Jason Duncan | Crain's Nashville

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

Jason Duncan

Background:  

After founding Energy Lighting Services in 2010 in Nashville, CEO Jason Duncan and his team have completed four of the world's largest LED retrofits. The commercial lighting company has saved companies like Saint Thomas Hospitals, Gap stores and Adventure Science Center up to 33 percent on their electric bills, and up to a 75 percent reduction in their energy consumption.

The Mistake:

If I could go back and do anything differently, there are two things I would have done: I would have paid a lot more attention to my books and bookkeeping from day one and hired a really good bookkeeper.

We are an eight-year-old company, and it's just taken us the last two years to get our books finally straightened out. Not that there was a huge mistake; we didn't lose $100,000 or anything. But we just didn't pay attention to it.

Another thing I would have done differently, that would have made a bigger difference in the future of my company, would have been to hire a business coach from day one.

We hired a coach last February, and he has been helping us for a year now. It's been phenomenal, and he's pushed us to do things we wouldn't have done on our own. It's been a very positive and profitable decision. Hiring a business coach would have probably told us to hire a bookkeeper, so that may have fixed it all to begin with.

My first-ever employee was a full-time, work-from-home assistant, and she was my de facto bookkeeper. She was an amazing assistant – but bookkeeping was not her strength. We then went to several different parties who just were not the right fit for our company’s needs before finding a CPA firm who gets us and understands how our business works.

We moved all of our books to this firm, and they have been working with us over the past two years to sort through the information from the previous six years and set us on a forward-moving path. 

You've got to get your books right on day one.

The Lesson:

From a financial perspective, we would have paid a lot more attention to how the money was coming and going and use (that information) more to our advantage, rather than just being a recipient of what ended up happening. Early on, it was just me and my business partner; we didn't have an office and we had a website that I made, so we had nothing to pay for.

As a new company, if you reach $1 million in revenue, that's a lot of money. We probably could have used that money more strategically and leveraged it to grow faster. I think where we are sitting today as a company we probably could have achieved a couple of years sooner had we done our books better to begin with.

We had six employees when he hired our business coach, and we had 20 at the end of the year last year. Would I have hired 14 people without his pushing me? Probably not. He helped me see what I needed to see, and move in that direction. We are currently hiring eight to 12 more people because of the strategic plan that he's working through with us.

We've landed a couple of big contracts that weren't necessarily directly related to his work with us, but we were able to take down those contracts with his encouragement. He helped us secure better and more solid contracts.

If I could tell anybody starting a business something, you've got to get your books right on day one. This adventure doesn't need to happen.

Pictured: Jason Duncan | Photo courtesy of Energy Lighting Services

Follow Energy Lighting Services on Twitter at: @GoGreenELS

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