2023: Step by Step Business (Entrepreneur Spotlight Series)

Alicia Butler Pierre’s Visionary Approach to Business Infrastructure

The story of Equilibria, spearheaded by the astute and visionary Alicia Butler Pierre, is one of transformation, resilience, and strategic innovation. Beginning as a professional organizing company, Equilibria has evolved into a crucial provider of business infrastructure, particularly for small businesses. In this comprehensive interview, Alicia shares the rich tapestry of her experiences, from the inception of Equilibria to its current status as a leader in its field.

This interview is not just about the success story of a business; it’s about the insights and wisdom of a leader who has navigated the complexities of entrepreneurship with grace and determination.

Join us as we uncover the journey of Alicia Butler Pierre and the remarkable story of Equilibria.

Inception and Evolution
SBS – Can you share the story behind the inception of Equilibria and how it evolved from a professional organizing company to a business infrastructure provider? 

Alicia – It all started back in 2005. I was working as a chemical engineer and knew I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my working life for many reasons. So, I decided to go back to business school. I worked full-time during the day and went to school at night. Once I graduated from university, I relocated to Atlanta, Georgia. That’s where I am now.

It was difficult. But you know what I’ve found? When you have your eye on the prize, and you know that you want something bad enough, you just make it happen. You just do what you have to. It was very difficult, but I knew I needed to learn more about business. When I worked as an engineer, I didn’t understand business. I did not understand the decisions that were taking place at the business level that impacted the way I did my work as an engineer.

I’ll never forget this: I had a professor (one of my accounting professors) who said that accounting is the language of business. That really helped me understand why I was so confused working as an engineer. Sometimes, we would have different accountants, and they would come and talk to us about the numbers for the previous month — it was as though they were speaking another language. I didn’t understand it, yet those numbers mattered because they impacted how we operated. That was the missing link. I didn’t have that knowledge, so that was the motivation for me to go back to school.

When I was in school, I absolutely loved everything about it — learning about marketing, sales, economics, finance, human resources, and all of the things about business. I knew this could be a way for me to transition out of my engineering career.

I was living in New Orleans, Louisiana. When I decided to leave there and relocate, I came here to Atlanta, where there is a lot of competition. I was applying for jobs, but I never found anything. After about 60 days, I said, “You know what? This isn’t working for the amount of time, effort, and energy that I’m spending trying to look for a job, working for someone else. I can use that same time, effort, and energy to create an opportunity for myself.

Here’s the thing. When I started, it was, as you mentioned, a professional organizing company because I went through a period of introspection trying to figure out what I’m naturally really good at. It was organizing. I was organizing other people, going into their homes, specifically. I wasn’t necessarily organizing closets, basements, or anything else; it was people’s home offices. That’s when I realized it wasn’t that they were chronically disorganized people (they certainly were not hoarders). They just needed systems and processes to keep everything in place, to keep everything functional, and to keep all the things that were pertaining to their business separate from everything else going on in their homes.

It took maybe two to three years to transition from professional organizing services to providing business infrastructure. I went in thinking it was just about making things tidy, but I realized there’s something more foundational here that’s missing, and it was that process and systems, that infrastructure piece.

Overcoming Early Challenges
SBS – What challenges did you face in the first stages of your business, and how did you overcome them? You moved to a different city, which wasn’t easy.

Alicia – Trust me, I was purely going off of my gut instinct and intuition. I had this feeling I could not shake: I needed to leave New Orleans. I couldn’t explain it. Everyone thought I was crazy because I had a job, my own house, and a car, and I had a very comfortable life. As fate would have it, six months after I left, the infamous Hurricane Katrina happened in New Orleans.

Yes, it was very difficult coming to a city where I didn’t know anyone. One of the first things that I did was to start networking. I started looking and researching different organizations where small business owners were congregating. I would visit these places. I remember this so well; I made some business cards. When I say I made them, I didn’t have them professionally printed — I just printed something on my little desk jet printer. I came up with a name for my company. I called it Equilibria. I would show up at these events and just start networking; that’s how I started meeting people.

I got my initial business through bartering, believe it or not. Remember, I’m new to the city. I don’t know anyone. Most people who start their businesses do so in the city that they live or have lived in, but that wasn’t the case for me. I didn’t know anyone. I didn’t have a track record, so I had to get it. The best for me was to barter, so I would barter for things like legal, accounting, and bookkeeping services — things I still needed for my business. That is how I started to gain some traction.

I would complete different projects, ask for a referral and a testimonial, and, eventually, after a good year of doing that — keep in mind, I wasn’t making money for an entire year — I started to get the paid projects. I had first to build that portfolio of work and a track record so that I could start to tell people whom I’ve worked with. I could reference specific examples, share pictures, and have something to show.

SBS – But did you have some savings to survive?

Alicia – I did. I am very prudent and frugal in how I spend, but I believe in savings. I had a very nice nest egg saved up before. The way I did it was this: I only lived off of half of my pay. So, for example, if I was paid $1,000 per month, I figured out a way to only live off of half of that, and I saved the rest. So, I would save $500 and live off of $500.

SBS – As you said at the beginning, you had a nice goal in front of you. That’s what guided you, I assume?

Alicia – Absolutely. You do figure out you become very creative in getting certain things done. Of course, you have to have legal counsel. Of course, you need to speak with an accounting expert of some sort. But I knew I couldn’t possibly retain those people, so that’s why I would seek people out to potentially barter with. It worked out nicely for me in the beginning. I would find people who offered services I knew I needed, and then, in exchange, I would provide something of equal value.

There’s a creed that I live by —  if you can live somewhere that you’ve never lived before, I highly encourage you to do that. Here’s what happens when you don’t have your family and close friends around: all you have is yourself. You have to figure out how to make it happen, and it will force you to do things that you’ve never done before. I mean, think about people who immigrate to different countries, let alone here in the States, moving from one state to another. You’re forced to push and stretch yourself in ways that you didn’t think you were capable of doing.

Identifying the Market Need
SBS – How did you identify the need for business infrastructure tools in the market?

Alicia – When I started as the organizing company, I began to notice trends (aside from the fact that they didn’t necessarily need the organization but the processes). After working for somewhere between two to three years, I started to continue to look at patterns, and regardless of the industry, seven key things started to emerge that they all struggled with (one or more). That’s when I realized I had a framework here that I could actually create. Once this framework is applied, what is the result? What is the output of that framework and its business infrastructure?

These are the seven things that I noticed.

They didn’t have the ability to clearly define the work that needed to be done, and it made it almost impossible for them to write clear job descriptions. That’s number one.

The number two is that they didn’t know what their companies looked like on the inside. They didn’t have an organizational chart. We can take that for granted. For those of us who have been exposed to companies that have charts, it’s just something standard every business should have. But so many small companies cannot articulate what their company looks like on the inside.

The third and fourth things concerned how they were keeping up with their records and digital and physical files. It was a mess. If there’s anything reminiscent of the company’s days as an organizing company, it’s those two factors or those two services helping them come up with better-organized ways of managing their records (digitally and physically). Another thing was just the actual layout of their workspace — it just wasn’t conducive to productivity.

Finally, the sixth and seventh things had to do with their processes. When we hire people on our team, we can’t expect them to communicate telepathically. We have to tell them exactly what to do and how to do it. I would notice that turnover could be exceptionally high. Why is that turnover so high? Well, because this person didn’t do what they were supposed to do. Well, did you actually teach that person? Did you document it? Was there a process or procedure you could hand that person? More often than not, the answer was no.

So, when I started looking at those seven things, I realized it’s a framework that can be applied to any of these fast-growing small businesses over and over, regardless of industry. The one thing that they all have in common is the fact that they are smaller in size and growing very rapidly. So, these aren’t startups. These are existing businesses that now have the benefit of being able to say they have more business than they can handle. That’s when they realize they have to look at that business infrastructure.

Staying Innovative
SBS – Explain how you stay innovative, especially nowadays, with AI and everything, and how you adapt to changing market needs.

Alicia – I love that question. Thank you. I have learned to become a voracious reader. Not only that. There’s a saying here in the States that we call “the three R’s” — reading, writing, and arithmetic. I tell people now to read something every day. Read not only about what you do but things that are going on in other industries as well.

Write something, write every day. I cannot tell you how much that has stretched me because I write so much. Not only do I write, but I also have a podcast. That is another way that I can continuously learn from other people that I invite to the show. It keeps me fresh and innovative in my approach to how I do things in my company, as well as the things that I do with my clients.

Finally, as far as the arithmetic piece — measure something. How do you know if you are successful at something or how you are performing if you don’t measure and monitor things? That has always been my rule of thumb for staying on the cutting edge. Also, I am constantly talking to other people, interviewing them, much like you’re interviewing me.

I also have a Google alerts set up. It alerts me whenever there are new articles about topics I’m interested in. I still read actual newspapers and magazines and just stay on top of things that way.

Client Relationship Strategies
SBS – Can you share some strategies you use to build or maintain strong relationships with your clients? 

Alicia – Yes. I can tell you that having a good CRM is critical. Making sure that we stay on top of things with them makes sense. That goes a very long way in helping us stay in touch with our clients. Also, we have a newsletter that goes out monthly.

Also, I am connected, I would say, to most of my clients on LinkedIn. Whenever I post something, many of them see things that way, letting them know that we’re still here and around. But honestly, sometimes, I invite them onto my podcast. Sometimes, I will reach out to them, especially if I know they have a special interest in something. If I read something and I come across some information, I’ll share that with them. Even once a particular project may have ended, these are just some of the ways that we can stay in touch with our clients.

Building an Effective Team
SBS – Can you describe your approach to building a strong and effective team?

Alicia – Yes, and what I’m about to say is going to be very unconventional. I intentionally go outside of the US, and I’ll explain why. My business falls under the general umbrella of operations or operations management. I’ve found that there is not a huge appreciation for operations in the US overall. When I go to other countries where they do not consume resources the US does, there’s a greater appreciation for learning how to be lean, do more with less, and be agile.

My team members are literally around the world for that reason — because they first buy into the vision. Also, they all have an insatiable appetite for learning new things. They can then go and share that with their colleagues and their networks within their respective countries. That is how I have intentionally built my team. There are also people here in the States that are on the team. But by and large, we have an international, or I should say a more global outreach when it comes to building.

Managing Setbacks and Advice for New Entrepreneurs 
SBS – How do you handle setbacks or failures? From what you are telling me right now, I assume you are extremely optimistic and crazy — but in a good sense.

Alicia – Exactly, yes.

SBS – Also, what advice would you give to some people who are new or not that optimistic?

Alicia – You said it perfectly. I think there’s a part of you that has to be a little bit crazy because, when you think about it, you will face rejection as you’ve never encountered before in your life, and yet you have to keep picking yourself back up, and keep going.

There are two major things that I do. One, I love reading the autobiographies or biographies of other really successful people. It is always grounding because every single last one of them has had some serious setbacks, and it is a reminder that this is just a part of life. This is a part of the entrepreneurial journey. I have a friend who always told me that to whom much is given, much is expected in return. And no pain, no gain. Whoever takes the greatest risk gets the greatest reward. Those are the kinds of things I tell myself.

The second thing is talking to other people and surrounding yourself with your entrepreneurial friends because, as an entrepreneur, you’re different. I can’t have certain conversations with my friends working for others. They’re not going to get it. They can empathize, but they don’t know that feeling. This is something that I’m actually dealing with right now: a client who is grossly behind on paying. I told one of my friends, and again, I could tell he didn’t really get it. I said, “Let me explain it to you this way. Whether you get sick or work, you’ll still get paid. But imagine doing work, and you don’t get paid, and then you have to go and fight to get paid for something that you deserve, something that you did. That person has benefited from what you’ve done, and you don’t get paid. That is an awful feeling.”

I also have a team I have to pay. I’m still going to pay them. I take comfort in being able to talk to my other friends who are also entrepreneurs and telling them, “Oh, my gosh, this is what I’m going through right now.” More likely than not, they’ve been through it, too.

You have to have those people around you because, I’ll tell you, you will go mad trying to deal with certain things on your own. You absolutely need to surround yourself with other like-minded entrepreneurial friends.

The third piece of advice I would say is something that I’m learning now — yoga. I’ve always been terrible at meditating because my mind is constantly racing. I could never quiet my mind enough. Now that I’m starting this, I find I’m getting a lot better at being able to center myself and my thoughts. That’s something I’m just starting to get into. But definitely, the first two things. I love reading about the stories of other successful people, and it could be anyone. It could be someone in sports. It could be someone in journalism. It doesn’t necessarily have to be other entrepreneurs. I just love reading the stories of other successful people who defy the odds.

Future Plans
SBS – What are your future plans for Equilibria, and how do you see it evolving in the next five years?

Alicia – In the next five years, I anticipate us building out our software to scale the business even more and once we have a viable proof of concept, selling the company. Through a period of introspection, I recognize that I can only take Equilibria to a certain point and that there are certain skills I lack as a CEO in order to take it to the level where I know it can go globally. In essence, I recognize that I have to hand my baby over to another company that can nurture it into a thriving, successful adult.

Lessons Learned
SBS – Looking back, what is one thing you wish you had known when you started?

Alicia – The importance of using OPM “Other People’s Money!” I was such a prudent saver in my former career as an engineer, and I largely used my own savings to fund my business. Sadly, I bought into the hype that it would be extremely difficult to secure venture capital, let alone a traditional bank loan, when I started my business. There are so many funding options available to small businesses that do not have a tech focus.

Sustaining Success
SBS – What are your top tips for sustaining success and growth in a business over a long period?

Alicia – I boil it down to three things.

Listen. Listen to your customers. Although you think you know what they need, your customers will always tell you what they want. Get your ego out of the way and listen to them when they give you feedback about your goods or services.

Evolve. The business I started in 2005 is not the business I run today in 2023. That longevity is primarily attributed to, again, listening and adjusting service offerings accordingly. Once you figure out the intersection between what you think your customers need, and what they actually want, you strike gold!

Focus on operations. Yes, I am biased regarding this, but it really is true. So many companies have a hyperfocus on sales, marketing, and business development to the detriment of their back-office operations. They can do a great job of luring customers but struggle to keep them because of poor customer experiences. If marketing is about making a promise to your customers, then operations is about keeping those promises. Without streamlined operations, a fast-growing business of any size runs the risk of implosion. How tragic to have worked so hard to build the business only to lose it because of poor business infrastructure.


Source: https://stepbystepbusiness.com/alicia-butler-pierre-equilibria/

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