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Know the Worst to Become Your Best: Advice for Entrepreneurs and Leaders

If you spend time with Sunny Lu Williams, be prepared to answer some tough questions. As president of Techserv, she’s made it her business to discover the story behind what organizations say and do to translate the information into projects that drive corporate success. As an investor, Williams now is paying it forward by helping other entrepreneurs discover the right answers to create their own business success stories.

She gave The Startup Ladies some “windshield time” while traveling between clients to discuss her career, provide advice, and to answer the most important entrepreneurial question of all.

What is Techserv and how did you get involved?

Techserv is a project management and technology solutions company. We specialize in workforce development within the healthcare and public safety sectors. There are many facets to the company, but Techserv primarily consults with clients and leads strategic projects designed specifically to aid large business goals.

Techserv was originally started by my grandmother 26 years ago. While I was working at another company called Telamon, which was a certified Minority Business Enterprise, I conducted a management buyout of the healthcare division. It was imperative that I merge the division with another MBE to not disrupt our client base and government contracts. The opportunity was right to merge with Techserv.

What in your background that led you to where you are today?

I would say there are three key experiences that led me to where I am today:

  1. My undergraduate education focused on the humanities. I am incredibly thankful for that education and background because it taught me how to think, not what to think. I was able to study things that some people might see as random, but they prepared me for developing and leading an organization. I earned dual degrees in history and political science. History helped me study the winners and losers of our past and how they conducted themselves. Political science showed me the systems we put in place to control how people operate and the external factors impacting them. Collectively, my degrees prepared me to step into an organization and assess if a system and culture change was needed. I’ve now worked with huge companies like Motorola, Google, and AT&T. My ability to identify what is wrong and what opportunity exists came from my humanities education.

  2. I am bilingual. English is not my first language. I’ve learned to focus on physical and behavioral observations because of that. My first thing in interacting with someone is not the words but rather the body language. My bilingual advantage helps me focus on human behavior. I’ve become very good at peer-to-peer interactions and facilitating mindset changes with our clients in healthcare and prisons. I can step back and assess how a message needs to be delivered and if the listener is receiving it.

  3. I really appreciate my MBA. I got an MBA because I was drowning at Telamon. I was getting so many new opportunities and had to admit, “I have no idea how to do this.” I was running a 24/7 global logistics operation at the time. I got terrible grades in business school, but that’s because I was focused on directly applying my learning to my business rather than my GPA. My business outcomes spoke for themselves and that’s what mattered. Business school won’t get you to the next level. Don’t attend just to say you have the degree. Business school gives you the tools to help you think in a business context. I’ve found that the people who were least successful in business school have become some of the most successful entrepreneurs.

What are your thoughts on how entrepreneurs should handle self-doubt and answer the internal question "what if I fail?"?

To be an entrepreneur, you must ask yourself one very difficult question: How will I handle my worst fears coming to life and can I manage it?

Even if the answer is the worst-case scenario, a true entrepreneur can see that it’s not the end.

To be an entrepreneur, you must ask yourself one very difficult question: How will I handle my worst fears coming to life and can I manage it?

As an executive mentor for The Startup Ladies, what advice do you have for other entrepreneurs?

Entrepreneurs must continuously reassess themselves. They are constantly upping the ante. Every new hire or project impacts cash flow. If a founder doesn’t know where that cash is coming from to make payroll, that should be their worst nightmare ongoing. Entrepreneurs must calculate cash flow for a minimum of one year and make realistic projections. Growth shouldn’t feel unmanageable. Entrepreneurs should never say, “I don’t have cash for X, Y, and Z.” Founders must be able to justify every accounting and finance decision.

What have been some important lessons learned in your experience as an entrepreneur?

If I’m being honest, when I merged the companies, it was less, “Yeah, let’s do this with open arms,” and more, “This might be the worst idea I’ve ever had, but let’s make the best of it.” If I did it again, I would do more research on who in the space was the best fit rather than a knee-jerk reaction of having 90 days to get it done. With more forethought, I might have done it differently rather than merging two totally separate companies. It’s hard to recognize and admit that. Even with all my training, the way it happened was more of a gut reaction than planning.

As an investor, what three things do you look for from an entrepreneur and their business?

Cash flow – it’s frustrating when an entrepreneur can’t calculate cash flow for the duration.

Perspective – entrepreneurs must have a meaningful and realistic vision for how to scale their company. Have they had the experience of firing or laying people off? I had to close a branch and lose 120 people. It’s that kind of experience that shows what someone is made of.

Focus – I want to know an entrepreneur’s intent and what keeps them up at night. I’ll ask what tempers their decision making. If the answer isn’t their people, payroll, or how their company can grow, that’s not an organization I would personally invest in or a brand I would tie my name to.

What is unique about your investment strategy?

Williams coaches entrepreneurs at the 2019 Flipping Finance Challenge.

I can listen to a start-up pitch and know when the words sound right, but the body language and facial expressions show the entrepreneur doesn’t believe in them at all. I once sat in a pitch given by a pair of female and male co-founders. I could visibly tell there was tension. When I started asking questions regarding equity, the female founder (who was creating the code for the project) stated that the males involved with the business already had equity, but hers was still being negotiated. Negotiations are a core competency of mine and the fact that they were still negotiating her equity amount was a red flag for me. My ability to go beyond just what is being said led me to discover the issue and helps me be a more discerning investor.

If you wrote a guide for other entrepreneurs called "Do This Not That" based on your own entrepreneurial journey, what would the guide include?

Study and Apply Your Learning

I’ve had the opportunity to study many organizations through my work at Telamon and it informed me as an entrepreneur at Techserv. I’ve seen what organizations did well and what they didn’t do well. I told myself, “When I start my company, it’s going to be totally different,” and I made sure that was true.

Allow Empathy to Inform Decisions

Based on what I’ve learned, I’ve created a good package for Techserv employees. I have empathy for employees working three jobs or supplementing health care. I don’t want employees to meet for eight hours and then do their work at home. I lived that life for 13 years. There are things I believe should be universal benefits for everyone, so Techserv employees have a 401(k), one month paid maternity leave, vision/dental/health insurance, and two days per week to work remotely for team collaboration.

Assess Your Strengths

If an entrepreneur has a great idea for a product or service – do it. Go for it. But pause and determine if the entrepreneur has the capacity and philosophy to grow a company. Those are two very different things. I’ve never had a good idea. I’ve never created anything. I’m good at building teams. That’s why I should lead a company. I shouldn’t be an inventor, designer, or creator. There is no way to lead a company without the experiences I’ve had within corporate cultures to go through good times and bad. The scariest thing for an employee is that their organization is totally dictated by the experiences of their founders.

Learn from Your Mistakes

I’ve done security breaches to global re-orgs. If an organization is waiting for its leader to experience things for the first time, there are going to be mistakes and the employees pay for it. I always tell my team that I will make lots of mistakes, as will they, but we will go through those mistakes together and learn from them. This makes mistakes opportunities for quality improvement. It creates safety and accountability within the organization.

Know What’s Most Important

Techserv has 10 people – 10 amazing people that I am responsible for, have payroll for, and want to enjoy. I shift between “let’s grow some more” to “let’s manage what we have well.” When I managed 200 people at Telamon, payroll wasn’t my issue to worry about. Now that I have 10 people, I have that burden all the time. I’ve been blessed with a lot of opportunities and people willing to be open and have conversations with me. People have been willing to share and coach and mentor. They have said, “Let’s do this together. Let’s give it a try!”

What have been the most important resources aiding your success that other entrepreneurs should know about and leverage?

Having a mentor is a paramount experience. I don’t think people rely enough on mentoring. I’ve been a mentor and mentee for many years. I love the duality of that role because I learn from mentees and mentors. There’s a camaraderie created when people can sit down one-on-one and have a frank and trusting conversation.

I have mentored 27 women in the last 13 years. For about one-third of the women I meet, it is their first mentoring interaction. Many admit that it is their first coffee with someone outside of their family or friend groups. To be in business, you must be comfortable sitting down with a complete stranger. Do your homework before meeting someone. You’ll find that no one is really a stranger and there is always some commonality.

“To be in business, you must be comfortable sitting down with a complete stranger. You’ll find that no one is really a stranger and there is always some commonality.”

Succinctly define your problem or how your mentor can help you. I don’t ever give direct answers because I don’t have their experience in their company. I can only relate to my experiences and let them know how I handled it. I help mentees think through the problem rather than telling them what to think.

In addition to mentoring, if entrepreneurs aren’t participating in trade associations, attending conferences, and reading trade materials, they are wasting their time. They need to take initiative to find the resources that will help them. They need to be curious and want to learn more.

Why do you invest in businesses through The Startup Ladies?

Investing through The Startup Ladies connects me to founders I might not otherwise discover. It provides the programming to support scalable businesses worthy of investments. Not only do I feel like I am finding great new opportunities for my money, but I also can invest time and attention with entrepreneurs ready to take a chance on themselves and their ideas. As an entrepreneur myself, that resonates with me. Those kinds of investments are always rewarding.




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