18 months ago I accidentally joined a startup. Here’s why I think it’s succeeding.

My interviewer didn’t have any shoes or socks on.

I learned quickly that this wasn’t a pretentious affectation, but rather a fact: Nick genuinely doesn’t like wearing shoes. Or socks.

It was just one of a thousand things which took a little getting used to when I moved from a traditional marketing role into a SaaS startup trying its damnedest to compete.

There’s something in the air at a proper startup

Our brand spanking new office and ping pong table shining in the midday sun.

I’m not talking about those companies still claiming startup-hood in order to appeal to stockholders or inspire ‘innovation’ within their 3500 employees in London, Madrid, New York and San Francisco.

I’m talking about a proper startup. A startup where you come into work at 9:03 am and Shoeless Nick is still under his desk, eyes closed on one of the single mattresses which get pushed against a wall during the day. A startup where, if our mothers knew how many Red Bulls we went through, we’d be pulled home by our earlobes.

These places are where things happen.

Startups are a force of nature. They’re where Jobs screamed at a staff working 70-hour weeks until the Macintosh appeared; where Musk showered at the YMCA and made his girlfriend sleep in the office if she wanted to hang out.

SaaS is probably somewhere in the 37–45% area at the bottom there.

But they’re also scary, don’t get me wrong.

At least 50–60% of them fail in their first four years (and that, honestly, feels like a low estimate to me). And, unfortunately, it’s very rarely because of bad luck or tough competition.

In fact, StatisticBrain’s report says that 46% of startups fail because of “incompetence” (things like a failure to pay correct taxes, lack of experience in record-keeping, emotional pricing, no knowledge of financing, etc) — things which an employee has no control of and can make for a somewhat nervous working environment.

But life is a gamble, and nothing big ever gets done without a little risk.

On August 4th, 2013…

I’d been in the city for a couple months, and the week before had been fired from a place-holder job at a bike repair shop after my boss had (at last) noticed that I knew absolutely nothing about how to repair bikes.

The shoeless interviewer at Wishpond sold me on professional and personal development as well as the desire to “be in at the beginning.”

He sold me, as well, on his own story — that of an aimless young graduate who had found something to believe in and work his ass off to realize. I imagine I sold him on the same thing.

I could go on and on about my own content marketing role; how it fulfills my need to learn alongside my need to be seen doing it. I could talk about my love of merit-based marketing — attracting leads and clients not because you spent the most money on Google Ads, but because someone found value in an article you wrote and learned something they can use in their own business. I could talk about my own growth from a junior content creator to content editor in 15 months.

But I won’t, because (though fascinating) my story is not the reason I’m writing.

No, today I’ve decided to take on the big daddy: What makes my startup succeed where so many have failed?

For those of you itching to shake your head at me and say “James, what the hell can you possibly know about making a startup succeed? You just told us you were a failed bike repairman who joined a startup 18 months ago.”

I say to you the following: For the past 18 months I’ve been working for a successful startup, one with 3.5 million site visitors per month and 100% growth year-on-year. And I’ve been balls-deep (forgive the ludeness of that image) into it, every day.

We’re doing something right, and I think I know what it is.

This next section is information I’ve gleaned from conversations with our founder, our investors, my colleagues and my days (and nights) working at Wishpond.

These are the things that are working for us:

1. We planned in the beginning.

We learned from the mistakes of others:

  • We avoided focusing on mega/temporary trends.
  • We avoided reliance on other, larger platforms.
  • We focused on domain expertise and solving a specific problem.
  • We identified a gap in the market and adapted when that gap closed behind us (twice).

We focused on good people, and are comfortable letting go of bad ones.

We raised enough capital. Angel investors and government grants allowed our founder to focus on product and team development instead of, solely, on pinching pennies. We also moved to reliance on cash flow as soon as possible.

Yet we were also comfortable with spending when it was needed (for instance, on good people), while remaining constantly aware of reducing burn.

We focused on both product and market equally, meaning we didn’t create a product we thought was awesome for a market that didn’t agree, nor a product we hated that the market wanted terribly.

We implemented the lean startup method, in which constant measurement and data-driven strategy frame your ideas, the way you build, and the product you create.

2. We were resilient

Ol’ tattoo face makes a good point. And this is another thing that successful startups have over unsuccessful ones: the ability to weather a storm.

When you first release a new product things will happen that you didn’t expect. There is no doubt of this. Something’s going to come along and punch you in the face.

But, so long as you have a system in place that catches mistakes, good people around you, and are open to change (and late nights), you can weather it.

3. Our CEO sets the bar high.

When our CEO, Ali, is in his office till 11pm the rest of us bear witness, and know he’s working his ass off to grow this thing.

Wishpond’s CEO Ali Tajskandar seen working during daylight hours.

If you show you care every moment of every day, your employees see it, and care as well.

If you expect much from yourself, (and so long as they respect you) the right kind of people will match you, pound for pound.

Startups are different not just in what we do and how we do it, but in what we expect of the people around us.

An unspoken mantra at our startup:

I expect all of us to push the limits of what we’re capable of, whether that’s staying ‘till 10, learning JQuery as homework, or lying in a hammock with our eyes closed all day brainstorming new strategies to monetize the blog. It doesn’t matter.
I simply expect you to care, as I do.

Yet (and I want to emphasize the hell out of this point) it’s not about making your employees work 60 hours a week — it’s about making them want to.

And you don’t do this by creating a work environment of extracurricular laser tag, ping pong and catered lunches — but by making a working environment designed for work that just happens to have extracurricular laser tag, ping pong and catered lunches.

  • Give responsibility before it’s quite due. Put your employees in over their heads, and make them accountable. After all, they said they wanted to grow — give them some room to.
  • Prioritize support of your people. Make communication natural, mistakes (and innovation) encouraged, and work an effort of many hands and minds.
  • Reward successes and failures equally (so long as the failures are educational ones).
  • Delegate as soon as possible, as more responsibility for them, and more time for you, means more is done in the long run.
  • Don’t be afraid to hire people without experience. Attitude and desire to grow can be as important as previous knowledge.

4. We created a working environment that encourages and makes it easy to work.

My CEO could tell you to the cent how much Domino’s delivery costs for 8 pizzas (with tip). He could tell you what a weekly Costco shop runs us when you’re feeding 40 people breakfast, lunch, dinner and Red Bull every day.

He knows, as well, that it’s worth it. He knows that a well-fed group of people pushed towards a common goal is, usually, what ends up changing the world.

Cheers To the Next 18 Months

This article was a look back at the past year and a half of my life. It conjured up memories of foosball tournaments with other startups around Vancouver, drinking from a red cup out of a beaten-up keg. It evoked memories of impossible deadlines we somehow met, work-filled evenings with hair askew, and the bitter taste of too many energy drinks on the tongue.

If you have ever been lucky enough to be part of a successful startup, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and you’ll smile. Because it’s worth smiling about.

Will I guarantee that the company I work for will, because of the things I’ve said above, be the forerunning marketing software for SMB’s in another 18 months?

Yes. Absolutely.

I’m going to make damn sure of it.