The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?” is by Henri Alexaline, CFO at WashClub and WashClubTrak.
When I started my career in finance in my twenties, I thought skills combined with grit were all I needed to get ahead. But as I grew disillusioned with politics in the corporate world, I learned that it took more than just skills to climb the ladder. But connections were equally if not more important — a lesson that I would never forget. My transition to entrepreneurship, in fact, began with a connection. I co-founded WashClub, an on-demand laundry and dry cleaning service provider, with my partner Rick Rome, who I had met through a mutual friend. What started as a connection morphed into a business relationship.
Although I had little prior experience in the laundry industry let alone running a company, I was able to transfer my skills from a 15-year career in finance and quickly acquire new competence in marketing and operations. I rolled up my sleeves to learn everything I could about my new industry in order to earn the respect from my employees and keep a pulse on our day-to-day activities. In hindsight, I now understand skills and connections should complement and nurture each other. You need the right mix of both to get ahead — whether you’re a professional yearning for that big office or an entrepreneur dreaming to scale a business. So what is the right mix of skills and connections? Having been in the corporate world and now as an entrepreneur running an on-demand start-up, here’s what I’ve learned:
You need connections to get your foot in the door
When you’re starting out, someone has to give you a break — and that someone is more often than not a connection. Connections are a must, and you should constantly look to grow and maximize your circle of influence. Connections can help you raise capital, refer new customers, enhance your business model, or refine customer expectations. At WashClub, we emphasize on deepening our connections with customers, so that our feedback loop becomes almost instantaneous. For instance, we fine-tuned our delivery schedule based on customer feedback, which has in turn opened up new revenue opportunities.
But without skills, your connections won’t last
Skills are what allow you to remain competitive. If I hadn’t acquired new skills, I wouldn’t be where I am today. Likewise, if WashClub didn’t have the skills or the resources to deliver our services on demand, we wouldn’t have grown our presence in 15 cities across 12 states in the past year. Staying attuned to trends or industry developments is critical. We’re always looking ahead so our customers don’t explore other options. As an entrepreneur, you must remain at the forefront of technological development in order to stay relevant. As a result, we don’t waver when investing in our software or equipment, all of which can advance our user experience, improve staffing flexibility or streamline our logistics.
Once you have your skills in place, raise your risk tolerance
Our motto is: You have to spend money to make money. The best way for us to quickly scale up was to expand our reach beyond New York and share our technological know-how with other operators. Soon after we got our on-demand services up and running, we launched WashClubTrak, a turnkey software solution that enables laundry and dry cleaning operators to offer on-demand services. This move was risky and contrary to some advice we were getting from investors. But our skills and connections, gave us the conviction to go forward. Today, our hybrid model is not only a major differentiating factor but also the key to our success and continued growth. Wearing both hats as an operator and a software provider allowed us to make the right investments in our software and offer a value-added product. The biggest failure would have been not to try at all.