Build Your KC Business by Thinking Like a Bricklayer

Build Your KC Business by Thinking Like a Bricklayer

By Guest Contributor Jeff Shackelford, Digital Sandbox KC

Nearly 30 years ago, I pulled off the greatest sales performance of my life and convinced my wife-to-be, Deb, to marry me. My soon-to-be father in-law was a bricklayer, and over the years, I would stop by a project he was working on to say hello. One day, I visited a brick house he had just finished and asked him, “How many bricks are in this house?” He replied, “About 40,000.”

At that time in his career, he transitioned from running crews to pretty much being a one-man shop. I asked him, “How in the heck did you lay 40,000 bricks by yourself?” I’ll never forget his answer. “One brick at a time,” he said. It’s a quote I use frequently when talking with early-stage entrepreneurs and reviewing Digital Sandbox KC pitches.

Often, many early-stage entrepreneurs spend much of their pitch time talking about what their concept/start-up will look like after “40,000 bricks” have been put in place instead of talking in terms of how they’ll build things “one brick at a time.” They’re eager to describe what their business will look like, how wildly successful it will be and the huge exit payoff versus how they will build it “one brick at a time.”

I ask them to think in terms of building their business milestone-to-milestone versus trying to figure out how to leapfrog critical (and often difficult but essential) steps. Over the past five years, we’ve seen over 600 early-stage entrepreneurs pitch their scalable concepts to Digital Sandbox KC. At the time of this writing, we have provided project development grants to 113 and 72 of them have already gone on to collectively raise over $65 million in follow-on investments.


Virtually, all of those receiving development funds and securing follow-on investment consistently executed milestone to milestone. Even though they forecast for three to five years and beyond, they operated by thinking, “What’s the critical next step?,” to ensure they achieve their next milestone — in other words, they should consider the next brick they need lay to continue building their 40,000-brick business.

Lou Holtz, the former college football coach best known for his undefeated season and national championship team at the University of Notre Dame once said: “We didn’t set out to go undefeated and win a national championship. Instead, we built a culture around working every day to get just a little bit better than we were yesterday.” 

In other words, they didn’t talk about building a new trophy case to house the shiny new trophy; they focused on the necessary details to place that “brick of improvement” every day. This a formula for success in starting and growing a scalable business. Instead of dreaming of conquering the dominant market player or securing a huge buyout, focus on launching your business and getting a little bit better every day. If you can do that consistently, you will grow milestone-to-milestone and succeed long term.

Many early-stage entrepreneurs with innovative concepts go off the rails as they insist on focusing on what they want the business to look like several years out versus how to get the business to the next milestone. The next milestone might be a more detailed business plan, painstakingly getting more market validation, building that first version of your minimum viable product, or even getting a single paying customer.

No matter what stage a business may be in, it’s critical to clearly and concisely define the next milestone to keep moving the business forward. Each milestone reached is another brick in the wall (to quote the great philosophers Pink Floyd).

 As many people have heard me say: “If you’re going to run your first marathon, don’t tell me your predicted time to complete the 26.2 miles. Instead, describe the training you will do every day, rain or shine, to get properly prepared to complete it.”

Anyone can decide they want to run their first marathon (and I don’t run marathons), but few will have the discipline, dedication and will to complete the many months of training to complete the full course. 

Similarly, people tell me all the time, “I’m going to start a business.” They proceed to jump to their big exit scheme. Potential investors want to hear how you plan to get from Point A to Milestone B and what it will take to get to Milestones C, D, E, etc.  If you can successfully execute across a series of milestones, they’ll believe you can continue to “lay more brick” on top of the foundation and scale your company into a 40,000-brick success.

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