Interested in starting your own entrepreneurial journey in business development but unsure what to expect? Then read up on our interview with Chris Gwinn, Founder and CEO of Great Lakes Advisory, located in Chicago, IL, USA.

What's your business, and who are your customers?

We help entrepreneurs make their business easier to manage by improving their processes, clearly defining their standard operating procedures (SOPs), and building world-class training experiences to get everyone aligned, so the business runs on repeatable processes.

Our customers are small businesses and hardworking, gritty founders that built their companies from the ground up. Often within these businesses, there's a ton of chaos and inconsistency in how processes are performed, and their people are trained. Our purpose is to elevate our clients to become operational models of excellence within their industry.

Tell us about yourself

My entrepreneurial journey started in 2015. At the time, I was a portfolio manager at Northern Trust and managed approximately $70MM in assets. At the same time, my dad is a business owner, and he was struggling to keep his head above water. He was constantly putting out fires, employees weren't following tasks "the correct way," dealing with employee turnover, and feeling stuck inside his business. My dad approached me and asked if there was any way I might be able to make his business easier to manage.

Of course, I was happy to help him. As I began dissecting their operations and interviewing their employees, I quickly discovered that there were zero processes, zero standard operating procedures, and no formalized training. It was essentially, "throw the employees to the wolves and see if they can figure it out." So, to me, it intuitively made a ton of sense why employees weren't following tasks "the correct way" because there wasn't a "correct way" to do anything. After all, nothing was defined.

My initial thought on how to make his business easier to manage was that we first needed to clearly define the processes within his organization. Then, let's document the standard operating procedures that would define the step-by-step instructions to guide the actions and decisions of their employees consistently achieve the same outcomes. After that, we need to build training covering the processes, SOPs, responsibilities, tribal knowledge, and resources each employee needs to perform their job.

So, I took it upon myself to facilitate interviews with every one of their employees to gain a deep understanding of precisely what it took to perform their job. What are the processes and responsibilities these employees need to perform on a daily, weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual basis? And what's everything they know now that they wish they knew coming into this position that would have genuinely positioned them for success?

It took me several months to facilitate these interviews and turn our conversations into documented processes, SOPs, and training. After this project, I noticed the impact from several perspectives of the business. From the operations side, I noticed that now that their processes and SOPs were clearly defined and employees were provided the tools and knowledge to perform their job, the business started running on repeatable processes. The operations were more consistent, as tasks were no longer falling through the cracks. As a result, the company became easier to manage and more profitable.

But I also noticed the impact on the employees. As I shared, there was absolutely zero training, zero documented processes, and a ton of employee confusion. Now that we had built a centralized training platform that equipped the employees with the resources needed for their job, the employees began to feel that the company was investing in their overall professional development and truly positioning them for success. So as a result, employee morale increased, and employee turnover declined. But I also noticed the real impact on the business owner, the entrepreneur, management, or in my case, my dad. My dad's a little overweight. He suffers from some heart complications. He's gone through multiple rounds of ablation surgery, and much of that is likely stress-induced. The fact is that up until this point, the business relies heavily on management to manage the daily operations.

But as I shared, we now have all these clearly defined systems and processes in place. The business is running on repeatable processes. That allows management to effectively remove themselves from the daily operations and delegate many of those responsibilities. So, in my dad's case, I noticed that allowed him to reduce the number of working hours in a given week to focus more on exercising properly, alleviating some of that stress, and increasing his overall health and well-being.

So, taking a step back and reflecting on the incredible impact that processes, systems, SOPs, and training could have on an organization, I realized there was certainly a much larger need for the solution outside his business. So, I opened up Great Lakes Advisory in 2018 to address this specific need for small businesses. I am inspired daily by the businesses we serve and the impact we create.

What's your biggest accomplishment as a business owner?

Building a company that employees are excited to work for and where they feel respected and supported to reach their full potential. I was also very proud that we successfully pivoted our business model and grew top line revenue by 7X during 2020 / COVID.

What's one of the hardest things that come with being a business owner?

There is never enough time in the day. Prioritizing the most important activities that will create the most meaningful impact on your goals and vision for your company.

What are the top tips you'd give to anyone looking to start, run and grow a business today?

  1. For the entrepreneur in you: Join an entrepreneur cohort (I.E., EOA, EO, Vistage, YPO) to learn from the experiences of others and apply that experience to the current issues you are trying to solve within your business as you grow. The experience of others is invaluable, and you will avoid a ton of mistakes from others that have been in your same shoes.
  2. For the business owner in you: Build a business that you would love to work for and a purpose that you are passionate about. Learn to delegate and empower your employees to be their best. Your job is to coach your teams to elevate their performance, lower barriers that make their jobs easier, and solve issues that remove headwinds that restrict your growth trajectory.
  3. For the visionary in you: Build your service/products around issues that matter most to your customers. Don't be a "jack of all trades." Offer 1-3 services/products and provide them at superior quality to the competition in the market. Your customers are your greatest asset. Gain a deep understanding of who they are, what matters most to them, and how you can best serve them.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?

I am always happy to connect for a 1:1 to share my experiences and offer guidance to keep you headed in the right direction.

Where can people find you and your business?


If you like what you've read here and have your own story as a solo or small business entrepreneur that you'd like to share, then please answer these interview questions. We'd love to feature your journey on these pages.

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