Tim O'Brien

Tim O’Brien

Becoming the Builder of Choice

He was laid off on the cusp of the Great Recession.

His business was building houses.

There couldn’t be a less hospitable environment for construction companies.

But that’s exactly what he started.

In 2008, Tim O’Brien launched Tim O’Brien Homes with a team consisting of himself, his sister, and a partner. They had no land and no customers. The housing industry was in shambles.

Ten years later, Tim is a top midwestern homebuilder.

We invited Tim on the Cannonball Mindsets podcast to learn how he go started, what made his company thrive, and what he believes entrepreneurs need to do to succeed in tough environments.

How did you get started as an entrepreneur?

“People are attracted to the organization when they know that they have professional and personal development. That’s one part of the strategy. We call it being the builder of choice.” – Tim O’Brien

Getting laid off hit hard. “I felt like I’d failed my family,” Tim said. “I felt like I’d failed my career, which was really not the case.” For at least 72 hours after the layoff, he was at a loss, feeling the sting of a blow to his career and his image.

Tim faced a choice. He could leave Wisconsin (which his family didn’t want to do) or deliver a fresh kick to the market. As crazy as it sounded, Tim delivered the kick.

“We decided it was an opportunity to provide something new and fresh to the market,” he told us. Tim O’Brien Homes would make green and energy-efficient building a mainstream line in the Milwaukee market.

Not only could he make a difference, Tim thought, but he could also prove to his former employer just how a big a mistake they made in letting him go. A slight chip on the shoulder didn’t hurt.

“I would’ve chased easy,” Tim said about deciding to start a home building company himself instead of work for someone else. But easy wasn’t available because the market was dropping, and there were few opportunities.

“I never looked back,” he told us.

Yes, the market was scary, but as an entrepreneurial enterprise, Tim O’Brien Homes was in a position to do what it needed to, change how it needed to, and scale up at its own pace.

The recession offered one unforeseen benefit. Other builders were laying off good people Tim could pick up.

How do you stay on mission as you scale up?
The company started in 2008, scaled up in 2009, and ramped up again in 2010. At the time, Tim O’Brien Homes was a very generalized organization. Further scale ups would require specialization. They would also mean that the company’s cohesive, collaborate staff would double in sizes, changing the culture.

“We needed people that fit with our values and could work with us,” Tim said. “I read a book called Delivering Happiness: A Path to Profits, Passion, and Purpose.”

In that book, Tim learned about hiring based on core values, which Tim O’Brien Homes didn’t have. So Tim and his team spent 12 months developing their company’s core values. They began with simple question for the staff. From those answers, they derived 35 or so phrases. Tim and his team pared those down to about 15 then put tacks to it like a story. Eventually, they derived the seven core values the company still celebrates today.

“When we hire people,” Tim said, “we hand them our seven core values. We ask them which ones resonate with them. We also use them in our performance and planning reviews.”

Why is learning so important in your organization?

Growth feeds ideas. It nurtures problem solving which reduces frustrations. If you help people grow and equip them to handle their challenges, they will be less frustrated and will have more control, which will be represented in everybody they touch. Tim said the people who touch his team talk about how pleasant the experience is.

Personal development and professional development tie together because when people feel that you care about them personally, it will improve their work experience. After Tim O’Brien Homes pays for someone to get training, they ask that team member to come back and do a download or a seminar within the company about what they’ve learned.

All this learning helps develop a personal brand, which says you who you are as a person and a professional. It’s important to recognize you have a brand yourself and the people you touch pick up on that.

If someone doesn’t like the people they meet – they don’t have winning personal brands – they may not choose to work with the corporate brand no matter how attractive it is.

“You have to have mentors and coaches outside of your organization that can help you stay focused.” – Tim O’Brien

What advice do you give to new entrepreneurs?

Go for it!

If you have the passion, the drive, and a reasonable business plan, the rest will work itself out.

Tim said he wished he had done this years earlier, that someone had pushed him harder to go out on his own.

It’s hard to let go of a stable salary and a benefits package. But something that serves as security can turn into powerful handcuffs.

To those already following their passion, Tim says to watch out for complacency. If you are too comfortable or too confident, someone else will pass you by while you are not adapting to major changes in the industry.

To learn more about Tim and his business, check out their website at www.timobrienhomes.com.

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