8 CEOs reveal the key business lessons of 2018

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With 2018 reaching the halfway mark and a new financial year underway amid the growing global uncertainly of Donald Trump’s trade threats, Brexit negotations and China’s bellicose foreign policy, it’s getting harder and harder to predict the future in business.

So Business Insider asked eight CEOs what they’d learned so far in 2018. Here’s what they said.

Ben Thompson, CEO of Employment Hero

SuppliedBen Thompson

So far, 2018 has taught me that anything is possible. I’ve already seen a car in space and Kim Jong Un visit a nightclub in Singapore. This has inspired me to set bigger goals and go after them.

Employment Hero is in the midst of change as I write this. We are an online people management platform and when we launched five years ago, our focus was on the employer. How could we help the employer hire and manage staff more easily?

We’ve achieved that goal and so now we are moving our focus to the employee. How can we help employees get more out of their salary and improve their work life? This change in thinking has been a huge shift for the company. Every department has had to look through a new lens and set different goals.

From the production department to the sales team, we’ve all had to broaden our horizons.

Using adaptive tactics and hiring staff with a stronger focus on culture fit rather than skill set (we move fast here and need people who are happy to keep up) has helped us continue the rapid pace at which we are changing and expanding.

Anything is possible, especially when you have the right team around you.

Scott Price, CEO of PropertyShares

suppliedScott Price

The need to raise capital is front and centre in every business leader’s mind, but time and time again I have witnessed companies raise capital and then implode.

As a CEO and an angel investor I cannot stress enough the importance of not taking on venture capital before you actually need it.

I have a friend who raised $10 million and then watched his company collapse because the board couldn’t agree on a suitable strategy. At about the same time, another friend raised just under $2 million and now his company is valued at over $100 million.

The key takeaway here is that cash does not equal success, and more often than not, companies fail because they have not found the right product market fit, not because they have run out of capital.

While my advice here is not to get too bogged down in getting everything perfect the first time around – in the famous words of Reid Hoffman, “If you’re not embarrassed by the first version of your product, you’ve launched too late” – your longer-term priority should be getting your product right.

If you do this, the right investors will beat your door down. Once you start receiving expressions of interest from investors, the most important factor then becomes knowing how to find and identify the right capital partners for your business.

Many founders forget that when raising capital, investors are vetting the business, but it is just as vital for the executive team to vet the incoming shareholders, especially new board members, and ask themselves questions, such as, “Do we share the same vision?”, “Do we agree on the timeline?” and “Besides cash, what strategic value will these investors add?”

So be smart and strategic when looking to raise capital – don’t just go after funding because you think it’s the thing to do, focus first on getting your product market fit right, and don’t just move ahead with any investor willing to write you a cheque.

Tim Bos, CEO of ShareRing

SuppliedTim Bos

My greatest business lesson so far this year is to expect the unexpected. You may have the best laid plans ready to roll, but things change fast, priorities and strategies shift just as quick and you can always expect the unexpected to happen.

The measure of a good CEO is their ability to navigate this unexpected turbulence. When you’re in a growth phase of the business and you ‘desperately’ need to hire new people, don’t just rush in and hire the first person that comes along.

Take your time to find the right team fit, otherwise your growth may stall due to too many “bad apples” in your workforce. You may not notice it immediately, but when you hire staff that are the wrong fit, you’re planting the seed for a slow deterioration of your business.

Peter David, CEO of Keaz

SuppliedPeter David

Complacency is death! Just when you start to relax and think “Hey, the operations are running smoothly now!” something changes.

Technology, competition, client needs, governments, staff demands and how we interact with them and information and the frameworks keep changing.

We live in a “real-time” world and time compression demands attention from the whole team.

As an early stage tech company based out of Melbourne with operations in the United States and Vietnam, maybe we feel the effects more than most.

And to flourish, I’ve learned to trust my team to own the bigger impact issues and not push them onto someone else.

The framework I engage the teams with to achieve ownership of their actions is focusing on outcomes, constantly sharing our business objectives and operational business status (good and bad) and let the team make mistakes. This demands my support of them if and when something goes off the rails – otherwise the next time an issue occurs, everyone will back away from engagement.

I write this as my flight is about to land in Hong Kong — originating from Ho Chi Minh City. I know we can’t be insular to succeed. As we build a broad-based software company, we had to move beyond Australia.

This takes time and commitment. It can be achieved even without deep pockets, but it does take commitment and managing the purse and cash burn. We’ve worked to find committed business partners who share our vision and we take their phone calls at midnight to build and maintain their trust (which I guess is the downside of international work from Australia).

Most of all, we focus on doing what we enjoy — then it’s not work. I do try to build family time into work travel when possible. This isn’t easy in a big corporate structure, but a supportive family will off-set your own time demands as they come up.

Noah Abelson-Gertler, CEO of ShareRoot

Slava Blazer PhotographyNoah Abelson-Gertler

A key business lesson for me this year is that when sweeping legislation comes into place, one should not assume that the numerous businesses and industries affected have taken the proper steps to prepare for it and its impact.

As the GDPR approached, it became increasingly apparent that companies throughout the world would not be adequately prepared for the upcoming requirements-more often than not, this was because they had their hands full running their business.

Still, it was fascinating to me that such a macro level instigation was met with complacency or rather uncertainty, and alerted me to the real need for external specialists to help inform, educate and guide these companies. My advice here to businesses would be to embrace change and position it at the core of your business, so that on occasions like this it is not such a culture shock or so difficult to comprehend.

Build up your resilience and ability to move fast with the times.

Dr. Gero Decker, CEO of Signavio

SuppliedDr Gero Decker

The single continuous thread running through the way we do business is responding to the customer, and not the competition.

In practice, this means going beyond the transactional nature of business, and focusing on how we design a solution suite that puts our clients and their customers at the heart of transformation. We’ve seen entire industries shaken by what, in hindsight, seems to be an adoption of quite basic “newcomer” disruptive methods.

The philosophy behind our technologies is to enable businesses to reach beyond just highlighting the pain points inhibiting their growth, and empower them through the digital innovation initiatives required to become leaders in their field.

Companies quite often have the resources, capital and market data available already, however, without this customer-centricity, the giants become the behemoths; unable to respond to the agile nature of shifting demands.

What we ask our teams to do is to keep this business acumen at the heart of everything we do; which is to create solutions which allow our customers to use actionable process insights as a driver of their digital innovation initiatives.

Scott Handsaker, CEO of CyRise

SuppliedScott Handsaker

Hiring talented people is hard. The standards you apply here go a long way to determining success or failure, and when I look back over my career my hiring practices have been some of my biggest failings.

I now use that experience to do it differently, which has resulted in 10 times better outcomes. My biggest change has been to significantly raise my standards when it comes to what I am willing to accept in a candidate.

When I hire today, I care deeply about the quality of the individual. I take the time to understand what role I am hiring for, and what success looks like. I have enough experience now to know what “great” looks like, so I hold out for that.

I tolerate the pain of not hiring, rather than hiring someone who is “close enough”.

When you raise your standards and expect more from yourself and from others, it almost always comes with short term pain. You have to be willing to accept that in order to profit from the long term gain. It’s worth it.

Andrew Logan, CEO of OneCrop

SuppliedAndrew Logan

Daily planning is the single most effective technique for achieving meaningful results. Without planning what is the most valuable piece of work you need to do each day, you inevitably end up thrashing around in a mess of emails and non-essential tasks, which have minimal impact.

Accomplished advisers can be the difference between success and failure. As a CEO, you can’t hope to be an expert in everything. The key is to find advisers who are genuine experts in the task at hand and then make sure that they are remunerated appropriately for the value they bring. Note the importance of the word “accomplished”…because poor advisers can waste your time and compromise your results, making the situation even worse than if they were not there at all.

If you do things on the cheap, or take favours from partners in lieu of paying cash, you will pay later, either in profit or results. As a startup you always have to do some bootstrapping. But always remember that if someone gives you a favour now, they will expect something in return later. Also if you don’t, or can’t, spend money now, it is likely that you will have to spend it later on fixing the problem.

Your instincts are usually right — as a CEO you have all sorts of life experience and commercial experience which feeds into your daily feel about how things are going. Almost always, when you feel like there is a problem, there is. It is critical to take a moment and think clearly about why you feel the way you do, and what action would change the feeling. Stress is often your body’s way of saying something isn’t right and it needs fixing.

Hard conversations now save pain later — hedging around difficult subjects lets confusion and resentment grow. Take advice from Billy Beane in Moneyball…”They’re professional ball players. Just be straight with ’em. No fluff, just facts. Pete, I gotta let you go. Jack’s office will handle the details”. You’re dealing with professionals and if they can’t handle a straight commercial conversation, it’s their problem, not yours.

Never forget to say “I’m sorry” and “Thank you” — these two phrases aren’t weakness, they’re the basics of treating people with respect. As you grow a business, you will make mistakes, errors of judgement, and omissions. When you do, never be too big a person to say “I’m sorry”. Also along the way, people will help you, work hard for you and take risks for you. When this happens, always remember to say “Thank you”.

The answer is always in the numbers – if you are wondering what to do about a problem and can’t seem to find a solution, look at the numbers. Often our emotions can get in the way of decision making, so take it back to bare facts and rational thinking. What does a thing cost? What is the return we are getting from it? Could we use the money better somewhere else? Quantifying these things makes decisions easy. (Then see points 4 and 5!)

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