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9 Things I Learned In 9 Years as a CEO – Part 1

This two-part post is about the 9 things I've learned leading a growing business for the past 9 years. These lessons might help you ease over your own bumps, or flatten them!
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Nine years ago I set out to help small businesses grow by providing an easy-to-use email marketing tool that was completely affordable. Now VerticalResponse is profitable, over 85,000 customers strong and growing, and what a ride it's been! In celebration of VR's success, I decided to write about 9 things I've learned leading a growing business that might help you ease over your own bumps, or flatten them! I'll start with the first five things in this post:

1. Hire a GREAT Lawyer - Luckily, this is one mistake I didn't make, but I've heard nightmare stories from other businesses that weren't as lucky as me. Make sure your business is set up properly. For instance I had no idea that I HAD to set up as a C-Corp. because one of my investors resides outside of the U.S. Make sure your i's are dotted on this one. If I was going to spend a bigger budget, this is where I'd spend. Also, consider giving a percentage of your company to your lawyer in exchange for big dollars. They may be even more attentive when it comes to doing work for your business.

2. Don't Hire Ahead of the Curve - I'm a firm believer that you and your teams should be at more than FULL CAPACITY before you hire. The last thing you want is your new employee to be "waiting around" for work. I once hired a salesperson before the product was ready. I'm sure that was a bit de-motivating to them since they had nothing to sell and I got angry with myself for wasting good money.

3. Get a GREAT Accountant - If your business isn't set up properly from an accounting perspective, you could end up paying for it years down the road. I learned the hard way when I thought my accountant had all the information necessary when it came to paying employee tax for the city of San Francisco. For years we just didn't pay and I never had a clue. When Mr. Auditor visited us one day it was very clear that our accountant had no idea this wasn't happening either, and he should have. A hit of $20,000 wasn't pretty for our business that year.

4. QUICK Decision Making - Sure we'd all love to know every piece of information on a subject before we make a decision around it, but then, no decisions would ever be made. I've had employees belabor every possible aspect of a decision, but in the end it wasted some serious time. Inform yourself as much as you think makes sense, and ask yourself one question: "What's the worse that could happen?" I'm a huge proponent of "doing something" and either being successful or cleaning up a mess and learning from it, versus "doing nothing" and learning nothing.

5. Get Rid of Bad Employees...FAST - There's something to be said for trying to help employees who aren't up to snuff, but at some point you have to let go. I've definitely been "scared" to fire people because in my mind they held some amount of proprietary information that would sink the company. But when they're gone an amazing thing happens...the business continues. It may be a bit slower for some amount of time, but it's amazing how things will seem to run. Find out what they know, make sure others can figure it out, and get rid of them. They're a poison to the rest of the employees, and you risk your team thinking less of you if you don't act.

The first five things I've learned should give you plenty to chew on over the next few days. Next week I'll talk about the final four huge lessons I've learned during my time as CEO of VerticalResponse.

Last updated: Jul 15, 2010




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