April Foster – Founder & CEO, Inked Brands

April Foster is the founder and CEO of Inked Brands, a pioneer of influencer commerce, where she’s obsessed with combining relevant products and smart marketing with influencer brands. She lives in Kentucky with her husband, Greg, and four young children.

Tell me about your early career.
My very early career started at age four, when my sister and I designed greeting cards for my dad’s customers at the lumber mill and hardware store my dad owned in South Texas. We walked around selling these so-called greeting cards (aka typing paper with crayon drawings) for a quarter a piece so that we could spend massively at the Hello Kitty store in the Lake Jackson mall. We were big time entrepreneurs.

Later, I received a degree in speech therapy, but during my final internship, I realized it wasn’t a good fit for me. I was an entrepreneur at heart and so I pivoted into pharmaceutical sales since I was a natural salesperson and knew how to read research papers. After gaining accolades and a promotion to manager, while I was on the road four nights a week, I decided to apply those skills to my own venture, StudioCalico.com. My husband, the risk-taker in the family, was so supportive of this subscription craft business I wanted to pursue. We grew organically until I quit my pharma job after two years in business.

How did the concept for Inked Brands come about?
Luck, and paying attention.

Studio Calico was growing and we worked with an increasing number of industry experts, who would now be labeled as influencers. One in particular, we partnered with to create an entire co-branded product line, which resulted in thousands of orders and generally drinking from the fire hose for about six months. As soon as we could come up for air, I said, “Let’s do it again!” That’s when we launched our first two influencer sites: AliEdwards.com and Shop.ABeautifulMess.com.

How was the first year in business?
Exciting growth, but filled with lots of failures. We would ship orders and label them too heavy, costing us thousands of dollars among many other operational errors.

What was your marketing strategy?
Studio Calico was built by micro-influencers, including myself, who had highly-passionate audiences. We focused on making high-quality products and wowing customers, and that spread the word organically. Since then, we’ve relied on our influencer partners to do the same.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
40-70% YOY, entirely bootstrapped.

How do you define success?
I haven’t figured that out yet, but I can say it feels awesome to deliver quality products our influencers love, on a site they’re proud of, and see their followers treasure it.

What is the key to success?
Honesty with yourself and your results, followed closely by discipline in making necessary changes to yourself or your organization.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Forgiveness of myself and others. As an entrepreneur, wife, and mother, I have to forgive often, and quickly, and hope for the same in return. I make mistakes every day.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“Well done is better than well said.” – Benjamin Franklin

“You can accomplish anything in life, provided you do not mind who gets the credit.” – Harry Truman

“Trust, but verify.” – Ronald Reagan

“A players hire A players. B players hire B & C players.” – Steve Jobs

“Greatness is not a function of circumstance. Greatness, it turns out, is largely a matter of conscious choice, and discipline.” – James C. Collins

“Deciding what not to do is as important as deciding what to do.” – Steve Jobs

What are some of your favorite books?
Good to Great by Jim Collins
Business Brilliant by Lewis Schiff
Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
The day my COO was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

Ken Marshall, former executive at Camping World (reporting to Marcus Lemonis of CNBC’s The Profit), had left to work with me at Inked. We were in lockstep with one another; I trusted him implicitly. Together, we were laying the foundation for a Series A round and his maturity and experience were vital to our success. He was diagnosed in February 2015 and passed away only four months later, working with me to the end. I spent many days crying in the car on the way to the office, putting on a brave face, and having conversations that just days earlier didn’t seem as urgent, but now I was taking notes feverishly and trying to learn from every word. I am forever grateful to him for making the leap and for his family for sharing him with me so unselfishly.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
One of my advisors says my body manufactures its own crack. Joking aside, I require little sleep and the more I’m surrounded by smart people and the more I’m challenged, the more motivated and excited I become.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Surround yourself with smart people, and not “yes-men.” It’s good to have a multiplicity of opinions and people who aren’t afraid to challenge you.

Ben Lee – Co-Founder & CEO, Neon Roots

Co-founder of Neon Roots, columnist at Forbes, Huffington Post, Inc. & Business.com, Ben Lee has been featured in Inc.’s 2016 list of “30 Under 30, the Most Brilliant Young Entrepreneurs”.

After a brief correspondence with Fidel Castro at age nine, Ben decided to start doing things his own way, going from busboy to club manager at a world-class nightclub before he turned 18, with properties grossing over $20 million. Since then, Ben has founded or taken a lead role in five businesses, everything from software development to food and entertainment. Ben founded Neon Roots and Rootstrap in Los Angeles six years ago, and since then, it’s grown to more than 85 employees with a presence in Los Angeles, New York, Uruguay, and Berlin, with hundreds of successful projects under its belt.

Tell me about your early career.
The first tech startup I founded was Attack Sheets, a digital product for law students taking the bar exam, which became the #1 downloaded bar exam supplement on the Internet. I was then courted into working at a large digital agency where I met my co-founder, Drew Harding. We both shared similar ideologies and felt the current agency model was flawed – incentives were not aligned between the client and the vendor. We felt we had to change that when we founded Neon Roots in 2011. Rootstrap was born in 2012 and became a “product discovery” tool. It allowed startups, media companies, and public figures to roadmap their ideas before building the actual tech. We became known as the guys to help make your app idea work.

How did the concept for Neon Roots come about?
The app world was heating up, but it seemed really unsystematic to me. I wanted to create a company that would be able to answer the needs of customers and also be able to create on its own. I wanted to be systematically, methodically creative while also serving customers.

How was the first year in business?
My first year in business was a learning experience, and a really good one. I found out what I didn’t know, how to find out what I needed to know, who the other players were, and what I would need to do to get ahead.

What was your marketing strategy?
My marketing strategy was simple: value. I was determined that my customers would feel that they got real value for their money.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Almost exactly as fast as anticipated, perhaps a little faster. I was ambitious. I set strong goals and I stuck to my strategy, so I grew as much as I expected, which was much faster than others thought I would.

How do you define success?
I have never borrowed a dime. Today, I have a payroll of dozens and I am not yet thirty. My customers, my employees, and my partners are all doing better because of my efforts. That’s success.

What is the key to success?
Knowing your strengths, organizing yourself to maximize them, and recognizing your limitations.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Don’t mind being underestimated. It’s an advantage.

What are some quotes that you live by?
“I would rather face a hundred lions led by a sheep than one hundred sheep led by a lion” and “Never underestimate the other guy’s greed.”

What are some of your favorite books?
The Wolf of Wall Street, Big Data, Freakonomics, and The Big Short.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I discovered that someone I thought was trustworthy was not, only after the fact. Without going into details, the toughest days are always about personnel.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The fact that I have overcome skepticism, setbacks, and criticism in the past has shown me that the only way forward when faced with adversity is to have faith in yourself, in your team, in your system, and in your work. Obstacles are lessons. Learning those lessons is vital to survival. I have learned from my mistakes and I have never repeated them.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
A friend of mine once said advice is usually best for the one giving it. Despite this, there is one thing I think all young entrepreneurs face. There is always someone willing to tell you that what you want is impossible. Pay attention to who says that, when, and in what circumstances. They will be a very valuable resource in the future when you remember them: they will be gone, but you will remain.

Dexton Deboree – Co-Founder, LOS YORK

Dexton is the co-founder of Los York, where he serves as an ECD, director, and co-CEO. A veteran of film, television, and commercial production and development, Dexton began his career out of film school, splitting his time between freelance, on-set production assistance for features and commercials, and freelance journalism for magazine publications, such as Wine & Dine and Cigar Aficionado.

Dexton has worked on multi-faceted projects, such as James Bond’s Quantum of Solace, has produced Academy Award-winning editor Angus Wall’s first directorial effort and the Clayton Brother’s “Panorama Project”, has written and produced multiple feature films, and has written and directed award-winning campaigns for the Jordan brand, Nike, Wilson, Muzik headphones, among others.

In 2009, Dexton executive produced the Emmy- and Cannes Lions-winning, CBS-animated Christmas special Yes, Virginia, airing on primetime every holiday in December since 2009 (and is scheduled through 2020). He is currently in mid-production on a feature documentary, in collaboration with the Jordan brand, that he has written and is co-directing, and recently completed 360 advertising campaigns, as ECD and director, for the Jordan brand and Nike Basketball.

Tell me about your background.
I was a terrible student in high school. I was confused, a bit lost, and distracted by my own imagination. I created an alternate reality in my head, in part to avoid from my actual reality, and now looking back, perhaps as the early stages of a creative mind. I’m not sure which came first and birthed the other. But I didn’t know that creativity was an option as a kid and no one ever introduced that as a possibility to me, so I was simply left to assume I was bad and different. I failed high school English, as well as most of my classes, and ended up getting a GED as a means to get to college somehow more quickly than sticking around high school for five years. I took college much more seriously, knowing it was my shot at some semblance of a better adult life. I was not creative, literary, or dialed into any artistic pursuits at all when I first got to college. I just worked my ass off to perform averagely on the basics. In my sophomore year, however, I had a revelatory moment that changed my life. I woke up in the middle of the night, opened a blank notebook, and wrote a poem. When I read it the next day, my whole life looked completely different. Suddenly, through the filter of a creative outlet, the world made sense to me.

I began to read everything I could get my hands on, and I wrote every day. I’ve never really stopped. Eventually, I discovered the idea of filmmaking, mostly to visualize my poetry. But as I learned more, got into film school, and started making films, I shifted to a strong passion for screenwriting and storytelling that had a visual accompaniment, and that really led me to where I am today.

Tell me about your early career.
Out of film school, I freelanced on film sets as a production assistant (PA), and wrote for various magazine publications as a freelance journalist. I eventually wanted more time to write my own stuff, and my experience in magazine journalism taught me the value of having editorial control. Without it, you’re just writing a lot of what your told to, even creating facts from fiction or heavily sawing facts to fit an advertiser’s preferred version of reality – the commerce of creativity, if you will. So, I got the idea of learning to produce moving pictures to get that creative control and business power a lot of writers long for.

I took a job as a PA at a random, commercial editorial shop at the urging of a neighbor who I didn’t even know that well. That random shop turned out to be one of the hottest editing companies in commercials and was venturing into features. While there, I got the chance to spill coffee on David Fincher’s lap, watch the main title sequence to Se7en come to life (bending the technical capabilities of Avid and really pushing the inspiration for desktop graphics), take notes on how legendary filmmakers like Ridley Scott, Ang Lee, Tom Tykwer and Mark Romanek looked at performances and shots and made creative decisions that the world would respond to, and generally see legends coming into their own. There was this “feeling” in the air that we were a part of something. Whether you were taking out the trash or the artist creating beautiful films and ads with soon-to-be legends, something special was happening. There was this creative energy that was brewing there and reaching the world, and that feeling influenced my drive to bring my voice and passion for inspiring the world to fruition.

I hustled as a PA doing all the shit work that PAs used to do in the film and ad business, without complaining about it or feeling my entitlement was under threat. Dry cleaning, walking dogs, taking out the trash, and generally being yelled at, cursed at, asked to do things that questioned the moral and ethical boundaries of employment, and found myself in strange, personal and psychological minefields. It sucked, but it all really helped me train as a producer. I went on to produce a load of commercials and a lot more non-traditional projects. I was the guy that would find a way to get it done, even unorthodox. I didn’t follow the rules very well, which made it perfect for projects and scenarios that didn’t make sense on paper, but somehow, had to get done. So, that got me assigned to film projects, side projects, and projects that demanded more than a logistics ace. Someone that could think creatively and solve problems in original ways. This lead to a collaboration with one of the editors who I, later, wrote a feature script with that I produced, and he directed. That opened my world and started to prove out this theory that my creative path would be winding, bending, merging, and eclectic. That the hyphenated skills of writing, creatively producing, and playing both sides of the creative and business coin was a unique and crafty skill.

Shortly after making my first feature, I was back to working on commercials briefly, when on one such project, I was asked to executive produce for a small organization that had a roster of design, animation, and mixed media companies. They were basically directing collectives and creative shops, pushing the envelope of creative mediums, technology and design – mostly in advertising. That gave me my first taste of management and running a company.

How did the concept for Los York come about?
It was a mix of things, really. Kind of a perfect storm of insight, opportunity, failure, observation, and experience. First, I stepped into a company that was broken. That forced me out of my comfort zone and pushed me into a space that was exploring a new way, better way, different way since the old way wasn’t working anymore and wasn’t an option to continue as is. When my partner and I took over the failing company, we were naturally in “solutions mode” and thus open to trying things. We didn’t have the luxury of ignoring the signs or relying on default decisions and quick fixes. This is where the unorthodox experience I’d had in the past came into play – the early, mixed media and film projects I’d done at the editorial shop, looking at things that had no precedent or road map, and simply finding a way to get it done. And I’d now made a few independent films, which is a very different process than traditional advertising. By this point, I had also fulfilled multiple roles, such as producer, writer, executive producer and, sometimes, creative director (less officially and more of a default need or lacking voice on projects that I would step into and add the voice to move the project forward). Additionally, I’d taken on larger marketing assignments at companies that had no business doing them, just to see if we could and it worked. Not to mention, I convinced Macy’s and their then-ad agency to fund what was meant to be a two-minute digital film into a 30-minute, animated television special (which still airs on CBS every holiday season). And I’d long been thinking that there had to be more synergy between the creative production process and the strategy driving brand messages and even longer form storytelling in the entertainment space. These once-segmented worlds were suddenly starting to cross over, affect one another, and look to one day merge. Meanwhile, my business partner, Seth Epstein, had been playing with DSLR and lean-filmmaking techniques, as well as mastering how to shoot professional-looking film on small, affordable cameras with small crews.

About a month into owning the business, we were asked to do an ad campaign for a very small brand and tackle the whole thing ourselves. This was unusual for a commercial production company that’s used to only working with agencies and being handed a fully-formed strategy, script, and “marching orders.” This was something we had to create from scratch directly with a brand. But we had nothing to lose and thus “tried it.” We did the initial strategy, developed the concept, wrote the scripts, and produced the commercial. The client had almost no money, and in the old paradigm of a commercial production company, or even for an ad agency, this ask was impossible, at least without heavily investing to get it done. Given all that needed to happen and how things worked in commercials, there’s just no way the money added up. But my partner and I did all the work, played all the roles, and with the help of only a few people, we got it done. Not only did we not invest, we maintained a small margin on it, which seemed impossible to do but somehow we pulled it off.

That was the first “Aha!” moment. We realized so many things in an instant: 1) We could do more than just produce briefs given to us by ad agencies 2) We could personally play multiple roles, roll up our sleeves, and get it done with an incredibly small team 3) We could work in this lean and efficient way, shooting a whole three-minute film with a handful of crew members, while still producing elevated results 4) This may well be the solution to the growing, and we imagined soon to be full-blown, issue that advertising was facing, which was how do you produce more content (more ads) for the same or less money, while maintaining or even increasing quality? And this little accidental experiment gave us the answer. We KNEW that was the solution on how to solve advertising’s growing challenge in an effective, efficient, sustainable, and POWERFUL creative way.

But most of all, beyond it being a smart set of ideas or the right timing, this process of strategy, creative development, and execution rolled into one seamless process was extraordinarily fulfilling for me. It really was a culmination or realization of all I’d ever wanted to do.

How did you initially fund the business?
Mostly through debt. We put a little of our own personal cash into it, very little, but we mostly assumed the company’s outstanding debt, which was about $1 million. Might seem like a small sum, but for two guys without any debt and nowhere near $1 million in the bank to cover if we came up short or failed, it was a big risk. I’d always wanted to do my own thing and though I wasn’t looking to in that very moment, it quickly became obvious (thanks, mostly to my wife) that this was the opportunity I asked for and this was the time it was showing up.

How did you come up with the name Los York?
My partner was in NYC on business and I was in LA. We were discussing an idea for a T-shirt design to distribute during the holiday season just after we took over the company. We didn’t want to slap the then-company name on a shirt and make it feel too self-serving or the traditional company swag. So we were talking, riffing on this idea of being creative nomads, defined less by geography and more by a creative ethos of a mindset, a way of thinking and being, and my partner said Los York. It stuck. We slapped it on the Christmas shirts that year and people went pretty nutty for them. We got calls from friends of clients, strangers, and people off the street wanting a shirt. So, we kept making them. Around two years later, when our new business model took shape, we needed to separate our creative agency offering (creative for brands) from our production service offering (production services for other creative agencies, who worked for brands) and we went searching for a name. We looked at a ton of names but none had any meaning to us. And then finally it dawned on us that we already had a great name and it was out in the ethers as ours – on shirts we owned. So, we went with that. After about a year of having two businesses with two different names, we finally collapsed everything into one and Los York was fully realized as a next generation creative company – a content agency, as we call it.

How was the first year in business?
Good, actually. It was remarkably rewarding and clicked very quickly. We didn’t have the usual startup issues of not paying ourselves or so much pain. Our pain was more spread out over time. It was a ton of learning. Keeping our eyes and ears open. Listening, versus pushing or proving. Listening to the ask from each of our clients. Really digging in to learn the problem they were trying to solve and then solving it with the right solution. Dropping our egos and not taking anything for granted, or as default. I think the trap of success sometimes is that suddenly you start to feel like an expert, like you know what you’re doing and you stop being open to learning, growing, and evolving. It’s not conscious but it happens to so many of us. Because the company had been failing and breaking, we didn’t have that luxury. We went in knowing the way it had been done, and the way we’d done it before at other companies likely wasn’t good enough, so we looked for signs and openings. And they showed up hard and fast, one after the other. The other shocking thing was how little the old company, who had a good reputation and ten years in the business, carried brand equity forward. We did around $1 million worth of business that was carry-over from the old company’s name and brand value that first year. That’s about one-sixth of what we needed just to break even, so had we relied on the company’s existing name and reputation alone, we’d have sunk about two months in. But what we found was all our old relationships, clients we’d worked with, and old colleagues came to us based on trust, a history, and synergies. And we built off those opportunities, most of all. It taught us a profound lesson in how valuable it is to maintain integrity, to honor people’s trust, to do good work, treat people fair, and when you least expect it, it comes back to you. You don’t do it for that reason, but it’s proof that doing the right thing, taking the high road, and playing the long game does work.

What were some of the challenges you initially faced?
Overcoming a conversation in the market that the company was going out of business. The confusion over the old ownership, what was really going on with the company, all the baggage of the company’s past six months of struggling, of laying people off and not paying employees. We had employees and vendors who had not been paid in a long time that were now angry with US as the new owners. And we had clients that weren’t sure if we were going to be around to finish their job. They weren’t sure if the team we had could do the work. Overcoming the “perception” that was out there at the time and regaining the market’s trust was the biggest challenge – clients and artists. We needed freelance artists to do the work clients would give us and yet artists were reluctant to come work for us, the same way clients were reluctant to hire us. So, we had lots of convos, made lots of personal promises, and put our words and reputations on the line. But we always intended to back it up and work tirelessly to do it. It was never an option to ever overpromise or underdeliver. We’d make a commitment to people and to ourselves and we’d see it through.

Did you have a lot of competition?
When we started, we were just a production company making TV commercials. There was a massive amount of competition, as that market was and still is very oversaturated, so we had to fight against so much talent and quality offerings with solid, longstanding relationships and all kinds of competitive price points. The recession of 2008-2009 really affected advertising in a strange way. There was an immediate hit, but it wasn’t enough to topple too many people. It simply weakened and crippled a lot of businesses across the board. As a result, a lot of companies scrambled to offer their services at reduced rates, reduce standards, and willing to do anything for any amount of money, as some revenue was better than no revenue and absolute survival mode reigned. Many of those habits carried forward. Brands saw an opportunity to take advantage of vendors willing to do so much more for less, and the industry self-sabotaged by lowering its own bar. The value of creative services in advertising, in most forms of service, has never really recovered. Prior to having a solution for this, this made competition even steeper, and the efforts we put in on opportunities just returned a lot less. Eventually, this would become a major insight that led us to who we are now.

As we’ve shifted our model, the competition is less concentrated today, as not many do what we do specifically. We play in a much larger pool, counting a much larger spread of companies as potential competitors vying for the same business, but again our offering is unique. While many have been trying to replicate it, it’s much easier said than done and we don’t truly have many competitors that can go head to head in offering what we do, the way we do it. This of course will change over time. Many will figure it out and come to master it as well or better than we have, but we’ll long be onto our next evolution at that point, so it’s all relative.

What was your marketing strategy?
Mostly, word of mouth. We sent out a lot of those T-Shirts. Mainly, due to demand. People loved them, and loved wearing them, and they happen to subtly keep us in the conversation. But word of mouth about the work we were doing was the biggest driver. Word spread that we were different than the company we had purchased. We thought different. We brought new and fresh ideas. People really liked the process of working with us, in addition to the end result of the work. Our reputations from our past helped as well. We did some outreach, but it was minimal in the grand scheme of things considering we didn’t have any sales reps and there wasn’t anyone at the company focused on marketing our services. My partner and I were busy making the work, running our small team, and playing a lot of different roles on some assignments that required a larger team. So, ultimately it was word of mouth and those damn T-shirts that dominated the things that worked for us in the first year or two.

What was an average workweek like for you back then?
In the early days, it was a big mix of things. But I was pretty hands on with creating work samples to send out, taking briefing calls, drafting budgets, communicating with clients on the day-to-day development of a project pitch, and the early stages of the projects production before I would slowly pull out, hand it off to a producer managing the day-to-day of the project, while I moved onto the next project. A lot of internal meetings to go over process, refine our process, establish our process, and then perfect it. I spent time looking at technology, infrastructure, team management, job management, and production methodologies. I studied the way we communicated with clients, how we approached discovering solutions, what solutions really worked for the agencies we worked for, and the brands those agencies worked for. I would write treatments for commercials a lot, mainly supporting my partner or sometimes other creatives we brought in. My creative input was more functional, specifically a function of how small we were and the fact that we just didn’t have a team to do it. Whatever needed to get done in the early days, I’d just do it. There was no definition of my role or what any of us would or would not do.

My partner and I would meet roughly every 30 days to check in on our progress. We’d discuss what worked over the last 30 days and what didn’t. We’d assess what to try next, what learnings have emerged, and what ideas have shown up to consider. We tried a lot of things, and failed at a lot of things we tried. But we moved on quickly. We let go of things that didn’t work, regardless of our affection for the idea, and we stuck to the things we did, even if they weren’t our first choice.

Is that around the same for you today?
Today, my role is entirely different. I don’t produce or executive produce anything and haven’t for some time. I still oversee the company’s financials, overall management, and company vision, along with my partner. But my day-to-day role is mostly that of a creative. I oversee teams and I lead projects, hands on. I develop a lot of brand strategy and campaign concepts, and then I develop, write, and direct a lot of brand campaigns – playing a bit of strategist, executive creative director, art director/copywriter, and then director and production and post-production creative director. This has me spending three-fourths of my day conceptualizing, writing, or evaluating comps, decks and edits – many works-in-progress at various stages. I’m most active on the Jordan brand work, but I’ve been very involved lately on more Nike work, as well. Nike basketball, currently, and a few other sports brands and organizations. I get asked to write a lot of brand manifestos, at the highest level. This is something I enjoy immensely. I think it circles back around to my early days as a poet, mixed with my personality as an athlete, and my experience conceptualizing, really solving brand challenges.

Were you profitable by the end of year one?
Yes. We cleared the debt in six months and by year’s end, we doubled the revenue from the previous company’s performance the prior year. Considering we were over $1 million in debt at the start of the year, we were obviously pleased with these results. The goal initially was just to get out of debt, but we never defined it or put a cap on it. We left it open-ended and that obviously served us well.

How fast did the company grow during the first couple of years?
Year 1: 100%
Year 2: 20%
Year 3: 12%
Year 4: 36%

What do you think caused that high spike in growth?
Consistency. Quality of work. Ingenuity of process, and our massive shift in approach to a changing industry.

The most impressive growth for us was from year two to year three, and from year three to year four. While those percentages are lower than year one, what you should know is that we shifted our revenue stream entirely in those two years and flipped our model, 180 degrees.

In year two, we took on work for brands while maintaining our work for other creative agencies (who worked for brands). In effect, we were lower on the food chain when working for agencies, so the move to work directly with brands essentially moved us up the food chain.

Work for agencies’ revenue was 100% of our business, year one. With the entrance of our new offering, the agency business dropped to 85% in year two. By year three, we effectively flipped our model upside down. 80% of our revenue was direct to brands and only 20% was through agencies. It’s not easy to shift your business offerings over one year and continue to grow at the same time. So much learning and shifting happens that logic would allow for you to take quite a hit until you find your stride. But we managed to shift rapidly and learn very quickly and leveraged growth all the while.

Part of the reason for this is because we weren’t chasing it as a good idea or as a potentially lucrative opportunity. It simply felt like the best way to work – the way we always envisioned to work and the way we worked, most naturally. It seemed the industry could benefit, given the challenges we faced and continue to face in advertising, media, and entertainment. We turned out to be right.

Fast-forward to today. How fast is the business growing?
About the same pace. But for us, it’s less about numbers and metrics. It’s more about philosophical or even spiritual space. This year has been another big shift in focus. Less on the business model and out-pacing the market and far more about the root of why we are in business in the first place – why I ever got into advertising and entertainment. I wanted to inspire people through storytelling. That’s my fundamental purpose – the driver, my calling, if you will. And coming off a few years of success, I stopped and asked if I felt successful inside or just because people told me I was and magazines printed stories about it and so on. Something was missing for me. I wasn’t doing enough of what lights me up and inspires me. So, I shifted my energy internally and started focusing on making the most of the creative opportunities I got and fully-embraced my creative side and creative talents, even if that meant less focus on management and it challenged the company. I’ve pushed the company and my team to be the very best creatives they could be – something my partner and I align on fundamentally. We looked at the organization and asked ourselves, “Who is truly world class and has the ability to achieve great creative, and who doesn’t?” Anyone that didn’t, we moved on from. And anyone that we did put more energy into, gave more power to, and supported more, we shifted our focus on smart ideas and placed them on stronger creative ideas, opportunities, and investments. We did more of what was right for the project or piece than what was financially attractive to the bottom line or project margins.

The results have been phenomenal, and it’s not about the money. Not about revenue. Not about growth targets and metrics. You look at the work we are putting out and it’s growing stronger and stronger. It’s impacting more and more people, and it’s gaining energy that is filled with life force. I measure the company and my own success by the work I’m doing and its ability to inspire the world. If it does that, then I’m succeeding. I’m winning. Regardless of what the numbers say or the money is, that’s the most important thing to me in business.

It’s the same in life. A man or woman is not measured by the money he or she makes, though many do. When it’s all said and done, our lives are only as valuable as our level of happiness and true fulfillment. The rest is rather irrelevant at the end of the day, regardless of how caught up we all get in the value of things or the impressive markers of wealth. I love nice things, staying in luxurious places, and having expensive toys, but they don’t make me. So, the markers of distraction don’t define my company’s level of success. Our level of creative fulfillment, the level of inspiration we managed to generate from the work we put out into the world, is what measures our success.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Probably having to loan the company money from my own savings. That’s hard. It’s your baby, so you do it. But it also means the company is in potential trouble, even if it’s short term. Even if it’s a blip on the radar, it’s dangerous. There’s risk. And once you drain your own personal cushion, the pressure and stakes of the company’s success increases exponentially. Now your family is involved and at risk, and it just fuels this extremely-heightened and tense pressure to perform.

I’d also say that really any day I have to let someone go. Doesn’t matter the reason, whether it’s someone who is underperforming and even taking advantage of the company by taking a paycheck and not earning it, or it’s someone who is amazing that you want to keep but simply don’t have the work to pay for them. Regardless of the situation, it hurts to have to manage the power you have over someone’s livelihood and deliver them a blow they will have to overcome. It simply sucks to fire anyone, for any reason.

How did you overcome the challenges at hand?
Remembering that it’s all relative. Just as my own failures are all part of my success, the same is true for others. For a lot of people, getting fired is a wake-up call, and that can be an awesome thing. And if it’s not, that’s really on the individual. It’s up to all of us to learn from our mistakes, shortcomings, failures, or even our choices in taking on a role we perhaps shouldn’t have, owning up to the fact that we’ve overpromised on our skills or simply misjudged the task at hand. Or it may point to the reality that you did not dig hard enough to realize the role being offered was not fully what you wanted, or would be good at, or would even set you up to succeed, given the company’s structure.

Did you ever feel like giving up?
Sure. I think that’s human. Although, it’s rarely been in the face of the hardest challenge. I’ve felt more like giving up the responsibility of the business at times, like fantasies of just writing all day, or more lately, the directing that has become more and more of a passion. So, there are days I dream of just being creative, just focusing on the creative and not interrupting that to take a financial or business development meeting, or any number of a dozen business, finance, or operational items I get hit with every day. But rather than resent that element or dream of it idly, I’ve put into motion more support in the business on those items so I don’t have to be tied down by them. I can’t imagine working for someone else at this point. Further developing this vision my partner and I have for the future of content is massively creative and extremely-liberating on many levels. I accept the elements outside the creative, but also am working hard to shift my own experience to be more based in the creative, the things I truly love, and that which lights me up inside and fulfills me.

So, I think the lesson here is that if there are things you don’t love about your job, then change them. And if you can’t, do something else. But make sure you can’t change them first. So often, much of what you’re unhappy with in your work is changeable and those in charge who you imagine would never help change them for you, actually would. Not always. And when they won’t, that means you work for the wrong people, or you’re doing the wrong thing. So, change it. But many folks are quick to quit or give up rather than putting in the work to make it what you want it to be, or even just to ask the hard question to your bosses to change your job or an aspect of it. Shift it a bit to make you happier – more fulfilled. The irony is, that even if this seems like an obstacle or uncomfortable to shift a company’s role to fit the employee, the more it’s what the individual actually wants, the better they will be at it and the better the organization will become. Addressing this from within can be a huge win for all – for you, your boss, your company, and for your life.

Did you ever feel you had to sacrifice a lot of personal time for the business?
Time. Interests. Friends. Family. Yes, all of it. I have a lot of casual friends or acquaintances I call friends. But I have very few close friends. I don’t have the time or the drive to maintain friendships. I like people, and love the people in my life and many who aren’t in my life. But my focus is on my work and my family. It’s my life’s work. My purpose: my work and leading my family. So, these two things matter to me more than something that I do. It’s who I am.

It is tough balancing family with my passionate work. So, friends just don’t really equate. And it’s an ongoing balance. My family matters to me a great deal and is also my purpose, along with my work, so I give fully to both. When it’s unbalanced, you balance it. If you work for the right intentions, the balance naturally works itself out. And when it tips, then your wife reminds you of that and you adjust.

How do you organize your day?
I split my week up into chunks of business and creative.

On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I’m predominantly focused on business items – meetings, logistical and functional tasks, management decisions, financial reviews, business strategy, new business discussions, and incoming meeting requests that cover the gamut.

Pending my project workload and where we are in the calendar, I may have to still perform creative duties, but generally I make time for the biz items on these days, so they get attention and get done.

On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, I block out large creative windows to work, create, ideate, and to get a lot of my creative tasks done.

It doesn’t always work perfectly and it’s getting harder and harder to plan this way, given my project workload and the daily demands of creative oversight on large campaigns, but this general formula helps me balance and avoid constantly shifting gears between creative and business every day, every hour. Shifting gears is very taxing on the mind, as it’s literally shifting between both sides of your brain without warming up or transitioning. Establishing what mode my mind needs to function in on a given day is highly liberating. Entering a day where it’s going to be back and forth all day long is a challenge. I can do it and have been doing it for years now, but I’m learning it’s not the most fluid or rewarding way to treat your mind and isn’t as effective as giving your mind the space it needs to perform optimally on any and all given tasks.

What are some of your daily habits that have contributed to your success?
The two-minute meditation. Stopping to meditate or mostly breathe peacefully for two minutes during the day. Especially amid anything really stressful or difficult.

I also do a mental reset probably once a day where I step out of my immediate reality, or at least thought process (which is often what most people mistake for reality), and I look at my world, the situation, pressures, and challenges I’m facing from 30,000 feet. That always shifts my perspective. It reminds me that my feelings are mostly byproducts of emotions and not a state of truth and that anything is possible. Above all, it reminds me that I’m blessed to be doing what I’m doing and I should relax and have fun. Even if it fails, fuck it. If you enjoyed the ride, does it matter what the measure of the experience was, afterwards?

What are some of your favorite books?
The Power of Now by Eckhart Tolle, Shantaram by Gregory David Roberts, Story by Robert McKee, and The Untethered Soul by Michael A. Roberts (not the writing, but the message).

How do you define success?
Fulfillment. To succeed, one must fulfill. First and foremost, they must fulfill themselves, but even on a smaller scale, you must fulfill your goal or vision, and ultimately, it all leads to one grand fulfillment of self. Without that, anything gained is meaningless and elusive.

What is the key to success?
Knowing the definition and living your life by that. If you focus on fulfillment, you only do the things you love and nothing more, and you’ll do whatever it takes to protect it and manifest it, and thus it will be. The moment you define it by something tangible or a fabricated definition or something outside of you, something made up, something with projected or manufactured value, you’ve already failed. You may succeed in achieving what you set out to, but if left unfulfilled, you’ll never truly succeed.

Did you always know you would be successful?
Yes. I just wasn’t always sure how to get there. I struggled a lot early on. Partially, under the burden of sensing great things for myself, yet failing at my life, and partially for not having the tools to support this feeling of ultimate potential. I believed I was meant for something, but the proof and words around me screamed otherwise. My high school English teacher called me a loser and told me I’d never succeed. I never passed high school English. I failed to accomplish that. But now I make a living writing global stories for Nike and Jordan, running a kick-ass company, and doing culture-shifting work. My words impress leaders, celebrities, athletes, and society’s heroes and moves people around the world and they are a huge foundation for my success, and my fulfillment.

He was right. I was a loser. And I needed to hear that. But an adult, with authority over youth, by stating or placing that kind of limitation on a kid, was damaging. I figured if he said that, it must be true. I only encourage the rest of us adults to finish that sentence to a young kid with the challenge to find their path to success – to find their unique voice, their way of learning or understanding the world, and then living by that. For me, in many ways, I got lucky. I was able to figure out that he was right in that moment and I had the power to change it. Sometimes, we need to be kicked in the ass to be told we are in fact losing in the choices we make, and I needed to hear it. But I also needed to hear that I had the power to change it or that may have saved me some real suffering. He didn’t offer that so at first I suffered under the ridicule and judgment of being what he said. And then one day, I woke up and decided to prove him wrong. I didn’t like being what he called me and I knew I was that at the time, so I decided to change it. In many ways, I’m still working hard to prove him wrong. The difference now is that I know I have the ability to do it. Rather than take it as a negative, I use it to fuel me, drive me, inspire me, and to keep winning, and that is highly fulfilling.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
That high school English teacher. My son. My wife. Now, my daughter. And then probably something much deeper, much less tangible. Something I want to say to the world. This purpose I’m trying to honor. The powerful moment I discovered my life’s inspiration and the gift I was given to deliver it to the world and a responsibility to deliver it. That’s what drives me.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Belief in self is the greatest belief one can ever know. Without it, you really have nothing. With it, you can change the world, save the world, and do anything you can imagine.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?
Spare time? Everything for me is pretty planned. When I’m not working, I work out, and spend time with my six-year-old son – playing basketball, surfing, karate, rock climbing, skating and building Legos. When I’m not with him, I’m with my wife and newborn daughter.

I read when I can. I write my own things when not writing on assignment – poems, songs, and screenplays, occasionally.

I like to dine with my wife, and just talk with her. She’s my lover and my best friend. I like to watch movies and sometimes hike.

I eat a rigorous diet, and always have since I was fifteen. So, I spend time preparing my meals. The same meals, every day. I have a process for making them, swiftly. Mostly, at one time for the day, but it takes time.

What makes a great leader?
Vision. Fortitude. Confidence. Compassion. Humility. Self-reflection. An unwavering commitment to that vision.

What is your vision for the future of Los York?
A global, creative force behind culture-shifting content and products in ways I cannot even possibly imagine. Much in the way that Vice started as a small publication and is now becoming a global media powerhouse. We started as a small creative shop making advertising and will become something quite unrecognizable in the future. I would not dare limit our potential by placing a more precise definition on it.

What do you think is the most common mistake entrepreneurs make?
They move beyond their own why – beyond their DNA, what truly drives them, what inspires them, what they are truly great at. They get sidetracked by other’s opinions, sometimes by success, by external measurements or targets that influence who they are and why they are doing what they are doing. They chase the wrong things, ideas that aren’t right for them, or run away from things that shouldn’t matter if they were focused on doing what they do well. It’s a trap or a set of traps we all face along the path. And we all succumb to them at different times, on different levels. The key is learning from your mistakes and being conscious of when you’re drifting off track.

If you look at Nike, for example, the company was founded by an athlete who loved to run. He wanted to support his sport of running by making a running shoe that bettered the sport and bettered the runners in the sport.

As much as the company has grown and evolved, they are fundamentally driven by the same mission. They expanded it to all sports and all athletes, but the mission is the same: to make products that make the sport better and support athletes in being the best they can be, in their chosen sport. All levels. All shapes. All sizes. Any sport. Better sport. Better athlete. Period.

That singular mission started them, grew them, maintains their market dominance, and massive success as a global corporation, still to this day. And that continuity of mission is what keeps them succeeding.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Define your passion. Establish your own unique voice within that passion. Understand how it differs from others and why it will connect to the world. And then follow it, no matter what – against any setback, odds, or seeming reality. When you do what you truly love and decide not to settle for anything other than fulfilling that thing you love through your life’s work, then and only then can you truly succeed. And odds are, if you follow your passion, you won’t settle for anything short of success and that same passion will attract others to align to your mission and support it coming to life in the world. Don’t do what’s smart, what makes sense, or what others tell you is a good idea. Do what you love and find a way to do it like no one else and better than anyone else, and you’ll succeed – fulfilling that thing inside you, that you were born to fulfill.

Matthew Whitaker – Founder & Director, gkhouses

Matthew Whitaker is a student of the book Good to Great and is passionate about building gkhouses to become the best property management company on the planet, maybe even the universe, if Elon Musk were to hurry up. To do that, he spent the first seven years of gkhouses in the trenches, but now focuses most of his time facilitating growth in other markets.

Entrepreneurship runs in the family. His wife runs a successful business called Engaged. You can usually find Matthew at the baseball field with his son, at a dance recital with his daughter, or at his favorite restaurant with his wife, when he’s not in the office. And if you can’t find him any of those places, it probably means he’s traveling. He lives with his wife and children in Vestavia Hills, Alabama.

Tell me about your early career.
I’ve always known that I wanted to start my own business since my dad made me read Rich Dad Poor Dad by Robert Kiyosaki. When I got out of college, I worked a couple of years for a construction company in estimation and project management. On the side, I started purchasing and selling homes. I found myself making more money in the evenings and weekends doing that than working an 8-hour day at my job. So, I quit! I was 23 years old and in business for myself. I loved it. For the first four years, I teamed up with some investors, and we bought and sold almost 100 houses.

How did the concept for gkhouses come about?
Really more out of necessity, than some brilliant strategy. We owned around 30 houses in late 2007 when the first wave of the real estate market crashed. We couldn’t sell the homes, so we decided to rent them. Because we were in the home business, we knew of other people who owned homes they couldn’t sell, so they let us manage their homes as well.

So, our story is that we started with 30 rental houses and now manage over 1,500.

How was the first year in business?
Terrible! In fact, the first 2 ½ years were really bad. We had fun growing the business, but we made no money and it was tough sledding.

What was your marketing strategy?
We didn’t get strategic about marketing our business until about three years ago. We grew in the early days through referrals.

Today, we have a director of marketing, Spencer Sutton, who lives, eats and breaths landing owners and tenants. We have worked hard on having a presence in SEO and SEM, and attempt to be a thought leader in our industry.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Slow. I know it keeps sounding bad, because it was! It wasn’t until the last four years when we’ve really hit our stride and began to grow exponentially. In the last four years, we’ve grown at a clip of almost 50% per year.

How do you define success?
I used to define it based on how much money I had in my bank account or how much I earned every year. As I’ve gotten a little bit wiser, I’m learning I cannot control stuff like that. What I can control are my daily habits. Success, at least in this business and financially speaking, is my ability to stick to my daily habits that are within my control. Then, outward success is a byproduct of my daily habits.

What is the key to success?
I think the key to success is controlling the things you can control and not allowing the things you cannot control to bother you.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
I think it was said best in a story by Bryan Dyson, who was the president and CEO of Coca-Cola Enterprises at a Georgia Tech commencement address. He said:

“Imagine life as a game in which you are juggling some five balls in the air. You name them – work, family, health, friends and spirit – and you’re keeping all of these in the air. You will soon understand that work is a rubber ball. If you drop it, it will bounce back. But the other four balls – family, health, friends and spirit – are made of glass. If you drop one of these, they will be irrevocably scuffed, marked, nicked, damaged or even shattered. They will never be the same. You must understand that and strive for balance in your life.”

I want to be successful as much as anyone, but will I do it at the expense of those closest to me? No way.

What are some quotes that you live by?
I’ve highlighted pretty much all of Good to Great. But my favorite quote, because it so eloquently describes our business, is:

“Think of transformation as a process of buildup followed by breakthrough, broken into three broad stages: disciplined people, disciplined thought, and disciplined action.” – Jim Collins

In The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, my favorite quote is:

“If you could get all the people in an organization rowing in the same direction, you could dominate any industry, in any market, against any competition, at any time.” – Patrick Lencioni

Other favorites:

“You’ll never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of success is in your daily routine.” – John Maxwell

“Be more concerned with your character than with your reputation. Your character is what you really are while your reputation is merely what others think you are.” – John Wooden

What are some of your favorite books?
This is probably my favorite question, because I love to read. At our business, we require all new hires (and interns) to read Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, and Traction by Gino Wickman.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
I think every day is tough as an entrepreneur. I used to let it bother me more than I do now. However, I was listening to an audio clip from John Maxwell and he said something that spoke to me as it relates to this. He said that he doesn’t go one day where he doesn’t hear some information he didn’t want to hear about one of his ministries or businesses. When he said that, I was like, “Whew! My life is normal.”

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
As I mentioned earlier, I’m an avid reader. I read something positive every single day. I’m a pretty positive person, so I try to see every problem as an opportunity. If something is going wrong, what can I learn from it and what corresponding opportunity did it create?

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
I think as entrepreneurs, we look at Mark Zuckerberg, Brian Chesky or Travis Kalanick and think we’ve failed if our company isn’t worth $1 billion in seven to ten years. We need to remember that these guys are the equivalent of LeBron James in basketball or Bryce Harper in baseball. They are the exception and not the rule. There are still guys who make a ton of money in basketball and baseball who aren’t named LeBron or Bryce.

Stay focused on what you can be the best in the world at and don’t compare your story to others’ stories.

Yuriy Vasylenko – Co-Founder, President & CEO, Elite Medical Scribes

Yuriy holds a degree in finance and economics, and an MBA in management from the University of St. Thomas. His entrepreneurial spirit, combined with a strong background in management, operations, business development and finance, are instrumental in ensuring consistent and rapid growth for Elite Medical Scribes. Seeing many challenges that the healthcare industry was facing, Yuriy Vasylenko, MBA, Marcin J. Kubiak, MBA, and Cody W. Wendlandt, MD decided to bring their knowledge, skills, and expertise together to lead change and provide the necessary support to clinicians and their patients. Today, Yuriy’s meticulous attention to detail and commitment to excellence have led to Elite’s significant growth and status as a preeminent medical scribe company, operating across 30+ states with 1,000+ employees, serving some of the most-renowned health systems in the world.

Elite Medical Scribes has been recognized by Inc. 5000 as one of the fastest-growing companies in the United States, and by Twin Cities Business magazine as one of the leading small businesses. Yuriy enjoys traveling and loves attending Formula One Grand Prix events around the world. He resides in Minneapolis with his wife and daughter.

Tell me about your early career.
Entrepreneurship excited me from an early age. In college, I ran a small, international trade business-shipping electronics, clothing, closeout goods and heavy machinery between the U.S., Europe and Asia. While it wasn’t anything enormous in size, the experience I gained in management, negotiation, marketing, financial projections, and various regulations was priceless. Right after college, I started an MBA program and got going with Elite Medical Scribes shortly after evaluating a few other industries and potential opportunities.

How did the concept for Elite Medical Scribes come about?
My two partners and I met in college. One of them was a scribe at one of the original, home-grown programs. He saw plenty of challenges the scribe program was going through – related to recruiting, training, and quality assurance – and he believed there was a better way to deliver higher-quality service. My second partner and I brought the entrepreneurial spirit, and together, we designed a turn-key offering with a high emphasis on specialty-specific training, as well as robust quality assurance. While our vision proved to be highly successful over the long-run, gaining traction in the early days was quite difficult, to say the least.

How was the first year in business?
Very challenging. Countless hours going into service development and sales with very little results early on. It took us almost two years to secure the first long-term contract. While we got excited hoping this would help us take off, it took us well over another year before things started clicking. Those initial three years were the most difficult, filled with plenty of questions about our ability to succeed. Tenacity, belief in ourselves, and a commitment to never giving up, carried us through this very challenging time.

What was your marketing strategy?
We focused on building a clear differentiator between Elite and other companies in the space from day one: specialty-specific, medical scribe training. As most of the players focused on emergency medicine space early on, we went aggressively after primary care and specialties. While the strategy took many years to play out, it proved to be a major success.

As for getting the word out and generating leads, we focused on trade shows, outbound sales, and later on, SEO.

How fast did the company grow during the first few years?
Very slow growth in the first three years, essentially barely surviving. Early on in year four, we signed several strong contracts and grew by 1,780% between 2012 and 2016.

How do you define success?
Ability to deliver on our organization’s guiding principles, while running a profitable business, and knowing that those we touch are better off due to our existence.

What is the key to success?
Tenacity, adaptability, strong team dynamics, resourcefulness, and a continuous pursuit of excellence.

What is the greatest lesson you’ve ever learned?
Building a strong team capable of scaling the organization successfully is by far the most challenging task, at least for me. While I didn’t think it would be easy, it ended up being a lot more challenging than I could have imagined. From persuading the first few people to join us when we couldn’t offer much other than the vision of making a difference and building something special, to getting the individuals selected to function as one cohesive unit, to finding ways to build on the strengths of current employees in a rapidly-growing organization with different demands than at the beginning, to making difficult decisions when the fit wasn’t there, to establishing a cultural alignment between those who have been with the company since the early days and those joining more recently to bring additional experience, expertise and skill sets. It’s a highly-demanding area that requires daily focus, ongoing tweaking, and creativity. With this being the most challenging aspect over the years, it’s also most enjoyable and rewarding to see the organization go from just a handful of employees to a thousand. What initially started as just a group of individuals has now become a true team, forming one cohesive unit, collaborating, and making the organization stronger each and every day.

What are some quotes that you live by? 
“Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius—and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.” – Ernst F. Schumacher

“When everything seems to be going against you, remember that the airplane takes off against the wind, not with it.” – Henry Ford

What are some of your favorite books?
Good to Great by Jim Collins, The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni, Scaling up Excellence by Robert I. Sutton and Huggy Rao, Traction by Gino Wickman, and The Four Obsessions of an Extraordinary Executive by Patrick Lencioni.

Tell me about one of the toughest days you’ve had as an entrepreneur.
Difficult to pinpoint one, as there have been plenty of defining moments and days. Major disappointment in a trusted employee, loss of a large client, or overall market dynamics at one point presenting heavy challenges outside of our company’s control, are just some examples. While all were extremely difficult to deal with, embracing the adversity and using the setbacks as opportunities to refine certain skills, strengthen internal processes, and enhance the overall strategy allowed me to become a more effective leader, and helped the organization as a whole to emerge more united, stronger, and resilient.

When faced with adversity, what pushes you to keep moving forward?
The desire to leave a strong legacy, make the greatest amount of positive difference possible, and simply, the desire to win.

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs?
Find something to learn from every setback, loss or difficult relationship. Then, apply the takeaways quickly and begin the next day with the belief that you are stronger than before and that nothing can faze you.