Laurel Touby on How to Run a Startup

Question: What advice would you give to other people running startups?

Laurel Touby:  Well, I think having a really good lawyer is the first step. You need an excellent corporate lawyer who really understands the problems of small companies but also understands big company practices and that’s- so that’s worth every dollar you can pay, and some lawyers are entrepreneurial. They will agree to be paid in stock in the beginning in order to work with a really exciting, fast-growing company, and my lawyer did that. So I would say having a really good lawyer in place but then having contracts in place. When you hire a person for a project, even if you’re just paying them in stock make sure that you have a contract with that person and that you follow through with them and you actually make sure that they’re- that the project is being done as you wanted it to be done. Don’t just make it this wide, very open-ended project.

Question: How did you find a good lawyer?

Laurel Touby:  I always hire professional services people through referrals so it’s always important to talk to other small business owners and people will give you referrals to excellent professionals such as accountants and lawyers and IP- intellectual property lawyers. You’re going to need different types for different things. And so this lawyer came through a referral. I would never use anybody who I didn’t get at least one or two excellent comments from clients that they had worked with.

Question: How did you initially advertise mediabistro?

Laurel Touby:  Everything we’ve done has been word of mouth so it’s- a lot of people spend a lot of money when they get it. I got funding and a lot of CEOs I know spent that money on marketing. I believed that the customer really should lead the company, not the other way around, so I’ve always felt that if the customer really loves your product or service they’re going to spread the word for you. And so I probably took a little longer to get- to really get momentum than many companies do because of that, but my company- my type of company is hard to replicate. The barriers to entry are pretty high. You have to really have the goodwill and the love and the relationships in order for that company to thrive so that’s what’s kept us going for ten long years or more actually.

Question: How do you keep the buzz going?

Laurel Touby:  Most of these companies pop up and they disappear. They’re like mushrooms in the forest. Right?  How do you stay and how do you become a redwood instead of a mushroom is really the question, and I would say that getting the love of those customers and working on the relationships of the customers even if that means a slower startup is much better in the long run and you last longer and that’s what we’ve done. The way we spread the word through- is through the cocktail parties. We’ve had a lot of offline events as well as our online features and products and services so it’s important to have an off-line component when you have an online company. I can’t emphasize that enough. A lot of people think oh, I’m going to start up on the web and it’s so low cost and so easy. There’s no barrier to entry so I’m just going to put up a web site and spend a lot of money on marketing and get traffic and then sell banner ads but that’s not really the best way necessarily. I believe that the other way to do it is to go a little slower, to have offline events, offline meetings with your customers, find out deeply, do market research. What do they really want?  What will they pay for?  What--  How can you change their lives?  And then you provide those services online. Great. So you’ve got the offline component and the online constantly feeding each other, constantly marketing each other, because every time we put an online thing up, a new product or service, we then market it through our e-mail and newsletters to people who want to come to our cocktail parties and offline events so it works together.

Question: How did you convince your investors that hosting offline events was important?

Laurel Touby: It’s a good question. Investors don’t always believe every single aspect of your business plan is what is necessary. They always think they know best but my investors were too busy and they were frankly really busy so they didn’t bug me a lot about the exact hows and wheres and whens of my marketing plan. They just said, “As long as you’re growing and as long as you can show growth in your revenue streams, we’ll leave you alone and let you do it the way you want to do it,” and I was a little afraid frankly when I got bought by Jupiter media that they were going to try to throw out all the wonderful practices that we started with but they haven’t. So I think we’ve been lucky in both our investors and in the people who bought us that they- they are visionaries as well.

Recorded on: 06/26/2008

Laurel Touby shares her advice on intelligent startup operations.

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