Chris Dreyer – Founder & CEO, Rankings.io

Chris Dreyer is the founder and CEO of Rankings.io, an SEO agency for lawyers. Chris has been featured in numerous legal and search marketing publications such as Legal Ink Magazine, Law Marketing, Attorney At Work, Moz, and more. With over fourteen years of experience in Search Engine Optimization (SEO), Chris has helped hundreds of law firms get first page positions in search engines using innovative campaigns that are difficult for competitors to recreate. He is dedicated to helping lawyers get more leads and win more clients.

How did the concept for Rankings.io come about?
I worked as a consultant for several digital agencies, one of which was a full-service legal marketing agency. I saw the legal vertical was under-served as a whole and wanted to make an impact.

How was the first year in business?
During the first year of business, I wore a lot of hats. There was more organizational planning required than I had originally anticipated, but I also doubled my income (compared to what I had been making as a consultant).

What was your marketing strategy?
It was the same then as it is now: to create value for the legal vertical, create content that compounds its value (such as our in-depth guide to law firm SEO), and to create interest by word-of-mouth.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We roughly doubled in size, year-over-year, for the first four years.

How do you define success?
Generating ROI for our clients.

What is the key to success?
Continuous improvement in every aspect of the business.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Focus. Once we began to grow, we deviated from our focus (legal) a little. It diluted our brand and we quickly learned to re-focus on our core market.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Your focus determines your reality.” – Qui-Gon Jinn (Star Wars)

“Life is hard. It’s harder when you’re stupid.” – John Wayne

What are some of your favorite books?
The E-Myth Revisited by Michael Gerber
Traction by Gino Wickmann
The Ultimate Sales Machine by Chet Holmes
Profit First by Mike Michalowicz

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Any time I’ve had to fire someone, honestly. It’s never pleasant to take someone’s job away from them, and it’s even harder when you feel some of the blame falls on your shoulders. Some employees simply weren’t the right fit in the first place, and that falls back on me as the employer. I should have recognized their shortcomings earlier in the screening process.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
My passion for winning. My dad always told me, “You play to win the game,” which is a little Ricky Bobby-esque, I know.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Take advantage of lessons learned by those who came before you. Invest in yourself. Find a mentor who will continually push you beyond your comfort zone. Always strive to learn and do better.

Joseph Sommer – Founder & President, Whitestone Branding

Joseph Sommer is the founder and president of Whitestone Branding, which helps companies ignite or extend their brand of image through the products they produce. Whether it be 10,000 t-shirts for a race or marathon or a well-thought out corporate gift, Whitestone Branding are importers and distributors of highly-personalized items which are carefully developed to help enhance or extend any brand of image.

How did the concept for Whitestone Branding come about?
The concept for the business came about during the summer between my freshman and sophomore year in college, while working as a counselor at a summer camp. I had previously wanted to own restaurants, and was going to Johnson & Wales University with the hopes of becoming a restaurateur. After worked in a restaurant the year before, I quickly learned this was not what I wanted to do with my life! While at camp, I met a guy who was running a promotional products business from his Blackberry. I saw all the cool things he was making for Tequila Patron and saw one six figure check that changed my outlook on the business altogether. From that moment on, ten years ago, I knew this would be the business for me. I learned that I could work with businesses I look up to and align with, and have a positive impact on their marketing strategies. I went back to college, and starting writing many different business plans in the branded products space.

How was the first year in business?
My first year in business was agonizing. I was bound by a non-compete, and spent most of the year building a website which never made a big impact. I really hung on by a thread, living off of savings and paycheck to paycheck. My biggest challenge was being so young and inexperienced. I was twenty-two, and really only had one other job in the industry, and while I had success in that role eighteen months prior, I had absolutely zero management skills or entrepreneurial experience. It was an uphill battle from day one.

What was your marketing strategy?
My business was entirely bootstrapped and still is 100% self-funded close to six years later. We’ve always had to be super savvy with how we prospect and market the business. In the beginning, my marketing strategy was based on pure gumption. The strategy was to cold call, ask customers for referrals, and rely on family and friends to help make introductions for me.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
We were $12.00 shy of $1,000,000 in our second full year of business! We went from a few hundred thousand to a million after two full years and I attribute a lot of that success to grit and determination. The mentality was that I could not fail! I had quit my job and risked it all, and the mindset was to really make my parents proud and prove to them and myself that I could make it on my own.

How do you define success?
Success to me is defined by the number of people I employ and careers I am creating. It truly means the world to me being able to employ people and share my passion with them. Our business is service-oriented at its core. We take a hospitality approach to the customer experience, and because of that, our growth is rooted in our people. The more people we have thriving in their respective roles, the more successful the business will be and the more accomplished I will feel.

What is the key to success?
Hard work, compassion, a can-do attitude, and the right amount of support, both professionally and with family and friends. To become a successful entrepreneur, I believe firmly that you have to outwork the competition and go into each new opportunity with the mindset that existing relationships are likely already in place, and that should motivate you to work harder and offer a higher level of service or a higher-quality product. Also, to let the people you’re working with know that your goal is to win their business. I’m a firm believer of calling a spade a spade. That relates to anything, but in business specifically, when I want to work with someone, I tell them that I want their business and I show them why I believe I deserve it through actions, not words. That attitude has helped drive success with our business.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
The greatest lesson I have learned is that there are four P’s to ensuring a successful business, not three, and that the fourth P is critical and so very important. You need to have the right Profit, People, and Process…but you also have to be well-Positioned!

Positioning is such a big piece of the puzzle. Figuring that out, and then having positioned our business for the best-fit clients was one of the greatest lessons I have learned.

What are some quotes that you live by?
My two favorite quotes are “The world is your oyster” and “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”

Having been adopted at birth, I always think about how I hit the lottery of life, and every day I work towards making the most of my winnings – day in and day out.

What are some of your favorite books?
Two amazing books I’ve read and have implemented in our business are by Mike Michalowicz, which are The Pumpkin Plan and Profit First. Absolute must-reads for entrepreneurs.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Having to lay off fourteen employees and announce the shutdown of a business I had acquired eigtheen months prior. In September 2016, we acquired our go-to screen printer and financed embroidery machines. While in the Goldman Sachs 10K Small Businesses program, I had identified in-house decoration as an area in which could help me drive growth. I was approached by our go-to screen printers coincidentally, and we ended up purchasing their business through an asset purchase agreement. After eighteen months, we ended up never turning a profit and we pulled the plug on the venture, having to lay off the people and put a plan in place to liquidate the business. That was by far the hardest day of my career, but I’m proud of how we managed the layoffs and how fast we were able to liquidate and put everything in the rear view mirror. We helped find everyone new jobs and get them back in the workforce, while also giving them two weeks severance.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
When faced with adversity, the thought that keeps me moving forward is that I’ll only be faced with this once, because I’ll learn and grow from it. Knowing that if I keep a level head, make informed and calculated decisions, and base my decisions also off of past experiences, I’ll grow from the obstacle and be ready to tackle a different challenge the next day.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
The advice I would give to a young entrepreneur would be to seek out mentorship from within your industry. There is always someone willing to help and give their time to teach you what they learned. I would tell he or she to be a sponge and soak up all the knowledge and wisdom from people who have gone through the journey and by listening, you’ll pick up a bunch of golden little nuggets that will absolutely save you time and money.

Ralph Burns – Founder & CEO, Tier 11

Ralph Burns is the CEO of Tier 11, a digital advertising agency that specializes in helping businesses scale through Facebook and Instagram advertising. Ralph’s agency manages a portfolio of Facebook advertising customer accounts in over 30 industries with an annual spend in excess of $50 million. Ralph is also the co-host of the wildly successful Perpetual Traffic Podcast.

How did the concept for Tier 11 come about?
It came for a combination of our eleven tiers of pricing, with the thinking that the more you spend on advertising with us the more you grow your business – combined with the This Is Spinal Tap reference to “Taking it up to eleven” (Google it if you do not know it).

How was the first year in business?
Sucky. I had created a educational program for sales managers and I was convinced it would change the way sales training works, but in fact nobody wanted it, or even worse, bought it. Then I got fired from my cushy six figure corporate job and realized I better start hustling or I wouldn’t be able to eat.

What was your marketing strategy?
At first, Google Adwords for worldwide “sales management” keyword audiences, mostly opt-ins from India and Malaysia who never bought a thing – but loved all my free giveaways!

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Not very quickly. It wasn’t until 2013 (four years in business) when we crossed six figures in sales.

How do you define success?
Being happy with what you have today instead of constantly striving for happiness in the future. As a striver, this is still a tough one for me. It’s very Buddhist (I’m 100% casual Catholic), but it’s real.

What is the key to success?
Never giving up and doing your best every day. Also, being smart enough to realize how to pivot your business model towards products and services people actually need, while filling a big hole in a particular market.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Always be yourself. Accept yourself for who you are, you’re not perfect – so deal with it. Don’t try to be somebody you aren’t.

What are some quotes that you live by?
So many….

“The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.” – Samuel Johnson

“Money is a great servant but a horrible master.” – Tony Robbins

“How you do anything is how you do everything.”

“Action may not always bring happiness, but there is no happiness without action.” – Benjamin Disraeli, former British Prime Minister

“Do what you do best and let others do the rest.” – Joe Torre

What are some of your favorite books?
How to Win Friends & Influence People – Dale Carnegie
Good to Great – Jim Collins
The Secret – Rhonda Byrne
Atlas Shrugged – Ayn Rand
Ready. Fire. Aim. – Michael Masterson
The Go Giver – Bob Burg
The 4-Hour Workweek – Tim Ferris

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
When I was just starting, I had a small web design side business and our largest customer reneged with a charge reversal on his credit card trying to screw us. The amount was so large, I couldn’t pay any of our bills for three months. Bad day. Bad quarter. Almost considered giving it all up and going back to work for the man. Of course, that happened thousands of times, not just on this one…

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
It’s the drive to help as many amazing businesses grow faster than they could on their own using Facebook and Instagram advertising and what’s really cool is that the more companies we can help do the above, the more we can contribute to charitable causes we deeply believe in.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Never, ever give up. That’s #1 by far.

#2 is stay humble and never think you have all the answers. Collaboration with the right people is the big key to success that unsuccessful (or completely overworked) entrepreneurs usually completely forget.

#3 is don’t take too long to hire others to do the work that you do. Anything can be replaced and outsourced – and chances are they can do it better than you! So many entrepreneurs think “only I can do this.” Bullshit. Hire great people, teach them to do what you do, have them document your processes, and that’s the only way you can grow a business.

Renee Bemis – Co-Founder, Driftless Glen Distillery

Renee and her husband, Brian Bemis, share a spirited passion. Driftless Glen Distillery is an American craft distillery that is making even the glen cairns that the whiskey flows into thirstier for more, and is captivating the nation with its award-winning spirits. With close to 5,000 barrels of aging bourbons and rye whiskeys, the operation and facility have set the stage in the craft arena and have quickly made a name for the quality of spirits and the sense of place Renee and Brian have created for all to enjoy. The love and life put into their spirits is touched by the imprint of their fingerprints that hold every single bottle that leaves their rick-house. Renee and Brian invite you to “Taste the American Spirit”.

How did the concept for Driftless Glen Distillery come about?
My husband, Brian Bemis, is a known and respected car dealer, and has been in the industry for over 35 years. He has built many relationships and through that has been presented opportunities along the way to partner in, and to create new start-up ventures. The concept of the distillery intrigued us both and it is safe to say, it was a passion of ours from the very start. Driftless Glen Distillery was born and originally started as a partnership.

How was the first year in business?
We broke ground in 2012, started distilling in 2014, and opened our distillery restaurant in 2015. In our minds, 2015 was really the first year since we opened our doors to the public. In 2015, we learned a lot and that is also the same year my husband and I bought out the original partner. We knew a shift needed to be made in order to grow the brand the way it deserved. We share ownership of Driftless Glen together, a his and her team fueled with passion and perseverance, and as we like to sometimes laugh and say BAM (bring another million), our own funding and learning. It is a labor of love and there are many considerations and shifts that we have had to make. Through the highs and lows, we remain on the high side with our love and optimism for just what we have worked so hard with our team to create. The first year was all about getting the distillery setup for the creation of the bourbon and rye whiskeys. We distilled our first barrel in November of 2014. We started distilling and putting spirits in barrels to age. Bourbon and rye whiskeys are our flagship products. There is a speed to market consideration for all distilleries. You want your spirits to be nurtured and aged, but there is much capital that goes into just sitting and waiting for the optimal maturity. We have always been of the mind that we will age ours to perfection, having patience and respect for the art form of what we do. So, we started producing excellent clears to offer right away in our distillery. Our vodkas are becoming well-known and are loved as are our gins. We also have a 5 Year Reserve award-winning brandy. It is the only sourced spirit, but we wanted to have a brandy from the Bordeaux region of France that we then aged an additional year in one of our spent bourbon barrels.

Our distillery cuisine-inspired restaurant was also a unique concept and somewhat of a risk as we decided that there would be no deep fryer. Now there is no shame in enjoying an amazing WI deep-fried cheese curd – we just wanted to create something different for our distillery and the area. The same chef who started with us remains to this day. He is incredible and comes up with the most delectable dishes, all distillery-inspired and infused with our spirits where it makes sense. As a WI distillery, we also have a special liquor license that only allows for us to share our spirits and beer. For this reason, we had to get creative in our mixology, so we have our own line of olive oils and vinegar that we use in the creation of our cocktails and cuisine – Renee Olive Oils. The first year of the restaurant was great and it just continues to get better and better.

What was your marketing strategy?
At that time, it was all about just starting, launching, and getting the word out. We did some billboard advertising, TV hotel advertising and ESPN advertising in the area of WI dells. This area is heavy in tourism and just about a 15-20 minute drive from our distillery. We didn’t do as much promotion in the beginning as we wanted our flagship spirits to be aged, and we wanted to be known for creating bourbon and rye whiskey. The first amber spirit we released was our brandy and then our double cask gin. We also made the decision to release a young rye as our following was really waiting and asking for it. We took a risk, and it paid off. Our young rye and our brandy are award winners and we are now at a pinnacle time coming close to the five year mark of aged bourbon and rye whiskeys. Our strategy is also one of remaining true to the spirit. We are grain to glass, using locally-sourced Midwest grains and all of the creation and nurturing is done on-site, even down to the bottling, labeling, and handwritten information on our label.

Now our strategy has shifted. Recently, I spoke at the Inc. 5000 conference about passions and pivots. We are in a passion/pivot mode as we speak. Brand awareness and recognition is key to our growth plan and success. We are making some big moves within the industry and people are keeping a close eye on us. We are doing things, our way. We aren’t following the “This is how it is done, or this is how its been done” mentality. We are coming up with new ideas and implementing fun and exciting marketing strategies that include radio, co-branded collaborations, and outside-of-the-box initiatives. Perhaps the biggest move that we will release very soon is offering our spirits online in 39 different states. This, up until now, hasn’t been something that people have been able to do, or have adopted. Through retail partnerships, we are really following suit with companies such as Amazon Prime and other services that enable greater reach and convenience to the client. We are an early adopter and know that through this there will be lessons learned, but our passion will allow us to keep up with the pivots.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
I can tell you exactly this number as we were just honored at the Inc. 5000 conference as one of the fastest-growing companies in the US. We ranked in at #316 out of 5,000 companies. We experienced a three-year growth of 1,561% in the last three years.

How do you define success?
Success is really getting everyone to love Driftless Glen Distillery Spirits, never giving up, and always giving it your all even during those days where you might feel deflated. Failure is not an option and our team even cites this as one of our driving forces.

What is the key to success?
Being true to our mission, our values, and ourselves. We respect the natural resources that go into creating our spirits. Because of this respect, we invest heavily in equipment and partnerships that allow us to remain central to our mission. We are a 100% zero waste distillery. That means everything we put into our spirits is recycled. We do not put the water that is high in BODs down the drain, as we separate the water and the spent grains. The water goes to an anaerobic digester and is recycled for energy and the spent grains go to a local farmer who feeds his cattle.

People knowing our name and the quality we provide and exactly the passion and the heart that goes into what we offer – that is the ultimate success. We are a five star-rated distillery and restaurant. We work as a team and family and no one wants to let the other person down. That in itself is success – having the people in place that have your back and understand our passion.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
We have learned too many. Perhaps the GREATEST would be that when working with city officials, distributors, and others who don’t have your mission and vision in mind, the attitude of “no” is hard to take and understand. Our attitude of yes and failure is not an option just allows us to keep on the side of we will make this happen one way or another. There is always a solution, so we would love to encounter those liked minds who really get down to it with us.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Life is about the journey not the destination.”
“I am an optimist. It doesn’t seem too much use to be anything else.” – Winston Churchill
Also, a poem I live by named “The Dash” by Linda Ellis:

“I read of a man who stood to speak at a funeral of a friend. He referred to the dates on the tombstone from the beginning… to the end.

He noted that first came the date of birth and spoke of the following date with tears, but said what mattered most of all was the dash between those years.

For that dash represents all the time they spent alive on earth and now only those who loved them know what that little line is worth.

For it matters not, how much we own, the cars… the house… the cash. What matters is how we lived and loved and how we spend our dash.

So think about this long and hard; are there things you’d like to change? For you never know how much time is left that still can be rearranged.

To be less quick to anger and show appreciation more and love the people in our lives like we’ve never loved before.

If we treat each other with respect and more often wear a smile… remembering that this special dash might only last a little while.

So when your eulogy is being read, with your life’s actions to rehash, would you be proud of the things they say about how you lived your dash?”

What are some of your favorite books?
How Remarkable Women Lead by Joanna Barsh & Susie Cranston and Living with Joy by Sanana Roman.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There have been many, as we encounter tough days weekly. In this industry, you not only have to put up the capital and sit on the investment till it ages, but you also have to trust others so very much with them getting your brand out there. The distribution world and the three tier system can be very limiting, but it can also be very good. Getting your spirit on the shelf and being considered against big brands, with large cash flow and the ability to create incentives – we face this daily. We also have faced government regulations as does each and every distillery who is creating their brand and following. Limiting regulations requires that you get creative. It seems that with the world of eCommerce, we should be able to ship from our warehouse to all over the world, but this is not the case in the spirit industry. However, we are thankful that we have some amazing distributors and partners who are making this happen for us since they believe in our product, and more importantly, us.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
I believe, we believe, and our team believes in our product and DG.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
We own the distillery 100% – we didn’t need to borrow capital. So, as an entrepreneur, we recommend that others really think through the investment, and save to be able to put in at least the majority of the capital so that their vision and voice remains true through all of the ups and downs. Never give up, be optimistic, and keep failure as not an option at the forefront.

Tim Haitaian – Co-Founder & CFO, RedShelf

Tim Haitaian is co-founder and CFO of RedShelf, a leading distributor of digital learning materials. RedShelf collaborates with strategic partners, publishers, institutions, and campus bookstores to streamline the discovery and distribution of eTextbooks and other digital course materials.

After graduating from Arizona State University, Tim went on to found RedShelf in 2012 with longtime friend, Greg Fenton. The two had a vision of improving the education industry by helping streamline the transition from print to digital. Since 2012, RedShelf has successfully completed a Series A, B, and C along with growing the company to over 80 employees. Tim is originally from Birmingham, Michigan and currently resides in Chicago.

How did the concept for RedShelf come about?
Very naturally. It was born out of a narrower focus around higher ed content and digitization. At the time, Greg and I were college students using textbooks and course materials and we believed there was a better way to transition them to digital. We’re passionate about increasing access to content, increasing affordability, and improving student outcomes with our partners in publishing and within higher ed institutions.

How was the first year in business?
Tough! Greg and I lived in a 3-bedroom house in Chicago; it was basically RedShelf, 24/7. We had very little resources, but it was incredibly important. We were building the foundation for what we’ve become today and hopefully what we can achieve in the future.

What was your marketing strategy?
To listen to our customers and partners. Early on we knew that success would come from working together. There is a lot of allure to disrupting an industry and displacing the incumbents. Our industry is different and we didn’t want to build that kind of business. We’ve never had a big, fancy marketing strategy. Instead, we’ve spent a lot of time serving our partners and we’ve been pretty successful doing just that.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Quickly. We’ve experienced 2-3x growth every year since inception. Some years were closer to 5x but it’s safe to say that everything has at least doubled every year.

How do you define success?
Totally cliche, but following your dreams. Everyone should have their own definition of success, but I think a common thread would be dedicating yourself to something you’re passionate about and willing to sacrifice for. Success to me was always building and running an exciting business.

What is the key to success?
Grit, passion, resourcefulness, work ethic, passion, etc. The bottom line is that it’ll be hard to go after things that are difficult, but worth pursuing. You’ll hit stumbling blocks, you’ll get tired, you’ll run low on resources, etc. You have to have the ability to push through those moments and crest the next hill.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
That if you want something you’ll have to work really hard to earn it. Nothing worth having comes easy.

What are some quotes that you live by? 
“You have two ears and one mouth…do twice as much listening as talking.”
“Nothing worth having comes easy.”
“Hustle is a muscle!”
“Nobody cares, work harder.”
“Where there is a will, there’s a way.”
“Check your ego at the door.”

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
There wasn’t a single day, but there was a period several years ago when I hadn’t figured out how to manage the stress. It was about a month of complete sideways movement and it pushed me to re-evaluate the way I operated. I had to dig my way out of being overloaded and then immediately plan ahead to prevent it from happening again. I also learned a lot about myself and general growth during and following that period. The struggle was ultimately worth it and I believe it was crucial in setting me and the company up for the success we’re enjoying today.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
Knowing that if it were easy, everyone would do it. This is supposed to be hard and often the moments that feel the lowest end up being the biggest learning opportunities.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
To go for it. However, don’t think it’s all glitz and glamour. It’s insanely hard work and will seriously challenge you. Be prepared to dedicate yourself to something for years before other people recognize that you might be onto something. If you’re willing to commit to that then it can be an extremely rewarding, fun, and challenging opportunity.