Why do people start a business? For many, it’s the simple pursuit of being their own boss–calling all the shots, all the time. For others, it’s the entrepreneurial journey of launching a company, while creating a product or service they are truly passionate about. Yet, some are in it for the financial gain.
Considering my background in professional athletics, I didn’t take the most traditional path in becoming an entrepreneur. I once spent my days on the ski slopes and the football field. Now I run customer acquisitions at a startup.
Regardless of their journey to CEO, company founders tend to be passionate about solving problems they encounter in their career. This is the reason I left my customer acquisition job to start a company to solve my biggest pain point: the arduous and manual demand-generation process. Our time and resources were wasted, creating a problem not only for me, but also for the rest of the marketing community with no existing solution. I took this challenge on personally, founding a company Integrate to help marketers automate their demand-generation efforts.
We are making excellent progress five years later. I’d like to share four key lessons I learned along the way. Entrepreneurs taking on disruptive challenges, take note:
One of our five main cultural pillars at Integrate includes an entrepreneurial spirit. I subscribe to the notion of surrounding yourself with people who aren’t afraid to take big risks.
A startup is like jumping out of a plane and assembling the parachute on the way down. It’s like the famous Facebook quote: “Done is better than perfect.” If you haven’t developed pattern recognition, then it’s best to join a company prior to starting your own.
When I was in the NFL, I took part in a program that allowed me to take classes at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business. At the time, I wanted to start a vacation rental website–think Kayak meets Vacation Rental By Owners (VRBO). My real estate professor, Peter Linneman, gave me great advice: “Jeremy, before you start your own company, go lose someone else’s money first.”
What he meant was that I had spent my entire life focused on becoming a better athlete. I needed to develop my business acumen at a company prior to starting my own. Instead of starting my website, I decided to join a startup called MDinfo where I first gained exposure to customer-generation marketing. This role allowed me to start a business based on a challenge that I experienced, not something that sounded like a good idea.
A common mistake I see founders make is they start a company with their close friend because they like the idea of building a company together. You want to find a cofounder that complements your blind spots as an operator. In my case, I found a tech savvy cofounder. While I was out in the market getting feedback on our product, he was in the office making sure it was properly built.
It’s also important to put more weight on culture than competency while building your team. Although a great culture won’t ensure a great business, it will help your team fight above its weight class. Hard work beats talent when talent doesn’t work hard. Seek out people who have a founder’s mentality. It is critical to build a team that’s dedicated like you are to changing an industry.
As much as entrepreneurs–myself included–would like to maintain the company’s original mission, it’s rarely realistic. Market needs shift, industry trends come and go, and the focus of a company will change. It’s important to have an open mind.
Maintain true to your core values, but don’t be afraid to be flexible with your vision and evolve it. The most successful businesses are able to foresee market needs, and determine how to shift focus accordingly to best serve customers.
We hear the term corporate culture a lot. It’s not just a buzzword; it’s more than casual dress code and a couple of fun work outings. Write down four or five cultural traits that you respect the most and inject them into your DNA from day one. My days in the NFL taught me the culture you instill in the locker room is sometimes the difference between losing in the first round of the playoffs and going on to win the Super Bowl.
The same is true for a company. An atmosphere of unity with shared core values contributes to a happy, cohesive, and successful workforce. This is something I wish I had focused on earlier when launching the business.
I have learned it’s easy to surround yourself with like-minded people, and this creates a level of comfort. However, working with people with differing viewpoints and ideas makes for a more stimulating corporate culture. I like to keep an open mind to new ideas and welcome them. The most effective collaboration comes from working with smart people from various backgrounds.
Jeremy Bloom is the CEO and cofounder of marketing software company Integrate.