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Q&A | A Conversation with Mike DuBose, Business Owner
Mike DuBose was born into a family with an entrepreneurial streak dating back to the early 1900s. Despite a potential genetic predisposition to lead, however, DuBose’s family never directly taught him how to start, manage, or own a business. He earned his knowledge through experience, making up for what he lacked in formal business education through mistakes, failures, and successes. These gave him a broad background of knowledge on how to run—and how not to run—a company. Today, DuBose owns a successful family of five businesses: Columbia Conference Center, DuBose Web Group, DuBose Fitness Center, The Evaluation Group, and Research Associates.
Q: Tell us about your first business, how did you get it started and why?
In 1981, when I had worked as an administrator with state government for ten years, two friends and I got together to form a real estate business and a computer company called The Micro Shop. In the beginning, we ran The Micro Shop out of our homes, and I can still remember people lining up outside at Christmastime to buy the new TI-99 4A home computer with 4k of memory! Eventually, we expanded that business to two mall locations, but the company failed a few years later during a recession when Texas Instruments abruptly stopped making computers. It was one of the most difficult and painful periods in my life, but taking a company out of business taught me many valuable lessons about how to properly run an organization. Failure and mistakes served as my great teachers in the businesses that would follow!
Even after those setbacks, I could not get the entrepreneur spirit out of my system. In 1986, after a stint working for two governors, I started Research Associates (www.grantexperts.com). Today, Research Associates writes grants for 40 school districts, universities, and large nonprofits such as the United Ways of Atlanta and Boston.
Then, in 1990, I formed The Evaluation Group (www.evaluationgroup.com), which evaluates the performance of many grant programs in the southeast.
I built the 40,000 square foot Columbia Conference Center (www.columbiameetings.com) in 2003, after seeing the need for a facility in the Midlands area dedicated to wedding receptions and meetings for government, nonprofit, and business groups.
In 2007, I founded DuBose Web Group with my son, Blake, who has a passion for technology. DuBose Web Group (www.duboseweb.com) designs websites and helps organizations improve their marketing and business efficiency, and it now serves nearly 100 businesses, universities, and nonprofits.
My other son, Joel, has a passion for personal training, so in 2015, we created DuBose Fitness Center (www.dubosefitness.com), a private gym where he offers one-on-one fitness guidance for youths, men, and women of all ages.
Q: What problems did you initially encounter, and how did you overcome them?
I think that, over the past 35 years, I have done just about everything wrong you can think of in regards to starting and managing a business! Looking back, the greatest problems were:
- Lacking a purpose beyond making money. I didn’t give my staff a goal beyond bringing in a profit, and I let greed blindly drive a lot of what I did. Now, our purpose at my family of companies is to “create opportunities to improve lives.” Do this, and you will have happy employees, satisfied clients, and strong community connections, as well as the satisfaction of making a positive impact on other human beings.
- Entering the unpredictable technology sector in the early 1980s. The field was changing rapidly, and many very profitable technology-based small businesses failed. It’s also dangerous to enter fields where you have little experience and expertise. We now follow principles based in Good to Great by Jim Collins and develop products and services that we know the most about (our core business), are passionate about, and most profitable. We do experiment some and are flexible, but generally stay focused on our core business as we move into the future.
- Not anticipating significant competition. Large companies bought technology products in volume and sold them cheaper than my small business could buy them. Competition takes some of the fun out of doing business, but you have to be aware of and learn from it!
- Expanding business operations too fast. I set up two mall locations thinking I would double my profits. Instead, I doubled my expenses while my revenue stayed the same. In my current family of companies, our budgets are based on solid history and signed contracts. We are constantly looking a year out for any danger signals or hints of failure.
- Being too optimistic. Although you should always truly believe in yourself and your company, it’s best to approach situations with a healthy dose of realism. That’s why one of my mottos is “Hope for the best; plan for the worst!”
Q: At what point did you consider having a career in business?
I have always felt the urge to be an entrepreneur, even though my undergraduate education was in psychology and I studied social work management and counseling at the University of South Carolina’s graduate school. I have always loved the thrill of looking at and solving issues, strategizing business activities, and problem-solving. Like many other entrepreneurs, I also love the thrill of creating something from nothing, taking an idea and growing it into a successful company.
Q: Do you see yourself as a successful leader?
General Colin Powell and Sam Walton (creator of Wal-Mart) have both said that if you can make good decisions half the time, you are successful. What I have learned in business is that one person cannot claim responsibility for being successful. It takes a village of the right, passionate, and humble people in the right jobs to create success. From that perspective, our teams have been successful. But it took a lot of hard work, being in the right place at the right time, generating high-quality products and services, thinking strategically, and treating every customer using the Golden Rule. There’s no simple equation for success!
Q: How do you define a great business?
I’m passionate about learning—particularly about business—so I have read more than 100 business bestsellers to better understand the field. I have also had the privilege of meeting some great leaders in person. Three of those people who have most influenced my way of thinking about building a great business are Jim Collins, Larry Bossidy, and Jack Welch.
Jim Collins’ work has been the most influential to me. I first read Good to Great in 2006, and have read it four times since then! It teaches many great lessons, but some of the most valuable to me have been: hire the right people who fit your culture and place them into the jobs that they are passionate about; get the wrong people out of your company; focus on fewer, but highly profitable projects; and do what you love and know the most about. From Larry Bossidy’s book Execution, I learned that great businesses are not only creative and innovative, but also get things done! Jack Welch’s work emphasizes excellence, taking good risks, being efficient, and making your business hungry for success.
A great business is rare, and many who reach that level can easily fall from grace (one example is Circuit City). Even if you become great, it’s not guaranteed to last. It requires a continual process of improvement, and just when you think you’ve made it, something out of left field can blindside you! Our businesses have frequently stumbled, failed, and made mistakes, but the key is to bring them out into the open, dissect the causes, and learn. In fact, becoming a great business is so complex that I wrote the book The Art of Building a Great Business to help others learn from my experiences and research. A free copy is available on my website, www.mikedubose.com, along with other helpful published articles about building great businesses.
Q: What have been your most rewarding achievements? How did you accomplish them?
I had to think about this a good bit. My first reaction is to say, as most business owners would, that I am blessed to have a group of companies that have survived since 1986, filled with great team members who are passionate about our culture and work, even though activities and missions across the companies differ. We have gone through three recessions and have made just about every mistake possible, but we have also learned to turn failures into valuable lessons.
The second is that I have changed my life, with the help of God and many individuals, to become a more humble, happy, caring person who focuses more on marriage, family, faith, and others than on greed, success, and making money. It’s fun to have passion and purpose that get me excited most days!
Third, I have learned to use my painful childhood and past as important life lessons. If I had the choice of reliving my life or choosing a different one, I would take the same painful paths. I now use these experiences to help others. I have “let go” of most of the negative things that happened in my life, and I now focus on what is going right versus what is going wrong.
Q: What books, magazines, blogs, websites, and newspapers do you read?
I read the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today, and The State every day. There is so much to learn out there, and these newspapers keep me informed on a range of world issues, ways to improve organizations, how to live a healthier life, and new technological advances. I also read about ten magazines, such as Inc., Entrepreneur, Harvard Business Review, and Money, and subscribe to newsletters like Harvard Health. Gaining and sharing knowledge is one part of my new purpose, so each day, I cut out articles and file them in my library for inspiration when I write my own columns to help others live healthy, efficient, and happy lives.
Q: What do you look for in an employee?
Relevant experience and education play into the formula, but I also seek humble confidence, a good “fit” with our culture, and a positive personality. I look for people who are innovative, creative, and passionate, but also organized; they must also have some humor and desire to have fun. Stability is important because we invest in new employees and we want them to hang around for a long time. I always look at candidates’ college grade point averages (GPAs), as I have found that individuals with good personalities who excelled academically (e.g., graduated cum laude) typically have good work ethics. In our companies, we also want professionals who value teamwork. We take them through three interviews with different people on several days, and we use personality tests to assess their culture fit, including asking them to write one page on why they should be considered for employment with our companies. It’s pretty difficult to become employed with us. We take it so seriously because one bad match can ruin the entire culture.
Q: Tell me something interesting about you that isn’t on your resume.
I was voted “Most Wittiest” in high school. I love to make people laugh and feel good. Having fun is at the top of my list!
Q: What have you taken away from your experience that you can give as advice for young entrepreneurs?
Follow your passions and do what you love to do. According to recent research, people who have business degrees are some of the unhappiest people in the world because they are chasing careers, money, prestige, and power. I often encourage people to do what makes them happy, even though the pay may not be high. Having money, while important to some degree, won’t just make someone happy. There have to be other factors like passion and enjoyment involved.
Q: What is next for you?
Since 2006, using very specific succession planning, I have set into motion a goal of our companies being able to function without me. Larry Bossidy and Jack Welch once told me that if you build great companies with strong leadership, when you decide to leave or retire, you’re not missed. Of course, I will continue to play a role in the companies until I die, but I have tried to allow others to step into my shoes. They now largely run the show, although I coach and mentor them whenever possible, and the door is open for them to call on me when needed. My new passion is my purpose of helping others, which I achieve through writing. It thrills me to publish two to three articles each month about life, business, travel, health, and personal issues in Columbia Business Monthly magazine, Midlands Life, and MidlandsBiz. I am currently working with my technical writer to wrap up a four-part series on why people divorce and how to have a happy marriage. Next, we will be writing a series with Dr. Surb Guram on heart health. I find that researching and assembling useful information into an understandable, fact-based story that will help readers is very rewarding.
Q: What do you think is the future of Columbia?
When I think about Columbia, I really see it as the greater Columbia area, including several smaller cities like Irmo and Cayce. It’s exciting to see our university, government and business leaders, and planners continue to build a new Columbia. It’s becoming a model city, acting like a magnet that attracts people to visit and makes them want to live in the area. Some of Columbia’s many positive attributes include: a vision for the future; a strong job market; a variety of cultural and art activities; many restaurants; a business-friendly atmosphere; low crime; sports arenas; unique amenities like the Riverbanks Zoo; many hotels and meeting facilities for conferences; and a combination of two- and four-year educational institutions, to name just a few. Having lived in Columbia since 1976, I see nothing but good things moving forward!