5 Startup Lessons From Our First 5 Years



Five years ago my brother and I sent in our papers and officially “brofounded” our digital marketing firm 9 Clouds. Today our business has grown from two dudes in an empty office to a team of 20 amazing employees working to change the world. Along the way we’ve learned five important lessons that you can use.

  1. Just Start

My brother and I were home for the Easter holiday in 2009 and started brainstorming ideas. We originally wanted to create an online newspaper that would train students on effective digital marketing. That didn’t go so well, but it doesn’t matter. We had to start somewhere.

The biggest mistake we make as creators is waiting for the perfect conditions. The truth is, it is never the right time. Having the confidence to take a leap and start is the most important skill we have in this networked age. Find the quickest way to test your idea. It won’t be right, it won’t be what you do five years later, but it will inform everything you do in the future. We’ve tried and tested many business models, services and ideas the past five years, from taking photos at a local bar to speaking at the National Stationary Show about Pinterest. Thankfully, we’ve learned from all our experiences, which has helped us grow our digital marketing and infographic design businesses as well as know how to hire, inspire and manage a business. Don’t wait for perfect — create.

  1. Attract and Reward Supporters

Days after starting our business, we received a call from our first supporters. They wanted us to come fix their hard drive. I had no idea how to fix hard drives and that was not a service 9 Clouds provided, but we were so excited to receive a call that we took the job. These early customers are still some of our biggest supporters. We see them at conferences, around town and on our email list.

We all have supporters. It starts with family and friends, then early adopters who share your mission or are excited about your vision. Attracting these supporters is important. The encouragement they provide is essential when starting your business. As soon as possible, create content for these supporters and offer them a way to sign up to receive updates. If you start building your list of supporters early, they will be there when you’re ready for your business’ call to arms. Find your supporters and thank them for always being there for you. They are the foundation of your long-term success.

  1. Identify Your Mission

From the very beginning we knew we wanted to improve digital literacy in our home of South Dakota. This idea is central to everything we do including hiring employees, attracting supporters and signing up clients. As consumers, we have access to any service or product anywhere in the world. What’s more, we can have it delivered to our door in two days. Why would anyone work with you? The answer is your mission. If people believe what you believe, they will work with you. Then of course you need to back it up with a great product, service and support.

Even with an amazing product or service, people want to know your story. We started 9 Clouds when we saw our mom take the phone book down from the shelf to order pizza. If she was still using the phone book, think of all the other people who could use our help. You have your own origin story and your own purpose. Find it, own it, and use it.

  1. Create Actively, Not Passively

Opportunities always appear for a business. The marketplace may evolve, employees with different skills come and go and people suggest new business partnerships. Just focus on actively creating your business. Early on my “brofounder” John and I would have regular strategy sessions to decide what we wanted to build. This was really hard for us, as we both love helping people and eventually saying no to someone who needed their hard drive fixed was incredibly difficult. Saying yes to one person means saying no to everyone else. It took us a long time to figure this out. A huge turning point came when we decided to break off our design branch to start the infographic design company, Lemonly. It meant saying no to 99 percent of the opportunities that came our way and focusing on an incredibly specific service offering. This laser focus helped Lemonly grow to 15+ employees working with companies ranging from Marriott Hotels to Major League Baseball. When you actively create your business you find success. If you only take the opportunities that present themselves, you end up bobbing around like a rubber duck in the bathtub.

  1. Build for Legacy

In the early days, we spent way too much time reading Mashable and Tech Crunch. The idea of the million-dollar exit was intoxicating. If only we could think of the perfect idea that we could sell for millions, then we would be successful. Along the way we realized legacy is the true measure of success. Creating a business that evolves and fulfills a mission is incredibly difficult and rewarding. With a one-hit wonder, you provide a flash of success and then disappear. A community remembers the value one creates and gives over a lifetime. So at some point, we accepted legacy as a benchmark for success. With this framework, decisions for the business completely change. We are not hunting for the one client who will help us make it big, we are looking for long-term relationships. When we hire, we are not looking for one rock star employee, we are building a team that shares our values and mission. We are in this for the long haul, and we couldn’t be more excited.

Five Years Is Just the Beginning

The past five years have been a dream come true. We have worked with amazing businesses, shared our thoughts with inspiring readers and learned from intelligent mentors. After five years, we know it is only the beginning. We are excited to see what we can create in the next five years. If you start up, attract supporters, identify a mission, create actively and build a legacy, you too will create amazing results.

The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, YEC recently launched StartupCollective, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses.

Image credit: CC by Shane Gorski

About the author: Scott Meyer

Scott Meyer is the “brofounder” (co-founder and brother) of 9 Clouds, a digital marketing and education firm that improves the digital literacy of businesses. He writes and hosts the Digital Homesteading blog and podcast focusing on growing rural business and community and is the author of “Navigating Social Media: A Field Guide.”

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