What Starting a Business Taught Me: 5 Lessons Learned En Route to Acquisition

March 17, 2016

Last week we announced some very big news – Shelton Interactive is being acquired by Advantage Media Group.

I can’t tell you how excited I am about this new opportunity, not only because it will open huge doors for our team and our clients/members, but more importantly because I know our companies will positively impact many more lives together than we would apart.

As you can imagine, selling the company wasn’t an easy decision and amidst the soul-searching that led to this news I have been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship and the colliding emotions of fear, fun and fulfillment that come with it.

Before I dig into what’s ahead for our team at Advantage Media Group, I want to take a look back at a few lessons I learned the hard way as an entrepreneur over the past six years in the hopes that it will help other entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs who are struggling.

Let me start by stating the obvious – starting a business is a very very scary thing to do. In fact, I almost didn’t do it – there was a two-year period of time before I started the agency that I talked myself out of it, opting to stay in my comfort zone at my previous position.

Sure, I had wanted to have my own business since I was young, but actually going through with it was a very different thing.

I remember thinking that it felt risky and selfish to make the jump at the time.

I had a good job at a respected book PR agency in Austin and was doing well enough that my wife Paige could stay home with the boys (both still in diapers in 2010), which was a big goal for us when we decided to have kids.

I loved my team at P&P and our clients but I had a nagging feeling that I couldn’t shake that a better model could be built.

I remember staring at the ceiling many a night going back and forth on the decision of whether to start a new agency or not.

My wife, Paige, had far more courage than I did about it and she would encourage me again and again to give it a shot. I remember her saying many times “What’s the worst that could happen? If it doesn’t work we’re going to be fine.”

I knew in my gut that was true but if I’m being honest, I was scared to death to jump out and start the company.

Lesson 1 – Fear is the biggest road block for would-be entrepreneurs and you must be self-aware of that reality. As one of our members, Jon Acuff, says, you have to be willing to “punch fear in the face.” That’s easier said than done and for a long time I wasn’t ready to throw that punch. 

There are some good things about fear. It can prevent us from doing stupid things and, even as I look back now, I think I had good reason to be scared of what would happen if it didn’t work.

My biggest fear was knowing that if I started the business and it failed, the boys were headed to day care because both Paige and I were going back to work. If that happened I was also afraid of having to ask my Dad for money to bridge me (and Paige) to a new job – not because he wouldn’t be there for me (he would have been and was a big mentor for me as I thought through the business) but because I always promised myself I’d never put myself in a position to need to make that ask.

So I talked myself out of it month after month.

We had less than $8,000 in the bank, which isn’t much of a runway.

We had a new mortgage, college funds, car payments and diapers to buy.

We were comfortable and I didn’t want to rock the boat.

If I’m being totally honest, I was also afraid I couldn’t do it – that I wasn’t ready from a leadership perspective.

Thankfully, Paige kept pushing me and that nagging feeling I had that a much better agency model was needed wouldn’t go away. I was finally pushed over the finish line on the decision while sitting in the back of the room at a session at SXSW Interactive 2010. I don’t even remember which session I was in but I remember finally saying “I can do this” and walking out of the room with the decision made.

Lesson 2 – Often times wisdom, insight and encouragement from others will be the thing that gives you the confidence to finally get you over the edge and start your business. Surround yourself with people who can provide that support for you.

A week later I sat down with the owners of the agency where I worked and told them my plan, giving them three months notice based on the prominence of the managing director role I was in and the financial reality of needing to have a bit of a runway to save more money.

I remember being scared to death they were going fire me on the spot.

Thankfully they didn’t and I began planning for the agency launch, wrapping up my last day at “work” June 30, 2010.

On July 1, 2010 Shelton Interactive was launched to zero fanfare or media attention. I’m not sure anyone noticed outside of my family, but I was excited to finally be wheels up.

I’d love to tell you that it was a success from the start but those first two months I was a case study for how not to start a business well.

In the first month of business I was defrauded of $4,000 of the first $6,000 in the corporate bank account. It was totally my fault and I remember feeling like such a failure for letting it happen. That was so much money to us at the time and put the agency and my family in risky financial territory.

As if that wasn’t enough, each of my first two part-time employees quit within three weeks of me starting the business, one having the courtesy to call to give me the news but not any notice (“Today’s my last day”) and one quit without even communicating with me at all, taking boxes and boxes of client books with him and never returning calls or giving the books back. To this day I haven’t seen or heard from him.

I think neither thought anything was going to come of “Shelton Interactive” and I had a hard time arguing at the time.

Lesson 3 – Be prepared for everything to go wrong in the first few months after you start the business and use it as fuel for the long hours needed to be successful.

Our first two clients were Chicken Soup for the Soul (who came with me from my previous agency) and Dr. Richard Senelick (who wrote the very first check made out to Shelton Interactive) and both were incredibly patient through those rocky first few months.

I remember hopping on the phone with Bill Rouhana, CEO of Chicken Soup for the Soul, at the end of that first month to tell him I’d lost both of my team members and was hoping to replace them soon and he said “it’s not going real smoothly, huh Rusty?” I was prepared to be fired. He then said “we’re sticking with you, Rusty, just overly communicate with us on any issues going forward and we won’t have any problems.”

Cue huge sigh of relief.

We had no money for an office, so I worked from a coffee shop on Parmer Lane near our house called “It’s a Grind.” I quickly realized that coffee grinders roaring in the background on conference calls doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence from clients in a new business.

I was working 60-70 hour weeks (nights, weekends, etc. – which I knew would be part of it) and Paige had to step up in so many ways with the boys. It was very hard on her and boy did she step up.

Lesson 4 – Entrepreneurship is so much easier when you are on the same page with your spouse or partner and can attack it as a team. I can’t imagine how hard it would be to build a business without that alignment – I would have failed.

What was counter-intuitive for me is that the early challenges didn’t discourage me – they fueled a competitive fire to hustle more to prove those who left wrong and those who stuck with me right. I knew we’d pull out of it and we soon did, thanks to help from friends.

Dr. Julie Silver, at the time head of Harvard Health Publications, and my friend and publishing industry stand-out, Lisa Tener, went out of their way to send me many of my first referrals. Two mentors, Clint Greenleaf and Robbie Vorhaus, each successful entrepreneurs, gave me the benefit of their experience, talking me off the ledge numerous times and helping me build a better business. Heather Adams, a dear old friend and rockstar publicist and entrepreneur in her own right, gave me an open door with Zondervan to work on a book called One Thousand Gifts from a remarkable debut author out of Canada named Ann Voskamp. That campaign was not only was a blessing to us in terms of the relationship and impact but also opened the floodgates for us in terms of interest from Christian publishers. Nick Alter and his team at Alter Endeavors pitched in and helped us on numerous projects. But my biggest external helping hand came from my co-author Barbara Cave Henricks, who gave me a chance before we had any reputation at all, forming a strategic partnership with the agency and giving us a huge shot in the arm of credibility.

We were off to the races, not due to what I had done (screwing up was the only thing I had done well in those early months) – it was thanks to the help of good friends and, most importantly, an awesome team.

Huge early contributions were made by the first members of the Shelton Interactive crew, including Christy McFerren, Amber McGinty, Beth Gwazdosky, David Luna, Will Ruff, Travis Wilson and Taylor and Tiffany Ballard, but we really saw lift off when we added an old colleague and great friend mine, Shelby Sledge, to the team in 2011. Her fingerprints are all over the work, culture and growth of Shelton Interactive and she deserves an immense amount of credit for the agency’s success. Shelby’s just the best.

Since then, we have had out-sized contributions from our wonderful family of team members, including Vanessa Navarro, Andrea Sanchez, Katie Schnack, Shelby Janner, Tiffany Ballard, Patti Conrad, Brandon Procell, Anthony Aguilar, Sara Pence, Wes Fang, Melanie Cloth, Paige Velasquez, Paige Dillon, Tiffany Jones, Taylor Ballard, Katrina Barber, Whitney “The Wolf” Burnett, Lauren King, Allison Bright, Richard Ricondo, Will Ruff, Sam Joseph, Marshall Weber, Jeremy Strom and others. They have been the lifeblood of our culture and our business and are the real reason for our success.

Lesson 5 – As a young company, it’s impossible to hang onto great talent if you don’t commit to making great culture the central foundation for the business. As Peter Drucker says, “Culture eats strategy for lunch” and every bit of attention we paid to our culture paid off in spades.

This team helped us land at #15 on the Austin Business Journal’s Fast 50 List in 2014, which tracks the fastest growing companies in Central Texas, helped us launch more than 30 New York Times and Wall Street Journal bestsellers and be named by Clutch as one of the top 10 social media marketing agencies in the country in both 2015 and 2016.

Our family of clients – each and every one – also deserve huge credit for helping us get here, as the business has been built entirely on the back of referrals. You’ve taught me so much and I’m forever grateful to you for being part of the SI family.

It’s surreal to sit back and think through all that was put in by so many to get us here to the point where this agency, which I almost talked myself out of starting, came to be one of the greatest joys of my life.

So why would I sell the company that has been such a blessing to me and so many others?

As I mentioned, it wasn’t an easy decision, but I believe that joining the Advantage Family will open doors to bigger opportunities for our team, our clients and myself and allow us to make a bigger impact on the world in the process.

When I connected with Advantage Media Group CEO Adam Witty last year, he and I quickly hit it off. He’s a YPO’er and a fellow EO member and one of the few people I’ve met who is as passionate about entrepreneurship, culture and college sports as I am.

After striking up a conversation at an EO event, he said he had heard good things about Shelton Interactive and wanted to explore a potential strategic partnership. I had also heard very good things about Advantage, which has won multiple “best places to work in South Carolina” awards and serves 850 authors in 40 US states and 13 countries. Advantage has grown to become one of the largest business book publishers in America and is famous for its renowned “Talk Your Book” program.

I had turned down many acquisition offers in the past but the more I got to know Adam and the Advantage Family, the more I thought that our companies were kindred spirits. We both put our team first, growing with culture at the heart of our philosophy. We both value providing our members with the best service experience they will ever have. We both want to make a positive impact on the world and, in my judgment, we can do that much better together than apart.

That’s the reason I’m so excited about the future. As this chapter closes, an exciting one begins. I’m honored to be joining the Advantage Family, as is our team. We’re ready for what the future holds and I’m thankful for lessons learned along the way.

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