It’s not easy to start a company in a hostile economic environment, especially when your company competes in an industry that is traditionally dominated by a large player or two.
I launched adMarketplace in March of 2000, at the height of the dot-com bubble. A few months later the bubble burst, the market came crashing down, and we had to fight to stay alive. But with a little luck, and a lot of hard work, we managed to build a strong business in search advertising.
These are some of the key lessons I’ve learned that have helped my company grow to where we are today:
1. Know who you are and keep it simple.
It doesn’t matter if you are the CEO of an established company or the founder of a new startup, you always have to know your core value. It may take a long time to figure out where you fit in the industry ecosystem and that’s okay. If you stay true to your value, everything else will fall into place.
You can refine your image by focusing on your strengths, and doing one thing really well. For adMarketplace, we focus on data to drive performance for our advertisers, and we don’t ever want to stray from this mission. A lot of internet advertising companies try to do too much. They dabble in display, social, native, and search. This is unsustainable.
In theory, it’s great to be a one-stop shop for all things digital, but a jack of all trades is a master of none. Some of the biggest companies in the world start to show weakness when they spread themselves too thin. Word of advice: Specialize in one thing that scales.
2. Build your own technology.
Proprietary technology is a necessary ingredient for success in many industries. Build it yourself, in-house and own it. It’s always better to invest in yourself and own your products than to lease it from somewhere else.
3. You don’t need to slay giants to succeed.
We’re not a Google killer, and we don’t pretend to be one. Instead, we position ourselves as a transparent, reliable alternative to Google.
Large monopolies always have weaknesses, smart companies establish their value addressing these market needs.
4. Always have more than one client.
Exclusivity sounds great in theory, especially if it is with a renowned Internet giant. However, technology and media are dynamic industries. Giants fall. Empires crumble. If you are completely dependent upon someone else, you are setting yourself up for failure.
5. Hire smart.
Without a solid foundation of outstanding employees, the whole thing falls apart. Look for people who want a career, not a job. Also, find people that want to prove themselves -- those that don’t come off as entitled.
6. Outwork everyone.
This is non-negotiable and may be the most important lesson of all. Even if you have the best idea in the world, it’s not going to execute itself. You always need to work harder than the competition. Smaller companies have an advantage here, because a healthy, competitive work ethic can permeate office culture more easily. And, you need to keep working. Even after you have made a name for yourself in your chosen specialty and established yourself as a viable competitor, you have to be willing to outwork your past self. Simply saying that you need to improve every day is a lazy platitude.
Early in our company history, we learned the ugly truth that every company must learn: We all suck in some way. No one is perfect all the time. Every organization has its own unique problems. Even the best ideas are exceptionally flawed at their inception. To improve, survive and thrive, you need to identify how you suck and then work really hard to suck less every day.
7. Have fun with it, and always remember to give back.
As with any life venture, if you’re not having fun, what’s the point? Building a business will always be challenging, but it should also be fun for everyone involved. Success follows when your team believes in what they are building and who they are building it with.
None of what we’ve been able to accomplish as a tech company would be possible without a smart, curious, driven team. As we’ve grown as an organization, we’ve made it a priority to support initiatives that will help build the next generation of smart problem solvers and innovators. Paying it forward, it turns out, has paid us back in dividends -- it’s become a key ingredient in fueling our own culture and growth.