8 things I wish I knew before building a startup

By Grant Deken May 13th, 2019

Lessons learned
Before Spark, I spent five and a half years building one of the world's largest influencer marketing platforms, Grapevine. We were very early to the influencer space. We weren’t the very first but we were pretty close, certainly before the word "influencer" became commonplace. We delivered a solid product and experience for our users. We unlocked millions of dollars of value for a new generation of entrepreneurs, and we helped amazing startups and global brands acquire customers. A year ago we were acquired. Today Grapevine continues to push the boundaries in influencer marketing and carry the mission forward.

I've reflected significantly on what I learned from my time at Grapevine and wanted to share some of those learnings to help other entrepreneurs who are setting out to build their own companies. This is by no means comprehensive, but it covers some of the takeaways I think about most often as I turn my attention forward to a new journey building Spark.

1. Invest in marketing as early as possible

At Grapevine, we found some clever ways to grow, including using our own product to attract tens of thousands of signups, but we missed on the broader brand and community building opportunity in the early days.

Build your marketing machine early. It's not enough to do some marketing here or there. Instead, think about how to build a systematic way of creating a continuous stream of great content and relevant resources. Databox is one company that is doing this very well. Jibran Malek at Grapevine has also done a consistently good job producing unique and interesting content that stands out and attracts new business.

Starting your marketing early also helps you learn and understand what works, and establishes some early marketing discipline so that you don’t end up making bad bets with marketing dollars when you have more cash to play with.

Avoid Hiring fancy PR firms or relying on agencies and expensive consultants or advisors (this does not apply to reasonable freelancers for things like content or design). I have rarely (if ever) seen the value exchange for these engagements work out in my favor. Take the same money and invest it in community building and authoritative content.

2. Set the bar for hiring as high as you possibly can

In the early years, we took shortcuts to hire for roles that needed to be filled, opting for speed over quality. Eric Schmidt was right when he said A players hire A players and B Players higher B and C-level players. Set the bar as high as you can and hold out for the right people. You will know when you find them (and be glad you waited).

Net net, the hiring decisions you make will fuel the next wave of hires that get made by those you've brought in. This is the most effective way to scale the culture you want.

3. Be honest about where things really are

It’s easy to get caught up in the day to day excitement of building things, or to keep pushing towards something while your head is buried in the sand. You’ve got to hold yourself and your team accountable to the reality of where things stand. It’s not always fun but this is essential for course correction and doing everything you can to blaze a path forward in the right direction.

Figure out the three (ish) metrics that really (I mean really) make a difference for your business, and use those as your barometer for how things are really going. Writing down goals is great (you're ahead of a lot of people already) but you have to hold yourself and your team accountable the metrics and drive to the root cause issues that influence those metrics.

4. Don’t put off the hard decisions

This is tied to learning #3. Once you understand your situation and have mapped out your options, it’s typically pretty clear what you have to do. Maybe it’s a pivot, maybe you need to raise more capital, maybe it’s a downsize. Whatever it is, time is not your friend. You have limited amounts of it. I’ve often found that my leverage in a given situation is directly tied to the amount of time I have. The longer I wait, the fewer options I have. Act early.

5. Build relationships with key players (and competitors)

Grapevine was approached a couple of times about being acquired. I remember two pieces of advice from other entrepreneurs who had previously sold their companies. First, don’t get excited. Sure, it’s nice to be wanted, but understand that most deals don’t get done for a litany of reasons. Second, it’s a major distraction away from the things that are important for growing your business. If you’re going to sell your company, the founders need to fully commit. It’s a serious grind.

That being said, you should know the key players in your space and invest in building relationships with them. This goes for competitors too (competitors today, partners tomorrow). You don’t need to be best friends, but you should be able to send them an email and they should know who you are. This can sometimes seem counter-intuitive and even awkward, but it will make things a lot easier down the line as the market changes. You want to be able to pick up the phone and have a conversation when tides shift.

6. Figure out your ethos early

In recent years, more and more people talk about the importance of “why” you do what you do. It’s usually thought of in terms of your positioning to your customers, but the “why” - and what I’m really saying here is your values, credo, ethos, manifesto, or whatever you want to call it - is bigger than just your market positioning. It’s an authentic belief set that explains the rationale behind your decision to do whatever it is you're doing. It’s rooted in something that others will be drawn to. Figure this out early and make sure you communicate it constantly. If you ask founders at growing companies what the hardest part of their business is, I would guess most of them will say something related to building culture. It's not a cop out answer, it's true. People are the most important asset in startups (go back and reread learning #2).

Your ethos will help you hire people who share your values and share in your origin story. This is the single most effective way to scale culture. Yes, I believe culture comes from the top, but it scales with the team. So figure this out early.

7. Stay focused

Distraction is the enemy of progress. Along the way there were a lot of new ideas that we chased which pulled us away from our core mission. Staying focused doesn't mean being unwilling to change course or try things, but it's far better to do one thing really well than to do many things just ok. Especially as a startup with limited resources to get things done. This can be one of the hardest for me as I love to explore ideas. Over time, I've learned to ask myself two questions: a) how does an idea support our core mission and product and b) holding all things constant, can we afford to support this idea indefinitely without pulling from the core business.

8. The journey is more fun than the outcome

I know this sounds like some bullshit founders say once they’ve sold a company, but it’s true. It’s a lot of fun working with amazing people to build a company. At Grapevine, we helped thousands of young entrepreneurs grow their businesses by giving them access to a steady flow of advertising opportunities on our platform. I always thought that was pretty great.

The process of going through being acquired is not a fun one. There's mountains of due diligence, negotiation, and stress, all while ensuring you hit your numbers and keep your team focused. In the end (for me at least), it was more a sense of relief to get back to focusing on the business. If you want to read more about the M&A process let me know. I have been working on a shareable recap of that as well.

The journey continues

These are not even close to comprehensive but they are some of the highlights that I am reflecting on as I start a new journey building Spark. Our goal is to power the next generation of doers, movers, and shakers with the tools they need to grow their businesses.

I would love to hear from you if this (and our credo) resonates with you. We are hiring and want to hear from you if you are fired up to help us get there!

grant (at) spark (dot) app

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