Socrates Capouleas loves three things: he reads business books that give him continuous learning; he bikes 4 to 6 times a week that pushes him through challenges and keeps him focused on his goals; and he collects timepieces that remind him of his wins, as well as inculcate a sense of urgency. Continuous learning, focus on goals, and sense of urgency are also some of the key takeaways he picked along his entrepreneurial path.
Anthony Iannarino’s book, “The Only Sales Guide You'll Ever Need”, was sitting on Socrates Capouleas’ desk, Director of PLP Building Surveyors and Consultants, at the time of the interview. It’s a book he has been reading recently, and he found in it some wonderful techniques that his sales team can use for the business.
“I only started reading business books about, I would say, 10 years ago, and that's been a gamechanger for me,” Socrates shares. But he doesn’t just flip through the pages of these tomes and park them afterwards. What he does is that he reads one book at a time and he doesn’t move on to his next book until he summarises the key issues in there and then organises a learning session with his team to talk them through everything that he learns from that book.
Reading books has also opened his mind to many ideas and discoveries, opening floodgates of potentials in him. For the longest time, he didn’t think of himself as the most innovative or creative person, something which held him back in the past. But when he uncovered that he could develop himself to be both creative and innovative through learning from these volumes, it presented a whole bunch of opportunities to him that helped him through his entrepreneurial journey.
This particular journey started in 1993, with Socrates merely straight out of university. At that time, he had a cadetship in a local government organisation, which he found uninspiring, as people were starting the day and leaving work looking grumpy. Thinking that it wasn’t for him, he looked for an opportunity to get into the private world.
That opportunity presented itself to him as he met an individual who later became his business partner. “He was working on a landmark Melbourne project, called the Southgate Complex, near the Yarra River. He needed some help and he was on his own. I said, ‘that sounds like the top of a landmark project and I want to be working on it,’ so I ended up quitting my job and effectively doing a startup with my business partner then just out of his garage,” he recounts.
Socrates had a building degree that could help them through their project, but he didn’t have any business or sales background with him that could support him in other aspects of the business. Not having run a business before and suddenly being exposed to the responsibility of running a profitable business, managing the numbers became the scariest thing for him. As he had to tend to tax office requirements, payroll, and all sorts of accounting issues without any previous training on the financial side, this unfamiliar territory became both a challenge and a scary thought for him. But that didn't stop him. To address that lack, he talked constantly with their accountant in order for him to absorb new learnings on that side of the business.
But he has his parents to thank for when it comes to his business savvy. They were extremely disciplined and had a high level of work ethic that had rubbed off on Socrates. By observing them, he had imbibed the habit of getting things done efficiently. Not only that, his dad ran his own business, and Socrates saw the rewards it extended to his father, particularly the flexibility to take the days off when he wanted to as well as the security that it provided him. But what looked like a wonderful prospect turned out to be an uphill battle when he finally found himself in the shoes of his dad as an entrepreneur.
“I certainly didn't think it was going to be as tough as what it was in those early years. There are so many learnings along the way that you have to pick up, and typically you learn from all the mistakes you made. I didn't realise that all of these are continuous challenges and mistakes you make along the way. I thought you will make a mistake in the first 6 to 12 months and then it will be like learning to ride a bike, that once you learn to ride, it will be all smooth sailing from there. While in the 20 years, it's never been smooth sailing. There are always bumps along the way,” the biking enthusiast professes.
The first bump was when they were starting out and there weren’t enough opportunities available. The marketplace was highly competitive and they didn’t have an established client base yet. They were not getting prospects to put forth proposals, and when they did, given the competitive nature and the lack of relationships, their strike rate was really low, at less than 20% only. It was frustrating for him not being able to convert any crucial win right.
Socrates also regards the whole people management thing as an extremely challenging part of running a business. According to him, “the challenge includes: managing people, first and foremost; learning to be a true leader rather than being a micromanager; and learning to recognise and understand the staff – who they are, what type of personality they are.” The latter has given him greater awareness as to how to adapt his management style to them. It has taken him years and years to do this as he continuously adapts the way he goes about it in order to keep up with the challenge.
He also counts not focusing on revenue growth as an oversight for them during the initial stages of the business. It was nearly a bit of a challenge for them in making sure that their cash flow and profit decisions were strong. In the early days, they were already content having a two-million-dollar business, then making it into a three-million-dollar business, and later becoming a four-million-dollar business. Now, they recognise that it’s not just about revenue, but it is also about having the profit position and the cash flow to support their growth.
Funds were definitely a big issue in running the business as they needed to reinvest some of it to generate more income, especially that their overhead also started to increase and their staff base was growing. At one point, they needed to relocate office which entailed a bigger expense on their part. The toughest part though was when they started a new business unit that caused an immense ordeal for them financially.
So much was invested in that business that it posed a huge risk to them. They recruited three senior consultants from a large global consulting firm to get on board, and significant wages had to be paid for these consultants. Plus, they had to build some brand-new software. Their investment ran to, more or less, around AUD 750,000 in total. They forecasted that within two years, they would be hitting certain targets. But as they were getting into the middle of year 2 and looking at their KPIs, things weren’t happening as they originally projected.
“We were four months coming into this mark of 24 months and we had to make a call whether this becomes a viable business moving forward or whether we had to cut it. It was really painful because we have already spent all of this money and we're thinking, how on earth can we just cut this business unit off,” Socrates expresses. If they would keep going, year 3 would even become more painful for them, so they had to terminate the contract before the 2-year mark.
As a biker who hits the trail regularly, he has learned to become more resilient as he pushes himself higher up his entrepreneurial path. He went ahead on his learning track by seeking out mentors, receiving an enormous amount of knowledge from them. And then, 7 years ago, a new opportunity to expand his horizons came upon him.
“I had lunch one day with a friend of mine who was in the tech industry and he was, at that stage, a member of EO Melbourne for 5 years. He explained it to me and what I liked about it was the idea of a more structured approach to the learning journey, because certainly, I’ve always been an advocate of trying to continuously upscale and learn new things,” Socrates enthusiastically remarks. He appreciates what EO offers to its members: the different avenues for causes; the ad hoc speaker events with an open forum; and the networking opportunities to speak with other business owners. This includes the occasions to chat with people who have similar issues – be it business, personal or family concerns – and be able to talk to them in confidence, which he regards as a fantastic support structure. One major thing he learned from the EO activities was on scaling up his business, particularly on parts and departments of the company that he wasn’t previously focusing on. Eventually, it became another profit stream for them.
Throughout his journey, finds great importance in establishing a solid relationship with clients. As a matter of fact, to this day, many of these clients have been with them for already 20 or more years. The key to this is that Socrates understands his own philosophies and he stays true to them: to act with integrity and honesty at all times; and to keep one’s promises. These philosophies have gone a long way in helping Socrates keep his clients. He found them as a proven recipe for continued loyalty and repeat business, as happy clients were open to refer them to more prospects.
His hard work, perseverance and values eventually bore fruit as one of his businesses landed some significant government contracts, muscling up some large competitors. Amidst all these wins, Socrates regards another success that is closer to his heart – his people. “The other great win is seeing a couple of our people really step up and run one of our business units. We have two team leaders that run that business unit, and it's been great watching their journey and seeing them able to grow the business unit, train all of our staff and keep an engaged group. It's been fantastic,” Socrates beams.
He and his team celebrate these wins by sharing plates and breaking bread or doing other activities that they all enjoy. In addition, Socrates, being a watch fanatic, rewards himself with a new watch every time they complete a project, as a token and reminder of their success. It is a very apt gift for his own self, given that he values time and puts a priority on executing strategies with a sense of urgency.
When he sums up his biggest learnings, he has this to say. “Executing fast has been a gamechanger for me. It’s just getting things done quickly, that’s been a real lesson. Then, the continuous learning through reading and mentoring. In my own perspective, I hope I’m still on this learning journey in my 80’s and 90’s. And then having precise goals and sharing them with the staff. I think they are powerful tools because when you share them and it’s out there, we all row to the same direction and we hit some of the precise goals that I have articulated to the team.”
For now, Socrates gets up early from bed almost every day to train for the Holden Giro Della Donna cycling event that is happening in two weeks from the time of interview. As he translates biking into his journey in the business world, he gets an indescribable feeling after a bike ride up the hills, beating his all-time high, driving him to continuously challenge himself.