As mentioned in my previous post, this past week was CollegeXTRA.com, Inc.’s 10th birthday. CollegeXTRA.com, Inc. is the corporate name of Union Street Media. As a celebration of this milestone, I’d like to share with you a few of the things I’ve learned over the past ten years.
Easy money doesn’t exist but free lunches do
Running a business of twenty people requires a lot of cash and none of it comes easily. Each month our sales team is responsible for generating well over a hundred thousand dollars. To earn that money, our web development team needs to produce the work, which requires our product development team to create a scalable architecture for the sites. Our internet marketing team needs get the sites up in the search engines so that our clients get the traffic to generate a return on their invest. Our support team needs to keep the sites live, handle incoming phone calls and help clients with updates. Our office manager extrodinaire needs to invoice for all of this work and then made sure we actually get paid for it. This is fun, challenging and inspiring, but not easy.
However, there are free lunches. I know because I used to buy them for people and now, on occasion, people buy them for me. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs requires that we eat. Every day. Often three times. I have used lunch as a way to get an hour with really smart people. Our awesome attorney, Peter Kunin, helped set us on the right course over many-a-$10-sandwich, which is less then his normal billable rate. I have had the opportunity to learn from successful entrepreneurs about the lessons from their businesses over a lunch, and applied those lessons to USM. After a trip to the Google Campus in 2008, I discovered that 110% of Google employees eat free lunch at Google every day (I really appreciated the free lunch even if the shareholders might not). So now we have office lunch too at Union Street Media every Tuesday. We get together as a group, share stories, ideas and hang out. It’s awesome.
A good networker is a netweaver
Jim Shattuck, the Director of Career Services at my senior year at Middlebury College, had a simple manta: “Network, network, network.” Although I didn’t know it at the time, I actually honed this skill at Middlebury. Freshman year I found out pretty quickly that if I knew the person behind the bar at a campus party, I got my luke warm Natty Light faster. Today, I’m the most public facing employee at Union Street Media. I spend about 10% of my time attending business events in the community and volunteering on boards of other organizations. However, you can’t just take from your network. You have to give back to it. One of the things I like to do the most is connect people in the community with each other, whether it’s for business purposes or friendship. When people move to Burlington, I invite them to the office and share my knowledge of the area. They leave with a sticky pad full of names, emails and phone numbers from contacts at a company where they might find a job to the best guys fix-it-guy (Chris Labelle, 802-343-0269) and mechanic in town (Daren Smith, 802-660-3111).
Vermont actually is a good place to do business
After 30 years of listening to rants about the “richest one purcent“, Vermont may be one of the last places in the US that thinks you can tax the rich to balance your budget. (It’s also the last place in the US where you’re better of speaking French then Spanish, which lined up nicely with my study-abroad year in France). There are a lot of “rich” people in Vermont, they just stay for less the 180 days each year and take their tax dollars with them. I wish Vermont could address it’s challenged relationship with money, but that is another topic.
Despite the best efforts of some elected representatives to make it not the case, Vermont is actually a good place to do business. Vermonters, by-birth-and-by-choice, are honest, hard working people. They do right by others and in turn do right by themselves. The corruption that is rampant in many parts of the world doesn’t exist here. There is a strong sense of community, place and identity. The quality of life is second to none (unless you’re a surfer, like my sophomore year roommate). Since good jobs are hard to come by here, people will stick with one for a long time. It makes for a steady, albeit small, labor pool which is the number one ingredient for a successful business.
A company’s most important assets go home every night
Union Street Media doesn’t have heavy machinery or physical capital that you can touch. We have brains and some really smart ones at that. Inside the heads of the people that work at USM you’ll find the future of our business. My job, as I see it, is to harness the power of all these brains, align their interests with that of the company and then get out of the way.
Make serendipity happen
While I don’t know if Bo Peabody actually coined this phrase, it sure sounds like something he would have written in his book Lucky or Smart. My brother and business partner, Jon, who has been along for much of this ride likes to say that 80% of life is just showing up (thanks to Woody Allen on that one). Some of the best opportunities in our business have come from being at the right place at the right time. Coincidence? Sort of. Lucky? A bit. Over and over again, we found our way to an opportunity and then capitalized upon it. That’s what great teams do.