Media Shower officially began in June 1995, twenty years ago. It doesn’t seem like twenty years. It seems more like nineteen, nineteen and a half. As I look back two decades later, I want to highlight a few lessons that I hope will be helpful for those just starting the journey of starting a company.
The Startup Business Probably Isn’t the Final Business
In the beginning, Media Shower was simply the company we used to do our side projects. We had built this humor website Zug.com, and because we actually knew how to build websites, my partner Jay Stevens and I were in demand. We didn’t really know how to run a business: we were just working on fun stuff, and it seemed smart to have a company. Thus, Media Shower was born.
It was the Wild West of the Web, and we made up the rules as we went along. I remember a conference call with the rock band Fishbone, who were hiring us to develop their first website. They asked us how much it would cost, and I looked around the table: we had no idea what to charge!
In the early days, we did everything from Java programming to graphic design to web hosting. The Web was still so new that there were no specialties, no front end or back end: you just did it all. Over the years, we gradually dropped all those extra products and services, and just focused on what we did best: content marketing.
Among entrepreneurs, we often talk about the “pivot”: quickly moving from one business model to another. We don’t give as much attention to the “streamline”: dropping multiple lines of business to focus on the one thing that we do really well. In my experience, streamlining is the thing more businesses need.
Technology is Frustrating in the Beginning (And That’s Good)
You have no idea how difficult it was to CHMOD a file on a web server.
If you’ve never had to CHMOD, count yourself lucky, because hours of my life have been spent on this problem. (Look carefully and you’ll see the scars in my forehead from banging my head against the computer monitor.) In the beginning of any new technology, it is hair-tearingly frustrating to get stuff to work correctly, because the time-saving tools do not exist yet.
This is often a good thing, because it means you are ahead of the curve. In fact, it’s an opportunity, because if you are frustrated, you can bet that dozens or hundreds of others are also frustrated — and if the technology catches on, that number will swell to thousands and millions. The pain is a blinking light of opportunity.
I can’t remember the last time I had a CHMOD problem, because web hosting is so advanced that it all happens behind the scenes. The flip side is that it is now much more difficult to innovate in the web hosting arena — there are so many ISPs that hosting has become a commodity. Today web hosting would be the worst business to enter, unless you have some new pain point, some fresh frustration to solve.
Frustration also means you’re learning. It was frustrating to learn to read, to write, to roller skate. Learning anything new requires repetition and mistakes. It means looking at others who have already mastered it, and feeling even more frustrated. But learning is growth, and growth is good. Welcome the frustration: it means you’re on the right track.
During Downturns, Look for Opportunity
We rode the first dot-com wave, which was a wild and heady time. There were lots of crazy parties, stock options, and raw oysters. Anything Internet-related was hot. We had offers to buy the company, which in retrospect would not have been in the best interests of society. And then the bubble burst.
During any recession or downturn, it is usually wise to hunker down and begin planning for the inevitable upswing. It will always come. I went back to business school and learned how to run a company properly. I got accepted into the MBA program at Babson, then I was lucky enough to get a full-time job running Babson’s digital marketing team.
This was an incredible stroke of good fortune, because it meant I not only got free tuition, but I also got a salary. If you can believe it, I was depressed at the time, because I took a pay cut: my salary was much lower than it had been during the dot-com heyday. Fortunately, my depression did not last for long, as it felt so good to be learning again.
Investment in your mind is one of the best investments you can make, and this goes double during a downturn. Recessions are for learning. Find a way to get back to school, even if you have to take the pay cut.
We kept plugging away with Media Shower, but it was slow and steady through those lean years. But even then, we were learning something incredibly valuable.
Let Your Failures Add to Your Market Value
Scott Adams, the Dilbert cartoonist, has a terrific concept in his autobiographical How to Fail at Almost Everything and Still Win Big. He makes a lengthy list of all the mistakes he made in his career, from bad stock investments to failed business ventures. He then talks about how each of his failures added to his overall marketability.
We often talk about bouncing back from failure, never giving up, etc., but there is a fundamentally different way of approaching failure, which is to ask, Did I learn something from this that adds to my market value?
Our humor site Zug.com, in one sense, was a failure: we eventually shut it down, both because the economics of publishing a humor site became more and more difficult, but also because Media Shower (the content company) was responsible for more and more revenue. But publishing Zug for all those years taught us something priceless: how to create great content.
There are so many content companies that just don’t get it, because they’ve never been in the trenches. They don’t understand what it is like to have a loyal readership, to oversee writers, to build an audience. They see content as a commodity; we don’t. That is the difference.
Shutting down Zug.com was the single hardest business decision I’ve made. Today, I’m so glad we had those years of experience, because they’ve given us an understanding of content that is literally impossible to replicate: no other company in our space has twenty years of experience.
Every mistake can add to your market value. Every negative can become a positive. Every failure can make you more successful.
Growth Takes Time
In some respects, it is risky to tell you we have been around twenty years. Longevity is not always fashionable in the tech world, where billion-dollar companies are sometimes created in a few months. When you’re dealing with a jeweler or a law firm, a twenty-year track record is an asset. In tech, the question is, “Why haven’t you been bought by Google yet?”
When we hear about the 20-year-old who drops out of Harvard and builds a publicly-traded company in five years, we must keep in mind that this is not normal. This is an aberration, noteworthy because it is so unusual. It is like the woman from Borneo who is 9 feet tall, or the man with elephantiasis of the testicles. If that is the yardstick you’re measuring yourself against, you will never grow fast enough.
For most companies, growth takes time. As Clayton Christensen recommends in his excellent The Innovator’s Solution, be impatient for profit, but patient for growth. In other words, demand that your business make money as quickly as possible — don’t tolerate a sinkhole for long — but realize that growth may be slow and steady. As they say, it takes twenty years to build an overnight success.
We have a small greenhouse attached to our home, and I have learned so much by watching those plants grow. Some plants shoot up quickly, and some just creep along. If a plant isn’t growing, it’s dying. But as long as it’s growing, we are patient. Every plant has a different growth rate. Businesses, I think, are the same way.
The New Renaissance
The invention of the printing press in 1445 made information so readily available to the educated middle classes that it set off a revolution in art, science, music, religion, and politics. It was the beginning of the Renaissance, a 300-year rebirth of humanity’s thinking. The printing press, in many ways, was the atomic bomb that set off the Renaissance.
The internet, I believe, is an invention many times more powerful than the printing press: it is making all the information available to all of us. The explosion of information that is becoming available to us — and the speed at which it is opening up — will have a historical impact many times greater than the Renaissance. You could call it the New Renaissance, but I think of it as the Digital Revolution.
I often think that if I could have chosen any time in history to be born, to come of age, to start a company, it would have been right now, at the beginning of the Digital Revolution. All this work you and I are doing will reverberate through generations to come.
Twenty years is only the beginning. It’s an exciting time to be alive.
Sir John Hargrave is the CEO of Media Shower and author of the upcoming book Mind Hacking. This post is free to distribute under CC 4.0: if you like it, share it.