How to Do Something You’ve Never Done Before

Jay Mattern

CEO, TerraFirma Marketing, Villing & Company

Jay is the former CEO of Peoplelink and led the company in one role or another since its inception in 1987. He is a native of Indiana with a BS in Business Marketing from Indiana University-Purdue University at Indianapolis.

Looking back at the evolution of Peoplelink Group, I’m amazed that we’ve grown to more than 11 different brands operating in 100 offices across 45 states. That’s a long way from where we started as a startup family business in Elkhart, Indiana. We affectionately called our first office “the crack house,” because it was an actual residential structure in a less-than-desirable part of town where questionable business transactions took place after dark. It’s still standing; you can even see the empty wooden posts that used to hold our sign.

Although we had big plans, we were clueless about how to get there. To even have a chance, we had to start somewhere. I’ve found the chart below is a helpful guide when you are trying to do something you’ve never done before.


Start with the Basics

A leader must be prepared to make decisions with limited information: good judgment comes from experience, and experience comes from bad judgment.

It’s always better to make any decision than none—because even when you make no decision, you’ve actually made a decision, haven’t you?

Thus, when you start off, you have to operate in the “knowing what you know” quadrant. Follow Tom Peters’ advice from In Search of Excellence. Rather than going for perfection (Ready. Aim. Fire.), go for speed (Ready. Fire. Aim. Fire. Aim. Fire. Aim…) In other words, work with what you know, while you figure out:

1) what exactly you’re selling

2) who you’re selling to, and

3) how to make money

Initially, Peoplelink had a basic idea of what the “product” was, but we simply had to get in front of prospects and—through trial and error—refine our approach to get dialed in on the market. In the early stages, data comes directly and primarily from your people: what are they seeing in the market, who do they know, what have they heard?

As your company grows and has additional resources, processes can be automated and serve as a gathering point for the data needed to assess the business and markets. As Peoplelink grew, we became more aware of what we didn’t know.

How?  Because our partners, associates, consultants, industry associations, and competitors told us. The solution to raising your firm’s knowledge quotient is simple: ask, ask, ask! There are many venues to do this: surveys, quarterly business reviews with partners, partner visits with the leadership team, and many other ways that don’t cost a lot or take a significant amount of time. It’s a never-ending pursuit to raise the bar.

Vision Drives Knowledge

I’m a strong believer that decisions must be driven by your company vision. It’s the compelling force behind your company’s trajectory. Peoplelink’s vision is to unleash the power of the human spirit into the world of work. We view the workplace as a laboratory, where the end product is not putting butts in seats, but is the experience of learning and growing. It’s no accident that our company values spell out “PEOPLE:” Passion. Engagement. Ownership. Profitability. Leadership. Excellence.

One example of the quadrant in action relates to our branding strategy. As we grew, we debated how to structure the go-to-market presence of the company. Should we be a branded house, or a house of brands?

When it came down to it, we realized that we didn’t know what the future would bring. But we did know that we wanted to stay nimble and preserve the ability to be quick on our feet. We weren’t trying to fool ourselves that it would be easy to maintain a cohesive vision across different focus areas, but we kept coming back to the strength of our collective entrepreneurial spirit. That served as the foundation to build a platform based on multiple brands with clear specialization.

Take a Hard Look

When your company is growing quickly, it can be hard to take a step back and evaluate the big picture. You have to strike the right balance between confidence and risk management. That means doing your homework to truly face your operational weaknesses, while empowering your team to make decisions that will propel you towards your vision.

Even when we made the decision in 2011 to sell to Groupe Crit, our due diligence centered on the factors we knew must be upheld: recognition of our company legacy; a bias towards speed and agility; and the preservation of the best interests of our employees.

We still stay focused on learning and on measuring our progress. We realize at Peoplelink that there are things we don’t know we don’t know. You can fool yourself into taking on something where you clearly have no idea of what you are doing and put yourself and your company at risk by making a mistake. That is just as dangerous as failing to properly assess risk because you think you know the answer. We are careful to tread lightly when it appears that there may be hidden dangers.

Even though we’re big, we haven’t forgotten our roots and the self-awareness—and pure grit—it took to acknowledge our weaknesses. After all, it’s that commitment to relentlessly asking “how can we do this better” that got Peoplelink out of the crack house and on the path to global success.