10 Things I've Learned After 10 Years in Business

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This month ten24 celebrates its 10th anniversary. A lot has changed since 2008, including our team’s size, what we do, and where we now work. But some things haven’t – and we’re not just talking about that famous orange couch in our office! We still believe in hard work, creativity, and the game-changing power of eCommerce.

Anniversaries, of course, are a great occasion to reflect on the past and ponder the future. Over the years, people have asked me how the ten24 adventure began, why we’ve continued to thrive, and what we’ve learned along the way. Here are 10 things I keep coming back to:

1. The best advice is not always the best advice.

Before I started ten24, I talked to people who had gone into business for themselves. I wanted to know what their start-up processes had been like and what kinds of roadblocks they encountered along the way. But I was also eager to get some good old-fashioned advice. Everyone I spoke with told me that starting a company was harder than they thought it would be (they were right – it was). They also said it had ended up costing more money than they had planned for (this was true in my case as well). Finally, they warned me that given the current economy, they probably wouldn’t do it.  

Remember, this was spring of 2008 and the economy was in its worst shape in recent memory. It wasn’t exactly conducive to staying in business, let alone launching a new one. What’s more, the idea that I had in mind for my company would require the talents of application developers – a skill set I didn’t have. Right out of the gate, I’d have to allocate a chunk of whatever revenue I generated to pay my developers. On top of all that, I was a 40-year-old dad with two young boys and a wife who was a stay-at-home-mom. To say that the conditions weren’t auspicious was an understatement.

What I did have going for me was confidence that I could succeed (although some people might’ve considered it blissful ignorance!). I also had prior professional experience in business development. And I had valuable contacts that would lead to my first clients. In the end, after I’d carefully considered what everyone had to say, I went with my gut, made the leap, and believed that the net would appear.

2. A business plan is useful but not critical.

When I started ten24 I wrote a business plan, because that’s what you do.  I carefully defined my mission statement, described the product and services I wanted to offer, and projected revenue and expenses out three years. That business plan was very thorough. And you know what? It was obsolete six months later. Since that exercise, we haven’t written another detailed business plan that looks out more than 12 months. Why? Things in our industry and our marketplace change so quickly, and we need to be agile. Sure, we have a longer-term vision, but it’s now more loosely defined as higher-level objectives and less married to a static, monolithic business plan.

3. Working from home is hard.

From April 2008 until January of 2010, ten24 was a one-man operation: I worked out of my home at my kitchen table. There were plenty of days when I was so focused on what I was doing that I’d completely lose track of time: I’d look up from my laptop and realize that it was already 2pm, I hadn’t eaten a thing, and I was still in my pajamas.

At 3pm, when the kids got back from school, all they saw was that Daddy was home, so they wanted to play. Summer vacation was even more challenging, because the kids were home all day, every day. Panera and its unlimited Wi-Fi was a godsend. I knew the location of every single one in a 50 mile radius from my house.

By early 2010, my two partners had come on board, so there were three of us working in my kitchen. When the boys would get home from school, we’d have to move everything downstairs and do our work in my finished basement. Eventually, we secured our first real office space. And that brings me to my next point:

4. Finding great partners is essential.

I knew that remaining a one-man act was unrealistic in the long term. Sure, I could take care of the business and marketing tasks, but I recognized that I needed a technical expert in order to grow the company. In the end, I found that and more when two partners, Sumit Verma and Brad Gustavesen, joined ten24.  All three of us had worked together in a previous business and we had kept in touch after going our separate ways. They possessed the complementary skills that I lacked. Just like Jack Johnson sings, we’re better together. And that’s the perfect segue for the following observation:

5. Hire smart people and then trust them to do their jobs.

We’ve all worked at one of those companies where the owner or the manager hovered over every last thing. The person in charge creates a bottleneck by wanting to approve or review all decisions or deliverables. That kind of environment stymies potential growth and demotivates employees. You can’t grow your company if you’re spending all day micromanaging everyone who works there.

At ten24, we hire smart people and empower them to own their jobs, so they’ll do their very best work. Case in point: In ten24’s early days, I handled project management, because we didn’t yet have an employee dedicated to that role. But once we found her and she came on board, I got out of her way and let her do her job. Was her project management style different from mine? Of course – we’re two entirely different people. The important thing is that our clients loved working with her and she’s good at what she does. Speaking of which…

6. You won’t always get it right, but you’ll always be improving.

We all make mistakes, whether it’s as team members or as a company. We might fall short of a deadline, miscalculate a schedule, or forget a task. It happens: Nobody is flawless, and it’s just unrealistic to expect perfection. When something goes wrong, the key is to step back, understand why we failed, and then tweak the process to keep similar errors from happening in the future. Our company is always focusing on improvement, based on the success or failure of our processes. And when we do this, we can’t help but become better individually and as a whole.

7. Communication is key.

The first official company document that I created, before I hired a single employee, was a Communications Statement. It’s central to our success. How do I know that? Ten years later, we’re still using it. In fact, I personally walk through it with each new hire who comes on board. Our Communications Statement clearly defines what our clients and partners should expect from ten24 (as well as what we should expect from each other as colleagues) and includes an emphasis on:

  • Timely Communication
  • Active Listening
  • Informed Debate
  • Consistent Documentation
  • On-Time Delivery

Our Communications Statement informs everything we do, from the emails we send and the stand-ups we hold, to the way we manage projects and interact with clients.

8. Build a solution, not a product.

From day one, my goal with ten24 was to come up with a product that would initially drive our business and then provide services around that product. It took a couple of years for this to happen, but it eventually led us to develop Slatwall Commerce. The philosophy behind Slatwall was to create a platform that provides 85% of the eCommerce features businesses need out of the box, but also offer the flexibility to customize for the other 15% (those key features that provide a competitive advantage for each business that uses the platform). As with our industry and marketplace, Slatwall continues to evolve, but the flexibility of its architecture and features were there from the very beginning. That flexibility is also what will ensure its future success.

9. Bootstrapping was the right decision...for us.

We decided from day one that we would bootstrap the development of the Slatwall Commerce platform, meaning that we wouldn’t accept outside money to create Slatwall. Instead, we take our project revenues and reinvest them into building out the Slatwall platform. In the end, that has been the right decision for our company. Yes, the growth is slower, and it takes us a little longer to accomplish things, compared to if we had not bootstrapped. But we believe that the benefits are worth it. For one thing, Slatwall is continuously improving because it relies on client-driven feature development. We’re creating what people need. We also haven’t given away any of the equity in our company (which we would’ve had to do if we had chosen not to bootstrap).

10. The things that keep me up at night have changed.

As a brand-new business owner back in 2008, I worried – a lot – about how I was going to take care of my family, pay my mortgage, and put food on the table. Those were all personal and immediate concerns. But now, a decade later, different things keep me up at night.

The people who come to work every day at ten24 all have homes to pay for or rent to cover. Some of them have children to support, or cars to buy, or medical bills to deal with. All of them rely on their jobs to help them do what’s important to them and the people who rely on them. Knowing this influences every business decision we make, including whether we hire another employee to support a new client, or if we expand our office space. We constantly have to ask, “Can we sustain our growth?” The goal is to have the processes in place so that the answer to that question is always “Yes,” whether we’re asking that question now or another 10 years down the road.

 


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