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Guest: Sarah Dusek, Founder and CEO of Under Canvas and a client of CEO Coaching International.
Episode in a Tweet: Under Canvas CEO Sarah Dusek built a world-class hospitality brand by sticking to her guns and her values when the going got tough.
Quick Background: In 2017, Sarah Dusek came to CEO Coaching International looking for some guidance on how to get her glamorous camping (“glamping”) company to the next level. Two years later, thanks to some courageous decisions and a commitment to our processes, Under Canvas has grown BIGGER than Sarah dreamed, and recently secured a major private equity investment that will help expand its operations across US National Parks.
In this special episode, recorded live at the 2019 CEO Coaching Summit, Sarah Dusek talks with her coach, Sheldon Harris, about her incredible journey, the importance of resilience, and how staying true to her company’s values helped her guide Under Canvas around some potential potholes and stay on course for BIG.
Transcript: Download the full transcript here.
Sarah Dusek on Her Journey to BIG
1. Be resilient.
At one point or another in our careers, all CEOs feel like our businesses are in danger of getting blown away. In Sarah’s case, that danger was literal.
“Our first major location was Yellowstone,” Sarah explains. “And in our first season, a humongous storm ripped through the camp. I sat in my car with my two children, who were then nine months old and three, and I looked out at this scene. The storm just came through the camp and flattened it. I looked out and I thought, ‘This is it, we’re done. This is the end. This is over. Nobody’s ever going to stay with us again. Nobody’s going to take us seriously. What were we thinking? This is crazy. It’s over. There is no more Under Canvas for us.’”
But in the middle of this incredibly dark moment came an unexpected burst of sunshine. Sarah’s staff went into overdrive getting tents back up, and her guests pitched in to help. By the end of the night, everyone was in a dry bed.
“Thankfully, we have now figured out how to make our tents pretty much hurricane proof, so this doesn’t happen anymore, Sarah says. “But in that moment it was devastating. We faced a choice. Do we call this quits and back off, and say, ‘Oh, this is never going to work,’ or do we figure it out? That moment gave us extraordinary courage to press through and find solutions to problems.”
2. Never sacrifice your values. Ever.
The fact that Sarah’s guests were willing to pitch in when disaster struck is a pretty good indicator that Under Canvas had already hit on an appealing hospitality model and a value system that customers wanted to be a part of. But how strongly Sarah Dusek believed in those values turned out to be a major turning point as the company looked for ways to accelerate its growth.
“I managed to get a term sheet to the table after about a gazillion no’s,” Sarah says. “But the partner of the VC firm that I was then dealing with was a bully. He kept throwing quips at me that basically said, ‘This is the way deals are done. This is the way this is. If you don’t take my terms, you’re not getting any money from anybody.’ It was rough, because we were on a knife edge. We were bootstrapped, cashflow positive, but resources were really short. I faced, do a $7 million deal, which at the time felt like a lot of money, or potentially go bust, run out of money, get so far in the red that you’re not going to get out again. It really, really challenged our values and challenged what I believed in and what I was willing to do to grow our company.”
In the end, Sarah decided that $7 million wasn’t worth doing business with a bully who would compromise the kind of company she was trying to grow. In Sarah’s words, “We refused to sacrifice our values on the altar of success.” And, sure enough, within six months, Under Canvas found a better partner who let Sarah grow her company, her way.
“It helped clarify what success looked like,” she says, “and helped us really define who are we, what do we care about, what’s important to us? What is the ground we build our business upon, and what are we trying to build, and why?”
3. Know what you want.
Another clarifying moment for Sarah came at the 2018 CEO Coaching Summit.
“Mark Moses (CEO Coaching International’s Founding Partner) gave us all an amazing little glass statue,” Sarah remembers. “On it said, ‘What do you want?’ And I actually started to really ask myself that question. We’d now been in business almost 10 years, and I started to think about, where are we going? What is our trajectory? What does success look like for my company? What does it look like for me, personally? I really galvanized it into a specific number, and then really realized what would it take to do that? How do I break that down? How do I turn that into real metrics that we can focus on and really deliver on? When we did that, I realized, gosh, maybe that might not be that hard, and maybe it might not be that far away.”
Celebrating stories like Sarah’s and reinforcing that our community of entrepreneurs and CEOs can indeed make BIG happen is what the CEO Coaching Summit is all about.
“The piece of the puzzle that culminated with all of this really was a sense of I didn’t think big enough,” Sarah Dusek says. “And now I get to go on another journey that says, ‘I thought about what I wanted. I got what I wanted and achieved an extraordinary thing,’ but we’ve got a whole other journey to go.”
1. Don’t give up. Learn from your mistakes, adapt when things go wrong, and find creative ways forward.
2. Don’t compromise, especially if the heart and soul of your company – its values – are at stake.
3. Don’t think small unless you want to stay small forever. BIG goals lead to BIG growth.
Transcript: Download the full transcript here.
About CEO Coaching International
CEO Coaching International works with the world’s top entrepreneurs, CEOs, and companies to dramatically grow their business, develop their people, and elevate their overall performance. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 350 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 20 different countries. Every coach at CEO Coaching International is a former CEO or President that has made big happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from $10 million to over $1 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight and nine figure exits. CEOs and entrepreneurs working with CEO Coaching International for three years or more have experienced an average EBITDA CAGR of 66.4% during their time as a client, more than five times the national average. For more information, please visit: https://www.