This month marked my two year anniversary of working at an online marketing startup. I thought it was a great time to finally launch my blog about business, sales, and the professional life of a 20-something. It’s been quite a journey moving from Denver to Columbus, and we’re hardly a startup anymore as we grow to over 125 employees – but the following are the biggest takeaways I learned as I reflect back on the last two years.
Three Things I Learned From the Front Lines of a Startup:
- Get moving. Then get ready.
- Most of us obsess over perfecting products, perfecting scripts, perfecting websites and sharpening our pencils. Then we get ready all over again. In the early stages of a startup, you’ll have no idea what the kinks will be nor what your price should be nor what the hot buttons of your cusotmers will be. Focus on progress, not perfection; get your hands dirty. We thought our clients would bear a certain price point – now our entry point is our previous high-end and the reasons customers engage are quite different than what we expected. Next time you’re hesitating or changing the font for the fifth time on a document, remind yourself of the last time you debated going to the gym and the analysis turned into a couch workout watching reruns. Contrast that with another time you simply forced yourself there, got comfortable after you started, and didn’t regret it by the time you were done. You can’t think feel your way into acting but you can can act your way into feeling. Get Moving! Then get ready!
2. Start ups are sexy. Sound business fundamentals are even sexier.
- Maybe it’s because we’re all gen Y brats or maybe too many of us watched The Social Network. We fantasize about IPOs, private parties in Silicon Valley, and drawing on white boards with models and buzz words. And what’s for damn sure is so many of us are seduced by a startup. Yes, I am just as guilty. But sound fundamentals are cooler than being published on Mashable.com. And the real rubber meets the road when you look at which part of the value chain the owners glorify. Let me explain. A group of my former coworkers and I all took our tenacity and sales skills to various startups. One joined a Groupon-spin off; another joined a medical software company that rhymes which ‘rock chalk’; a very talented sales manager spearheaded a real estate service concept; I joined an online advertising company. Two to three years later, I’m the only one left. The first guy’s gig looked like the sexiest opportunity of them all, but the business fundamentals were about as sound as Groupon’s stock. And, the sales people portion of the value chain quickly got squeezed out. The next little piggy gave a year to the unprofitable NYC gig; sales and marketing were critical but the founders thought they were easily replaced. The third amigo gave blood, sweat and tears to help get things off the ground – only to find out he wouldn’t be listened to or appreciated by the CEO. Then there was my gig, on a scale to sexy, I was the awkward 8th grader with braces and bad skin….but now looking like a late bloomer. From the beginning, our company had sound business fundamentals that created value, was built for scale and rewarded sales people. What’s more, we were a sales-centric organization where my contribution to the value chain was appreciated and rewarded. I won’t pretend I had incredible foresight, but I remain grateful for the opportunity. SO….before you go taking a risk on a startup and sipping lattes on your workout ball in your cube, take a close look at the fundamentals of the startup business (Revenue – Expenses and lattes = what’s left to pay people), and don’t forget to take a closer look to see if you’re within the areas of the business that are valued and appreciated.
3. Southwestern was right. About everything!
- In my undergrad and MBA I was fortunate enough to sell educational books door-to-door, +80 hours per week, on straight commission, away from home for four summers. My older brother told me, “It’s the best thing I ever did in college, you have to do it at least once.” Luckily Southwestern Advantage (southwesternadvantage.com) proved the most amazing training ground for learning and failing safely in a way that would have taken 15 years to learn in my career. I helped a lot of families, impacted my peers and made some serious coin for college. And after running the program for 150 years with 3000 college kids, Southwestern has certain timeless principles figured out – no matter how much I resisted or objected while in the trenches. We learned(yes ‘we‘ because it’s a fraternity/cult) that the only thing it takes to be successful is to work hard, study hard, and be coachable. We learned you control your attitude and future, no matter the situation. We learned sales is a noble endeavor and if you help enough people get what they want, you’ll eventually get what you want. We learned how to listen. To face our fears. To delay gratification. That it’s not our parents’ fault. We learned to control the controllables and not worry about the rest. We learned that you build people, and those people build a great company. We learned that successful people form the habit of doing things unsuccessful people don’t like to do. Now the man, the business person, the dad, and the leader I’m becoming are a direct result of those lessons in between doors. And as much as I try to run away from it or deny it, Southwestern was spot on about everything. So thank you to Eliav, Rau, Fugman, Dan Moore and all my fellow Southwestern alumni.
Thoughts? What’s your experience been working at a start up? Or are you a fellow Southwestern alumni that’s seem the same trend? Feel free to comment, disagree, ask questions, or get your #hashtag on. And tune in next week when I explain why John Mackey, CEO of Whole Foods, is an @#$-Whole.