“Spend 80% of Your Time on Existing Clients, 20% on Prospects. Not the Other Way Around”

5 Startup Tips With Amine Rahal, Founder and CEO, IronMonk Solutions
I had the pleasure of interviewing Amine Rahal, founder and CEO at IronMonk Solutions, a digital marketing agency targeting non-profits, governments and international organizations. Amine and his team have worked for high profile clients such as the United Nations, UNICEF, the UNDP and others. The company has been delivering digital marketing services since 2008, a time where businesses were overlooking social media and SEO and still investing heavily in traditional forms of marketing such as print, TV and radio. Since its inception, IronMonk has helped both large organizations and small businesses across five continents create a strong search and social presence.

What is your “backstory”?

I knew by the age of 6 that I wanted to work in the high tech industry. My mom was a computer science professor so we had a computer at home way before they became mainstream. Coming from a highly educated family, I was the first to decide NOT to go to college, which led to some backlash from both my immediate and extended family. Coming from an immigrant family that puts a lot of value on education, that was expected I guess! I’m sure many entrepreneurs with similar backgrounds can relate to this.

At the age of 11–12 I started learning HTML, CSS and Javascript on my own. Back in the Microsoft Frontpage days! I learned to develop professional websites from scratch by the age of 15, which led me to obtain a job as a web developer two years later at Re/max. Despite that feat, my family still had mixed feelings about my career path as they felt that I was potentially ruining my future by not pursuing higher education like they did. Entrepreneurship was not encouraged. I was basically sailing against the wind, but I couldn’t be more certain of my decision as I knew that I wanted to accumulate some “hands-on” experience for a few years before I could venture out on my own and launch my own company. The path was crispy clear in my head. I knew I was in an “entrepreneurial field” and college was not going to add any benefit. In fact, it would have potentially slowed me down and put me into tens of thousands of dollars in debt.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that occurred to you in the course of your career?

Well, one thing that comes to mind is when the largest TV network in Japan approached me online literally on the first year of launching my company back in 2008, saying that they would like to do a segment on a leading social media marketing agency and they felt like IronMonk fit the bill. They said they wanted to send a couple journalists and a camera crew from Tokyo to film “the inside of our offices and interview our team”. The problem was that the company was a one-man show at that time! I smiled and respectfully declined the offer without mustering the courage to tell them that the company was basically brand new and I was running it from my apartment! Today I tell this story to my clients to illustrate the importance of ranking high on Google. That TV Network had found my company’s website by googling something like “social media agency” and I was ranking on page 1, so they automatically assumed that the agency was a big deal and contacted me right away. SEO was big back then, and today, almost a decade later, ranking high on Google is still one of the most important marketing channels there is, despite the rise of social media, video and mobile advertising. Google still has the lion’s share and businesses should be investing heavily in SEO/SEM!

Are you working on any meaningful non profit projects? How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

Definitely! Giving back is a huge part of our mission and we try to give back several ways:

One thing we do each year is to try and help out a few non-profit organizations through digital marketing. This year for instance, we have helped a Tanzania based environmental organization generate some social media content to promote tree planting across the country. We have also helped a Cancer prevention organization in Lebanon create promotional content on Facebook (infographics, fact sheets) talking about prevention of the leading types of cancer in Lebanon like lung and breast cancer. Also, we are currently developing a website pro bono for a Liberia based youth organization that promotes education, art and technology among the youth and we even set them up to accept bitcoin donations which I’m very happy about. (can’t hide my love for cryptos!)

Besides volunteering our services to non-profits in poor and developing nations, we also give back a small percentage of our profits at the end of each year to various non-profits located here in North America. They are listed on our Giving Back page.

The other we try to give back is to occasionally develop free tools and apps to help make the web a better place. We are currently developing a free web tool and Chrome extension called TruthGuard which will help people flag and spot fake news. You basically install a Chrome extension and it shows you a warning when you are reading a story that has been flagged as fake news by multiple users. We are very excited about this project which is currently in beta testing.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why?

Here they are, in no particular order:

  1. Start networking with like-minded entrepreneurs on day 1. I worked solo for the first couple of years and barely networked. This has led to a slower growth in my opinion because I didn’t have the chance to learn and exchange ideas with like-minded people. There is a powerful concept in life called Social Osmosis. If you want to drastically increase your chances of success, hang out with people that are already where you want to be. Don’t have any money to assist conferences and events? No problem, join local meetup groups.
  2. Work for free for 4–5 clients to build a portfolio and get some positive testimonials. It’ll make your life much easier. I wish somebody told me this before I started because I really struggled to get my first big client despite a ton of money spent in marketing. The lack of positive reviews and testimonials was hurting my company and I didn’t realize it at the time. I think this is something that tons of new entrepreneurs are struggling with right now. People tend to look for paid jobs right away, without realizing the importance of working for free (or at a discount) to build a solid portfolio with tons of positive reviews and testimonials.
  3. Figure out what your strengths and weaknesses are. Fast! When I started out, I wanted to be a “jack of all trades” and be great at everything. The reality is, there is only 24 hours in a day, and the time you’re spending trying to be great at accounting or customer support is not necessarily time well spent as a CEO. Sometimes it’s much better to hire people that are great at what they do and delegate, even if that means lowering your own pay. Time is money. The time you will gain can be spent at improving your services or products, networking and managing your staff to ensure that everyone is efficient and happy with their work.
  4. In the beginning, you should consider hiring interns, not employees. It took me 3 years to hire my first intern and realize that interns are basically just as effective as employees if they are properly guided. In the beginning I always hired paid employees even for junior and administrative positions. In hindsight, I now realize I should have hired interns instead of employees for the first couple of years. I would have saved a lot of money that I could refueled towards marketing or expansion. If you live a in a big city like New York, Chicago, L.A. or Toronto, you will have no problem finding skilled interns given the amount of great universities and colleges in those towns, especially in the summer months. You can even get them for free in certain cases!
  5. Spend 80% of your time on existing clients, 20% on prospects. Not the other way around. I used to spend most of my time chasing new contracts and clients, and very little time following up my existing clients to make sure they were satisfied with our services. This has led to us gaining a lot of new clients every year, but on the flipside it also led to losing a few long term clients because they felt neglected. I realized that we weren’t necessarily making more money this way and we were going to hurt the brand’s reputation if we kept this strategy long term. Plus it’s much more enjoyable when you develop a long term relationship with a client and it becomes more of a friendship. Today we are selective as to who we work with, specifically because we want to work with great clients that are looking for a long term partner. It just makes the relationship more enjoyable on both ends.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might see this, or I might be able to introduce you.

That’s an easy one for me: Elon Musk hands down. This guy is impressive. It seems that everything he touches turns to gold. I wonder if his day has 24 hours like the rest of us! Just like him, I would like to get involved in disrupting and life-changing technologies in the future. Not sure where, how and when, but I know life has a funny way of creating a path when you really want something, so we’ll see…