As part of our series about the “Five Things You Need To Be A Highly Effective Leader During Turbulent Times,” we had the pleasure of interviewing Samuel Sanders.
Samuel Sanders is an award-winning entrepreneur who has seen innovation, creativity, problem-solving, and ideation in action at many different levels: a Fortune 500 company, an Inc. 5000 fastest-growing company, as well as incubators. He also co-founded the company Wundershirt, which at its peak, sold athletic training clothing to Olympic athletes preparing for the 2016 Olympics. Currently, he runs Heard, LLC, a software application that helps governments and large companies get targeted and reviewed feedback from their citizens/employees to improve decision making. His award-winning and highly-praised new book, Your Next Big Idea, is available for pre-order at www.yournextbigideabook.com.
Thank you so much for your time! I know that you are a very busy person. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started? (Check to make sure it is not overly promotional).
Sure! I was lucky enough to start my career working for an Inc. 5000 fastest growing company that did IT development. I joined as the third member of the business team. This allowed me to dive in and see firsthand how a successful, fast-moving company grows. I worked in multiple facets of the business, including:
- Human resources: helping with on-boarding, interviewing, and hiring
- Marketing: examining sales channel efficiency and creating a customer contact database
- Finance: working on project pricing
- Research and Development: exploring product development
My research and development experience was incredibly insightful because it gave me unique insight into how a fast-growing, small business looks at innovation and growth.
After that, I co-founded the company Wundershirt. Wundershirt sold athletic performance clothing, and our competitors included companies like Nike and Under Armour. This was my first look at entrepreneurship. During which I:
- Interfaced with customers and business partners all over the world
- Developed an entire supply chain from scratch
- Carried out a business plan
- Managed multiple team members.
At Wundershirt’s peak, we sold clothing to five different nation’s athletes preparing for the 2016 Summer Olympics. Unfortunately, Wundershirt is no longer active, but the lessons I learned on innovation from starting a company myself will stay with me forever.
After Wundershirt, I decided to take my career in a different direction and work for a Fortune 500 and Fortune Future 50 company. Here, I bounced around and did all different kinds of work, from:
- Writing requirements and proposals for clients
- Leading an offshore team
- Helping to create a new onboarding program
However, I gained insight into innovation by being one of ten members selected to be a part of the new initiative team. On this team, I helped implement a new business model to increase long-term profitability. Here, I got a glimpse at how a large company looks at innovation and development.
After I completed that project, I realized I had a unique perspective around innovation. I was able to see first-hand how innovation was treated at large successful companies, smaller high-growth companies, and startups. This was when I decided to write my book titled, Your Next Big Idea, exploring how businesses and people develop that “big innovative idea.” The book forced me to jump into a brand new industry, as I managed editors and designers and learned about all of the marketing that goes into selling a book.
Currently, I work on Heard, a software application that helps governments and large companies get targeted and reviewed feedback from their citizens/employees to improve decision-making. Heard works by allowing constituents to send in ideas they have to improve the community to the app. The app then sends those ideas out to other citizens to rate them and give feedback. If the concept gets positive traction, it is sent to the local leader like this, “Your constituent(s) has come up with [sample] idea to improve the community. It has 83% support from citizens, and it has [sample] action plan proposed. 205 people signed up their email to help bring the action plan and idea to a reality.” Then the government could work with this information and local citizens to improve the community. Heard increases government accountability and solves the problem of citizens feeling like their voices are not heard while allowing governments to more effectively organize citizen data.
Heard also has a business app helping business leaders hear ideas from employees at all levels. Employees can pitch ideas and get them to the right leaders to help spark innovation.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
Honestly, I have made so many funny mistakes! That is part of the learning process. One of the very first mistakes I remember facing is letting a “blocker” block me for way too long. At the time, I wanted to speak to a resident expert on nanotechnology at Cornell University. I was supposed to decide on some of the material we used in the fabric for Wundershirt. However, I let this information be a blocker for all of my other work. I remember being frustrated for over a week when I did not get all of the information I needed. However, looking back, I realized I should have explored other avenues when it came to finding out more information on nanotechnology and not putting all of my eggs in one basket.
I learned two lessons here:
- You are rarely going to be someone else’s number one priority.
You are going to have to advocate for yourself constantly as an entrepreneur. It takes a bit of pushing and a bit of patience, but things don’t just fall into your lap, so make sure to continue to get out there and show people how you can help them.
2. Give yourself a couple different avenues of work.
If you get stuck on a blocker for one avenue of work, don’t let it derail everything else. Sometimes, I still remind myself of this today. I get excited about completing a particular task, so all I want to do when I hit a blocker is to try and solve that blocker immediately. However, it may make more sense to move onto the next task and return to the original one at a different time. This way, I am not wasting any time and am maximizing my efficiency.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
My parents have been monumentally helpful throughout my career. Both my parents also worked in the business world and have had years of industry experience. They know my personality, tendencies, and how I work, so their advice is extremely valuable when I find myself in a tough situation.
I remember calling them the first time I was looking at letting a contractor go. It was a sad situation as I never want to “give up” on people. I remember talking to them, and they said, “Look, this person continues to not deliver on their promises over and over and is one of your biggest expenses. It’ll be best for the business if you move forward and go a different direction.”
It still hurts to think about this situation to this day. However, I know it was the right move, as it helped fast-track the company, while also helping to save money.
Whenever I am in a tough spot, my parents are always available to call and talk about the situation I am going through.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
I am currently working on two projects, Heard and my book, Your Next Big Idea.
For Heard, the main goal of the company is to get people’s voices more effectively ‘heard’. I started Heard because:
Say you are a citizen, and you have an idea on how to improve your society- you may keep it to yourself, or you might share that idea with a friend. If you are really ambitious, you may share it on social media or email your local representative. However, most of the time, those ideas that citizens have are lost. This happens countless times, and there is a massive amount of truly innovative ideas that never make it to the right people. This is a gigantic waste of human capital. From the reverse side, local leaders are sent so many ideas. There is no good way to find out if an idea is viable or liked by the community, so these ideas often get ignored. Heard looks to solve this problem and improve our communities.
For Your Next Big Idea, I wrote it because I was frustrated with how we teach creativity and business in our education system. We so often look at established companies or ideas themselves, but not how the person comes up with the idea. The fact that we skip over teaching ideation leads many people to give up and label themselves as ‘not creative,’ when in reality, we all have the potential to come up with great ideas! I hope that Your Next Big Idea can help people light that creative spark and find an idea that they can pursue to make an impact.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you share with our readers a story from your own experience about how you lead your team during uncertain or difficult times?
There are so many, but one that comes to mind is with Heard and the pandemic. Heard was in an aggressive sales mode trying to land new government clients. As the pandemic continued, local governments needed to direct more money to paid protective equipment and testing. I did not feel comfortable trying to sell our services to governments anymore until the pandemic was over because when it came down to it, a person’s life is more important than a business.
I began taking a step back and looked at the long-term vision of Heard. Instead of growing sales, I decided to build Heard’s brand and focus on marketing. The long-term marketing was split into three categories:
- Credibility growing
Credibility focused on projects like writing articles, publishing a book, and looking at ways to boost Heard’s credibility for when things return to normal.
- Intensive market research
Intensive market research focused on studying how the market is changing, how we interact with technology during the pandemic, how our views are changing, and using that new information to adjust our product.
- Relationship building.
Relationship building focused on making connections with the right people, whether it be customers or future partners, to help grow Heard.
2020 was a challenging year for Heard, but we have all of the information set up and ready to have an explosive year once the pandemic resides.
Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the motivation to continue through your challenges? What sustains your drive?
I am human, so the thought has crossed my mind. For me, “impact” motivates me. I ask myself questions like, “How can I make the biggest change?” and, “How can I improve customers’ and everyday citizens’ lives?”
The fact that I know I can still make the world a better place helps push me to drive forward.
I want to mention, though, that we often hear success stories about how people continue to push through during hard times, but that is not always the case. If you don’t see a realistic way forward, it is ok to move on. Entrepreneurs fail all the time. You want to keep pushing through during tough times, but if there is no realistic way out of the struggle, it may not be feasible to push forward as you can further your sunk costs.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during challenging times?
The “habit breaker.” Getting out of challenging times is no easy feat. During turbulent times, concerned employees might just go through the motions. They may even feel more pressure to do their job well since they may be afraid that their job is at risk. However, as a leader, this is not necessarily what you want. If your company is facing a critical crisis, you want employees thinking at a high-level.
It is essential to ask your employees, “If you were a leader, how would you get out of our situation?” Then schedule meetings with them to hear what they have to say. Your chances of finding the right solution are way higher if you have multiple people thinking about the problems and pitching new ideas. You may be able to take facets of their ideas, combine them together, or they may even inspire your own ideas on how to move from challenging to prosperous times.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
It takes a combination of being positive but also being realistic about the situation. Communicating where you are, why you believe a situation is challenging, and what you plan to do, is a great, honest way of communicating to your team. Being open and realistic about a problem and encouraging employees to help will motivate and engage your team to push towards a solution.
What is the best way to communicate difficult news to one’s team and customers?
There are two steps I use when communicating difficult news to my team. I do it openly and honestly on a team call. Then, I set up individual calls with each team member to talk about the news. Oftentimes, this is where I can get the most insight into what to do and how my employees feel about the difficult news. When having one-on-one meetings, you can also take an individualistic approach to communication that better serves each employee.
How can a leader make plans when the future is so unpredictable?
I think the key to making plans is to think about the endpoint. What do you want, and where do you want to be? There are so many different ways to get to the endpoint, but you can talk about the diverse paths and plans as long as you have a clear ending in mind. Based on changing environmental factors, you may need to move in one direction or pivot your strategy, either way, this is doable if, and only if, you know where you are headed. If you don’t have that long-term vision or long-term goal in sight, it makes planning exponentially harder and can cause a change in plan to derail your business.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
Trust your employees. It very rarely is one person that guides a company out of a disaster; it is a group of talented employees that push the company in the direction it needs to go. If you put all the pressure on yourself to try and find a solution, your odds of being successful are much smaller. Talk to your employees, get ideas and opinions, take the best from your team’s collective knowledge, and steer the company in the right direction.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make during difficult times? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
Three common mistakes I see businesses make are:
- Cutting products without thinking about fixed costs
This happens way too often and is incredibly frustrating and disappointing. There is a general rule around dropping products in accounting. The rule is, “You can drop the product if the fixed costs saved are greater than the contribution margin lost.” This is important because even if you are not making money on a certain product, if you do not save fixed costs by dropping the product, it will lower your profit. Companies can put themselves out of business by continuing to drop products.
2. Treating employees as numbers
As I mentioned before, if you treat your employees as a number and do not include them in the decision-making process (especially during challenging times), it will hurt your company in the long term. Employees may become disengaged, and you will have fewer minds and ideas contributing to solving difficult problems, lowering your chance for success.
3. Drifting away from what makes your business work
Sometimes, I see companies putting too many resources into new, unproven products or projects during unprecedented times. It is essential to look at your business at a high-level and focus on what works and invest your time there.
Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?
I have two strategies I use:
- Regularly going over accounting statements and growth opportunities.
To increase profit, you need to cut expenses or grow sales. If you regularly go over your statements, you will see areas of opportunity to expand business or reduce cost.
2. Always think long-term and work backward.
As long as you have a clear long-term goal, you can adjust your path to getting there. Having a flexible path will allow your business to be agile. It will help you handle more turbulent times more effectively.
Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to lead effectively during uncertain and turbulent times? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Work closely with employees when solving problems.
So often, I find that leaders are afraid to share problems with employees openly. They can be closed off, frantically trying to solve how to get their business out of turbulent times. It is more helpful to work together with employees to develop ideas on how to solve an issue. I remember before my company made a significant pivot, I was talking with coworkers about the struggles we were having. I told them the challenges we were facing and asked them what they thought. A week later, they came back to me with ideas on pivoting — these ideas aligned feasible solutions with long-term profitability. For me, it is a numbers game. The more intelligent minds I have working to solve a problem, the more potential high-quality solutions.
2. Allow employees to have autonomy, mastery, and purpose, but balance your management.
This is a tricky balance to have, especially during a pandemic, but you want to keep your employees happy and driven. Daniel Pink, New York Times bestselling author, advises what drives people. He talks about autonomy, our desire to be self-directed, mastery, the urge to get better at skills, and purpose, the desire to do something meaningful and important. Keeping employees driven during a crisis is critical. Reminding them of the ability to gain new skills and giving them a sense of purpose and autonomy can help, but it has to be a balance.
Personally, I remember a time where I gave an employee too much autonomy. He ended up feeling lost and unmotivated. Looking back, if I guided him a little more, then he could have been more engaged and would have had a better experience. We want all of our employees as driven as possible, especially during challenging times, so mastering that balance is key.
3. Be honest and open with customers, partners, and employees.
Honesty is critical. We so often want to say, “Oh, we can deliver; we just need more time.” We hope this will help us avoid losing business. We also shield things from employees to avoid concern; however, this kind of behavior will end up backfiring most of the time.
With customers, trust is vital. If you break promises or push back deadlines continuously, you will end up losing the customer in the long run. It is more important to be open and honest about what your team is going through. With partners, it is essential to be honest about expectations because if you are not honest, you may lose them as a partner. With employees, it is important to be honest, because if you don’t share information, the ambiguity of the situation will cause employees stress.
I remember being backed into a corner financially as I was planning on launching a new product. One of the partners I was working with was looking to build this product and I kept pushing the build date further and further back until finally, the partner asked to stop working with me. Had I been open and honest, I could have avoided this situation altogether.
4. Reevaluate the problems, needs, and wants your business solves for.
When a business is struggling, it can often be due to a loss of sales or over-expansion. Therefore, it helps reevaluate what problem needs and want your solution, product or service is solving for. It is possible that by looking and digging deep into a business’s strengths, you can find new areas to expand and grow the business.
When I was working on Heard, I remember we were only working directly with companies, but after hitting some rejections, I had to reevaluate. I looked at what we could really provide and what problems we were really solving for. During this time, I realized opening Heard up to local governments was not only a feasible option, but an extremely practical and profitable option.
5. Reevaluate your market research.
During times like these, it also can make sense to check your market research. Markets change and evolve. It could be that your business is struggling because you are using outdated or insufficient market research. Understanding your market is the key to success. During the same time that we opened up Heard to governments, we were also reevaluating our market research. After rediscovery, we found that universities would also be a good fit for our company. While we have not finished building out all the infrastructure needed yet, this additional insight opened up multiple paths to increased profitability.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“You can’t use up creativity. The more you use of it, the more you have.” — Maya Angelou
Maya Angelou is such a powerful and inspiring figure. What she accomplished in acting, writing, and as an activist will be remembered throughout history. I think part of this quote resonates with me because we are routine beings in nature, and this quote helps remind me to break that routine. It is essential to step out of our comfort zone, be creative and not just do the same things every day. Once you can break out of your comfort zone, your creative juices can run wild, and you can come up with truly innovative ideas. I would love to see more people pushing boundaries and thinking of solutions to the big problems we face.
How can our readers further follow your work?
Connect with me on LinkedIn! I would love to hear from you: