A Rapidly Growing Business: How It Started and the Lessons Learned Along the Way
By Jackie Paplaczyk
It was late 2012 when Bill Sanders decided it was time to take the leap and start his first company. “I knew I wanted to start something – I’ve always had a bit of an entrepreneurial bug.” His first step? Legally setting up the company. It was the year of “Googling” and figuring it out. “I had no idea what it took to start a company. You just figure it out and then hire smart people to help you.”
By 2013, Bill had landed his first client through the credibility and relationships he had established as a career consultant. In 2014, Bill’s focus was on securing a local anchor client. Once this was accomplished, things really began to take off. Between the end of 2014 and the end of 2016, the company grew 323%. It’s 2019 and Bill is now the Managing Partner of this company, Summus Group; a provider of Management Consulting services with a focus on the Financial Services and FinTech industries.
Today, Bill is also an active member of the Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO) and serves on the Board for a local tech company. He said he was asked to be on their board because he had been through it before. “All growing companies generally run into the same common issues. Working with other entrepreneurs helps us to lean on one another and learn from each other’s successes and failures.” When reflecting on his career, Bill said, “I can see myself staying involved in smaller, growing companies for the rest of my career. You are able to make an impact on all aspects of the business, which I am passionate about, and it’s not often you get the opportunity to do that.”
This month we sit down with Bill Sanders to hear firsthand how Summus Group came to be and what advice Bill has for others based on the lessons he learned along the way.
Where did the idea of Summus Group come from?
I have been a consultant my entire career. I started my career at Accenture, when it was Andersen Consulting, in New York, and continued my consulting career in Charlotte. I have worked in almost every aspect of consulting, from Big Four, working with Fortune 100 companies, to independent consulting focusing on building out my personal brand. Along the way, I saw things I loved and things that I did not about the career I have chosen. The idea of Summus Group came from not finding that perfect mix of what I was looking for in my career.
The idea of starting a consulting company had been there for a long time. All I’ve ever known is consulting and I’ve learned a lot from the companies and clients I worked for. I thought, what if I took all of the things I loved and tried to put them together in a single company…wouldn’t that be a great place to work? I never found that and if you can’t find exactly what you want, go create it.
To start the company, at least for me, there was a ‘stars aligning’ moment. I felt I first had to have a solid knowledge base. If I didn’t know how to consult myself, how would I start a consulting company? After twelve plus years, I believed I had built up enough experience to demonstrate this knowledge. Second, starting up a company isn’t free, so I had to start setting some money aside. I chose not to go after outside funding at the beginning and to take a bootstrapping approach; the thought being, I wanted to do it ‘my way’, and then when there were more of us, I wanted to do it ‘our way’. Bootstrapping is hard and moves slower. It’s not to say what is the right or wrong way to start a company; it is just the way I chose to back then. Third, you have to find a client. You don’t have much of a company if you don’t have any work. I went to a friend that worked at a large company and asked if they would give Summus Group a shot. I told them to rip up the contract if they weren’t happy with our services. Thankfully, they didn’t…ha.
Many people dream of working for themselves and doing what they love. What drove you to take the leap and make your idea a reality?
The culmination of desire and opportunity.
I had been a consultant for many years, and I got to a point where I wanted to do something more with what I had learned along the way. I had been thinking about starting a company for a long time. I thought if it doesn’t work out, at least I will never look back and wish I would have taken a shot.
To take a leap like that, you choose to leave smooth waters. If I could give any advice based on what I’ve learned, it would be to ask yourself what is the career ‘mistake’ you are going to make that is so big you are not going to come back from it? I’m not talking about destroying your career, but making a calculated and thoughtful decision to take a leap in your career. You should make smart career moves for whatever lifestyle you want to live, but in most cases, the risk is temporary. If you take a leap when you are 25, you have so much career left and can always choose a different path. Remember, it’s your job, not your life.
Compare a career leap to a ‘life leap’. For instance, let’s say you move to another country and you find out you don’t like it…move back. It’s unlikely you made a lifetime mistake and you learned something along the way. Whatever you want to do, you should take the leap. Try the thing you’ve always wanted to do because you only get so many chances to try something different.
To me, taking that leap is part of the attraction of working with a smaller, growing company. There will always be opportunities at big companies today, tomorrow and well into the future, but the opportunity to be involved in something that you can leave a substantial thumbprint on doesn’t come around every day.
It has been about five years since starting Summus Group. If you could give your younger self advice, what would it be?
I would tell myself to get aligned with other entrepreneurs who have been through it and could advise me on common pitfalls. I probably could have accelerated the growth of the company had I reached out to other entrepreneurs earlier on. I have done so since, but I didn’t do it in the beginning. It took me a couple of years before I really started to seek out and listen to other entrepreneurs. Unless you have done it, it is hard to know what is hiding under all of the boulders in your path.
Whatever decision you make, bad things are going to happen, and good things are going to happen. Working with others who have been down a similar road helps tilt the outcomes more to the good.
Despite the late nights and lessons learned, what has been the most rewarding aspect of starting your own business?
It may sound a bit cliché, but I am really proud of the journey we’ve taken to get here. We’ve had missteps along the way, as every company does, but we have learned from them and I believe we have become a better company because of it. As we sit here in this office, which didn’t exist a few years ago, I am excited about what Summus Group will become – I feel like we have just gotten started.
When you’re not busy leading a rapidly growing business, where might people find you?
My house or out on the lake. For the first few years of starting the company, my average day started at 8 AM and ended at 2 AM, not to mention the extra work on the weekends. That really made me have a better appreciation for spending time with my family. So, when I get spare time, I am with my wife and kids. It doesn’t matter where we are, but most of my spare time is spent with my family.