Start-up Success: Big Heart, Big Ears, Tiny Head

The Youth Cartel is my second start-up.

My first, Youth Ministry Exchange, had acquisition in its DNA from it’s day one. Launched in 2005 and sold in 2008 we wanted to acquire as many users as possible, as quickly as possible. We wanted as much activity as we could get, as quickly as possible. The “why” of that was simple. Get big and sell quick.

It was all heart and balls. 

We had no idea what we were doing.

And, my hope, was that we’d build it up and sell it rather quickly. Literally, that took 3 years. At the end of 3 years we’d grown like crazy, nearly collapsed because of the insanity of our structure, and regrouped enough to sell it.

Personally, as an owner, I learned a ton with YMX. I made some terrible mistakes along the way. But in those 3 years I got an MBA from the business school of life, kept it all legal, kept all our documentation, and managed to grow it enough to sell. We didn’t get rich off selling it. But we took something that we started for less than $100 in capital investment and sold it to a subsidiary of one of the largest media companies in the world.

Not bad for a first try!

A lot is different about the Cartel. But in a ton of ways, we’ve picked up from the lessons of YMX and built upon that success. Because of YMX I had a clue about structuring the business side, was a lot faster to keep the right documentation, and all of that.

One core difference between YMX and the Cartel is one of acquisition. We never built YMX to last because we had a short-term goal of building it up and selling it. The flip side is that, since the beginning, the Cartel has been designed to be “it” for Marko and I. We’re not interested in a 3-4 year build up to acquisition. Instead, we’re looking at how to build something that’ll last and be significant for a long period of time. We think we’re offering something that folks in ministry to adolescents need now and will always need.

The Garage

The Cartel is just about ready to outgrow it’s “garage” phase. American culture has a fascination with small businesses that got started in a garage. Companies like HP, Apple, and Microsoft had their earliest years in a garage. Our team is dispersed… so it’s more accurate to say the Cartel is in a Living Room phase. But, several hours per week I am quite literally in our garage working away. So I know that while it’s romantic to think of a start-up working out of a garage, in the moment it’s far from sexy. It’s sometimes 120 degrees in the garage. It’s always full of cob webs. And you just have to get used to people walking by and staring at you. “No, this isn’t a meth lab. We have a business license. Yes, the UPS truck really does have to come every day… sorry if it is loud.”

The point is sharing all of this is simply this: I’ve learned some things along the way. Not very many people can say they’ve bootstrapped two start-ups… and both of them have worked out.

3 Lessons for Those Thinking About Starting Up

Here’s 3 things I’ve learned from two successful start-ups that I think are universally transferable.

  1. Big Heart – You have to love what you are doing. You. have. to. love. it. But beyond love, you have to have a heart for what you are creating and the people whom you are creating for. Having a big heart means saying yes to the right things. And it also means saying yes to the wrong things sometimes because you need to make some sacrifices in order to pay the bills. I can’t tell you how many times with both YMX and the Cartel that we’ve had to go back to the heart of the matter. “What in the world are we doing right now?” To make it, you have to love what you’re doing, the people you are serving, and the vision for what you’re trying to do. Starting up ain’t easy. There are going to be times where you have to will it to succeed… and that comes only from the heart.
  2. Big Ears – If you’re “all heart” you are screwed. I can’t tell you how many start-up businesses and non-profits that I’ve seen fail because they started with all heart but were completely deaf. The earliest phases of starting up, you’ll hear from your friends. People will be super encouraging. They will love what you are doing. They will buy something or invest a little. But you need to be really careful with that because if you aren’t careful you can start listening to the wrong people. If you are really going to make it you need a big heart and big ears. What I mean by big ears is: You need to listen better than anyone you know. You need to listen to the advice of experts. You need to listen when someone tells you that you need help. You need to listen to that little voice that asks, “Um, think I need a license to do this?” Listening will save you so much pain when it comes to creating your start-up. But I find that having big ears goes further than just the operational side of things. You need to have big ears to really listen to what your target audience needs from you. Often times they’ll tell you they want something but really don’t. And the only way you’ll know what to do is to listen with big ears.
  3. Tiny Head – Starting-up is going to feel arrogant and selfish. Not because it necessarily is, but it takes some amount of brashness to strike out on your own and seek to make your ideas a reality. But you need to understand that if this thing you are creating is going to make it, it’ll be grow out of your humility and struggle where you are arrogant. This is particularly true beyond the initial start-up time of getting things going. Once you’ve launched and things start moving fast… if you’ve got a big head, it’ll be an anchor dragging you down. You have to constantly hold onto the heart part of your start-up but let go of your desire/need to make every decision. The best start-up leaders hold firmly to the heart of the organization but loosely to “how we get there” bits. Big head is death, tiny head is life.

These are 3 things I think you can take to the bank. Did you find this helpful? 






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