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A year ago I quit a job that was comfortable to join a partner in building a business of our own – NorthIQ.

He had been doing it for some time prior, but it had gotten to a tipping point – he needed help that was greater than me pitching in during the evenings. If we were going to make this happen it had to be right then.

There were other benefits, we could change our positioning, offer more breadth of digital services, and change the company significantly from “just another web development firm” into a true digital marketing company that could bring something entirely different to the table.

My family had understood this was an eventuality but the sudden decision to quit happened over the span of Easter weekend, and I started my first full day at NorthIQ on May 15, 2018 and everything changed.

Lessons Learned

I knew coming into this we had a lot to learn.

Typically when you work for an organization they provide a lot of things that you take for granted.

They have assets: computers; a network to store files; people to work with; customers; a database to market to; marketing automation tools; rules and guidelines; desks; people to support you. People like IT, Facilities, HR, and Finance.

With the exception of customers we had none of those other things, so obviously there were going to be some challenges

Some things however were a bit of a surprise. Here’s some of the things I’ve learned.

#1 Being proud of what you do is a reward

Everybody gets asked “What do you do for a living? Where do you work?”. For me it was an easy response, but the inevitable follow-up question always gave me pause.

“Oh, nice. What does that company do?”

That was one question I hated. I actually didn’t really give a crap what they did and faking like I did was just not in my personality. What the company I worked for did was only tangentially important compared to the work I did or the things I was learning.

There is a certain kind of personal reward for having pride in what you’ve built with your own hands, in what your company does, in what they stand for.

An interesting byproduct of being proud of the business I am building is that I am also proud of the customers we service and the industries they are in.

Since I have an actual choice now of who I want to work with, I have chosen companies with interesting products run by people I like to work with.

#2 You can’t measure intangibles but they are more important than ever

I’ve always been the type of marketer who believes that all decisions can be made using data. If you can measure it you can always make the right decisions.

If the numbers look low, you might think about bailing out of that project.

Certainly if you can’t measure it, it’s probably useless.

That’s the right mentality to a certain extent, but there are things every business should invest in that are hard to measure.

Proving significant added value to a customer when you won’t be making any extra money for putting more effort in certainly looks like bad ROI in paper.

What ends up happening however is that effort has the potential for significant future payoff. You should always try to go above and beyond.

I’ve seen this pay off with increased contracts and new business many times at NorthIQ.  We do the right thing, not just what we promised we would do.

Putting out content that few people read. You begin to question the value of that effort especially when there is no immediate payoff. What happens down the road is you generate new business because of a particular piece when the right person reads that content at the right time and it strikes a chord with them.

A purely analytical decision might have been to pull the plug on that content.

I’ve had to change my mindset to understand that things can be had to measure, or look like poor ROI but the payoff might just be further down the road.

#3 Small wins add up to big wins over time

“It’s funny how day by day, nothing changes. But when you look back, everything is different.”

-Calvin

Calvin (of Calvin and Hobbes fame) had it right.

You read a lot about the “overnight successes” and then judge your own businesses growth by comparison. This is entirely the wrong mentality.

I am starting to wonder if every “overnight success” was based on thousands of hours of hard work that you don’t get to see.

I came from a company where they only celebrated the big deals, they didn’t care about smaller deals and sometimes actively discouraged small deals.  The reason was big deals quickly add up, while small deals don’t meaningfully contribute to the overall number.

It was an interesting change to my perspective to look at small wins as progress and to be celebrated.

When building up from nothing it’s important to understand these small wins are how a business is built.

  • I joined NorthIQ as our first “hire”
  • Incorporated and officially went on payroll
  • Built a great site and signed a contract with a company we love working with
  • Signed our first 36 Manage Comics subscribers and built a database of over 150 prospects
  • Doubled monthly revenue
  • Visited our first client in their office in Barrie
  • Launched a ridiculously sweet nurturing campaign that even the Hubspot rep was shocked about
  • Visited clients in Toronto, Pennsylvania, and right here in London
  • Conducted our first interviews
  • Moved into our new office

Any kind of small accomplishment puts you on a positive trajectory, the right long term path. When you look back after a year those wins built up over time

#4 Knowing what you want to be is an organic work in progress

NorthIQ’s position in the market has changed over time as we begin to see gaps in what our competitors are able to offer.

It’s been important for us to have the mindset to learn and adjust as things change.

I think the common mindset that “this is what we are” and then doggedly sticking to is a mistake.

It’s also a mistake to be afraid of not knowing exactly who you are yet, especially for a very young business that is growing.

Several times over the last 365 days we had moments to internally discuss what we were, who were our best customers, and how to get there.

We had to employ a certain amount of honesty about exactly what it was we wanted to build. And we continue to do that.

We’ve had to turn down opportunities because companies weren’t right for us, and we’ve had to walk away from some clients because we were a poor fit for them. We have decided that if we can’t add ludicrous value to a project, we should not take it on.

Knowing what your business is exactly, and the space you want to be in will probably always been a work in progress, and I think that’s important.

#5 Happiness is important, but discomfort is good

Overall, I am happier than I was a year ago, but I’m still not comfortable, and that’s a good thing, and I hope I never get comfortable.

To me, comfort is when you don’t want to change anything, everything is good, and you want things to stay that way. I’m at my best when things are changing, when new challenges present themselves, and when I’m working on new things.

Things are not comfortable. We are always looking for our next opportunity, our next challenge, and our next idea. We have so much work that we need to figure out new ways to manage all of it, and we’re constantly facing new challenges.

When you’re half of the entire company, there’s a lot of weight on your shoulders. It’s not unbearable, but it is a lot to deal with.

Right now though, when a chair breaks, or we need to track down a payment, or figure out whether what Brian just said was inappropriate (it was)…there is no facilities, there’s no finance, and there’s no HR department, there’s just us.

And that’s not the worst thing in the world.

 

Craig Oliphant is a marketing expert with over a decade of experience in digital marketing. He has built online campaigns for multi-million dollar companies, and seen massive returns from very small investments. He has figured out ways to achieve repeatable results.