A career, like any journey, is subject to chance encounters and events that influence the choices and ultimate course of that journey. It was such an encounter that changed the career path for Steve Quello when he met Edward Lowe, an entrepreneur’s entrepreneur — the inventor of Kitty Litter, Tidy Cat and a host of other successful business ventures. The introduction to Lowe and subsequent working relationship gave Quello a deep understanding of exactly what it takes for entrepreneurs to start, grow and scale a business. This understanding is what ultimately led Quello to his current position as president of CEO Nexus, a consulting business dedicated to providing the resources and networks leaders of second-stage businesses need to sustain and scale a company.
How does your prior job experience inform your approach to your work now?
My business background as a marketer provided the experience needed to apply many of the principles and practices I learned while working for Ed and the foundation he created to help other entrepreneurs. I was inspired by the vision and practices that guided Ed his entire career; specifically, how to position and scale companies. The Edward Lowe Foundation remains a client to this day, 20 years later. The lessons I learned working for Ed and the foundation always started with the customer — in our case, second-stage entrepreneurs — identifying the challenges and opportunities facing those customers. Those lessons also led to all the things we do today at CEO Nexus, in concert with our community partners including the University of Central Florida’s GrowFL program and business incubation network, the Rollins College Center for Advanced Entrepreneurship, the Florida High Tech Corridor and related regional economic development offices throughout the state.
CEO Nexus offers roundtables, forums, and referral networks to its members. Can you describe the differences between the three and the unique advantages of each?
The core of what we do is help entrepreneurs solve problems through a peer learning process — CEO roundtable. Our CEO roundtable program is a proven problem-solving model that has been around since the founding of this country. Ben Franklin was among the earliest American business leaders to adopt the roundtable concept of engaging peers from other businesses and trade organizations. While the peer learning process has clearly evolved over time, the core principle of bringing leaders of like mind and like interests together to solve problems remains the same. There’s an incredible amount of wisdom and problem-solving capacity concentrated in a roundtable setting if properly constructed and managed. That’s what we do. We bring together the right mix of CEO participants, second-stage CEOs trying to grow their companies, and we work together resolving business challenges in a collaborative, confidential setting. On occasion, there are issues that are beyond the scope or experience of a given group, so we look to leaders outside the roundtable group who have done it before, or we convene large events — like the forums — and bring in leaders to talk about lessons learned as they’ve grown a company. We try to make those connections through the forum, but individually there are occasions where someone knows someone who could help a member. Then we’re actively trying to connect the network on behalf of our members; that’s the referral portion of our program.
Peer learning is a big pillar of the CEO Nexus program. How does that help you, and how do you see it make a difference for others?
There is rarely a clear or defined path to success for entrepreneurs. The school of hard knocks is a tough taskmaster, so it’s not surprising that many entrepreneurs become skeptical of experts. Business owners often come to realize that only another entrepreneur can really understand what it is like to own and manage a business. They trust their peers most of all. There’s significant research on the topic sponsored by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. That research concluded that high-growth, high-potential companies valued the input and opinion of CEO peers more than any other source, period. It’s why the roundtable model works and remains valuable for business owners. The process plays to the experience and the bias of CEOs. Most people don’t appreciate that it is surprisingly lonely at the top. We try to create and sustain an environment where peer learning and problem-solving happens most productively.
Can you define Economic Gardening® and describe how it factors into the work being done with CEO Nexus?
That goes back to my connection to the Edward Lowe Foundation. Economic Gardening, at its core, is an entrepreneurial approach to economic development. It is focused on nurturing local companies. That’s the gardening — growing companies that are already established in a community versus recruiting companies from somewhere else to be relocated, frequently referred to as economic hunting. We focus on growing companies that are established, that are beyond start-up, that are looking to grow and have the capacity to grow, and then we try to add value through the different tools and services we provide.
What do you think it is about the economic landscape in Central Florida that lends itself to that? How do you see that changing in the next 10 years?
Central Florida has a relatively robust entrepreneurial ecosystem. Services exist for entrepreneurs across the entire business development continuum. Unfortunately, critical gaps remain like access to growth capital, a misunderstanding among policy makers of the critical contribution local entrepreneurs play in generating the wealth and job creation of our local economy, and how the challenges and needs of locally based entrepreneurs varies significantly by industry and stage of development. Given my experience working on behalf of the Edward Lowe Foundation, I am specifically aware of the disproportionate contribution second-stage entrepreneurs make in aggregate to the local economy. That said, opportunities for improvement in the next 10 years are significant. I am hopeful that the economic development forces shaping the Orlando Economic Partnership (OEP) will provide the energy and critical mass needed to address the gaps and future needs of entrepreneurs in the region.
From your own experience within these programs, what have you learned? Is there any piece of advice that stands out?
Well, in terms of the recurring themes I’ve observed associated with high-growth, high-potential companies, themes that tend to be true among those companies that eventually scale — and you have to choose that, because not every company and not every leader really wants or enjoys what is required to scale a business. First, the leaders of high-potential companies typically have the passion, persistence and intent to scale needed to endure the inevitable ups and downs of the journey. It’s not a straight line. A second recurring theme is the willingness to adopt the processes and procedures required to manage a business beyond the founder/owner. That’s hard, and sometimes business owners aren’t willing or able to let go in ways needed to effectively scale the operations that drive a business. A third theme common to high-growth, high-potential companies is an appreciation for the need to invest in the talent required to effectively replace the owner: a management team capable of operating the company without the CEO if necessary. A fourth theme of the most successful high-growth companies is a commitment to innovation — the capacity to remain adaptive and responsive to opportunities and threats in the marketplace. These recurring themes, while not unique or exhaustive, tend to be clearly present in those companies that find a way to scale.