Todd Palmer | How to Build an Inc 5000 Business

You might love your business, says Todd Palmer, but it doesn’t always love you back. Todd, an entrepreneur and business coach, says that it’s what you do when faced with tough times that counts.

First, you have to come to grips with a mental block most entrepreneurs have. Second, you can’t be afraid to get help (from the right people and in the right way).

Todd almost lost his business about 10 years ago… and went on to have the six-time Inc. 5000 business he has today thanks to completing those two actions.

We talk about how you can apply what he learned to your own venture, as well as…

  • How to get clarity when faced with challenges you don’t understand
  • The responsibilities you didn’t know you signed up for as an entrepreneur
  • The power of the Fail Forward Mentality
  • Two sources of help to get through the toughest business problems
  • And more

Episode Timeline:

00:11 Today Steve speaks with renowned thought leader, CEO and Coach, Todd Palmer.

01:16 Todd talks about how he started off in business with a loan from friends, family and fools.

03:20 Todd explains how by hiring a coach helped him steer his company back from near ruin.

05:09 Steve talks about how he got advice when his business was in trouble.

06:15 Todd talks about the “Imposter Syndrome”.

09:15 Even though he is a very successful coach, Todd still has his own coach. He explains the importance of their outside the business clarity.

14:32 Todd explains how your business is like a child, how the best idea should always win and how the coach can’t do everything for you.

17:23 Steve has 4 coaches. He explains why.

19:21 Todd talks about improving your business incrementally and to celebrate your success.

21:21 Tom explains who the perfect person for coaching is and how confidence is good, ego is not.

24:19 Tom tells us how to get in contact with him and he also gives the UCEO listeners a chance at a fantastic prize!.

Mentioned in this Episode:

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Welcome to The Unstoppable CEO Podcast. I’m your host, Steve Gordon. Today, I’m so excited. We’re talking with Todd Palmer. I got to tell you, he’s got some incredible stuff. He’s a renowned thought leader, a CEO, an executive coach, and an author, and he’s really committed to improving lives. He works with successful entrepreneurs, and he is a successful entrepreneur multiple times over now himself. He’s got a lot to share with you today about how to push forward and get to that next level. He is the CEO of a six-time Inc. 5000 company, so he understands more than just how to work with and coach and advise business owners. He’s built his own very successful business, and I think that gives him a really unique perspective. Todd, I’m really excited that you’re here today and excited for what we’re going to share with everybody. Welcome.

I’m excited to be here. Thanks for having me, and let’s get started and see if we can help a few folks today.

Absolutely. Well, to give everybody a little bit of context, can you kind of give them some background so they really understand where you’re coming from?

Sure, so yeah. I started my company, Diversified Industrial Staffing, in 1997 for a little bit under $20,000. It was one of those situations where I went to my three favorite funding sources, friends, family and fools, and I was able to borrow some money to get off the ground and, by day 72, we had turned a profit. That gave me a great sense of accomplishment and a great sense of pride thinking, “All right. I’ve got this business owner’s thing licked. I’m 27 years old. I’m profitable. Life is pretty good.” We were basically providing people in a state here in Michigan where things were going, at that point, really well. Country was at full employment, so if you had bodies, as a staffing company, you could get people to work tomorrow, very similar to what it is today.

Fast-forward to 2006, we had some tough times ahead of us not knowing what I didn’t know. By mid-2006, we were $600,000 in debt, 60 days away from running out of cash. That’s when I went out, and I reached out to my network, and I hired a coach. He helped me make some very difficult and tough decisions, and we were able to turn that business around and make it into that six-time Inc. 5000 company that we’re enjoying today.

Wow. It’s so interesting when I talk to business owners who have been through that part of the cycle. You’re up, up, up, and then catastrophe hits. For almost everybody that I talk to, it’s 2006 to 2008, and for obvious reasons. Figuring out how to deal with that and move beyond it, and there are a lot of different ways that you can do that, but it takes some real grit to move through that. When you were faced with that, and now when you’re faced with challenges, what do you do to really kind of stay focused and keep pressing on and moving forward?

The Power of the Fail Forward Mentality


Well, in 2006, I didn’t know how to do that. It was a really difficult time. Like a lot of entrepreneurs probably listening today, I had personally guaranteed the money to the bank. I didn’t have it. I had a dysfunctional team in my organization, people that I had hired, people I had chosen. I was really kicking my own butt, suffering from an immense, immense state of imposter syndrome. I just didn’t know what I didn’t know, and I didn’t know where to go. One of the first things I did, like I said, is I hired a coach. Now what I do when I have tough days is I reach out to my network. I’m part of EO, the Entrepreneur’s Organization, and I talk to other entrepreneurs and CEOs in that group and get their feedback on some of the struggles I’m faced with.

I look in the mirror. Ultimately, I’m accountable and responsible for the company. It’s my baby, and if it’s not going well, what can I do differently? Then I really figured out that I have to have a fail-forward mentality, that failure is part of the process. Sometimes that failure means you’ve hired some of the wrong people, and you have to make changes like, in 2006 in September, I fired my entire company. I started over because I had hired the wrong people. I had to learn from that, and it’s a very painful thing to admit. However, had I not made that difficult decision, we would not have turned the business around. We probably would have gone out of business. Potentially, I could have lost everything.

Being the leader, for me, I reach out to my network. I look at my contribution to the situation. I realize that failing is part of the process and, sometimes, in that whole ball of wax, is difficult decisions that need to be made, and heavy is the head that wears the crown of leadership within an entrepreneurial organization. There’s no way around it. Entrepreneurs sometimes have to do things they don’t want to do.

Yeah. There’s no doubt about that. You said a ton of valuable stuff in there. The first one you said was, “Hey, I went out, and I got help,” and then you repeated that about three times. It’s really interesting. Having been through a similar process at about the same time, I couldn’t have made it through had I not been in … I was in a CEO peer group at the time. Without being able to walk into that room and confidentially share with some other entrepreneurs, “Hey, here’s the hand we’ve been dealt. I don’t even know what to do. I don’t even begin to know where to start asking the questions …” Without having that, I couldn’t have gotten through it. What I see a lot of entrepreneurs do is they will … You get into a situation like that, it’s embarrassing.

Oh, for sure.

It’s like, “I’m not supposed to be here. I’m the successful leader of a business.” You want to retreat inside yourself. Was that something that was hard for you to overcome?

Two Sources of Help to Get Through the Toughest Business Problems


Oh, I think we lived the same life, my friend. I definitely retreated within myself. That’s where the impostor syndrome really significantly rooted itself because I thought I should have all the … did a lot of shoulding, “I should have all the answers. I should know what to do. I should be able to do this. I should be able to get my staff to do what needs to be done,” all those different things.

A really good friend of mine said to me, “You know, an entrepreneur alone is an entrepreneur at risk, and you are isolating yourself, and you are thinking that you should be embarrassed, where this is all part of the process.” That’s the challenge I think a lot of entrepreneurs don’t know. You don’t typically go to college or high school to get a degree in entrepreneurship. You don’t typically learn these things when you work for somebody else.

I often explain to the young entrepreneurs that I work with that you got to understand that we are in a very unique position. We’re taking a lot of risk hoping for a lot of reward. With that risk comes a lot of fiduciary responsibilities that I didn’t even know about. The government gets paid first. Employees get paid second. Vendors get paid third. If you’re lucky, you get paid fourth. That’s the early startup stages of being an entrepreneur, typically, and I didn’t know that. I thought you started a company, and it just worked.

Now you watch TV shows like Shark Tank and different programs like that where they take a four-hour presentation pitch meeting, cut it down to 12 minutes for TV content, and people think, “Oh, wow. These really successful people will just give me money, and I make more money for them.” It doesn’t typically work that way, so that’s … Like you’re saying, the CEO peer-to-peer learning environment, trusted advisors in your back pocket can kind of help guide you because there’s so much, as entrepreneurs, that we have to take on, responsibilities we didn’t even sometimes know we signed up for but, nonetheless, we still have them.

Yeah. Again, sometimes you just don’t even know where to go and what the right questions are to ask. I know I remember feeling like that. It was clear things were going in a bad way economically. Much of that was outside of our control because it had to do with larger markets, but figuring out, “Okay, what is in our control, what can we influence that can start to move us forward?” I couldn’t see it, and so that’s where that outside help, for me anyway, really came in as somebody who could see the things that I was blind to, and so, yeah, I know the value of that.

Now, clearly, you’re a big believer in this. You’re now doing this for other businesses. Does it change when you’re working with another business owner, and they’ve come to you, and they’ve got a situation that is beyond what they’re ready to grasp at the moment, and now they’re turning to you, and you’ve got to give them that advice? Is it more difficult? Is it easier?

Well, it’s really interesting because it’s like sports. You can play the game really well, but can you coach the game really well? Not a lot of people can do both, and that’s certainly what I want to do with Extraordinary Advisors is I want to coach people just as well as I’ve been coached, and I still use a coach. The first thing I say to entrepreneurs that want to potentially engage my services is when it will be … I drink the Kool-Aid. I still have a coach. I believe in it, and I know I don’t know everything.

The other thing that really differentiates between working on my current business, Diversified Industrial Staffing, while coaching people through Extraordinary Advisors is it’s so much easier to look at someone else’s house and say, “Oh, well, if you just move this furniture around, you’re going to have great flow.” Within your own business, there’s a lot more blind spots sometimes. Hence, that’s why I still have a coach. I was just working with a client a couple weeks ago, and we had to have the conversation that, “You revenue is strong, but your margins need to be improved.” Within about a two-hour conversation, we moved his margins four points. He had never even thought about it. He didn’t see the opportunities.

That’s, I think, what coaches can do for people is … It’s like you’re renting someone else’s cerebral cortex because we get so fight-or-flight and, as entrepreneurs, we get so fear-based, at times, that we just don’t see that route through the forest. We just keep running into that same tree. I seem them, really, as two different roles. That’s why, for Diversified, I still use a coach to help me, sometimes, navigate those treacherous waters.

I would imagine, too, that it’s a little bit easier to look objectively at a business from the outside. You don’t have the emotional baggage of having built it all. When you’ve built it, as much as we all want to say there’s no pride of authorship, and I like saying that a lot, well, sometimes there is, I mean, if we’re really honest.

Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where it’s much easier to sometime … These are our babies, like it or not, and these are … I often say to entrepreneurs who have struggles in their marriage, I say, “Have you talked to your significant other about your mistress?” “Well, what do you mean?” “Your business is your mistress. It’s your pride. It’s your joy. You love this thing, and it doesn’t always love you back,” as you and I both have attested to today. It’s a real … really a valuable thing to take a look at. Why are you doing this?

Don’t Apologize for What You Charge


One of my favorite authors is Simon Sinek, and he talks about the power of why. For us at Diversified, but also at EA, we do it to improve lives. If we’re improving lives in what we do, the money will come, but we can’t also work for free, and we shouldn’t apologize for what we charge for, because people need to understand that companies are hiring us as entrepreneurs to solve problems, and they’re paying us for our knowledge, not always just for our time slot. You can certainly go, “I’m sure what Warren Buffet’s going to charge you per hour versus what Todd Palmer’s going to charge you per hour is going to be a little bit different, but I think, with Warren Buffet, you’re going to have a different set of expectations.”

When people come to me and they go, “Show me how to be a six-time Inc. 5000 company,” well, there’s a fee for that. This isn’t just something that’s going to permeate through an organization without blood, sweat, and tears, and the definition of that is put your money where your mouth is. That’s were entrepreneurs, I think, can really get lost is they sometimes focus on the cheap and focus on free. We focus on those other things. Well, even the peer-to-peer learning groups that I am part of, there’s still a fee of, gosh, $10,000 a year. You got to pay to play sometimes, and you got to spend money to make money.

I think that’s the quote of the episode is, “We shouldn’t apologize for what we charge.” I love it.

Well, we’re going to take a quick break. We’re going to be back with more from Todd, and we’re going to dive into really what it takes to work with a coach and how to be successful with a coach. We’ll be right back with more from Todd Palmer.

Hi. This is Steve. I hope you’re enjoying this interview. We’ve got more to come in a minute, but what I’d love for you to do right now is rate this podcast. Leave us a review. Rate us on iTunes. It’ll really help others discover the podcast and help us help other CEOs, other business leaders, become unstoppable. If you go to, you can find instructions there and links that will take you right to where you need to go to review the podcast. Thanks so much. Now back to the interview.

Welcome back. This is Steve Gordon. Today, I’m talking with Todd Palmer. Todd, you’ve shared with us kind of your journey and how working with a coach, with a trusted advisor, has kind of shaped your journey. I mean it sounds like, in your first business, it really was the catalyst for rebuilding that business in a really difficult time and turning it into a six-time Inc. 5000 company. In addition to running your main business, you’re working and coaching entrepreneurs. With the ones who are really successful with that relationship with you, what do they do that the others don’t do?

Well, I think, Steve, that the real differentiator is entrepreneurs, by and large, need to understand that, as a coach, we should vet you just as much as you’re vetting us. It’s got to be a good relationship because, at the end of the day, we’re just two people or me and the CEO and their leadership team working together. You can talk about the four pillars of any kind of business, whether it’s cash, strategy, execution, or staff. All those categories are influenced and all those decisions are made by people. The people have to have a certain sense of connectivity.

The Right Way to Work with a Coach


The worst thing you can do is go out and set up a coaching relationship to impress your friends or go to the country club, “Hey, I’ve got a coach,” because, really, the coach’s job is to get you where you want to go, and you have to do the work. I can help you see a different vision. I can help you lay out a strategic path. I can help you talk about some bottlenecks that you have with your execution, but I’m not at your business every day. I can’t come and do that work. That level of authenticity, transparency, and vulnerability from the CEO to the coach and then back into the organization, I think, is where I see the most transformative change.

Where it typically doesn’t work is when the CEO is thinking, “Well, I’m going to hire a coach to help me solve this problem,” but really they want the coach to come in and solve the problem or change out team members or put a different direction in. There is no silver bullet with any business I’ve ever seen. It requires the level of commitment, dedication, and the willingness to be uncomfortable.

One of the things that I find works really well and when with a leadership team is I always make sure the CEO agrees to speak last. Most of the CEOs that I know, we’re usually the smartest kids in the room, or we think we’re the smartest kids in the room. Sometimes the best ideas are squashed by the CEO and their personality because the team, like children, want to please the CEO. The team want that person, the person who signs their check, to be satisfied and happy. Well, but they may not always have the best answer, so if the emperor has no clothes, it’s the team’s job to go around the table to figure out, well, what works and what doesn’t, and what’s the best idea?

That’s why I always say to the CEO, “All you have to do is say, ‘I really like George’s idea,’ or, ‘I really like Sue’s idea.’ It could have been your idea, but maybe it wasn’t as good as your idea, but you’ll never have to own that. Just let the best idea win in the room,” because, at the end of the day, there’s the owner, the leadership team, but also there’s that third entity, which is the business. The business is like a child. It needs tender, loving care. It needs structure. It needs discipline. It’s the responsibility of the leader and the leadership team to drive those things, and if the best ideas aren’t shared and the best ideas aren’t heard, then that third party, that business, doesn’t get the tender, loving care it needs.

Yeah. It’s funny. As you’re describing that, I’m thinking back in my own experience, especially when I was young. I became CEO of my first business at 28, and I didn’t know what the heck I was doing. Thinking back to how I would operate and run meetings was awful. It was terrible. I was doing all the things you just described.

The thing that jumped out to me in what you just said was the idea that a business owner may bring in a coach and want kind of the coach to do it. I’ve always viewed it, and I … Believe me, I drink the Kool-Aid. I’ve got four coaches right now for different areas of my life, from fitness all the way through the business and other things, because those are strategic areas that I want to improve. I always look at the role of a coach in two dimensions. Number one, it’s to really provide an outside perspective and some outside thinking on the problems that you’re facing every day. Number two, it’s to hold you accountable.

One of my coaches, which I saw this morning, is a fitness coach, a personal trainer. Okay? She can see things that I can’t see. She knows what exercises I should be doing based on me telling her what my goals were, right? She sure as hell holds me accountable, in fact, probably more so than I’d really like some days. What I love about the fitness analogy is that allows you to break it down to something pretty simple that everybody can understand, and that’s the way … If you’re going out to work with a business coach, I think that’s the approach, as a business owner, you ought to take is, “I’m bringing somebody in because they’ve got fresh eyes, and they see a lot more businesses than I see, and they’re going to have some unique approaches and, once we decide on a plan, they’re going to keep me to it.”

Right. That’s a great comparison. If you think about a fitness program, if you want to drop 20 pounds, you’re not going to lose 20 pounds in a week. If you lose 2 pounds a week for 10 weeks, it’s a successful program. A lot of times, when businesses are in crises or they’ve reached that glass ceiling, they want instant change, an instant quick fix. I always say to my clients, “If you can change your business 1% per week over a 52-week period, you’ve made a 50% turnover in your organization, whether it’s with strategy, execution. If you’ve got cash problems, how do we get more cash in the door? How do we improve your margins?” That stuff’s not going to occur over night. No different than if you want to get into, like you said, a fitness program. You want to be able to lift … go from benching 200 pounds to benching 300 pounds. It’s not going to happen in a week, but those little, small, incremental steps need to occur.

I think, as leaders, one of the best areas of opportunity that we have during that iterative process is to celebrate the victories with the team because so many entrepreneurs don’t do it. They’re all focused on the end goal. Those little steps along the way, you’d be surprised what kind of loyalty and what kind of team environment you can build when you celebrate those small victories.

Yeah, I can imagine, and particularly when you’re trying to transition through challenges, even if they’re not like 2006-to-2008-type challenges, but even just the little stuff that comes up. It’s so easy for us, as entrepreneurs, to focus on the negative, the bad stuff. We rarely pay enough attention to the successes. I know I’m guilty of that. In fact, I try and be really proactive now of writing that stuff down. Otherwise, I forget about it.

You work with a lot of different types of business. Who’s kind of in your sweet spot? If somebody’s listening to this and they go, “Yeah, I really … I need to get a coach to get to that next level,” who’s sort of the perfect person for your firm?

Well, for me, the perfect person is an entrepreneur who has that lifelong learner mindset, the entrepreneur who recognizes, “I know I don’t know everything. I don’t know, necessarily, where I need to go, but I recognize that I need help.” So many entrepreneurs are very ego-driven. I was ego-driven. Sometimes I’m still ego-driven. It’s just part of the deal. It’s part of who we are. You can have a strong sense of self, but pride and ego don’t care about anything else. So it’s clear, confidence is good, having too much ego typically doesn’t work.

I use a vetting tool to find out if I’m going to be a good fit because hiring a coach is an acquired taste. My style is not going to work for someone as well as someone else’s style might work, so it’s a very individual choice, but first and foremost is are you coachable? Are you willing to make change, and are you willing to roll up your sleeves? Because my style is very different than a lot of coaches.

One, most coaches have never owned a business, by and large. Two, we have attained a nice track record of success, so that means I’m about being accountable. You just got to be that way. If you’re not accountable, it’s not going to work really well. Three, I want to walk the path with my clients. I have a very strict program. I do four quarterly meetings, but I do twice-a-month calls with either the CEO or the CEO and their leadership team to check the pulse. Where are we? Are we on track, or are we off track? Are we hitting our KPIs?

A lot of coaches just kind of fly in, fly out on a quarterly basis. I think there’s so much that can be accomplished with quicker touch points, shorter durations between connections, and that’s, for me … I just absolutely get jazzed. I had a call with a client this morning. The movement they’ve had in three weeks is phenomenal. One, I’m so proud of the entrepreneur because he’s sticking to what he said he was going to do even though he’s had tough times. Two, his team now believes in him, where maybe they had some doubts before. Just to hear this group of people try to go in the same direction, on the same path, even with some stumbles along the way … One person’s off track, the team’s now bringing that person back on track with his rocks. It’s so incredibly rewarding.

If someone wants to do the same as it ever was, to just kind of just slowly bump along and really wants to be not goal-focused and not willing to be vulnerable and transparent about why they’re not hitting things, then I am definitely not a good fit for them.

Yeah. I could imagine they wouldn’t last very long with your approach to things.

Where is the best place for people to go and find out more about what you’re doing and your approach to working with entrepreneurs?

Yeah. The best place to find out more about us would be at We’ve got a lot of our information up there. I do keynote speeches. I’ll come in and do a workshop if that’s required or, certainly, the CEO and executive-level coaching. In fact, what I’d like to offer to your audience today, Steve, is anybody who mentions, on the website, that they want to meet with me or talk with me, and they mention that they heard me on your podcast, I’d be happy to give them an hour of my time for free.

To me, that’s really an opportunity to pay it back to the people who have paid it forward through me. So many people, whether it’s been the people in my EO chapter or just great conversations with other entrepreneurs around the country who have just given me their time, this is the least I can do to help pay it forward, that mentality that an entrepreneur alone is an entrepreneur at risk. Let’s not have that. Even if it’s just somebody I talk to one time, you just never know. That one message from one person could change the course of things, and that … so I’m happy to offer that to your audience today.

Oh, thank you. That’s really, really generous, and I appreciate that. I know there will be some folks that will want to take you up on that. Where will they go? Where should they go on your website to take advantage of that?

Just go to the Contact Us page of My assistant, Kelly, will get you put onto my calendar, and we can have a conversation.

Very good. Well, that’s a really generous offer. Thank you for sharing that with our audience. Todd, it’s been fantastic talking with you. We could go on and on for hours, but I know time is precious. It’s just been a blast getting to know you a little bit and talking about your approach today on the interview.


Thank you for being a guest.

Oh, yeah, absolutely. Thank you so much for having me on the show. I really enjoyed the conversation.

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