Being a founder, entrepreneur, or a business owner can have many exciting and thrilling moments. But it is also punctuated with periods of doubt, slump, and anxiety. So how does one successfully and healthily ride the highs and lows of Entrepreneurship? In this series, called “How To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur“ we are talking to successful entrepreneurs who can share stories from their experience. I had the pleasure of interviewing Shawn Sweeney.
Shawn Sweeney is the founder and managing partner of Spinnaker Consulting Group.In his 14 years as an executive with a Fortune 200 financial services company, Sweeney led a variety of organizations, including Strategy and Analysis, Operations, and IT. He was often called on to spearhead turn-around situations or develop and build new organizations. Today, he leverages these experiences to help his clients meet the changing demands from customers, regulators, and competitors.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, 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?
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In your opinion, were you a natural born entrepreneur or did you develop that aptitude later on? Can you explain what you mean?
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
Shawn Sweeney: My wife, Lauren, started her strategy-based marketing agency, Dotted Line before I launched Spinnaker. I captured a lot of her excitement and enthusiasm as she figured out what this firm would be and how she navigated the challenges she encountered. Her experience illustrated how much different an entrepreneurial effort could be from the corporate environment we’d both become so familiar with. Lauren was a point of inspiration as she went out there and made that success happen for herself.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Shawn Sweeney: Many people told me to focus purely on growth and business scalability — and to not get too hung up about the people you are hiring. In reality, you need to be willing to make the right investments upfront. Hiring the right people and setting the right culture, in hindsight, is the №1 job for the CEO of a startup. Get those things wrong, and you’ll be dealing with the consequences for a long time.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them create a work culture in which employees thrive and do not “burn out” or get overwhelmed?
What would you advise other business leaders to do in order to build trust, credibility, and Authority in their industry?
Shawn Sweeney: You have to deliver on what you say. After all, people don’t hire consulting firms; they hire people. And they can’t trust someone until they know them, so you are building a relationship from your first contact point. Act with honor and honesty, two important things that were underscored in my military training. People — whether they are your employees or your customers — need to know that you are serving their best interests.
Can you help articulate why doing that is essential today?
Shawn Sweeney: As consultants, we have to influence people to take action, which often means stepping out of their comfort zone and doing something different. If you don’t have a trusted relationship, you can’t effectively guide your client in making the right decisions for their business. Demonstrating integrity in your operations and acting with grace will translate into respect and loyalty that will enable your business to thrive and succeed. To me, it’s a simple matter of doing what’s right.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Shawn Sweeney: Our natural inclination is to look at profit and loss statements to assess the health of our business. The problem is that those metrics tell you what has already happened when you want to be looking for information for where your business is headed. That’s where your balance sheet comes in, as it gives you insight into your cash flow. Many profitable businesses have failed because they didn’t effectively manage cash flow.
Ok fantastic. Thank you for those excellent insights, Let’s now shift to the main focus of our interview about How to Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur. The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. This might be intuitive, but I think it will be very useful to specifically articulate it. Can you describe to our readers why no matter how successful you are as an entrepreneur, you will always have fairly dramatic highs and lows? Particularly, can you help explain why this is different from someone with a “regular job”?
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually high and excited as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Shawn Sweeney: Getting our first $1 million contracts signed was a milestone moment. That level of investment demonstrated a client believed in us and what we were doing. You could see the excitement on every team member’s face, and you could feel a shared sense of accomplishment. This was a team victory, as every consultant here played an important role in making that happen.
Do you feel comfortable sharing a story from your own experience about how you felt unusually low, and vulnerable as a result of your business? We would love to hear it.
Shawn Sweeney: In the early part of the pandemic, the financial industry — indeed, all industries — paused and even took a step backward as it figured out what to do until our global economy stabilized. With a consultancy focused on banking, of course, I worried about this interim moment as 50 families counted on this organization to put food on the table and send kids to college.
Based on your experience can you tell us what you did to bounce back?
Shawn Sweeney: We realigned our work to double down on business development and remained true to our people-first values as we navigated into an even stronger position today. This is the moment where you demonstrate resiliency. For us, it was remaining clear on our purpose.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “Five Things You Need To Successfully Ride The Emotional Highs & Lows Of Being An Entrepreneur”? Please share a story or an example for each.
At Spinnaker, we require every employee — including me — to complete 40 hours of training during the calendar year. Each of us can decide what our training means: get the latest industry insights by attending (or speaking) at a national conference, take college classes to earn an advanced degree, or master a new coding language. This means we are continually elevating our skills and remaining the experts our clients expect us to be. Just because I opened the doors on this business nine years ago doesn’t mean I have all the answers, so I remain committed to keeping my eyes open to gaps in my own development and enhancing my tools and resources to continue to run a successful business.
I’m growth-oriented, and that means I need to be looking at the right financial metrics. One of my favorites is our operating cash cycle, which is the time between making a capital investment and receiving payment from the end-user. This is the metric I rely on when determining our capacity for further growth.
As consultants, we’re serving people. As part of the Spinnaker team, we’re here to make life easier for our clients, not create extra work for them. We always look for the most practical and sustainable solution. As we deliver that value, we find that clients come back to us with even bigger and deeper problems to fix. Why? Because we are trusted advisers who serve as extensions of their own teams: We put their needs first.
To me, entrepreneurship is more of a marathon than a sprint. You need an outlet beyond the office where you aren’t 100% consumed by the business. A few years ago, my wife and I discovered we each had the ability to take a week off each quarter from our respective businesses. While our immediate fear was that our travel (and absence from the office) would be a risk to our growing businesses, we’ve come to realize that the mental health respite from the daily grind has a largely positive impact.
Find other people or a peer group that you trust with sharing experiences and asking for guidance. It certainly can be lonely at the top, as you work hard against countless pressures. Through a local CEO council, I’ve been able to reassess my challenges and find out they aren’t unique to my business. This group has become a sounding board and trusted peer resource.
We are living during challenging times and resilience is critical during times like these. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Would you mind sharing a story?
Shawn Sweeney: Plebe year — your first at the Naval Academy — is brutal by design. To prepare the highest-caliber officers who can be resilient in the toughest battle conditions, the academy tries to break you down. Their objective is to make you fail, so they can see if you have it in you to pick yourself back up and go at it again. It’s a humbling experience, particularly when you consider that everyone there is a picture-perfect definition of an academy recruit: at the top of their high school classes, competitive athletes, and basically every leadership trait you could imagine. This is the first time for many to fail. All of us knew that, and we had to come to terms with rebounding after failure, including learning how to rely on our peers who ultimately would serve alongside us.
In your opinion, do you tend to keep a positive attitude during difficult situations? What helps you to do so?
Can you help articulate why a leader’s positive attitude can have a positive impact both on their clients and their team? Please share a story or example if you can.
Ok. Super. We are nearly done. What is your favorite inspirational quote that motivates you to pursue greatness? Can you share a story about how it was relevant to you in your own life?
Shawn Sweeney: During our 2020 SpinnakerFest — our annual meeting held hybrid in December — we shared a slide that spoke particularly to the past year: Calm seas never made a skilled sailor.
How can our readers further follow you online?
Shawn Sweeney: I’m on LinkedIn @Shawn Sweeney.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with
this. We wish you continued success and good health!