This particular New Year's Day was a special one for me. It marked the 20th anniversary of the incorporation and launch of our company - Upstream Group. Some of you reading this may know us only as publishers of The Drift, but we've also led sales and management workshops for several hundred digital companies over the past two decades, and continue to produce The Seller Forum, a peer-to-peer gathering of digital sales leaders. We also played an early role in helping Rick Parkhill launch the first iMedia events, launched and ran the "Upstream Habitat" program for two years, and have been close to several great companies and leaders during their primes. All in all, a pretty great run so far.
But you don't spend time reading this or any other blog for nostalgia or self-congratulation. So that will be enough of that. I'd like to spend the rest of this post on a part of the past 20 years that many of you as readers and customers don't see. The part about running a small business. Specifically, I want to give away some of the ideas - often stumbled upon - that have allowed us to flourish over such a sustained period.
Know Who You Serve. We've always been super clear on this point. Our customer is the head of sales at the publisher, ad technology or data company. Period. Many businesses try to hedge their bets and keep all their options open, only to lose focus and belief. With so much else uncertain, getting this one right early really helps.
Find a Repeatable Unit of Value to Deliver. Early on, when your company is small and new, you'll feel the pressure to chase all kinds of projects and contort your business to meet the latest needs of each new client. Having one repeatable service you can offer quickly - in our case it's been the sales team workshop - anchors your business financially and gives you something you can continue to get better at over time. It also helps...
Make it Easy for Customers to Work with You. When someone says "We should find a way to work together," your response shouldn't require more than a few words. Having straightforward products and services and consistent pricing helps you two ways: you quickly qualify and start business relationships with customers, and then - with the commitment settled - you can immediately begin to individualize and personalize your service.
Sweat the Details. Your weakest moment can define your company in the eyes of a customer. So be relentless about your execution, not just in your core product or service but on unsexy stuff like billing and logistics. They will always remember how they felt about working with you.
Hire Well and Trust Quickly. I've had to work on both of these. Especially when you have a small team, ask prospective employees process questions - get them to talk about how they'd solve a problem or overcome an obstacle. Hire grit. Then once you've brought someone on, trust them with more than you're really comfortable. They'll either delight or disappoint you: either way, you'll have your answer.
Don't Be Incremental. Embrace big ideas and take big swings. Approach each project and customer like you're in a position to really change the world for them. Great business relationships aren't built on "one percent better." You will be defined by your ambition for your customers, and lack of that ambition means you will be forgotten.
If our small business has made a difference in your business or your life during the past 20 years, feel free to share a comment. Just click on the little grey envelope at the top of the post. Thanks for reading, and here's to starting the next 20!
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