Secrets of Success: Rick Olson
gleaning some wisdom from a seasoned entrepreneur and business mind
To some, the principles that guide KRM Information Services will come off as touchy-feely New Age garbage – they’ll scoff, and turn away. But after 38 years as a successful entrepreneur in the Chippewa Valley, Rick Olson considers them revelations. And maybe you should, too.
“I can’t overstate it enough,” he said. “It has changed lives and made a huge difference. I’d never run a business without them. The power is amazing.”
Along with his 50-50 partner Mark Helland, Rick has been in business since 1977. That’s not to say he did it alone – as he would say, “no one does this stuff alone” – but ever since he started a painting business as a teenager he’s had an interest in entrepreneurship. “I really feel I was bound to do this,” he said. “It’s where I get energized, and it just feels like it’s in my DNA.”
After Rick graduated from law school, he practiced for a few months and, at 25, became Eau Claire Police Department’s Legal Advisor (one of only three in the state), instructed at UWEC a little, and helped set up a paralegal program at CVTC. This brief stint into law made him recognize a need, and that began his foray into the business world.
“Part of being an entrepreneur is seeing the possibilities,” he said. “You get a lot of naysayers, but you just need to have faith and sometimes it works. Entrepreneurs hate risks, but they just come with the territory.”
He and Mark co-founded Legal Systems Inc., a company that published law books authored by the duo. Then, naturally, they started putting on seminars about the topics in the books as a way to help sell them. Eventually, the publishing company got bought out, but the seminars stuck.
That led them to start Professional Education Systems Inc to provide face-to-face seminars to professionals in law, accounting, real estate, and health care. In the years that followed, PESI would spread to become Documation (a printer), Foxmoor Continuing Education (all seminars except health care), PESI Healthcare (now CMI), and KRM Information Services (webinars). (He and Mark also have partial ownership of the bankruptcy law wiki HOFnet and the 200 Spring Street building.)
Because Rick’s business history is so complicated, he created a detailed timeline for me to reference during our interview. And with each step came another nostalgic moment, another mistake, and another lesson learned. “I’ve got battle scars from being impetuous when I was young,” he says. His advice:
Making people managers simply because they’ve done well in their department didn’t work. “I found out managing is part art and part science.”
Not prioritizing when new opportunities come up, and burning out employees. “Nothing’s clean or easy. Things change more glacially,” he said, referring to his radar for recognizing how much time things take and knowing when to stick to the core of the business.
“If you want feedback, you have to be willing to hear it and be thankful for it.”
“The hardest thing is: knowing when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Mark and I dropped $1 million into KRM until it worked. I was scared. We stood right at that point in between holding and folding.”
“Things takes three times longer than you think and cost three times as much. It’s like a law of physics, or something.”
After so many years and companies to learn from, Rick has become a sort of workplace guru. One official told me he’s “the Steve Jobs of the Chippewa Valley,” and if that’s the case, KRM is his Apple. Started in 1994, KRM is a company that provides support to clients (like Harvard and Kiplinger’s) who need to put on web-based seminars. But it’s not what they do that makes them unique, it’s how.
A great deal of Rick’s business approach comes from healthy communication practices and the book Good to Great by Jim Collins. In both cases, they were “a-ha” moments that arose from happenstance – being in the right place at the right time. Rick visited a conference where Collins spoke, and KRM’s management team went to The Leadership Academy at Stout.
Good to Great essentially looked at several huge companies and, on a scientific basis, attempted to qualitatively examine what the difference-makers were at those companies. Collins broke it down to six key components that now are guiding principles at KRM:
Putting egos aside and the company first, embracing teamwork, and taking the long view (treating each client as if they’ll be with you for years)
First Who, Then What
“Get the right people on the bus. Because you can drive the bus anywhere. But are the right people in the right seats? That’s big.”
Confront Brutal Facts
Myers-Briggs Type Indicator for optimal communicating, and not being afraid to bring up mistakes/problems
Finding a solid understanding of what the company is best at
Culture of Discipline
Open book management, employee stock ownership, more
Avoiding fads and pioneering selected technologies
The communication practices are too complex to flesh out completely here, suffice to say they determine the personality type (there’s 16 of them) of each employee, and make that information known so everyone can better understand how best to work together. Quite simply, it provides them with a set of tools to address every kind of workplace problem. It’s really worth your time to visit krm.com/hc to learn more about it.
“We’re far from perfect, but I think I have a way to approach things that I’m comfortable with,” Rick said. “I may finally have some of it figured out.”