It’s been almost one full year since we started CMX.
It feels like it was yesterday, and yet when I look at where we’re at, I can’t believe how much we’ve accomplished in just a year.
This is my third business, and the most successful so far both financially and in terms of clarity of direction. I feel like we’re doing a lot of things right but of course, I’m constantly learning hard lessons about startups and entrepreneurship as I go.
In this post, I want to quickly share some of the bigger personal lessons I’ve learned in 2014:
1. Conferences are a tough business to run and maintain
When we first started, it seemed really simple. Find great speakers, choose a venue, sell tickets and boom…you have yourself a successful conference.
What we’ve learned is that conferences are an incredibly difficult business to get off the ground. They’re unpredictable and there are a ton of factors that you can’t control like other conferences that launch around the same time, unexpected venue costs, speaker cancellations and unpredictable sales rates.
On top of that, the actual event has a thousand details that you have to pay attention to. And if you mess up any one of them, you will hear about it from your attendees.
If you’re going to run a conference:
- Hire a great event manager to run the show. We couldn’t survive without Leah
- Realize that the conference will probably not pay the bills for the full year unless you get a ton of sponsorship money, host a lot of events every year or are able to charge a lot (more than $1k) for tickets…so you need other forms of revenue throughout the year (which is why we started doing consulting)
- Be prepared to dump a significant amount of time into organizing and promoting the event
2. Transparency is powerful, but complicated
We recently sent a letter to our community, honestly sharing how the company is going, the challenges we’re facing and what we’re planning to do to overcome those challenges.
The response was tremendous. We got loads of comments, responses and business leads out of that one letter.
Some companies choose to fake it until they make it. They always want to put out the perception of success and that everything is great. That works for some companies. But for others, transparency will have a much bigger impact and frankly, it feels good to just be honest and not feel like you have to hide things from your community.
That said, transparency isn’t black and white. There are many shades. When writing that simple letter we ran into questions like:
- How honest should we be?
- Should I share everything? Just some things?
- What should the tone be?
- Should we try to sound strong or vulnerable?
- Who should we send this letter to? How should we send it?
Ultimately, we will be following in the footsteps of Buffer and always defaulting to transparency because it’s right for the kind of business we’re building.
But as you can see here, transparency can take many forms and you have to figure out what true transparency looks like to your company.
It’s not as easy as just being honest and open. There’s a spectrum of transparency.
3. Create decision filters based on your core values
As a founder, you will face big and small decisions every day.
I’ve struggled with decision making in the past. It’s something I continue to work very hard to improve on. Here’s something that’s worked well for me recently…
By being clear about our company’s core beliefs (write it down if you have to) you can create a filter for making decisions. So every time you’re faced with a decision, you can simple ask “does this align with our values and goals?” If not, don’t do it. If yes, do it. Simple as that.
For example at CMX quality is everything. We hold all of our content to as high level of quality as possible. It’s the #1 factor when choosing speakers, writing content, choosing partners and everything we do.
So whenever I face a decision related to our content, we can look at it through that lens and ask, will doing this result in the highest quality content possible? If not, then we won’t do it.
At events, our goal is both high quality content and creating a powerful interactive experience for attendees. So every time I have to decide if we should spend money on something, I ask “Will this make the quality of our content better? Or will this help our attendees connect with each other in a meaningful way?” If it’s not a clear yes either way, then we cut it.
4. Decision making isn’t about making the right choice, it’s about making the best choice with the information you have
This is another lesson around decision making and it’s something I learned from one our speakers and my role-models, Scott Belsky. He recently tweeted:
Thinking: One of the most important things experience gives you is the confidence to make decisions without certainty.
— Scott Belsky (@scottbelsky) November 13, 2014
That really stuck with me. Basically, you’ll never have all of the information you need to make a decision, you just have to make a decision with the limited information you have. Over time, with more experience, you have more reference points to guide your decision.
It takes the pressure off of making the perfect choice because there’s no such thing. So you might as well just go with what you know and feel, then see what happens.
5. Some people (me) are good at a lot of things and not great at any one thing
I’m a good juggler. I’m an extremely fast learner. I can get from novice to pretty good at most skills really quickly. Better than most. As a result, I’m good at a lot of things but not necessarily great at any one hard skill.
I think a lot of founders are this way. I was talking with another CEO friend recently who saw himself in the same way.
It’s why we’re good at getting things off the ground since we can wear a lot of hats and do a good job at everything (but usually not a great job).
This was a good learning for a couple reasons:
- It reinforced the importance of building a great team around you of people who are great at specific aspects of the business.
- I sometimes see other people who are really good at something and my first thought is “wow I really need to get better at that”. The truth is I don’t because ultimately I’m not the person who needs to be great at that skill.
6. It’s better to say exactly what’s on your mind, right away
One of my biggest flaws is I often care too much about what other people think.
As a result, I often don’t say what’s on my mind. Or I’ll beat around the bush without really saying it. I get worried that I might offend the person or they won’t like me.
As a result, I end up avoiding small important issues until they become big important issues and they’re a lot more difficult to handle.
I recently started doing what one of my old bosses, Loic LeMeur used to do when I was running community at LeWeb. If there was something bothering him, even if it was confrontational, he’d immediately send me an email with 1-2 sentences expressing his thoughts.
He told me that he’d rather just say what was on his mind than keep it to himself because it forced us to talk about it and move passed it. As a result it was one of the best working relationships I’ve ever had. There was no bullshit.
Say what’s on your mind. Be as blunt as possible. If there’s any awkwardness, it passes quickly and ultimately, everyone’s better off.
7. Building a business is much easier when you stick to what you know
Community building is my thing. It’s what I think about all the time and I’ve done and written about enough in the space that all my professional friends have been calling me “the community guy” for as long as I can remember.
My last company, Feast, was a food/cooking business. I had no background in food or cooking, I wasn’t even a good cook. We just had a good idea around a pain-point that we ourselves felt. But with no deep understanding of the space, no real connections in the food space and a lack of true passion for food, it proved to be an extremely difficult business for us to build.
CMX has been the opposite. I understand the space on a deeper level than most and can talk about this stuff all day. As a result, things just move more naturally.
It’s a huge difference, like swimming upstream vs downstream.
If life is pushing you in a specific direction, going with the flow will come make life much easier, as long as you like the direction.
As a founder, look for opportunities to build something in the area that you truly care most about. A lot of things can click into place if you do.
8. There is no ultimate state of happiness or success
I’ve written about this before, but it’s a lesson that I’m constantly reminded of and wanted to reiterate here.
When anyone tells you how to become a successful or happy person, ignore it. There’s no such thing as a happy person or a successful person. There is no point in life where all of a sudden you will be permanently successful or happy.
Life is an ebb and flow of happiness, sadness, success, failure, high energy, low energy etc. You can be any one of those things at any given time, regardless of your overall situation.
When you realize that, you can stop trying to reach this ultimate mythical state of happiness and you can focus on the present. Are you happy in this moment? Are you successful in this moment? Where do you want to be right now and how can you get there?
9. Ignore people who tell you how to win the lottery
I absolutely loved this talk by Darius Kazemi at XOXO. It was a comical take on what we hear from so many speakers when they get on stage and tell their story of how they succeeded.
Darius sums it up with this line that really stuck with me:
“There’s two kinds of creative advice. There’s ‘How to buy more lottery tickets’ and there’s ‘How to win the lottery’. I think the former can be really useful and the latter is nonsense.”
What he’s saying is that “experts” will often tell you “here’s how to achieve X goal”. We see those kinds of articles and talks all the time. “How to get 10000 emails” “How to make $10Mil” “They key to building a successful startup”
That advice won’t help you. It’s nonsense.
So many factors will go into whether or not something works at any given time that it’s impossible for someone to tell you what will work. The element of luck is too large. They’re basically telling you, “Here’s how to win the lottery”.
So ignore that kind of advice and instead focus on the advice that helps you buy more lottery tickets. Focus on the advice that teaches you the process for taking shots, experimenting and learning.
Don’t try to learn from someone’s results.
Instead, learn from their process for experimenting with different approaches that ultimately led them to find an approach that worked.
10. Money is important
Anyone who tells you that money isn’t important has never been broke and has never bootstrapped a business.
I had a shift in mentality recently around money. I realized for my entire career as an entrepreneur I chose not to take on opportunities to make money if it took time away from building my companies.
I’d make financial sacrifices in the short run in the hopes that a company would take off and pay off in the long run.
Then I’d justify being broke by thinking, “the pressure of being broke will make me work harder to succeed.”
That was dumb. You need money.
You need it to eat. You need it to pay other people to work with you. You need it to fly to see your family. You need it to keep clean clothes from The Fifth Collection on your back.
I will always work hard to build successful businesses with long term value that makes the world a better place. But if I have opportunities to make money in the short run, I will strongly consider taking them. Money will enable me to do more, to build more and I won’t be distracted by constantly not having it.
Business shouldn’t be all about money. But it should be a little bit about money.