Values a Key When Entering a Business Partnership, Consultant Says

Kathy Steele was coming out of a business partnership and, during what she calls a “very trying time,” decided to take a leap of faith and start her own company.

The details of ending the partnership took about a year to unwind, during which she decided she wanted “to do things differently.” During that time of upheaval, Steele got involved in the Small Giants community, a hybrid between a for-profit and a nonprofit entity that prioritizes mission and social purpose.

Steele had learned to love some of the cultural things they’d done at her previous partnership, and wanted to take that into her new venture. And Red Caffeine, based in the Chicago area, was born.

“I really learned you could not only build a profitable business, but you could build a business that really cares and has a great culture, and you wouldn’t have to suffer profit (loss) or employee experience,” said Steele, Red Caffeine’s founder and CEO. “You really could have both. That really intrigued me, and to know there were other businesses doing it was super cool.”

Red Caffeine is a growth consultancy firm that helps businesses develop and execute Grow-to-Market plans to build valuation in their business. A few of the people from Steele’s previous employment followed her over, and the name came out of what she called a “name-storming” session.

“We did know we wanted to have something to tie us to the old brand, so that’s where the “red” came in,” she explained. “One of the team members came in and put a big post-it on our whiteboard and said, ‘I only have one idea and I bought the domain.’

“It was Red Caffeine … The team was unanimously in favor of that name … it was right for us,” she said. “Red is kind of our passion for what we do, and caffeine is our energy, the fuel for how we help a business grow. It really fit us.”

Steele has plenty of experience. She’s spent 25 years as a business runner, is a board director for a technology company and she’s a strategic advisor and value builder for mid-market and enterprise organizations.

Steele sat down to talk about Red Caffeine and other business issues during the most recent episode of “CEO Thought Leadership Series on LinkedIn Live,” the discussion series hosted by the National Association of Business Resources.

Produced in conjunction with the Best and Brightest Companies to Work for and Corp! Magazine, the series is hosted by NABR CEO Jennifer Kluge and features business leaders from around the country.

Jennifer Kluge: What was in your mind when you started the company?

Kathy Steele: We initially founded Red Caffeine to help midmarket organizations with their branding and technology needs. We started to see our clients were needing a bit more, their challenges were bigger, they were operational. They were struggling with hiring and talent, they were struggling with digital transformation and sales.

After a few years delivering more tactical services, we really repositioned our organization, offering to help leaders build a strategy that would provide them with a grow-to-market plan and the implementation team to help them execute that strategy.

Kluge: What is the grow-to-market concept?

Steele: The grow-to-market plan is successful because it’s more than a series of marketing tactics. It’s really thinking about the entire business infrastructure. The way we really start is with a discovery workshop.

The clients might come to us and say, ‘We need to generate ore leads’ or ‘We need to hire more people.’ We really then dig into those issues, and it tends to be a bit broader than they think it is. We team that internal information with external information – market research, competitive analysis, talking with customers and employees – and really get a good picture of what’s going on in the organization … and help them prioritize.

There’s not infinite time or an infinite budget typically, so we really wat to stay focused on the things that have meaningful impact on their business. We’re not just delivering a strategy, we’re helping execute that strategy.

Kluge: So it’s taking those huge consulting firm concepts and bringing it to a smaller market, to smaller businesses that need it more even than the big guys?

Steele: We pride ourselves on being able to think about the business and not just about the marketing or sales activities and help prioritize budget and resources to really help the overall business grow.

Kluge: Talk about some of your successes.

Steele: A couple of success stories would be where we helped digitize a revenue generation system for a client, really come in, audit how they’re going to market with their sales and marketing efforts, identify gaps in the process and help them structure a process.

A lot of people are really good at the core thing they do, but they don’t operationalize their talent strategy or their sales strategy. We put those road maps – like a blueprint – in place and then we try to level up certain key areas of that revenue strategy.

You would hear many of our clients say they’ve become very sophisticated sales and marketing experts because they’ve ridden alongside us.

Kluge: You’re also involved with EOS (Entrepreneur Operating Systems), open book management system … talk about those tools, and what advice would you give others on what those tools did for you and your clients?

Steele: I wish I had known some of these things earlier on in my business career. I’ve always been a life-learner and at Red Caffeine one of our values is being a culture of learning. I’ve always believed you don’t always have to learn by mistakes. If somebody’s been there and done that they probably have some insights you can leverage and fast-track an improvement in your organization versus trying to do something on your own.

EOS has been a game-changer for my business. I wish I had done it a little sooner. We’ve been using EOS methodology for about 4 years now. It really is just an operating system proven to help your business function by a series of different things – like the way you run your meetings and the way you include your whole company in decision making.

It’s got so much structure it doesn’t create a free-for-all atmosphere. The day I knew it was working was when I stopped dreading my leadership team meetings and was excited about my leadership team meetings because they were productive. We love working with other EOS companies because we all speak the same language.

Kluge: Talk about your culture.

Steele: I always feel funny talking about the culture because I think my point of view is a little different than the employees. I think they say things that bring tears to my eyes. They really talk about the culture of the people. We are a high-performing culture, we have a lot of super-smart people working for us.

One of our values is that work-life harmony, to be able to work hard and play hard. Our team has a lot of “flava,” bringing innovation and creativity to the way we work with each other and with our clients and anything we’re doing in the community.

Our culture is kind of a fun balance between having a good time and doing really great work. Sometimes our significant others think we have more fun than we do work.

Kluge: What are the bare minimums businesses should have in their value proposition … for employees?

Steele: In every CEO forum that I’ve been in … the top thing people are talking about is talent. It is such a hot-button issue, it’s not going away, so we really need to start to get this right. Regardless of size or industry, we’re all really challenged with this talent situation.

A value proposition is a statement that summarizes why a customer or employee would choose your company. If you really want to be an employer of choice, you’ve got to build some differentiation around why a candidate should choose your organization to apply to … when they’ve got a couple of offers on the table, and choose your organization to stay at.

You can build an … employee value proposition, but it has to be rooted in what you stand for as a business, what your values are. The value proposition is the pillar of your messaging.

Kluge: As a woman, it’s a little different running a company. I’m sure there are some young ladies out there thinking about starting a business. What advice would you give?

Steele: I wish I had asked other entrepreneurs as I was starting out. I think one of the things I did later in my career was something I should have done initially was really write a long vision, a really descriptive story about what I wanted the company to look like and feel like.

They always say you wouldn’t just jump in a car and start driving … you want a destination in mind. You want a … really clearly articulated roadmap of what you want to build.

If you are considering a partnership, really talk about your values. Entering a partnership is like entering … a relationship where you’re going to spend a lot of time with somebody.

Nobody goes into a partnership thinking the worst thing is going to happen, but businesses have ups and downs, and if you don’t have good values alignment when things are going well, you will find out really quickly how much values alignments matter when things aren’t going well.

Kluge: What are you most proud of?

Steele: The pandemic has taught us to appreciate simpler things. I’m really proud of the fact that I’ve been able to balance some of the personal things – my family, my friends, and time with them – with the time I need to run a business. I really feel like I’ve gotten some really good balance the last few years, and devoted a lot of time to all the important things in my life. That’s not easy, so I’m pretty proud I’ve been able to balance that.

Click here to watch the full CEO Thought Leadership discussion.