By Toby Rush
Some 10 years ago, when I was a fellow in the Pipeline program, we had an advisor from Chicago named Tom Churchwell. He was one of those guys that was intense, intimidating and spoke his mind…loudly. Tom literally sometimes made people cry when they were doing their company presentation. His questions were direct and pointed, and if you weren’t making sense, he told you that straight out. And asked how you could ever expect to raise money, build a team, attract customers, much less get acquired, if that was the best you could do.
I had escaped most of his more pointed critiques the first half of the year. But in the 3rd module, my luck ran out…or maybe I was in luck. We did an exercise where we were supposed to map out a vision that could get us to scale “really big”. I started to present my “big vision” and it had us getting to $20MM or $30MM in revenue. Tom slapped his hand on the table and said “Toby, we said big vision. What is this puny $20MM and $30MM?!!?”
He went on to grill me about what it would take to get to a $100MM in revenue. I said we could build or buy something or other (don’t remember exactly what). He said that we didn’t have all century, so assume we were going to buy. How much would it cost? What would that get us to? What new markets could we address? Who else could we buy? What were the other big problems in our space that we could address?
At the end of the exercise, he kind of smiled and said, “Why aren’t you doing that?” I made the mistake of actually answering him…by saying sheepishly that we’d have to go raise a “sh_t ton of money” and that wasn’t realistic. He just about blew up. His angry eyes bored holes into me and he says “Toby, I figured out the problem”. Then he points his finger at me and says “YOU, you are the problem! You can’t get your small minded thinking out of the way long enough to see the potential staring you straight in the face. The problem is not capital. The problem is not where you are located. The problem is YOU.”
I was pissed and almost opened my mouth again (I learn quick and realized that was a really dumb thing to do). After I sat down, his words started to really sink in. Was the limitation really my own small-minded-thinking? Was my lack of a bold vision the thing holding the company back from becoming great?
Then, a piercing question struck me: Does the vision of the entrepreneur limit the potential of a company? The answer is self-evident. If I think my company is only worth $20MM, why would my investors or employees or customer or eventual acquirer think I am worth more than that. If I’m not willing to cast a bold vision that stretches the imagination, why would I expect anything magical to happen.
That afternoon at that Pipeline module some 10 years ago, I was shown a major problem in my business. Me. And with that new understanding, I set out to fix it.