James Berdigans Of Printify: Five Things I Wish Someone Told Me When I First Launched My Business or Startup
An Interview With Doug Noll
Never Give up — grit and perseverance is the most important aspect. This is not a sprint but a marathon. It takes on average 10 years to build a really large company. In the early days there were a bunch of times that I was looking at a balance sheet that meant I wasn’t sure how we were going to pay our people. You will likely encounter something similar. The line between success and failure is slim, which means you can reach success if you really refuse to give up.
Taking the risk to start a company is a feat few are fully equipped for. Any business owner knows that the first few years in business are anything but glamorous. Building a successful business takes time, lessons learned, and most importantly, enormous growth as a business owner. What works and what doesn’t when one starts a new business? What are the valuable lessons learned from the “University of Adversity”? As part of this interview series, I had the pleasure of interviewing James Berdigans.
James Berdigans is the co-founder and CEO of Printify, which was created to give anyone anywhere the chance to sell custom products online without the risks of holding large amounts of inventory. So far, 4 million people have signed up to customize products from the 850+ in Printify’s catalog, all of which are made to order and shipped around the world. With investment from Richard Branson, H+M Group, Index, and other top entrepreneurs, Printify has grown explosively and is now the most famous name in the print-on-demand industry.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
I was never going to do anything other than be a CEO, my parents owned a business for as long as I can remember. They were always so happy, so building my own business always seemed the way to go. I have been entrepreneurial, running various money making schemes since my childhood.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
The first two years at Printify were full of struggle. We were always running out of money, which isn’t great when you’re CEO and your more technically minded co-founders are looking at you to keep the lights on. That explosive rocket ship growth you see in movies like the Social Network? Yeah, that wasn’t us. We had to build and then rebuild many things, and every time, it was the first time any of us had built anything. We made so many, many mistakes. Of course we learned a lot, but every new piece of knowledge was acquired quite painfully.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
Yes, I was a kid that ran a bunch of entrepreneurial schemes, but that doesn’t mean that I didn’t encounter quite a few unpleasant experiences, financially. These times left me with a real fear and distaste for failure. And with Printify in those early days, it was this fear that really drove me to keep going. By the time I started Printify, I’d had more than one complete failure, businesses that had got going, had traction, and then disappeared. I think a lot of my motivation was not allowing that to happen again.
So, how are things going today? How did grit and resilience lead to your eventual success?
I love that word, grit. For me, grit is the most important quality any entrepreneur can have. There’s no such thing as a simple entrepreneurial journey. No great business was plain sailing from day one. There will always be a host of challenges and difficulties. The key to succeeding is not giving up when you’re facing down adversity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
Hmmmm, can’t recall.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I’m really proud of our company culture. Tony Hsieh’s great book, Delivering Happiness is a story all about someone creating a space where they look forward to going to work. And it makes me so happy when I hear from our team that they are having their best working experience of their careers. We’ve worked hard on our values like great team work, having this atmosphere and culture in your company can drive you to achieve things you never thought possible.
Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?
You have to know now that the first years in a company are going to be hard work. There is no way around it. You will have to put in an enormous amount. Especially if you are doing it for the first time and you have so many things to learn. I can sit here and tell you to balance the workload, look for people who can take the load, find yourself smart counsel that can help you learn faster, but coming to terms mentally with the fact that this is going to take a lot out of you from the beginning is really important.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Every particular person. Really, any success I have is due to a large group of people. And I’m grateful to every single one of them. It’s a cliche, but you’re only as good as your team. Even the CEO can’t do anything without the right people in the place. My job is to give those people the environment to succeed, it’s absolutely not to do it for them, or show them the way, but to set up a place, culture, and set of values that empowers and motivates them to do amazing things.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I have been slower to do this than I intended. But I can say that I just recently founded a charity foundation with a plan to give back more to the country I was born in- Latvia. I want to help give more young people growing up in this tiny country the chance to have the amazing entrepreneurial journey that I’ve lived.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first launched my business” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
1) You’re in for an emotional rollercoaster — no one tells you that you’re about to go through some really emotional ups and downs, and ups and downs. For us, as first time founders in the early day, the ups and downs were directly linked to our cash reserves. You felt good on the days when you raised money or a payment came in, then you slowly felt worse until the next time the cash went up. During this time, we switched our business model to a marketplace — it was a great decision as it allowed us to grow incredibly fast with very little funding, but the journey to create that platform was hard, it took us 4x the amount of time we expected. This great payoff came with a hard journey to get there — being a business founder is a lot of that.
2) Delegate and empower as much as you can. A good CEO doesn’t have everyone reporting to them. Keep your direct reports to 5 at most. At one point I had 17 direct reports. Don’t do this. I wasn’t able to support any of them. I was letting 17 people down, I was letting myself down. You have to get people you trust to not only take this work away but do it better than you’re able. Your team around you must be smarter at their specialty than you.
3) Hire a top-class team. After I complained about cash, it’s going to seem a contradiction when I say, hire people who are better than you can afford. What they bring you is amazing in terms of structure, knowledge, and output. It’s something I wish I had done sooner.
4) Let people fail on their own; People learn from their own mistakes, not the mistakes their boss had. You need to let people make mistakes and be comfortable with that.
5) Setting clear responsibilities and accountability is very important to go from startup to scaleup. This is a mistake I made in the early days of our growth. I didn’t start with setting clear expectations. As a result, I was always looking over the shoulder of my direct reports, and they obviously felt like I was micromanaging them. — not a position either of you want to be in.
And my bonus sixth one:
6) Never Give up — grit and perseverance is the most important aspect. This is not a sprint but a marathon. It takes on average 10 years to build a really large company. In the early days there were a bunch of times that I was looking at a balance sheet that meant I wasn’t sure how we were going to pay our people. You will likely encounter something similar. The line between success and failure is slim, which means you can reach success if you really refuse to give up.
Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Get yourself someone to go on the rollercoaster with you. A lot has been said about co-founders and the work that you have to do in order to stay close knit as a founder team. But I don’t think enough is spoken about how if you get that relationship right, you have someone to sit next to you through the ups and downs. That support and empathy is invaluable, particularly mentally. If you’re staring down the barrel of adversity, it feels much better to have someone standing next to you — also it doubles your chances of getting out of that situation. I was lucky, I had two amazing co-founders, not just in terms of their abilities, but as human beings. They’re not with us in the day to day, but I still talk to them every week.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
Giving other people the chance to build their own businesses, to call the shots, no matter how they started life, this is the gift I want to give people. Too often, entrepreneurship is perceived as something for Harvard graduates or MBA students, but there are entrepreneurs all over society. It’s a wonderful way of life, and one that I want as many people to experience as possible.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!
About the Interviewer: Douglas E. Noll, JD, MA was born nearly blind, crippled with club feet, partially deaf, and left-handed. He overcame all of these obstacles to become a successful civil trial lawyer. In 2000, he abandoned his law practice to become a peacemaker. His calling is to serve humanity, and he executes his calling at many levels. He is an award-winning author, teacher, and trainer. He is a highly experienced mediator. Doug’s work carries him from international work to helping people resolve deep interpersonal and ideological conflicts. Doug teaches his innovative de-escalation skill that calms any angry person in 90 seconds or less. With Laurel Kaufer, Doug founded Prison of Peace in 2009. The Prison of Peace project trains life and long terms incarcerated people to be powerful peacemakers and mediators. He has been deeply moved by inmates who have learned and applied deep, empathic listening skills, leadership skills, and problem-solving skills to reduce violence in their prison communities. Their dedication to learning, improving, and serving their communities motivates him to expand the principles of Prison of Peace so that every human wanting to learn the skills of peace may do so. Doug’s awards include California Lawyer Magazine Lawyer of the Year, Best Lawyers in America Lawyer of the Year, Purpose Prize Fellow, International Academy of Mediators Syd Leezak Award of Excellence, National Academy of Distinguished Neutrals Neutral of the Year. His four books have won a number of awards and commendations. Doug’s podcast, Listen With Leaders, is now accepting guests. Click on this link to learn more and apply.