A Young Entrepreneur Asked Me For Advice.
So I shared the following with him and then decided to post it here.
Learn From My Startup Mistakes
I founded DeskElf in 2009 with an amazing guy named Nadav Reis. We were ambitious and driven and jumped right into what was a wild ride, up through 2013. We enjoyed building a team of 12 Elves, some full-time, others part-time, doing work for various startups and organizations. In 2013 I decided to transition into the SaaS world, Nadav later joined an amazing startup called InVision and we slowly shut down the company. Until recently, DeskElf.com remained online, and we would sometimes get emails from people asking us if we could help them out. I set an auto-responder to direct them towards various freelancers, but for some unknown reason never bothered to take the site down.
Last week, Nadav and I discussed finally taking down the site. I started designing a “Thanks & Goodbye” landing page and was ready to put it up. During the design process I got an email from a young entrepreneur asking if I wanted to chat about a potential partnship between DeskElf and his new company. I laughed at the irony, and told him about what was going on. He responded with a simple question: would I be willing to share any of my DeskElf experience with him? Sharing experiences isn't new to me, I do it all the time on my blog, but there was something that felt different about this time. I spoke to him a bit about DeskElf’s history, some mistakes I think I made along the way, as well as some of the glory moments. He thanked me for my response and asked one more question: Is there anything I would tell him to do or not do? Here is my response, which I’m copying here on Medium because I feel like it can benefit others as well:
- As a business owner, remember that culture is key. Read “Delivering Happiness” by Tony Hsieh if you have not already. He figured out that nobody can stay passionate about selling shoes, but everyone can be excited about coming to work, and with that he built Zappos. Not everyone is going to stay passionate about your business, but you can create an environment where everyone loves working with you. When everyone is passionate, it spills over to your customers and vendors and creates a tribe. (By way of example, when I ran DeskElf, I never had anyone quit. Everyone was friendly and we all had a good time, even during the stressful periods. Some time ago, I did some in-house work for a company, over the course of a little over a year. During that time the company had an extremely high turnover rate. Recently an employee there told me that they now have to work extra hours three weekends a month, but their pay and benefits did not go up. They’re bitter. The executives there are passionate, but the employees are all on their way out the door. DeskElf had a company culture, this other place did not.)
- In your marketing efforts, remember to be as helpful as possible. When you broadcast your product or service, you’re advertising yourself. But we’ve all trained ourselves to ignore ads. When you add value to a community, you’re noticed. Remember the difference between sales and marketing, especially when you engage on social media.
- Spread out your marketing efforts, intelligently. You’ll have many stories to tell, don’t try to tell them all at once. You’ll be able to hit the press when you raise funds, you’ll get to hit various communities with ways to make their lives better. You’ll hit the entrepreneurial community with your own stories as you build your business. You’ll have a lot of content to share through a lot of venues. At DeskElf we got a mention on Fox News and we thought we were big stuff. It was meaningless in the long run. A big media boost is fun for a couple of days, but constant media turns your business into a household name. Always have a story to tell.
- Offer transparency as much as you can. It builds trust and will help you keep yourself in check.
- Always, always, pay it forward.
- Take everything you hear with a grain of salt, but always take it to heart. I ignored great advice, but I also listened to lousy advice. Why would you take advice from me? Should you?
- 90% of startups fail, last time I checked. If this is your first run, it supposedly has a higher percentage of failure, but that doesn’t mean you won’t make it succeed. You live in an era where you have access to more information than anyone before you, you can learn from so many people and so many experiences. If it succeeds or if it fails, it will be the best educational experience of your life. So embrace it and put in your best.
This is just the tip of the iceberg, but it’s what I was able to come up with off the top of my head. Let me know what you would add. I’m always eager to learn new things.