5 Years in Business – From one Entrepreneur to Another
My baby recently turned 5 years old on September 23rd, 2017. Yes, I’m talking about E2M, which I started 5 years ago with my business partner, Pratik Dholakiya, in a 500 Sq. ft. office with just 3 people.
After half a decade, here we are!
Now, you would assume/hope to read something like:
“Wow! Time flies! It feels like I just started my company yesterday. It’s been an amazing journey. Blah blah blah.”
No. I am not going to say this BS.
Instead, I am going to write the reality, real-experiences, bright side, and dark side of what it means and takes to be get into the business and grow continuously, regardless of the situation. In the end, numbers matter. Situations and feelings don’t.
Along with every experience, I will put one solid actionable takeaway for other business owners who are just starting out, or in the process of starting, or thinking to start soon, and also who are already in the business.
Let’s dive in.
1. Demanding Market is a Path to Growth
We started E2M during a very interesting time. Many SEO agencies were having an extremely hard time retaining their existing clients, not to mention getting new ones onboard. A good deal of them were shutting down their operations altogether. Although the industry landscape looked bleak and intimidating, we were dead-set on getting into the SEO business with a growth plan in place.
Given the circumstances, we decided to dive into the services everyone was looking into at that point in time. As you could have probably guessed, these services revolved around Google Penalty Recovery. We were able to acquire some really good clients in early stages, of which were instrumental in taking our business to the next level.
Later, we kept realizing the demand for these services was sky high and that we jumped into it at the right time. Fast forward to today, and our team as grown from 2 people to over 100 in the last 5 years.
Demand is the fuel that accelerates every invention.
If you’re starting business today, and have a growth-oriented vision, look at the demand in your niche, as well as the total market size. This should be a foundational step in learning how to offer a product/service that can meet demand.
2. Growth Plan
When you’re just starting out, it’s tough to project/envision growth. That’s what had happened with us. When we started back in September 2012, we got a 500 sq. ft. office (having capacity of 10 employees) on rent and started our small operation with just 3 people. We had no idea we would have to move to a bigger office space within just 3 months and break our lease agreement.
But, we always learn from mistakes. Thankfully, underestimating growth is more of a pleasant mistake. We didn’t think we would be able to grow our team to more than 10 people in the first year. We were wrong. We moved from our 500 sq. office to a 1700 sq. office in just 3 months, and grew our team from 3 to 25 within 6 months.
Later in 2013, we were in need of more office space and got another 1000 Sq. office. So in total, by the end of the first year, we grew our team from 3 to 30 and moved from 500 sq. ft. to 2700 sq. ft.
This did come with a good lesson about underestimating growth. Midway through 2014, our team had grown to 40 people and it was getting extremely difficult to manage 2 different offices at two different locations. So, we decided to move into a bigger space and have everyone under one roof.
We recalled our initial mistake of having a small office and decided to move into a bigger space while looking at future growth.
No matter what, there will always be risks when you envision growth and plan things out.
Even though we only had 40 people in July of 2014, we decided to make a HUGE decision and move into a 5000 sq. ft. office – with a capacity of 100. We spent almost $100,000 in just 2 years of starting E2M to make sure we had a state-of-the-art facility to help us retain an existing team while attracting new talent.
Being completely honest, we were definitely a little scared during this time. Initially, we were stepping into the building every day looking at a half-empty office. We were doubting ourselves and praying we didn’t overestimate growth this time. Fortunately, it turned out to be one of the best decisions we have ever made as a part of our growth strategy.
Today, we have a team of over 100 people and have even added another 1700 sq. ft. office back in May of 2016.
Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.
When putting your business plan in place, you shouldn’t ignore projected growth while making any decision about your office space, as well as hiring resources.
3. Team Hierarchy
Your business success depends on how great your team is. It is extremely important that the people you are going to hire will build a company and contribute to a culture. You need to place a VERY high priority on the team building process.
Especially in the initial stage of hiring, you have to be really careful about the people you hire. They should have a clear understanding about your vision and how they can help you achieve that.
Proper hierarchy is extremely important. Though every single hire should be done carefully, filling up the top positions such as Project Manager, Project Leads, and other Sr. level resources are the most important decisions you will make in defining a hierarchy within your company.
In our case, we were lucky to find AWESOME people who have been working with us from the beginning of the company. If the people you hire initially understand your vision, you will not have to get involved later on in the hiring process. They can help you hire more people and build a team around your core values. Essentially, it’s all about trust.
The top-level hierarchy MUST be strong and reliable. This defines your company’s true leadership.
In some cases, you will find that you hired someone and later come to the conclusion that they don’t exactly fit your organization’s goals. When this happens, you shouldn’t second guess yourself and make the smart decision to let that resource go, rather than keeping them around with a hope they will gradually improve. Sometimes things simply do not work out. While every employee will inevitably have growing pains, some things just aren’t meant to be. It’s best to address this as quickly as possible. In the end, it creates a win-win situation for both parties because that employee is spoiling their career in your company if he/she isn’t the right fit. They could be a great asset for someone else.
While letting go will likely involve some shuffling to fill the void, it will make perfect sense in the end.
One of the best hiring standards we have set at E2M is letting unfit talent go as “No contracts/bonds.” This has helped us maintain our best talent and minimize losses.
Organizations I have worked for previously (a lot of companies) force employees to sign a contract/bond to work for them for a certain period of time, of which they cannot leave before that period ends. We didn’t believe in this practice from the beginning. We always let people know during the final hiring round that they can work with us as long as they like. The day you feel that you are not happy working for E2M, let us know and we will part ways. No hard feelings.
The truth is, unless you let go, you cannot move forward.
Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much.
Above all else, you should prioritize the practice of hiring the best talent, as well as building a reliable and strong hierarchy of leadership.
If you’re running OR planning to start a technology business, I wrote an article few months ago which could be helpful in building a successful team – https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/280914
4.Business Communication Etiquette
As I’m sure everyone who sells products or services knows, you MUST put your customer service at the forefront of your efforts.
However, although customer service is very important, I’d like to put more emphasis on why FAST TURNAROUNDS and COMMUNICATION helps you stay on the competitive edge.
Communication is the one thing we have always been really good at and it has significantly helped us close many big accounts, as well as retain a lot of our clients.
Your turnaround has to be super-fast, regardless of if it’s a weekday OR weekend. Period.
At E2M, we typically respond to all the new leads and clients’ requests within 24 hours. However, we try to do better than that. We reply to every single email as soon as we receive it and take proper action to make sure the client gets satisfactory answers and a solution on time (sometimes before). If we don’t, someone else will.
Personally, I check my emails every other minute to make sure that I can respond to clients as quickly as possible.
First impressions are VERY important. Right off the bat, you want to show your prospective clients how quickly you’re willing to do business with them. One of the best responses you can get from a client is:
Thank you so much for getting back to us so quickly. We appreciate!
If you get that, you’re almost half of the way to closing the deal. Of course, it also depends on what you’re proposing to the clients – pricing, expectations, etc. Regardless, quick responses work like magic!
I even respond to my clients on weekends, something I have recently seen a positive impact. Last Friday, I received a new lead and was on call with them for an hour. He requested a proposal and I promised to send him on Saturday. He was overjoyed. He sent email to make a small change Sunday night and I reverted back within just an hour. Here is what he wrote:
Manish…Thanks! Happy to see you responding on a Sunday. I like that.
Will talk this week.
By doing this, we were able to get operations going first thing on Monday without wasting any time in the precious work week. I’m very obsessive about checking emails. Nearly every morning when I wake up, I open my laptop, check emails, and respond before even I brush my teeth 😀
If you’re dealing with clients in different time zones, you have to make sure that you’re on top of emails right away. If you’re not, it can easily result in a 12 to 24-hour delay.
When I was back in India, I usually worked late into the night to cover at least 4-5 business hours from different time zones in the US.
Since I have been in the US for the last 8 months, it’s not a big problem anymore.
I previously mentioned the importance of quick turnarounds when it comes to communicating with new leads and prospects. It is equally important that you maintain the same etiquette for the entirety of the client relationship. This ensures that you retain their business and build long-term relationships.
You’ll never have a product or price advantage again. They can be easily duplicated, but a strong customer service culture can’t be copied.
You MUST make it a point to excel at client communication and place a high value on responding to your clients/customers as quickly as possible, regardless of the situation or time zone. Clients always remember the partners who go out of their way to help.
5. Change, Sacrifices, and Bold and Quick Decisions
There is a dark side of business, of which is rarely heard or discussed.
When you are starting out, or already running a business, be ready to accept change, make quick and bold decisions, and meaningful sacrifices. Honestly, if you’re not ready for that, you shouldn’t be in business. When I started 5 years ago, I never thought I would have to make the huge decision a few years later to move to the US to take my business to the next level.
For me, the decision to move to the US 8 months ago was perhaps the biggest decision I have made in my life. I felt like I was leaving everything behind. It wasn’t an easy change for me and my family to move from one country to another. But, I’m a strong believer in change. My attitude and personality is that of a risk taker. The original thought of moving came to my mind in April 2016. Being that 90% of our clients from the US, would it be wise to open an office there?
In the same moment, I realized the choice was simple: Yes.
At the time, I had no idea how I was going to make it happen. But, I knew there must be a way. Fortunately, I found it. I am very lucky that everything went as planned throughout the long process.
Of course, we faced our fair share of challenges. But we learned a lot – from the moment I made the decision to when my family and I arrived in sunny San Diego.
When you make such big decisions, there will always be a lot of sacrifices. Trust me.
In business, you can enjoy success at one level, OR, make a big change and decide to do something new. These choices dictate the direction you’re taking your business.
The most important decision about your goals is not what you’re willing to do to achieve them, but what you are willing to give up.
Never ignore the fact that changes and bold decisions are going to be a part of your life, and your success will be determined by what you are willing to sacrifice.
6. Expertise and Focused Services
During the first year of E2M, we were highly focused and specialized in selling digital marketing services as core expertise. Later on, we decided to upgrade to a full service agency due to the demand from existing customers about getting their websites and mobile apps done as well.
We were more profitable in the first 2 years than we are today because we were only focusing on selling a particular range of services.
Of course, even though we are a full service today, it’s a huge advantage that we became a one-stop shop for our clients. This way, clients don’t have to juggle different partners to get different types of work done. Also, we have organized our company divisions in a way that each of the founders focus on specific jobs/expertise/range of services to make sure that each of the divisions is our forte.
I’d rather be a big fish in a specialized pond than a little, little fish in a more generalized big pond.
In the early stages of running a business, I would highly recommend narrowing your focus and selling one core expertise, rather than trying to sell everything right away. Once you’ve mastered that area without any doubt, then you can start the process of branching out.
7. Personal Branding/Influencer/Face of the company
As a founder, your personal brand can really help in boosting your overall business branding strategy. This will help in building both reputations quickly and outranking your competition.
During our early days of E2M, we had the option to go after any of the following channels to build our brand and generate leads:
- Email Marketing
- Hiring a sales/business development team and running targeted outreach campaigns.
- Building a personal brand and becoming influencers in the industry to build E2M and nurture leads.
We decided to go with #3. Even though this wasn’t exactly easy, we wanted to do something different.
My business partner, Pratik Dholakiya, has built a very strong personal brand in the last 5 years. This has helped us acquire some big name clients, as well as build E2M as a strong brand in our industry.
Your personal brand is a promise to your clients… a promise of quality, consistency, competency, and reliability.
If you don’t know how to build your personal brand, we can do it for you. Check out https://www.preceptist.com/executive-branding (Preceptist is one of our divisions in which we focus on selling just one thing – You bring the identity. We’ll bring you the audience.
8. Work Culture
Work culture and environment defines your company values and plays an important role throughout growth. It should be never underestimated or taken for granted.
Ultimately, a good work culture helps you retain employees for the long haul.
I am very happy to share that we recognized this from the beginning and instituted these values as an intrinsic part of our company from day one.
Ethical. Transparent. Non-toxic. Liberal. Politics-Free.
As a result, our employee retention rate is over 90%. This is compared to what we have been seeing in the industry with similar companies in our niche.
We still have many people who have been working with us from the earlier days and they have played a vital role in helping us reach this milestone.
It is also important that you identify employees who are not sharing the same values of your company culture. No company is immune to this. We have had to make some hard decisions over the years to fire some people in order to maintain our cultural values.
There’s no magic formula for great company culture. The key is just to treat your staff how you would like to be treated.
I would highly recommend putting in the time and resources to build a solid work environment from the start. Even more, encourage your employees to demonstrate these values every day.
9. Individual Commitment
When you have a big team in a growing business, it is important that each of the team members’ commitment is 100%. Everyone should be focusing their efforts in the same direction towards common goals.
If you do not know the personality of your team members, you are never going to be able to make decisions about how much responsibility you can share with them and the level of commitment they have towards your business goals.
At E2M, we always try to understand the personality and commitment of each resource we hire during the interview process. It is important to do this at a certain time, especially when you are growing and have a big team with different hierarchies.
To better understand each candidate, I created a personality test for each and every employee in my company. I did this about a year ago. I shared this with all my team members and the results have helped me to learn a lot about each individual’s capabilities, thought process, and personality.
If you would like to get an idea about what you should be learning about your employees, here is the test I came up with:
Individual commitment to a group effort–that is what makes a team work, a company work, a society work, a civilization work.
I would highly recommend you conduct this type of personality test to get to know team members on a more in-depth level. This will be instrumental in gauging capabilities and ensuring everyone is 100% committed and working towards achieving the company’s goals.
10. Be the Jack of all Trades
As a founder, you need to have a VERY versatile set of skills. You have to know how to run the business, conduct day-to-day operations, sales, HR, finance, everything.
During our initial days, we didn’t have anyone specifically looking after HR and finance. My business partner and I were taking care of these two departments along with sales, operations, business development, project management, client communication, and everything else required for running and growing a company. When you start a company with limited resources, this is simply a reality. Instead of seeing this as a disadvantage, we saw it as a learning experience.
Later, when we realized we were growing, we were able to hire specific people to manage each division.
In the beginning stages, you will wear many hats. You never really know when you will need to jump into any division.
I still remember the time, in 2015, when we were without HR. Fortunately, this didn’t stop our growth because we knew how HR worked and I played the role of interim HR manager quite well for a while.
Every skill you acquire doubles your odds of success.
There is a myth – “Jack of all trades is a master of none.” I don’t agree. You can still be a master of something while being a Jack of all trades.
You don’t need to run a business with expertise in each and every division of your organization. You just need to be fully aware how things work and how you can keep everything running smoothly.
11. No Scope for Excuses
We all know the vulgar analogy of what excuses compare to…
When you are running a business, you are self-committed. You have no room for excuses.
You have to manage everything, regardless of the situations you run into.
The show must go on. Period.
You’re responsible for your clients as well as your employees. You can’t place blame on either. You have to take it on you.
Excuses either result in losing clients OR employees.
There are only two options: Make Progress OR make excuses.
Mistakes are going to happen. Dwelling on the past gets you nowhere. Instead, focus on the solution and the best way to get there given the current circumstances.
12. Self Motivation
As a business owner/entrepreneur, one of the most important skills you have to learn from the beginning is to be self-motivated.
You will not report to anyone and nobody will appreciate your work. However, you have to be self-motivated in order to keep motivating your team.
For me, the biggest self motivation comes from my team and when we keep getting referrals from our satisfied clients.
As an entrepreneur, you have to push yourself because, no one else is going to do it for you.
13. Controlling Your Personal Emotions
When you are running a business, there is no room for personal emotions. Whatever is happening in your personal life, you cannot take it with you into the workplace.
Starting and running a business means you have to be 100% focused.
Everyone has ups and downs in their personal life. However, these ups and downs need to be limited to the personal life. Once they start carrying over into business, problems are soon to follow.
Regardless of what happens outside of work, you can’t let it distract you from your business goals.
No doubt emotional intelligence is rarer than book smarts, but my experience says it is actually more important in the making of a leader. You just can’t ignore it.
14. Open Feedback and Transparency
When your company is in the midst of rapid growth, as an owner, you need to stay in touch with end-level resources who work under each hierarchy.
Often times, it happens that you cannot fully understand the problems of ground-level and end-level resources unless they interact with you directly.
Sometimes, people do not speak with their manager or superior if something is wrong. This can be in relation to company culture, day-to-day operations, or something that is stopping them from giving 100%.
With this in mind, transparency and strong foundational values can make or break a company.
Hierarchy is great, it helps in organizing teams and getting things done appropriately. But, your end-level resources are the backbone of your company and are the ones who execute the actual work. It’s your responsibility to make sure they are able to reach out to you directly if they would like to.
You should give each resource an opportunity to share ideas/feedback.
Sometimes end-level resources have great ideas, but they limit themselves due to their standing in the company hierarchy.
We were fortunate to learn this early on. We introduced a feedback system where any of our company employees can email us directly if they have any idea, complaint, or feedback.
These emails come to me and my business partner directly and we make sure to respond and take action within 24 hours.
There has to be a willingness to constantly accept critical feedback and rapidly iterate to make things better.
I’d highly recommend you create 3 email addresses of which anyone in the company can send an email. You should have direct access to each and respond as quickly as possible. Something like these:
15. Building a relationship with team
As a business begins to grow, you will quickly learn that you cannot do EVERYTHING or be EVERYWHERE at once. Therefore, much of your ongoing success is a direct result of the team you surround yourself with.
I have always been a firm believer that the aggressive, top-down management style doesn’t lead to good results, not in these times. In terms of working in teams, one of the most interesting phenomena throughout history is a trait found in many respected military leaders. There has been a common mindset that in order for a team to truly respect a leader, the leader must prove they are willing to get in the trenches and fight on the front lines next to their underlings. In other words, don’t have your team members do anything you wouldn’t do yourself.
This is a mentality that has always stuck with me in running a business. Attitudes start at the top and flow downwards. Even though hierarchy exists, building a team mindset should be based on equality and mutual respect. This approach has been instrumental in creating highly-effective divisions that stick around for the long haul. At a certain point, the prospect of going the extra mile to achieve company goals isn’t just for the company itself; employees are putting forth 110% for the people working next to them.
If you will take care of your employees/team, they will take care of your business.
I’d highly recommend you take the necessary steps to build strong relationships with your team/employees. Make it a point to interact with them and get a sense of who they are and how their thought process works. Doing this can be a huge factor in clearing up any pain points that may be holding them back from doing their best work. I know this is a tough task when your company is growing, but the stronger your relationship is the with your team(s), the better results you will see.
Moving on. Getting back to work to do great things in another great year!
P.S. If you would like to share your Entrepreneurship journey and business experience, I’d love to hear in the comment.