Curt Richardson | Crain's Denver

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

Curt Richardson


OtterBox sells smartphone cases and accessories for charging and audio. Curt Richardson, who developed the first OtterBox in his garage in Fort Collins, Colorado, formally founded the company in 1998. OtterBox says it’s the top-selling protective case for smartphones in the U.S. and Canada. Richardson served as OtterBox CEO for 14 years.

The Mistake:

For years, I didn’t even comprehend what a lack of systems and processes would mean for a small business, especially in order to scale.

As an entrepreneur, you tend to fight fires a lot. I tended to get my value from basically putting out fires in my day-to-day. As time went on, I cultivated a culture of firefighters. We weren’t working on the most important things; we were working on whatever problem was at hand on a given day. People were basically reinventing their job everyday they came to work.

Half the time, the problems were of our own creation. Every time we solved one, we created two more. Strategically, that doesn’t work. It’s not scalable.

My companies grew to a certain point where they just couldn’t scale any more. I had to go back to my garage and start over three different times.

That was all before someone gave me the book, “The E-Myth Revisited: Why Most Small Businesses Don't Work and What to Do About It” by Michael Gerber. I read the whole thing on the plane back from China, and when I got off that plane I knew I needed help.

Watch out for the tyranny of the immediate.

The Lesson:

It’s not about turning everyone into a robot, but you do have to systematize your business. The “E-Myth” lesson is that systems run the business and people run the systems. It’s about looking at your business and building it around systems.

You don’t want to over-systematize because then you run into nothing but bureaucracy. We’ve done that at times here at Otter. We have 1,000 employees and we’re a global company, and we sometimes over-rotate. You tend to create things you don’t need anymore, and hang onto things you need to let go of.

If people know what they are coming in to do every day, it actually allows them to be more creative. They can look at their frustrations and be able to put a system or process in place to solve that problem and make their work more efficient.

Now, when people come to me and request more money or more people, my thought process is: “Do you really? Or are you missing a system or process that would allow you to overcome your issues without more money or people?”

Most of the time, that’s the issue.

OtterBox is on Twitter at @otterbox.

Photo courtesy of Otterbox.

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