. Ruh, whose daughter is disabled, started the company as a passion project. But the company's growth has demanded that she adopt a more sophisticated approach to business - something she didn't really comprehend until her trip to Shanghai. Here's what she's now committed to doing differently:

Get serious about a board of directors. Ruh had let her advisory board die a natural death about a year ago. "I didn't use my board strategically," she says. "Too many of my board members were friends and there were some people on the board who were more vocal than others and they shut people out. I didn't realize there were 'board rules'." A panel discussion on boards in Shanghai made her realize that "I'd been doing a lot of things backward." She's now in the process of assembling a new advisory board with " successful men and women who have gone where I want to go." Her goal: to grow her company to $20 million and to franchise it.

Change the conversation with investors. "I think I had a little too much of a whiney tone," says Ruh, who is trying to raise $2-$3 million in growth capital for her company. "Something that I got from the seasoned women at the conference was that you really do have to put your big girl pants on. I felt guilty because I had debt. Women are always apologetic for not being good enough. A man wouldn't apologize for having debt." She had a meeting scheduled with a potential investor the day she was to return from China, but a woman from Ernst and Young who she met in Shanghai persuaded her to postpone it because she clearly wasn't well enough prepared. Ruh says the investor was intrigued when she called to reschedule the meeting and was amendable to setting a date later in the summer. Ruh now feels much better prepared. "Now I have my numbers together and I know that I need someone who can advice me strategically."

Jump on new technology. "At the conference, they had a screen that allowed you to interact live on LinkedIn with panelists," recalls Ruh. "I have never seen a session that was so interactive. A couple of women were from Japan and they got a little confused with language sometimes. They said the comments made on the board helped them understand what was being said on the panels." The experience made Ruh think about how she could apply similar technology to her own business. "I thought it could be very beneficial for people with disabilities," she says, "so I'm going to use it in training sessions."

Now that she's back in Rockville, Ruh is working to implement all that she learned in Shanghai. That post-conference execution is often tough, since it's easy to lose the motivation to try new things once you're back in your day-to-day routine. To combat that, Ruh remains active on a LinkedIn group of women who attended the conference. So even if she can't get out of the cave as much as she'd like, she can always let in a little virtual light.

When's the last time you ventured out of your cave? What did you learn?

Cave image by Flickr user longhorndave, CC 2.0