James Nowlin | Crain's Austin

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

James Nowlin


Austin-based Excel Global Partners provides clients with hands-on, executive level, consulting expertise and solutions in management consulting and business strategy, finance and accounting, and information technology solutions and consulting to sustainably improve the operational, financial, and technological performance of businesses across the globe.

The Mistake:

I was volunteering too much time to our clients and not asking for compensation in return.

In the company’s early years, I didn’t have the confidence I should have had to make sure I was compensated appropriately for my expertise and my time. So I ended up giving too much of my time, resources and spirit to my clients. I was not operating from a place of confidence, but from a place of never wanting to disappoint my clients.

I didn’t have the confidence to request additional funding for my efforts and the results I was bringing them.

This really stagnated the growth of the firm because I had ended up giving so much of myself to clients, including nights, holidays and weekends. Instead of working in the business so deeply, I should have been working on the business.

This can be called a founder’s dilemma. It’s not uncommon for a founder in the early years to want to touch everything and be involved in everything, and just give, give, give.

But in order to scale and build capacity in a business, you have to be able to step away from the business. And, you have to be able to request additional remuneration from clients who request additional times and resources.

It was around the five-year mark that I had a real wake-up call. I was facing burnout and my quality of life had diminished. I realized we had plateaued in terms of our number of clients, employees and revenue. We were a very stable company but not a growing company.

It was not until I took a step back and reflected upon on what was holding us back that things got better. I discovered the stagnation was not related to the quality of services but to my giving too much time to certain clients.

I realized I had to do something completely different. I had started and built the company but was giving so much that I could not sustainably continue as CEO unless I did something different.

I learned that every CEO ­– whether it is a small or a big business – has to figure out if they want to continue working in the business incessantly or on the business.

The Lesson:

By stepping away and taking a harder strategic look at our business, I was able to pour myself into investigating what was holding back our growth and come up with ideas and ways for us to grow. This included me training other employees to provide the same services that I was providing ­– but for a fee.

I realized other people could do the work I was doing, and my stress levels were lower because I wasn’t being pulled around so much by so many different obligations. My eyes opened to the full potential of the business and what we could collectively offer to clients around the world. My role moved from lead service provider and consultant to lead strategist and capacity builder.

I was able to devote more time to lead generation, business development and sales and really articulate the value proposition and key differentiators versus other corporate consulting firms. By doing that, we were able to capture new clients that were good fits for us.

Once I made the changes, I didn’t lose clients at all and was able to grow accounts.

Once clients realized our firm was more than just the James show, and had many other talented individuals, clients started asking for services to fill certain gaps in the company. They saw us as a strategic resource to go to, not just for ad hoc companies but for true collective corporate consulting solutions.

Ultimately, I learned that every CEO ­– whether it is a small or a big business – has to figure out if they want to continue working in the business incessantly or on the business. I believe the best-run businesses are led by leaders who devote the vast majority of their time to perfecting their business. That only happens if you devote the time to work on the business, not in it.


Follow James Nowlin on Twitter at @JamesNowlinTPM.

Pictured is James Nowlin. | Photo courtesy of Excel Global Partners.

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