How to Get Big? Think Big.

Last Updated Jul 27, 2010 1:28 PM EDT

By Leib Lurie, CEO of One Call Now, Troy, Ohio
I got the idea for my company back in 2002 after I raced to a scouting event for my son only to get a speeding ticket in the process. I later found out the event had been canceled and no one had called to tell me. Even in our hyper-connected world, there still wasn't an easy way to get a message out quickly to a lot of people.

When I started One Call Now, which sends out automated mass notifications via voice, text message, and email, our clients were mostly local church groups and Little League teams. Now we're a $5.6 million company that provides message services not just to local groups, but also to municipalities and school boards all across the country. Plenty of competitors do what we do, but they've stayed small while we've grown. The reason: We're not afraid to think big.
Hire for the future
I'm a strong believer in Michael Gerber's E-Myth philosophy, which he outlines in his book E-Myth: Revisited. He says a lot of the people who start businesses end up failing because they're not willing to take the risks and make the investments required for growth. Put simply, you have to grow to succeed. One part of his message that's stayed with me is a question all entrepreneurs must face at some point: When do I stop trying to do everything myself and start hiring people so my business can grow?

When I decided I needed to hire a senior manager for customer service, my company had only two reps in that department. Nevertheless, we went out and hired someone who had successfully managed a 200-rep customer service center at AT&T. We hired someone best suited for where we wanted to go, not for where we were at the time. The plan worked: He has grown our customer service arm to 15 reps and we expect it will keep growing.

The same thought process applied when we hired a company president and, a little after that, a professional sales manager. Those were major steps in positioning the company to grow. We didn't want to stay in our comfort zone. We had to think big.

Extend, but don't overextend
Another part of the "grow to succeed" philosophy is reflected in the way we've expanded our client base and our geographic range. In the seven years since we started, we grew from zero clients to more than 35,000. We did that by challenging ourselves to seek ever-bigger customers: first church groups and youth-sports teams, then schools and school districts, and now large municipalities and regional governments. While we're growing, we work hard to remind ourselves of who all our clients are, large and small, and what they need.

Many of our competitors couldn't or wouldn't grow. We were willing to take risks by expanding aggressively -- we've bought out five competitors over the last few years. With each one we gained good employees and leaders, new clients, great ideas and a greater reach.

We've also grown thanks to an honest dedication to our clients. We offer our customers a good product at a fair price, and -- most important -- the knowledge that they can count on us when they need us most. Even as we get bigger, we keep at the top of our minds all the work we must do to earn that trust. The proof that we're succeeding: We have a multi-million-dollar marketing budget, but 70 percent of our new clients come from referrals.

We're actively pursuing some additional acquisitions. And we continue to think big: We're planning a totally disruptive technology solution that we think will allow us to cut our prices by 50 percent and double our revenue within two years.
Adapt as you grow
We maintain our client relationships through our dedication to service, but we work hard on our branding and messaging, too. Our tagline -- "When messages matter, we deliver" -- is on every brochure we hand out. It's on our website, our business cards, and our internal documents. It's on everything. Keeping that perspective consistent throughout the company is an important component of growing in a smart way. But knowing how to adapt as you get bigger is also important.

When we started out our tagline was "Keep your group in the loop." That worked really well when our target clients were Little League coaches and church groups. But once we expanded our client base to include school districts and county governments, we had to change our pitch, because these larger customers don't consider themselves to be "groups." A couple of months and about 20 to 30 different taglines (tested on Survey Monkey) later, we finally settled on the "When messages matter" tagline.

It's powerful and consistent and it is something that will resonate with future clients as we continue to grow.

-- As told to Peter McDougall