Top 5 Lessons on the 5th Anniversary of a Start-Up: From Joe Boyd

Exactly 5 years ago today, I was sitting on Fountain Square in Cincinnati with my co-founders waiting for a wire to come into the bank from our angel investor. We needed the money to pay the deposit (and gain access) to our small office suite a few blocks away. The money eventually cleared and the four of us sat in that empty office in lawn chairs planning our world domination. Before the end of the day we had purchased office furniture – and we were off.

There was a lot of excitement those first few months. We had a dream and a plan and a year of start-up capital to give us what we thought was more than enough time to be self-sustaining. (It wasn’t.)

I often compare starting a business to having a baby. Your friends who have already started a business tell you it’s going to be the hardest thing you’ve ever done. You believe them, but you really have no idea until you are in the middle of it. They also tell you that it will be worth it. That’s true too.

I’ve learned enough in the first 5 years to fill a book. (One thing I’ve learned is that I don’t have time to write a book.) That said, I wanted to take a few minutes on our anniversary to share my top 5 lessons learned as the CEO and Founder of Rebel Pilgrim.

1. It’s always, always, always about people.

Don’t get me wrong. Business plans are important. Strategy, marketing, efficiency, creativity, systems – all essential. But business is all about people. My company is the sum total of the people we’ve invited into our team and the people my team has interacted with. I can’t even recount the number of times when I saw absolutely no way we could keep going and a person showed up to get us to the next level. Sometimes it was a new hire, but most of the time it was either a mentor or a new client. I’ve learned anytime we get stuck, there is always someone out there who wants to help us. It’s my job to look for them.

2. Cash is oxygen.

One of our first clients, my friend Ray Attiyah, used to constantly tell me that for a start-up, “cash is oxygen.” What he meant was that you can’t survive very long without it. Cash flow management was an essential skill I had to learn quickly. Our company offers creative and video services to other businesses. We constantly find ourselves in a position to spend money in order to make money. As we work with more and more Fortune 1000 companies with net-60s and net-90s, we find ourselves often not getting paid for months. It’s hard for a young company to get a traditional line of credit. I’ve used personal loans and personal credit cards to get us through lean times. But you can’t borrow your way to profitability, which brings me to my third lesson.

3. Everyone, especially the CEO, is a salesperson.

One of the most exciting things about this current fiscal year is that it is the first year in our history when other people have sold as much as me. I didn’t think that I was getting into sales when I launched my creative agency. I naively thought I would be primarily doing creative work. I get to do some of that, but about 70% of my time is spent in sales and expanding the business. I’m not a classic salesperson either. I’m an introvert. But I’m good at it in this context. Nobody knows what makes Rebel Pilgrim valuable to a potential partner better than me. That’s the way it should be. If the CEO can’t (or won’t) sell, then there’s a big problem.

4. Pivot is a buzz word, but…

Whenever I hear the word “pivot” I think of learning to play basketball in elementary school. I remember my coach teaching me that I had to establish a pivot foot and I could turn my body in any direction as long as that foot didn’t leave the ground. If it did, I would be guilty of traveling and the other team would get the ball.

I hear the word a lot in current business-speak. I use it not because it’s popular but because it’s true. We pivoted our way to success. We moved in every direction imaginable without lifting our foot from the floor. We’ve had the same mission since day one: to tell stories that spark hope and action. We started off as an entertainment company with a business plan to make two feature films per year. Now film production is only about 10% of our revenue. What we do changed dramatically– we consult companies around the power of storytelling and provide them with the videos they need to stand out in a busy world. Why we do it has never changed. It took us about 4 years to find our niche, but we did it by pivoting without traveling.

5. It’s just work.

Most entrepreneurs are wired to throw themselves completely into their company. There’s no such thing as a 40-hour work week for people like us. Most successful companies were started by a person or group of people with a nearly obsessive compulsive desire to make it work. We are no different.

However, it is just a job. It’s not your whole life. About two years ago I started having some strange physical symptoms that got my attention – blurry vision, tingling in my hands and feet, shooting pain in my arms, legs and head, numbness in my face. I went for tests and nothing was found to be wrong with me, which actually made it worse. It took a full-throated chorus of my family doctor, chiropractor, shrink, pastor, wife, mother and co-workers telling me it was anxiety for me to believe it. But it was. I was anxious because I loved my company and lived in fear that it might not succeed. As a result, I missed months of my life living preoccupied with potential future calamities unable to enjoy the personal and professional goodness all around me. The last 9 months have been better as I’ve taken more and more time to battle my anxiety.

The biggest lesson of all is that if it’s really all about people, then that includes my family and closest friends – and me. If I succeed without those relationships or my own health, what have I really achieved? I look forward to the next 5 years. I believe we will have noteworthy success and influence as a company.

But even if we don’t, it will all be worth it.

Rebel Pilgrim is a creative agency based in Cincinnati, Ohio. Rebel Pilgrim believes that story is the only way to spark change and create excitement for any business or product. Start converting your uninterested crowds into engaged clients using the power of storytelling.