Nico Hodel of Start It Up NYC: “Build a Business Culture of Learning and Curiosity”

Build a Business Culture of Learning and Curiosity. Part of taking a company from good to great and making it adaptive to political and economic shifts is to foster an atmosphere or learning. Rather than being confined to repetitive tasks and processes, team members should be encouraged to learn new skills that they can then […]

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Build a Business Culture of Learning and Curiosity. Part of taking a company from good to great and making it adaptive to political and economic shifts is to foster an atmosphere or learning. Rather than being confined to repetitive tasks and processes, team members should be encouraged to learn new skills that they can then apply to help the company grow. Cross-functional skill sets are becoming increasingly important for workers to develop, and online learning platforms offer a plethora of helpful resources. Instead of limiting workers by forcing them into narrow roles, make your company a resource for them to continue learning and growing

As part of my series about the “How To Take Your Company From Good To Great”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Nico Hodel, Co-Founder and CTO of Start It Up NYC, a digital innovation agency based in New York City that provides content marketing, app development, digital advertising, data analytics, innovation consulting and video production services for startups, and B2B companies.

A full-stack web developer and programmatic marketing specialist, Nico ran development efforts at his former company Valence Digital for over 4 years, overseeing a 12 person marketing and development team, working on projects in the Angular, React, and React Native frameworks.

After working on web development projects in the tech, finance, and legal fields with clients from around the world Nico took on an advisory role at the company to build Start It Up NYC, and its subsidiary, the content writing service Rriter, where he now works full time as Co-CEO.

When he’s not on his computer or speaking at a tech or startup event, you’ll find Nico surfing in his native Honolulu, or playing tennis in Brooklyn.

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?

Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?

When I started my first company, a web development and marketing agency called Valence Digital, I was working primarily with restaurants and small businesses to help modernize their digital marketing and online presence. With zero industry connections, establishing trust with business owners was a monumental effort. I would go door-to-door to restaurants, Doctors offices, gyms or wellness centers, and private health clinics to talk to them about the benefits of redesigning their websites and getting listed on directory sites like Yelp and Googly My Business. I’d explain to them what a Facebook or Adwords pay-per-click campaign was, and how it might help them get new customers.

Me and a few friends that I convinced to join me in the hustle would spend hours cold calling law offices, after finding their awful websites through Google searches and pitch them on building a new website.

It was a grind. We felt like we were drowning in a sea of rejection. What kept us going were those few early wins that told us we were on to something, and the positive results our clients saw from our work. Valence continues to service clients to this day, and I’m happy to still have a hand in its growing digital publication.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘takeaways’ you learned from that?

One memory that stands out is forgetting to configure the DNS settings of one of the first websites I ever built over ten years ago. I proudly sent my client the link the site, only for them to see their old website staring back at them when they clicked on the link. I still remember receiving an email from them consisting only of a single question mark.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

My business partner Adi Patil and I founded a digital innovation agency called Start It Up NYC that has achieve remarkable growth and managed to continue expanding despite the effects of COVID-19. I feel what’s made it a success is our focus on events and community-building efforts that have allowed us to gain the trust of a great many business-owners over the years.

We spent much of the first year of the company connecting with startup founders and selflessly providing value to them however we could. We led our creative team in crafting bespoke, multimedia digital content for them, publishing interviews with them to our growing audience, and sending them useful events (some of which we produced) that allowed them to connect with high-value individuals. Some of those founders became clients, and many of them remain the most loyal supporters of Start It Up to this day.

Those loyal supporters allowed us to weather the economic storm that COVID-19 produced and continue growing.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”?

Surround yourself with positive, energetic, and intellectually curious people. Burnout is so often a symptom of loneliness and isolation. Limit the time you spend with negative, unhappy people, even if they are successful.

This piece by the New York Times talks about how emotional states and health choices can be contagious, and I couldn’t agree more. Find the people that embody the emotional states you want to emulate. If you’re a business leader, make them part of your team.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?

Adi Patil has played an absolutely crucial role in leading our team to achieve the success we have. It’s not often that you find a business partner, friend, mentor, confidant and peer rolled up into one person.

Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. The title of this series is “How to take your company from good to great”. Let’s start with defining our terms. How would you define a “good” company, what does that look like? How would you define a “great” company, what does that look like?

A good company provides a needed and relevant product or service to a target market. A great company does the same thing, but is also creates a culture of growth, collaboration, and trust in the process. A great company sets up a system of checks and balance that guarantee the quality of its product or service.

This idea was something Adi and I discussed extensively before launching the content writing service Rriter. A subsidiary of Start It Up, Rriter was specifically formed to create a system of checks and balances through which each piece of content written goes through several rounds of editing before being published. That’s very different from crowdsourced service platforms like Fiverr and Upwork.

It’s that sort of emphasis on quality assurance that makes the difference between a good and a great company in my view.

Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things one should know in order to lead a company from Good to Great? Please share a story or an example for each.

  1. Embrace a Lean, Agile, and Adaptive Company Culture

With so much so many unpredictable events taking place on the global stage, it’s more important than ever for companies to minimize bloat and cut down on waste. In terms of software development, that means adopting an agile development model that’s focused on building stellar MVPs based on extensive A/B testing, market research and continuous user feedback.

2. Bring the Agile Methodology to an Agency Model

The same company culture can be brought into an agency model by orienting service offerings around customer needs and requests. This is an approach we took from the very beginning of Start It Up by explaining the expertise and resources we had to offer and asking the client how we could provide value. Based on their answer, we would provide recommendations and eventually craft a customized proposal for a set of service offerings based on their exact needs.

After years of repeating this process, we came to find sets of services that were frequently needed and requested by clients. When we launched Start It Up’s subsidiary Rriter, we consolidated some of these sets of services into packages that clients could purchase on their own directly from our website. The point is that our specific service offerings came, not from us, but from our clients’ requests.

3. Create a Content Calendar

Now more than ever, content is king. It’s the primary way that the public can interact with your brand, and good content is crucial to establish your company as a thought leader, educator, and resource in your niche. For B2B companies, the best way to earn a prospective client’s trust is to provide them valuable content related to your niche. Doing so will make that prospect more likely to convert into a paying customer than any sales presentation or pitch deck..

Creating an editorial calendar for your content marketing campaign is an important step to make sure your team is publishing high-quality content regularly. Tools like Asana or Trello allow you to easily create an editorial calendar that’s accessible to all relevant team members, assign writing tasks, and keep track of when content is completed and published.

I’ve spoken with so many business owners that knew they should be publishing content regularly but struggled to find team members that could write articles on top of existing responsibilities. Many of them tried to hire freelancers or search for a full-time writer but were frustrated with the results. This feedback is what led us to launch Rriter, through which we could ensure on-time delivery of content according to their editorial calendar.

4. Make Remote Work Fun

World events have accelerated the already inevitable trend towards remote work, and leaders should find ways to embrace this reality and make remote work fun for their employees. Tools like Zoom, Slack, Google Meet, and others should be used to gamify remote work. Rather than being an isolating experience, team members should feel engaged, valued, and productive while working from home.

Encourage employees to consciously “clock out” even when working from home, so that their work doesn’t bleed into their personal life.

For nerds like myself that grew up playing video games, remote work comes naturally. There’s a reason why many developers, technical project managers, and engineers have been quick to adapt to working from home. Why? Well, working remotely really means coordinating virtually with team members to accomplish common objectives. I’ve been doing that since I first got hooked on online gaming at 12 years old. I speak from experience when I say that with video conferencing, streaming, and messaging tools, remote work can be as fun, engaging, collaborative, and addictive as an online game or MMORPG.

5. Build a Business Culture of Learning and Curiosity

Part of taking a company from good to great and making it adaptive to political and economic shifts is to foster an atmosphere or learning. Rather than being confined to repetitive tasks and processes, team members should be encouraged to learn new skills that they can then apply to help the company grow. Cross-functional skill sets are becoming increasingly important for workers to develop, and online learning platforms offer a plethora of helpful resources. Instead of limiting workers by forcing them into narrow roles, make your company a resource for them to continue learning and growing.

Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. Can you help articulate for our readers a few reasons why a business should consider becoming a purpose driven business, or consider having a social impact angle?

A social impact angle is absolutely crucial to keep morale high among employees and to act as a driving force for managers’ decisions. Our modern shareholder model of capitalism forces too many companies to abandon their values in pursuit of the almighty dollar. We need more purpose driven businesses to lead the return to a stakeholder model of capitalism in which companies consider not just the bottom line, but also the well-being of their workers, local community, country, and the world at large.

What would you advise to a business leader who initially went through years of successive growth, but has now reached a standstill. From your experience do you have any general advice about how to boost growth and “restart their engines”?

My advice to that business leader would be to learn something new that excites them. Rediscovering that childlike love of learning will be the perfect first step towards restarting their engines and maybe even reinventing themselves.

Generating new business, increasing your profits, or at least maintaining your financial stability can be challenging during good times, even more so during turbulent times. Can you share some of the strategies you use to keep forging ahead and not lose growth traction during a difficult economy?

Reiterate your company’s mission, values, and stories to your team and your customers. Those intangible qualities will be the glue that holds your company together in hard times. Don’t be afraid to pivot and abandon business practices that no longer make sense. This article by Harvard Business Review offers some case studies of companies doing just that.

In your experience, which aspect of running a company tends to be most underestimated? Can you explain or give an example?

Many people underestimate the value of clear communication. I’ve seen so many hours wasted by managers that don’t send clear instructions. What’s worse, many of them get angry when team members don’t know what they’re talking about.

Managers should consider the domain knowledge of who they’re speaking with and go out of their way to express themselves extremely clearly. After doing so, a good next step is to warmly ask if there’s anything they can shed more light on. Taking these small steps takes some patience, but it will save so much time and frustration down the road.

As you know, “conversion” means to convert a visit into a sale. In your experience what are the best strategies a business should use to increase conversion rates?

Content, content, and content. That’s what can build trust with an audience and motivate them to take action.

Of course, the main way to increase conversion rates is to create a trusted and beloved brand. Can you share a few ways that a business can earn a reputation as a trusted and beloved brand?

Share content that can make the lives of your audience better, and you’ve got a recipe for a beloved brand. Provide a product or service that makes the lives of your customers better, and you’ve got a recipe for a successful business.

Great customer service and great customer experience are essential to build a beloved brand and essential to be successful in general. In your experience what are a few of the most important things a business leader should know in order to create a Wow! Customer Experience?

Relentlessly acknowledge and correct your mistakes. Too many managers become understandably defensive in the face of an honest mistake. This piece by the Washington Post explains why it’s so difficult for leaders of all types to acknowledge their mistakes.

Instead, managers should realize that mistakes will undoubtedly happen and go above and beyond to make the customer whole. You’ll be surprised to see that most customers don’t mind tolerating an honest mistake. It’s how that mistake is handled that matters to them.

What are your thoughts about how a company should be engaged on Social Media? For example, the advisory firm EisnerAmper conducted 6 yearly surveys of United States corporate boards, and directors reported that one of their most pressing concerns was reputational risk as a result of social media. Do you share this concern? We’d love to hear your thoughts about this.

Reputational risk is a concern that businesses have to reckon with in the increasingly polarized world that we’re living in. Social listening tools and market research can prevent brands from overstepping their bounds. The fear of reputational risk shouldn’t prevent companies from being active of social media as being silent can come with reputational risks of its own.

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?

Too many founders neglect market research when they’re starting a business. To put it bluntly, they invest time and money building a product that people simply don’t want. Your product or service should come from a need that a particular market has. Extensive market research is how to determine whether that need actually exists and whether people are willing and able to pay for a product or service to fulfill it. No one should start a business based on wishful thinking.

Thank you for all of that. We are nearly done. 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 would start a movement around innovation and entrepreneurship that places world-class content at the cornerstone of its success.

How can our readers further follow you online?



This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this!

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