There are countless ways to define success, especially in marketing.
But you can’t achieve any of these ideas of success unless you have a product or service that brings VALUE to your target audience.
Chris Stegner, CEO at Very Big Things, has the experience of starting 5 companies under his belt, so agreed to share some insight on what it takes to truly make your start-up marketing efforts successful.
Defining Success for Start-Up Marketing
He includes thoughts behind:
- Finding the people and developing the culture to support and communicate the value of your product
- Avoiding the ever-lurking “plateau” of success and consistently pushing your business to the next level
- Setting your own expectations and reworking your frame of mind to achieve your goals
Even if you’re not at a start-up, you don’t want to miss Chris’s advice to all marketers, founders and executives. Tune in now!
CAROLINE: Welcome to Growth Marketing chat. Today, I am here with Chris Stegner. He's the founder and CEO of Very Big Things. Chris, thank you so much or being with me today.
CHRIS: Thank you for having me.
CAROLINE: So before we start, can you maybe tell us a little bit more about Very Big Things and what you guys do?
CHRIS: Yeah, so Very Big Thing is a Digital products agency, which means we help to strategize, ideate, design, and develop software applications, et cetera, et cetera. That's kinda the boring version of it. The less boring version of it is, you know, we started three years ago with big dreams to be the best in the world at what we're doing. And, you know, since then we've opened three offices grown from seven people to around 80 people.
Done things like won some of the top awards for our industry. Things like the Webby Award for top technical achievement of the year and the Digiday Award for innovation of the year and UX Design Award for product of the year and kinda on and on and on. But then I'd say the last piece and the most important piece is, you know, we’ve gotten extremely selective about which clients we work with. As I mentioned before turning down probably about 12 out of 13 products that come our way with the idea of trying to find really excellent founders with ideas that they believe in and are really gonna push to success as long as they're paired with somebody like us.
And at that point we throw everything we have at it, and past all the awards and growth and so forth. It's just the fact that we've been succeeding at that. So we've got startups that started with us when they were literally one person and now they have like, over a billion dollar valuation, or we have companies that were worth billions and now gone public and everything in between the two. So it's been exciting seeing what we do actually translates and works because as I mentioned, the less boring side is once we find these companies, we do everything in our power to make sure that they actually ended up succeeding and that's through our network, our go to market strategy, helping them figure out monetization, helping them figure out whatever needs to be done past just doing like the best user experience and user interface possible to actually be successful. And it works. So that's the less boring side.
That's really amazing. Can you tell us a bit more about how you have them strategize? I think this piece is very important and the monetization piece as well. Right? Because having a great product is essential to grow...
CAROLINE: … but having this great product actually make money, critical, right? So it seems like you help with that. And I'd love to hear more about how you approach that.
CHRIS: Yeah. And I mean, I wish we could take full credit for it. However, you know, a chunk of it is we take people including myself that I've just done startups for years and have that experience. People that have some good success underneath their belt and then pair them with some of the best processes that have been developed by companies like Andreessen Horowitz and YCombinator and Google Ventures and so forth and take pairing these workshops and these processes along with people that have lived it all before, they can dive in with a founder that I should say, a founder or a product champion, because sometimes we'll have somebody from an enterprise company come to us and say, I want us to do this amazing thing. I want us to build this thing inside of this huge company.
And, but as long as we have that founder or product champion, you know, they don't have to have done this stuff successfully in the past. They could have, maybe they've done it two or three times. Maybe they've done it successful and they're going into a new market. Or maybe they've never done it before. No matter what the case is, we can jump in with them and help them figure out what's in their head. How do I get that out to be a product that's actually gonna end up being successful? And that's exciting.
And I hate to say it, but after you've done it enough times and you put the effort into kinda building a well-oiled machine on our side, it becomes almost paint by numbers. It's, there's no luck involved anymore. We're not catching lightning in a bottle. Basically, if you follow these steps with us and our team, then as one of my partners says, it's like just add water. It's like just add VBT and you'll get success, you know.
CAROLINE: I love this, I love this. Okay, so you also mentioned that this is not your first company, so you started five companies in the past. And so I'd love to have kind of your insight on what do you think are the most important components to make your startup successful?
CHRIS: Yeah, I mean, at the end of the day, it always comes down to building something that brings value to people, right? I think you can market and brand something that doesn't have that value as much as you ever want. And, it's never gonna become that successful. You might be able to plateau, you might be able to find some mediocre success from it, but if you're looking for something really great, then you need to figure that out. So, I mean, I'll give you an example.
When we were starting Very Big Things. You know, the idea from my standpoint was I was working at a, as a partner and a CTO at a VC fund before where it was my job that, hey, we'd give a company 5 million bucks and then at that point I need to make sure they're successful. Well we'd give them 5 million bucks and we say, cool, we need you to now go and execute with this $5 million, build out a team, build a product. And, then they'd say, well, you know, we've been trying to build a team for six months now, and it's really hard. And we can't find the correct hires. And we hired somebody who was the wrong person. He was like a cultural fit or whatever. He ended up having an argument with the other person so we had to let him go. And next thing you know, it's like 12 months later, they're still trying to build a team and you're like, you've had our 5 million bucks for like 12 months and you haven't done anything.
CHRIS: And that's frustrating for us, but it's also frustrating for the founder who he's like, I want to build, like, I'm just dealing with all this people problems. And then the flip side of it was that they'd go to, you know, we finally just said, fine, just hire an agency. But agencies were all kinda the same. They're basically like hand us your scope or your grocery list of what you want. Give us a check and we'll come back and here you go good luck. And it doesn't work that way with startups. Like I've done startups throughout my life.
And the team needs to be ingrained with what you're doing. Your fears have to be their fears and you all need to be working together to say, hey, two steps into this process we just realized what you want us to build it's totally the wrong thing. Let's work together to figure out what the right thing is and build it. So all this comes to say, that's where our value was. It's, I'm here at this VC fund saying I can't find any company in the world to solve this problem. Why don't I build that problem or build that solution. And that's how we started Very Big Things, but now how do we go about actually doing it and making it a successful company to your question is, you know, we could have sat at home and said, okay, what's the perfect marketing? Or what's the perfect brand message?
What's the perfect, this, that, et cetera, to let people know that we're the right ones for this versus the 10,000 other agencies that are out there. All those 10,000 agencies, even though they aren't doing it, they're all saying they are, so.
CAROLINE: Yeah. For sure. And this is super difficult in any service industries, right? Because so many people will claim that they are doing
CHRIS: Oh yeah, exactly.
CAROLINE: ...valuable thing, but not necessarily do it. Yeah. Sorry.
CHRIS: So how do you find that signal through the noise? Right? Like, how do you say, hey we're really here. Cause there's people that need you if you're doing it right. And, so, at the very beginning before we actually said, we're starting the company, we sat back and our strategy was let's come up with core principles that will set us apart and grow from that. And I'll explain kind of how that works is. So for us, our core principles, the only way I could fathom getting there, once again not to rant but, if I were to just say, oh yeah, let's put together a great marketing, some great brand messages and so forth.
Even if we found success, like I said, you quickly plateau with that success and that's where you'll live for the next 20 years. And you see so many agencies that that's what they do. And we have no interest in that in the world. We want to be like the best thing that's ever come. So to actually achieve that, the only way, the only path from our previous experience that we saw to actually pull it off, was a focus on three things, which was extremely happy clients like red carpet service, they've never experienced, you know, building software to actually be a fun experience and bringing that to them, creating products that we like to say are legacy worthy. Like on a morbid side, you can literally think of it as I'm laying on my deathbed, hopefully a hundred years from now. And I can look back and say in 2021 I created that product. And that's a proud moment of my life, you know. Like, that's how great they had have to be.
And then of course as always making sure that the team internally is happy because you can't do the first two without that. And, so as lame as it sounds, and as much as people are like, no, but just give me the silver bullet. You know, how do I just do this without having to do that, that part, I truly feel that's the way. If you wanted to bring a product to market and having it be successful and bringing a business to market, you need to look at those things. It's not about how you message it. It's about creating that actual product. Because from that, you know, this was the thought three and a half years ago when we had it was, well, if we do those three things well, our clients will refer us like crazy.
We'll start winning awards for products. We'll start getting press around the things that we're doing, et cetera. And from those things, we'll end up being able to grow much further than any email blast we could ever send out. And, so that's what we did. And as I mentioned, like three years, we've gone from seven to 80 people. Opened up our third office and our clients are huge. We've got more demand than we could ever hope to handle. And, it's everything that we set out to do is working, but it's because we keep refocusing on those three things.
CAROLINE: hmm. Yeah, yeah. Okay. And so, that's all about success. Can you tell us about something that was a failure that you learned from?
CHRIS: Fortunately, I've never failed at anything No. Just joking.
CAROLINE: I love it. Me neither.
CHRIS: All right. Awesome. High five. Let's start another company together. So, being serious, let me think. One of my biggest lessons was I just gone back into technology cause you know, long story, but I'd started a startup when I was like 13 ended up getting acquired when I was 14, I was brought on there. I got acquired when I was 15 and then the internet bubble burst. So I've been in technology for a long time doing startups for a long time.
But when that internet bubble burst, I mean it dried out the market for a while. People were scared of anything tech. By the time I finally came back into it, which was probably about seven years later, I said, okay, I'm gonna get back into technology. And, to do that I need to learn all the new things have come out. So for me to learn those, there's no better way to learn than actually just doing.
So I said, let me just create a startup. It's not meant to actually be a successful startup It's just literally meant to be a test bed for learning new things and trying out new stuff and innovating. And so I started to work on this and then just for fun, I sent a press release in an email to Michael Arlington at TechCrunch. And I said like, hey, you know, I'll give you the early scoop on this involve, you know, all the normal stuff and I'm sure they're like, thanks. And I said, I'm gonna be launching it in about four weeks So you guys can do the press release on it, about three weeks ahead of everybody else, you know?
And he wrote back and he goes, listen, if you have it ready for tomorrow, I'll launch it tomorrow. Cause I have no news for tomorrow. I'll make it our cover story. And I'm like TechCrunch was like the only place for startup news at the time. So I was like, okay, cool. I will find a way, right? And I went back and I just, you know, my mom was visiting from out of the state. Like, I'd moved to Florida so she's visiting me in my new apartment and everything. And I'm like, mom, I can't talk to you for 48 hours. I just need to like, do this. And I sat there all night and I programmed and designed and, everything. Had it I said, okay, cool. Run it. And he ran it.
And then there was a site called Digg.com, which was like the first news site, website to get more hits than the New York times had readers. So it was like a huge deal. Digg.com made it their number one story. So, TechCrunch did a cover story, then Digg does it. And then Yahoo had acquired a company called Delicious. That basically was like shared top links of the day. It was their top link of the day, and all of a sudden, so it's blowing up. We had like 40,000 people sign up in the first four hours of it. So this sounds awesome. You're like, wait, I asked you about failure, right? Failure comes in the fact that if I had waited the three weeks or if I'd made sure things were properly prepared, then you wouldn't be talking to me right now because I'd have a billion dollars and I would have retired on some beach. Right?
However, that wasn't the case because I rushed it out and, I wasn't prepared for what if this thing really succeeds? What if, you know, within the first week there's a hundred thousand people using it and there's, you know, bugs and requests and new feature requests and people asking questions and more press. It ended up getting covered by like 200 blogs. And it's like, everyone had their own side of it. And it was just me with my mom in town, you know. And hasn't slept for 48 hours. So by the end of it, it ended up getting acquired but just for, pennies on the dollar because I was in nowhere near, I just wasn't set up for that. What if this actually succeeds? You know? So since then I've learned the extremely valuable lesson of, you know, even though shiny objects will come in front of you make sure that you're ready before grabbing them, you know, otherwise, it ends up hurting you a lot more in the long run.
CAROLINE: Right. Wow. That is quite a story.
CHRIS: Right? Yeah, yeah. It's a painful one. But, as with everything, I think if you’re doing what you like and trying your best at it you'll end up finding your way back, you know?
CAROLINE: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Okay. So I think, you know, to close up, what advice would you have for first time entrepreneurs?
CHRIS: I mean the kind of obvious advice that, my mom gave me when I was six years old, is, you know, hope for the best and plan for the worst. I think as any entrepreneur you have to be the most optimistic person in the room to the actual core of your being. Not just a show you're putting on, but like truly you believe more than anybody in the world, the crazy dreams that you have and you have a vision for how you're gonna pull them off. But then on the flip side of it, you also have to be the most actively paranoid person in the entire company. Thinking about every possible thing that could hypothetically go wrong and then staying ahead of it. So I'd say there's that piece.
Another thing that I often tell people is, you know, the founders that I find succeed, and this is both from the VC side plus and the founders that we kind of choose to work with at Very Big Things, as well as just personal friends in my life are the ones that no matter what challenge is put in front of them, they just see it as a temporary roadblock. And they start, the second that they hit that challenge their brain starts working on 30 ways to get around it. Not one where they're stuck until that one has a possibility. They're just, there is a way around this problem. Let me find it, let me find it quick and execute on it. Versus unfortunately, I'll see a lot of, especially first time founders that they'll say, oh, well, this is as far as I can go until I raised $5 million. Or this is as far as I can go until I raise a hundred thousand dollars. Or, you know, oh, I'm stuck because of this thing otherwise I could totally turn this into a billion dollar company. It's like, if you’re saying that to yourself, then go work for somebody else or, you know, something.
But I would say, that's a mentality you just can't have. You have to have that mentality of how do I find my way past everything? Because things will inevitably come up constantly. I mean, it's constant and you just have to have that innate kind of response of saying cool, something came up, we will get past it. I know we're gonna get past it. How? And how do I do it without these things I feel like I need?
CAROLINE: Right, right. That's amazing advice. Yeah. No, it really is. I mean, you can't build a company on what ifs, right? What if I had more money? What if like, you know, you need to be able to use what you have, right?
CHRIS: Definitely. Or like this idea of like, if everything's handed to me or if everything goes just right, then this can be a huge successful company. It's like, well of course it will. But that'll never happen, you know? But it can be a huge successful company, even if nothing goes right. And that's the I think the important lesson.
CAROLINE: Mhmm. Yeah, yeah. All right, Chris, thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
CHRIS: Thank you so much for having me. This is awesome.