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Jackie Mortell of Smart Solutions Inc.

“PeerSpectives has helped me enormously in making decisions and taking the necessary chances to grow my business,” says Jackie Mortell co-founder of Smart Solutions Inc. in Madison, Wisconsin.

Mortell joined a PeerSpectives CEO roundtable hosted by the Wisconsin SBDC at UW-Madison in 2010, and by 2015 annual revenue at her IT consulting and staffing company increased from $12 million to $17 million with staff growing from 90 to 150. “The experiences shared by other roundtable members have helped me avoid some real pitfalls and expensive mistakes,” says Mortell.

Shortly after Mortell joined the roundtable, she faced a major challenge: One of her clients had dramatically sliced its budget and released 18 of her contractual consultants. “This not only impacted my company but also those individuals, which was made worse because it happened just before Christmas,” she recalls. “Yet I was able to take this problem to the roundtable, and they calmed me down. I walked out with practical ideas about how to approach it with my internal staff and the consultants — not just from a legal and HR viewpoint, but also a human perspective.”

More recently, Mortell was investigating expansion into other geographic markets, such as Milwaukee. Yet after discussing it with the roundtable, she decided to hit the pause button. “Experiences shared by other members led me to believe that Milwaukee was an insider’s town, and to be successful, we would need to hire someone with local connections,” she says.

Instead of pursuing new clients in a brand new market, roundtable members suggested that Smart Solutions leverage relationships with existing clients that have national offices, and the company now has a presence in New Jersey, Nevada, California, Iowa and Illinois. In addition, the company has grown by expanding into staffing needs beyond technology, such as administration, accounting and construction project management. “That again, was something that came out of the roundtable,” Mortell says.

In addition to getting real-time help with pressing problems, Mortell cites other benefits of PeerSpectives:

  • Intimacy. Because the roundtable is small, members get to know each other extremely well. “There is a high degree of trust and openness, and we talk not only about specific business issues, but related challenges including personal and family issues,” Mortell says. “It’s hard to find peers like this, and it really makes you feel less lonely as a business owner.”
  • Universality. “The issues we choose are urgent for the individual, but also for broad use,” she says. “Even if I haven’t experienced the challenge being presented, it’s something I might confront someday, and I always learn something.”
  • Drop-dead honesty. At most business functions, people aren’t honest, Mortell observes. “They want to emphasize their successes and diminish their mistakes. But at PeerSpectives, you hear about the ups and downs because people are bringing in their problems and looking for solutions. The only way to do that is to be completely honest.”
  • The ability to be vulnerable. “If you’re the boss and overwhelmed by something, there’s no one at the company you can tell,” Mortell explains. “But in the roundtable, you can admit to feeling scared, and everyone knows how you feel. I take issues to them that I wouldn’t talk about to anyone else.”

Starting out her career as a software developer, being a CEO wasn’t on Mortell’s wish list. Since launching Smart Solutions, she has taken business classes but still lacked confidence prior to joining the roundtable. “Having this group of peers has shown me that I am, indeed, running the business well,” she says. “They’ve helped me grow in how I’m managing people — and be more confident in making decisions that may not be popular.”

Being in the roundtable is also incredibly fun, Mortell adds. “We have a variety of business owners in my group, and I’ve gotten to learn about running a veterinary business, architecture, lighting and more. It’s fascinating, and the people are incredibly intelligent. It’s privilege to listen to them.”

Copyright © 2016 by the Edward Lowe Foundation

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