Focus on growth: The experience of one entrepreneur in a ‘growth-obsessed’ city

Hands-On-Garage logoBy Bill Reilly, Hands-on Garage co-founder

Over five years ago, my partners and I sat down to hatch a business, Hands-on Garage, after my car needed a new starter and we were trying to fix it in my driveway. We massaged that germ of an idea into a scrappy startup and now a growth-obsessed venture poised to surpass one million dollars gross revenue this year.

We have watched the entrepreneurship ecosystem in our city, Milwaukee, also become growth-obsessed. Milwaukee is the first U.S. city to launch an entrepreneurship ecosystem project focused on scaling existing businesses to stimulate economic growth. Appropriately called Scale Up Milwaukee, the initiative draws upon the work of Daniel Isenberg, founding executive director of the Babson Entrepreneurship Ecosystem Projects, and is led by a sundry group of public and private, local and national partners from Governor Scott Walker, Mayor Tom Barrett, the Greater Milwaukee Committee, and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, to American Express OPEN.

As part of Scale Up Milwaukee, we applied and were selected to participate in the pilot Scalerator, a two-month intense training on sales and growth. The goal of Scalerator is to help existing businesses like ours get the tools and techniques to scale up quickly. So what did our participation accomplish?

Not only did we achieve an additional 15 percent increase in revenues in the last two months of 2013, we discovered several ‘aha!’ moments that would help any ambitious business accelerate its growth:

  1. Focus on your best asset. Your business may be great at a number of things, but if you’re like most businesses, it can truly be the best in one area. Scalerator helped us refine our message to emphasize our best asset—transparency. Hands-on Garage is a combination do-it-yourself and do-it-for-me auto repair facility. We encourage customers to come into the shop and see what we are doing to their car. By doing so, we show our customers that we are a different type of auto facility.
  2. Put yourself in your lender’s shoes. In the past, we would highlight our business goal to become a franchise, which didn’t resonate with banks and led to frustrations on our end. Through the Scalerator, we learned to emphasize that there is a large market for what we do—an area that would pique a banker’s interest because he/she cares about the return on investment more than your business aspirations. So the next time you are pitching a source of capital, think not of what you want to say but consider what the lender wants to hear.
  3. Growth can happen in timeframes of weeks. In two short months following the Scalerator, we were able to increase our revenues by an additional 15 percent. How did we do it? We simply focused harder on established revenue sources—something we learned during the Scalerator—and it paid off immediately. With that extra 15 percent, we made an equipment investment that is adding revenue to our bottom line. Your company could do the same.
  4. Be obsessed with growth. Most private and public entrepreneurial programs are startup focused. Startups are important but they do not create opportunities for a region at the same level a multi-million dollar company does—which is why the focus of Scalerator is to help existing businesses scale up faster than they would otherwise. Growing ventures make things happen in any market and have the ability to clear a path for other startups to succeed.

Moving towards growth will also benefit the community. When Hands-on Garage generates more than a million dollars in revenue this year, we will increase our headcount 25 percent, buy over $250,000 in auto parts, and scout for a bigger location. By growing our business, hiring local people, and working with local vendors, we aim to help Milwaukee thrive.

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