SMB Interview: How your startup can avoid failure

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Various statistics say that nine out of ten startups fold within the first five years.

With October being Small Business Month across Canada, what better time to learn how not to end up on the wrong side of statistics?

Geoff Whitlock, the Co-Founder and CEO of Surround Integrated Marketing, offers his advice, from hard knocks and tough lessons, after taking the slings and arrows of nine startups of his own.

Just three years after opening its doors, Surround touts itself as a leading digital marketing agency in marketing strategy, content creation, SEO, video, direct mail, radio, and web development. They are experiencing 100 percent year over year growth, and executed more than 10 million dollars of integrated advertising services for its clients.

Prior to launching Surround, Whitlock sold one of his ventures, Lifecapture Interactive, to CEO of Venture Communications, Arlene Dickinson of TV’s Dragons’ Den.

B2Bnn: What is the root behind much of the failures of start-ups?

Geoff: There’s lots of books written about it. A large part of it is that when the business grows, there’s a big transition that people aren’t ready for, or don’t know about.

Sometimes it’s once it becomes a company, and it’s no longer just a guy in a truck. Eight out of ten businesses aren’t started by entrepreneurs; they’re just people who want to work for themselves.

Geoff Whitlock
Geoff Whitlock

B2Bnn: What kinds of businesses have you run?

Geoff: Mainly it was technology or marketing or advertising. My first company was me on the street trying to sell ads.

I just keep coming up with ideas and starting companies.

After a while, they become easier to grow, maintain and launch, once you actually become familiar with building a company. There are essential pieces; even if the ideas are unique. You get used to it as you grow.

B2Bnn: What are those ‘essential pieces’?

Geoff: Partners, clients, and team members — the people equation. I’ve learned over the years the value of being good with people.

I try hard at human relations. I learned the hard way from clients leaving, from partners not getting what they thought they’d be getting.

There’s a big expectation in management with people. I want to make sure we’re all heading to the same place and we all feel good about it.

Especially in a business, misalignment will tank it. I think everyone having the same values are important: why are we here, and what are we trying to achieve. We succeed together as a group.

We all know what people have to do at work. I try to find out what they want to do.


B2Bnn: Your company has expanded greatly in the past couple of years. How and why?

Geoff: We’ve been doing almost a 100 percent growth a year since 2012. We didn’t have any venture capital, but we had partnerships and cash.

The secret to a 100 percent goes back to alignment. Have a goal.

The business owner has to know where they want to go, and decides what he needs to do to make it happen today.

Every day’s not perfect, every month’s not perfect, but overall we grow.

Remember I talked about the importance of people? We try to balance our need for growth with our need for what I call lifestyle. People’s jobs aren’t their life. Every manager should care about their staff’s life. They still have to go home, to wife, kids, artistic passions, vacations, and things they want to do with their lives.

If we maintain that balance, our staff are going to want to come to work. You want employees who want to be there, and have the balance of lifestyle with work ethic.

I’m a good strategist, a good marketer, but I’d be nothing without my team.

B2Bnn: It’s interesting to learn your take on employees but what about clients? How can B2B startups keep them?

Geoff: We’re a B2B company. A B2B might not see the consumer, the customer. I really truly believe that it’s better to communicate with our clients, and let them know we like them.

Send them a happy birthday note, and say hello, because you’re still selling to people. People like to be rewarded and recognized.

Businesses would be better if they were creative, open to people, because people like to be informed, educated and entertained. Try to get good customer relationship practices because people like to be made happy.

B2Bnn: Tell me about a crucial mistake you’ve made in business.

Geoff: I met an investor on an airplane. He said he wanted to finance a venture I discussed with him. He convinced me to leave Research in Motion, and convinced me to pursue my vision.

The project was for a prestigious university, artificial intelligence based on customer health data, to look after seniors. We just had to purpose it for mobile phones.

What’s not hard is raising a million dollars, but spending it right.

The partner had the goal in mind, but I lost sight of the goal. I decided that I was Superman – that I would break away the two groups working on it, and build one group myself. I learned you never break up a team that’s well-oiled.

The new team didn’t gel like the other team, but I didn’t notice it for sometime, and it was too late.

We were good, but we didn’t get where we wanted to get to, not giving the customer exactly what he needed.

B2Bnn: Lastly, tell us about your interaction with Arlene Dickinson of Dragon’s Den.

Geoff: Working with Arlene was one of the most valuable lessons of my life. My business partner Matthew knows how to write the best emails, and he simply asked ask Arlene if she wanted to see our company. She responded rather quickly. We all agreed to meet at a coffee shop. A few days later she expressed interest in acquiring our business.

Main photo via Fickr, Creative Commons

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