A few fundamental early hires. Founders can’t carry the whole team on their backs, of course. A few fundamental early hires that take the reins in their respective departments can change the whole trajectory of a company. This also sets the tone for the rest of the (growing) team — and promises for a positive, productive culture.
Startups have such a glamorous reputation. Companies like Facebook, Instagram, Youtube, Uber, and Airbnb once started as scrappy startups with huge dreams and even bigger 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 Tom Logan, Co-Founder and CEO of NYC-based Cohley — the tech company that’s changing the way brands generate and test content. Tom leads with a “people first” mentality, continuously moving Cohley up the ranks of “Best Places to work in NYC.” Tom entered the tech world back in 2011 in Silicon Valley with Wildfire Interactive then spent a few years at Google before joining UGC-focused Piqora where he met his Co-Founder, Erik Graber.
In his free time Tom likes to play golf, drink wine from his native Santa Barbara County and relive his 15 minute of fame: Winning a car on The Price is Right in Bob Barker’s final season.
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?
Following my graduation from Occidental College, I connected with a few fellow grads who were working at a startup called Wildfire Interactive in Silicon Valley. The company was focused on Facebook promotions because, at the time, it was believed that Facebook pages would become more important than websites. Naturally, that’s not how it shook out — but it started me on the path to Cohley. In fact, my boss there is now our EVP of Sales.
Later down the line, I joined a company called Piqora, also in Silicon Valley — and we were focused on user-generated content (UGC). Essentially, we would help companies find assets, get rights to said assets and use them across their e-commerce presence. At Piqora is where I met Erik, co-founder at Cohley — and where we both recognized the rise of the influencer space, noting it as a solution to UGC in a way that was scalable.
We knew there was value, but inherently, there were so many hiccups with how companies like Piqora gathered UGC. We knew we needed to solve for that problem — and started Cohley to do so.
What was the “aha moment” that led to the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
In general, I think “aha” moments come from years of experience built over time, vs. something that strikes you out of the blue (unless, of course, we’re talking about inventions). Instead, I think most businesses start from a moment of recognition — a moment wherein a person or people connect the dots to solve for an issue. For us, it was recognizing that while influencer platforms designed to build brand exposure were available, platforms specific to content didn’t exist.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
What makes our company stand out is the outcome of our work — which is thousands and thousands of creative assets that are used everywhere (without people even knowing). We help some of the coolest brands in the world create content that tells stories, that’s inclusive and that’s reflective of the world around us. At the end of the day, we’re creating and fostering meaningful connections — and I think, particularly given the times we’re living in, that’s extremely important.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I think about this in a very personal way, and envision what type of media environment I would want my daughter or son to grow up in and experience firsthand. If you think about issues such as body dysmorphia or Outsider Syndrome, many of those could be helped with inclusive, supportive content. Through its platform, Cohley can help create a rolodex for all companies to generate and distribute diverse content that speaks to any and all.
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?
Three character traits I believe are most important include:
- Humility / self-reflection
This means understanding that you aren’t all-knowing, and that you’re going to have blind spots; as such, it’s OK to ask for help. In fact, as a founder, your job isn’t necessarily to come up with solutions, but to orchestrate said solutions amongst your team.
- Keen understanding of emotions / fear
As a founder, you need to reorient the way you view fear and dread. Whatever you’re afraid of, you should use that as a guide to where you put your time and energy.
- Grit / consistency
This is what your employees will look to you for — they will expect you to set the stage, and the tone, essentially every day you’re in business.
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?
A few pieces of advice I’ve received that I now wish I never followed include:
- “Startups need to be scrappy.”
Early on in Cohley’s founding, we felt we needed to be scrappy and find new clients; but as we started to move toward scale, we started to realize that that type of approach wouldn’t work. Instead, we understood we needed to set clear expectations and keep them consistent through teams — from the first touchpoint in marketing onward.
- “Focus on what you’re passionate about.”
If this were true, I’d probably still be a starving sports writer. But by exposing yourself to a variety of things and working at interesting companies, you can still find things you’re passionate. It doesn’t have to be as narrow as people make it seem.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey?
In the beginning days of Cohley, when we signed our first big contract — with that of a large yogurt company — we were extremely eager and moved forward without many guardrails. We didn’t have a signed contract, and spent nearly double the amount of the deal — not counting man hours. The campaign put us in a hole, but definitely taught us quite a bit about process.
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 grew up surrounded by entrepreneurs — my grandfather, my father and my mother all started their own businesses. And to be honest, I learned more just by observing them than in any other single scenario. You learn quickly how to frame your day, how to assess risk, where sacrifices need to be made and keeping your family on board during tough times. I truly believe you tend to be the result of five of the people closest to you — and many of my friends and family members are curious, driven and entrepreneurial people — so it makes sense that I am where I am today.
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?
Many people approach the day hoping that everything will go smoothly and be as productive and positive as possible. As a founder, it may hinder your progress if you go in with that mindset — deals may fall through, employees may underperform and challenges will certainly arise. That said, you should find a happy medium, and know that you’re going to fluctuate from around that point at any given time. That will prevent you from spiraling, and more or less keep an anchor on your emotions.
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 depends on what you ultimately want from the company, which you need to ask yourself early on — if you want to end up selling the company for billions of dollars and you see a massive market opportunity, then you should go ahead and raise a ton of capital. But there are also ways to be capital-efficient, and keep your burn at flat, and reinvest what you earn into the business.
Naturally, you can’t raise a lot of money with no expectations for strict oversight; but largely it depends your goals, the market and the problem you’re solving.
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.
Five things you need to create a highly successful startup include:
- Luck is always number one. A startup is a bet on the future — markets change, technologies change, consumer attitudes change, and often all three need to align at the right time for your company to make it.
- A secure founding team is super important. All founding parties need to be aligned on company goals, associated benchmarks and what it takes to meet them. Without that cohesion, startups can fall apart before they even get off the ground.
- A few fundamental early hires. Founders can’t carry the whole team on their backs, of course. A few fundamental early hires that take the reins in their respective departments can change the whole trajectory of a company. This also sets the tone for the rest of the (growing) team — and promises for a positive, productive culture.
- Good storytelling. You need to be able to answer the question, “Why are you doing this?” in a compelling, thought-provoking way that solves for a need. And you have to continue to evolve that story — and the narrative associate with it — throughout your company’s growth and as it reaches and surpasses milestones.
- Malleability. Naturally, startups and their founders have to be able to shift on a dime. There has to be a willingness to pivot, and the ability to bring their teams along for the ride; sometimes it takes a significant amount of preparation, other times it takes more intuition than anything else.
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?
Some of the most common mistakes founders and CEOs make include:
- Not having an end game. If you start out with clear, concise goals, you will always have a North Star to direct yourself and your team toward. If not, you will certainly get lost along the journey.
- Not understanding your company’s blind spots. This requires some self-reflection, and a lot of analysis. But it will provide needed insight into where your company could potentially grow, and pitfalls to avoid.
- Overdeveloping the product without market feedback. Product and platform creation needs to beiterative, and take in consumer feedback at multiple touchpoints. Don’t get too far down the line before testing it on colleagues and consumers.
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?
Naturally, being a founder is an around-the-clock job — but sleep is the best bio-hack out there. It can’t be understated — you do your best work, you are the best boss and you are the most empathetic when you’re well-rested. That makes for a good leader in all facets.
I also think it’s important to just put down the computer sometimes — founders and CEOs could spend all day answering emails, addressing other people’s priorities. But really, that mostly just takes time away from actually thinking, digesting and putting things into action. Some of my most valuable creativity has come from when I’ve put the laptop down, picked up a pad and pen, started with a prompt and let myself think — with no interruptions. You’d be surprised how far that gets you.
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 mentioned this earlier, but it’s definitely the act of fueling content inclusivity, in every sense. We all need content that’s reflective of the world around us — not content that caters to a certain demographic, or a certain ideal. It enables us to all be more aware, inclusive and empathetic.
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.
It has to be Ben Horowitz, as he’s the one who gave me the “Run Towards the Pain” advice when we were just getting started. I’ve also read, re-read, and consistently gone back and referenced his book “Hard Thing About Hard Things” throughout these past five years.
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!