Your business is your baby, and our baby helped us to start our business

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LinkedIn reminded me the other day that it has been 4 years since I went out on my own and the journey to building Proofpoint Marketing began. We now have 5 full-time staff and 4 long-standing contractors servicing 7 clients. We still have much more to grow, learn and achieve, but we are in a great spot right now. Getting there, however, has been a journey filled with both personal and professional challenges, growing pains and bumps in the road. I want to reflect on the past 4 years and share the story and lessons learned in case they may be helpful to others out there.

The Start

Entrepreneurs often call the companies they start, their “babies.” This is a very fitting description for Proofpoint Marketing for a variety of reasons–not least of which is that its founding and growth share many similarities and connections to the birth and development of my daughter, Lana.

For Lana, we celebrate 3 “birthdays” every year: 

  1. The day she was actually born into this world (August 16th); this one is pretty straight forward.
    
  2. The day she was supposed to be born into this world (December 5th); she was born 4 months premature, at 24 weeks, weighing only 11oz.
    
  3. The day she was released from the hospital (February 6th); we spent 6 months in the NICU at Children’s Minneapolis with Lana.

Proofpoint Marketing technically has 3 “birthdays” as well:

  1. The day I started consulting on the side (February 26, 2016) to make up for the loss of income since Gaby, my wife and business partner, was let go from her job the day after undergoing an emergency c-section to have Lana at 24 weeks gestation.
    
  2. The day Proofpoint Marketing was first incorporated (September 7, 2016) because calling a business “Mike Grinberg Consulting” no longer seemed like a good idea.
    
  3. The day Proofpoint Marketing became a full-time endeavor (June 15, 2017) because the startup I was working for full-time (while consulting on the side) abruptly ran out of cash. Gaby and I had a discussion about either (a) both going out to get corporate gigs or (b) taking the small consulting client base I had and building it up into a full-time business.

We obviously chose option B.

Growing Pains

Once we brought Lana home from the hospital, we ran into a slew of challenges navigating her various medical issues along with figuring out how to balance her medical needs with our own. 

Just like dealing with a medically fragile child, having to learn about all sorts of medical conditions and figuring out how to navigate the healthcare and insurance system, our brand new business–Proofpoint Marketing–required us to learn about accounting, business insurance, legal, finance, which until then were very much on the periphery for us.

As with parenting your first child, we made a number of mistakes with our business.

  • We took on all business and relied solely on referrals. This was great to get us the initial scale needed to pay the bills, but it wasn’t sustainable. We ended up working with clients we shouldn’t have worked with and our sanity and business suffered because of it. 
  • We hired the wrong people – not bad people – but the wrong people either for the position, the stage in our business, or just bad culture fits. This really delayed growth because we spent so much of our time on client work and on hiring and re-hiring that we weren’t able to dedicate time to process development, business development, and culture development.
  • We didn’t have the right processes in place to onboard new hires and new clients, to manage projects and client relationships.

But it wasn’t all bad, despite all of those challenges, we persevered, learned our lessons and kept moving forward. We grew our business 2x each year over the past 2 years.

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Getting Help

With a medically complex child, there were a number of people in the medical community that really became Lana’s champions, and by extension our champions. These people really helped us navigate some complex issues and helped us get our daughter to where she is today – you wouldn’t be able to tell that she was born at 24 weeks gestation.

In a similar way, we sought help from experts in a variety of fields and even worked with a business advisor. I am not sure whether he wants to be named, so as of right now he shall remain nameless, but we couldn’t have done what we did without him. He led us through a strategic planning exercise where we outlined, articulated and most importantly operationalized our mission, vision, values and core competencies.

After that work was done, just about any problem we came to ou business advisor with, he would give us the same answer – “you guys have already done some amazing work with the strategic plan. Use it!” And every time he was right.

We also bit the bullet and hired an accounting firm who specializes in small businesses like ours, to manage our taxes, payroll and advise us on cash flow, etc. Yes, it was more expensive than the family accountant we used prior, but it has made a world of difference. 

More recently we have started working with an HR consultant to help us shore up some HR compliance practices, but more importantly to help us think through recruiting and retention.

Our Reason for Being

Obviously we are here to support our clients and provide them with impeccable results and service, but we wouldn’t be here without our team. We started this business out of necessity – a necessity to have a flexible work environment that allowed us to still take care of our daughter but also bring in enough money to live our lives. 

Early on, we decided we wanted to create a company that allows people like us–smart, ambitious people–with a particular family or personal need that want to be able to do great rewarding work, but also have the flexibility to do what they need to do on the homefront. 

We are on a mission to create a people-centric, family-first, inspired workplace. I am proud to say that we are well on our way to doing that.

  • We have a team member who is able to get her daughter ready for school and walk her to the bus stop every morning. She is also able to be there to greet her every day when she gets home.
  • We have a team member who is able to keep her newborn out of daycare and be there for all the precious moments.
  • We have a team member who is able to be a part-time caregiver for an ailing relative.

And while they do all of this, they are also delivering amazing work

A Lot to Be Thankful For

Similarly, with our business, there are still things that we need to improve, and there likely always will be, but we have really made some great strides over the past 6 months.

  • We have an amazing team that are smart, dedicated and really embody our values.
  • We have great clients, who value our expertise and treat us as a partner.
  • We have much-improved processes that are helping us improve the consistency and reliability of our work and also are helping us scale.

Let’s get to the Point ?

In case the story bored you and you wanted to skip all the way to the end… you are a heartless person, and I can’t help you.

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Just kidding, here are what I believe to be the core learnings over the past 4 years of building and running this business:

1.) Figure out your niche, product-market fit, whatever you want to call it, but figure it out, and do it as quickly as you can. This will save you a lot of headaches, and will also keep you focused. It’s amazing how niching down into a B2B performance marketing company has made it much easier to pitch business, build repeatable processes, etc.

2.) Know your “why.” It may sound cheesy, but your why is really your north star and it helps you and your team make the right decision quicker, more often and more consistently. It also helps get through the tough times, of which there will be plenty.

3.) Process, process, processP-R-O-C-E-S-S !  Just about every mistake, problem, issue, annoyance we have had has been due to either a lack of, or a broken process. You can’t scale a business unless it’s repeatable, and you can’t have repeatable work without a documented process in place. Every part of your business should be operationalized.

4.) People. It’s all about the people. Having the right team in place will make all the difference in the world. This isn’t just skillset, even though that is extremely important, it’s also culture fit. It’s being able to enjoy working with these people day-in and day-out. And don’t forget to bring in people better and smarter than you. To a certain extent, you are trying to replace yourself, at least in the jobs and functions that aren’t your strong suit.

5.) If you have people, then you need to invest in training and development. It doesn’t matter how experienced the people are when they come into your company, your job is to ensure that they understand, support and live your mission, vision, values and core competencies. Your people may be better or smarter than you in a particular field, but they still need to be taught how you think, your vision and how to operate within your company.

6.) Get help. Get help from people who are experts in a particular field – accounting, finance, HR, marketing, sales, etc. Ask for advice, pay for advice, pay for the work, whatever, just get help. There is absolutely no way that you know the best way to manage your books and tax strategy and know how to hire the best people and know how to develop a sales team, etc.

7.) Keep moving forward. There will be setbacks. There will be days where you wonder why the hell you got into this business in the first place, but as long as you are able to take your licks, learn your lessons, pick yourself up and keep moving forward, it’s all still worth it.

8.) Cash is king… and cash flow is the king’s battle plan. If that plan fails, then your business is likely screwed. Get in with a good local business bank, get yourself a credit line, even if you don’t technically need it, and make sure you understand the economic engine of your business. Once you know it, make sure your team knows it too.

I am no expert, and I definitely have plenty left to learn, but hopefully my business story and the lessons I have learned can help someone else on their entrepreneurial journey with their baby/babies!