Anthony Sullivan | Crain's Tampa Bay

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Anthony Sullivan

Background:  

Anthony Sullivan is the face of some of the world's most successful brands, including OxiClean, and author of "You Get What You Pitch For." He was a regular on the Home Shopping Network and in 1998 founded Sullivan Productions, a Tampa Bay television and digital production company that specializes in direct response advertising and marketing.

The Mistake:

I got very emotionally tied up in a situation that was way beyond my control.

One of my biggest clients early on in my business career went bankrupt. And because I didn’t go to business school, I didn’t understand how sometimes business is business. I didn’t have any understanding of bankruptcy law, and I went into this “Why me? How could this have possibly happened?” type of thinking. I felt like I’d personally been betrayed, almost like when you don’t get what you want from your parents. And I sulked.

I was so emotionally invested in my business over the years that I let my emotions get in the way of hard business decisions. As I was turning 30, I just realized that this had been a tough business decision and that I’ve got to suck it up, get over it and get on with it.

I think taking it too personally – still to this day – does affect my ability to grow. It affects my ability to make key business decisions. And if you’re going to run a business, that mindset is absolutely critical. It’s nice to have your core values. It’s nice to be considered a great competitor. But hard business decisions are why your business will grow or succeed: Are your margins too thin? Do you need to trim your staff because you’re getting a little too top-heavy? Do you need to give pay cuts?

When that client went bankrupt, it took me about two or three years to get my business back on a growth trajectory. And it took other people who’ve been through similar situations to turn to me and say, “It’s just business – people will go bankrupt. You will have personnel or employee problems.”

I let my emotions get in the way of hard business decisions.

The Lesson:

After that, I realized I have to be bold, to make a drastic move. I have to show that I’m a leader and make those tough decisions. And in doing that, you set the tone, I think, for growth.

It’s easy to make decisions when everything is going right. Invariably, if you have a business in its 20th year, things have gone right more than they’ve gone wrong. But I feel that I would be further along – a better, bigger, more dominant business – had I just been smarter about making business decisions sooner and made them quickly without getting tied up in the emotion. I spent way too much time licking my wounds when, in fact, the situation just happened.

I’ve always maintained a friendly relationship with the people I’ve done business with. But at the end of the day, you have to understand that, when things don’t go right, it’s not a betrayal of that friendship. It’s just that, for one reason or another, the decision that got made was based purely on business. And that can be letting someone go. It can be cutting off a supplier or switching to another supplier. It can be competing with someone you’re friendly with in order to grow your business. But it’s nothing personal.

One of the reasons I suffer from this is I like to be liked: Anthony Sullivan – the pitch guy, the friend of everyone. But you look at the cutthroat competition between Nike and Reebok, or Apple and Samsung, or Ford and Toyota, and there are no friends in that arena. It is a land grab. Right now, you look at Amazon and Walmart and there’s no friendship there. And especially in small businesses, you have to have that.

Cutthroat is a tough word, but sometimes the survivor is the one who’s willing to make the bold decision that might be unpopular.

Follow Anthony Sullivan on Twitter at @sullyontv.

Photo courtesy of Anthony Sullivan

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