Three Eight Things to Consider in Building a Successful Business
Recently I was asked for the top three things that someone should know when starting a business in order to position it for success. Answering on the fly, I said:
- Determine the best legal structure – for us this is an S-Corp, which provides some level of protection for our personal assets and offers certain tax advantages.
- Make sure you have a support network – Tara and I started The Grant Plant (TGP) 20 years ago. As sisters, we both feel that we wouldn’t be able to do this work without each other and are fortunate to have that built in support structure. We also belong to a national business community, Entreleadership, and have participated in local cohort-based programs as well, such as the Small Business Administration’s (SBA’s) Thrive program. Having this support has meant that we have people to bounce ideas off of, get honest feedback from folks who have been there, done that, and problem solve when issues come up.
- Remember Profit First – while the name of this book put me off (we work for nonprofit organizations, after all), the intent is to ensure your company has a healthy cash reserve and you are paying yourself, as the business owner, for the hard work you are doing.
But I know there is a lot more to growing a successful business than these three things, even though they are important. I got to thinking, what HAS made TGP as successful as it has been? Here is my more well thought out answer, with numbers 4-8:
- Build Relationships – We were fortunate early on in our business to secure contracts with both respected and influential community members and organizations. This helped us develop a solid reputation for outstanding work as clients shared our name with others who were looking for grant writing support. They also “took us with them” when they moved on to a new position at a new organization, which expanded the number of contracts we held as we often remained working with the original organization. So we’re grateful to those who believed in us early on as a company, and proud to say we continue to work with many of these amazing folks today – almost 20 years later!
- Hire the Best People – From the get-go, our hiring motto has been to hire people smarter than us. We wouldn’t be where we are today without the contributions of some very talented staff members. From high caliber technical writing to strategic program planning to graphic design that pushes a proposal to the next level, our staff have knocked it out of the park. Our record stands at approximately 67% of all grant proposals funded, bringing more than $220 million to nonprofit organizations. Not only that, we have a second family in our team members, who are always there for each other and who embody the values of TGP: Accountability, Collaboration, Compassion, Humor, Innovation, Integrity, Risk Taking, and Results. Our very first hires, Aly and Wendy, are still with us today, almost 14 years later, and we’ve been fortunate in bringing on others throughout the years who have been there through thick and thin (special shout out to Paula and Cecily) and who are helping us transition from a small shop to what is a mid- to large-sized grant consultancy based on the size of other firms in the field nationally. All of our team members are exceptional – when you work with TGP, you know you are getting the best: Aly, Wendy, Cecily, Paula, Jenny, Myshel, Marya, Laurel, Amo, Tonia, Molly, Tricia, and Kyle.
- Find a Niche – Grant writing is difficult and time consuming. It involves skilled proposal writing, project management, facilitation, research, data analysis, and budgeting, while requiring you to read, understand, and respond to often complex directions. By focusing on this one thing and doing it well, we were able to fill a need in the local market for grant proposal development. Executive Directors are often too busy to be working on grants, and program folks want to spend time delivering programs. Grant writing is a natural task that can be outsourced. If we’d tried to do too many things early on, I don’t think we’d be nearly as successful as we have been. Instead, we focused on developing high quality, competitive proposals, and our clients were able to benefit from the results. We also developed internal expertise in federal grant seeking, which is the most complicated grant source of all, and were uniquely responsive to the 2009 economic downturn by applying for ARRA money flowing from the federal government. This same expertise is helping us work with clients to access the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) funding today. And now, as we’ve grown and added staff members as well as developed additional areas of expertise through professional development and hands-on practice, we’re at a place where we can now expand to offer additional services, including grant management, evaluation, training, and risk assessment.
- Set and Believe in Your Vision – We see possibilities for the business, our clients, and for New Mexico in particular to benefit from focused efforts to secure large-scale funding from outside the state. By dreaming big, we helped our clients launch programs and organizations that created new jobs, supported economic development, and provided societal good. We recognized early on the game changer that large national or federal grants can be for our clients. For example, A $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services combined with a $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Justice led to the employment of approximately 350 people with justice system involvement reintegrating into the community. Other grants have funded entrepreneurship programs, culturally relevant Native American education, public health efforts, affordable housing, and much more. For the business, we are currently expanding our services, as noted above, to help our clients through well-rounded consultation on all things grants. We see infinite possibilities as we expand our geographic footprint to other states, supporting nonprofit organizations and local and state governments access the funding they need to deliver programs and serve the public.
- Be Flexible – Our byline is, “We’re nothing if not flexible,” by which we mean that we meet clients where they are at. I think this led to early success as we weren’t rigid (and still aren’t) with the number of review rounds a proposal can go through with a client, or in the way early input or later feedback is provided. We also got comfortable, quickly, with “making stuff up.” If we were going to run the type of proposed program our client wanted us to write about, how would we design it? This often gives our clients a starting place to work together, rather than requiring a significant amount of upfront client time – because then they might as well be writing the grant themselves! We consider ourselves content creators, while also being excellent listeners. Grants are at the nexus of money and deadlines, making it an inherently stressful field. Providing the space for our clients to provide input in a way that works for them – whether it is sitting in a room together, receiving faxed edits (in the early days), or walking through pointed questions on a phone call – we are able to integrate client information, represent each client’s unique impact on the world, and produce a polished proposal.
When we started, what we didn’t know about grant writing or running a business would fill a book. In fact, we’ve thought about writing one. Back then, the Grant Professionals Association had barely even started – it’s celebrating its 25th anniversary this year as we celebrate our 20th. But as I look back on our accomplishments and especially the people involved in them – our clients and our team – it’s easy to pick out what went well and what one might want to consider in launching a successful business, in any field. I’ll be better prepared to answer that question next time!
Contact: Erin Hielkema, Vice President
 Which we call our Mastermind group as it makes us feel somehow like a cross between being really smart and like the supervillain turned superhero animated Megamind.
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