Back in the heady days of the dot-com boom, Lewis Schiff founded and successfully sold two companies. However, it was only after he started to write books about entrepreneurship and investing — including The Armchair Millionaire, Business Brilliant and The First Habit — that he started to see himself as a true business expert.
As someone who is always trying to find out more about the world, Schiff wasn’t going to keep everything he learned to himself. In addition to writing his books, he is now the chairman of the Board of Experts for the Birthing of Giants fellowship. The week-long program helps 60 hand-picked business owners with companies with $5 million to $250 million in revenue the next level of market-readiness.
Schiff is also the executive director of Moonshots and Moneymakers: a conference produced by Birthing of Giants and Oxford University, that is designed to help entrepreneurs identify billion-dollar opportunities inside their market, or even within their own companies.
Here’s Schiff’s advice on leaning into your strengths, helping the people who work for you do the same, and how to tell the difference between a moonshot and a moneymaker.
Know Your Language of Business
No one is good at every single job required to run a business. Remember that the next time you find yourself struggling with a task!
However, everyone excels at something. Think of this, Schiff says, as your language of business: It’s the part of your work that comes so naturally to you that you often can’t even explain how you do it. Identifying this is the first habit every entrepreneur needs to succeed.
Many people who work for someone else never get to fully explore their language of business. “There's a lot of infrastructure telling you, ‘I don't really care what you're best at, here's what I need you to do,’” Schiff explains. One of the benefits of being an entrepreneur is that you have the freedom to explore many different aspects of work, until you find the one that clicks with you.
The flipside of that coin is that you will probably discover that you’re not good at a lot of other things — potentially including things you thought you were good at. Don’t be stubborn about these lessons: it will distract you from focusing on your strengths.
“Some people refuse to accept that [they aren’t as good at something as they thought], so they become mediocre at everything,” Schiff says. “But the best entrepreneurs do more of what they're good at than anything else, and as little as possible of what they're bad at.”
Identifying your business language also empowers you to honor those skills. Just because you find something easy doesn’t mean everyone else does. Be proud of your talents, and recognize the value they bring to your business.
Identify the Type of Business You Want to Build
In order to form a successful long-term strategy, you need to know what kind of business you’re building. Not just for your own benefit, but so you can understand how investors see your company.
Schiff calls businesses that make steady, moderate profits “moneymakers.” In contrast, “moonshots” are innovative businesses with the potential to achieve hockey stick-style growth and million-dollar revenues the first year. Sometimes they’re buried inside moneymakers, waiting for the right technology or insider intel to draw them out.
Birthing of Giants helps business owners discover the moonshots within their moneymakers. But that doesn’t necessarily mean moonshots are the best fit for every entrepreneur and business. Not every company has to shoot for a $1 billion+ valuation: They’re called unicorns because they’re rare.
"When you build a business for profit, you build it one way, and when you build a business for revenue, you build it another way. And if you're not sure about the answer to that question, you're also not going to be sure about what you do next for your business."
Typically, investors assess the value of moneymakers based on a multiplication of the profits the business is projected to generate. In contrast, with a moonshot that is predicted to make millions or even billions of dollars, investors are less concerned with profits than revenue.
As long as you know which of these models you want to follow, it doesn’t matter which one it is.
“There's nothing wrong with either answer,” Schiff says. “It's just that when you build a business for profit, you build it one way, and when you build a business for revenue, you build it another way. And if you're not sure about the answer to that question, you're also not going to be sure about what you do next for your business.”
Hire a Team You’re Comfortable Delegating To
Building a business that hinges entirely on your knowledge and skills means introducing a single, very delicate point of failure: You. Investors don’t want to invest in or buy a company that will crumble if its founder leaves.
“These very difficult questions come up in the process of sales,” Schiff says. “‘Who really runs this company? Who runs the staff meeting on Mondays? Who do the clients call when things go wrong? And if the answer is always you, the owner, the business value drops.”
If you’d like to bring in outside capital or sell one day, you need to make it possible for the business to operate independently of yourself. That means hiring a team of people you know you can rely on.
Schiff has two recommendations for finding that team — including one he knows some of his fellow business experts disagree with.
1. Find people who have already learned from their mistakes.
Schiff’s controversial piece of advice for entrepreneurs hiring teams is to look for candidates who have experience working in companies that have achieved what you’re hoping to. Not only will they know what it takes, they’ll have got their mistakes out of the way at someone else’s expense.
“Other people don't agree with that at all,” Schiff acknowledges. “But if you want to be tactical about building a management team, you might as well find people who have already built a company that's worth $100 million, and find a way to recruit them to your business.”
Bumping up the salary probably won’t be enough to win these seasoned candidates over. If you want the experts, you have to give them a deeper reason to invest in what you’re doing, for example through equity. “That level of talent needs to be valued in a way that shows up in the financial model,” Schiff says.
2. Empower people to speak their business language at work.
Just as you need to know which areas of business you excel at in order to lead, you need to empower your employees to showcase their talents. Not only because it makes your business stronger, but also because it will make your staff feel more fulfilled.
“If you can make people feel like they get to bring their full selves to work, and they get to live their language as much as possible, that's the way you build a high-functioning management team,” Schiff says. “If everyone in that room is living their language as closely as possible, it's the best you can do for them.”
The Best Way to Troubleshoot: Ask Questions
To best work out how to tackle a problem, you first have to understand the root of it. And to do that, you need to ask questions — usually of people with different skill sets than yours.
“The answer is actually not that hard once you ask the right questions,” Schiff says. “If there's something clanking in your car … [ask] ‘What's clanking? Why is it clanking? Where's it clanking?’ Then you replace that part. But if you just say, ‘It's clanking, it's probably the windshield,’ you haven't even asked any questions yet, and you came up with a conclusion that's probably wrong.”
Asking important questions is itself a skill: It’s one Schiff identifies as his personal language of business. However, he says that he’s also learning to stay quiet, and allow information to find him.
"If there's something clanking in your car … [ask] ‘What's clanking? Why is it clanking? Where's it clanking?’ Then you replace that part.
But if you just say, ‘It's clanking, it's probably the windshield,’ you haven't even asked any questions yet, and you came up with a conclusion that's probably wrong."
“Being silent — allowing information to come in that you do not draw out, you just let it present itself when it's time for it to present itself — is also incredibly powerful for getting to a great solution,” Schiff says. The best teachers know that listening is part of learning.
The conversation with Lewis Schiff continues on the Leading with Genuine Care podcast. We talk more about his own experiences selling two successful businesses, what he’s learned from interviewing top business leaders, what investors look for in companies, and so much more. Connect with me on Twitter and LinkedIn and keep up with my company imageOne. Check out my website or some of my other work here.