Jumpstart Foundry alum, Matthew Sniff, shares his lessons learned about running a business in this guest post. Sniff is CEO and Founder of Photorankr, the ultimate social network, marketplace, and portfolio solution for photographers.
“This isn’t going to exactly be like finishing that history paper the night before it’s due. You have to understand what starting a business takes.” I still remember those words during my initial interview with Vic Gatto more than a year ago when our team of all [undergraduate] students was competing for admission into the second Jumpstart Foundry class. If I had known back then what I was getting myself into, I should have quit on the spot. The next few months, and especially the year following it, would prove to test my relationships, my perseverance, and my sanity.
First, though, I’d like to step back and give you some perspective into how I got myself into this situation. Coming from a blue-collar family in rural Ohio, I grew up with 6 siblings (including myself and two others who were also involved in the company). I was never into startups, or even knew what a startup was, until high school came around. Most of my childhood was spent close at home with my brothers and sisters. We would spend our time doing things outdoors – fishing, skiing, gardening, and even raising goats and ducks. As the youngest in the family, by the time I got to be in high school, everyone but my twin sister had left the house for college. Then, as a sophomore in high school, we moved away from our childhood home to another small town in North Carolina (yes, this article is still about starting a dorm room company).
I just so happened to be running my first company (whether I knew it or not)
It is at this point in my life where I really began to get curious (and bored). At the time, my dad worked for an international vinyl flooring company. I decided that he needed a better way to really pitch the product to his clients so I took the product (vinyl flooring samples), cut it up into small squares, glued it to a piece of sanded plywood, and put an advertising sticker on it. He loved it. After taking the “custom vinyl boards” (as I called them) on a few sales trips with him, he showed corporate at their next meeting and they ordered 5,000 of them at $5 per board the very same day. I was 15 years old messing around with a table saw and some flooring glue in my dad’s garage – and I just so happened to be running my first company (whether I knew it or not).
Over the next two years, CVB would end up profiting nearly 6 figures off of a steady stream of purchase orders from clients in both the US and Canada. However, college was right around the corner and the business wasn’t scalable past my dad’s garage (or the few clients I had collected). Feeling bored between the high school and college gap (again), I took a stab at creating a couple of iPhone apps (my first experience in programming) from scratch. Having no idea what I was doing, I somehow pumped out two apps. The first was a parody soundboard of Lebron James (as a Cleveland, Ohio native I couldn’t resist) and the second was a “Snow Day” Calculator. The first was a complete flop, but the Snow Day Calculator (released in winter that same year) somehow rose to top 25 status in the App Store. Who would have thought 1,000 middle school kids would pay 99 cents to know if they should do their homework or not? Spurred by this success, I began to think I was either lucky or that I may have a knack for making cool things (or both). So, after the success of the Snow Day Calculator, I decided to take a stab at something I had always loved to do – photography.
Photorankr, the company to what seems I’ve given most of my life to over the past two years, was started back in December of 2011 (yes, in a dorm room). Long story short, in less than two years I was able to go from an 18 year old kid not knowing how to write a line of code, to the CTO of a web company with over a quarter million lines of code (most of which was written in TextEdit), to the CEO of a (profitable) 7,000 person social network with customers in every country on the planet.
Nothing, still nothing, gets me out of bed in the morning like running my own company
From these experiences, of all the things I’ve learned, and of all the ups and downs that I’ve had – nothing, still nothing, gets me out of bed in the morning like running my own company. The creativity, the freedom, and the passion keep me up late and wake me up early. The responsibility, the complaints, and the bugs keep me from getting to class on time. Most of all, though, making a product that people love to use and creating something that helps people live better (and knowing that I was responsible for that) – makes all the sweat, pain, and sacrifice worth it. Now, I’d like to share with you what I wish I had known before getting myself into this mess.
The following are 9 (…sorry if you thought there’d be 10) of the most important things I’ve learned about how to run a successful startup company (between going to classes that is).
1. Learn to take more risks
Without a doubt, as a founder, you will have to take risks. The big questions, as you may assume, is how to mitigate the risk and how to best make decisions when faced with a two-way street. One of the most important skills you can learn when beginning your company is to filter advice. You will receive more advice than you ever thought possible – some of it good, and some of it quite terrible. There is merit in almost every opinion. You must learn to look at advice and criticism from all angles, synthesize the crux of all issues raised, and come away with a decision that puts your company in the best possible situation – one not with minimal risk, but one with the biggest opportunity, paired with the one you believe yourselves able to best execute upon in a relatively short period of time.
2. Find great co-founders
The single-most important thing for success isn’t even the idea itself. It’s who decide to start the idea with. Unfortunately, I hadn’t realized this when first deciding to begin photorankr. Within the first 6 months of the company, we had a falling out with one of the co-founders and within 12 months from that point we had a second falling out with our earliest employee. Both I considered to be two of my closest friends at the time. Although both happened under very different circumstances with very different outcomes, the emotional burden was still there and so was the frustration. Probably the three best things I can remember to take away from these experiences (amongst others) are:
1) Never higher your friends just because they’re your friends
2) Never higher someone without a test run first (have them work with the team for a month or two)
3) Never higher geniuses you can’t get along with. Also never higher the nice guy just because he’s nice. Try to find the middle ground – someone who fits in with the culture of your company and someone who you can train if necessary but also is willing to put in some sweat.
3. Just do it (yes, learn the programming)
As a non-programmer when first founding photorankr (a purely technology based company) I was faced with this fact very early on. I soon realized that I was going to have to be the one to learn the code as we surely didn’t have the resources to hire a development team and the only people who were going to be able to manage the project for an extended time period were ourselves. As an entrepreneur, you shouldn’t let any obstacle stand in your way of getting things done. You shouldn’t let anything stop you from achieving success. Coding was just one of those obstacles you’re going to have to overcome – and trust me, yes, you can learn to code.
4. Don’t underestimate marketing
The most important thing for any business is to evaluate whether or not their business is actually a business. This involves validating your revenue streams, proving your idea can take hold in its respective market, and finding out what your customer acquisition cost and customer lifetime value is. To do this, however, you cannot wait for things to take off on their own with minimal marketing efforts. I cannot stress this fact enough as it is true not only because of what you’re losing out on in terms of number of adopters/customers, but also in terms of foregone compound growth. It is this compounding growth that is essential to growing your company faster than you ever thought possible and validating everything you need to at a much faster frequency. Whatever you don’t put in this week or this month, you won’t see returns on next week or next month. The more time you put in now, the more you will thank yourself over and over and over 3 months from now.
5. Hold a weekly meeting
Without a doubt, team morale and unity are two of the most important things to keep check on while running your company. Without enough of these two essential ingredients, your company is bound to become disconnected, complacent, and the worst of all – satisfied. Above all else, do not ever be satisfied with where you are out. There are always bigger deer to hunt – better partners, bigger clients, a better product, etc. Team morale and unity comes from a common culture, a desire to work for each self’s own interest and the company’s, and a strong leader with ridiculous amounts of perseverance. Nothing keeps a team’s trust, desire, and efforts inline like an optimistic and doubt-less leader – one whom everyone can feel safe, comfortable, and proud to work with and not for. The best way I’ve made this all possible, without a doubt, is by holding a weekly meeting to keep everyone up-to-date, involved, and excited about progress. Show up to meeting with progress every week – hold each other accountable and great things will result.
6. Pivoting is great, but perseverance is key
There is a reason the word “pivot” has become one of the most overused startup buzzwords today. I’ve seen one too many companies pivot because of the new “shiny object” in the room. A few of the pivots that we’ve made were always quantified and always strategic. To quote a fellow Jumpstart alum you certainly don’t want to “beat a dead horse,” but without keeping true to your vision you will never make it as you’ll end up going full circle in the end - or at least pretty close to it (and remember, in the end, it’s not the idea that is the best determinant of your success). Ask yourself if each pivot you’re about to make is inline with the overarching vision of the company.
7. Learn to filter and respond to criticism (Respect takes you places)
Respect every person you take the time to meet with. This comes not only from a rule of courtesy and human kindness, but also from the fact that every opinion constitutes what someone else thinks of what you have. The fact that they are right or wrong (whether you know or not) is irrelevant. Determine whether or not the advice is time-sensitive, look at the criticism from all perspectives (not only just yours and theirs), and then determine whether or not you should act on their advice as a team. Also, remember, the best advice always is to not take too much of it. This should make the point of filtering the advice much more lucid.
8. Never be satisfied
The cause behind every languishing startup is always satisfaction. This may sound funny, but think about the consequences of satisfaction. If you become satisfied with the product you are building, you will fall behind the competition and forget about innovation. The key advantage every startup has over the competition is their ability to move lightning fast, their inherent ingenuity, and their never dying spirit and naivety. Never be satisfied, keep the fire in your belly, and all of these things will follow with success at the end of the road.
9. Don’t be too professional. Have fun.
Probably one of the stupidest ideas as a group of teenage college students attempting to run our first startup was trying to be too professional. This had a number of consequences. The first being the fact that we had significantly hampered our ability to stay creative and get stuff done. By holding more meetings (both business and product oriented), we were just creating more problems, more fights, and more tension. Most of all – none of us enjoyed them. They took far longer than planned every single time and almost always ended up providing less value than desired. Keep it to one meeting a week, keep work fun, and you’ll keep the creativity and passion alive.