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The Startup Journey: My Lessons
This time of year brings with it a lot of introspection; emotions are heightened and people become much more sensitized to their environment and the people that surround them.
Everyday my newsfeed contains at least two posts about inspiration and motivation. In many ways it’s helping me validate the road that I’ve chosen to take.
As someone who decided to make the leap into entrepreneurship a few years ago, the journey has been wrought with mixed experiences and emotions. Lately, I’ve taken the time to pause and reflect on..
where I’ve been,
where I’m going,
and why the heck I am going to make it.
Where I’ve been
Many of my close friends know this about me. I work…. a lot. I’m a workaholic. There, I’ve admitted it. In the past, I have denied it, and have tried to justify why I pour my mind, time and energy into my work. My husband can pinpoint the exact day that I changed; it was the day I started talking more about possibilities and how things could work if conceived of differently. I knew the advent of social media would fundamentally change how we observe, measure and predict human behaviour. It was the day I became enamored with figuring things out vs. remaining complacent and unsatisfied with the way they were. I was agitated and clearly frustrated as I internalized this struggle. I was hell bent on trying to fix what was clearly broken.
From that day forward I was different. It impacted my personal life – both as a wife and mother. Balancing the deliverables of my career with the needs of my family has always been a challenge. I continue to struggle with this daily; I am thankful I have a partner who gently reminds me and keeps me honest.
Conceptualizing is Exciting
We’ve all been down this road; the world is our oyster. “Imagine the day when… I am sure there is a way to…. If we could combine this with that, you could….”
I started theorizing and playing with possibilities. My thoughts were all-consuming and sometimes they overwhelmed me to a point where it seemed I’d lost my bearings. It’s an amazing feeling when what you conceive seems nearly within reach. The only thing you think about is making it happen.
Amy Tobin, my partner at ArCompany, has ventured down this path with me many a late night. We dreamt up new ways of doing things… carving out a path for ourselves that made us different and better than what was currently out there. Dreaming is exciting; implementing is twice the work… and twice the charm.
The Hard Lessons
The whirlwind of the last two years has not been without its challenges. Trying to realize your dream means you have to voluntarily go to some pretty dark places.
Getting up in the morning can be tough. There was a time when I had a purpose. A full-time job dictated that for me. I had a place to go. I had a paycheck to earn. That was my external motivator. While the excitement of a new business makes me jump out of bed most mornings, human emotion fluctuates in rhythm with the ebbs and flows of the business momentum. There are days I just want to crawl under a rock and hide from the disappointment. That’s when I muster up the energy to make it through the day and try to find a glimmer of hope. I have friends who have gone through similar experiences; their counsel gives me comfort.
Making mistakes is a good thing. Agility is imperative. This is the only way I’ve learned to be better. When we first conceived of ArCompany we knew that social would inevitably weave its way into the operations of business. As people who’ve lived and thrived in this environment both personally and professionally, we knew that positioning our brand to assist in the transformation would be easy. We were wrong. The market wasn’t ready for us or this social business concept. All of the work we had done to build our value proposition was not taking root. We had to go back to the drawing board and appeal to current market demand. We spent another few months conceptualizing the revised positioning. We decided to focus on the immediate impact of business intelligence and its direct influence on how a company could make better decisions. This seemed to resonate.
Sell your value no matter what. As a new company coming into a market doing something no one else did, our prospective clients expected us to prove our worth. Unless our solutions have been proven, prospects would be reticent to buy…. they wanted a less risky option. If it meant a sale… if it meant building a business case then ‘why not’? We realized that by acquiescing to a lower price we were, in essence, devaluing our service. Once it became clear that what we provided was indeed a valued service, we started fighting to keep the price associated with that value. In many respects, that meant we would need to be willing to walk away from potential clients who didn’t ‘get’ or value what we do.
The customer is not always right. I wrote about this earlier this year. It became clear that it was our job to force our customer to allow us to do our jobs properly so that they could be successful.
When things go wrong, someone needs to be blamed. The client will never take responsibility because they don’t have to. When a deliverable is late to market or when things go awry, this knee-jerk reaction to find the culprit always points the client in one direction: the onus is always on the agency to explain what has happened.
One thing I’ve learned, especially in this nascent space, is that our clients have come to us because we do something no one else does. It is extremely frustrating when our strategy is questioned before we get out of the gate. It is even more frustrating when the client changes things midstream. But once I began having transparent discussions about the client’s anxieties: investor expectations, and management pressures, I began to have full context into their world. And this changed things. The relationship became symbiotic as we worked together to manage those business anxieties and make the client look like a rock star in the process.
You don’t know everything. I had no trouble admitting to this. Becoming a freelancer was a piece of cake, but starting a company was an entirely different beast. It meant looking at the business longer-term and planning for it. Where was the market going? What resources would we require? What specific talents would we need to hire for? How would we scale the business? I’ve been fortunate to lean on a few advisors and a business coach. At least a few times a week, I turn to these trusted sources to provide some sage advice and be brutally honest in the process.
Not knowing everything also means hiring people who are smarter than you. I relish in my conversations with Susan Silver, who continues to impress me with her knowledge of human behaviour and data.
Joe Cardillo is also wise beyond his years. As we grow this company, his steadfast hand to make this company more streamlined, efficient and grown-up has not only changed the way we operate, it’s also made us much more productive.
Plan for scalability or else. Bob Jones, my partner, has used this crazy line that makes me smile every time I hear it:
At some point, the dog is going to catch the bumper of a cement truck
This is a good problem to have, however when the sh** hits the fan and there is no plan in place to resource properly, this will fail… and fail fast. At ArCompany, we’ve always been focused on the one thing that we do best. We’ve also realized there are aspects of our business that are extremely time-consuming and would not allow us to put the necessary resources into our prime offering. We’ve had to forsake revenue to ensure we deliver to client expectations, and it has been an internal struggle at times.
At the end of the day, growth means creating a system that delivers a properly executed end to end solution. Relying on partners who have succeeded in their respective arenas is important. It lends more credibility to the business and creates an engine that will able to accommodate more volume as required.
The things I’m thankful for:
I regrouped with my team last summer. It had been an exhausting and difficult road until that point, but we were able to move the business and gain positive momentum in just over a year. When I think about the successes we’ve had to date: the clients who we’ve had an impact on, and new clients that are coming our way because our approach to solutions is refreshing and different, I am reminded how we got here: Amy Tobin wrote this great post about team chemistry being “absolutely everything” in building a superb team:
We discussed how blessed we are to have a team that has inherent chemistry, but we also created it this way with intent. What’s more, we safeguard this chemistry when we bring on new hires. It is important to us that our team is positive, forward looking and able to be honest with each other. It’s essential that we have a ‘safe place’ to brainstorm and work through ideas. I believe this is the most overlooked element of any team, but we all know: if you love your job, you’ll work harder and longer at it. Loving your team is an essential part of that.
I couldn’t do this all myself. Having the vision is one thing, but executing on that vision means having partners who have bought into the same dream. I am blessed that both partners, Amy and Bob, have shared in that vision and have poured their hearts and souls into making this company great.
Many times, it’s these connections that solidify the team when the going gets tough. Today we are less fearful of what’s around the corner. Today, we are more confident about the value we bring to customers.
We look at new challenges and smile because doing something new and different is what drives us. I don’t fear the statement, “it’s never been done before” because, in reality, that should be a motivator not a stumbling block.
What I promise myself:
Perhaps this is an early New Years Resolution. In reality, these are promises I should make regardless of season.
First and foremost, family comes first. I do work hard but a wise man told me that if I can’t give my kids the same time I give my work, then I have to make sure every second I give to my family counts–quality over quantity.
I will be mindful. One day, Daniel Newman posted about the strength of mindfulness. He said it was something that he ascribed to each and every day. It reminded me of a time when I used to meditate: being present and being aware of everything. There are so many things racing through our minds simultaneously at any given moment. Unless I am truly present – that means not allowing myself to get distracted – I’m unable to neither focus, nor truly understand what the situation calls for. I recently took up this pursuit again to deal with stress, but to allow myself to really be in the moment and give the necessary attention to everything I needed to do. So far, so good.
I will be kind. I admit that my temper has a tendency to fall prey to teenage misdemeanors and I will react with occasional outbursts. This can crossover to my work. But I have to be relentless in nurturing an environment that allows everyone to thrive for the sake the company.
Last, but not least, I will sleep at least 8 hours a night. My friend Ryan Pannell, tells me this,
…it’s the difference between starting out every day with a sizeable lead over everyone else, and starting out jockeying for position with everyone else… Every massively successful person I know is an early riser. Biochemically your brain does not fire as well late at night (that’s a fact).
As I write this, I realize it’s 12:05 AM. Yes, I’m still awake. My mind is churning with a deluge of ideas and things to do this day. But this I know: tomorrow … er in 6 hours (sorry Ryan) I will awake with a view that this day will be better than the last.
CEO at ArCompany
CEO at ArCompany, and a seasoned digital strategist having held management positions for top Ad Agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is also an active blogger/writer for ArCompany, Huffington Post, Digital Journal and WhatsYourTech.ca
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