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Sean Manning of Payroll Vault: Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup

An Interview With Paul Moss

Clear dedication. There will be tough days. That’s when you have to turn that fear into adrenaline. There will be days when your back will be against the wall; when money starts running low, so be ready to go the extra mile or 10 when that occurs because that’s usually the make-or-break moment for businesses.

Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.

Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?

In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Sean Manning, Founder and CEO of Payroll Vault, an outsourced payroll and HR service for small-businesses. Founded in 2007, Payroll Vault began franchising in 2012 and now spans the U.S. Sean previously owned Insperience Business Services and the co-author of the book “Six Steps to Small Business Success.”

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?

I can think of a few “triggers” that led to my entry into business ownership and entrepreneurship. The first was watching my dad go through the experience. He was fortunate enough to have a franchise system to help him get into business, which is always great because they provided the foundation and the operating systems for the business. Obviously, each individual brings their own commitment and success story, but it was helpful to see someone building a business with guidance from the franchise system. And then, at the same time, I got really intrigued about business ownership, and there were a couple of books where I found a world of ideas and concepts and experienced individuals in business that was not provided in my college experience. These books gave me a lot of confidence and insight into how business works in general and pushed my own curiosity about the type of people who run their own businesses and what it would mean for me to do the same.

I remember the books vividly. One was “Swim With the Sharks Without Being Eaten Alive” by Harvey Mackay, and the other was “What They Don’t Teach You at Harvard Business School” by Mark McCormack. I’ve obviously read so many books since then, but those were the ones that gave me the confidence that this was something I can do.

I think both the books and previous experience were a clear path toward me founding the Payroll Vault operating business — and the newer Payroll Vault franchising model of it as well.

What was the “A-Ha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?

It took about a year to hit my “a-ha moment.” At the accounting firm I was managing, we saw opportunities in payroll services. All I needed to do was get some validation from outside, finding some “foreign ears” to hear the idea and confirm that what I was seeing made sense to more than just me. I went and visited three or four of my friends that had payroll companies, asked them questions and what they thought about my intentions in the industry, and it was at that point that I knew that we could move forward — I would say the “a-ha moment” was identifying the opportunity combined with the clear validation.

It’s important to also understand that I owned and operated an accounting firm at the time. We were offering a service that we didn’t know could be its own business. We started to be observant about what we were doing and the opportunities that it produced. For me, the exploration of opportunities is such an important process. I don’t want to just start a business without that exploration process, just to make sure I’m not missing anything. And once I “dot the i’s and cross the t’s” and look at what it will really take to make the business come to fruition, then it’s just about personal commitment and dedication.

There are some successful days where it feels amazing, and then there are some challenging days where you have to dig deep and find the extra effort to keep going. But no matter what kind of day it is, when you feel confident in what you’re doing, it’s more of a fun experience versus a challenging one.

Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?

I always have trouble with this question! I’ve had a lot of mentors, and it’s never just been one individual that I feel like I’ve learned from — it’s a collaborative group of people. It ranges from family members to peers and partners, from friends who are other business owners to books and authors. For me, it was a lot of people. All your “usual suspects.”

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We really built a business around consulting and supporting other businesses. We wanted to understand how we could help provide a service and a business model that provides an awesome-level customer service, a good understanding of resources to help business owners, and then, good execution. Having your own commitment and your own plan, having a team around that plan who can execute it and performs at a level that we all are excited about. Our success is making sure we’re there for the client, providing a valuable service, and we’re available to help add to their success, care about their business too.

Early on, we got validation a few ways. First, we went out into the community and expressed who we were through networking and business partners, and they responded with intense enthusiasm. And second, as our business started to grow, we began to get phone calls and emails from clients thanking us, asking where we’ve been and where this type of service was before we offered it. It’s really inspirational, and you know you’re on the right track.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

We do a couple of things, but the biggest is around education. We are putting together education tools to allow others to leverage our knowledge, experience, and success. And we hope to not only share it with the business community but hopefully with high schools, colleges, and places that focus on education. We actually created a curriculum that we’re starting to distribute, and we even offer a scholarship-like opportunity for students interested in business ownership. There’s an independent agency that interviews and selects students who can then open their own Payroll Vault business at a much more accessible cost.

You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?

I’m a very visual person — I can literally visualize what a business is going to look like and what success might mean to that business. And then there’s the trait of having strong attention to detail. Personally, I like to go in and do budgeting and projections, compare success to predictions, and then adapt from that. That allows us to find and address any concerns, as well as find and invest in opportunities. And then finally, for me, the most important trait is making sure you surround yourself with the right people. People who can bring the traits you don’t have to the table. It’s easy to forget this last one, especially when it comes to starting your own business, and you want everything to reflect your vision. But being able to get the right team in place and trust them is probably more essential.

For me, it’s finding the people who are good at integrating, who are focused on the importance of project management. From the vision side, it’s easy to get distracted, so having someone who keeps the trains arriving on time, keeps the goals, and our direction towards the goals, within view has been the greatest team asset I’ve been able to bring in.

Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?

I belong to a lot of focus groups in business — industry, executive groups, etc. I’ve found it interesting that people have given me distracting advice. You need to be careful when the advice you’re getting is distracting to the business. It could be because they don’t understand the business, or they don’t understand the vision, or the opportunity, or model. So, when someone says, “this isn’t going to work,” and you know it is, it’s ok to move past that.

I was at a recent business meeting where the advice was “let’s put everything on the table, let’s open our minds up, let’s think about what could be.” But it was not good advice because we needed to stay focused on who we are, where we’re going, and what we’re doing. So, it’s ok to throw ideas on the table, but be careful to make sure they apply.

Can you tell us a story about the hard times you faced when you first started your journey?

One of the scariest things was when I bought my first business. Literally 24 hours from taking over that business, I had a pretty big adrenaline rush. I got nervous: were people going to show up? Were the computers going to turn on? You really kind of create this craziness in your own head, so you need to work past it and realize that 90 percent of what you’re concerned about doesn’t come true. So, don’t over-analyze things that potentially will never happen.

I think a lot of people get scared of the emotions that tell them “no.” But they need to work past those — and trust that they’ve made the right decision.

Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?

Fear and adrenaline. Don’t confuse fear with adrenaline. Adrenaline is a big motivator. It gives you motivation and excitement and reason to just push forward and go as hard as you can. Fear does the opposite. It wants you to pull away, wait, and figure things out, and maybe hide a little bit. And while these are separate things, they’re created from the same moment. Are we afraid of it, or are we going to embrace it? Don’t let fear prevent you from doing things. I thrive on adrenaline now, but it took time to embrace that, to recognize my fears, and move through them.

The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills, and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs and lows of being a founder?

It’s balancing the emotions. You need to understand what each emotion means. Sometimes at the end of the week, you’re tired. And that’s ok. You may even be tired and confused — what did I do this week? Did I get anything done? And other weeks end with energy and fulfillment. It’s important to look at all those emotions as part of being a business owner.

In a way, for me, business ownership is more about security. Security about creating something I can control, about providing a career opportunity for someone, security that you’re helping others satisfy their own need. For me, I think the overarching feeling is that business ownership provides me with some sort of security every day. Whatever other emotions come behind that — fear, excitement, celebration — it compounds all of that to give you the incentive to deal with whatever comes next.

Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?

Most business owners go through the bootstrap method. Venture capital is often less available unless you’re in a certain niche or market. So, most businesses really need to look at their finances and how they can manage that when launching and starting a business. Don’t deter yourself from investigating some kind of financing or venture capital because it is out there, but most businesses will use some sort of bootstrap method to start. And there’s nothing wrong with that! Many new and young business owners seem to say, “venture capital or bust,” but traditional financing means you can stay in control of your business and find access to funds to invest in what you need to invest in, whereas venture capital sometimes requires you to give up part of the company and at least some control.

Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.

Bounce your ideas off other people. When I was a CPA, I had people come in and ask me about business ownership and I was honest with them. I want them to know if I understand their idea or if I don’t. Be receptive to the people who don’t understand your business idea — because if people don’t understand, how will your buyer understand? And if you don’t have buyers, you don’t have a business.

Regarding the financing component, do you have the right resources? How much will it cost to make this happen? Whether it’s lending, venture capital, partner, etc. Make sure from a finance standpoint that you’ve thought through how it can happen.

A business plan and a budget are very important. The budget predicts not only your income but also certain expenses required to execute that plan the way you envision it.

Look at your current skill set, your attributes, and what you are going to need. If you’re a very technical person, can you go sell it and market it? And if not, are you building a community of support to help you move forward with it?

Clear dedication. There will be tough days. That’s when you have to turn that fear into adrenaline. There will be days when your back will be against the wall; when money starts running low, so be ready to go the extra mile or 10 when that occurs because that’s usually the make-or-break moment for businesses.

What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs and founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?

I have met some CEOs who take credit for everything, and I think that’s a mistake. I believe good CEOs allow credit to be given to people around them. The word “culture” is used a lot in business. Culture isn’t someone telling you what it should be, it’s about the experience for all and how it develops organically. As CEO, it’s important to be a good manager and a facilitator of ideas and concepts, and then delegate and give the credit where it’s due.

Startup founders often work extremely long hours, and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?

It’s a balance, for sure. Just having good habits is number one. It could be something small, going for a walk, reading, just taking a weekend once a month to get away and clear your mind. It creates a stronger foundation for further success.

For me, it’s also about consistency and pattern. Choose a schedule and stick to it. Stick to the times you tell yourself you’ll work and stick to the times you tell yourself you won’t be working.

You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)

I honestly feel that much of my “movement” is already coming through in my current business. Our goal at Payroll Vault is to provide support to business owners and leaders in our communities. We do that through our support and systems to our Payroll Vault owners, their teams and ultimately the clients they serve. In the future we also want to make an impact through our scholarship funds and education initiatives.

We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the United States, with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Simon Sinek. I can’t express business ideas the way he does, but I can completely relate to everything he says.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!

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