Getting started: it’s as bad, and as exciting, as you had thought

Self-confessed non-social nerds GIL and ANYA GILDNER broke into the rat race with search marketing company Discosloth –  despite a lack of relevant experience and networking skills. Gil guest-wrote this piece about the trials and tribulations of setting up a new enterprise for BV

LAST year, my wife and I had decent jobs.

They weren’t anything fancy (I was a creative director and she was a marketing manager) but they did have an important feature: the stable monthly salary.

For us, however, it didn’t quite feel enough. Anyone who’s ever sat twiddling their thumbs in a cubicle, or endured yet another weekly meeting, or compiled another useless report, will know the feeling. You’re not exactly fulfilling your own destiny. And good luck getting a decent pay raise.

So we quit our jobs and started a search marketing company.

When we went into this head-on, there were hurdles: bootstrapping it ourselves, getting clients onboard, arranging publicity, increasing prices, keeping existing clients happy. Especially difficult for the average technically-minded founder or co-founder is networking. Some are fortunate enough to be able to work a room, sip some champagne, and schmooze their way into six-figure deals. The problem with Anya and I? We’re nerds, not networkers. We don’t really want to hear about someone’s golf score, poolhouse renovation, first round draft picks, or PTA meetings. If you give me a cold beer in a dive bar or hand Anya a glass of red wine we can hold our own with the best of them, but we’re probably not going to take the average corporate spreadsheet warrior very seriously.

Quitting everything and starting fresh is a huge risk, and it comes with a combination of elated independence and financial fear. Over 90 percent of startups in the United States fail within five years, a statistic which doesn’t give a whole lot of confidence to the frustrated cubicle-dweller.

Worse, if you’ve ever looked for advice, nobody seems to have an exact recipe for starting success. There are countless articles on how to scale revenue from $1m to $10m, or how to scale email lists from 10k to 100k, or (to reference an actual article) how a billion-dollar healthcare company generated 5,100 percent ROI from a $1m online marketing campaign.

If you’re running a company that has a million bucks to spend on a marketing test, you could do that too. What’s not easily available is finding out how to go from nothing to something.

That first bit is the hardest: going from $0 revenue to $100k. Ask someone who’s done it, and chances are they don’t even know how they did; they just worked hard, things fell into place, and it happened.

Peter Thiel’s excellent book Zero To One underlines this concept. From a pure math perspective, creating something from nothing is a greater win than creating something bigger from something smaller. We started out with exactly zero traffic, zero leads, and zero budget. All we had was a vision of where we wanted to be, and a ridiculous yet brandable title (Discosloth, a name designed to evoke instant respect).

We used digital to scale, because that’s what we know how to do, but the strategy is essentially applicable to any method. It was a slow start: a project here or there, a few stutters, and a couple early ignorant mistakes. But within a few months, suddenly our company’s revenue was outstripping our former salaries, our workload doubled, and we were able to turn down clients.

The real beauty of it, though, was that we were no longer tied down to the corporate structure of meetings, schedules, locations, or process. We suddenly had total freedom to design a company in the exact way we wanted it to be.

Throughout our first few months, we knew we needed something to catapult us out of that slow, steady trajectory. Our answer to this was to produce a painstakingly complete guide to the search marketing industry: all secrets revealed on how to build profitable Google Ads and Bing Ads pay-per-click campaigns. We spent months working on our guide: writing chapters, building the website, developing materials, and finally in marketing.

Then, we released it for free.

We feel that this was our big industry break: influencers in the internet world promoted it without us even asking. Within a month we’d had thousands of visitors, downloads, and shares of our guide. Even better, in the midst of all this we started getting press: I talked to a reporter from the Associated Press late one night on the phone, and a few weeks later we woke up to brand mentions in papers all across the US: The New York Times, Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, Inc, USA Today, and a few local papers to boot.

The first chapter of Discosloth turned out to be a page-turner – and for us it’s still a cliffhanger. We’ve built a business with predictable revenue, solid referrals, website traffic, and a growing industry presence. We passed $1.75 million in managed-ad spend this quarter (a small figure in the industry, but something we’re incredibly proud of) and have worked with clients like Volvo, Tyson, and MSF.  We’ve started branching out into educational engagements to share our knowledge of digital marketing at universities and corporations.

The great thing about taking your company to a sustainable level is that you can then dedicate resources and energy to new ventures. We’re a heavily tech-based company, and we know that the future of scalability is in software. Anya is taking this chance to pursue a lifelong dream of software development, giving herself the next year to learn Python and JavaScript.

But the cliffhanger is still there: our company is still not where we want it to be, and that’s the challenge for the next chapter. Perhaps we’ve taken Discosloth from nothing to something, but we still think it needs to go from something to something… bigger.

The reality is that there is no secret: it’s just persistence and diligence. You keep on doing something, and it happens. It’s not a linear process: if you do something for a month, you’ll get nowhere. If you do it for a year, you’ll be successful.

As the old saying goes, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results. But, perhaps, those quitting their jobs and founding companies are all a little insane anyway…