Lessons Learned Running The Syndicate: 1 Year In

One year ago this week, I launched The Syndicate, my first venture into running my own business. It’s been a roller coaster – a blast getting to work with some amazing writers who I greatly respect.

To celebrate, this week I’ll be writing several posts to give a glimpse behind the scenes of the business: things I’ve learned, how it’s run, the technology I’ve built to simplify things, and suggestions for marketing your own products and services.

Also, for the month of October, we’re taking $400 off the price of a sponsorship with us. If you’re interested, get in touch.

The Roller Coaster

Some of my highest highs and lowest lows have come in the last year. Launching The Syndicate made it seem easy – we were bright, new, and shiny, and booked for 2 months straight almost immediately at launch.

After six months, the summer rolled around and everything went dry. There were two weeks straight that we didn’t fill, and in the midst of those two weeks, two of the larger publishers decided to leave the network.

Running your own business is going to be a roller coaster. It’s a part of the risk you take on in running it. There are three types of businesses:

  • Products
  • Services
  • Sales

I fall into the third category: sales. Products are great because you can roll them out and they can mostly sit and bring in mailbox money. Services and Sales are the harder of the two: if you don’t work, you don’t make money. You can’t take a week off, or everything dries up.

Lesson: Time-intensive businesses, like services and sales can lead to much more out of balance lives. If you’re debating launching your own small business, look at products first. You can take a week off and keep earning money. They also make for much better side projects.

Don’t Act in Desperation

As was sitting in those unfilled weeks over the summer, I started making desperate moves. I launched a hastily done bad redesign. I tried to split The Syndicate into two groups in the hopes of attracting sponsors by being lower cost. I even started exploring adding publishers who weren’t the perfect fit for what were looking for.

I made mistakes that I’d have to undo later, all because in reality, we were in a transition period – going from shiny new network to established, well performing network.

Lesson: Don’t make major decisions about your business in the bad times. Find a way to do what you do better, and focus on making long-term decisions that will be beneficial to your business, not a quick bang.

Build Relationships, Don’t Sell

The first 6 months of The Syndicate, I’d wait until 2 or 3 weeks before our sponsorship slots were open, and I’d carpet bomb potential sponsors asking if they were interested in advertising with us.

This approach yielded few results. And the sponsors were generally not as happy.

The successful sponsorships were the ones that I focused on building relationships with the advertisers. Igloo Software is a regular advertiser now, and I’m regularly talking with their head of marketing, not just about our advertisements, but giving input on their products, design direction, etc. It’s become a two way friendship built on trust and success – not just a business relationship.

It’s exciting to work with sponsors to craft a campaign. I still often fall into the trap of just selling and collecting content, but it’s still a goal to genuinely ask for feedback after the campaign and find ways to always improve for sponsors.

Lesson: In a sales or services business, it’s crucial that you spend time developing relationships. Attend conferences to make friends, ask for follow up that isn’t focused on selling more. Learn from your customers and find out how you can add value to their businesses in new ways.

Apologize Profusely

Part of building relationships is being willing to apologize when you’ve made a mistake. I’ve got the type of personality that always wants to look good, and it can take a lot of humility to admit when I’m wrong.

I’ve made mistakes running The Syndicate, but I quickly learned, it’s better to address it with sponsors quickly, apologize, and even refund some money if the situation warrants it. It’s more important to keep them happy than to profit.

We and one sponsor where one site had linked to an incorrect page and used the wrong copy. It was entirely my fault, and we immediately re-posted the sponsorship with the correct information. I apologized, and found a way to remedy the situation. He was very grateful for the apology, and ended up referring several other sponsors to us.

Lesson: Don’t be concerned with always “being right.” Apologize when it’s called for, address situations quickly before they get out of hand, and always do the right thing. One bad customer interaction can lead to a lot of decreased business.

Invest During the Good Times

Once we made it out of the summer months, things quickly started to pick up. We got repeat business, several sponsors signed on for regular placements. Things were looking good! I knew it was time to expand the business.

I invested time in a significant redesign, knowing I’d hastily whipped up the previous one. I even took to learning PHP to build out a CMS to power the business and simplify things.

Lesson: Invest in growing your business when things are going well, not when you start to struggle. This is when you can build relationships because you want to get to know people, not because you are trying to sell.

Starting Your Own Business

We live in an amazing time, when over a weekend anyone has the ability to start a business with almost no investment. As Gruber put it:

This is the right time and the right place. This is a once in a career opportunity. This is like being a rock and roll musician in the late 60s, like being a film maker in the late 70s after Spielberg, Scorsese, George Lucas.

The only thing any of us are going to regret is if we don’t aim big enough. If you don’t feel you are now in a position to do the best work of your entire career, to look back and say ‘I was there’ ‘I did this’ ‘I made this thing a reality,’ then we you need to find a new position. This chance will never come again.

We are so lucky that it even came this once.

It’s an amazing time to be a small business owner. The world is changing, and industries are ripe for disruption. It’s easier than ever to launch side projects, learn from them, and hopefully generate some mailbox money.

Will I take this full time? Probably not – earlier this year I started a new job that I’m absolutely nuts about. But The Syndicate is a fun business to run – I get to meet some fascinating people, and even support guys that I love doing this full time.

Also, a big thanks to all of the wonderful sponsors who have allowed all of us to keep this going. And thanks to the writers who said “yes” to join this tiny new network. It’s been a blast to run, and I’m very excited to see what the future has to hold for us.

October 8, 2012