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Guest: Ash Garg, author, entrepreneur, and one of our new coaches at CEO Coaching International.
Episode in a Tweet: CEO Coaching’s Ash Garg shares his tips on how he left a successful corporate career and built a $100 million business from scratch—starting at age 46.
Quick Background: Ash Garg spent the first 25 years of his career working for large companies like Lockheed Martin and Hughes. Then, at age 46, he decided to become an entrepreneur. But he wasn’t interested in just being self-employed. Ash had a vision from day one that he wanted to build a pharmacy company in India that was as big as any in the world. 13 years later, Guardian Pharmacy was a $100 million business.
On today’s show, Ash Garg discusses how he shifted from working for some of the biggest companies in the world to making BIG happen on his own terms.
Transcript: Download the full transcript here.
Key Insights on Building Your Own BIG from Ash Garg
1. Identify an opportunity.
Most people who break away from the corporate world start up new companies or consulting firms in their old familiar business spaces. That’s a solid strategy if you think you could innovate and lead in ways that your current employer doesn’t.
But Ash took a very different approach. While his background was in aerospace and tobacco, he had spent his entire corporate career examining how large-scale industries work. He knew he could use his knowledge and skills to build a business outside his current comfort zone.
“I started looking around in the space of health,” Ash says. “India has 1.3 billion people, and our health services are good, but not as good as they should be. Imagine what Walgreens and CVS were like maybe 40 years ago. That’s where India was in 2003 when I decided to launch my first store.”
At a very basic level, business is business. If you have the skills to be the boss in your current field, you probably have the skills to branch out in a totally different direction. Building something totally new and distinct, rather than trying to compete in or service your current industry, might also help your company stand out and dominate a whole new market.
2. Think BIG!
Once Ash settled on creating a new retail pharmacy company, he wasn’t shy about his aspirations.
“The first line I wrote in my first business plan was, ‘build Boots in India,’” Ash says. “Boots is the UK’s largest pharmacy chain. That’s a brand that I was very familiar with. That was my aspiration, build Boots in India.”
Can you imagine an entrepreneur today saying, “I’m going to build a pharmacy that’s as big as Walgreens?” That sounds crazy! Ash set one big, hairy, audacious goal for himself, and there can be a very fine line between thinking BIG and thinking unrealistically.
But here are a couple more crazy-sounding ideas:
“Saving people money so they can live better.”
“To be earth’s most customer-centric company; to build a place where people can come to find and discover anything they might want to buy online.”
“To organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.”
Those are the mission statements of Walmart, Amazon, and Google, respectively.
Every business starts with an idea. Even a simple idea, like building a better mousetrap or marketing a better service, should have ambitions of scale. After all, if you’re not thinking BIG, you’re not setting yourself up for sustainable success.
3. Do your homework.
A good CEO knows what he or she knows, but more importantly, they know what they DON’T know. And even with 25 years of success in business under his belt, Ash knew he was going to have to educate himself on the fine points of retail pharmacy to make his vision a reality.
“For a product like medicine, which is tightly controlled and governed by the government of India, the first and most important lesson that I learned was to study the environment very, very carefully before we started,” Ash says. He had to do everything by the book because any violation of licensing terms would mean shutting down his store.
In addition to bookwork, Ash put in some serious legwork. He spent time in the big retail pharmacy chains in London and New York, walking the aisles, noting how customers flowed through the store, even watching how cashiers worked. He also consulted with top designers and pharmacists to create store layouts and product lines.
“My learning curve was very steep,” Ash remembers. “I would start work at 5:00, 5:30 in the morning, and I would probably work until 11:00 p.m. It was madness, but it was a lot of great fun.”
4. Get the best employees, no matter what.
“In 2003-2004, not too many good people were willing to join a startup,” Ash says. “I had to use my own personal credibility and all kinds of cajoling to get these individuals to join us. Once they did, they stayed with us.”
Your new business might be a tough sell as well. And as you’re working through a pre-profitability cash crunch, you might think that you can’t afford to hire the absolute best people.
But the reality is you can’t afford NOT to hire the best. Ash even went out of his way to find employees who were more knowledgeable – and younger – than he was, and he encouraged them to tell him when he was on the wrong track. He learned from his top performers, and as the company expanded to more stores, he hired even more rock stars who could help the company grow.
So do the math. Is what you’re saving with mediocre talent worth what you’re missing in revenue and growth if you had a grade A sales manager or CFO? If you really don’t have the cash on hand for a commensurate salary, could you craft a performance-based or revenue-sharing package to get the people you need on board?
5. Put your values in action.
A week after the first Guardian Pharmacy opened, a customer walked up to Ash with a basket of over-the-counter products and asked to be billed in advance for some prescription medicines as well. Ash told her he couldn’t do that, because she was essentially asking him to charge her an incorrect amount. She stormed off in a huff and vowed never to return.
“The next day she walked in again,” Ash says, “and I said to her, ‘Madam, I’m sorry but we do not give bills which are not correct.’ She said, ‘The fact that you don’t give these kinds of bills means I can trust your pharmacy.’”
As Guardian expanded, that story was passed along down the chain of new stores and new employees as an example of the kind of ethical customer service that Ash valued. As important as it is that your company has a clear set of values that employees can recite by heart, seeing the boss put those values in action sets a high culture standard that everyone will rise to meet. And when your employees do go above and beyond to exemplify your values, go out of your way to recognize them.
1. Challenge yourself. Your new business doesn’t have to look like your old job. Put your skills to work in new arenas and you might create a whole new business space for yourself.
2. Never stop learning. Whether you’re trying to grow as a leader at your current company or preparing to break out on your own, stay on top of the latest trends and innovations, and hire people you can learn from.
3. Set an example from the top down. If you and your leadership team take your corporate values seriously, the rest of your employees will too.
For more from Ash Garg, follow him on Twitter @gargashutosh and check out his books: