328: Stephanie Breedlove—How Women Can Build Big Successful Businesses and Change the World

Hear how to build and scale a wildly successful company

After conducting my 327th podcast for On The Brink, I paused and took a look back at all those interviews. What struck me was how many exceptional women I have had the privilege of speaking with, learning from, and championing. (Yes, I’ve interviewed amazing men too, but right now I want to focus on the women.) They boldly smashed myths and leapt over barriers meant to hold them back. It made me want to celebrate! I decided to revisit several of them for you to learn from as well, starting with Stephanie Breedlove, author of All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses and Change the World. Anyone starting a new business, trying to grow the one they’ve got, or seeking work that’s fulfilling will find this podcast full of purpose and meaning. I urge you to take a listen. Stephanie is fantastic!

Her family told her, “Women don’t start companies.” Aren’t we glad she didn’t listen.

For over 20 years, Stephanie has been a powerful voice for women entrepreneurs, co-founding Breedlove & Associates with her husband, which they then sold for $55 million. Redefining what women can and can’t do in business and everywhere else is why Stephanie is in my award-winning book, Rethink: Smashing the Myths of Women in Business, which you can buy here.

stepahie bookStephanie and her husband self-funded their entrepreneurial endeavor with
no prior experience running a business. While she was building and scaling
the business, she also put together a life that integrated family and business
as complements to one another, not competitors. To create the life she desired,
she often found herself at major crossroads—the kind that require you to go
“all in” to get where you want to go. In her book, she outlines the hows and whys behind the decisions that led to her success.


Key to her business’s success? Culture.

In our interview, Stephanie shares that one of the main reasons she was able
to grow her company into the national leader in its space was reinforcing everyone’s commitment, from leadership on down, to be the undisputed experts in their field, which maximized the company’s value. She accomplished this by intentionally creating a company culture of collaboration where there is no such thing as a bad idea. Her message to her employees: “We want to invest in you tremendously. And we expect you to invest in us tremendously in return.” The result? Phenomenal growth.

Key points from our conversation:

  • Running a home-based business
  • Facing challenges and hardships and finding solutions
  • How to create a workplace culture of passionate people
  • Setting expectations and creating accountability
  • How to hire to groom yourself out of a job
  • Including your customers in your strategic decisions
  • “Living” the mission of your company
  • How she knew it was time to sell the business
  • Biggest lessons and takeaways

Want to learn more about how culture changes everything? Here’s a start.

Read the transcript of our podcast here

Andi Simon: Welcome to On the Brink With Andi Simon. Hi, I’m Andi Simon. I’m your host and your guide. Our podcast is designed around the question that CEOs, business leaders, managers and staff are all asking: How can we do better? And they’re all concerned about doing better for their organizations, their staff, their customers, their communities, and themselves. Personally, I bet in these fast-changing times, you too often find yourself feeling like you are on the brink of something great, of soaring to some new heights. Perhaps it’s your business that’s ready to change, or you’re ready to launch a new business. Maybe you are ready to depart on your own road, on your own journey. Our podcasts are all about how you can do it.

Sometimes the best possibilities are in plain sight. You are on the brink of discovering them, you just have to see things with fresh eyes. So we’re going to share with you the stories of successful people who found their way to turn possibilities into opportunities and observations into innovations. We know you will find their stories exciting and enriching as you find your own path to great success. Each is filled with some tips that you can try for yourself. And you’ll find that a little practice can often make the new, or the unknown, become easy to embrace, and really great for you.

Today for our podcast I have with me Stephanie Breedlove. Stephanie started a business in 1992 and I’d like her to tell you about that business today. Because what she’s learned as a woman entrepreneur can really help others who are trying to start a business or grow theirs. Stephanie has a wonderful new book out, it’s really a good read. It’s called All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses and Change the World. Stephanie co-founded Breedlove, after realizing that the corporate environment in which she was working was simply not suitable for a professional who also wanted to have a family. And she came up with a great idea around an unmet need, very Blue Ocean Strategy® style. So thank you for joining me, Stephanie. Welcome.

Stephanie Breedlove: And it’s my pleasure. I’m happy to be on your show today.

Andi Simon: Our listeners are ready for some insights into what you actually created. So I’ll start there. How did you build your business? What was it that you saw, and it wasn’t exactly in your garage, but it was sort of a home-based business that grew quickly. Tell us about it.

Stephanie Breedlove: I’d be happy to share an overview of the story. And actually, Andi, I hope by the end of our interview, that the takeaway for your listeners is that the journey we’re going to talk about today is relatable, that it’s not extraordinary, and that it feels achievable for all who desire and fit the entrepreneurial journey, particularly women. And that’s a nice segue, I think, about how my story got started, and then how it unfolds.

I went to work in corporate America with Accenture, following my MBA, and it was the 1980s. So I’m dating myself a little bit. And it was a progressive time for women in corporate America and in a man’s field. And I really thought that the challenges that that presented was the path that I was meant to travel. And then exactly as you said, my husband and I a few years down the road, we had two sons a year apart, 16 months apart. And the decision to become a dual income, partnership of equality in our home is spilled over into how we viewed the way we wanted to live our professional lives. And we wanted to have a bigger impact. We wanted to have more balance. We thought we had the skills to maybe be the captain of our own ship.

And in those thoughts, and in that move to try to be a couple of dual career and equality, we hired a nanny and couldn’t figure out how to pay her correctly and legally. And in working for Accenture, it really was a necessity. And an idea was born: What if more women returned to work long term and pursued careers? And on the other end of the spectrum, what if more of the elderly begin to want to stay at home as they age? And what if we started a service that helped them with the payroll, the taxes, the labor law, the contracts, the consultation? That’s how the business was born.

Andi Simon: I’m laughing, Stephanie. I had two children 14 months apart. And I went back to work when they were three weeks old. And I’m listening to you and I’m saying, Boy, I wish you were around when my kids were really young, because I had the nannies and we made it up along the way. But what’s so interesting about your story is that you were living this unmet need, and you could feel it really well. So tell us about some of the challenges and how you began to build it into a business.

Stephanie Breedlove: Yes. So we did not take this grandiose leap into entrepreneurship, which I think sometimes we get that sense when we read about successful startups, it’s really usually a lot of pain and a slow process. And that’s how it went for us. So we built this little minimum viable product, in today’s terminology, and it was a scaled down version of what this thing might look like. And we delivered it on a very small scale in a couple of states as a test, and we didn’t even quit our jobs. So, Andi, you’ve lived this life, it sounds like being a career woman with young children.

And now we’ve got this little business on the side. And we thought we were having fun, but then it began to grow legs. And it started to have a little bit of traction. And we realized that a business on the side wasn’t a recipe for success, nor good for family life. And I made the decision to take the leap, and leave corporate America and become a full time co-founder in an attempt to take this nanny tax business idea national, and to scale it. And so that was really the point in which we said, Okay, we’re gonna go for this. And we’re gonna go for gusto now.

In 1995, which was when this ended up being a self-funded endeavor, we did not have a network to tap into for investment or venture capital, and it really was not very existent in that day. So we self-funded, and we went as fast as we could with the limited amount of money, which meant that we had to bootstrap. And we had challenges. And we slowly grew from a single co-founder, with all the weight on my shoulders for three and a half years, to bringing on a second co-founder. My husband joined the team three and a half years in, after we really had some growth and some scale behind us. And then we went from there.

Andi Simon: Let me ask you a question because often, I mentor entrepreneurs, and sometimes their hurdles seem so high that it’s difficult to see how they’re going to overcome them, but you went from bootstrapping to turning around and building a business with enormous potential. And you just sold it in 2012, I believe that’s correct, to Care.com, sort of aspirational. So as we look backwards, some of the things that you must have done to build staff, build a culture and build processes. I know they are all anxiety producing, but how do you turn it from bootstrap into, I’m going to build a business that’s really going to work?

Stephanie Breedlove: That’s an excellent question. And at the highest level, I’ll share my highest level thoughts, and then maybe some examples. You know, building a business of scale, it really is some of the hardest work that you will ever do. It truly is, even if your calling is to be an entrepreneur. And it’s absolutely the most fulfilling. And I think we employed two strategies at the top of the business that we stuck behind, actually three. One is that we focused on the long term, and strategies that built sustainable value. The notion that business-building is a marathon and not a sprint.

Second, we also embodied and embraced the philosophy that to have sustainable value, you have to build it right. Every time there’s IT and you mentioned this, the commitment to standards and procedures, training and skill development and systems and smart automation, and a priority on communication.

And the third is, and this I think falls into the wheelhouse of your expertise: we went about building the business from the very beginning with an intentional investment in culture, as paramount to the strength of the foundation and the future of the company. And everything flowed from there.

Andi Simon: What’s interesting to me, as I’ve been interviewing women entrepreneurs and successful CEOs, is that culture is a focus, not an afterthought. Share with our listeners a little bit more about building an intentional culture. Was it a very controlling one, or a competitive one? Or a collaborative one or an innovative one? I mean, how would you describe what you were crafting and then made it happen?

Stephanie Breedlove: Yeah. I could spend a whole session talking about culture. It is something that I really do believe is truly a secret to success. And I think you do have to have a smattering, if you will, of all of the elements that you just listed, but you have to have a priority that really, I think, envelops your culture. And I think our top priority was collaboration, that there is no such thing as a bad idea, that we want to invest in you tremendously. And we expect you to invest in us tremendously in return. This constant feeling of give and take, and you probably know that company culture has been an increasing focus over the last decade. And there have been studies that have shown that over 50% of corporations feel that it has a strong influence on productivity and profitability and value and growth, yet only 28% of our US workers say they’re engaged.

So how did we build a culture that bridges that gap? For us, we really did believe from the outset, in that intangible notion that if you really strive to bring out the best in people, then that brings out the best in your company. And it makes it a smart business. It leads to a swift pace in growth to the ability to easily capitalize on new opportunities to maximize your efficiency and your quality, and to grow your value. And some examples of that, I could go on. But let me list just a handful.

Some of the things that we tangibly put into place from the very beginning, and they’re still with the company today, is, first of all, always hire to groom yourself out of a job. Have the philosophy that the people you’re hiring can grow, and that there will be opportunity for them because their growth creates the opportunity. And the joyous thing about that is it allows you to grow.

A second, and this is a contentious one: we truly believed in training at every level, in imparting education and knowledge and focusing on skill development, whether it be in a new hire capacity for several weeks, which most companies don’t even have several days of training, or in promotion for several months to help someone make that transition from the level that they’ve been at as an expert to a new level, which they don’t hold all of the skills.

And I think third, I could list 10, but I’ll give a third one, is to do the hard work of setting expectations and creating accountability. I think a lot of leaders and particularly entrepreneurs struggle with this one. Excellence is not negotiable. But if you provide a good culture, then people should just get what the expectations are, and how to measure those and deliver against those. And I have found in my experience, that that is true, that doing that hard work, and being the bad guy a little bit to set formal expectations, and having constant review and feedback around accountability and setting the bar high, but striving alongside your team to meet it. It creates buy-in pride and unity and it cycles right back to the strength of your culture, and what it does for your bottom line.

Andi Simon: This is so very exciting, because you’re actually sharing not only, We have a good culture here, but, Let me tell you how. And then how people embraced it and became part of it and lived it because when you talk about it, a culture is your brand. And what you promise, you have to live and deliver. Did your customers become part of this collaboration as well? Were they part of the thinking? Sometimes we put them outside of the company, and they’re out there, but it sounds like maybe they were inside as well? Your perspective?

Stephanie Breedlove: That’s very perceptive. You are spot-on in our philosophy, and I personally believe that you are only as valuable as the perception that your clients have of your value. So our overarching company mission, which really was at the backbone of our culture, I’ll give you an example, was to be the undisputed experts in our space with an unparalleled offering in order to maximize that value. So for us to achieve that, first of all, we had to have a culture of passionate people who actually believed and wanted to achieve the status of unparalleled expertise. ease and unparalleled service delivery offering. But we had to have a feedback loop from our clients to know that we were doing that, and that our efforts were constantly striving and improving, which makes your team proud and makes them engage.

So, for example, we wanted to have as comprehensive a service that we could logically deliver. And we wanted it to be as efficient and as user friendly as possible, which required engaging and getting feedback from the client on how to do that, because I mentioned that we were a payroll and tax company, but yet very much engaged in consultation to help guide a family through labor law and some of the sticky wickets that are the difference between keeping an employment relationship with someone who cares for your loved ones or not. We also wanted to hold their hand at all of the right levels when they needed us. And that really required that we understood our client. And when they needed our consultation, we were delivering it in a way that met their needs, exceeded their needs, and created that value.

And one of the things I’ve thought about in thinking of customers is, I’m painting a little bit of a picture that the customer is king. And then it’s critical to building your business and the strength of your culture. But one of the things that we embraced is that the customer is king. But that often requires that you clearly set and manage their expectations. It makes their life easier, and they value you for it when they know they don’t know best and you do. And that’s why they’ve hired you to guide them to set their expectations. And for you to share your expertise in a way that saves them time and money and hassle and heartache in our service. And that’s of great value.

Andi Simon: It sounds like I wish I had you when my kids were young because I sure could have used both your education, your engagement, managing my expectations and a big hand. I’m curious: you are passionate about what you created. What led you to selling it?

Stephanie Breedlove: Well, that is a big question. And for all entrepreneurs out there, for everyone who sees the natural cycle of their growth, their next step and their success is having an exit strategy. But to be honest with you, it’s not as easy to plan for or to go through, as most would think, even though it’s something we all think about as entrepreneurs as a successful part of business building. And I’ll be honest, when we were about 15 years in, we had the good fortune to have achieved national leadership in our industry, high profitability, high volume. We were servicing a lot of clients, and we were in a space where we were able to begin to plan like a large business. What is next? Do we grow and diversify significantly? Do we build an executive team so that the company is ready to move on without its co-founders at the helm? And do we look towards an exit? We had started to have those conversations, not because we were ready to exit, we were enjoying what we were doing, but because it’s the logical next step and smart business for your company. And we actually hadn’t taken any action beyond planning.

So I give you some context of where we were. And lo and behold, we had had two or three phone calls from potential acquirers, as I call them, kind of kicking the tires. Nothing of significance resulted. And I think it prompted us to make sure we were doing some of these things I just described when Care.com called. And one of the things we had on the list that I recommend to all entrepreneurs is, when you think about an exit, if you had a perfect exit, what would it look like? And one of the things we had on the list was that if we did sell our company, our first preference, we may not achieve it, but our first preference would be to have a strategic buyer purchase the company so that the strategic buyer would value the company for what it did, and potentially have the opportunity to breathe growth in it beyond our abilities as a singular standalone company, and that it wouldn’t be a financial buyer or another type of buyer that may not value the company for what it did, but maybe for its assets. Or in our case, its client base.

And when Care.com called, that box was checked. And it made us pause and say, You know what? We’re not sure we’re ready for this but this is smart business and we need to end and retain this acquisition. And it ended up being not only smart business, but great for the company. The company has gone on to do greater things underneath Care.com’s umbrella than we could ever have done alone.

Andi Simon: Yeah, it was a great match. And when you said that, and I looked on Care.com, I mean, this is just an awesome added value of great innovative value to them, and to their customers and to your own. So it was terrific.

Stephanie Breedlove: I was just gonna say that it’s rare when this happens. But Care.com is a company that places care, and is very engaged in the front end of establishing the relationship, and my business was engaged in managing the relationship and putting the two together was just such a perfect fit. And that’s sort of an entrepreneurial dream.

Andi Simon: Now for you, you have the next stage in your own journey. The sale to Care.com fit so beautifully that it must give you a great joy just to step back and watch it. But I have a hunch you’re ready for the next part of your own journey. What’s on that agenda?

Stephanie Breedlove: That’s a great question. And I will say this: retirement is overrated. So I will honestly say that when we exited, it had been a long journey. And when it was a tremendous amount of work to successfully transition the company, we gave it all we had. So we truly took a sabbatical and took nine months off and got to experience what retirement looks like. And it was a treat to be able to do that with travel and reading and visiting family, learning to play golf. And I realized that I don’t think that I can do that. Even when I’m really, really old, I need to have more going on in my life.

So in the last year, I have focused really in three areas. One is, I’ve become an active angel investor, which also allows me to be a mentor to entrepreneurs in the startup mode looking to grow a business, and it’s really, really been a lot of fun. It’s something I think I will probably continue for the rest of my days. It also allows me to be on the lookout for the next business. I’m not going to jump back into business, just because I want to be involved in business growth. It needs to be something that feels right. And that’s really how Care.com came about. For us, it was a need that we felt passionate about. So I think there might be another business. And third, I have stepped into an active role of mentoring, paying it forward and encouraging women in entrepreneurship. And I’ve recently written a book, as you mentioned in the intro.

Andi Simon: Well, your book is wonderful. And I don’t know if most people take a good look at the quotes that you use, but being an anthropologist, I share this. It’s a Margaret Mead quote that starts your forward: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” As I read it, and I read your book, I said, Man, this is so powerful. Now you’re sort of reaching out to other entrepreneurs, solopreneurs, people who have a vision of something that can really be transformative, and aren’t necessarily sure about all the elements to put together. You self-funded. But you also discovered along the way how to do it, make it happen.

I did not have a mentor, I made it up as I went along. And I don’t know if you had a mentor, but I know there weren’t a lot of women mentors to help us build our businesses as they were growing. So there’s much to be learned from the book that you’ve written and the next stage in your own life. Some tips you’d like to leave for maybe potential entrepreneurs or those who are already going on their way and have early stage companies, maybe two or three things that are really “My lessons learned I wish I had known before”?

Stephanie Breedlove: Oh, I’d be happy to. I touched on this one as we were just visiting, and I’ll start with this one. I think one of the most important tips that I have used, and I think we’ll always use, is the strategy and the philosophy that as an entrepreneur, you should always be focusing on growing your career. When you focus on growing your own career as a business owner, the ripple effect is exponential. Your team grows and that translates into company growth. And when you’re growing, you’re always challenged and fulfilled and it’s really the great stuff that life is made of. So always grow your career I think is number one.

I think the second one, and this one is a little more tangible and hardcore and I feel strongly about it, is: focus on the financials. This sounds obvious, but almost 65% of business failures are due to financial mismanagement, and financial knowledge and focus is a key responsibility for every founder. And you don’t have to be a financial guru, you just simply have to look at your business with a broad, skillful mindset, and grow with appropriate knowledge and learn continuously when it comes to the financial part of your business. And it will be the difference, not only between making it in the beginning, as you mentioned in our self-funding effort, but the difference between satisfactory success and grand scale success. And I think that’s an area of fear for all entrepreneurs. So I encourage entrepreneurs to focus on the financials and try to get rid of that fear as you go.

Last is a quote. And this is really inspirational. It’s something that I live by. I love quotes. And you mentioned one of the quotes in the beginning of the book. This one is also in the book. It’s a quote by Eleanor Roosevelt. She says, “Do not let any person tell you no who does not have the power to say yes.” And I think about this one in many situations all the time. It will probably continue to be with me as I navigate my continued career.

Andi Simon: Stephanie, this has been an absolutely charming time together. I can’t thank you enough for sharing. I’m laughing because my husband is a serial entrepreneur. And so our lives have been building and selling and building and selling. And as you were talking, he was a numbers-driven, customer-focused individual who built cultures. And you’re spot-on. So I want our listeners to remember to take a look at Stephanie Breedlove’s new book. It’s called All In: How Women Entrepreneurs Can Think Bigger, Build Sustainable Businesses and Change the World.. You can find it anywhere books are sold, Barnes and Noble, your independent bookstores, and of course, online at amazon.com. I urge you to pick up a copy. I have mine and I have enjoyed every minute reading it.

But reflecting on our lives as women entrepreneurs is very, very gratifying but hard. But all of a sudden, you realize you look backwards and you say, I did it. And I’m not sure how, but it’s fun to share and help others do the same. Thanks for joining us today. I’m Andi Simon and this is On the Brink. Our podcasts are designed to help you see, feel and think in new ways so you can soar. So if you think you’re on the brink, it’s time to stop and take a good look. You can read more in my first book, On the Brink: A Fresh Lens to Take Your Business to New Heights or my second one, Rethink: Smashing The Myths of Women in Business, which actually features Stephanie and her story of successful entrepreneurship. Watch our videos at Simonassociates.net. Subscribe to our blog so we can send along new tips and ideas to share. So feel free to send your questions along. We want to hear your stories and you too could be one of our interviews. And send us a note at info@andisimon.com. Have a great day.