Today is the two-year anniversary of StackSocial. Exactly one year ago, I published a blog post that helped me survive the emotional rollercoaster that is being a startup founder. Writing that post forced me to put down on paper some important reminders not only for others, but also for myself. I love writing (and learning), so I’m back for another installment of founder “lessons learned”. Hopefully this year I’ll keep my resolution to write more than once per year! :)
For me, the first full year of business was an all out war. In the trenches with my comrades, day in and day out. There were no days off…no timeouts….it was an all or nothing battle, or so it seemed. My post last year discussed the toll that can take on any human being and ways to best handle it.
This year I want to address how our growth has helped us evolve our focus and mature beyond “survival mode” to “thriving mode”.
Typically, we don’t toot our own horn much around Stack HQ, but Its worth celebrating some of the extraordinary “wins” we’ve had since a year ago. The number of StackSocial customers has grown nearly 4X from 130,000 to over 500,000, our team has grown from 5 full-time employees to 16 full-time employees. Our publisher commerce platform has never been stronger: we have over 25 white-label integrations and our commerce partner roster includes prominent Internet titans such as: AOL, CNET, Gizmodo, LIfehacker, TNW, and others. We completely redesigned our site from the ground up improving every aspect of the user interface and customer experience. Our product inventory on site has never been better — the brands are stronger, the apps/services are more relevant, and the gadgets are more innovative. We’ve captured a lead and uniquely positioned ourselves in the epicenter of the shift to “native commerce” on the web. We’ve listened to our users and we know where 2014 is leading us — mobile, social, and native. I’ve never been more excited about the future of this company and all this was done while raising less than $1 million in seed capital and never spending a dime of it.
And with all that being said, times could never be more volatile. Last year, I discussed how founding a startup is like a rollercoaster; this year I feel a better analogy is to that of a Class 5 whitewater rapid. You are moving forward at a rapid pace in a monstrously powerful river and all you have to steer is a tiny oar. There are huge boulders to the left, right, and just ahead to navigate. Each new moment brings an alarming mixture of awareness and anxiety that makes the hair on your arms stand up.
How could this happen? It can’t be done. I have no f*cking clue what to do.These are all phrases that have been said by many an entrepreneur before. Funny enough, somehow we manage to continue down the rapids and find our way to an exhilarating, demanding, and, yes, enjoyable journey. If year one was about simply getting down the rapids without smashing into a rock, year two was about figuring out how to steer a fleet of rafts down that same rapid.
Here are 4 more lessons I’ve learned this year that helped me navigate:
1. Lesson #1: Its Not Just About Execution Anymore
There are many types of leaders out there. My style is all about execution by example as opposed to visionary by story-telling. It served me well in year one: signing contracts, calling potential partners, raising capital, doing customer support, paying out vendors, designing the product, creating facebook ads…whatever needed to be done. As we grew, I was forced to hire (happily) and that brought new challenges: communicating a vision, cultivating a culture, discovering talent, instilling process, and building a brand.
As you grow, you must leverage your time and be prepared to switch your focus from being “task-oriented” to being “people-oriented”. Its no longer about “getting it done”…now its about building a team that can scale at the same or better efficiency you can. Stop doing - start managing.
2. Lesson #2: Build Something You’re Proud Of
Sounds obvious, but actually my advice for anyone prior to year two - is to just build something (fast) and test it. Don’t waste time building the “perfect” product only to see that there isn’t a viable market.
But, once you’ve ascertained some product/market fit, you have customers and traction - there is nothing more powerful than working on something that you are truly proud of from both a front-end and back-end perspective.
People told us that our product was selling just fine on our old site design (which it was)…and not to focus on anything other than “growth” features. Its certainly sound advice for many, but for us, post re-design we saw an surge in pride of ownership within our team — and its made all the difference in the way both our customers and our employees perceived our product. It wasn’t just the “skin” that had changed — we took the entire team offsite to discuss our values and mission statement and integrated that into a totally “re-branded” company. We get more inbound leads from partners, investors, and potential employees than ever before. Never underestimate the power of great design.
3. Lesson #3: Hire Slow, Fire Fast
Its been said many times before by smarter people than me, but I’m here to reiterate this tried and true advice once again: Hire Slow, Fire Fast.
On the firing front: there is nothing more debilitating, more poisonous to your team’s morale (and culture) than an employee that is not a fit for your organization. The lack of fit could be in the form of an employee who is a “C Level” player, a “non-believer”, or someone’s who’s simply not a team player, etc. Regardless of the reason, you need to cut them out of the organization as soon as you become aware of the reality. One bad apple can affect the morale and efficiency of the entire team.
On the hiring front: we’ve been cautious with hiring, perhaps overly cautious…and every time we jump the gun because “we REALLY need to fill that role” — it seems to backfire in the long run.
Once your culture is “set”, create a consistent hiring process that ensure multiple employees vet each new hire across a wide range of facets including both quantitate and qualitative. Almost every single one of our first 10 hires were through personal referrals of team members — its by far been the best resource to find talent early on. As we’ve grown, we’ve used more recruiters which can be hit or miss…kind of like playing russian roulette — so always go in-house when you can.
4. Lesson #4: Find Your Secret Sauce & Make It Even Better
There’s always at least one (usually more than one) user acquisition channel…one type of customer…one product feature…one unique aspect of your company that sets you apart. Something that your competition wish’s they had or tries to replicate, but you do better than everyone else. Hone in on that.
Do insane amounts of due diligence on why that is….make it a science…then do whatever it takes to make it even better. For us, our publisher platform is the key differentiator in our offering. All of our competitors have either: a) a “destination” flash sales/marketplace site or b) a B2B platform focused on businesses (not consumers)…we have both.
Its been extremely daunting to manage two different stakeholders, two different products and many told us that we would fail if we tried to do both — but instead we’ve found them to be complimentary. The key is that we built them so that they actually feed into one another and have helped us create partnerships and growth that wouldn’t have been possible had we only had one of the other.
But, ultimately, your secret sauce should always your people - at least it is for us. Every time I think about the challenges that lay before us, the audacious goals we’ve set…I wonder how we’re going to make it and then realize its because we have the best f’ing team on the planet. Bar none. We started from humble beginnings and each day, each month we continue to increase our ambitions, our passion, and our will. I am floored by how much this group of individuals puts into our mission each and every day.
If you don’t have that, you won’t get anywhere…so focus on the people.