What I Learned Joining a Startup at 17

The summer after my junior year of High School I joined a marketing firm that was starting up in my city of Sioux Falls, South Dakota. At the time I was 17, I had no idea what I was doing with my life, and was working at a grocery store pushing carts with a growing sense of boredom. I then ran into a family friend Clint who was starting a new company that did marketing for high growth companies. I didn’t understand anything he said they were doing but I wanted to be apart of something more and he told me to just start showing up.

Three years later I had thrown away the grocery store name tag, worked for the marketing firm throughout the rest of high school, took a gap year before college to help launch another company called The Bakery (a co-working space/entrepreneurial community) with those same people, and started my own company on the side doing online lead generation for small businesses.

Here are my 5 biggest takeaways from those experiences:

Don’t Be Limited By “Qualifications”

Throughout the public school I attended there was a pathway defined for all students. It goes in the order of: Have a rough idea of things that interest you in middle school so you can sign up for the right classes in high school. Get good grades in High School so you can get into a good college and get scholarships. Get a good degree so you can get a good job where you will progress and grow as an employee now that you are qualified to do that job. Voila! A successful student!

That’s great. There is nothing wrong with that at all because it works. But that mold didn’t fit the entrepreneurial environment I was exposed to. There is not a preset order of steps to get started. Much of it is figure-it-out-as-you-go. No one is there to tell you, “you aren’t qualified,” in whatever you are doing as long as you can produce and hold true to the promise of what you can do . If you say you can build websites and you make bad websites, that’s what speaks for your qualification.

I learned that qualification is solely based off one’s skills, abilities, and determination when it comes to entrepreneurship. One of my now good friends who I met through The Bakery is a guy whose whole business centers around fixing watches. No one questions his schooling, education, or abilities because he has raving customers who tell everyone how he expertly fixed their watch. His satisfied customers speak for his qualification and he continues to crush it everyday because of it.

Weather it’s becoming qualified and learning skills through formal education or just learning from doing, I’ve learned that in entrepreneurship not feeling qualified shouldn’t hold someone back from doing.

You Have To Engineer Success

One of the divisions of the co-working space that I ran in the beginning was event management. When we started I scheduled and/or ran over 300 events with a total of 12,000 attendees in 6 months. What made us able to do this though is that we didn’t sit around and hope people showed up. We engineered the success of each and every one of those events.

Events were core to what we were doing because people coming to our events meant more people that might possibly buy a membership to our space. That meant we were finding any reason to get into the news or add to the hype for the event. The result was that people showed up to our events. Sure we had some duds and events that didn’t go as planned but those bad events were not indicative of our next event. We kept on moving forward to figure out the next best thing to do.

I learned that coming up with a cool idea or event is not enough. The market is not a “if you build it they will come” environment. Actively doing what we needed to do to make something successful was necessary because we didn’t have the time or money to sit around and hope someone would come… because they most likely won’t. You have to go get them.

Mess It Up

School tells us that there are right answers and wrong answers… for everything. I would lose points on art class assignments because my self portrait of myself wouldn’t be like me enough. (The assignment should have been named “Self Portrait through the Teacher’s Eyes” because it definitely wasn’t through mine.) In entrepreneurship there aren’t right or wrong answers, there are just things that work and things that don’t work. The hard part is figuring that out.

When anyone goes out to create something original there are no answers in the back of the book to make sure everything is getting done correctly. In launching The Bakery there were examples that were followed and inspiration taken from others before us but at the end of the day we were creating what we thought would be best for the company.

After doing most of the event management someone was needed to relaunch our online presence so I migrated over to that. I was really happy with the final product but frustrated by how long it took me to complete. I had to be reminded by Clint of all the iterations I went through before I got to the relatively simple and effective final site. After seeing the development process like that I was more satisfied with what was done and embraced the slow and sometimes wrong direction I was going at times. It resulted in success further down the road.

I get less frustrated when I do things wrong now. It’s more of a realization that I shouldn’t do it that way ever again and just move on. No sense in spending time frustrated.

Do Cool Shit

That phrase right there is the best and most valuable thing I’ve learned about marketing. You have to do cool shit if you want people to pay attention to you.

I’ve interacted with hundreds of incredible entrepreneurs and professionals running both small and large businesses. Every one of them want the same thing for their business: attention. They want more people hearing about what their company is doing and more people getting excited to the point of making a purchase. The problem is that few are willing to do anything that deserves that attention. The ones who are doing cool and interesting things are the ones who are succeeding and growing.

To get people onto our property in the beginning we started an event called Food Truck Friday. It was super simple; food truck festival in our downtown area from 11am to 1pm on a Friday. (These aren’t a new concept but for some reason no one had done a food truck festival in our city yet.) It was new and different for our community and over a thousand people showed up to our first one. We continued to do them throughout the summer and sometimes had over two thousand people come on and off our property in a two hour time frame. No one had done that before on a 40,000 square foot piece of private property in our city so the police and fire department were a little at a loss of what to say.

The point is I learned in order to really pull something off and get people to pay attention you have to do something different. It has to be more than a Facebook page and a few ads you run. You gotta do cool shit that people want to be apart of.

It’s Addicting

Now that I have gotten a taste of it there is nothing I would rather do. I love the energy needed to get a company going. I love the people you meet in the startup scene who are just as crazy and trying to start their own thing to find a niche in the world for themselves. I love the freedom that comes with being a part of a new business. There are less rules because everyone is still trying to figure out what is going on themselves. The daily creative process of solving new problems and coming up with the next best thing to do is completely addicting.

I discovered a different world and one that I now prefer to live in. Constantly being busy with the project and staying invested in creating is time consuming in a way that isn’t draining but energizing. Insanely difficult at times but energizing just the same. 60 to 70 hour weeks feel normal to me now. I laugh at friends who complain about their 35 hour a week job and ask what they do with their lives after Wednesday.

You have to be crazy to not want the consistency of a desk job or a steady paycheck. To me though that certainty is suffocating and un-stimulating. I want to continue to build and create and hopefully impact some people along the way.

Right now I am just figuring out that next thing to start building.

Joshua Novak