Founder Journey: 2018

Bizly’s founder and CEO, Ron Shah, a former VC and on-air contributor for CNBC, on the big lessons he’s learned growing the New York-based enterprise software company in 2018.

It took us over two years. Like most startups, we were wading through the ocean trying to find our way. We had a few occasional moments of quiet before getting face whipped by another wave. Alas, this is the life we signed up for. Despite all the drowning conditions, our mission never changed: help companies get people together IRL. Make it easy, fun, and measurable. The tactics to achieve this mission changed several times till we found our way. It started with a marketplace, turned into enterprise software, and finally, to measuring in-person experiences. We cracked it in 2018. We transacted millions in volume, signed multi-year agreements with household brands, and actually delivered on the talk. We truly walked the walk. Customers were thrilled, we heard from delighted users, and we grew. What a feeling! But there were so many hard moments too.

These are some of the lessons I learned while steering the ship this year:

  1. Discipline is more important than vision. I spent my few years as a founder chasing vision. It was all about getting our vision out there and reeling in whatever we could. As we’ve moved into the mode of building an organization, we’ve found the most success from maintaining a well-nurtured process. Weekly department check-ins, regular 1:1s, monthly updates with investors, customers, and the community. Keep watering the plant consistently, and it will grow. Leading with emotion leads to inconsistent performance.
  2. You don’t sell “things”, you sell the way you make people feel. The art of building a great product is about delivering emotion. The way you deliver that emotion relies on narrative as much as the product you put in customers’ hands. Voices from your community and customers put a megaphone on what you’ve created. Don’t believe anyone who thinks “all that matters is building a great product”. To be wildly successful, you need to create a movement. Movements start with feelings.
  3. Pattern matching doesn’t make greatness. Let’s get it straight, VCs must be focused on “pattern matching” (i.e. comparing something or someone new with a past success). Pattern matching is the “investment model” that VCs sell to their investors to raise their funds. Don’t lose heart. The reality is that the biggest successes in the world didn’t follow a pattern, and also didn’t rely on VCs. See also: Salesforce, Amazon, Apple, the list goes on. Do yourself a favor, follow your own path. Yes, do your homework, study other case studies, but dare to be yourself. Once you do that, the capital you need to succeed will present itself to you. You won’t have to chase it.
  4. Hiring great people is about looking past yourself. Same as above. Without a solid data model, you end up pattern matching on hiring as well. You’ll recruit people who you like, and who resemble you. Or in bigger organizations, you’ll hire on worse factors like popularity and “groupthink”. One tactic we’ve implemented is an unbiased personality assessment. It has helped us find people we need to fill gaps in our team culture. Do you need more detail-oriented people to supplement your visionaries? Or more patience to offset type-As? These are the questions you must ask to build a great team. It won’t be obvious in a standard interview process.
  5. You’ll only regret waiting too long. You’ll never regret eliminating the person who is hurting your organization or pulling the trigger on something difficult you know you need to do. You will never be able to align the cards. Since there is no perfect time, it might as well be now. The measure of success is often your tolerance for having difficult conversations.
  6. In the enterprise — if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t matter. Measurement has driven nearly all the shift in enterprise dollars over the last few decades. The more sophisticated and affirming the measurement, the more dollars the tactic can attract. Putting robust measures on advertising led to the rise of Google and Facebook. Measuring customer pipelines led to Salesforce. The frontier we’re most interested in at Bizly is measuring the power of in-person gatherings. Businesses intrinsically know they need get their teams, customers, and communities together, but they’ve never been able to measure the impact of those gatherings. Until now, with Bizly. Not only is this the focus of our business model, but also is our guiding light within every aspect of our business. The better we get about measurement, the better each department or function has performed.
  7. Leadership is compassion. The definition of a tech startup is “building to grow faster”. The velocity factor adds intensity for everyone involved. Within all this pressure and speed, your team needs soulful nurturing to bring out their best. One idea that is particularly important is taking a “whole life” approach to enriching your team’s lives. Being truly supportive means spending the time to understand the motivations, dreams, and emotional fabric of each of your team members. Especially at the earliest stage, this alignment means everything. The transformation for many early stage CEOs is growing from wanting to be killer in the field like Michael Jordan to wanting becoming a spirtual guru for the whole team, like Phil Jackson.
  8. Your own self-care is one of investments your company needs most. Yes, Elon Musk is right, no one changed the world on 40 hours a week. But there is an upper limit too. After 60 hours, it becomes laws of diminishing returns. Disconnecting yourself from the people you love, not doing the things you love to do, forgetting the true youthful you: these are all aspects of yourself that your company needs. You came up with your company based on those elements, and you will succeed by staying in touch with them, too. For me, every time I escaped and took a real break, or took a real vacation, is when I allowed unique insights to seep in. Those were the breakthrough moments for me in 2018.