Bootstrapping a Business to 3,500 Customers While Having an Impact
Mark Sims is the Founder and CEO of Fikes, a company that provides various facility services for businesses, including disinfection, deep floor cleaning, pest control, and custom scenting. In 2003, he bootstrapped his company, initially working out of a 10×10 storage unit. Mark has grown Fikes to 3,500 clients, serving them out of various distribution centers across the West Coast. He graduated from Montana State, where he was an all-conference Division 1 defensive football standout.
Welcome to The Future Is Borderless podcast with David Nilssen, we feature top entrepreneurs and thought leaders from around the world, those who bring a global mindset and a unique perspective to their life and business. Now, let’s get started with the show.
David Nilssen 0:20
Hey, David Nilssen here I am the host of this podcast. Here we connect with business leaders from around the world who have what I think is a borderless mindset and people who continually challenge the status quo. The purpose here is to share new ideas, new innovations, best practices, things that will help us grow personally and professionally, and thrive ultimately, in a rapidly changing world. Now, this episode is brought to you by Doxa Talent. Doxa helps businesses to source full time highly skilled workers from all over the world. And as a result, these companies can scale faster increase margin and improve culture. They provide everything from accountants, to sales, development reps, virtual assistants, and even software engineers, and do this for publicly traded companies to local small businesses. And if you want to learn how to grow your business with offshore talent, simply go to doxatalent.com. All right, well, let’s jump into the program. Today, our guest is Mark Sims. He’s the founder and CEO of Fikes. In 2003, Mark bootstrapped his business initially working out of a 10-by-10 storage unit. And he’s grown that business significantly to 3500 clients, and serving them out of various distribution centers across the West Coast. And thanks to his unrelenting vision, efforts, and his amazing team, they built an exceptional organization. I’ll note that Mark is a graduate of Montana State where he was an All Conference Division One defensive football standout. And he’s a previous president of EO Seattle, not to mention active investor. So today’s conversation is gonna be a lot of fun. And with that, Mark, welcome to the show.
Mark Sims 1:58
Thanks, Dave. Great to be here.
David Nilssen 2:00
Well, maybe you could start, I’m familiar with Fikes being from the Seattle area. But a lot of people that may be listening to this may not be as familiar. So maybe you could just share by providing a little context of what Fikes does.
Mark Sims 2:13
It’s funny, I’m thinking about what our sales team members say currently, which is probably easier to tell you what we don’t do. However, having said that, at a high level, we provide facilities, services, and a multitude of products to really any business or public space that needs it. So think of a restaurant, think of a property, an arena, a retirement facility, a car dealership, I mean, really any facility that needs products and services that would range from cleaning, to pest control to odor control to over 3000 products in stock at all of our distribution centers, and we got it and more. So that’s it in a nutshell. Lots of trucks, lots of inventory, lots of great people.
David Nilssen 3:03
Great now, maybe one of the ways I like to just sort of get people to take us one step further is ask like, what’s the problem you’re solving for the customers? Because, I’m going to Amazon and buy product, right? So tell us, like, why does Fikes exist? And what’s the problem you’re solving?
Mark Sims 3:19
Well, that’s a great question. Because the way that we’re structured is that if we came into an establishment, we engage with them, you wouldn’t necessarily even need to order that someone would potentially come to you if it was, say on a Tuesday at a certain time, and they would help you manage your inventory, they would help you with cost controls, they would anticipate your needs. So it’s save time, reduce cost, and enhance the image of any facility that we engage with.
David Nilssen 3:54
Yeah, now in full disclosure, for those that are listening, I actually had invested in a couple of businesses in the Seattle area and Fikes served those businesses, so I’m actually very familiar with it. But it was very nice. And that they had sort of an understanding of what our needs were. And we’re always anticipating, making sure that we never sort of ran out of inventory, that the services were provided on time. We didn’t really have to think about it, which was just such a big benefit, so intimately familiar with it. Mark, tell me a little bit about the early stages. I mean, you obviously, I would say started from, we say Bootstrap, but that just means that you just sort of did it from scratch on your own. But in the early stages, what’s the biggest challenge you had as a leader, and I’d love to understand now like looking back a decade or two, how have you changed?
Mark Sims 4:42
I think the biggest challenge really involved that I had no help at all. I mean, our trademark today is probably obsessed with the dirty details, but that is not necessarily a trademark two decades ago that would get people excited about invest, sit in a business. So it was really just a tremendous amount of effort and just week to week, bringing on clients, to reinvest in inventory and trucks in hopes to make payroll to be where we’re at today. So it was a lot of seven day work weeks more than I’d probably like to admit. And so it was really just that the challenge of really having no help and selling the vision to people in an industry at the time before now, we have individuals that now come to our company, and are excited about our culture excited about what we’ve built and excited about all the needs we fulfill. But in the early days, it wasn’t that it was much easier to sell a client on something than it was selling someone to have that particular role in our company, which was very small.
David Nilssen 5:51
Yeah. How have you changed that? Like, I mean, it’s no question, especially for an entrepreneur who’s bootstrap their business, their chief cook and bottle washer, right? That’s sort of the job description in the beginning, but how have you changed now as you look back on that?
Mark Sims 6:06
I believe we do a really good job focusing on not just what role someone can serve and grow in our company, but how they can grow themselves as a part of it. And I believe we’ve created a very special culture where individuals get to grow, they get to be in an environment where they’re empowered, they’re challenged, but they’re also supported. So we do a tremendous amount of internal promotion, we do a tremendous amount of innovation. So I feel that we’ve built something beyond what it is that we actually do for our clients.
David Nilssen 6:42
Yeah, yeah, I obviously don’t live in Seattle any longer. But when I was there, I saw your business all the time. And that didn’t matter if I was eating at the nicest restaurant arguably in Seattle Canlis. I was at a sports stadium or a massage center. I mean, you guys were everywhere. And I’m just curious, like, what was your secret sauce? You’ve gone from basically zero to 3500 customers? Like, what would you say, is sort of the catalyst behind that?
Mark Sims 7:10
Well, I would say in the early days, it was finding the place, whatever that is, that received the most traffic, that we would be able to proudly state oh, we take care of this restaurant, we take care of this arena we take care of and so forth, and so on. So that we had that credibility built for ourselves. And that guerilla marketing of somebody say, oh, that’s right, I did see you there. Oh, I guess I have seen your brand. I see your trucks everywhere, which at the time, it was just a few. But they were just at the right locations. So we were very intentional about that. And then from that just really built stories of trust and good experience and that actual evidence behind the credibility of what we delivered in terms of not just the products or the services, but the entire experience. And so we used to say that we’re really, really bad at marketing, but we’re really good at service and innovation. We’ve gotten better at marketing, but I still feel like from the early days, it was just really about proving the model with what we did.
David Nilssen 8:11
Yeah, that sort of reminds me of a story I heard long ago, and I couldn’t even tell you where it was, but somebody was talking about the key to creating a successful mall was getting that anchor tenant, right, I was gonna say bon marchais that’s going to date me, Macy’s or Nordstrom, or what have you, right. And then it was easier to get some of the others around them to participate. And that sounds a lot like the strategy.
Mark Sims 8:32
100% That resonates?
David Nilssen 8:34
Awesome. You said a minute ago, you talked about how like, now today, you’ve got people that come to you, that want to be part of bikes in the company. And it’s clear, if you look at some of the things that you put out through social channels that you care deeply about people, not just your clients, but actually the team members themselves. Talk to me a little bit about the Fikes culture and sort of how you nurture and develop them.
Mark Sims 8:58
Well, I think that it starts by leading by example. And it’s how we show up, it’s how we show up every single day. And it’s not about that sometimes, there are potential obstacles or depravations whether it’s sleep, whether people were not feeling as well on a particular day, but are we really seeking to get 1% better that incremental growth and also as leaders, are we allowing the opportunity and the belief that individuals that may be entry level, that do we treat them as professionals. We like to talk about there’s no such thing as the too here. So oftentimes when you say not to, two or to but too of someone says, well, I’m too, I’m too inexperienced. I’m too and then … we don’t have enough time on this podcast to talk about the negative too’s, so we begin to eliminate that we’re very much about one of our core values is PMA every day, and it’s not that we jump around. And we always have smiles on our face. But there’s a positive solution seeking perspective. And that’s where it started, starts rather. And we just build from that together.
David Nilssen 10:19
That’s awesome. I know, in addition to your team, they’re in, well, you’ve got multiple locations, but a big part of the organization is in the Seattle area. But you’ve also worked with teams in international areas, I know that Kazakhstan and Philippines are two of those places, tell us a little bit about the experience, or maybe why you started working with international talents and what that experience has been like.
Mark Sims 10:45
It’s been great. And honestly, whether somebody lives in an international location, or a few miles down the road, I just love the opportunity that we can give to people who have a thirst for learning a thirst to grow and get better, and how they can make impact. So I think our team also in ways that we give charitably and causes we support and we think about beyond the borders of US, that there are a lot of communities that need opportunities that they can take advantage of, and places they can find a home and a career that they can continue to do that and take care of their families and their community. So I love the opportunities that we’ve been given. And we’re excited about continually doing that as we grow and scale in multiple areas.
David Nilssen 11:36
I love that you said that and Doxa Talent, which of course is my own business, we have this purpose. It’s lifting global communities by creating meaningful work, right. So this idea of lifting up the places that we do business with is extremely important to us. I’m glad you said that. Tell me a little bit about the culture, though. So when you have a team domestic and you have a team internationally, how do you think about blending those together? And what have you learned through that experience?
Mark Sims 12:05
I’ve learned that we need to be very intentional. And that when we think about individuals that may not reside in an office or even in the same country or timezone is that we need to treat that individual not as an outsource partner or not as someone that is just a product doing a function, but actually as a human being, that has a tremendous amount of equity in the organization on that particular team, and to look to them as a trusted peer. Or we even have some individuals that started as outsource. They’re looking at scenarios where they’re elevating themselves, and they’ll manage individuals that are onshore. So we never have anyone be concerned about standing out or being outstanding. So we’re very merit based, and we’d love to promote from within.
David Nilssen 13:00
I love it. Is there anything about that experience, or the experiences that you’ve had that way that’s changed your business strategy at all?
Mark Sims 13:07
I think that where it’s really helped is, we think as entrepreneurs to have awareness, but not fears, but we went through a period not long ago, and I still don’t believe we’re entirely out of it, where the labor force and finding individuals to be in certain roles is at times challenging. But we think about expanding that beyond a state, a region, a time zone, and the possibilities of finding great talent, provides me a lot more confidence and comfort and helps me sleep better at night that know that we can do so and it has really worked. And that’s where we’re going to keep doing it.
David Nilssen 13:53
Awesome. Well, this is obviously the offshoring, or international talent space has gotten a nice tailwind from COVID. It sort of showed everyone that they could actually work in a remote environment. And then the question is, well, I’ve got to manage somebody 10 states over then what’s the difference if I manage them in another country, assuming they have the same sort of skill set, in fact, sometimes there’s even benefits? But let’s talk about COVID for a second not related to international talent, but to your business because I started a business, I don’t know two decades ago, a company called Guidant Financial and our customers are brick and mortar mainstream America small businesses and for years, I would say well, we have no customer concentration issues. So I’m really not at risk. And then the pandemic hit and as I’m sitting here thinking about this, you guys have a business that is highly dependent on that sort of retail foot traffic, at least I would assume a majority of them aren’t so just curious, like how did COVID impact you guys and then how did you adapt during that time?
Mark Sims 14:54
Daily, it was something that going from a relatively or we would say a proven recession resistant model, meaning clients need what we have every day, whether it’s pest control, whether it’s a nice napkin that has their name audit to go container or a nice scent in a mall. But when places close, that dropped our business by roughly 80% overnight, so we had to pivot quickly and leverage online platforms were sending products across the nation, we had to look at suppliers of products of scarcities such as PPE and safety, like for instance, with gloves. And what I learned and the one of our core values is relentless is as long as we were relentless in disinfection services, procuring products that were scarce, that really, it’s not the big that eat the small, it’s the fast that eat the slow, and we were fast, very fast, I can remember a time even feels like it’s only a year or so ago that we were one of the few non big box drugstores that had COVID tests, and we sold 1000s upon 1000s. Now, that wasn’t a plan, we just looked at areas of need for all of our clients, and we became a trusted resource. So that was really what got us through and from being down 80% Initially, and some peaks and valleys of the pandemic, we actually grew through COVID, as a result of that relentless pivoting and making sure that we were the place to come to
David Nilssen 16:39
Wow, yeah, I’m not certain a lot of people in your position would be able to say that that is the case. So that’s awesome for your team. I’ve had almost exclusively entrepreneurs on the show, and on occasion, some business leaders that maybe haven’t had the same sort of experience activating the business. But I’m just curious, because I’ve noticed this common thread, it’s referred to as imposter syndrome. It’s this idea that I’m not sure I deserve it. Or maybe I got lucky. And I’m just curious for you, like, what is you talked about negative talk not being allowed in your business, but we all experience it? And I’m just curious for you like, what is it that you battle?
Mark Sims 17:17
I battle, negative self-talk, no different than anyone else does. And I began to battle the justifications that maybe I don’t need to continue to be relentless in terms of growing and improving, whether it’s the company, whether it’s what impact we make in the community, or how I grow personally, because I believe that as leaders, companies can’t grow unless people do and the people within a company can’t grow unless a leader does. So I think for those reasons, I battle it for myself, but because I’m not very good at doing things for myself, but I’m very good at providing for others. And I feel like me showing up most often is about what I can provide to others. And so I think the battle is between, is this enough? Or Isn’t this enough and sort of defining that because it’s a continual, it’s a moving target. I feel like I’m constantly chasing it. And I would say that I’m very, I’m not a person who has work life balance. I have a tremendous amount of counterbalance, I feel like I’m very good at immersing myself into whatever experience I’m doing, whether that’s family, whether it’s friends, whether that’s anything professional or company or outside organizations I’m involved in, but I’m not a work life balance person. I don’t in fact, I would be of the opinion that I think that work life balance oftentimes limits individuals from being as bold as they can be.
David Nilssen 18:51
I’m actually really glad you brought that up. I’ve heard recently from somebody that work life integration should be the goal not that. Not that they’re competing with each other, but they need to be synergistic enough that one doesn’t have to win at the expense of another. And I love that. But I am curious though, because you are a CEO, you donate a lot of time to organizations like EO, you’re an investor, you’ve got family, like, how do you recharge while still giving your all to each of these different groups?
Mark Sims 19:23
I think I’ve become more and more aware of what my energy gainers and my energy drainers are. So I would say that would be something because for instance, EO, yes, it is time it is time for all of us to varying degrees, but the individuals I get to surround myself give me energy, so therefore, I have an opportunity to serve while also charging my batteries or if it’s a community impact effort, it takes time, but the benefit of seeing the impacts made and how happy our team members are to give to a cause and so forth. So I’m very aware of that. And I would say, also, over time, I’ve gotten very good, I’m getting better all the time at life hacks and habit stacking to where I really, I mean, for instance, there are a few times that I have phone calls, if it’s just a phone call, clearly wouldn’t be safe to do it here, because we’re looking at one another, that I’m not in my vehicle, i times certain calls in my vehicle where I don’t have to take notes. And whether that’s seven in the morning, or 5:30 in the evening, so I’m very intentional about certain times I spend at whatever I’m doing to leverage it. And just to sort of squeeze out the optimization, every chance I get.
David Nilssen 20:41
What is habit stacking, you said that a minute ago, I’m not familiar with that term.
Mark Sims 20:45
It’s not an original term from me, it’s a term from Atomic Habits by James Clear and talks about habit stacking, and how you basically bundle different so, you might have a business meeting on the golf course that I guess that’s a recreational habit stack. For me, I have to drive somewhere, I may listen to an audio book, for instance, I may go on a run, while listening to, for instance, a great podcast like this. So just really making sure that if there’s ever an opportunity that I can do more than one thing at any given time that I’m basically I’m accelerating what I’m able to accomplish in that particular time to give me more time later to have more opportunities for output outcomes into get energy gains.
David Nilssen 21:37
Cool. I want to talk just briefly about leadership for one second, and then I’m gonna move into some of the other things that you’ve got your hands on. But I have this strong belief that everybody’s superpower is also their kryptonite, when used in the opposite extreme. And I’m just curious, what would you say is your superpower?
Mark Sims 21:55
building alliances, I believe that I’m someone that, it’s a company core value. But I also believe that as a person, I’m someone who exceeds expectations. So when I talk about showing up, it’s not just showing up to check the box, to leave it there, but rather, to show up and deliver more than is expected of me. And so I think from that standpoint, when I think about both Fikes and then other companies that I become involved in, it’s very much about showing up exceeded expectations and building those alliances and trust and also anything I invest in, I provide my own influences and input to those so that they are successful. They’re not even if it’s not a day to day involvement, it’s in terms of where my willingness is, it’s not passive.
David Nilssen 22:47
Yeah, that makes sense. So then then, how does it show up, if you use the analogy of superpower and kryptonite, how does it show up in a way that may not be productive?
Mark Sims 23:01
Well, I think at times, for any of us that are building our network, we’re going to meet individuals along the way that are tremendously valuable. And you never know until the next conversation. That said, there are some conversations that after having them don’t necessarily provide the same degree of value. But you have to have no different than, for instance, in any activity, like sales, for instance, you have to have a certain number of conversations, to build your funnel to meet that individual, and so forth and so on. I think that I’m a big believer that your network is your net worth. And it takes a lot of activity in order to build that network. And that can take time away from other potential pastimes have to be really intentional for those of us that have families or young families that it doesn’t take center stage in that aspiration to build that network and take away from other things that are really important.
David Nilssen 24:00
Yeah, I’m certainly aligned with that philosophy. I think one of the things I’ve always been challenged with, though, is when you have that sort of, I would say belief that your network does impact your net worth. And you’re actually pretty good at building those relationships, you can often fill your bucket with more than you can handle. And so trying to really, who to spend time with and not to spend time with can be a challenge.
Mark Sims 24:24
It’s a gift to be able to get to do so many different things in so many different opportunities and have so much I mean, however it can be, I think we’ve all found ourselves in scenarios where our calendar can run us if we’re not careful to ensure that we still have control of that.
David Nilssen 24:47
Yeah. Well, when you figure that out, let me know.
Mark Sims 24:52
Back at you. I’m still in the process of improving but I’m not there yet.
David Nilssen 24:58
Yeah, it’s a constant evolution. And I get it. Tell me a little bit about, I know you actively invest in other businesses, right? And I’d like understand like, what’s your general sort of investment thesis or philosophy? And like, what makes a good deal for you?
Mark Sims 25:18
Well, I think it has to be a good deal. And it shouldn’t be cheap, but it should be a good value, whatever it is. I’d say beyond that. It’s some might say the business model, and that’s certainly up there. But it’s absolutely the people. If I look back on the investments I’ve made, it’s been around the people that I felt had that passion, have that purpose, and were willing to pour themselves and or the individuals on their teams, or around them into that. So and thus far, that’s worked really well.
David Nilssen 25:56
Yeah, I think that’s fair, I always tell people that. For me, it’s got to be in belief in the market like that the overall market is large enough for the opportunity that I want to participate in. And the entrepreneur that I think they’re smart and adaptable enough that they’ll figure it out. Because once you write a business plan, it’s wrong. But how you adapt in all of that it’s going to be really important. So that aligns
Mark Sims 26:19
David Nilssen 26:21
Tell me, most entrepreneurs that I know are what I would consider lifelong learners. So what are you trying to learn today? Or where are you trying to sort of improve yourself?
Mark Sims 26:32
Well, great question, Dave. I mean, I had a goal that I exceeded last year that I was going to read one book every three weeks, and I read a book every two weeks, thanks to Audible. I don’t know what I would do without audible. I mean, my eyesight isn’t spectacular. And I don’t see myself sitting there looking at traditional white pages, but read books, read material, watch informative podcasts of other entrepreneurs, such as what you have here and on this show and seen some of the ones you’ve done preceding this, I also just find myself in groups, where I have an opportunity to impact and to provide value, but also places such as an entrepreneurs organization where I can get value. EO industry groups, connecting with thought leaders, just really putting myself out there and being humble that there is so much yet to learn.
David Nilssen 27:42
You’ve used the word impact, I think five or six times throughout this conversation. So I’m just curious, like, what is the impact that you want to have on the world?
Mark Sims 27:51
That’s a great question. It almost makes me emotional when I think about it. Because I think that as entrepreneurs, we have such an amazing opportunity. I believe I read an article in Forbes a few years ago that the average relatively introverted person influences directly or indirectly around 10,000 people in the lifetime. And so when I think of that opportunity of impact as it pertains to those of us that are not introverted, and that would call ourselves above average, what that amplification can be. And I think it’s the opportunities to make individuals believe in themselves and believe that they can make things possible that they didn’t originally before. And then what does that individual able, what are they able to do? And where are they able to amplify an impact? And I think that in the early years, we’re focused on making direct impact so that we can make payroll. But after, in my case, a couple of decades in I know, I had a recent experience that I didn’t think would touch me in the way that it did. Because when you’re just making improvements every day and seeking to get what you want to get done, done to check your list is within an hour’s time, I was at a community service project where we fed 1000s of people. I also was getting contacted from my team that was at an event bidding to raise dollars for charity called Child Haven. And then I got an email from one of our project managers to ask questions that were able to more than doubled the amount of families that we could provide Christmas presents to through the Salvation Army. And that all happened almost simultaneously. And I dropped down on my knee and I thought to myself, I didn’t realize that I would have this kind of impact that many years ago but if we I’ll keep going, what are the great things that we can make happen? So I would say just touching anyone I come in contact with in a positive way, however I can.
David Nilssen 30:10
Yeah, I think I love that. I love that story. I think most of us start a business knowing that we want to have an impact. But in that early stage in that moment, it’s hard to sometimes see the forest through the trees. But when you can zoom out a decade or two later and just look back. I mean, how many people have worked within the organization and how many people in their families and communities were impacted? And now even outside of that, how you guys are having an impact. That’s got to be pretty humbling. All right. Well, Mark, I think we’re gonna leave it there. We’ve been listening to mark Sims, the CEO of Fikes. Mark, where can people go to learn more about the work that you do?
Mark Sims 30:48
Well, you can connect with me on LinkedIn. Just mark Sims Fikes. And aside from that, you can visit our website, www.fikes.com. And those are the places that are probably most readily to find me. And if you’re ever in and around the Seattle area, let me know. I know a lot of people I know a lot of great places. I have tickets to just about every sporting venue in the Northwest, and I’m happy to host you and we’d love to meet you and let’s build our networks together.
David Nilssen 31:18
Awesome. All right. Well, thanks for being on the show today.
Mark Sims 31:20
Thanks for having me, Dave.
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