What is your full name, title, and business name?
Randall T. Gerber, Owner and Principal, Gerber, LLC
Give us a summary of your business in 200 words or less.
Gerber LLC is a professional services firm that works exclusively with first-generation entrepreneurs, giving them the clarity and guidance they need to integrate and achieve their life, business, and financial goals. We understand that first-generation entrepreneurs see the world through a different lens and we help our clients grow their businesses and themselves with purpose. Together with our clients, we create a holistic plan to help grow their business, improve their cash flow and increase their happiness factor while seamlessly integrating our clients’ priorities through every stage of their business and each phase of their personal lives. We provide an entrepreneurial ecosystem designed to offer the right advice at the right time.
How did the idea for your business come about?
It was incredibly reactionary. I had just graduated from Ohio State, and I didn’t want to stop living the life of a college student. I got into an industry where I could work fewer days a week, make some money, and still have a lot of fun. It was a very thoughtless, immature set of decisions. But it ended up working out for me and it has evolved into something great and incredibly fulfilling.
What was the turning point for your business? Was there a moment you knew you had something special?
After three years in business, I knew it was going to be sustainable. I don’t know that I knew it was special at that point—at least not special in the way it is today—but special in that I could make more money and have more flexibility than a regular job. Then in the early 2000s, I was on a tour boat in Washington DC when the whole idea of focusing our services around first-generation entrepreneurs came to me. In a weird type of epiphany, I couldn’t stop thinking about it. I knew if I could pull that off, my business would be really special.
What does it mean to you to be an entrepreneur and business owner?
In some respects, it’s a patriotic position, in that America is built on entrepreneurism and capitalism. We are contributing to that, not only in a literal way because we are entrepreneurs, but also because we are supporting other entrepreneurs growing awesome businesses. Being an entrepreneur is a lonely place, and I think the fact that we have an ecosystem to support them makes a big difference. I love that my employees can live their life in part because of the income they earn here.
What does the city of Columbus mean to your business?
I’ve been appreciative of Columbus from day one because it always felt like a place where business owners could get access to the people and resources they needed. For example, you have to have the right last name in cities like Boston or New York City to be able to get access to folks. Twenty years ago Columbus was a transient city where people never stayed, and that’s not true anymore. We’re an open community that wants to get better. If you have a good idea and you are intelligent, you have a good shot at succeeding in business. I feel good about that. I think Columbus is a great place to have a business.
Are you from Columbus? If not, please explain what brought you here and ultimately what made you stay.
I came to Columbus to attend The Ohio State University, and I never left. Inertia took over. We recognize that there is so much business in Columbus, we’d be foolish not to be headquartered here.
What’s the number one piece of advice you’d give to anyone wanting to start a business?
You need to have a written business plan and written, defined values—values that you can hire and fire too. So few people actually do it, but I believe that’s what you have to have.
What do you wish you knew about entrepreneurship before starting your business?
I wish I would have better understood the importance of well-defined values, and how to “hire slowly and fire fast.” I used to hire more to the known character of the person and their relationship to me, instead of hiring someone with similar values and beliefs about business who may not necessarily be my friend. I remember all the pain I went through in the early years agonizing about letting people go. Now I don’t agonize about it. I’ve learned to understand that we are not always the right fit for some people to grow and thrive. Our culture doesn’t match everyone’s skill set. It doesn’t mean they are bad people who won’t succeed somewhere else, they just won’t thrive with us.
What’s the most challenging part of your business (i.e, what keeps you up at night)?
The most challenging part of our business is client acquisition, but that doesn’t keep me up at night because we have a solid process. What keeps me up at night is figuring out who our next hire is going to be—not by name but by role and skill set. Since we are so unique, our employees need to possess technical expertise, a high EQ; they must be articulate, and be willing to be vulnerable. Those are hard folks to find.
Every business owner has a flaw. What’s yours?
In the past, my most expensive flaw was having unrealistically high expectations of others. A flaw I have today is not investing in my physical health enough.
Why do you think most business owners fail? What has made you different?
Statistically speaking, most business owners fail because they don’t manage cash well enough. They don’t have a written plan and a cash flow forecast. As a company, we are super dialed in to cash flow forecasts and we are a heavily recurring revenue model business.
What was your biggest mistake and what did it cost you?
The biggest mistake I made in business turned out to be my biggest gift. Before working exclusively with first-generation entrepreneurs, we exercised an incredibly large stock option for a client and it cost me $190K, as we didn’t execute the order on time. I had to arrange for financing to pay it back, which was a very hard thing to do with little or no collateral. It turned out to be the best thing we ever did because, from that point forward, I went through the business and bulletproofed it. In the scheme of owning a business, it was a pretty inexpensive mistake.
What tool has helped you the most for your business (invoicing, accounting, shipping, a plugin for a website, etc.)?
Across the board, the Entrepreneur Operating System (EOS) has been the most comprehensive and helpful tool we’ve used.
When did you know it was time to expand your business, make your first hire, etc.?
I knew after a few months. I was probably different than most entrepreneurs because I knew and understood early on the power of leverage. It wasn’t about hiring because we were over capacity, but I understood the power of having someone else do the things I wasn’t good at doing, so I could spend more time on the things I was great at doing. I actually hired sooner, faster, and more frequently than my peers did, which is why I think I scaled differently too.
What is something that you did that was a game-changer for your business?
Our game-changer was our decision to focus exclusively on first-generation entrepreneurs.
What was an idea that you spent a lot of time on or thought would make a big difference in your business that didn’t pan out?
The biggest idea I spent time on that didn’t pan out was opening a Gerber, LLC office in another state. I considered it, physically visited the location, and talked with a lot of people. In fact, we made an offer on another business, but thankfully it blew up! Looking back I may have been a bit egotistical, naive, or both. There is plenty of business here in central Ohio, and businesses outside of Ohio can come to us, too. I’m glad it didn’t work out, but I did spend a lot of time researching the possibility.
What is something that your business spends a lot of money on that’s worth it?
We’ve invested more time in our talented staff and our new space that is consistent with our values.
What is something you’re working on now that you’re very excited about?
I’m excited about our Emerging Entrepreneur Experience. Half of all businesses will fail within the first five years of operation (according to the SBA). The goal of the Emerging Entrepreneur Experience is to help increase these odds and put small businesses in a position to succeed. It’s been a journey, and organizationally we’ve had a high level of enthusiasm for it.
What form of marketing is the most valuable for you?
Business development has unequivocally been our most powerful marketing tool. Meeting and developing relationships with our COIs and potential clients has been invaluable to growing and marketing our business.
Who is your best Columbus resource (accountant, lawyer, marketer, etc.)? Please provide name and business name so we can give them credit!
We are blessed to have lots of great resources to work with and refer to in Columbus. Calling on lots of lawyers, accountants, insurance agents, private equity firms is one of the unique dynamics of our firm, so I couldn’t say there was just one that was the best.
Who do you vent to when you have a business problem?
It depends on the problem. I vent to my wife when it doesn’t induce additional stress on the household. I vent to my kids if I can use it as a teaching moment, to help them realize that being an entrepreneur while rewarding in so many fashions, is also a lot of hard work. And I also vent to my friends who are entrepreneurs and can relate to my challenges.
Where do you see your business in the next 10 years?
I think we’ll still be here in this space doing the same type of work. I just think we’ll be three to four times as big as we are now.
What was the single worst decision you made regarding your business and how’d you recover?
Keeping employees for too long who don’t fit our culture. It wasn’t so painful that we weren’t going to recover, but we learned lessons about how to do things more efficiently.
When you’re stressed or overwhelmed, what do you do to overcome this feeling?
I break it down into bite-sized chunks. I try to be realistic about how much it can really hurt and focus on breaking it down to be more manageable. Making progress at solving problems, even bit by bit, is powerful.
What’s one component of entrepreneurship that’s much different than what most people think?
The risk of owning a business never goes away, it just changes. You’re always in the game. You’re on a permanent quest because you’re always trying to grow. Business is always changing and there are always new challenges. That’s one of the things that makes being an entrepreneur so fulfilling, but I suspect non-entrepreneurs think it gets easy at some point, or that we could stop working and just coast. In theory, I could do that, but we’d be uninspired and our clients would be uninspired. Part of what makes us different is our clients can feel our energy and enthusiasm as we’re growing and becoming something different and special—and they want to be part of the ride.
What’s your end goal with the business? Is this something you want to pass down to your kids or would you like to eventually sell?
I deliberately have chosen not to think about the end goal. I have built the business to be saleable, but I don’t know if I’ll sell it. At this stage in my life, it’s not worth the effort to even ponder it because it’s so far away from where my head is. I know we have a super, easily saleable asset that would be worth a fair amount of money, but I have a lot of years left that I intend to work. My best and most fun years are ahead of me.
How would your business fare if the economy hit a nasty downturn like it did in 2008? Have you prepared for this?
Good economies and good markets mask a lot of mistakes and warts. In challenging environments, the businesses that don’t have good processes and systems fall apart. We actually do really well in a slower economy. We were only down 14 percent in 2008. We’re super attentive, we’ve always been there and our clients know it. We are equipped. If the economy would stall, I wouldn’t downsize people. I would get more assertive with our marketing. I’d focus on the client acquisition piece of it.
What other entrepreneur do you look up to most?
I’m super blessed to have a large population of successful entrepreneurs around me. I get to see the best of the best all of the time. It’s hard to name one person because I’m in a unique situation of not only having all these clients but also having friends who are entrepreneurs. I feel fortunate to have lots of exposure to lots of great people.
If you had to tell a visitor one thing to do/see/eat in Columbus, what would it be?
Columbus is a fantastic city, with lots of fun things to do and see in the downtown and Short North areas. We have four world-class golf courses. But as cliché, as it may sound, you have to go to an Ohio State vs. Michigan game when they play in our home stadium. That’s really unique to our city, and there’s really nothing better than that.