John Lemp started his own lawn- mowing business at the age of 14 before building websites and a search engine called Gatewaytothenet – and he hasn’t slowed down since. Today, however, Lemp is playing the native advertising game with his latest project, Revcontent. The company has skyrocketed in its two years of operation, earning more than $200 million in revenue since its launch. Lemp’s unique experiences throw some of the most common entrepreneurship tips right out the window. Here are 8 lessons that Lemp has learned over the years.
You Don’t Have to Fund Your Start-Up: Today, it’s easier than ever to raise money for your start-up with creative techniques such as crowdfunding. “One thing many people don’t realize is the true cost to taking in funding too early and what that can do to a truly world-changing mission, This is why we have actively chosen from the start to not be a company that takes funding” says John Lemp. Instead, Revcontent only seeks funding from the right strategic partners and steers clear of the “classic Silicon Valley model, which is more focused on raising money at all costs and finding out a business model later.”
Build Value, Not Valuation: “Being bootstrapped in all of our existence, we tend not to think about these things,” Lemp says, “but as an Entrepreneur and CEO, surprisingly, it comes up in conversations a lot more than I would expect.” He adds, “For me, the number is pretty meaningless because our inherent goal is to build value, not valuation.” Lemp stands in contrast to a majority of entrepreneurs, CEOs and investors who hold valuation in high regard.
Use Failure to Solve Problems: Failure should be expected. It’s a great way to learn and grow. But there’s a common belief that you fail only once or twice before experiencing success. For Lemp, failure is a constant occurence. “The first way we try to solve any problem typically fails,” he says. “That’s why, in the way we look at things, every decision is a fifty-fifty chance of being right. So the principle is, if you want to hack that formula, then make more decisions in less time and learn from them.” Lemp concludes, “Many people will tell you success is ‘the opposite of’ failure. That’s a lie. It’s ‘the result of’ failure.”
Don’t Force Philanthropy: It’s essential for start-ups to give back to their communities. After all, being charitable can improve your bottom line. Lemp, however, discovered that you don’t have to force this onto your team. “We have a culture where by new initiatives people in our company come up with to help foster change in the world,” he says. “I love when our initiatives are interactive and involve the whole company, such as our tradition of all helping local families in need to get Christmas gifts for their children, and also our tradition as a family of buying, wrapping and sorting through those gifts together.”
Inspiration Comes from Anywhere: There is no one-size-fits-all source of inspiration for startup founders. For example, Neil Blumenthal, co-founder Warby Parker, finds inspiration through Jack Kerouac’s 1958 novel The Dharma Bums, while Ben Kaufman, founder of Quirky, is inspired by the construction of the Empire State Building. Lemp also finds inspiration in the Bible and the “Revcontent family and the brilliance and creativity they use to solve problems and push each other and me to constantly be better.”
Character Traits Grow Teams: “Unlike many companies, we hire solely on character traits and not on experience for the majority of our positions,” Lemp says. “We typically look at all of the resumes, then call back 20 to 30 people for a quick five-minute call. Lastly, we interview five to 10 people in order to hire for a single position.” His best advice when hiring is to ask yourself, “Do you want to work for this person?” Lemp hires people that he can visualize being his boss. “Then all I have to do is stay out of the way and empower them to make their own decisions, and it tends to work itself out.”
Culture is Monumentally Important: No matter the size of your business, you must always maintain your start-up culture. “When I was building my last company [Clickbooth], I suddenly hit a point where we had 135 people working for me, and the culture I knew and loved was gone,” Lemp recalls. To resolve this problem, Lemp asked “the executives and the team what our values were, what made us different as a company and what was the mission as they understood it. Then, we actually wrote down our mission and our values and used those to litmus test our future decisions.”
Businesses are Built Around People: New businesses often team up with larger, established businesses in order to develop a customer base and attain success. And, while this is a proven tactic, Lemp and Revcontent took a slightly different approach by working with people – and not just tapping into a new target audience. “We have built a business around people and surrounding ourselves with the best of the best,” Lemp says. “The media business has always been a business driven by people, and the goal of tools such as Revcontent is to empower media businesses to be in greater control of their relationships with the users on their sites.”