It’s been five long, difficult (and fun) years since starting Foundr, and I can hardly believe it. It seems like just yesterday I was looking at this image, giddy about making $5.50.
I will never forget that feeling of excitement from seeing the first day’s sales after launching a digital magazine in 2013. The fact that even two people believed in me enough to spend their cold, hard-earned cash on something that I had built with my own two hands was astounding to me.
That’s especially true considering the magazine was built by someone who, at the time, had basically no knowledge on the topic of entrepreneurship. Not even any knowledge on magazines, for that matter. All I had was a hunger to learn, and to make something.
I remember the first day I came back home after work and showed my housemate at the time and his girlfriend that we made $5 on our first day, and she laughed at the meager sum. I remember thinking to myself that she had no idea how important that $5 was to me, and still is.
It’s been a wild ride since that day. I can say with confidence that these past five years have been the best of my life! I started a magazine out of thin air, then a year later I quit my 9-to-5 job. I’ve spoken to and interviewed some of the greatest entrepreneurs of our generation (Richard Branson, Mark Cuban, Arianna Huffington, the list goes on!), and went on to build Foundr into a multimillion-dollar business with an amazing team of 15+ people around the world. We’re well on our way to building a household name entrepreneurial brand that impacts tens of millions of people on a monthly basis. This is now the vision for the brand that we obsess over at Foundr.
Over the past five years, I’ve been fortunate enough to see the world of entrepreneurship, magazines, content, publishing, and business through a different lens than most. The lens of a newcomer-turned-CEO, and one that was more or less blind not that long ago.
With that in mind, I wanted to write up a blog post about what this journey has been like. I’ll be sharing random thoughts, learnings, reflections, and conclusions that I carry around with me, and insights into how I approach building startups, given everything I’ve picked up over the past five years.
Please note that the items you read below are not necessarily my ideas. These are the lessons I’ve learned from being lucky enough to speak to a lot of insanely successful people, along with being in the trenches myself and learning the hard way.
I hope you enjoy this post as much as I enjoyed writing it!
37 Lessons I’ve Learned in 5 Years Building Foundr
1. Focus is so incredibly important. If you can focus down on one thing and get it completely dialed in, that’s so extremely powerful. Throughout the past five years, we’ve taken on too much at times, and it’s really pulled us in different directions. If I knew what I knew now I would’ve just doubled down on one thing at a time whenever possible.
2. Try to master and become the best in the world at one or two things MAX. At one point, Foundr was trying to master too many things at once, and it’s too difficult, especially if you have a small team. Right now, our biggest focuses are the magazine, and producing what we call “10x courses” taught by influencers (better than anything else out there by 10x).
3. You can literally start a business not knowing anything at all. Like be literally and utterly clueless with what you’re doing and still do OK and survive. I’m living proof. When I started Foundr, the front cover for the first issue was a stock image! It was ridiculous—I had no idea about apps, publishing, design, editorial, not even the subject matter (entrepreneurship), and I still somehow was able to work things out. If you don’t know know the answer to something, you can always work it out, or find someone that has and can help you.
4. Your biggest problems can turn into your greatest blessings. Getting sued can even be a blessing in disguise. In the early days, the magazine wasn’t called Foundr, but I had to rename it due to a trademark infringement lawsuit. This ended up being the best thing that could have happened to us, because Foundr is a much better name compared to what we had previously. Everything happens for a reason.
5. Working out your vision and your “why” isn’t necessary at the start. When I first started, to be frank, I just wanted to create a new job for myself. I hated working in IT support, crawling under desks and fixing people’s computers. But as time went on, after a few months of creating the magazine, I fell in love with the business and the space we were serving. Your vision and “why” can always come later.
6. Having a magazine builds a tremendous amount of influence for a brand. When you align yourself with influencers in your industry and have them on the covers of your magazine, people respect your brand, and it builds ridiculous amounts of trust.
7. Your best ideas are the ones that keep coming back to you. You’re not going to come up with a genius idea on the spot. It has to keep coming back to you, and you have to mull over it like a good glass of red wine and let it sit with you before you execute on it.
8. Investing in great design delivers one of the biggest ROIs you can get when first starting up your company.
9. Time reserved for thinking by yourself is extremely underrated. Set aside allocated thinking time. I know this might sound weird, but this is where next-level company strategies are created.
10. Print isn’t going anywhere. I was wrong when I once predicted digital would replace print, and it’s becoming a lost art form that many are rediscovering. We plan to do many more print projects (magazines, books etc.). When someone gets a physical product in their hands from us, it changes the relationship the person has with the brand, and that’s very powerful.
11. Having a brand is EVERYTHING. No matter what you do, your reputation is built on your company’s brand—not a personal brand, a business brand. Protect your brand at all costs. This is your engine and your safety net, and it gives you the ability to launch many different creative projects under one roof.
12. It takes 7-10 years to build anything of true worth and significance. Any company that you truly admire took over a decade to build. I’m prepared to play the long game with Foundr.
13. Never build on rented land. When we started the magazine, we published on the iTunes and Google Play store, and I managed to game the app search function (ASO, which is like SEO for Google, but for Apple). We were getting thousands of downloads per day, but eventually it caught up with us and Apple changed the rules. This caused us to lose 25% of our app downloads, which meant a loss in readers and new subscribers. If you do not own the platform you’re building on, NEVER rely on it as your sole source of income, or you will get burnt.
14. Never rely on one single customer acquisition channel. At Foundr, I’m always extremely cautious of dominating one channel, and always work to layer in more over time. For us, first it was Instagram, then it was email, then it was podcasts, then it was organic SEO and blog, now it’s PPC (pay-per-click advertising) and soon YouTube. The more channels we can use to generate a significant amount of traffic, the less risk we face.
15. It’s never enough. Once you get to one goal, you want to move to the next, so it’s important to reflect when you can and appreciate the journey as much as possible. Even if you’re the founder of one of the top 50 websites in the world, you can’t have it all.
16. Look to similar industries and markets for inspiration and ideas. Success leaves clues (something Tony Robbins taught me), so you should always model yourself after the best wherever you can. But do not steal!!
17. Storytelling is everything when it comes to producing content that cuts through. The more you can focus on the stories, the better.
18. Your business lives and dies by cash flow. It’s the oxygen of your startup, especially if you’re bootstrapping and not using someone else’s money to survive. You always need to make this a focus in order to build a sustainable business.
19. Just because you can do something to make money doesn’t mean you should always do it.
20. Everyone wants to be an entrepreneur, but most people are just way too comfortable with their current situations and don’t want it bad enough. Humans choose the path we’re least afraid of, so you will only make the decision to start a company if you’re more afraid of what will happen if you don’t.
21. The best kind of marketing is the stuff that really stands out to you. The stuff that makes you take a second look, that is cool and funky and fresh.
22. Your team is absolutely everything. The way you scale a company is by having amazingly talented people around you who are aligned with your vision and believe in what you’re trying to build. You literally cannot get to the next level without them. If you can, find people with previous experience doing the thing you need done.
23. The only way to cut through is to be different, unique, remarkable and create cool stuff for your market. Probably cribbing from Gary Vee here, but attention is what we’re all fighting for right now.
24. Being consistent is one of the most powerful things you can do to fuel growth. Since we first started the magazine, we’ve shipped a new issue every single month for the past five years. Since we started the podcast, we’ve shipped a new episode every Thursday for the past three years. Since we started the blog, we’ve produced at least one new blog post every single week. And the list goes on…this is how you build serious momentum. It’s like building a house one brick at a time.
25. When hiring, try to find people you can relate to and who hold similar values to you. This will help you start to build a great culture and the kind of company that you want to build.
26. The smartest entrepreneurs reduce risk and maximize upside however they can. One thing my mentor Mitch Harper taught me is to always reduce risk however you can. This is something I obsess over now when it comes to making critical business decisions. How can I stack the deck in our favor on both sides of the table?
27. Revenue doesn’t mean everything and isn’t always a true reflection of the current growth/success/status/accomplishments. You can be generating millions of dollars and not be profitable. Revenue can purely be a vanity metric, and I’m guilty of getting caught up in this. At the end of the day, as a bootstrapped business, being profitable is what allows you to grow and reinvest for growth.
28. It’s much harder to acquire a new customer than it is to sell something to an existing customer. This is a common piece of advice, but an easy one to forget.
29. Serve first and ask later. These words couldn’t be truer when it comes to to building relationships with anyone, but also maintaining great friendships and an amazing network.
30. Try to create recurring revenue for your business however you can. One thing I’ve learned is that selling your products and services day in day out is difficult, and when every new month comes along you have to start again at $0. Recurring revenue allows you to bank on that money and calculate future revenue with a great amount of predictability, minimizing risk for your business. My goal is for Foundr to have much more recurring revenue in our business model in the years to come, not just from the magazine and memberships.
31. It is possible to build a startup without venture funding and grow it controllably and slowly (we’re living proof of this). Could we raise a ton of capital, triple the size of our team and grow faster? Of course, but that doesn’t mean we should. I want to be able to control our growth and grow Foundr in a sustainable way. What’s important is to be patient on this journey. It will come.
32. Have a clear and detailed vision for your company. Not only for your own purpose and what drives you, but also for your team and the people you want to convince to come join you on your crazy mission to conquer the world. You can use this to your advantage once you know what it is, but use it with caution. If you’re communicating a crazy outrageous vision, you better be able to execute on it or people will lose trust in your judgement.
33. Shipping (publishing projects) can be blessing and a curse. One thing we pride ourselves on at Foundr is our ability to ship, and boy do we move fast and ship things. But sometimes that isn’t always great, because we move onto the next thing once we’ve shipped it. The big lesson here is to always go back and optimize once it’s been shipped.
34. The way to build influence in this online world is a content volume game. That’s it. Obviously the content has to be great, but the person or brand that produces the most quality content at scale over a long period of time that is solid and consistent wins, that’s how you build influence.
35. The successful founders you look up to are no smarter than you, they’ve just worked harder and have had some element of good timing. But here’s the thing with timing, you don’t know it unless you’re in it. There is hope for everyone.
36. You must NEVER give up. Being persistent is so extremely powerful, it gets email responses from Richard Branson’s team like this:
37. To build a successful business, it has to be an obsession. You have to want it so badly and you have to be prepared to do the work.
So there you have it, these are the key lessons that I’ve collected along my business journey so far. Super excited to share this with you and to celebrate our 5th birthday together! Here’s to many more years!
Now let’s hear from you Foundr family! What’s your favorite Foundr moment from our first five years? What do you want to see from us in the next five years?