Curtis Thornhill, CEO of Apt Marketing Solutions, has more than 15 years experience optimizing business processes and operations through implementation and integration of technologies. Thornhill has experience in marketing, sales and product across many industries and with a variety of brands, including Thermo Fisher Scientific, Nokia, Facebook, Starwood, Thomson Reuters, Farmers Insurance, Symantec and ExactTarget. Follow him @AptResults.
Who is your hero? (In business, life, or both.)
If I must choose just one of the inspirational people in my life, I’d have to go with my grandmother, Mary. She was always starting new projects, trying new things, and dragging other family members along for the ride. Mary was a truck driver, a pilot and a serial entrepreneur who started (and sometimes failed at) too many businesses to count. She nurtured my passion for adventure. From her example, I’ve learned to love trying new things and want to continually change and grow when opportunity presents itself.
My grandparents owned a grocery store in the middle of nowhere, several hours from what most people would consider a town. At various times, it also served as the local gas station, post office, video store, and café. During the summers when I was young, I’d go out there and help them run the store. Today, the freezer doors from that store hang in my home to remind me of a fond past and a promising and eclectic future.
What’s the single best piece of business advice that helped shape who you are as an entrepreneur today, and why?
I started my career working at eBay. The company founder, Pierre Omidyar, had this great quote: “Life is too short to work with mean people.” It struck a chord with me, probably because I knew I likely had 40+ years of work ahead of me.
I know it’s not always possible to avoid “mean people,” but it’s solid advice that rings true for me. Life is better when the people around you push you to be better, personally and professionally. Multiple factors play into creating a great work environment. But every time I’ve made a conscious decision to partner with nice people, my happiness has increased dramatically.
What’s the biggest mistake you ever made in your business, and what did you learn from it that others can learn from too?
My biggest mistake has been waiting to invest in growth. From operations to advertising, all aspects of a business suffer in the absence of a plan to actively and smartly invest in the future of your company. Eventually, processes become too cumbersome, tools antiquated, or output fails to meet company needs.
I’m currently seeing this most clearly in sales. Four out of five years, we enjoyed triple-digit growth rates, but we’ve plateaued. Our sales process has been too reliant on referrals, and overly dependent on my own sales acumen and professional network. We’re fortunate to have revenue stability overall, but my failure to adequately invest has created risk that, looking back, could have been avoided.
What do you do during the first hour of your business day and why?
My first task every morning is to schedule my day around three things: our company’s key priorities, preventing bottlenecks, and ensuring my own work-life balance. Over the years, I’ve learned that if I don’t keep my own needs on par with the needs of my business and my staff, it always catches up with me. Self-care isn’t just a buzzword; it’s a necessity.
At the end of the day, I tend to wrap things up by making a list of issues bubbling to the surface. I delegate these out when possible, but just the act of writing them down also helps de-clutter my mind so I can rest. It becomes much easier to relax and be present. I know nothing will get lost in the shuffle, and I can leave what’s next to the following morning.
What’s your best financial/cash-flow related tip for entrepreneurs just getting started?
Manage to a forecast and plan for the future based on anticipated cash-on-hand. There’s a story about Rockefeller during the Depression: his accountant comes in to tell him they’ve been profitable for the first time in a long while, and he immediately asks, “And how much cash is in the bank?”
Cash-on-hand is still a primary measurement of how I run my business today. Knowing your numbers (e.g. monthly sales, net profits, etc.) allows you to create the forecast you manage to. Then you can identify optimum times to take on additional funding or decide when to discontinue activities that may no longer be beneficial to your company’s health. It’s not always appropriate for certain business cycles or leadership styles, but a lot of predictability comes from this method.
Quick: What’s ONE thing you recommend ALL aspiring or current entrepreneurs do right now to take their biz to the next level?
Join a business network that provides genuine feedback and insight into your own performance. There are a lot of options out there, so do your homework and choose an environment you find to be supportive. You’ll have a group of peers providing a sounding board when you’re facing difficult decisions, and they can call out patterns and choices that may be holding you back as a leader.
It may take years to see pay-offs beyond the much-needed moral support, but you’ll be building quality professional relationships. Case in point: An enterprise client prospect recently reached out to us. Through a business network, over the years, I’ve developed a close relationship with the CEO of one of their most valued partners. Within minutes of checking in with him, he’d reached out directly to the prospect with an enthusiastic endorsement.
What’s your definition of success? How will you know when you’ve finally “succeeded” in your business?
Part of success is being able to provide financial security for my family and myself — and that’s guided a lot of my choices. But, for me, true success probably comes down to evolution. I don’t have an aspiration to die at my desk, but I would like to be active in work that I care about with people who help me to be better.
I’ve been really fortunate to work with some of the same people for nearly 15 years now. These quality folks have leapt from one company to another with me. They are an integral part of my entrepreneurial journey. I believe as long as there is growth in my own experience and in theirs, I’ll be happy and fulfilled.