Laurie Barkman is the CEO of SmallDotBig, where she works with entrepreneurs, private companies, and family businesses on innovation, transition, and growth strategies. All this is to help clients achieve their long-term goals. She also works with closely-held companies to grow the value of their business and prepare to transition ownership in 7-10 years. As the Host of the Succession Stories Podcast, Laurie speaks with CEOs and experts about how to create and transfer business value. Altogether, Laurie has more than 20 years of digital transformation, entrepreneurship, and intrapreneurship in tech, retail, logistics, and service industries — from startups to corporates.
Laurie’s Early Start
As a young person, Laurie had no idea she’d go on to be a CEO. She did start to recognize pretty early, however, that she was a leader. As a student she was often in situations where she had a chance to make an impact, create change, and coordinate with other students. In fact, her mom thought she’d go into politics and be a diplomat!
When it came time to pick a school and major, however, Laurie still didn’t know what she wanted to do. As a result, she chose a school and area of study that she felt would serve her no matter what direction she ultimately went. Her first career move after graduation? HR!
Laurie considers her first deal-making experience to be selling Hickory Farms meat and cheese as part of a fundraising campaign. She sold so much she earned a prize, and she considers this her first confidence boost in the sales arena.
As her career has evolved, Laurie notes she has been in a variety of different industries and companies. From startups to billion dollar traded companies, Laurie has found ways to be innovative and creative. Now, she looks back and sees that her journey is what brought her to where she is today.
Healthy Succession Planning
Laurie loves working with entrepreneurial families, in which the founding entrepreneur created something and future generations have grown it into something even larger. She shares about a 3rd generation family business she worked in during her career. The family had moved from horse and buggy delivery to larger transportation to reverse logistics.
Eventually, Laurie was involved in the company’s succession plan. This required understanding the potential of long-term strategy with multigenerational impact. Stakeholders mattered, but so did employees and customers.
Companies who have this sort of long-term vision inspire Laurie, and she loves partnering with them to help them see the potential for healthy succession possibilities.
As we were talking, I realized that we haven’t had much podcast content focused on family businesses. I’d love to dig into this area even more because there is so much that can be said about family members running a long term business together. There are major partnership dynamics at play, as well as other factors. (Would you be the perfect guest for this? I’d love to hear from you!)
Family Businesses, Family Values
Laurie notes that family businesses are incredibly unique. Each one is a sort of “snowflake”, in that you’ll never find another exactly like it. That’s one of the things that makes them so much fun to work with!
She shared the concept of shirt sleeves to shirt sleeves in three generations. Essentially, the first generation invests and innovates to build something successful, but the second generation is fearful of “sinking the ship”. They are more likely to play things safe and fail to creatively expand and grow. The third generation may be able to turn things around, but it may also be too late. There may also be family conflict, or a family that has grown so quickly that the business cannot sustain them.
Other issues in family succession can be connected to lack of fit or ability to take a business on, or a lack of a successor because there are no family members left.
Building skill sets and creating a pipeline for next generation talent is a key part of succession, whether you want to keep your business in the family or not!
On her podcast, Succession Stories: Insights for Next Generation Entrepreneurs, Laurie has interviewed multiple CEO’s of family run businesses. She has noticed that family run companies tend to be incredibly value heavy. They understand where the values have come from, and how they play out in day to day life. These values are also attached to the history of the company, and it’s essential that they are written down.
She emphasizes that any business can benefit from having value clarity. Another of Laurie’s clients, not a family business, recently came to her without clearly established values. The start of their work together was to figure those out.
Top Down or Bottom Up
Laurie notes that a family board can be a really helpful method for families running a company together. This might be considered a “top down” system. She notes that these boards can include owners or higher level executives within the company in addition to family, but it is comprised heavily of family members. This board is in addition to an executive board, or advisory board. Family boards can help diffuse family tension and provide a forum for conversation.
On the other end, a “bottom up” approach may mean that family members start at the bottom of the business and work their way up. When it comes to family members working within the business, Laurie notes that it can’t be forced. If a family member doesn’t want a role or position, then it will never work.
Strengths, motivation, and fit are absolutely key “buckets”, in Laurie’s point of view.
A healthy succession means that a potential family member needs to have the necessary strengths, they need personal motivation and desire, and they must fit into the role that needs to be filled, which includes personality, organizational dynamics, and more.
Although any of those three buckets might not be 100% at the start, time can change and grow all things. Listen to the full episode to hear Laurie share about a family member who originally didn’t have great fit or motivation, but who later came to realize that running the business was his calling!
Family business or otherwise, healthy succession relies on the ability to create and transfer business value across time. Sometimes there is unnecessary drama and chaos because a business’s leaders don’t know who they would be outside of their company.Rather than let go and learn who they really are, they cling on in an attempt to retain a sense of self. This can be especially problematic in family run businesses, because there are the added pressures of the family name being attached to a certain way of being.
Create and Transfer Business Value
In the technology world, things move fast and the larger successful tech companies are comparatively new. There aren’t many multi-generational families who have been involved in the tech space, and even less with the ability to transfer business value!
Laurie notes that she got into digital marketing as a personal career pivot herself; it wasn’t her first path, as it wasn’t for many. As a result, she had an early look at what it means to have technology or tools, but no market. She also saw that start ups can appear really glossy from the outside, but can be really messy on the inside.
Because her role was connected to succession and going to market, she could see that internal mess was problematic. In another shift, Laurie moved into apparel retail at the start of the ecommerce boom. She considers that a corporate start up, in that it was an established company doing something brand new. Again, she was involved in structure, scaling, and marketing. Her career has allowed her to work with budgets of a hundred dollars, and a hundred million dollars.
As a result, Laurie knows how to assess a business and get to the root of what’s working and what is not. She has an eye for understanding fit, operational needs, and market, all while building value.
She also knows what it means to create and transfer business value. Rather than leave money on the table, Laurie helps businesses think through healthy succession based on the transfer of accrued value.
Now, Laurie loves working with small to medium privately owned companies in order to bring together a strategic planning process that creates momentum to move forward. When a team understands where they are going, they are aligned and empowered to grow. This brings a business to life; it’s creating the plan AND executing, which is key. (90% of strategies don’t get implemented….which renders them worthless!)
Listen in to Episode 93 to hear the full interview!
Corey Kupfer is an expert strategist, negotiator and dealmaker. He has more than 35 years of professional deal-making and negotiating experience. Corey is a successful entrepreneur, attorney, consultant, author and professional speaker who is passionate about deal-driven growth. He is also the creator and host of the DealQuest Podcast.
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