David watched the neighbor’s dog streak across the yard. He called and chased him until he finally scooped him up in his arms. Proud and a little out of breath, he planted himself on the porch and rang the neighbor’s doorbell. That’s when David remembered he was still in his pajamas.

A Modest Start

Years before Lemler Group built their first website, David Lemler began building his reputation as a servant-hearted auditor one client at a time. In the early days, from 2008 to 2011, Lemler Group was headquartered in the back room of David’s house, where a single laptop stored all his clients’ financial information and his dream of owning his own CPA firm.

During this slow phase, David chose to work however he felt comfortable, which usually meant wearing PJs as he pored over his clients’ accounting records. Even if this explains the awkward way he came to his neighbor’s door all those years ago, it doesn’t make it any less funny.

Though it may be tempting to romanticize this kind of small-business spirit in a world that’s brimming with startups, the beginnings of Lemler Group held some of the toughest lessons and most stressful decisions our company has ever faced. But without those trials, David wouldn’t be the leader he is today, nor would our firm proudly share his story on its website.

Forging Character and Culture

You may have heard hiring managers describe their culture in interviews with terms like “open-door policy” or “casual atmosphere,” or maybe you’ve heard someone claim their organization “doesn’t really have a culture.” From businesses with hundreds of employees to those with one auditor in a back bedroom, every single one has a culture. The difference is whether it’s developed by default or by design.

Lemler Group’s unique challenge in the beginning was developing a culture that arose directly out of David’s character. With only one member of the firm, only one personality contributes to the culture. This means the inner character of that person must be persistent, well-rounded, and able to adapt to change to keep the business running smoothly.

As challenge after challenge threatened David’s fledgling dream, he needed to keep a positive attitude to face difficulties, fail when necessary, and learn from his mistakes. Though he knew these few years of solitude worked to develop his character, it was less obvious that his character would develop the company’s future culture.

Character is revealed during adversity; success conceals it.

— John C. Maxwell

Talk is Cheap, Action Isn’t

Starting his own business meant David had to build a client base almost from scratch. He needed a strategy to earn potential clients’ trust quickly and deliver on the promises he’s made. The principle David relied on during this time is one we still hold fast to today: serving clients well. Excellent service delivers more than empty talk, it assures people their needs will be met consistently in a way that exceeds their expectations. David nurtured his passion for serving others well during this time, and he was rewarded with referrals and business growth, but not without a share of difficulty.

People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.

— John C. Maxwell

Although talk is cheap, a few negative words threatened Lemler Group in its early stages of development. Many of David’s clients had dropped their CPA firm to do business with David instead. Some firms took this better than others. After they hired him, one of David’s clients showed him a letter from their previous auditor that seriously misrepresented not only David’s professional reputation, but also his personal character — one of an unknowable number of similar letters that could have affected Lemler Group’s growth.

This hurdle could only be overcome with patient persistence. David didn’t lash out at his peers, he simply continued serving his clients well. In choosing things like how to respond to unjust criticism or simply how to package client files, he practiced thoughtful patience in making future-oriented decisions. Those choices set the tone and trajectory of the culture we enjoy at Lemler Group today.

Growing pains

Though Lemler Group didn’t take off right away, the first three years of its existence saw steady growth. During this time, David’s wife Suzanne was a constant help and valuable second pair of eyes. Though they didn’t know it at the time, Suzanne’s help as an administrator (whose workstation was their kitchen table) would eventually lead her to quit her career in nursing to become a full-time team member.

David’s flexible — and comfortable — home office setup supported a single, pajama-clad auditor well enough, but if the business were to expand with David’s desire of serving more people, it would need a dedicated space. So, in 2011, Lemler Group doubled in size (two employees) and moved into its first office.

The growth of David’s character would come front and center as he took on the responsibility of leading and mentoring his first and second team members during the next phase of Lemler Group’s growth.

This post is part one of a three-part series celebrating Lemler Group’s 10-year anniversary.