Building a Start-Up

August 9, 2023

The founding core of Tower Engineering Professionals (TEP) was as a tower mapping and structural engineering firm. The company name said it all. From it one knew that tower engineering was what we did. The logo showed our core service. It was a red stylized cellular tower with its grey shadow. (Thank you, Alberto. Your logo lives on into the decades.)

At our founding in 1997 I did all the mapping and engineering. I completed those tasks with such urgency that clients wanted additional services. Their end game was a functional cell site. Aa such they needed civil engineering, environmental, surveying and more.

During the first year I resisted their requests to expand TEP’s services because I was operationally alone. Production, client relations, collections, even mundane decisions such as designing the letterhead and choosing fonts, required me. All decisions and all consequences were mine.

Many of the climbs I did, I did alone without ground support. I worked 361 of the first 365 calendar days of TEP’s existence. There was no more time, no more days, and no more emotional energy for me to provide additional services.

My wife Gayle ran the business office and was an occasional ground woman. Additionally, she had a full-time job outside of running TEP that paid the first and second mortgages on our home. That second mortgage was necessary to fund TEP. Like me, she had no more to give.

That changed the following year when Andy replaced my first – and mostly silent – business partner. Like me Andy was driven. Andy, Gayle, and I were a team of thirsty horses who were equally yoked. As any good team, we were more than 1 + 1 +1 = 3. We were mutual force-multipliers.

With Andy in the mix, we could finally add the services that our clients required. Knowing that winning leadership preceded winning results, we implemented the following process:

Step 1: We hired a Division Manager for a new service offering. That DM received a base salary plus a percentage of profit from his division. Civil Engineering, Environmental and Tower Inspections were examples. Maze ran civil engineering, George lead environmental, and Tom took over our tower inspections division.

Step 2: One of us, usually Andy, helped the new DM produce his division’s tasks. Important to keeping TEP’s culture during this period of growth was Andy’s direct involvement in the daily production. I had established that culture three years prior at KCI. Andy knew it well. He guided the new DM into our culture of production with urgency.

Step 3: When revenue allowed, we hired an employee for the division. Then Andy would get out of the way of the DM to allow them to lead their division.

Step 4: Critically, if the DM could not lead the division to wins, I would counsel him eye-to-eye and in writing. If my counseling was not accepted, I would replace the DM with little delay. Then repeat the process.

Seventeen years after its founding, I sold majority control of TEP for $55 million. The day before that sale, we were utterly and completely debt-free. Eight years hence we recapped again for $215 million.

Research indicates that 50 to 90% of all startups fail. Perhaps TEP’s process was a good one.

What do you think of this blog post? And what do you think of my website? I’m happy to hear from anyone, especially tower hands. Anyone who climbs towers—in my book—deserves a priority response!

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