Just Get Started: Converting your ideas into a real business Geraud Staton, Founder & Executive Director of Helius Foundation

Geraud is an oil painter, entrepreneur, and coach for small businesses. He started The Helius Foundation because I wanted to level the playing field when it came to minority and women-owned businesses. He believes that there are too many knowledgeable business people in our community for anyone to not have the skills they need to survive as hard-working entrepreneurs.

When he’s not working with clients, he spends his time painting oil portraits, banging on his drums, or wandering the world in search of adventure and interesting people.

What initially inspired you to launch the Helius Foundation and what path did you follow to start it up?

It was meant to be a project. I just wanted to help a few folks. I went back to business school at North Carolina Central.  While in school, I started an entrepreneur club. Each semester, we’d start a business, and we’d also coach a few businesses. I worked on it with a few other students and we figured we’d help a few people until they could get to someone else.

It turns out, no one else in town was providing these services. There is SCORE, but their services are too sophisticated and they aren’t necessarily connecting with the population we’re serving. The SBA (Small Business Administration) has all of these online courses available, but even I had trouble with all of them. I had a lot of clients who said they went to a seminar and left more confused.

What I learned is that the things small businesses need help with are all of the little things – like how to create contracts, invoices, and receipts.

One of my clients, he has been doing his work for 2 years. He’s a window cleaner. I asked him ‘what does your contract look like?’ He didn’t have one. When he said he was willing to work on someone’s windows, he would just tell them a price and show up. Without our support, no one would have ever explained why it’s important to get the details of a job written down & signed by the person hiring his company.

Even with having my business training, I have found that there are so many little details I struggle to remember as a business owner.

After business school, I started doing this type of Consulting exclusively. I thought it would only be a part-time gig, and then I got a part-time gig with Bull City Forward. Ultimately, I realized the need was bigger than a part-time commitment. I launched the Helius Foundation around the same time. In the end, we shut Bull City Forward down and I have been working on Helius full time since then.

At Helius, we are all about trying to help support small businesses. One example is helping them understand their marketing conversion cycle. I spend about 50% of my time marketing and cultivating relationships, so the business won’t dry up. I help our businesses understand they should be investing a similar amount of time in their own marketing efforts to make sure their businesses continue to grow.

Tell me a bit about how you work to make a positive impact?

Our typical client varies. The original client was a person who had a skill, but never really thought that they would make a living in their business. I typically convinced them that they could make a living. For example, someone was making an extra $100/week with a hobby and they needed the money. I would convince them that they could make $500 – $600 if they made it a business. The issue with this was maybe 70% – 80% weren’t motivated to start a business. What gets a lot of them is the surprising work that comes along with launching a business.

For someone that just wants to ‘make pancakes’ or ‘clean windows,’ all of sudden they are responsible for accounting, taxes, marketing, and sales. That will cause a lot of people to change their mind about entrepreneurship. Also, a lot of them had a trouble envisioning the successful future.

Now, we only work with people that already have a business up and running. They might not have an LLC or be registered with the city, but they are actually working on a business for a significant portion of the week. We have a minimum requirement of (5-10 hours of work) on our website. Most of our own clients were working a few hours on a Saturday. Then we found our success rate skyrocketed.

What are some of the success stories?

Our window cleaner, Michael is a good one. He started with us and only had 12 clients. Now he has almost 40 clients. We’ve helped him with his marketing and he’s a hustler. A lot of the work that is happening he would have done, but we helped him with motivation.

All of our Launch Durham graduates have been awesome. We have our regular program, which is a 12-week 1-on-1 training every week. We meet for an hour every week. With Launch Durham we decided to do an evening 3-hour class every Tuesday night for 8 weeks. We took 15-people. All of them had their businesses for 2-3 years or longer. We had an instructor that taught marketing, sales, management, and finances.  All 15 asked questions and formed a nice cohort. The community element makes a big difference.

What are the biggest obstacles you’ve had to overcome thus far?

Finances were the biggest, both personally and for the organization. It took us 2.5 years before the foundation could pay me a full salary. They started by paying me a half salary.  Thankfully, the board agreed to ‘back pay me’ once the organization was in a place to.

We find that a lot of our clients are surprised by how hard business is. I think people have an idea that it’s hard, but not the extent that it is.

To overcome this, it took a lot of education. Tempering my expectations was a lot of it as well. Instead of bitching about it, I did a lot of work to change it. And, I was very fortunate in getting my board to get engaged in helping me make this dream a reality. I had a lot of board support.

Do you think every small business needs a board?

Yes, absolutely. Unfortunately, most also work against having one. I think they see movies and are worried that the board is going to try to take over.

Instead, there are two types of boards. First, there is the starter board and they are very likely going to be a different group of people in 3 years. They are there to help you with startup hurdles. They are very hands on. Then, later on, you get your more mature board. They probably meet less – only quarterly. The only thing the mature board is for is governing how the business is run. They set the budget, they set quarterly goals.

You’re Missing Out Without a Board

An advisory board is a good way to start.  It’s cool and very informal. They don’t have any fiduciary responsibility to you.  They don’t actually have to care about what you do. A legal board is more formal and they are regulated. They have to pay attention to the risks and they have to act in your best interest.

In addition to our legal board, we also have a board of advisors of people that are too busy to be on our board of directors. You have to be able to rely on your advisors. I don’t get to talk to my advisors much, but when I chat with them I take pages of notes. However, I can’t have all of my board be that… I need decisions made and information.

How do you best meet your board’s needs?

I have a meeting at 4:30pm on Thursdays and we’re done by 6. My board are not morning people. It’s a good idea to ask your board’s meeting preferences. Some boards meet after work, but a lot of my board members have family and kids.

We use the Entrepreneurial Operating System (EOS) explained in a book that I highly recommend called Traction. Our meetings go:

  • Good news since the last meeting
  • We walk through a quick checklist thing (all things take about 5 minutes)
  • We review the quarterly goals
  • Then we go to the individual quarterly goals. Everyone on my board has 1 goal to meet by the end of the quarter. I don’t make them give me a report.  All we do is when we get to goals is say ‘yes’ we met them or ‘no’ we didn’t and then we’ll have a longer conversation later.
  • Then we cover our to-do list is stuff from the last meeting they said we were going to do
  • Finally, we tackle the ‘issues’ list. This is where everything really happens and all of our conversations take place. This list is typically ginormous. You’re never going to get through all of it. However, it means we spend most of our meeting focused on actually solving problems.

Before every meeting, me and my board chair will put the issues in order.  So then our meeting is run by time. 5 minutes until 6, we just stop. We handle every issue until we have a solution, which is usually something that gets added to a to-do list.

How many board members should you have?

The sweet spot is 5-7. For a starter board, just know that only half are effective because shit happens. Just know it’s not personal.

What advice do you have for people that want to change the world or pursue their passion?

Do it. I think one of the things is I’ve run into a lot of people who talk about. Not to say that it’s not hard, it is hard. But I think it’s harder when you talk yourself out of it.

If you can start even doing something small. Start doing it and start feeling it. That really gets it going.

If I sat and planned out Helius for a year, I would have freaked out and never done it. Because it started out as a small project, it made it seem more manageable.

When people tell me “I’m thinking about this thing…” my reaction in my head is “call me when you start it.” I have yet to get any calls. That’s the biggest thing that I find. If someone really wants to do something, they really do it.

There are exceptions for people who want to do something so big they don’t know how to take the first step. In that case, ask for help, get support, figure it out… and then get started.