In honor of our 10 year anniversary at iThemes this month, I looked back and reflected on what I’ve learned, that has made the most impact to our success and longevity in business.
1. It’s all about people.
The real reward in business is people.
Profit is awesome and kind of essential. But the people make it fun, joyful and special.
None of this would have happened without people, beside me, behind me, often in front of me. The ones who’ve done the overwhelming bulk of the work to get us here.
And it can’t just be any people … they have to be really, really, really good, committed, passionate, talented people.
The ones who care. The ones who love what they do and who they do it with and for.
When you get people like that the thing you must do is find out how to set them free and get the hell out of the way.
So invest in people. They will invest in you. Richly.
When you invest in people and they blossom and bloom before your eyes …. that’s what has made these 10 years so incredible.
In 20-30 years from now, when I look back at this decade at iThemes, the things I’ll remember are the people I’ve walked with, fought with (and for) and the things we did together.
Caring for, protecting, loving on, coaching, mentoring people is a big investment but one of the best I’ve made. It also makes you a magnet for more good people.
And frankly, it’s just the right thing to do.
2. Find your sidekick, fast.
For the first couple years of business, I didn’t have a sidekick. One who would make me better. One who was strong where I was weak, weak where I was strong. One that completed the picture for me as a leader and manager.
And truly I’ve learned … having a sidekick means you don’t walk alone. You don’t shoulder everything on your own. You don’t make decisions in an echo chamber. You don’t fight alone. And that person just makes you better. And what you’re doing together exponentially better.
We met each other over 12 years ago now as friends. Then he started working with me … and eventually I named him the Chief Operating Officer.
Looking back, one of the smartest decisions I’ve made in business that has translated to our success and my happiness.
He’s not even 30 years old … but he’s an incredible leader, manager, all around Swiss Army knife. Those who know him and what he can do are jealous I have him. Those who hear about him, want to meet him. For good reason.
For years, we’d simply would use the hashtag #pals in our chats or texts to summarize our friendship and partnership when the going got tough (and it often has).
In the most recent season of time, we’ve got a new one … #backtoback.
Back to back is when you’re surrounded by an overwhelming force. You’re outgunned. You’re outmanned. It’s just you two against the world … you go back to back and fight your way out. Together.
He’s had my back. I’ve had his back. And I can’t imagine getting him without him.
3. Be early.
When I stated iThemes in January 2008, we were one of the first commercial WordPress product shops out there (starting with WordPress themes). We launched at a critical time in WordPress. The right moment. The right time. And we were EARLY.
I can’t overstate the momentum that gave us for the last 10 years. Mostly, I’ve just tried to keep riding that and using that momentum, adding more to it, to become a force that helped us arrive here.
It means more people know us, like us, trust us because we’ve had a lot of time to do it all and we were, yes, EARLY.
Being early was crucial for us, although so many others were not “early” and still have had great success too.
For us, though, we have used it and keep using it.
4. Be lucky.
I like to think of myself as a smart guy … but I know I’m a very lucky guy too.
I’ve joked with our team that if I wrote a book about the history of iThemes it would be called “Stumbling Successfully.”
We’ve made a ton of mistakes. But we’ve also been lucky and then made our own luck by doing good, working hard, taking care of people and not giving up.
We want to keep being lucky, which means we’re open to opportunities and will pursue them backed by hard work.
5. Email marketing was/is our secret sauce.
It feels weird to throw this in here, but it’s so true. We have used email marketing since the beginning, and only amped up how we do it every year to be better and better.
But if you were to see a chart of our sales over 10 years … I could show you when we sent out emails.
We used it when others neglected or thought it was vile black magic. But we did it right, respectfully and to the max.
6. Try not to puke on the ride, OK?
I got on this roller coaster 10 years ago. And so many times just when I think I got the ride down and know where all the big curves and drop-offs are … I find new ones.
I think of one of the key characteristics or strengths required as an entrepreneur is simply: resilience.
Being able to take a gut punch … and get up and keep fighting.
Sometimes the punch is in the face. Sometimes you’re lying face down on gravel and being dragged.
And so many times, I’ve thought, “Maybe the next action I’ll take is to just go throw up now.”
But you gotta keep going. One foot in front of the other.
Looking back at 10 years worth of key events, moments and crises, somehow I just kept going. Somehow we just kept going.
And try not to puke.
7. Seek out and cherish the people who run in, while others run out.
I’ve talked about this at length during my talks over the last couple of years.
I call my people my Life Support Team. (I talked extensively about this in the Iceberg of Life.)
They are the people who run into your life when everyone else is running out.
When you’re down, you’re crying, at your worst and maybe just want to quit …. they are ones who say, “I got ya, bro.”
So many times as the leader you’re the person charged with reassuring everyone else that “it’s going to be ok.” But sometimes, when you’re at the bottom, it really helps to hear someone else say to you …. “everything will be ok.”
There is a tomorrow. There is hope. Let’s pick you back up, brush you off and get you going again.
A huge part of that team, beyond my wife (who is my first and most critical partner) and family and friends, is my entrepreneurial peer group. Other entrepreneurs who are on a similar path, sharing the same values, and just want your best.
In times of troubles these people stand out … they stay. Right by your side. And vice versa.
8. Always be tweaking, experimenting, trying new things.
For years business friends asked, with a very puzzled looked, why we kept venturing into new products and even areas. Often failing.
Part of the answer is it’s how I’m wired. I like experimenting. I like new challenges. I like new projects. And I like diversifying.
I know how fickle this game can be. I don’t want all my eggs in one basket.
But it’s also about making sure we’re continuing to experiment, to improve so that we can keep this thing going for a long, long time.
So we try new things and fail. Mistakes are learning though and we’ve tried to learn better from those mistakes.
I think the opposite choice here is complacency.
And that’s too often the easier choice. Just to coast, put things on automatic pilot and think nothing will ever change.
Just like our sales related to emails, I can probably show you the times we got complacent and put things on cruise control. It’s very dangerous.
9. Adapt and innovate or wither and die.
If we had kept doing only what we did in 2008 … we would not be here today.
If we hadn’t adapted and innovated, stepped out, took risks, made mistakes, lost money on experiments, I firmly believe we’d be out of business.
Year after year we’ve tried to look on the horizon and see where things are going and position ourselves to stay relevant.
It’s not easy. It’s often painful. But it’s necessary. And it’s the reason why we’ve lasted 10 years.
It’s often a hard pill to swallow, especially after you’ve been through a particularly rough patch and things are going well.
But if we were watching on the horizon and sensing the changes, we could have easily gotten consumed by them.
10. Just be good people.
This one is epicly simple: Just be freakin’ nice, generous, gracious, humble, helpful people!
I think it’s wired into my DNA and how I was raised … but I’ve always wanted to just be the good ole small town Oklahoma boy to everyone around me.
Ready to help. Ready to listen. Open to possibility. Open to sharing. Open to connecting.
And I think it’s been a huge part of our success here.
When others stirred up controversy, or choose to be the antagonist … I simply choose to be who I am — a good, generous guy to others (including many of our competitors).
I believe it’s the reason people want to do business with us today, whether that’s partnering with us, promoting us or coming to work with us.
So there’s my ten. The same ten I’d bet on to get us to through to the second decade.