Michèle Hecken | Scaling a Company and The Power of Offboarding Yourself

Michèle Hecken 10:00

We had math too because we didn’t have machines or calculators, I had to add all the bills up manually. Yeah. And so I became really, really good at doing math in my head very fast.

John Corcoran 10:11

Kids these days, got it so easy to swipe a card, you don’t have to do any math or lug around a change. So, there’s a story about how you started your company. You’re around 23 years old, I believe. And you’ve been doing freelance translation in Germany, and you move back to Canada. And you saw an opportunity with new emerging technology, talk about that.

Michèle Hecken 10:38

And love how you say new emerging technology, as it really was a new emerging technology. So the backstory is, I had studied at university, I studied languages and law. And I was starting to do translations for a large car manufacturer, where my husband worked, like it wasn’t anything glamorous, like how did you get this big car company to work with her as a freelancer, my husband worked there. So but because of being bilingual, because of having had the training, and because it could sell, they sent me so many translations, so I would do them. And then I would fax them back. Or I dropped them off. And when we decided to move back to Canada, there was a story that I read of this Australian translator who spent her days at the beach till 3 pm, then her clients in the US woke up, and then she would go to work and start translating. And I just this light bulb went off. Like we’re moving from Germany to Alberta, Canada, there’s an eight-hour time difference. So I went and I said to my clients, like they’re like, oh, no, you’re moving, you know, how are we going to get your translations? And I said, No, this is even better. Because there’s this new emerging technology called a fax machine. You can put your translations on there and five o’clock when you go home that 9 am My time. So I now have all day to translate it. And I will fax it back to you. And you’ll have it the next day. And this was at a time when many translators were still typing the translation on the typewriter and putting it in the mail. And by nature, translations are always urgent. And they’re always an afterthought, at least at that time, even more. So you put all the time and effort into creating the original document is like oh, right, we need this in English, or in German, or in French, or whatever. So it was what I call to quote, My Purple Cow. It was a real differentiator. And the company started growing really fast. And I got passed around. And yeah,

John Corcoran 12:44

now at some point, so you get divorced. You’re a single mom, you got these young kids, and you’re running, running the company. And you kind of has a breaking point where you realize that you were just working too hard. And you say you were being fired in your life by your doctor hairdresser. You didn’t show up for appointments, and you’re being fired by them. You didn’t want to be fired by your kids. Talk a little bit about that moment in time.

Michèle Hecken 13:11

Yeah. So I was actually still married at the time when I had that epiphany. I wasn’t quite a single mom yet. That would have been really, really difficult. But basically what happened is one of the values that I had that I said, I’m not going to turn away any clients. So I got passed around, and more and more work came in. So picture this, it’s 8 am I walk into my office, and there’s like 40 feet of thermal paper fax rolled up on the floor. I don’t know if you remember what a thermal paper factory is.

John Corcoran 13:44

No, I mean, the early fax machines were one long scroll paper rather than individual sheets, right? Yeah,

Michèle Hecken 13:51

that’s right. And you can get one with a cutter but we couldn’t afford that. And, so the first time I looked at it, and there’s like 40 feet and I’m just starting off and I’m excited that there’s so much work but at the same time my heart sinks because I know it’s another 20-hour day it’s another day where we don’t have dinner with a family another day of takeout another day of not spending time with my kids quality time anyways. And so but I didn’t have a choice. I was bringing in the money. It was my company without me there was no mortgage there was no like we needed it. I didn’t. I really couldn’t walk away. So 2 am rolls around, and I’m finally finished. I print everything out, put it on the fax machine, and fax it to the client, but of course, I have to wait for the confirmation because fax machines were tricky back then. And so I’m listening to my answering machine. I get these messages from my doctor saying you missed another appointment. My hairdresser suggests I find a different salon and my nail tech outright fired me. And I just broke down I just started to cry. I’m like I’m really being fired from my own life, don’t have one. And, and so I went upstairs to, you know, tuck my kids in as I do because I hadn’t seen them, they were already fast asleep and, and I looked and I’m like, Oh my God, if I finished, if I keep doing this, throughout my kid’s lives, I’m not going to have a relationship with them, they’re going to fire me from their lives because I’m not there. And that was that breaking point where I’m like, Okay, I want to be a mom. And I want to spend time with my kids. But I don’t want to be a full-time mom. And I want to have a business and I have the vision to grow it. But I can’t sustain 20-hour days. So that was that point where it was like something has to change. And I wasn’t willing to give either of those things up. So when that happens, it really kind of forces us to think differently and think outside the box. So the very next day, and it was a year process, right? It wasn’t like it was the next day everything changed. But I started looking for translators. And I trained them. And so then I was transitioning into more of an editing, proofreading training coaching role. And then eventually, I trained the translators that I trained to do the editing and the proofing. And so that took some time, obviously, because I didn’t want to lose my clients if the translations weren’t at the same level. So what happened then was then I was proofreading 20-hour days. So it wasn’t really better. But it was because I could put more through right, there’s a finite amount of words, anyone person can translate in the day. And we didn’t have all the tools and technology that we have today. But even with that, it’s a finite amount, amount of words, verses with proofreading, I can put through much more so the business grew while I was doing that my life wasn’t really better, but the business was growing. And so then when I could train people to take over that job, then I was free. And what happened then was really interesting, because then it was like, Oh, can you just look at this, my project manager say, Oh, just look at this translation. And I remember I’m standing there with my gym bag, I’m going to have coffee with my friend after the gym, and I’m gonna get my nails done. Finally, I am leaving the house. And I get this, can you just proofread these, you know, three sentences, it’s much quicker if you do it. I have to send blah, blah, blah. And I kinda looked at it. And I said, No. And this was, my then-husband at the time, he was doing project management for me. And he looked at me like I was crazy. It’s like, why would you not do this? And I said because that’s not my job anymore. And I left and I felt guilty all day long. But I thought about it. And it’s something I bring up when I work with entrepreneurs today. It’s like you’re being perceived as what people know of you. So as long as I’m the translator, as long as I’m the proofreader, people will always ask me to do those things. So I came back and really kind of changed my job description. And I reached out to, you know, my translators and everybody, and I said, You know what, I’m chief of revenue. You are freelancers, you rely on me to get the work in. So I’m gonna go and get the work for you. And once I said, I’m not a translator anymore. I’m doing sales and revenue. Nobody ever asked me to proofread the translation again, because it just became clear.

John Corcoran 18:38

That’s great that he articulated that way. What were some of the challenges once you’d gotten the company to that size, you installed people and you weren’t doing the editing? I imagine there were challenges around, you know, hiring, recruiting, getting the right people in place, talking about that stage of the business.

Michèle Hecken 18:58

Yeah, sure. Absolutely. And again, I’m still in my mid-20s here, right? So I know nothing about business. I’m really just winging it and making it up day by day. And so what I realized is, the more I communicate with everybody, and the more I say why I’m doing something, the easier it became. And that kind of stayed with us throughout the organization. The other thing because I was so clear on why, why do I want to offboard myself from my company, my why was just so clear, because I even in that moment, when they said no, I thought about my girls sleeping and fired me from their lives one day. So what I basically did is I just never went back. So when I was training the transmitters, I put the systems in place so that they could then train new translators, because eventually, I couldn’t do it anymore, right? So I had to get them to train new translators and I Got them to prove it. And so I basically just having that, that firm, I’m not doing this anymore. So then the challenge, of course, became as you’re growing, I don’t know anybody, everybody by name anymore. I don’t know, all the trances anymore, we had to, obviously hire a vendor manager to kind of deal with them. And I think the biggest challenge that I didn’t really have that actually two big challenges, one was, I didn’t understand how to really formulate and communicate my core values throughout the company. So that was lacking. And that was at a time, I don’t know, the mid-90s. People didn’t really talk about core values much, but it’s like, how do I get people?

John Corcoran 20:47

There’s been a lot of foundational books that have come out in the last 20 years that have talked about that, but they weren’t around them.

Michèle Hecken 20:53 

Yeah, they weren’t around. And then the other thing is, I remember sitting with my accountant going over the year-end. And he’s telling me things about my balance sheet about my p&l, and I’m like, I have no idea what you’re talking about. I didn’t know how to read a p&l, I didn’t know how to read a balance sheet. So that whole operational part was a big challenge for me at the time. 

John Corcoran 21:17 

So you reached a point, eventually, where you the company is running, basically running itself, you have a CEO in place for many years. But eventually, you reach a point where you decided that you wanted to sell the business, and you end up selling this business, actually, the year before the pandemic hit 20. So you got some amazing spidey sense, and I’m gonna, whatever advice you have, I’m going to follow it no matter what it is. But people thought you were crazy when you said you were going to sell the business. So what inspired that? Why, why if the company was doing so well, you’re getting money from it? What? Why sell it?

Michèle Hecken 21:52

Yeah, I got that question a lot. Especially because I had off-boarded myself early, early on in the company at a stage where people really thought I was nuts, hiring a COO. Like, long before I even hit the million dollars. I just wanted somebody to run it. And actually, maybe it was just around the million-dollar mark. But pure, like, why don’t you keep the money? And I kept wanting to go back and say, Well, you know what, I can always make more money. But at this point, I’m a single mom, and now I can’t create more time with my kids. So I stuck with that. And, then for the sale. So I had been really working less than 10 hours a week, for 20 years. And you know, traveling and seeing clients and me really living my best life with my kids. And so why sell it, you know, the revenue is there, the cash flow is there, I’m pulling out all the, you know, perks and identity

John Corcoran 22:50

to but a lot of times people kind of identify as this is my business, I built this business,

Michèle Hecken 22:55

right? I didn’t have that so much. I mean, I loved my business, and I loved my team. But it wasn’t because I wasn’t involved in the day-to-day that it wasn’t necessarily so much my identity. But Why sell if everything’s going so? Well. In this particular case, there were two factors. One was I’ve been doing it for 25 years. And one of my mentors who I had asked how you know when to sell your company, the thing he said to music, is you’ll know when you know consecutively for weeks or months, you’re not excited about the next step, you’re not thinking about the future, or you’re thinking about the future, but you’re not excited about it. And you know, where you have to create more energy to kind of do that. And so that wasn’t I ruminated about it. And it wasn’t quite the case. And then there came this point where a couple of things happened. One was GDPR, the German privacy laws, and we had most of our clients in Europe. And for our size of the company, it was a major pain, major pain. And so we had to change how we did things, how we kind of managed all the privacy, and because we work with highly confidential documents, it wasn’t just right. So it was a lot. So that was the big challenge. And then the other challenge was technology. Now we’ve all started my business with new technology. We were one of the first people on the internet. I was teaching my clients in Germany how to upload via Zedd modem so that they could get their files electronically. But at this stage, I knew that if we wanted to stay really competitive over the next 10 years, I needed to put in quite a bit of money to invest. I needed to put in way more energy it would have been like starting the business over and redefining it. And while that could have been X sitting. It wasn’t exciting for me. And so I’m like, Okay, I think there’s a real opportunity, if I sell to the right buyer, that the company will continue to exist and grow, which it did. And it still does with the power of the technology behind it. So for example, machine translations tailored to certain clients, like, take a lot of time and energy to do that. And I just took my mentor’s advice. And one day, I just like, No, I don’t want to do that. But I don’t want to throw this away, because it’s an amazing business with amazing people. And if I have to do it, without a lot of passion, I might ruin a really good thing.

John Corcoran 25:45

And you now do speaking and executive coaching. Were you drawn to that at that point? Or is there something that came later?

Michèle Hecken 25:57

you know, I kind of always had the vision that I would write a book, and that I would be an executive coach. But I really didn’t know what that entailed at that point. So it took kind of almost a year off. And then I started writing my book, and, and through writing my book, and kind of sharing my experience I, I kind of with my coach to cut, discovered what my superpower is, what my secret sauce was to living a life where I made a lot of money, and I didn’t work very much. And I had a great life with my kids. So as we’re writing this book, it kind of floated to the surface. And, it just manifested even more that I wanted to be a coach. But I had time I wasn’t in a hurry, I had an all-cash deal, I didn’t have an urn out, and I had nothing to do with the company anymore. So I wasn’t like with a gun to my head to create something. So I went and took my executive coaching certification on the recommendation of my coach, which I didn’t want to do. I’m like, I’m an entrepreneur, I don’t need to go to school for this. I’ve practiced like this, my clients are not going to care if I have a coaching certification. And you know what, it’s true. They don’t, nobody’s ever asked me about it. But I learned so much. During that course again, it just manifested that this is what I want to do. And by the way, I do have another business idea that I will launch eventually.

John Corcoran 27:22

But of course, of course, of course, you have another you have 510 of them. And I also love that. So you kind of own this word offboarding. But you got a little bit of pushback, when you started to embrace that term. For me, it really resonates. I’m probably your target market, right? Is the entrepreneur, too busy? Young kids want to offload myself from things but you got a little bit of pushback initially from the terms, it’s talking about that?

Michèle Hecken 27:51

Yeah. So I kind of struggled naming the baby if he’s so well, right, because we’re always told we need to work on our business. And we all drink the Kool-Aid, especially in the old YPO. And it’s delicious Kool-Aid and we shouldn’t be drinking it, it probably has way more vitamins in it than we give it credit for. It’s amazing, we should be working, we do want to be working on our business. But nobody tells us how to do it. So what we hear all the time is delegate delegate delegate. And I actually say that we need to stop delegating completely. Because that doesn’t give ownership. So what is off-boarding and what does it mean, and why did I get pushback? So when I first mentioned it to my coach, like, I’m going to call this process of getting out of your company, so that your company can scale and grow because let’s face it, when we start another company, typically the first one does better if it’s established enough to have you know, if you push the flywheel enough to quote Jim Collins, it will run and there comes a point where it will grow faster without you meddling into it. Right. And so how do I name that? Do I say okay, work on your business but don’t delegate well, and then I talked to actually a friend of mine I can’t even say that this is necessary it’s a joint brainchild a really friend of mine and other your Connor Neil, who’s in Barcelona, and we were chatting and he actually said, Yeah, you’re off-boarding yourself? Just casually in context. I’m like, Wait, what did you just say? And he’s like, Yeah, and I can I have that word. He’s like, Oh, yeah, it’s all yours. I’m like, Oh, my goodness, this is the perfect word. So I went back to my coach and I said, I’ve got this. I’m gonna call it off-boarding yourself. And she’s like, What? What? That’s so negative. We offered people that were firing it’s a you know, a euphemism for firing somebody Why would you make that your big thing, and I’m like, I don’t know. I just really like it and and you’re basically you are firing yourself From the jobs that you shouldn’t be doing, right, so you’re looking at so what is off boarding versus delegating. Delegating is taking a task and giving it to somebody else. And it feels great, because you haven’t offered a desk and you don’t have to do it. So this temporary taste of freedom. And then you do it again and again and again. Except eventually, you have to try and remember, who did you give what to what is the deadline, you have to stay on top, and you still own it. So you’re still responsible for it. So it actually pulls you more into the business? Because then you start micromanaging? Did you do this? How far are you do you need help, blah, blah, blah, because you own it. Offboarding is taking the responsibilities, looking at what is on your plate, what value it has to the company and the value of you doing it, what you love doing, and how much time you spend on it. And when you do that, you get a really clear picture. And you can take an entire responsibility and offload it to somebody else. And that creates freedom to allow you to focus on what you’re really best at. And it sets the precedent for other people in your company to start working on what they’re best at. So it’s kind of a perpetual thing. And so when she said don’t do off-boarding, I’m like, yeah, no, but you are firing yourself from certain aspects of your role. And you’re redefining your job description, the same as I did when I stopped being a translator and proofreader. So she came around, and Yeah, she definitely came around, and it grew on her. And I’ve had good, really actually surprised when I first started throwing the word out there that people really resonated, so didn’t have that negative connotation at all that, that I got pushback for.

John Corcoran 31:49

I think it’s great. So I think it really, really encapsulates what you just described. Well, I know we’re almost out of time. So I want to wrap up with what I call my gratitude question. So I’m a big fan of expressing gratitude, especially, especially publicly, to those who’ve helped you along the way, especially peers and contemporaries. So if you look around at peers and contemporaries, maybe in your industry, maybe in other business groups or Entrepreneurs’ Organization, who would you want to acknowledge publicly?

Michèle Hecken 32:16

I think the very first person I would want to acknowledge was the first mentor I had. I was probably about 30 ish. And I applied for this free mentorship program to the city and and the guy who got in touch with me, his name was John Kapow, was a really seasoned entrepreneur, big company. And he taught me how to properly read a balance sheet and a p&l. He quoted, like so many things that are still in my head, one of the things is, it’s only hard until you make a decision. So whenever I’m stuck, I think about that, it’s like just making a decision. The most successful people make the highest amount of decisions because if it’s wrong, you make another decision to fix it. But if you don’t make a decision, you’re always going to be stuck. So that was something that really resonated with me and had a massive impact on my life inspiring me to join EO. So that leads me to the next people I’m grateful for. So I’m grateful to draw I’m grateful to EO as a whole. And I mean, there’s so many members, I could, I could touch here. One of them obviously is Connor, who helped me come up with coming up with the word offboarding. That was a big one, connecting to the network. Hazel Ortega. There’s a Women of EO group and she’s very active, and her book, Mastery of Miracles and how to manifest what you want, had a really massive influence on my life. And then just to name a few others, Marsha Ralls, Winnie Hart, Andrea Heuston, Andrea Herrera, all the women of EO champions, but also so many guys, Verne Harnish, a massive influence on me. Yes, so there’s been a lot and really kind of making the most of that network and gratitude and keeping the connections alive, I think is critically important for the success of yourself and your business.

John Corcoran 34:27

Great answer, Michèle. Where can people go to check out the book and the checkout you and learn more about your coaching and different stuff that you do?

Michèle Hecken 34:36

Absolutely. So it’s michelehecken.com. Michèle is with one l, and Hecken, like what the heck?

John Corcoran 34:49

You gotta work that into a book title.

Michèle Hecken 34:52

Exactly. What the heck are you doing? So yeah, michelehecken.com. The book is, they’re slated to come out probably mid to late fall. It’ll be called The Power of Offboarding: Work Less, Make More, and Live Your Best Life. And you’ll find information on the website when we’re ready to publish. Reach out if you have any questions.

John Corcoran 35:15

Michelle, such a pleasure talking to you. Thanks so much.

Michèle Hecken 35:19 

Thank you for having me, John. I really appreciate your time.

Outro 35:22

Thank you for listening to the Smart Business Revolution Podcast with John Corcoran. Find out more at smartbusinessrevolution.com. And while you’re there, sign up for our email list and join the revolution. And be listening for the next episode of the Smart Business Revolution Podcast.