An Ultra Long-read for the weekend. Very inspiring story by Joel Popoff, originally seen on https://medium.com/@joelpopoff/if-you-re-crazy-start-a-startup-3a32a7f18f94
I would first like to start off by saying, I never initially wanted to write this. Every time I would have a heart to heart conversation with someone I would share my story. It got to the point where every time I would tell the story, people would always say,
“You need to write this down and publish it, this story is too inspiring to keep to yourself”
So here it is…
Note: If you would like to skip the prologue and go straight to actual post scroll down to the “If you’re Crazy Start a Startup” title. If you don’t have time to read the full post you can read the key takeaways at the bottom.
I grew up in a small town of a couple thousand people in the Okanagan area of British Columbia, Canada. My dad was a hot dog vendor that worked on the busiest street in the heart of downtown Kamloops, BC. Over the years, he saved up enough money to build his dream home in Shuswap Lake, BC. He had always longed to have a Bed & Breakfast on the lake and now his dreams had come true. You would never give a passing thought about what kind of life the man selling you street meat lived.
Shortly after we moved to the lake and my parents got divorced and my mom was forced to find a new property. She found a small two-bedroom mobile home to rent for us. It wasn’t easy moving from my dad’s beautiful log chalet to an old mobile home. I wasn’t worried about it because I knew it was only temporary. The months passed and my mom started looking for a home to purchase. She worked as the head cook in a restaurant on the lake, so my expectations of where we were going to move were much higher than what she could afford.
After months of searching, my mom found another mobile home with an attached 2/3 acre property beside it. I couldn’t believe we were renting one old mobile home and now she was purchasing an even older mobile home. She kept telling me that it was a good investment and it would pay off in the long run. I was only eight at the time and didn’t understand why she was making such a stupid decision. Little did I know she would tell me four years later,
“I just made a 56.25% return on my investment”
One of moms greatest priorities was always keeping the fridge full of food. I slowly learned how lucky I was and although she couldn’t give my brother and I everything we wanted, we always ate very well.
Having a materialistic personality caused me to complain a lot about not having things my friends had. New clothes, toys, bikes, spending money for candy, etc. She was a single mom and worked long hours to provide for my brother and I. She just couldn’t afford the extra’s because it wasn’t in her budget.
One day she got fed up with me comparing myself to my friends at school and decided to show me her financial situation. She said,
“This is how much money mommy makes every month and this is how much money mommy owes”
After that, I shut up and never complained about money again. I understood the math and that her expenses were more than the money she was bringing in each month.
A couple years later, I got a job as a dishwasher at the restaurant my mom worked at. I was only eleven and couldn’t legally be on payroll. So the manager decided to pay me a portion of what the servers were tipping out every night. After the servers found out about this they lost it. The restaurant manager concluded that they would pay me under the table.
I worked like crazy as a kid and soon had thousands of dollars in my bank account. When you’re eleven, $100 seems like a lot of money. But when you have thousands of dollars in your savings account, you think you’re unstoppable. I started to buy all kinds of unnecessary “things” because what else do you buy at that age? My mom quickly noticed how much I was spending and began to teach me about budgeting and investing.
I learned that if I take my money and invest it, it would pay off in the long run. I couldn’t invest in stock or anything that was high risk because of my age, so I just started with a simple savings account and GICs.
As I grew up I became fascinated by financial literacy. I first started with Rich Dad Poor Dad and soon began to build a library of books that would teach me about investing, budgeting, and cash flow. While my friends would party on weekends I was only focused on my future and ensuring it was a successful one.
This is when I knew I was destined to be an entrepreneur.
My first venture was a clothing line I started at sixteen. I hated how cheap companies would make t-shirts and mark them up by 100% to customers. I knew there had to be a way to provide people with a t-shirt made of quality breathable material that could sell for the same price as all the retail stores products. I knew all the best designer brands were made in Italy and the small town I grew up in mostly consisted of Italians. So I decided to name my company, Desiderio which stands for “desire” in Italian.
That summer I trademarked the logo, incorporated the company, and had 150 t-shirts printed. When I arrived back to school in the fall, I told a couple friends about the company I started. They loved the quality of the t-shirts and the logo of my company, so I was able to sell a couple shirts for twenty-five bucks a pop. Soon I started having people approach me in my high school and ask if I had anymore t-shirts available. First it was one, then three, then five. Before I knew it I sold all 150 t-shirts. There’s nothing like the feeling of walking down your high school hallways and noticing every second person wearing your brand.
I decided to create a business plan for Desiderio and enter it into a contest for small businesses. I placed second and won a $2000 cheque to help further build my startup. Over the years I continued to work on Desiderio and further educate myself on financial literacy until I was finally old enough to invest. Since entrepreneurship was such a highlight in my life, it only made sense to enroll in university for business & marketing.
Shortly after my eighteenth birthday, I booked an appointment at TD Canada Trust bank to set up a Waterhouse account so I could begin to invest in stock. I remember walking into my appointment and being drilled with questions from one of the financial planners. She asked to see every piece of ID in my wallet because she thought my appointment was a prank. It made perfect sense. I did look very young for my age and it’s not too often you see an eighteen-year-old setup a Waterhouse account. After she knew I was serious and my meeting was definitely not a prank, she was blown away that I was doing this. She worked at the bank for years and only set herself up with a Waterhouse account the previous week. Every Christmas she sends me a card to check up on how I’m doing and congratulates me for taking the steps to becoming financially free.
My second venture was a concert promotions agency. I met my best friend in university and after we completed our first year, we went back home to our summer jobs. I worked at a small Provincial Park doing maintenance and yard work, while he put on a couple of sold out concerts in his small town.
When we arrived back for our second year of university, I couldn’t believe how well his concerts did. The feelings of jealousy drove me to team up with him and take the concert promotions business model to a new level. We named the agency, “Go Live Entertainment.”
Over the next couple years, we toured across Canada hosting several live shows for weeks at a time. We had the opportunity to experience a lot of amazing things and meet a lot of amazing people. Our goal was to bring class and professionalism to the music industry. This was and still is, a rare trait to find in promoters. Our motto was,
“You didn’t come to a Go Live show because you didn’t know about it. The reason you didn’t come was because you didn’t want to come”
We worked as hard as we possibly could to ensure that everyone knew about our concerts. This marketing strategy is what kept us afloat in the industry.
On one of our tours, we lost so much money that the band offered to let us sleep and tour in their bus. This saved a majority of our travel and lodging expenses, but we were still over $20,000 in debt. We felt like our world was falling apart. This lesson helped me learn to manage risk and use strategy to bail myself out of uncomfortable financial situations. The only options we had were to pay off the debt with a minimum wage job or do more successful shows to break even. We were fortunate enough to turn a profit on a couple more tours over the year until we broke even. This learning experience was a big stepping stone in my life. Although it was tough I wouldn’t change it for the world.
I ended up dropping out of university and enrolling in college because I couldn’t stand to spend four years of my life in a lecture hall. I took the investing knowledge I gained from the books I studied over the years and began to invest in stock and mutual funds while in school. After college, my best friend got a job in Toronto and moved out of our apartment. I was forced to find a new place to live because I couldn’t afford rent on my own. I had read about real estate investing for years and had always wanted to buy my own property. Before my best friend moved out, he bet me I wouldn’t buy a property. He knew I hated failing and was terrible at dealing with risk. That pissed me off, so I wanted to prove him wrong. A week later I put an offer on a small four bedroom bungalow right next to the university. Three weeks after that I closed and called my best friend to tell him I bought a house.
After that, I knew I had to minimize my risk as much as possible. I withdrew all my savings to pay for the down payment on the house. Now I was forced to get the property rented or I would already be failing before I even started.
To minimize my risk I started marketing the property online for rent while I was in the process of closing. I created a very informative ad with quality photos and made sure to promote it everywhere online. I wasn’t technically allowed to show the property to potential tenants because I didn’t own it yet. So instead, I hacked the system by putting all interested renters on a waiting list. I scheduled close to 40 groups of students to view the property the weekend after I closed and was easily able to fulfill the lease that weekend.
At the time I purchased my first property I was working at a call center for a bank. I absolutely hated my job and couldn’t understand how some people had been working there for over twenty years. Imagine answering 100–200 calls per day for over two decades. This was definitely not the life I wanted to live. When my doctor decided to prescribe me medication for depression to help me deal with the stresses of my job I knew I had to get out.
I started looking for marketing internships across Canada. I didn’t care where I had to move, as long as I never had to answer another banking call again I was happy. I went to school for marketing and my role at Desiderio and Go Live Entertainment mainly consisted of marketing the brands. So finding an entry role at a marketing firm seemed to be the best fit for my skillset.
I was offered a four-month internship role at a small digital marketing firm in Toronto. I found a tiny basement apartment that weekend, packed up everything I could fit in my car, and left to Toronto to start a new chapter of my life.
I thought I knew about marketing, but it turns out I didn’t have a clue. Digital marketing wasn’t something that was taught in school and had only blown up once people realized this whole “internet thing” was going to change the world. I learned a lot over the next four months and was thankful enough to be offered a full time position as a digital marketing strategist.
I no longer had a job, I now had a career. In my first couple of months at the agency, I worked really long hours to prove my work ethic and it ended up paying off. I got promoted to Digital Marketing Manager and now had to manage one full time employee and four interns. Throughout the year I continued to work late into the night most days. It got to the point where I started to burn out and needed a break.
I decided to take my mom and I on a trip to Punta Cana, Dominican Republic. I got the chance to clear my head and didn’t have to think about work for a whole week. It turns out that vacation was the best thing I ever did. It made me think about what my true passion was and what I wanted to do the rest of my life. I always thought I would own a real estate empire and manage different properties across the country. Real estate had always been my true passion and with work and my new life in Toronto I had lost sight of that.
I used to be concentrated on buying more property every year and expanding my portfolio. But what I was actually good at and what fueled my passion was marketing my properties. This is where my vacation changed my way of thinking. Instead of focusing on buying properties, my new focus was solving the problem of marketing rental properties online.
This is where the story of how I started my startup begins…
If you are Crazy, Start a startup: 5 Lessons Every Startup Founder Needs to Follow to Avoid Failure
Everything you have read, up until now was the prologue. I wanted to prove to people that I wasn’t some kid that scowered the internet and grabbed a bunch of inspirational startup facts to post on Medium. I had to explain why I was different and why people thought I was deemed “crazy” for wanting to read and educate myself on financial literacy or stay up late working on one of my businesses than getting drunk every weekend.
I also think you should know I am in no way an “expert” on startups. The advice I am providing you is not based on any data or statistics I have collected. This advice is solely based on what I have learned thus far in developing my startup.
Note: If you don’t have time to read the full post you can read the key takeaways at the bottom.
You know you’re an entrepreneur if someone asks you
“What would you do if you had an unlimited amount of money?”
and without even thinking your answer is, build an empire.
Lesson 1: Solve a Problem
My new mission in life was to change the way people rent and list properties forever. I came up with the idea not because I wanted to get rich or because I thought startups were cool. It was because I knew there was a huge problem and I wanted to fix it.
Whenever one of my properties is for rent, I am always able to obtain far more inquiries than my competitors. My neighbors and other landlords in my network would always ask me, “how do you get so many people interested in your property?” “What’s your secret?” What I do is actually no secret, I just know how to market my property better than my competitors and provide a better customer experience. I knew the demographic and type of tenant I wanted to attract and my marketing was reflective of this.
I thought, imagine if there was a website where every landlord was forced to make listings that look as good as mine. They wouldn’t need to have years of marketing or sales experience. All they had to do is follow a simple 3 step process to creating a listing. This listing would only include the details that renters actually cared about and would eliminate any noise in a listing that would cause them not to convert.
After going through the experience of renting several properties myself, I knew there was another problem I had to solve that was equally as broken on the renter’s side. I talked to a couple of my friends that were looking for properties to rent and I found out that I was not alone. The process of finding and renting a property was awful.
In Canada, you have a small selection of websites that have terrible search filters, vague ads with low res photos, and communication barriers with landlords. Then once you finally find and view a property that interests you, you still need to complete an application, get approved, sign a lease, and provide first and last month’s rent.
Our new mission is to change the process of renting and listing a property forever. We wanted it to be so easy that renters could eventually find properties anywhere in the world and within a couple steps they could secure a long term lease and feel fully confident about their decision without even having to view the property in real life.
Lesson 2: Competition is for Losers
There was a fair amount of competitors in the U.S. & UK that had noticed the same problems we did and were creating companies to help solve those problems. But we didn’t care. We knew the process was still broken and nobody threatening enough was solving the problem to our degree.
You need to want it so bad that your competition shouldn’t even matter. If you have a better product and you have users that love it, then that’s the only thing you should care about. The more you focus on your competitors the more fear will consume you. Once this fear begins to take over, you take the first steps towards failure.
Lesson 3: Find Amazing Co-founder’s
You will hear this over and over again, but one of the single most difficult things you will have to do when starting a startup, is to find amazing co-founders. Co-founders that are even crazier than you and push you to your limits.
When I first came up with the idea for the startup I knew I had to start looking for a technical co-founder. My expertise was in marketing, managing, and user experience design. I had always wanted to learn how to code, but was much more passionate about design. I emailed a couple close friends to see if they knew any good developers. My co-founder at Go Live Entertainment told me that one of the bassists from a band we use to tour with was now a freelance developer. I knew exactly who he was, but had no idea he switched career paths. I got his contact information and pitched him on the idea. He had told me that he was interested in working with a startup, and knew from how passionate I was about the idea that I would definitely be committed.
Since we had not been best friends for years we agreed to handle the startup literally like a relationship. We said the first couple months would be the “dating period” where we would see how we communicate and if we got along with each other. After that we would get “engaged.” This consisted of launching our pre-launch page and formally signing founder vesting agreements. Later we would get “married” and officially launch our first beta to users.
I feel like taking the “relationship” approach with your startup is the perfect solution because it shows how serious each of you are at each stage. If you’re not ready for a commitment and the “dating” stage was too much for you, then you should probably leave and let the people that are passionate and serious enough about the idea get “engaged.” If you get cold feet down the line and realize starting a startup is much more difficult than you thought. You probably shouldn’t get “married” because you will just be hurting the team and leading them on.
Lesson 4: Build Things That Don’t Scale
In the first stages of starting a startup, scaling does not matter. You could focus all of your energy in trying to build a product that scales to discover there’s actually no market for that product. There are only three things all startups need to focus on in the beginning.
1. Talking to users
I cannot stress enough how incredibly important talking to users is. So many startups focus 100% of their energy in building a product as fast as they possibly can, that they don’t even stop to think about whether there is a market for it. If you are a non-technical founder, this should be the only thing you do in the beginning. If you are technical founders, you should spend half your time building the product and the other half of your time talking to users.
We first started with a small focus group of renters, landlords, and agents that would tell us the biggest problems they were experiencing. Instead of coming up with our own opinion of what we thought our users wanted, we used data. This allowed us to narrow down the three biggest problems users were experiencing. Our goal now is to focus all of our energy into creating three features to solve their biggest problems and half assing everything else in order to ship the product as fast as possible.
2. Growing as fast you as possibly can
In the startup world growing fast is the difference between obtaining a Series A and being stuck in the seed stage. If you decide to keep your job you need to dedicate every waking moment of time to your startup. Your startup should come before your social life and even your relationships. If you quit your job you still need to commit every minute of your day to growing, but take breaks to avoid burnout. I recommend eating healthy and exercising regularly.
Create daily, weekly, and monthly goals and stick to them. Tackling big problems with little win’s everyday helps make the process of starting a startup less intimidating. It also ensures if you start to slack you will need to commit extra time before the deadline is up.
3. Finding product market fit
After you have talked to as many users as possible and you are growing as fast as you can, your next goal is to find product market fit. Along with finding amazing co-founders, this is another one of the hardest things you will ever have to do when starting a startup. It doesn’t matter if you have spent years developing the greatest product the world has ever seen and if all your co-founders have an IQ of 150. If there is no market for that product, you will inevitably fail.
Lesson 5: Be Unique
There are many amazing startup ideas that have evolved over the last couple years, but rarely do I find companies that try to be truly unique. It’s so easy to want to copy another startup with a similar idea that you loose focus on your own. This was one thing I desperately wanted to avoid when developing my startup. I wanted our brand to have meaning and to be totally separate from our competitors.
We first came up with the name bemyrental for our startup because the domain was available and it had a very important keyword in it. However, after thinking about the name over the next couple weeks I knew we could do better. This is when I came up with the name Serelo. It is pronounced “sir-elle-oh” and stands for Search.Rent.Love. This new name now had meaning and was different from every other competitor that had the keyword “rent” or “apartment” in their name.
After we agreed on the new name it was now time for a logo. I wanted the logo to be able to tell a story and be simple enough for anyone to draw it. We went through a couple different variations and decided to pick the owl. This is what it’s comprised of:
With new startups popping up every week it is crucial to separate yourself from the other’s. Don’t be afraid to be different, embrace it! Investor’s get pitched by hundreds or even thousands of startups per year. What are you going to do to stand out? What is going to make them remember you?
Nobody wants to hear about the kid with the wealthy parents that funded their startup in the beginning. They want to hear about the group of smart, scrappy, friends that came up with something brilliant to grab the attention of the media.
It’s Ok to Fail
Finally, it’s not the end of the world if you fail. The sad truth is most startups do fail because they are unable to master the five lessons I discussed. I always tell myself,
“If for any reason I do fail, the worst thing I could say happened is I learned something”
If you think of your startup as more of a hobby instead of a job it won’t crush you as much if it doesn’t go anywhere. All you need to do is change your thinking.
I hope my story and advice has inspired you to create a startup or continue to grow your current one. The road to creating a startup is a long one. Be prepared to invest the next 10–15 years of your life. There are some people in this world that are cut out for it and other’s that give up too easily. My friends always ask me, “why would I ever commit so much time to something that might not even go anywhere?” My answer is always, because I wouldn’t want to do anything else in the world. This is my passion. Just like how some people spend thousands of hours gaming and other’s spend thousands of hours watching TV. All I am doing is replacing the things most people do to entertain themselves and instead solving a problem. Some people might think you’re crazy for doing this and that’s ok. All you need to do is remember this:
Key Take Aways
• Money doesn’t grow on tree’s you gotta work hard for it. (I know this is cheesy, but it’s so true)
• If you’re a parent, teach your children financial literacy as soon as you can. It’s the one thing that isn’t taught in schools that today’s youth desperately need to know.
• Find amazing cofounders that are just as passionate as you.
• Prepare to give up your social life and if you are in a relationship make sure they are extremely supportive of your idea.
• Create daily, weekly, and monthly goals and don’t let the due date slip.
• Grow as fast as you humanly can.
• Focus on building an amazing product first before anything else.
• Build things that don’t scale.
• Create an amazing user experience and differentiate yourself from others.
• Talk to users, talk to users, talk to users.
• Never stop learning.
• Don’t start a startup until you have a problem you are facing and are passionate enough to dedicate your life to solving that problem.
• Write down your core values right away and only hire people that breathe your mission.
• Forget about competitors. If your product is better, than your competitors should be worried about you.
• Eat healthy and exercise regularly.