A big vision. Too many startups launch without big goals or plans. The entrepreneur thinks she will have all sorts of freedom because she is self-employed. The reality is that too many founders haven’t done much more than create jobs for themselves.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and huge obstacles.
Yet we of course know that most startups don’t end up as success stories. What does a founder or a founding team need to know to create a highly successful startup?
In this series, called “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup” we are talking to experienced and successful founders and business leaders who can share stories from their experience about what it takes to create a highly successful startup.
I had the pleasure of interviewing Adam J. Williams.
Adam is the founder of Rust Belt Business Law, based in Erie, PA. His mission is to restore the rust belt with entrepreneurship, job creation, and dad jokes. His law firm helps small businesses pursue opportunities and improve our economy.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Before we dive in, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
Like a lot of entrepreneurs, my parents owned their own businesses. I grew up in an environment where you can control your own outcomes, you are responsible for all failures, and if you’re following the masses, you’re probably going in the wrong direction. As a consequence, I never had a chance in the workforce. I joke that I’m the least employable person I know. I was only going to make a living if I started my own business.
When I was in college, I tried a few different things: I owned a house painting business, I started a kiosk at our mall as a satellite of my parents’ business. But I was graduating from college with a degree in Business Management, and I learned that employers don’t really want to hire you to manage things if you’re fresh out of school.
So like a lot of people who don’t know what to do after college, I headed to law school.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I’ve always been a prolific reader. It seems like every book you read on starting a business starts with the same two chapters. Chapter 1: make sure you’re REALLY cut out to be an entrepreneur. Chapter 2: make sure you have a good accountant and a good lawyer.
After law school, I got a job at a Big 4 Accounting Firm, and I realized that life wasn’t for me. I then got a job clerking for a Judge, and he let me start my practice on the side. After about 6 months, I was able to quit my job with the Judge, and I’ve been signing my own paychecks ever since.
If there was one “aha” moment, it happened when I was meeting with an accountant. I was getting advice on starting my law firm (see Chapter 2 of every book on starting a business), and he told me I should do business law, because they needed someone to refer work to.
So that’s when I decided that small business would be my focus.
Was there somebody in your life who inspired or helped you to start your journey with your business? Can you share a story with us?
My dad. He was a serial entrepreneur. But he had one primary business (a car stereo shop) that he used to launch a bunch of other ideas, like a speaker company, and a car dealership, and a home theater business. He was always grinding, and negotiating, and finding ways to make money. He definitely passed a lot of that mindset on to me.
We had this sign hanging above the front door of my house growing up. It was a quote from Hanibal (look him up) and it said “We will either find a way or make one.” Hanibal coined that phrase while he was trying to get an army of elephants across the Alps, which seemed like an impossible task to most. My parents took this attitude into everything they did. Set your sights on the goal, and find a way to make it happen.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
We are based in Erie, Pennsylvania. Three blocks down the street from our front door is the poorest zip code in America. We are consistently ranked one of the slowest growing cities in America. And based on the types of businesses that start here, we are ranked as one of the least entrepreneurial cities in America.
Yet our law firm is growing like crazy. The Law firm 500 ranked us as the #68 fastest growing firm through 2019. And when the COVID pandemic hit, our business took off. We were able to help businesses across the country with PPP Loans, and EIDL Loans, and the Employee Retention Credit. We brought a lot of outside money into our community, and created great jobs.
We recently opened our office in Pittsburgh, and we have plans to expand throughout the region as the country emerges from the pandemic. We work with companies of all sizes from solopreneurs, to family businesses, to Inc. 5000 companies.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Businesses less than 5 years old create 95% of net new jobs in this country. In other words, older businesses create and destroy jobs at the same pace. Small businesses create more jobs than they eliminate.
Our practice helps business owners start, grow, and create jobs.
Our clients like working with a law firm that is technically proficient with the legal work, of course, but we also bring an entrepreneurial mindset to our work, and we have a lot of fun doing it.
I’ve also used the resources the law firm generated to launch some other fun ventures. In 2016, we launched a board game poking fun at politics and the Presidential Election, which put us on the national news. And in 2018, a business partner and I launched the Big Cheese Food Truck, which served gourmet grilled cheese sandwiches. We sold the truck in 2019, and it’s still a huge success.
We also have some less tangible successes. I think I’m part of a segment of our community that knows we can’t rely on certain types of jobs to “come back.” We need to lead a charge for new businesses, in new industries, with new skill sets. And I think we are helping to change that conversation in the Rust Belt.
You are a successful business leader. Which three character traits do you think were most instrumental to your success? Can you please share a story or example for each?
Confidence. You must have confidence in your ability to reach your goals — because you will be tested several times a day. You must have confidence in your decisions — because they will be questioned incessantly. People will doubt you at every turn. Things won’t go perfectly. You need to believe in yourself and your mission.
Compassion. We deal with some really tricky issues for our clients. We really need to care about them. We need to give a crap (we use a stronger word) about them, their lives, their families, their employees. When the pandemic started, we started a campaign to call all of our clients. We knew they were scared. But we knew if we helped them, they would help their clients, and the cycle would perpetuate. It’s hard to give good legal advice if you don’t really care about your clients.
Coachability. This was a tough one for me. When I first started, I thought I had to figure out everything on my own. I installed the drapes, I assembled the desk, I did all of my social media posts. Eventually, I started to listen to other people. They told me to hire experts and build my team. Now I can focus on what I’m great at, and what I love to do. And other people can handle so many other things. I also needed to be coached for personal development. It turns out that we tolerate a lot of things in our lives if we don’t have standards. I noticed that as I increased my standards for the car I drove, or the condition of my home, or the team I surrounded myself with, my business grew even more rapidly. I couldn’t have done any of this on my own.
Often leaders are asked to share the best advice they received. But let’s reverse the question. Can you share a story about advice you’ve received that you now wish you never followed?
“Do a good job at a fair price, and you’ll have plenty of clients.”
I stuck with that for years.
I wish I hadn’t.
It turns out we need to do a great job at a fair price. And we need to promote our business. A lot of people still don’t like that attorneys can advertise. I think that’s an incredibly outdated belief, and it’s a horrible disservice to our clients if we don’t market ourselves. People hire lawyers because we make their lives better. Why wouldn’t I want to tell people about that?
Then it turns out that the more we market ourselves, the more we need to grow our team, and the more people we can help. So, it’s very important to me that our business continues to grow, because that means we are making a lot more entrepreneurs’ lives better.
So now have increased our level of services, our fees match the level of service, and we serve more clients than ever before, which means our impact is growing.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In 2017, I took my family to Disney. I had two employees at the time, and my son was 6 years old. Every time we were waiting in line for a ride, I was on my phone or sending emails. I had a to-do list that I worked on every day. I was still having the “Sunday Scaries” before Monday morning, and when I got back, my staff told me that it didn’t feel any different having me out of the office. I didn’t come back relaxed, or refreshed. I came back with even more stress.
Shortly after that, one of my best friends, who owned his own business, committed suicide. That was incredibly eye-opening for me. He and I were both in the “hustle and grind” crowd. I realized I was working too hard. I realized I didn’t have a real business. I only had a really crappy job that I could never escape from.
That’s when I started changing how our law firm operates. Since then I’ve focused on building a business that works for me. Fast forward to this year, and my dad had a stroke. I was able to spend a month in Florida helping him and my mom. It’s not like I was on vacation for a month; I kept working. But I was able to get away, and our clients were still taken care of.
On the way back from helping my parents, we took a few days off in our RV. I came back relaxed and refreshed, and I created some huge new opportunities for our firm because my mind was in the right place.
Of course, I have similar struggles to a lot of business owners. We need more clients. Cash crunches happen. It’s a challenge recruiting enough talent. But those are the things I’m working on every day. Losing a friend because of the stresses of running a business changed my outlook on everything.
Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard? What strategies or techniques did you use to help overcome those challenges?
Keep your eye on the prize. I try to have a big vision of our future. One of my mentors uses a story of a rocket headed for mars. It’s actually off-course 99% of the time, constantly adjusting along the way, but eventually lands precisely where it was supposed to. As long as I keep my focus on the big-picture: creating jobs, finding opportunities, and improving our economy, the little problems every day don’t throw me off course.
I also try to be mindful of the wins, no matter how big or small. I used to track wins in the courtroom, or with successful negotiations for our clients. Now I’ve hired attorneys to work at our firm who win those battles on our client’s behalf. I can celebrate new wins like successful marketing campaigns, innovative and creative legal strategies, new business opportunities, and even smaller things like our office WiFi was successfully upgraded.
I’ve also decided that I don’t have any alternatives. There is no backup plan. Our law firm MUST succeed so that I can accomplish my personal, professional, and financial goals.
The journey of an entrepreneur is never easy, and is filled with challenges, failures, setbacks, as well as joys, thrills and celebrations. Can you share a few ideas or stories from your experience about how to successfully ride the emotional highs & lows of being a founder”?
You have to celebrate the little wins. Every day, make a list of the victories you had from the day before. You need to be your own cheerleader, and if you aren’t mindful of the little things, they can get buried in all of the problems and setbacks. Being a startup founder, even if you have a partner, can be really isolating. You usually won’t have anyone standing in your corner; you will sometimes feel like no one is on your side.
You also need to know when to stay the course, and when to adjust your goals. Big goals, and a big vision, can help get you over the hurdles and speedbumps that will get in your way.
We have a lot of clients that think they can take out a bank loan to get their business started. They talk to bankers who assure them that the deal will fund. But after the business plan is submitted, and the application is finalized, the client learns they never really had a shot at getting a loan. They repeat this process 2, 3, or 10 times. That can be really disheartening. Eventually, they may find a bank willing to lend, or an investor who sees the vision. But all too often, they abandon the idea.
There isn’t a ton of recognition for the type of work we do. A client may close on a $10 million business purchase, and our role may not be seen as key in making that happen. Certainly, we think we played a crucial role, either making sure the deal closes, or building in adequate protection for our client. But the reality is it’s the client story that makes the front page of the paper, not the great contracts we wrote. We love working with clients that allow us to celebrate those wins with them, because they realize we played a big role as Trusted Advisors.
Let’s imagine that a young founder comes to you and asks your advice about whether venture capital or bootstrapping is best for them? What would you advise them? Can you kindly share a few things a founder should look at to determine if fundraising or bootstrapping is the right choice?
Bootstrapping. Almost without exception. Getting VC money, and reaching a successful exit, is like trying to get into the major leagues. I’m glad kids have that vision, but the truth is that only a small percentage of them will make it.
VC’s will want some level of control of the company. It’s understandable since they want to make sure their dollars are spent appropriately. But this can get in the way of your vision, and things can head in a direction that you don’t like.
We also see that companies that are too well-funded lose sight of their business plan. They worry more about keeping their investors happy than keeping their customers happy. In really bad situations, they focus more on investors than on GETTING customers or clients. Their financial controls are less stringent, they allow employees to underperform, and there is less of a need to run a business that’s actually profitable.
When business owners focus too much on appeasing investors, they lose sight of the customer. They become less worried about what their customers actually want, or whether they are willing to buy. They don’t realize when it’s time to pivot, adapt, or change an offering — because the need to adapt goes away when you have a long enough runway.
There are a few exceptions to this rule. Sometimes businesses need a huge infusion of cash to reach the next level. They need to make sure they have a clear plan for how the cash will be invested (not spent) and where the return will come from.
The reality is that a business with paying customers (and actual profit) will be much more valuable to a venture capitalist. And even if they can’t find investment, at least they are profitable, which permits so many additional opportunities.
I love seeing unicorns, and even smaller startups that pick up a million dollars in investment early on. They’re great stories. But some people start to think it’s the only way to operate. We need more stories of the founder who grows a business and creates jobs and a good living for him/herself.
Ok super. Here is the main question of our interview. Many startups are not successful, and some are very successful. From your experience or perspective, what are the main factors that distinguish successful startups from unsuccessful ones? What are your “Five Things You Need To Create A Highly Successful Startup”? If you can, please share a story or an example for each.
- A big vision. Too many startups launch without big goals or plans. The entrepreneur thinks she will have all sorts of freedom because she is self-employed. The reality is that too many founders haven’t done much more than create jobs for themselves. There is no freedom. If you can walk away from your business for a week (or more), and it continues to grow and generate a profit, you have a business. If you can’t walk away without the thing crashing into the ground, or losing money, you have a job. Think big. Think about how the business can generate a profit without your direct involvement.
You should get paid in two ways. First, by working in the business, you can collect a salary for the job you do. Second, the business should generate income for you beyond your salary because you operate it profitably; this is the reward for the risk you take in starting a business. All too often, we see the landscaper or the carpenter who decides to hang his own shingle. He ends up working 7 days per week, sometimes as the technician, and sometimes as the business owner trying to figure out marketing, bookkeeping, and recruiting. He’s making less money than he would have in his old job, and he has even less freedom.
Take time to work “on” your business, not just “in” your business. That’s become a cliche for me over the years, but it is still vitally important. The time I take to adapt our strategy, or document our policies and procedures, or to learn new skills has the biggest impact on my business and my life. I spent a long weekend creating a new subscription program for our business. It launched in January, and 4 months later, it makes up about 10% of our firm’s revenue. If I didn’t step away from client work to map out that plan, where would we be?
2. Plan for failure. Yeah, I said it. I’m a big believer in manifesting what you want. Have a clear vision, build a plan, and believe you can achieve it. However, you need to have a backup plan. The most common place we see this is with partnerships. The partners don’t bother to have a partnership agreement that helps them handle disagreements, death, distributions, disability, or any other scenarios that can be catastrophic to a business. It happens to single owner companies, too. They jump in and sign a 5 year lease, with no ability to exit that contract. Most businesses don’t last that long, and they call us to “get out” of a contract. If you didn’t write your contract with a way to “get out,” it’s going to be binding for the full term — that’s why we have contracts!
I think the other value to this exercise is that it forces business owners to think about the worst case scenario. That’s a really great way to eliminate much of the fear that entrepreneurs face. Once you realize that “things wouldn’t be that bad,” you can move forward with a lot more confidence.
For example: What if I hire this highly-paid employee, and they just don’t work out? Think through it. Well, we’re going to have KPI’s and metrics to hold them accountable. If they can’t meet the requirements of the job, we will have to let them go. I’ll feel bad for a little bit, but they had control of the work they put in. Plus, my team will probably be grateful that I saved them from a sub-par teammate.
Don’t assume that things will go perfectly. They never do.
3. Get help. Too many entrepreneurs have the mentality that they have to do it all — they have to wear all of the hats. I started this way, too. You can’t be rowing the ship, and be at the helm at the same time. If you’re struggling to make your own website, and trying to design your logo, and working your way through a new piece of software, you can’t be out scouting the next opportunity for your business.
I think the underlying problem is that too many entrepreneurs undervalue their time. They think “I can’t hire a designer, I don’t have any money.” But the reality is that if they hired the designer, they could be out growing their business. I have some real estate investor clients who prefer to repair their own toilets. If you’re fixing a toilet, who’s going to find the next million dollar deal for you?
There’s also the fact that when you hire a professional, things will get done more quickly. Successful entrepreneurs achieve success because of results, not effort. The faster you can move, the farther ahead you will be.
Be willing to ask advice, pay for advice, and take the good advice. Play to your strengths, and hire the rest.
4. Make quick decisions. There are millions of people out there who could be successful business owners, but they never take the first step. They think about starting a business for months or years, analyzing every possible outcome, making excuses about being unable to quit their jobs.
One of my mentors teaches about marketing and he says “Done is better than perfect.” A marketing campaign with subpar graphics, and the occasional typo, will generate more leads than the marketing campaign that’s sitting on the shelf waiting for you to do the final review. Get it done.
I’ve learned my lesson in this arena regarding employees. I’ve had candidates ask for more money than I thought the position should pay. After spending two weeks crunching numbers, and figuring out how to make it work, they already found another job. These are A-players that I could have had on my team, developing them and my business, but I didn’t move fast enough.
5. Always think “What’s next?” It’s so easy to get stuck in the day-to-day grind. Think at least a step ahead. I use this to leverage my time as much as possible. I recently did a radio interview, and it lasted about an hour. I recorded my end of the interview, and had it transcribed. I then used that transcript to create blogs and marketing emails.
Our successful clients always have the next project lined up while working on the current project. If you don’t have that pipeline built, in any area of your business, you’ll stall out.
What are the most common mistakes you have seen CEOs & founders make when they start a business? What can be done to avoid those errors?
They try to do it all on their own. I feel bad for the founders who spent hours researching legal issues online, just to find out in a 15 minute phone call with me that what they found was completely wrong. What a waste of time. And this carries over into other areas of their business. They try to set up their own social media ads, or do their own bookkeeping. Their inefficiency in taking on these tasks is significant, and the mistakes they make could become huge distractions later on.
As I mentioned above, another common mistake is that founders don’t think about the possibility that things could go wrong. A business divorce, where partners split up, can be incredibly expensive. It adds stress to an already bad situation. I’m not sure why founders only assume things will work out. I once had a client who wrote his business plan based on his company operating at 100% efficiency all the time. He thought that if he could produce 1,000 widgets, he would sell 1,000 widgets, and they would get paid full asking price for 1,000 widgets. Anyone who has owned a business knows that there will be production problems, there will be sales problems, and people will want discounts and refunds. Guess where his business is now.
Startup founders often work extremely long hours and it’s easy to burn the candle at both ends. What would you recommend to founders about how to best take care of their physical and mental wellness when starting a company?
The easy answer is to make sure you exercise and eat right. But it’s easy to skip the workout with so many things to get done. I’ve found that I need a routine, and an accountability partner. I know if I’m meeting my trainer at 7am on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, I’ve got no excuses. When I start slipping, he makes me send him photographs of everything I eat.
My morning routine really helps with mental wellness. I map out my plan for the day, document my wins from the day prior, and make a gratitude list. This helps me realize all of the good that’s out there, and gain clarity around my priorities for the day.
I also make sure I treat myself properly, and value myself accordingly. Your environment matters. It was a big change for me when I got my first new car — now I make sure the interior is always spotless (tough with 2 kids). When we fly, we fly first class. I have an Executive Assistant who handles a lot for me, including picking up projects from my kids’ schools, or scheduling the exterminator for the carpenter bee problem on my garage. That really allows me to focus on the bigger stuff. In the past few years, we’ve really upgraded so many things in our lives, from custom clothes to better cars. And it carries over, because we no longer tolerate underperforming employees, or impossible clients.
Finally, plan intentional time away. It took me years to learn this. Sometimes, this means we take a family vacation. Sometimes, I need to rent a log cabin in the middle of nowhere by myself. Sometimes, I just work in my garage. But no matter what, my phone is shut off, and I’m not checking emails. My team knows how to reach me if there’s an emergency. And guess what, there has never been a problem they couldn’t figure out while I was gone.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Teach entrepreneurship in every grade level. Make the kids experience what it’s like. Very few people understand how business works. You need to provide value, charge appropriately, and manage your costs. Too many adults get paid just for showing up at their jobs. They could never actually fend for themselves. They are incapable of finding a way to get what they want.
Plus, I think this would teach kids that it’s okay to “fail.” Our education system punishes mistakes, rather than teaching kids how to learn from them. We are missing an opportunity to teach valuable life skills.
We are blessed that some very prominent names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.
Timothy S. Grover. I’m not much of an athlete, but this guy is a total badass. He trained Michael Jordan and Kobe, and works with the best athletes in the world. I read his book Relentless. He has a new book out now called W1NNING.
He brings an unbelievable combination of motivation and strategy when working with these athletes. He accepts no BS. He doesn’t allow excuses. I need more of those high-standards in my life.
And I’d probably take him out for something really unhealthy — pizza and beers, or something like that. I think he’d have to let his guard down.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
Facebook: Rust Belt Business Law
Homepage: www.RustBeltLegal.com, where we have a ton of free resources for business owners, and aspiring entrepreneurs.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!