I’m not saying that the secret of my success is steak sauce, but it did play a pretty big role in landing a big client.
On LinkedIn, I had been following — “stalking” might be more accurate — an executive at a Fortune 500 company. I noticed from some of his posts that he seemed to love steak. I somehow figured out his work address and sent him a box of steak sauce from Peter Luger Steak House.
It turned out, not only had he never been to New York, but one of his dreams was to dine at this Brooklyn landmark. The steak sauce caught his attention, and he got in touch with me to ask who I was and why I was sending him condiments. This interaction then led to a $1 million contract for me and my company, Balancing Life’s Issues.
It was a crazy idea, but it worked. I’ve realized that over the course of my career that it was often the long shots that ended up being the most successful. That’s because those were the times when I had nothing to lose and everything to gain. I decided to go for broke.
The way I look at it, I started out with some major challenges. I was a single mom raising three kids, that in itself is a struggle. On top of that, I’m also a female entrepreneur. Women entrepreneurs face tremendous hurdles, not the least of which is the fact that only 4% of business funding — whether it’s bank loans or venture capital money — goes to women-owned companies. I’ve managed to run my own successful business for more than 20 years because I’m constantly strategizing ways to make sure that these things don’t count as strikes against me.
Sometimes the answer is to put in the extra work. I once had a relatively small contract with a major company. It was a two-hour drive each way every time we had a meeting. Looking at my balance sheet, it was hard to keep this client on the books. I wasn’t even making enough money to cover gas for the trips back and forth. Concerned colleagues told me that I should cut them loose. But I showed up every month for a year, making sure I was as prepared as possible and always there at least 30 minutes early.
All that red ink finally paid off. After a year of logging countless miles, they finally gave me the opportunity I was hoping for. They signed a $500,000 contract.
Occasionally you have to accept the fact you’re a mom and a business owner. Sometimes it’s impossible to compartmentalize the different parts of your life. I remember a meeting with an executive on a day when two banks were merging. School was out for the day, and my kids — they were 7, 8, and 10 at the time — were going to wait in the car with my mother while I went upstairs for my big presentation. The trouble was that my kids were having separation anxiety. Very quickly I realized I couldn’t leave them downstairs. So what could I do?
Next thing I know I’m walking into the board room of this massive corporation with three elementary-school children and my mother trailing behind me. The executive I was supposed to meet with — a woman who I had been intimidated by before — was completely disarmed. For the first time she saw me as a person who had the same challenges as anyone else and her kindness and understanding made the intimidation fade away.
In fact that experience led to a deep and beautiful bond between her and I. We soon became the kind of friends who weren’t afraid to show each other our vulnerabilities. When she was diagnosed with cancer, I was the one she talked to about how she should tell her children. We shared heartaches and triumphs, too. When her daughter got into college, I was the first person she called. I don’t believe that relationship would have ever blossomed had it not been for that moment when I walked into the boardroom with four fearful family members in tow.
So here’s some advice you’re not going to find in any book on entrepreneurship: Don’t be afraid to send a condiment to a stranger. Keep that money-losing client if you think it will pay off in the end, and throw the rule book out the window if you find there’s just no way to keep your work life and your personal life separate. Trust your instincts, lead with conviction, and be secure in the knowledge that only you know what’s right for your company.
Now I’d love to hear from you. What were some of your craziest ideas that paid off in the end? What were some of the biggest risks that gave you the biggest rewards?