Do what you love. Culture is set from the top down and you are spending lots of time on building a company. You need to be passionate about product or service that you’re delivering into the world for it to be worth your time, and for customers and employees to feel truly bought in as well.
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 Spencer Fertig.
Spencer Fertig is the CEO and co-founder of Bar None Games (https://www.barnonegames.com/), a virtual and hybrid teambuilding company that brings people together when they can’t be physically present. Spencer started his career at Morgan Stanley, and then subsequently joined Uber, where he was employee #249. At Uber, he scaled the operations for four years, helping grow the business to over 15,000 employees. Afterwards, Spencer served as Head of Operations at Great Jones, a venture-backed property management company. In summer 2020, Spencer co-founded Bar None Games to bring people together virtually. Spencer has a Bachelor’s degree from Georgetown University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.
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?
In college, I was an American Studies major and always intended to go to law school. However, when I was in college, I joined an organization called Students of Georgetown Incorporated (“The Corp”), which is the largest student-run organization in the world, operating three coffee shops, two grocery stores, a storage and catering service, and marketing and accounting departments. There, I became the CFO my junior year and developed a passion for working in business serving on the executive team of a company that employed 250 students and annually made 4.5 million dollars in revenue. After school, I went to work at Morgan Stanley as an Equity Capital Markets Analyst, where I worked for two years before leaving to join Uber. At Uber, I worked for four years in strategy, operations, and management roles, helping scale the core product in its early growth and working on our Uber EATS launch team. When I left, I attended Harvard Business School to round out my business education, and participated in a variety of extracurriculars, including serving as president of my section and pursuing my passions in comedy via writing for the comedy show and doing standup comedy on campus. After school, I joined Great Jones, a venture-backed property tech company, as their Director of Operations and left a year later to start Bar None Games as the CEO and co-founder.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Like I mentioned, at Harvard Business School, I was the president of my section, which is a group of 90 classmates who spend their entire first year of business school in a classroom with just each other. Our one-year reunion was in May of 2020, which went remote suddenly because of the pandemic. I still wanted to keep my section mates connected, so I created a virtual version of the bar-style trivia that I loved to play with friends in graduate school. Eighty people joined, and after the event, many called me to tell me that it was the highlight of their quarantine and asked me to host games for their friends, families, and companies. I started hosting trivia events for groups on the side, and it really snowballed from there. Within two months, word of mouth had spread so much that I was earning enough from the side gig to consider leaving my job and pursuing my passion full time. The “aha moment” was when I realized that I was making enough money to cover my rent payments through Bar None Games, and I knew that I could make this my fulltime job.
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?
At HBS, I continued to pursue my passion for entrepreneurship. Uber was a startup in some ways, but when I joined, there were already 250 employees. I wanted to build something from ground up. When I was at HBS, one of the first friend I made was Lilian Chen, who shared a similar passion. She had previously worked in finance and was at HBS to pursue entrepreneurship. We started working on a business together called Cozy Life, a startup focused on creating a seamless experience in buying and selling secondhand furniture. While the company didn’t take off, we learned a lot in the process. Fast forward two years and when I began the entrepreneurship journey by myself, I talked to Lilian constantly about what I was doing and relied on her expertise. A few months into starting Bar None Games, Lilian was actually our first paying customer and she also shared the same passion for the product. She decided to join me at Bar None Games fulltime and we decided to co-found the business together.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
Bar None Games stands out because of our unique ability to marry creativity with operational excellence. While there are lots of creative people out there, and lots of tech-minded individuals that pursue operational excellence, I think there are very few founders who have equal amounts of passion for working on creating original content and building scalable processes. Lilian and I are two of those people, which comes in handy when you’re trying to scale a trivia business. Because of the intersection of these passions and skills, within two months of us working on Bar None Games, we were able to build out 200 rounds of original trivia written in house AND design systems that enabled us to scale from 10 games/week to 100 games/week during the December holiday rush. We did this all with just two full-time employees (Spencer and Lilian), and while ensuring that each game had a question set customized to each group’s preferences. This ability to scale a high-quality, creative product FAST is what makes Bar None Games special.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
This is the primary driver for why I want to have a company — to create a company that is a positive impact on the world. At Bar None Games, our goal is to bring people together during a hard year full of loneliness. As a social and extroverted person, I felt it personally when my sources of energy were taken away from me, and I know that others were impacted tenfold during this time with loss and heartache. With the product that we’ve built, we’ve created a space where for one hour, people could forget about the ails of the world. Separately, it also felt special that we were able to use the product that we created to help power virtual fundraisers that have raised tens of thousands of dollars for many worthy causes. We’ve also donated money to various social causes such as Feeding America, Black Lives Matter, the National Black Justice Coalition, The Center, and more, to put our profits to work for organizations promoting the values of equality and inclusion at the heart of our business.
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?
There are three traits that have been instrumental to my success:
- Life’s short, and I firmly believe that people should be excited to come to work, given that they spend 1/3 of their waking hours there. In the past year that we’ve been in business, I have focused on creating an environment where people love their work. That means paying our hosts and employees a wage that makes them feel as valued as they are, praising people regularly for accomplishments, and hosting regular company culture-building events. The positivity people feel towards working at Bar None Games spills over into the product and experience that customers have on our platform.
- I have perspective. I care about Bar None Games and its success, but more than that, I care about our team living full and holistic lives. In the US, a lot of self-value seems to be driven by work; I actively reject work being the only place from which people derive a sense of self-worth. I care immensely about not only delivering a 5-star product but also about having a company where people have time on weeknights and weekends to pursue passions outside of the office. That perspective allows me to recharge outside of work and to approach problems with a clear head and a clear mind.
- I don’t micromanage. I work with and hire people I believe in and trust that they will do a great job. While I have regular check ins to ensure that I can help remove any roadblocks and brainstorm to solve any problems, I want the people who I hire to have the space and room to do what they’re best at and to feel autonomy over the processes they own and manage.
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?
When I started my career in finance, I was told that the way to stand out was to be the first in and last out of the office. This philosophy equated work quality with face time. I worked long days in finance; people always saw me on the floor and knew I was working hard. While I got good reviews, I believe that I could have done the same quality, or even higher quality, work if I had engaged in more self-care. For two years, I didn’t work out or eat healthily. In my opinion, the right advice is not to be the first one in and last one out, but to be productive and intentional with your time. I would advise others to speak up when help is needed and engage in self-care outside of work in order to be your best self when you come to your job.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
When I first started building Bar None Games, I had to balance my day job with this new side job. It was hard to know when or how to take the plunge to pursue Bar None Games full time. While I was enjoying hosting trivia games on the side, it felt different than a lot of the highly-funded venture-backed tech startups that I had seen in the news, which made it hard for me to have a mental model on when I should pursue the company full-time. At some point, I started to feel exhausted balancing both hosting trivia games while also being the Head of Operations at my company, and I knew that something had to change.
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?
I used a number of strategies to get through the tough times:
- Speak to a therapist. I am passionate about de-stigmatizing taking care of your mental health (I even looked into starting a company to ease access to mental health resources prior to Bar None Games. There is no shame in speaking to a professional to help manage the stresses of life — in fact, there’s tons of courage in speaking up when you need help. I am a better person because of the self-care exercises I’ve learned, and realizations I’ve uncovered, in my years in therapy.
- Employ perspective. All stresses are valid, but sometimes when the business is causing me stress, it’s for me to remember that it’s a privilege to be employed full time at a company, and even more so to be employed at a company where I enjoy the work so much. Even when times are hard, having perspective that there are a lot of people who are dealing with harder things can completely change my mindset — it doesn’t solve the problem, but it can make me less scared or grumpy, and make it easier to tackle the problem at hand.
- Have a clear plan. I always find it easier to deal with the tough times when there’s also a clear path out. I believe that I am an agent in my own destiny and when I feel overwhelmed, putting a framework and clear path around how to fix a situation makes it a lot easier to deal with. For me, when I was struggling while juggling a fulltime job and an increasingly busy side hustle, I decided that when I was making enough money on my side hustle to cover my rent, I would leave my fulltime job. Creating a roadmap and a clear set of metrics to make the decision made it way easier to be OK with working long days juggling two jobs, because I knew it was only temporary and that there was a natural endpoint when I hit my stated 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?
I view riding the highs and lows of founder life as analogous to raising a puppy, which I’m also currently doing. In the first few days, the puppy cries all night and you lose sleep, which can be insanely stressful. However, whenever I’m feel overtired or exhausted, my fiance reminds me that we should cherish the time with our puppy because even in a month, he won’t look like this ever again and we’ll miss the special moments in his youngest days (if you can call sitting on our living room floor at 3am with a howling puppy special). I take same approach in startup life. Times may feel hard in the beginning, but the early-day startup problems will also one day be the funny stories and memories that my cofounders and I will reminisce on.
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?
This is super relevant as I am often asking myself this question and there are definitely a lot of pros and cons to both sides. The two main questions I would ask myself are:
- Do you need this money right now to sustain the business?
- What would you do with this money? Is there a clear path to how you would deploy this capital?
If the answer is yes to either of these, then taking venture capital money can be a very smart solution because it enables you to quickly launch your company into hypergrowth if you have a clear use case for the money. That said, I have also seen that while being able to successfully raise money feels good, there are also a lot of strings attached with it. The benefits of bootstrapping are that you are able to truly be your own boss and run your business the way you want to without having to report to investors. If you don’t have an explicit need, I recommend thinking long and hard before raising money and to really weigh the tradeoff of giving up autonomy in running your business, which can be a very special thing.
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”?
Below are the five things that you need to create a highly successful startup:
- Treat your employees well. I think often about optimizing for stakeholder value instead of just simply shareholder value. This means caring not just about how your shareholders are doing but also about how your employees and customers are faring. Make sure to create an environment where people come to work and enjoy it. When you treat employees well, it’s not only the right thing to do, but you’ll find that they’re more excited to work at your company and deliver a better product for customers.
- Start a company that solves a problem; don’t start a company just to say you started a business. I’ve always wanted to start a company and I had passion areas that I pursued with rigor, but customers didn’t want what I was selling. With Bar None Games, it was the first time one of my business ideas took off organically, literally when I was least expecting it. The product that you’re creating should be responsive to an expressed need in market; it is very hard to simply will a product into existence.
- Do what you love. Culture is set from the top down and you are spending lots of time on building a company. You need to be passionate about product or service that you’re delivering into the world for it to be worth your time, and for customers and employees to feel truly bought in as well.
- Plan, plan, plan … but not too much. At a startup, there are a million things that you can do and you need some level of focus to provide vision and structure. At Bar None Games, we have 1–3 day quarterly summits where we agree on roadmap for the quarter ahead. We’ve found it to be a very beneficial way to focus our team on the key things we want to accomplish. We typically start broadly with a brainstorm, narrow down to a set of initiatives, assign owners to each, and then check on progress on a weekly basis. However, you also need to make sure that you’re not spending every day updating OKRs and over reporting, particularly in the early days of a startup, as it impedes your ability to actually execute on growing the business.
- Know when you need to ask for help. You need to know what you’re good at and what you’re not good at. Have the self-awareness to lean into what you’re good at, and to hire good people to do the things you’re bad at, is the best thing you can do as a founder. Always have the humility to ask friends, experts, or others for help when you don’t know the answer.
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?
First, I see people skimp on salary or equity with early hires. Don’t do that. The best way to build your company is to have employees who are ambassadors of the brand and believe strongly in it. You can create that buy-in by making employees feel valued right at the gate. In our case, when we hired our first hosts, we asked what they wanted to get paid. They provided us a rate, and we paid 25% more than that because we felt it was important for them to feel valued right away. It makes our hosts feel good to be paid fairly for all the work they’re doing for Bar None Games, and I’m insanely proud that we haven’t lost a single host since our founding. Pinching pennies at the start means you’ll have to spend more time and money hiring new people when attrition inevitably happens down the road.
Second, I see founders starting companies that work on a million things out of the gate to try to corner an entire market. Don’t do this either! Make sure to focus on creating one product that you’re great at before expanding into others. Don’t worry about growing into every single aspect of the market. If you do the one thing extremely well, you’ll build a brand that people want what you’re providing, which will enable to expand into other product offerings with greater ease down the line.
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?
Get a therapist. You bear a lot of stress as a founder; you don’t need to be an island, and you don’t need to do it alone. Separately, remember to have perspective. Work is not the end-all-be-all, and your identity does not have to be tied entirely to your professional career. In those professional lows, remember that your self-worth is tied to other aspects of your life as well. At the end of the day, your mental health is extremely important, and you can’t be there for others if you can’t be there for yourself, so do what you need to do so you can be the best version of yourself when you’re in leading your team.
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 have had a therapist since I was a young kid and I am extremely passionate about destigmatizing therapy. It’s important for society to be able to see therapy as a source of strength and not weakness. I’ve been extremely open about my own experiences and it’s inspired a number of people in my own life to seek out therapy. The more we talk about it, the more we can empower people around us to seek out the mental health resources that they need and deserve.
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.
I would want to have a private breakfast or lunch with Bruce Springsteen. I’m from New Jersey, so he’s a demigod. Some of my happiest moments in his life; I would pass out if I had the chance to tell him this to his face.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
You can follow updates on my work at https://www.barnonegames.com/ and follow us on Instagram at @barnonegames.
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for the time you spent with this. We wish you continued success and good health!