After Atlantic BT CEO and Founder Jon Jordan won the David Fitchett Entrepreneur of the Year award, our Senior Writer Allan Maule interviewed Jordan to hear his thoughts on leadership, social responsibility, and how to be a great entrepreneur.
The David Fitchett Award and Entreprenuership
Allan Maule: Tell me about David Fitchett and how he inspired this award.
Jon Jordan: I wasn’t fortunate enough to know David personally, but talking to his family and people at Entrepreneur’s Organization (EO) helped me learn a lot more about him. At his company, Carolina Glass and Mirror, he was a true embodiment of the EO values in how he did business. These values are “Boldly Go, Thirst for Learning, Make a Mark, Trust and Respect, and Cool.”
I wish I had gotten to know David, but he passed away from ALS in 2016. His example is what inspired the EO to create this award.
Allan Maule: This award celebrates “entrepreneurs that exude the EO Core Values.” Can you describe what these values and this award mean to you as an entrepreneur?
Jon Jordan: The EO’s core values are Boldly Go (Bet on your own abilities.), Thirst for Learning (Be a student of opportunity.), Make a Mark (Leave a legacy.), Trust and Respect (Build a safe haven for learning and growth.), and Cool (Create, seek out and celebrate once-in-a-lifetime experiences.). I feel humbled when I think about all the other people who could have received this award.
Being thirsty for knowledge really resonates with me. From the day I started Atlantic BT to this point, I didn’t want to be someone who waited to be told how to do something. The first time I went to an EO meeting, the other members were hungry for knowledge, thirsty for knowledge, eager to write down when a seminar was happening or what books they should read. Finding really successful people like these who were thirsty for knowledge opened a whole new chapter for me. I always try to share that knowledge and spirit here. This means I want our management team to create that thirst for knowledge in our organization.
I really believe high-achieving humans distinguish themselves from having a thirst for knowledge and desire to put different ideas together. That’s what’s driving human innovation, and our ability to access knowledge has never been better than it is right now. I love being able to share experiences with people from different situations. When we share what we’re dealing with in the group, we can all learn from it. In our EO forum, we’re very open to this kind of direct feedback.
How to Start and Lead a Business
Allan Maule: What are your favorite things about being an entrepreneur and leading a business? What inspires you most?
Jon Jordan: The thing I enjoy the most is building things and making them better—that sense of accomplishment on something that leaves a lasting impression. With Comfort Monster, being able to purchase a company and improve it and grow it really meant a lot to me. Being able to look at something, have a vision for what I could turn it into, and continue rolling forward to keep pushing it toward something exceptional. At CM we have a long way to go, but applying the right effort on all these areas we can build momentum. This creates an engine that can run whether or not you’re applying that pressure.
At ABT I love having such a great team (from our President to each and every person on our team)). We have a culture, an engine that runs well whether I’m in the office or not. I come in and apply some steering, but it would do well whether or not I was here to provide direct input. Being able to see that momentum in action every day is definitely inspiring.
Allan Maule: What do you think is most challenging about being an entrepreneur?
Jon Jordan: In short, prioritization. It’s your job to break larger goals into bite-sized pieces and make sure all of your resources are being used as effectively as possible. On any given day, you have hundreds of priorities—uses for your time, uses for other people’s time, and uses for capital. When you make the right decisions, your business does well. When you make the wrong decisions, you are slowing down your path to success.
Sometimes these priorities are clear, they just jump out at you and you know what to do next. Sometimes you’re faced with lots of choices that all seem to be right (or wrong) with no clear frontrunner. These situations can be difficult but at the end of the day, you have to just make a decision and move forward. Making no decision is often worse than making the wrong decision. In most cases you can go back and correct course or mistakes when you have more data.
The other challenge is that you can’t really have an “off” day. The people around you are depending on your energy and vision and an off day for you is amplified through the organization to your team. My theory is that you, the CEO, should have more energy than anyone else. You want to come in every day and articulate exactly what needs to be done to apply this effort in the most advantageous way to the company. If you make a mistake at this level, that’s a huge deal. This is why managing a small company effectively is HARDER than a large company because the smaller company really depends on your energy and leadership to keep momentum up. If you’ve got a big team, having a couple people be off course isn’t as big a deal—the engine will keep moving forward even if it could be more efficient.
Social Responsibility and Business Leadership
Jon Jordan: You see companies that come out and take a stand on social or political issues, and it’s a challenge because in my mind you’re tempted to use your company as a platform to influence others. This is why companies do this: you’ve got a captive base of people with a leadership chain in place and your influence is going to be magnified by that. Your circles of customers are impacted in turn. This gets complicated because not everyone is going to agree with you.
Where I land is that I don’t want anyone to feel uncomfortable. I can have personal opinions and create a platform off the clock, but once I bring that into the workplace it’s almost guaranteed at least one person will feel uncomfortable. If you lose even one person on your political stance, that’s one person too many. If you just want to look at it from a performance perspective, if you just have uniformity within your culture you will underperform because no one has any diverse opinions. Too political, and you’ll alienate people with different opinions. I want people who work with me to feel comfortable standing by their values. I totally get why companies use their business as a platform.
For example, when the NC General Assembly passed HB2, I felt it was important for me to speak out against this law and any efforts to discriminate against citizens based on their sexual orientation or identity. I sent a company-wide email at ABT reaffirming that as a company, our job is to create a welcoming and inclusive environment. I told all of our employees that anyone of any faith, race, nationality, or sexual orientation was welcome at ABT, and that we’d make any necessary accommodation to help our employees succeed and help ABT succeed as a company. This stand of inclusiveness felt deeply important to me, so I made my opinions public to my company.
That said, I’ve always believed intimate impact is more important than sheer numbers. I’ve always been more of a quiet change kind of guy. My number one priority is creating a company culture where everyone enjoys working for the company. When I was young, I had several hourly jobs and I always felt like those days lasted an eternity. When I started ABT, one of the promises I made to myself is that we would create a culture where people enjoyed being at work so much they wouldn’t ever want to leave. It’s the responsibility of the company to create an environment that people feel is engaging, challenging, and meaningful. After all, think about how much of your waking life you spend at work!
How to Lead and Leave a Legacy
Allan Maule: What advice would you give to an entrepreneur who wants to succeed in business while also leaving the kind of legacy David Fitchett left?
Jon Jordan: Keep going! Entrepreneurship is a journey. I remember one particular instance in my career. When my first company was very young, we had 3–4 employees and a handful of customers. The work was hard, meeting payroll was hard, customers were hard to manage, and I was only paying myself the bare minimum to survive. I was sitting at a stoplight on my way to work and I thought to myself, “This sucks!” Then I thought “OK, if you don’t do this, what else do you want to do? Where would you rather work?” In that instance, I realized, there is nothing I would rather be doing. From that point on, the stress was my choice and there was nothing I’d rather do. It’s a big difference from finding yourself in a place you don’t to be.
So my advice is: 1) Keep going and never quit. Even if the worst happens and your business fails, learn something from it and try again. 2) When it gets tough and you’re thinking about quitting, do what I did. Think about what you would rather be doing for work. Chances are if you’re meant to be an entrepreneur, there is nothing better than the pressure and the adventure of entrepreneurship. That realization alone will make your journey easier.