5 Lessons I Learned as an Accidental Entrepreneur
I like think of myself as an accidental entrepreneur. I originally set out to make innovation insights accessible for the greater good. But, nearly 15 years after publishing my first article, I sold a site that had more than 8,000 articles from around 400 contributing authors.
Along the way I learned a great deal of things, some the easy way and some the hard way. Here are the five key lessons I learned from my 15-year journey as a webpreneur:
1. Before turning a passion into a business, nail the business model
My website, Innovation Excellence, started as a passion project that shared my own thoughts about innovation. The site didn't begin with a business model and sort of evolved as my project grew. Even after bringing in partners to transform my project, everyone had a day job and didn't have time to develop the most viable revenue streams. I began to experiment with advertising and sponsorships, but everything was difficult and quite manual. From this inability to invest, I learned that you shouldn't start commercializing a passion project before nailing the business model. If you can't, leave it as a small, manageable hobby.
2. Don't give up too much equity too soon
I eventually brought on three partners, but ended up owning less than a third of my creation. I now see that I placed too little value on all of the work that I had done to that point.
Don't give away half the commercial potential of your passion project to the first person offering you money to grow it. You always have the option of not growing it or growing it more slowly with more control. Make these choices carefully and err on the side of only giving up small amounts of equity for investment. I brought on some great people as partners, but the painful reality is that I gave up equity to fund a redesign that we ended up throwing away for another redesign that I did myself.
3. In any partnership, make sure ownership percentages match contributions
It takes work to run a website. If someone owns a third of your business, they should be doing a third of the day-to-day work involved. Even financial investors should be getting their hands dirty. Refuse purely financial investors unless their money funds the successful launching of a profitable business model.
4. Create as many win-wins as possible
My team was able to build Innovation Excellence into a saleable asset because it was a purpose-driven business focused on creating as many win-wins as possible. Every decision was measured against the mission to make innovation insights accessible, and we were focused on creating value for our global innovation community and value for our contributing authors. We turned down advertising dollars we didn't think would be a win for our community and our authors.
If I start a new site, it will definitely follow this paradigm of creating value for as many stakeholders as possible. Win-win relationships create value over time, while win-lose relationships destroy value until it reaches zero.
5. When it's time to sell, make sure the buyers share your vision
I'm proud of what I built with Innovation Excellence and grateful for my partners. Sadly, Innovation Excellence has disappeared. The buyers said they shared our vision, wanted to do no harm, respected what we had built and only wanted to make it better, but they completely replaced the brand nonetheless.
The buyer had every right to do this in pursuit of leveraging the assets they purchased, but it's still painful as a founder to not be able to point people to the thing that you built. This should be a consideration when you sell something you've poured your heart and soul into.
Building and selling the Innovation Excellence was a wild ride, and I definitely learned a lot along the way. But you don't have to build a company to gain insights. You can learn so much about how investors think by watching Shark Tank or reading articles. Talk to other entrepreurs so you can learn without going through the hard part. Always look to grow and keep innovating, so you're prepared when entrepreneurship comes knocking.