In the summer of 2012, I set out to co-found a video production start-up with a few friends. The original name of the company was ELLi DJ's and was founded by Ronnie Sang (now The Social Firm's video producer) and Jeeves Barton. Once I joined the fray, we re-named the company ELLi Entertainment, obtained our LLC and added a 4th team member, Korie Jenkins. After 1 year of operation, ELLi Entertainment was acquired by The Social Firm and came to life as the video department. There were a lot of funny moments, successes and failures during those 365 days. Here are the top 5 lessons that I took away from the experience.
5. Establish a concise direction
Are we an entertainment company? Do we shoot professional videos? What about community events, do we throw those? These are all questions that we had to ask ourselves during the work process. These are all good points to think about, but there is a time and place for them– before you start your business. At one point, ELLi was doing very well and the coffers were full. Suddenly, we'd take kindly to a new idea and veer off in this new direction. This would derail the progress that we made and require a ton of time and effort to build momentum on the new path. Do yourself a favor and establish a solid company identity before you go selling it to people. As a start-up, you are only as strong as your conviction.
4. Put in 110% effort
I helped co-found ELLi Entertainment the exact same week that I started my internship at The Social Firm. I figured that since both positions were in relatively comparable fields, they would complement each other. I couldn't be more wrong. First off, I had to establish myself as an A-Player during my internship by going the extra mile. Secondly, you can't be an entrepreneur in your off hours. It just doesn't work like that. There are so many responsibilities that you must account for when managing your business, it's truly a 24/7 job. You also need to keep your mind completely focused on your company vision, which is hard to do when you have other obligations in the pipeline. Starting a business from the ground up requires your utmost commitment. The best thing that you can do is to clear your schedule. You're going to need all the time that you can get.
3. Don't spread yourself too thin
At first, I was able to balance both of my positions pretty well. I was working from 8:30 a.m. to about 6 or 7 p.m. on weeknights at The Social Firm, then switching gears into ELLi mode right after. Any work that I wasn't able to finish, I would catch up on during the weekend. After about 6 months of this, I was starting to get overwhelmed from long, sleepless nights and stressful mornings. So what were the consequences? Well, work at both of my positions suffered. The standard caricature of an entrepreneur is someone constantly on the move, shaking hands and making magic happen. While you definitely need to stay active, this is only possible through a well-rested and researched mind. Take time to step back and evaluate your decisions and direction. Make sure that you know what you're getting into before commiting.
2. Organization is essential
File cabinets, man. These are your best friends. One side-effect of starting a business is that you will be inundated with documents. We're talking legal pieces, contracts, video treatments and anything else you can think of. You need to properly store these files and make them easily accesible in the future. You know the scene in Dodgeball when Vince Vaughn is getting audited, and all of his documents flood out of his locker? You should do the exact opposite of that. When a beautiful IRS agent opens your file cabinet, they should be greeted by happy cherubs and a fresh lemony scent. Don't lose anything!
1. Blood, Sweat and Tears
Starting a new business consumes you. This is not a bad thing. Just relax and let it happen naturally. Once you put your heart into the vision of your company, your mind will be ablaze with the endless possibilities of how to improve and grow it. If failure is defined as a company's inability to produce any ROI, then the failure rate for start-ups is a staggering 95% according to the Shikhar Ghosh, a senior lecturer at Harvard Business School. What sets the successful 5% from the rest of the crowd? We can all agree that hardwork, dedication and the right resources are key. But we always hear that you need a little bit of luck, too. But what exactly is luck? To me, luck is something that we create for ourselves. If you're constantly driving yourself to go out to networking events, meet new clients and build partnerships, then the probability of "being at the right place at the right time" is exponentially higher. I'm not saying that putting your all into a venture is a guarantee of success. However, without a complete commitment from the start, then success is not possible. Lose yourself in your business.
These are the top 5 lessons that I learned from co-founding and managing a start-up for over a year. My ELLi co-founder and current colleague at The Social Firm, Ronnie Sang, shares his experience with the start-up:
Founding a start-up has taught me many things beyond business. The most important thing is that a business isn’t just a logo or a title on the screen. It’s the people behind it. It’s the people listed in the credits at the end of a movie. It’s the people in the ‘About’ section in company websites. After starting a business, I learned that the most important thing is people. They make the work environment enjoyable, create the products that you need made and allow a company to be a company. Without people, there wouldn’t be a business.
With ELLi Entertainment, the staff was essentially a group of my friends that had the common goal of creating a fun company– which we succeeded in doing. Our meetings took place in hookah bars, living rooms and various OSU campus office spaces. We were able to do that because of the company culture I set out to create. I wanted to establish a work place that we wouldn’t dread going to. What is one of the most dreadful things about businesses? Meetings. By switching up where we met, we were able to mitigate the stereotypical downfalls of meetings and boost company morale. I thought to myself, “we still need to do the boring stuff, but let’s make it as much fun as possible.” Make work fun and people will want to work for you.
Without people, things won’t get done. ELLi was a small business with less than 5 members. Each person had their own expertise, so when that particular person didn't execute his or her tasks, then the tasks likely didn't get done. In my case, I was in charge of shooting and editing. That’s my craft and my responsibility. I couldn’t afford to NOT shoot or NOT edit. The same idea goes for everyone else. It’s your staff that’s getting the job done. Make sure to treat them right and let them know they are appreciated. For example, one of our members in ELLi loved drinking soda. Before every meeting, I would go out and buy a case specifically for him. It let him know that I was thinking about him and that I appreciated his efforts. It’s the little things that can make the biggest difference.
It takes a team of hard working people to reach the level of success that so few can achieve. The right people make a company. If you’re a service company and your staff is unfriendly to clients, then your company is unfriendly to clients. Whatever your staff does, good or bad, you as a business owner will be stuck with the consequences of their actions. Make sure to bring on a team that you can trust. I’d rather hire someone with little skill but who tries their best/works really hard than someone who has a lot of skill but is a loose cannon and could make your reputation look bad (especially on social media). Pick people that share the same values as the company you’re trying to build. If there’s a place to be picky, I would say choosing staff is the place to do it.
This sums up what I learned from founding my own start-up. The best way to learn how to start a business is to start a business. I started a video production company from scratch and had some great learning experiences. The main takeaway from this is that finding the right kind of people is the most important piece to your business puzzle. And with that realization,followed by an opportunity offered by The Social Firm, I ended up taking my experience and knowledge with me to help build The Social Firm’s Video Department. Personally and professionally, this was the right decision. The Social Firm is equipped with resources and opportunities I didn't have access to. I was welcomed into an already established and amazing group of people that helps this company grow every day. And without these amazing group of people, The Social Firm wouldn’t be the same.