8 Things I Learned the Hard Way as a Startup Founder
This post was originally published by Woden partner Ed Lynes September 9 on LinkedIn.
Woden finally unleashed our new website upon the world today. It’s amazing to consider that about 18 months ago, my partner Dan and I were just beginning the discussions that would lead to forming the agency. Woden has come a long way in a little more than a year, and the new website marks (in many ways) the transition from us finding our voice to hitting our stride.
When those first discussions about Woden began over a few beers at Tria, we planned to do outsourced marketing for small businesses. Thanks to our early clients, the company we are today looks a lot different than what we imagined. We learned a lot from them, and as a result are stronger, bigger, and more valuable — but different.
The past year has had its ups and downs. For everyone else starting, or thinking of starting, a business: here are the eight things I wish I knew a year ago:
Vision is important, but flexibility moreso.
Woden’s core value since day one has been creative storytelling. Even when we thought of ourselves as outsourced marketing, the industry-wide shift toward content marketing convinced us that there was a need for a firm that excels in narrative. That emphasis on narrative is the only thing constant about Woden. We have adjusted our market, our products, our price point and processes dozens of times since then.
People don’t buy what you do, they buy why you do it. Build your business around a core value. It forces you to understand why you’re starting your company, and allows you to be flexible about absolutely everything else as you evolve.
Never stop iterating.
After Woden was an outsourced marketing company for small businesses, it was a social media agency. Then, it became a content marketing firm. Now, it has blossomed as an agency that specializes in storytelling: developing message, and communicating it in the most compelling, engaging way possible. The entire Woden team still spends two hours each week together discussing how to change, grow and improve.
Constantly iterate your business practices to improve each day. You probably will not get everything right at first, so keep trying new ideas, new products, and new approaches until you find something that clicks with your customers.
Your team is everything.
The original concept of Woden had been in my mind for some time. I knew if I found a partner, I’d be more than twice as successful than doing it on my own. When the work became too much for just us, we engaged a guy we knew to help with some freelance work. He blew off a date to get his first project done, and we knew that was the kind of person to build around.
A great team amplifies your success in a way that is not possible alone. In a young company, specific skills are far less important than a willingness to give 100% effort, be a team player, and have a positive attitude. People with those three attributes will learn the skills they need to deliver results.
Revenue solves all problems.
It took eight weeks for Woden to sign its first client. Before then we didn’t have a business; we had an idea. Great concepts are readily available, but if you can’t translate them into paying customers, it doesn’t matter. For eight weeks I made 300 cold calls a week to close our first clients. It was miserable, but it worked. We then used that revenue to market, fill our sales funnel, and keep growing.
Entrepreneurship is just a fancy word for “selling a product that doesn’t exist yet.” No matter your title in a young company, everyone is in sales, all the time. Every problem a company has can be solved with more revenue, and it’s on you to go out and get it.
Listen to your clients.
You know who sees the true value in your business? The people who are paying you to conduct it. As Woden pitched clients, we got honest feedback about what people wanted to buy — and what they didn’t. In a lot of cases, our clients perceived a very different value in our services than we did, and that helped us improve our offerings, and how we presented them to potential clients.
Understanding why your clients pay you — and what else they might buy — is a guide to how to grow your business. When you are just starting, you have so few clients that you should be listening to every single one on how to better serve them and expand your business.
Take the long view.
Woden’s very first client was a disaster. We were so eager to have a client that we rushed onboarding, and lost them in under 60 days. Although things seem day-to-day at first, you need to operate under the assumption your business will be around for the long-haul. Our focus now is on doing things right, even if it takes a little longer or means less money today — because we’ll be here tomorrow.
Work to build a viable enterprise. Winning a client next week is better than losing one tomorrow. Do the right thing, and trust that your clients and partners will reward that with long-term relationships and referrals.
Everything else is expendable.
In the past year, I’ve blown off two family vacations, burned several relationships, and missed out on any number of social events to maintain a singular focus on Woden. Those sacrifices bear fruit: while my family was on vacation in Europe, Woden closed its biggest client. That would not have happened had I left. The trade-offs are painful, but they are necessary.
Everything in your life needs to fit around your commitment to your business. Most people will not understand this, and question your decision. Ignore the haters, and stay focused on what matters.
Love what you do.
I literally dream about clients and opportunities. Woden is a 24/7 commitment for me: this blog post was outlined in the shower this morning, and I wrote the outline on my phone while I brushed my teeth. Since I find this kind of work stimulating and exciting, it doesn’t bother me. I think about work constantly not because I have to, but because I want to.
Since there’s almost no space in your head for anything else, you better love what you do. Start your business doing something you would do for free. If you don’t love your work that much, you’re dooming yourself to misery.
I’m lucky to say I do love what I do. The past 18 months have been incredibly trying at times. But nothing trumps the feeling of seeing a client succeed because of your work, or winning new business because people trust you enough to help them grow. It’s an obligation that the entire Woden team takes seriously, and its what drives us to do great work for our clients every day.
Woden changes each and every day. We work across all verticals, so we’re always thinking about different audiences, different messaging, and how to tell stories that resonate with people across all walks of life. Being creative keeps us going, and the opportunity we have to channel that in a way that makes other successful is a blessing.
Our whole team is excited that we have made it this far, and grateful to the clients who took us here. We’re also ready for the next chapter in our story: to keep growing, keep adding to our team, and continue telling the stories of more great brands.