Be kinder. First, I want to state that I think you should be nice because quite simply, that’s the right thing to do. I also truly believe the more you give in life the more you get. If you are out to win every single business negotiation, if you think every interaction has a winner and a loser, if you think your success depends upon someone else’s failure, my philosophy is not for you. Give your time freely. Pay your invoices fast.
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 Bill Balderaz.
Bill Balderaz is the president and founder of Futurety, a data analytics and marketing consulting firm. As president and founder, Bill helps organizations derive insights from data to predict customer behavior and deliver smarter, faster marketing programs. Bill is an alumni from Bowling Green State University and Franklin University where he earned his Bachelor’s degree and MBA, respectively. He and his businesses have been featured in news outlets, including, The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, NPR, and All Things Considered.
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?
I grew up in a small town in rural Ohio and attended college at Bowling Green. I started my career in 1998, working in SEO, online advertising, eCommerce, HTML based online learning, social media, viral marketing, and more. I’ve always been drawn to innovation and entrepreneurship. My first four jobs out of college were all with startups that reached some type of exit. By the fourth time, I felt ready to do this on my own.
I’ve spoken at over 150 events around the country and have been featured in over 100 media outlets including The Wall Street Journal, Money Magazine, and NPR. I’ve started multiple companies in my career including Futurety — my current company. I’ve also had the opportunity to invest in about 20 other start ups.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
I had sold my equity in another company and was looking for my next thing. I joined a gym and bought a boat and drove everyone around me a little crazy.
I met with a few former clients and asked what their biggest challenge was. Over and over I heard that they needed help aggregating and visualizing data.
At first, I was planning on being a solopreneur, slowing down a bit. I was going to focus on just a few clients with data visualization needs. and hire smart grad students to help me. I bought the URL Futurety, and rented a small office. I had a small group of great clients and contractors. Then we landed a large contract and I saw that so many organizations needed help organizing and visualizing data.
I hired our first full time team members in the spring of 2017 and it’s been full speed ahead since then.
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?
I had three bosses here in Columbus who I would say are three of the top CEOs in the City.. Carol Clark, Pam Springer and Mike Morgan. I was working for Pam when I started my first company. I went to her with the idea. She supported me fully and became my first client. She was a mentor throughout building that company and helped out with our successful exit.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
On more than one occasion we’ve beaten out a global consulting titan or one of the big international communications firms for a deal. When we ask why we won, the answer is usually something like “well we found your people are just as good and you don’t have a chip on your shoulder”
You’re not going to get the ego maniac consultant with us. You’re going to get a super smart, hardworking team who you happen to also like as human beings. We have a “life is too short” rule which simply states that no matter how talented you are, if you’re a jerk, we won’t hire you.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I am a partner of TalentID Academy, a hands-on learning program that helps individuals find a future in data analytics based in Columbus, OH. In addition, I am a board member of Chapel Hill House, a Founding Board member of Lifting
Hopes and a member of Nationwide Children’s Hospital Entrepreneurs for Kids Everywhere committee.
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?
Relentless momentum forward. Entrepreneurship is hard. It’s tempting to just throw in the towel when things are rough or coast when things are good. Everyday, wake up and move forward. Lose a sale? Your product failed? Market shaky? Just keep moving forward. Never stop moving. Don’t look backward, you’re not going that way.
Build “personal-professional” relationships — In nearly every endeavor I’ve undertaken, my first clients have been friends and my first employees have been friends. I genuinely want to connect with people I know professionally and know them as people. Building those “personal-professional” relationships builds trust, accelerates movement and just makes your days happier.
You must be willing to learn from those with more experience. Arrogance kills more businesses than economics does. Go into each endeavor assuming you know nothing and then try to learn from others. There is a vast world of experienced people who have solved the same problem you are stumped on. You can make 100 mistakes until you figure it out or you can talk to someone who already made those 100 mistakes and they can tell you the answer.
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?
I remember one professor telling me that during an interview, I should be like Elizabeth Dole and thoughtfully pause for three seconds before answering a question. I did that in my next interview and after three questions the interviewer snapped at me and said “Will you stop doing that? Just answer! You’re driving me crazy!”
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
I started an online textbook company in 2005. Unfortunately, the use of tablets was just about non-existent and no one wanted to read a textbook on a 2005 desktop or laptop computer. I learned so much from that experience. First, I had a name I loved but no one could spell. Our team was all virtual with day jobs. I was a terrible leader unable to paint a vision. I had no network to lean on. I created a product the market didn’t understand.
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?
A couple of months ago I spent the day with a friend and successful entrepreneur. He is from a working family. He attended a public university and earned a liberal arts degree. He spent time in the military. He knew absolutely zero about the business he started.
Today, he runs a debt free business. It’s growing exponentially. He’s created many jobs in rural Ohio. He didn’t give up a dime of equity. His business is just a couple years old and will shatter the $2 million mark with great margins. His customers love him and his family is financially secure.
I asked him what his secrets are.
He said “I’m always scared and I never quit.”
I’ve been blessed in my career. I spent eight years working at startups. I’ve had the chance to advise and invest in more than two dozen startups. I’ve started, bought, and sold my own businesses. I’m always looking to see what separates successful ventures from the unsuccessful. My friend summed it up well.
It’s about a leader who won’t quit and is always scared.
A word on the scared part. Fear is like cholesterol. There is a good kind and a bad kind. Bad fear is what keeps from starting a business, going for a client out of your league, taking on a project that seems big, staring down a bigger better funded competitor or making a key hire.
Good fear is what causes you to have a bench of candidates available should a key team member leave. Good fear makes you sell as if you were 30% behind plan even if you’re 20% ahead of plan. Save six months of cash when four months is probably good enough.
My friend operated out of good fear. Aside from all the above, he was paying attention to what the China trade war would do to his supply chain, what disruptions at the post office would mean to his delivery costs, and the impact the presidential election could have on his business.
And he had plans B, C, and D for every contingency.
Still not sure of the difference between good fear and bad fear? Bad fear causes paralysis.
Good fear causes action.
After explaining his fears, he got into the never quit part. My friend talked about his time in the Army. He went into Officer Candidate School and said of the nearly 100 soldiers who started the program, only a few graduated.
“I wasn’t the smartest or toughest. It was harder than I could imagine. I just refused to quit.”
He shared the background on his business. He didn’t know how to manage a physical facility. He didn’t know how to negotiate with suppliers. He didn’t understand trade tariffs. He had no experience in compliance, machinery, or leasing. He learned a lot of hard and expensive lessons. Most everyone I know would have quit along the way.
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”?
I’ve failed at starting several companies and made a few terrible investments. My first LLC was a company that turned printed college textbooks into online textbooks that could be purchased in sections. We had a team, a licensing deal with a publisher, and some interest from colleges. However, this was about 2004. There were no iPads or widespread e-readers. In fact, a lot of students didn’t have laptops. Students didn’t really understand how to consume digital content. Professors couldn’t quite get on board with any content that wasn’t printed. We also had a terrible name, RenaissanceU, a name no one could spell.
The lesson I learned was that no matter how good an idea is, you need to validate it before going all in. The market is always right. The market didn’t want online textbooks in 2004. From then on my mantra was to get buyer commitment before building a product or service.
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?
I’ve been on both sides of this. The companies I worked for prior to being an entrepreneur all took on funding. I’ve invested in about 20 companies. However, I’ve chosen not to take funding for my companies.
If you are going into software or another capital intensive business with a long path to profitability, you probably don’t have much of a choice. You probably need funding. Just look for funding that is more than a check. Look for a backer who can help support you in areas where you and your team are lacking.
If you are in professional services or a retail or ecommerce business that can self fund, I say hold off on raising money.
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.
1. The market is always right. You’re smart, I believe that. And you may even be in the target demographic of your product. You may have a deep burning passion to make that thing. But the market is always right. Find out what the market wants and fill that need. I know great entrepreneurs who just knew they wanted to run a business, but had no idea what that business should be. You know what they did? They talked to potential customers and said “What problem could I solve for you today that would result in you writing me a check?” Then they made that thing.
2. Make that thing. Today, I am the CEO of a data analytics company. I took statistics pass/fail in college and can’t help my kids with anything past fifth grade math. But I went out and found great data scientists and mathematicians and built a company around them. If your market wants a product, go source that product. If they want a service, find people who can provide that service. The number one reason companies fail is lack of market fit, i.e. companies didn’t follow principles one and two.
3. Work harder. The other day I told my wife I had coffee with a young aspiring entrepreneur we both knew. She asked what he wanted. I said he wanted to hear my story and look for why his business wasn’t successful. She said “Did you tell him to start working 12 hour days?” I understand the concepts of three and four day work weeks and four hour work days. In my experience, if I took every entrepreneur I knew and split the successful from the not successful and then averaged the number of hours worked every day, the successful work a whole lot more. As one of my best friends often says “An entrepreneur will work 80 hours so they don’t have to work 40.”
4. Be kinder. First, I want to state that I think you should be nice because quite simply, that’s the right thing to do. I also truly believe the more you give in life the more you get. If you are out to win every single business negotiation, if you think every interaction has a winner and a loser, if you think your success depends upon someone else’s failure, my philosophy is not for you. Give your time freely. Pay your invoices fast. Provide more value than is expected. I think it’s time society stops demonizing capitalists as greedy and heartless. I personally believe no one can change the world, not a church, not a nonprofit, not a politician, as much as a good capitalist can.
5. Break rules. Some rules are written. You can’t have scooters downtown, you can’t have an unlicensed taxi, you can’t run a hotel out of your house. Other rules are unwritten. You can’t do that job because you’re too old, too young, a woman, a man, from a small town. Entrepreneurs don’t care. They don’t need permission to fix things. I am not saying it’s okay to cheat on taxes, pollute the environment or hurt others while breaking rules, but when the world needs your solution don’t let norms and red tape stop you.
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 want to commercialize their passion or a problem specific to them. We all have a bias that causes us to see our problems as everyone’s problems. The market is always right. If no one is willing to write you a check for your product or service, it’s just a hobby. Get out there and validate your offering. Find someone who is willing to pay you to solve a problem. Then find 100 other people like them.
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?
Assume that you’re going to work longer and harder than you ever have before. I think there is a myth of four hour workdays and passive revenue and complete freedom. I’m sure some people have figured that out. But almost every top tier entrepreneur I know works a lot.
Stop the brain sucks and time wasters. I appreciate down time as much as anyone but don’t lose yourself in hours of scrolling, mindless TV or junk food. Fill your free time with healthy, recharging activities. Spend time with family and friends. Get outdoors. Get to the gym. Read.
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. 🙂
I think creating a program to teach high potential, low income kids about entrepreneurship and in demand jobs can change the world. Good jobs and business ownership break the cycle of poverty, create more jobs and lift up entire communities. I appreciate the roles of non profits, governments and Churches, and I also believe that when done right, capitalism can have a huge, long-term impact.
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.
Oh that’s a close one. I would pick either Dolly Parton or Jeremy Wade. Dolly’s drive and work ethic are just unmatched. Here you have someone who was born poor, had no connections, and just had to get out there and outwork everyone. She continually gives back to the world, whether that’s through donating children’s books to schools or helping fund the COVID vaccine. She could have quit and lived in comfort decades ago and the woman just never stops working.
I’m an avid fisherman so I love Jeremy Wade. He also created a new genre of entertainment and took a topic that not a lot of people get excited about.. Fishing.. And building a media empire and global following.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!
Thank you so much for having me!