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This CEO Coach Led His Startup Through "Fire" to $200 Million in Revenue

Guest: Jeff Bledsoe, a coach at CEO Coaching International. Before joining us, Jeff had a distinguished career working for multi-billion-dollar publicly traded companies and private equity-owned businesses. Jeff was also the founder and CEO of Five Star Custom Foods, a company that he built to $200 million in revenue before selling to a major international company.

Episode in a Tweet: These strategies can help your firm hit $200 million in revenue while also overcoming the major challenges that inevitably get in the way.

Quick Background: We’ve talked a lot in the past year about how moments of disruption can provide entrepreneurs with a BIG opportunity to start a new business. And in this current environment, nimble startups and aggressive existing companies can identify and fulfill customer needs that their larger competitors might be overlooking.

That is, as long as the CEO has a clearly defined plan and enough resilience to tackle whatever unforeseen problems are around the corner.

On today’s show, CEO Coaching International’s Jeff Bledsoe explains how he led his food processing startup through the fire — literally — to $200 million in revenue and a BIG exit.

Transcript: Download the full transcript here.

Keys to Ramping Up to $200 Million in Revenue from Jeff Bledsoe

1. Stop waiting.

The perfect time to start a business or launch a new product line is right now. BIG companies like Slack, Square, and Venmo grew out of the Great Recession. Zoom repositioned itself from a niche platform to an industry leader during a pandemic. And countless other entrepreneurs have turned a sudden job loss or corporate shakeup into a launch pad.

“I had always had the desire to have my own business,” Jeff says. “The company that I’d worked for was being sold. And so I was offered the opportunity to either stay or not. I chose door B. Although I was recruited to stay with the company I felt like if I was going to start my own company, now was the time to do it. And so, I began to gather a team of folks that I felt could be the foundation of a new company, and then I spent my summer months writing a detailed business plan.”

No one is going to tap you on the shoulder and say, “OK, it’s time.” No one is going to drop an investment in your lap because of an idea that’s still incubating in the back of your head. And there’s never going to be a “perfect time” when your path to success will be wide open and free of challenges. If you’re ready, go do it.

2. Strengthen your value proposition.

Jeff felt confident in his business plan because of his years of experience in food processing and because he’d carefully plotted his cashflow needs out to three years. Working backwards from there allowed him to create solid balance sheets and income statements that attracted investors. But the real reason that Jeff’s projections worked was that he had spent as much time crunching his numbers as he had spent refining his new company’s value proposition. Jeff knew that food processing is an incredibly competitive space, and he also knew how to differentiate his new firm from the big boys.

“I think it’s important for any new business to be empathetic and look at things from your potential client or customer’s perspective,” Jeff says. “Understand what is it that your company can provide that your customers can’t find anywhere else, or that your company can provide and do better than any other alternative. The competitors that we had at the time were really big, well-funded companies. I knew that I couldn’t compete at scale. But I could focus on the customer’s needs and be more agile, responsive, and have a greater attention to detail than my larger competitor could.”

No matter what business you want to be in, no matter what product or service you plan to sell, you have to know your customers better than they know themselves. You’re never going to be able to beat the Amazons of the world on price. But customers will pay more for a personalized experience that solves problems they don’t know they’re going to have and offers innovative products and services they don’t realize they need.

“I really explained, ‘Here are our existing capabilities,'” Jeff says. “Within those capabilities I had a pretty good understanding of where customer needs were within that portfolio of capabilities. Sometimes that means getting ahead on the development cycle. Maybe it’s not an existing item that they’re buying right now but they’re developing a new product, and so you need to work with the development team. You’re becoming the first supplier of a new product. In some cases, that was our point of entry.”

3. Practice honesty and transparency.

When things are going great, open lines of communication make your team feel plugged into the energy that is driving everyone to do their best work. But the true test of a CEO’s communication skills comes during a crisis moment. Two weeks before its planned opening, there was a fire at Jeff’s new plant. With customers lined up, orders needing to be filled, and investors monitoring their money, Jeff had to push back his opening by three months.

Jeff Bledsoe: I think it’s important for any new business to be able to be empathetic and look at things from your potential client or customer’s perspective.

“The way that we approached it then and continue to approach those kinds of issues as we grew was with honesty and transparency,” Jeff says. “Putting off the bad news is never a good idea. If we knew that we were not going to be able to meet our customer’s expectations and those commitments that we had made, we were on the phone just as quickly as we could. And we were as transparent as we could possibly be in laying out, ‘Here’s what happened. Here’s what our plan was. And here’s the revised plan.’ And then, as you begin to execute that plan, you provide those updates, and that develops your client’s confidence that they’re working with somebody that they can trust.”

Like another one of our CEO Coaches, Michael Maas, Jeff also kept clear open lines of communication with his bank, which repaid his honesty by providing some critical short-term and long-term support.

“I would call my banker at the end of each month and explain to them what was going on, whether we were ahead or behind,” Jeff says. “And then as we got past those early days, I continued that close relationship. And what that afforded us was the opportunity in 2008-09 to have frank conversations of, ‘What’s our capacity for debt? I want to build a second facility. Help me work through these questions.’ And then, of course, they’re right there with you because they know that they can trust you and that you’ve been open and transparent with them.”

4. Be great at something your customers will value.

If being the boss was easy, everyone would do it. Building a business from nothing adds an entirely different level of challenges and responsibility. Aiming low might sound like a conservative strategy that will help you get off the ground. But in my experience, businesses that aim small stay small until they get crushed.

“Figure out what you can be the best in the world at,” Jeff says, paraphrasing Jim Collins. “For us, it was our agility and our focus on those unique needs of the customer. We didn’t come to them with our latest and greatest ideas as much as we came there with the latest and greatest opportunities to help them solve their problems. It was, ‘What are you trying to accomplish?’ and here’s a way that we can help you accomplish that in a more efficient way than you had ever thought possible.”

Top Takeaways

1. If your startup can’t compete on scale beat your competition’s customer service experience.

2. Don’t try to hide bad news, communicate a clear path forward.

3. Aim BIG! No one wants to invest in or work for a company that’s light on ambition.

Transcript: Download the full transcript here.

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About CEO Coaching International

CEO Coaching International works with CEOs and their leadership teams to achieve extraordinary results quarter after quarter, year after year. Known globally for its success in coaching growth-focused entrepreneurs to meaningful exits, CEO Coaching International has coached more than 1,000 CEOs and entrepreneurs in more than 60 countries and 45 industries. The coaches at CEO Coaching International are former CEOs, presidents, or executives who have made BIG happen. The firm’s coaches have led double-digit sales and profit growth in businesses ranging in size from startups to over $10 billion, and many are founders that have led their companies through successful eight, nine, and ten-figure exits. Companies working with CEO Coaching International for two years or more have experienced an average revenue CAGR of 31% (2.6X the U.S. average) and an average EBITDA CAGR of 52.3% (more than 5X the U.S. average).

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