9 start-up lessons in 5 years

It’s hard to believe — this upcoming June 1 marks the fifth anniversary of us being full-time Gorilla Seventy Sixians. We technically launched  our business in July of 2006 — hence the 76  (seventh month of 2006) — but at that time we were still full-time employees at bigger St. Louis marketing agencies.

In the beginning, Gorilla was really nothing more than a glorified freelance effort. Actually, that’s exactly what it was. But on June 1, 2008, after writing a business plan, securing enough business to pay ourselves for three months and saying goodbye to fantastic first jobs, we officially hung the shingle and had our first day of full-time business. It’s a day I remember well. Lots of finger tapping, pencil sharpening and wondering when in the hell the phone was going to ring.

And while not immediately, our phones did eventually ring. Thanks to the calls that came in and delivering work we’re proud to have our name on, we’re still standing today. There’ve been many “learning opportunities” in these first few years — most of which came with bumps and bruises — and we’re stronger because of all of them. In our first year alone, we learned a lot. We even put out an email about it. And since then, well, let’s just say we’ve had five times more bumps and five times more bruises. Here are some thoughts on a few of them.

Cashflow is still king

And we’re fairly certain at this point, that ain’t ever gonna change. This has proved itself to be true time and time and time again. We’ve trusted a few strategies that seem to help with this. A monthly retainer billing focus is one. Breaking up project fees into a few individual payments spaced out over a month’s time (treating them almost like retainer billing) is another. Both not only bode well for us, but they work well for our clients as well. Ongoing work via our retainer agreement allows us to deliver more insightful work. And the smaller payments for the project work make it easier for clients to pay.

“It’s not how much you work, but how much you get done”

I think I read this on a conference room wall once or something but I have to say, the words have really resonated with us at Gorilla. In our business, and in any business really, it’s easy to go home and talk about how you’ve worked yet another 60+ hour week. But shouldn’t the conversation shift to being about how much you’ve gotten done? Isn’t that what really matters? This is something we’ve grown increasingly aware of at G76 and something that has helped us become more efficient. Are we 100% efficient? Absolutely not. But, we’re getting much better for a group of marketing guys with terribly short attention spans and an original Nintendo in the office.

Find your happy place

Take a note from Happy Gilmore and find that happy place. If you work best at a coffee shop, work there. If you work best with your yellow lab at your feet, bring him to the office. If you work best at midnight, work then. Wherever and whenever you work best, put yourself in these environments. It’ll help you be more efficient, as well as help you do better work.

Tackle the 800 lb. Gorillas

When it comes to your actual workload, focus on the big, hairy important stuff first. Put the small stuff on the back-burner, or maybe even in the trash. Be less task-oriented and more goal-oriented. At Gorilla, we’ve learned to really work to focus on first doing things that improve business (whether ours or that of our clients). There’s simply not time to do the things that don’t.

Do work that you love

When we first started, we had to take a few (read: a lot) of projects that weren’t exactly in our sweet spot. Or, on our list of “projects we wanted to do.” But, we were hungry. Starved at times. We couldn’t afford to turn down work. And while this wasn’t the ideal situation for us at the time, it proved to be very fruitful for development. As time went by, we found that we were delivering work that worked for B2B industrial clients. Not to mention, we were really enjoying it. It fit “us” – Joe from Milwaukee and me from Granite City. We grew up around this stuff. Hell, I worked trade for two summers. For us, marketing for these kinds of clients was work that we loved and to this day, we consider ourselves extremely fortunate to be doing it.

Specialize, specialize, specialize. Refer, refer, refer.

We work with B2B companies looking to deliver more qualified leads to their sales team. 90% of the tactics we use are web-based. That’s it. That’s what we do. Have a nonprofit that needs a website? Not us. But “we know a guy”. Need marketing work for a restaurant or another type of B2C business? We “know a guy.” Sure, this is a departure from the “we can do any and everything you need” mentality that we had at launch. But we’re not “at launch” anymore.

By specializing, we’ve been able to deliver work that is much more insightful because of the commonalities our clients share with each other. Additionally, by focusing on web-related work, we provide our clients with measurable results of whether or not their investment is paying off. That’s a long way off from where we were 5 years ago. And honestly, it’s a long way off from how many agencies are working today. This stuff is expensive and we get that. The least we can do is make sure what we’re doing does indeed work.

Learn to delegate. You can’t do it all.

With an increase in work comes the need to get others involved. That’s a challenge whenever what you’ve built is yours and has your name on it. I never really understood when I heard business owners say “it’s my baby.” But now I get it. More than ever in fact. The key is to hire talented folks that you can trust. To surround yourselves with true experts – people smarter than you. If they’re not, than you’re constantly reworking their work. And that’s counterintuitive. Similarly, we learned to oursource things we shouldn’t be doing. For instance – IT. I’m lucky if I can get my iPhone to work. So when my computer goes down, it’s a day-long episode. Or, it was. We’ve since tapped a local IT consultant who comes by the shop once a week. Vince. He’s great. Call him. He’ll help you.

The point is, learn to delegate and don’t always look at getting others involved as an expense. It’s actually not an expense at all. It allows you more time to focus on the things on which you should be focusing.

Over-deliver…but not too much

Seems like the opposite of everything you’ve ever heard, right? Well it kind of is. All of our lives we’ve been taught to overdeliver. To give 110%. Which is good…in theory. The problem, however, is that by over-delivering, you’re often spending time on something that’s not that important instead of spending time on what was agreed upon and in the original strategic plan of action. By over-delivering, you’re committing valuable resources (that of time, primarily) to something that might not be that necessary in the long-run. Stick with what matters. Tackle the big projects first. Don’t overcommit yourself. Everyone will benefit in the long run. That said, anything less than 100% is under-delivering and that’s certainly way worse than over-delivering. That’s a crime punishable by firing.

Learn. Constantly.

We’re students. We always will be. We put in a lot of professional development time to become the best at what we do. From constantly listening to podcasts (Marketing Over CoffeeThe Accidental CreativeDuct Tape Marketing) to reading like mad men, we aim to make ourselves better, stronger, smarter. We’re committed to learning new software that can make our work better. For instance, we recently invested in Hubspot. It’s already changing the way we do business and making our work much stronger.

So that’s a recap…

…Of where we’ve been and where we’re going. We owe a tremendous amount of thanks to our clients, friends, families, significant others and yes, even pets, for the success we’ve been fortunate to have over the past five years. We’re very excited to see what the next five have in store.

To learn more about our marketing philosophy, download The Hardworking Web-Marketing Guide for B2B Industrial Companies.