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10 things you need to know about running a startup

This article was republished with permission from blankanvas, the personal blog of Pat Law. Pat is the founder of GOODSTUPH, a social media agency in Singapore.

GOODSTUPH has passed its two-year mark without needing Government’s funding* nor a bank loan. It has kept steadily in the black from Day One.

Along the way, we gave birth to two other babies; GOOD Stories – a creative platform that brings the best stories forward and has often seen a 100% attendance rate event after event, and Another Good Thing, a social laboratory that produces creative solutions that make life better (an example is SocialKit).

I think it’s safe to say, by some 30 brands we manage and market, that we’re not your typical douchebag of a social media agency.

I’d be the first to admit that whilst I was comfortable churning strategic plans and campaign ideas, running an agency was an unfamiliar domain I had yet to visit then. I’ve witnessed some of the greatest creative minds fall when they went independent. So yes, the fear was inevitable.

There were certain values and processes I integrated into running GOODSTUPH, which I thought, might be useful for the budding entrepreneur reading this. Enjoy the following at your own peril. Here are the 10 things you need to know about running a start-up:

1. Be extremely self-aware and address your weaknesses heads-on.

I haven’t run my own business before. Ok, let’s ask a few people who have.

I’m bad with numbers. Ok, hire the best accountant in town to manage the books (my accountant is that good, she gets IRAS providing me a rebate on taxes).

I’m not a natural car salesman. That’s fine. No cold calls or massive pitches. Focus on clients who’ve been with you for the last decade. They know what you’re capable of.

My personality is not for everyone. That’s fine too. You have a choice now. You want clients who inspire you to put your life down on the line for them. You don’t want clients who make you want to quit the industry altogether. You certainly don’t want a slimming centre for a client who places a feminist quote about true beauty coming from within above a “10 slimming sessions for $888” fugly slimming offer (true story).

2. Stop behaving like a startup.

Successful start-ups are never referred as start-ups, and one can’t help but wonder – why not? Microsoft. Apple. Leo Burnett. Ogilvy. Louis Vuitton. In their infancy stages, were they all not start-ups?

GOODSTUPH runs with the same level of professionalism as you’d expect from a typical agency (contact report within 24 hours, production timelines, detailed post-campaign reports, blah blah blah) and the personality of an indie label (we wear shorts and work from a café on Fridays, we talk to our clients like human beings and not stiff retards in business suits and ties, and we don’t wait for a brief in order to think of an idea).

I cannot emphasize the importance of the former for business survival. I’ve worked with several start-ups and while some were such joy to work with, there were also some that have made me swear off them for good.

Dude, just because you had a fight with your girlfriend doesn’t mean you can fuck up your work with me. Which part of me looks like I give a flying fuck about your personal life? You know what? I won’t even need to hear this personal bullshit if I was working with Ogilvy.

Here’s the thing – running a start-up does not give you the excuse to act like an emotional, irresponsible teenager. Quit having the “freelancer attitude” if you want to be paid more than a freelancer.

3. Money matters.

Unless you’re leeching off the Government’s money or daddy’s trust fund, money matters. A lot. In the ideal world, you get to do whatever you want for a living, and still be able to afford your gorgeous walk-up apartment, vintage sports car, and caviar every night for dinner. Not a lot of us are lucky enough to live in that ideal world.

While I didn’t have a business plan for GOODSTUPH for writing a plan with bombastic marketing jargons for myself felt a bit ridiculous, I did scribble my revenue pie down on a Starbucks napkin. One-third: Fun stuff clients pay for. Two-thirds: Boring bread-and-butter stuff clients pay for. 0.005%: Random fun stuff we do, just because. I don’t necessarily enjoy every bit of the bread-and-butter stuff, but I dare say we take a lot of pride in being the best craftsmen that we can be, even for the most mundane of work.

Having a healthy cash flow also means that your employees are paid on time, you get the luxury of giving better benefits, and everyone gets to go on a nice company trip beyond Bali on Garuda Airlines.

4. Learn to say no.

Standard Chartered Bank came to us with a brief once, and I knew immediately from experience that we were incapable of meeting the objectives. It was simply not impossible. The budget was generous and as reluctant as I was, I knew I had to decline the brief. I couldn’t afford to let our reputation go down the drain, especially being this young.

The client responded with a “Thank you for your professionalism” and came back to us a month later with another brief, this time with a fatter budget. It turned out to be the much celebrated “World’s Coolest Intern” campaign. I kept that email as a reminder to myself never to put money before professional integrity.

5. Always be prepared to walk away.

The Godmother of Advertising, Linda Locke, told me once during our monthly lunches that I must always be prepared to walk away from a business deal. That advice serves me extremely well in negotiations. It’s not always about price; it’s about personality too. I once had a prospective client say “now that we have your ideas, we can execute them ourselves so can you tell me how you’d value-add so that we can give you the business?”. It was crystal clear we had different values from the client, and I was very happy to walk away from such people.

6. Don’t grow too fast.

In my first job as a Suit at a local agency, I witnessed the genocide of 50% of my colleagues being retrenched in one single day, all because the Managing Director expanded the team too quickly without securing the optimal revenue required for sustenance. It was the stupidity of one man paid for by some 15 innocent employees. I told myself then that I’d never want to be that person. I’m responsible for my people. It’s my duty to help them grow their careers, not fire them because I’m a dimwit in management.

7. Take your time to hire.

On average, I take anywhere from 3 – 9 months to make a hire. Sure, I’ve have had some misjudgments (kids these days really know how to sell themselves, don’t they?), but I learn. I take my time because I’d rather clock in 4 hours more over the weekend than to spend an hour cleaning up some incompetent lazyass’ shit. It can get a little tedious, especially for my team, but each employee plays a pivotal role in defining what GOODSTUPH stands for. GOODSTUPH is only as good as her people.

8. Trust is the only reason why you’re still around.

If you promise something, you deliver. There are no buts to it. No compromise whatsoever. No excuses whatsoever. How do you think retainers are extended? How do you think pitches are won? How do you think products are sold? How do you think referrals are made? I promise you it’s not from your poetic manifesto about your agency.

9. Respect the competition.

It’s in our handbook – we do not ever bitch about our competitors. We let our work do the talking instead. I’m anal about this rule because firstly, it’s juvenile, and secondly, it’s plain arrogant. Arrogance fogs wisdom.

I’ve always found it fairly amusing when a competitor bitches about GOODSTUPH or I. It’s amusing because I get the updates from the audience themselves (prospective clients or agency partners), all whom have personally worked with me previously.

Look, it makes you look completely stupid because you haven’t worked with me before and they have. And for those clients who’ve naively believed your words, I won’t want them as clients anyway. Working with narrow-minded clients isn’t the most pleasant experience.

10. Good but never great.

Strive for perfection but recognize that there’s always room for improvement. If you want to be great, you must not settle. Don’t be too comfortable in your seat for it numbs your drive after a while.

That’s all I have for now. Let me know what you think, or if you have any other suggestions too.

*I’d love to take a bite of that cash cow too, but the paperwork involved is way too painful. I’d end up needing funding to hire someone to get me funding.

About the author

Pat Law is a feisty digital strategist by day, armed with thru-the-line advertising experience. She is the Boss Lady of GOODSTUPH, a badass social influence studio residing the heart of Chinatown, by the roof of a little shophouse. Dousing society’s concerns with biting humour nicely delivered through her piercing words, Pat sees blankanvas as the rehabilitation centre she couldn’t afford. Pat wrote for LOTL International and iSh and now writes for Singapore Architect. And her mum’s endless complaint letters on bad service.


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