There’s a lot you can do on your own these days.
Heck, people are starting businesses with AI as their co-founder.
But nothing will replace the advice of flesh and blood startup entreprenuers that have been there. We’re all about learning from the best to become the best.
So, we asked five startup entrepreneurs who have built multimillion-dollar businesses from scratch to share business truths for founders in the early stages of building their businesses (like you).
So, get your screenshot tool or notebook ready to get some truth to help you build your business the right way.
1. Evan Goldberg, founder and EVP of Oracle NetSuite
Evan Goldberg is the founder and EVP of NetSuite, now known as Oracle NetSuite. Launched in 1998, NetSuite is considered the first cloud-based software, beating out Salesforce by a few months. Bought by Oracle in 2016, it continues to be one of the leading business operations platforms on the market.
Evan’s Truth: Focus on Existing Customers
While the buzz around a future recession has quieted somewhat, plenty of entrepreneurs still keep a close eye on the economy.
Goldberg, of course, has weathered one or two himself, and he approached them as an opportunity rather than an obstacle for growth.
“You know that saying ‘never let a crisis go to waste?’ You make some great changes under necessity. There’s a reason that the cliche ‘necessity is the mother of invention’ exists,” he says.
In the 2008 recession, for example, he and his team realized they hadn’t been putting enough focus on existing customers.
“It’s not as sexy as getting new customers and getting that increased customer count,” he says. “But during those times where new customers are harder to find, that’s when you can double down. And we really did double down on looking at how we could help our existing customers use the product more effectively, help them get through their trials and tribulations of the economic crisis, and come out the other end.”
“During those times where new customers are harder to find, that’s when you can double down.”
Even after the economy began to recover, NetSuite kept that focus on existing customers, and those best practices continue today.
2. Holly Thaggard, founder of Supergoop!
Holly Thaggard is passionate about sun protection. That passion drove her to create her multimillion-dollar skincare company, Supergoop!, which started turning the world of suncare products on its end when it launched in 2007. Last year, Supergoop! reached $250 million in sales.
She combined her sunscreen with a curriculum on the importance of sun protection, which she launched in private schools. At the same time, she kept building a luxurious yet fun brand that consumers really wanted to make a part of their morning routines—both for themselves and their children.
Holly’s Truth: You Can’t Manufacture Authenticity
Authenticity is one of the key elements of a successful brand, in Thaggard’s opinion. “You can’t manufacture authenticity. You should have a reason for being. Don’t get into the beauty industry because you have a following on Instagram and you want to sell something and beauty is fun. You really need a big point of difference if you’re going to build something sustainable and long-lasting and scalable.”
For Thaggard that point of difference hasn’t changed over the years. She is still passionate about getting out into the market and educating consumers about the importance of making skin protection a daily routine.
Even today, she says, her favorite days are the ones where she can go to retail locations to talk to employees and customers alike about her brand and about her mission.
“I always say you have to be so passionate about something that you literally can’t sleep at night,” she says. “And when you are sleeping, you’re dreaming about it.”
“I always say you have to be so passionate about something that you literally can’t sleep at night.”
The second side of the coin for Thaggard is perseverance and grit—knowing that you’ll be in it for the long-haul.
“It happens drip by drip, you don’t fill the whole bucket,” Thaggard explains. “There are definitely little wins along the way that are inspiring and they help. They help keep things interesting and exciting. But when you’re building truly wonderful things, you have to be ready for the journey. You have to be ready for just being completely inspired by those little wins along the way.”
These elements, she says, are what have made Supergoop! a successful, global brand.
“I think the brand has just resonated globally because of our spirit, our innovation, our can’t-stop-won’t-stop mentality and our ability to withstand the test of time. You know, most things great don’t happen in the… world of overnight success.”
That was certainly true for Thaggard. Over time, she pulled from the resources and the experiences she’s had—using her education background to build the brand, taking harp gigs to fund Supergoop! and build a global brand.
“I was a teacher. Make the world a better place was my dad’s advice. Don’t do things that have been done before. All of these kinds of check the boxes on what I felt was going to be the real foundation for this brand.”
3. Michelle Zatlyn, co-founder of Cloudflare
Michelle Zatlyn and her co-founders were outsiders when they moved to Silicon Valley to launch their web security startup. It was 2009, in the middle of a recession, but the team knew their visceral early-user feedback validated the need to be bold.
In 2010, Cloudflare launched its first freemium product and hasn’t looked back. Today, Cloudflare has four million customers worldwide, surpassed a $1 billion revenue run rate, and employs 3,200 team members. Zatlyn currently serves as the publicly traded company’s president and CEO. She is one of the few women founders leading a public tech business.
Michelle’s Truth: Meet Your Customers Where They’re At
Cloudflare launched 13 years ago at the first TechCrunch Disrupt San Francisco, a technology startup pitch competition and industry event. Cloudflare won the 2010 competition and, more importantly, captured its ideal users.
“Our audience [was] all technical folks in the audience. All those people had blogs or small businesses, [and] a bunch of them signed up,” Zatlyn says. She mimes a line graph. “Literally, our numbers have been up to the right ever since the day we launched. They’ve never stopped growing.”
But weeks before Zatlyn stood stage right of Prince at the TechCrunch event, she was embarrassed by Cloudflare.
“We were fighting a lot internally,” Zatlyn says. “There [were] about six of us at the time [debating] about whether it was ready or not. I said, ‘Just ship it.’”
Zatlyn didn’t think they had enough data to feel secure about Cloudflare’s solidity as a business model, but they’d missed their product demo deadline and needed to launch. So Cloudflare was out of the bag, marketing its “freemium” product (which is still available in 2023). “Freemium” means offering a free product version with additional options to upgrade.
Within a few weeks of launch, Zatlyn contacted users and recorded Skype sessions about their experience.
“And what was amazing was these customers who had signed up for this product that I was really very embarrassed about were writing in saying [things like]:”
“…Oh my God, your product stopped all the trash traffic coming to my site. “
“It off-loaded all the bots coming to my server.”
“For the first time in five years, my pager didn’t go off last night.”
“I actually had a full night’s sleep for the first time in five years.”
It was another visceral experience for Zatlyn.
“That gave me a lot of validation that I had made the right choice, that we were working on the right things,” Zatlyn says. “And then over time, I was like, ‘OK, we’re solving a real, meaningful problem.’”
Within a year of launch, Zatlyn felt Cloudflare became validated as a business because their goals with the freemium product were being met. The outcomes included:
- Increased traffic that helped build their global network.
- Free users that converted to paying customers.
- More word-of-mouth advocates at enterprise workplaces.
- Mass amounts of data to build new products from.
- A battle-tested quality assurance team of free users to test products.
- An employee recruitment pathway from users of Cloudflare.
“Entrepreneurs get into trouble when there’s only one reason they have a free service. They think it’s a marketing ploy, and some of them pay you,” Zatlyn says. “But it’s really good if you [can] figure out other business reasons why you need that free service that help make your business model better.”
In 2011, Cloudflare raised $20 million in its Series B funding. The momentum continued year after year as they added customers at the free, paid, and enterprise levels. In 2019, Cloudflare went public. Zatlyn says the achievements all go back to receiving that visceral reaction from users when they first launched.
4. Suneera Madhani, CEO and founder of Stax
Suneera Madhani is the CEO and founder of the all-in-platform transaction platform Stax. She’s listed on Fortune’s prestigious 40 Under 40 list, a recipient of EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year award, and host of CEO School, a top 25 entrepreneur podcast with a 300,000 female-listener community.
Last year, Stax became a unicorn startup with a billion-dollar valuation. But for Madhani, it’s not about milestones–it’s the journey. Learn about her incredible journey from the daughter of immigrants to a CEO breaking barriers in a male-dominated fintech startup industry.
Suneera’s Truth: Trust Your Data, Advisors, and Intuition
The biggest lesson Madhani learned in her career happened when she met with her board following the first term sheet offer.
“It was a s***show of a board meeting,” Madhani says. The investors had reduced their initial $17 million offer to $12 million. “If you’re negotiating with one party, you’re negotiating with yourself.”
But the board still wanted to take the deal.
“I said, ‘You guys just invested in this business. What has changed in the last six weeks that you’re ready to take this minimal offer just incrementally more than you invested in?'”
Madhani didn’t back down. She relied on what she describes as her “three minds”—analytical, heart, and gut.
“I need all three to make the decisions, and when one isn’t feeling right, I have to trust that,” Madhani says.
Shortly following the rejection of the bid, she received another term sheet for $50 million. It was a private equity deal that bought out their initial investors—the boardroom naysayers—and exited them 18 times their investment.
“Your intuition is the most powerful tool you have, [so] use it and don’t discount it and listen to it,” Madhani says.
“Your intuition is the most powerful tool you have, [so] use it and don’t discount it and listen to it.”
To date, Stax has raised $500 million in capital and is growing triple digits year-over-year. In March of 2022, Stax officially became a unicorn startup with a valuation of more than $1 billion.
5. Nik Mirkovic and Alex Tomic, co-founders of Hismile
Ok, technically, we’re sneaking in six startup entrepreneurs. But who doesn’t love more free advice?
In just nine years, Nik Mirkovic and Alex Tomic built their smile care brand into a category disruptor on track to earn over a billion in annual revenue by next year. Mirkovic and Tomic don’t want shortcuts, so they’ve remained bootstrapped since they started Hismile at ages 19 and 20.
Hismile’s teeth-whitening kit has become an internet sensation, making the brand a favorite among influencers and celebrities. But the co-founders aren’t resting on success. They want to make Hismile a category champion and take on businesses with an extra century of experience.
Nik and Alex’s Truth: Hire For Character Over Everything
Three years ago, Hismile shifted from a one-product wonder solving the problem of at-home teeth whitening to an oral care innovator.
Because of Hismile’s dramatic rise, the at-home teeth-whitening market was getting crowded.“We’d make a move. Someone would copy it. We’d make a move, and something else would happen,” Mirkovic says. “We’ve never waited for a catalyst. We’ve always been that catalyst for change.”
So, instead of trying to outrun the copycats on product iterations or marketing, they invested in bringing research and development in-house.
“We had to completely break ourselves,” Tomic says.
First, they accepted they’d take a loss for over a year. Second, they needed to develop a new state-of-the-art R&D team, something they had little experience with.
They interviewed the best and brightest oral care researchers across the globe, including people with experience at product conglomerates like Unilever and Colgate. But no candidates fit the Hismile way.
“We never wanted to run a business the way other people would run a business because we’re two very unique, different individuals, and Hismile is a very unique, different business,” Mirkovic says.
Tomic says they were looking for someone with the required scientific knowledge but without a corporation’s institutional weight. They hired the head of science at Gold Coast University because they wanted someone willing to reimagine oral care.
“Character over everything. Everything,” Mirkovic says. “Because every time myself and [Tomic] didn’t know a thing about R&D, didn’t know a thing about business, didn’t know a thing about anything, it came down to what we believe is character and competencies and then just being willing to pick up things and […] work with other people to make things happen.”
“Character over everything. Everything.”
The willingness to pursue an idea comes from the top down and bottom up at Hismile. Since Hismile shifted its strategy, the business has elevated leaders from all sectors.
- The head of product and procurement came through customer service.
- The head of supply chain played soccer with Mirkovic and started at Hismile in the warehouse.
- The general manager was working casually for Hismile as a copywriting consultant.
- The head of marketing used to be in sales at a software company.
“If you were to look at them when they started at Hismile and when they came in, I don’t think any other company would’ve given them the chance [to grow],” Mirkovic says.
Keep Learning: How to Start a Business from Scratch (Step-By-Step Process)
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