Launching a start-up can feel like jumping onto an already moving treadmill—while juggling porcupines and singing “The Star Spangled Banner.” It’s harder than you would ever think it would be, and like nothing you have ever done before. How do you stay focused on the long-term growth of your company while managing the day-to-day controlled chaos of your start-up? Take a few tips from Justin Hong, managing partner of Highly Relevant, an Internet marketing company, and co-founder of two other ventures, Highly Relevant Brands and Venice Fixies. Using his own personal philosophy as a compass, Hong is steering his thriving start-up companies through successful waters, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t encountered a few rough waves. Hong chatted with writer Heather Chaet about how he left the traditional business route to become an entrepreneur and his realization of what business is really all about.
HC: Can you tell us a little about Highly Relevant?
JH: Highly Relevant is an Internet marketing company based out of Los Angeles that specializes in search engine optimization [SEO]. We offer a variety of other Internet marketing services—social media marketing, pay-per-click, design development—but we’re primarily an SEO shop. The company was founded in June 2009 and, at the time, I had a similar Internet marketing company that I had started while in business school. I met the founders of Highly Relevant, we stayed in touch, and, about five months later, they asked me to join the company. That was November 2009. We’ve been in business four years now, and we’re still growing.
We launched another company called Highly Relevant Brands [in 2012]. With Highly Relevant, we know how to drive traffic to websites and we’re making our clients a lot of money. We realized that we could be doing this for ourselves. So with Highly Relevant Brands, we pursue the development of multiple websites of our own and try to generate revenue off of them. The majority has not panned out, but one, FixieBikes.com, actually turned out pretty well, and from that success, we started Venice Fixies, [which sells fixed-gear bikes].
HC: Did you always want to start your own company? Were you one of those kids who was an entrepreneur at age 10?
JH: When I was young, I wasn’t thinking about being an entrepreneur or anything along those lines. In college, I thought I wanted to be a consultant. I was focused on getting good grades and finding a job. I graduated in 2003 from Vanderbilt, and got a job as a management trainee out in the Bay area. Then, I read a book called Rich Dad, Poor Dad [by Robert Kiyosaki]. It was a complete eye-opener and a game-changer for me. In school, they don’t really teach you how to create wealth. Prior to reading that book, I never had any thoughts about being an entrepreneur. After reading it, I realized I did want to have financial freedom, and I thought, “Well, I guess I should start my own business.” I ended up going to business school at USC where I focused on entrepreneurship.
HC: What do you do to stay focused on growing your business when there is so much to do for a start-up on a daily basis?
JH: I created a personal philosophy for myself, and part of that is [defined by] the Aristotle quote, “Excellence is not an act, but a habit.” I wrote a vision of what I want my life to look like, basically a 15-year plan of goals for myself—and myself as a leader. I have a fairly strict morning routine to check in on how I’m doing to reach those goals, and I try to spend about an hour each day getting prepared and focused on being proactive.
I don’t check my email right when I wake up. If you check your email right away, and there is one from a client yelling about something going on, you are automatically in reactive mode. [Instead], I look at my short-term goals, my monthly goals, and the five things I need to achieve in 2013. These things are all just check-ins to make sure I’m in the right spot, focused, and intentional about my day.
HC: What is the best advice you received as you started in the business world?
JH: You have to create systems and processes to replace yourself. That is how you are able to really start to scale your business. Let’s say you open a bagel shop. If you’re the person who is doing everything—making the bagels, taking the orders, everything—you can’t be out there growing the business. But, if you document how to make the bagels, you can hire someone to do it for you, which frees up your time to work on high-value tasks like marketing or forming partnerships with coffee shops to sell your bagels and so on. If you are doing all of the day to day work, you can’t do the high-level growth things.
JH: Being an entrepreneur and business owner, there is no day that is really the same. It’s chaotic. You have to constantly follow up with people and have mechanisms in place. We have a pretty small office, but we use Basecamp [project management software] to keep a handle on who is accountable for what and for uploading timelines. It allows us to check in on what has been done and what still needs to happen.
When building a company, the leadership team has to be cohesive on what you need to be focused on—if you can’t deliver a clear message, you won’t have proper focus by your employees. Every Monday, I create a weekly dashboard, and the other partners and I meet to look at the quarterly goals and then the primary action items we need to achieve to reach those goals—the sales pipeline, our clients, every aspect of our business.
HC: You handle the human resources component of Highly Relevant. Can you offer some tips for other small business owners as they grow their companies and hire the first few employees?
JH: We had some stumbling blocks with personnel and we learned a lot from that experience. We brought a lot of people on at once—we didn’t know if they were a good fit or how to manage them.
Don’t bring anybody on until you are in desperate need to fill a position. You don’t want to hire someone to have around to just help out every once and while, and the rest of the time you are just making up stuff for him or her to do.
Also, when you are hiring, you have to know what your values are and find people who share those values. Sometimes you can’t tell. We had people working with our company, including some pretty prominent members of the team, and their values just weren’t aligned with ours. Things fell apart. Some people may think it’s a little cheesy, but it really applies. If you have a good team with aligned values, you can do something great—it doesn’t matter what the idea is. But if you have a great idea and don’t have the right people with you, then execution is not going to be there.
Start off [new hires] part time, and see if they personify your company’s values. One of our core values is being relentless, which ties in to work ethic. You can’t tell work ethic in an interview, so that is something you have to try out. You can tell work ethic after you work with someone for a month or two.
HC: What’s the hardest lesson you’ve learned so far in running a start-up?
JH: Learning how to manage people has been one of the most challenging aspects of growing a business. Business is really about people. It isn’t what you first think about [when you start a company]. You think about strategy, how are you going to get sales, the customer service you are going to provide, what systems you are going to use, but, really, it is about the people—about who you are working with, not what you are doing. You spend a lot of time at work, a lot of hours in the office and with the people in that office. You want to be around people who are confident and happy. It isn’t worth it to go to an office every single day if you don’t enjoy who is there.