Prior to this past year, I had never been involved with a startup. Now I am one!
Previously, I had assumed startups were held in orbit by an equal proportion of foosball tables, energy drinks, nap pods, and $200 hoodies. My only experience in Silicon Valley had been a trip to Google’s Mountain View campus, where I saw all of those things (+1 heated toilet seats!). Despite or due to my naïveté, the main thing I had in common with most startup founders was belief in the inevitability of LeadUp’s success. I believed that getting started was the hard part.
While we should have been following blueprints created by the likes of Peter Thiel, Jason Lemkin, Jacco van der Kooij, and others, we followed Eric Cartman’s plan for startup success and got through 50% of it on the first day:
The long game is still bro’ing down, but before I get ahead of myself, let’s start with a quick recap of the last twelve months:
- Patrick and I spent a year going for runs in Piedmont Park and bouncing business ideas off of one another. Eventually our thinking converged when I woke from a fever dream with pages of scrawled numbers and projected close ratios that I presented to him. It was the beginning of a pattern where I would share a very disorganized idea and Patrick would methodically tease out the component parts, go off to his workshop, and reassemble them better than I had imagined. At that point, I very predictably exclaimed “That’s what I’ve been telling you!”
- LeadUp was born in a Bank of America cubicle at approximately 11:43am on July 18th, 2015. They gave us credit cards! Lunch time!
- Patrick and I expensed our first company meal on said credit cards, then immediately remembered we had no product, website, or customers… eek! Our first panic attack!
- Within a week, we had a verbal commitment from our first customer! Now about that product and website…
- By early August, we still had that one customer, but were up to five verbal commitments
- By mid-August we still had one real customer…
- By the end of August, we had five actual ongoing contracts, but with different customers than had previously committed
- In September, we hired our first employee and started renting a table in the middle of a room surrounded by actual offices.
- Over the next three months, we kept adding clients, hiring, and moved into an actual office
- When the holidays came, all of the salespeople went away. Instead of using the break to recharge the batteries, we got anxious and questioned everything! WHY!?!?
- In late February, we restructured our internal team for the first time. To that point we had preached specialization to our clients, but had created a team of generalists. No more! Our internal pod structure was born!
- By late April, a pivot was afoot! Account-based sales was picking up steam in our internal strategy meetings and our ability to deliver better service to existing and new clients became obvious.
- Here we are. LeadUp uses account-based sales process to help its clients attract their best customers. We are growing the number of clients we serve and improving the level of service every day. Thank you!
Below, I’ve listed seven key lessons I’ve learned (in no particular order). I’d like to hear which ones resonate with you the most strongly and which you believe are categorically wrong. Please like with a thumbs up, share, and comment on your experiences below:
1. Starting up is easy
It was quite literally, the easiest thing that Patrick and I have done so far. There was alarmingly little effort required to declare ourselves a company. It felt a bit like when my wife and I left the hospital with our first daughter and no one followed us out. We looked at each other as we walked Lily to the car and were like “so we can just take this thing home with us?”
2. Comcast has a wireless data limit
Who knew right? Tim Ferriss talks about playing movies on a loop out of the corner of his eye while working on a writing deadline late into the night. I didn’t get it until I became thought-leader, salesperson, customer success, and every other role immediately. Working all hours of the day to build something from scratch is lonely. Netflix, Hulu, and HBO… thank you. To my dear friend Jimmy Fallon – I’ve watched every move you make out of the corner of my eye for a year now. And Comcast – I eagerly await your email 5-10 days before the end of every month warning me that I’m over my usage limit.
3. Find a great co-founder to share the journey
I can only speak from my limited experience, but nothing would have happened without Patrick by my side this past year. I’m not an expert in choosing a co-founder, but I can tell you why I think you should search far and wide to find your own Patrick.
Firstly, he is rational. I live for the ups and downs of sales. When you throw the vicissitudes of a startup into the mix (daily metaphorical punches in the face and gut), a company needs at least one level-headed co-founder. Thanks Patrick!
Secondly, he is technical. We have avoided many of the common pitfalls that startups face when a team of co-founders realizes they have too much overlap in skillsets. Neither of us can nor wants to play in the other’s sandbox.
Patrick manages the robots and I manage the humans.
Thirdly, I still ask for his opinion on most things. As much as our skills do not overlap, we provide one another with the necessary sounding board to make decisions and move forward with confidence. We haven’t been right every time, but we’ve pushed each other to think critically about decisions and act with conviction once the decision is made.
Fourth(ly), the guy is a machine. He is consistently productive and creative. Knowing that he is always thinking about a better way to serve our customers pushes our entire team to think similarly.
Going into business with someone shares close parallels to marriage, and several of the same elements, like trust and respect, are predictive of future success (which can be strengthened over time and broken quickly & completely). These core elements have helped us weather all of the stages of startup grief (denial!) and keep high-fiving over wins of all sizes.
4. Be ruthless protecting your creative time
If I had eight hours to chop down a tree, I’d spend six hours sharpening my ax.”_Abraham Lincoln
I wouldn’t have jumped in and started a company if I didn’t have some hustle in me. The challenge, however, is that hustle can inhibit growth if it takes precedence over planning.
When LeadUp started, I had a daily routine that included a minimum of ten hours of prospecting and client inbox management. It was non-negotiable. If I couldn’t commit to that daily assignment, LeadUp had no chance. As a founder, I had a Pavlovian association between our early success and performing those duties. As our team grew and I slowly delegated client responsibilities to new team members, I would occasionally default to those activities because they made me feel productive.
Part of growth as a startup requires that founders let others do what they used to do. Nostalgia, in this case, isn’t useful. Patrick and I wax poetic about “back in the Summer of ‘15” when we were working out of his living room – and our team collectively rolls its eyes.
Knowing where we want to go allows us to ruthlessly prioritize our own time and avoid holding onto tasks that our team capably manages to keep clients happy and successful.
5. Great customers are worth 10X more
Our best customers are collaborative, results-oriented, and fun. We make them money and they refer us friends and colleagues that compound the impact of our work. I’ve listed a few early tip-offs we’ve found consistently true with our best clients:
- They demonstrate they are open-minded through active listening. It seems simple, but we’ve all shown up on a call with a prospect and felt like we were dodging bullets from the outset. This may sound heretical in sales circles, but I don’t enjoy convincing someone why they should work with us. That’s a long road.
- You are educating rather than selling. Our best customers arrived to the earliest discussions seeking understanding. They asked questions like “How does this work?” or “Who would be responsible for that?”
- There is a positive business driver. For us, great conversations begin with explanations like “We’re looking to scale our sales operation” or “I’ve got twenty salespeople who are busy signing deals. I need more deals to sign!”
- The resulting relationships have been much more likely to feel like a partnership, where we contribute directly to their company’s success.
It is critical, especially early on, that a startup commit to finding the right kinds of clients. Early clients inform everything about product, service, pricing, features… everything. Find the ones who are willing to provide feedback and that you can make successful before everything is fully baked. We are lucky to have had a strong cohort from the early days that were successful back then, and we’ve gotten more successful together.
6. Bad customers cost 10X more
Ahhh the pain! There are plenty of opinions on what constitutes a “bad” customer, so rather than inspire a debate, I’ll rattle off a few things that we’ve found are causes for pause:
- They have their own ideas about what your company does or should do – before they’ve asked.
- They spend more on legal fees to amend your SLA than they will be spending on your service
- Inability to stop talking about catastrophic scenarios – “but what if X were to happen?!?!”
- The word “trust” is thrown around repeatedly but is demanded exclusively from you to them
- The phrase “legal protection” is the version that goes from them to you
- They assert that they have tried everything and your solution is a last resort (translation: “We’re going down in flames and we’d like like a new scapegoat.”)
I totally understand legal protection, especially if you do business with small clients who are self-funded (so are we) or have been burned in the past. But it’s a lot like when you date someone: At some point, you should stop talking about your ex if you want the current relationship to work. Let’s plan for success together or date other people!
I’ve been in more situations this past year where I’ve been yelled at by a prospect, checkbook in hand, with whom we had declined to do business. By focusing on our core mission and values, we have avoided these kinds of clients, or cut them off at the pass early enough to avoid the full 10X drain on time and focus, our non-renewable resources.
7. There is work left to be done
This is just the beginning for our team and we believe we are at a tipping point. Sales is both the oldest profession and an exciting field with some of the greatest technological advances taking place before our eyes.
We have a team and process that is built to simultaneously scale and institutionalize thoughtfulness.
We are very proud to be accelerating into our second year with incredible clients and untapped opportunity. Spending this last year without sleep increased our humility and gratefulness to be where we are, and feeds the hubris that helped us start up to begin with. Getting started is easy, pushing through obstacles is hard, and arriving on the other side is incredible. Time to rinse and repeat.