Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup. I had the pleasure of interviewing Larry Rubin, Founder and Executive Chairman at Thnks.
Larry has 30 years of media operations, management, M&A and board experience. This includes senior positions at Viacom, IAC and Citibank. He also co-founded and operated the PE-backed Cross MediaWorks family of companies. Larry graduated with a B.A. from Northwestern, M.A. from Columbia and holds a J.D. from the Vanderbilt School of Law.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I previously co-founded and ran the Cross MediaWorks family of companies, a private equity-backed roll-up that pioneered programmatic media sales in the context of an unwired ad network. That business was successfully transacted in 2013 for almost six times invested capital and over a 40% IRR.
More recently I served as a Director for various media and media service businesses, helping to institute operational processes and efficiencies, establish and improve financial controls and reporting, and in some cases prepare the business for sale or financing.
A lawyer by training, my background also includes serving as Senior Vice President, Business Affairs for USA Networks (now IAC) and Vice President, Associate General Counsel Transactions at Viacom in the 1990’s and early 2000's.
Today I am the Founder and Executive Chairman of Thnks. As a Board member and C-Suite Executive with extensive experience in operations management, I focus on positioning enterprises for rapid organic growth and growth through transactions.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
One day I was stuck standing in a closet full of swag, trying to figure out what to send to someone with whom I had just closed a very big deal. I looked around at the pens, the squeezy balls, the sweatshirts and caps … and I realized, quite suddenly, that literally no one wants anything in this closet. No one wants to walk around in my corporate logo. On top of that I wanted to do something meaningful and unique and, most importantly, quickly. So, I went online to try to send something and the vast majority of my choices were gift cards. Being a reformed corporate finance attorney, I knew that employees at fortune 100 companies could not receive cash equivalents.
Shortly after this I formed Thnks.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
I have a long-time mentor whom I owe a great deal. Long ago he warned me that I would never be happy working for other people. But I grew up poor and a stable salary was the holy grail to my parents. Taking risks was not an option. Overcoming that hurdle was extremely difficult for me. One day an idea popped into my head. I spoke with a number of people involved in private equity I knew, and that idea ultimately became a business with $300mm in annual revenue that we later sold at a significant ROI.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are not about gifting. Instead we are about the expression of relationships and the science of relationship building. We do that in the context of highly regulated industries and corporate compliance restrictions
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Having had success in more traditional businesses that provided an economic impact, I have now been able to create a company that creates an impact on relationships and focuses on relationship building. The world needs more kindness and we can all agree that business needs more gratitude. Being able to facilitate the way people appreciate one another and say thanks is something I can go home and feel good about every day.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Perseverance — in my first company we lost our biggest client literally a week after buying the business. Panic set in at first and then the hard work of replacing that income. We did it.
Expect failure — I just think this happens every day. From hiring the wrong person to accepting money from the wrong investor to watching your first dev team crash and burn through all your money. Bad things happen. Expect it.
Ability to inspire others — Have good people join your team who would have other opportunities but choose you because of your vision.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
Sometimes bad advice can sound like the right thing to do. For example, I ended up losing 3x more than I would have on a real estate deal some years ago, because the advice I was given was to ‘finish the project’ rather than end it when the initial investment was burned through too quickly. Sometimes it’s best to cut your losses and fail fast.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
Early in my career, I worked in a law firm for several years regularly putting in 80-hour weeks. I remember waking up under my desk once, not sure when I fell asleep! While there, I did some of their biggest deals including several IPOs in Latin America. The experience I gained was immense and the hard work showed me what I was capable of. But it also showed me that I didn’t want to grind myself to dust with that type of work for the rest of my life — so I changed positions and started working within the legal departments of larger organizations, which then opened up the rest of my opportunities into creating businesses of my own. One door closes, another always opens.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
My parents struggled a lot financially while I was growing up and I knew I didn’t want that for myself and my family. When starting my career I refused to accept failure as an option.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
Find time for family
Find good partners
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- Smart people –Hire people smarter than you are and knowledgeable about things you do not know about
- Patient investors — Have investors who bring value and share the same vision as your company. It’s not just about the money.
- Humility — Know that you will fail before you succeed … ask for help, know that you will be wrong and that you will make mistakes
- Perseverance — Don’t let your mistakes and initial failures overcome your belief in yourself and your mission.
- Culture — As you grow, do everything you can to maintain the original culture you wanted in your company — don’t let information become siloed, or turf battles erupt.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
Don’t exaggerate, over promise, even if you’re building a growth engine keep an eye on profitability. Find a good lawyer and accountant early; build formidable controls and relinquish them sparingly.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
Martial arts — muay thai and Brazilian jujitsu even better, add in some kettlebells.
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. :-)
Feed someone who is hungry.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Michael Jordan or Tom Brady. I am in awe of their complete commitment to success and how they drive the people around them to not accept less for themselves.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!