Starting a successful business is difficult, but turning that company into an Inc. 500 company five years after starting is seemingly impossible, especially without any outside investors.
Here are five tips from Scott Brandley, the co-founder of Shopper Approved, an industry leading rating and review company that only came into existence in 2010, but defied the odds and not only ranked #192 in the Inc. 500 this year, but also was recognized as the #12 fastest growing software company in America.
Tip One: Find a Real Need
To grow a business successfully, there must be a real need in the market for that product or service. If there are already successful companies in that space, then that’s a great sign that there’s a bonafide need. So the question is, what can you offer that would be a differentiator? That would better meet the needs of consumers in that space?
It’s easy to come up with an idea, but if nobody needs what you’re offering them, or you can’t convince them they need it without spending a lot of time or money, it will be a long, hard road to travel. Also don’t worry about competition – there is plenty of business to go around, especially if you have a better mousetrap.
Q: Where did you get the idea for Shopper Approved?
It was back in 2008. One night I was sitting at home and the idea came to me that there needed to be more options for people to leave a rating and review after they buy online. I think I got the idea from going to Amazon and seeing what they were doing and realizing how valuable ratings and reviews were and that no other websites had that. The next day I went and pitched the idea to my dad (who’s my business partner) and the rest of the office and they shot me down big time. I then tabled it until 2009 when I finally convinced my dad to let me try to build it.
When Shopper Approved was conceived, Amazon was way ahead of the curve. There were also a few other rating and review services online, but they were antiquated and very expensive. Ultimately, Scott realized that he had found a real need, and he ran with it and never looked back.
Tip Two: Learn from Your Competitor’s to Build the Best Product/Service
As other rating and review competitors came and went over the years, Scott and his team would continually research and learn from their processes, successes and mistakes. As the company better understood the needs of the market and found innovative ways to differentiate, it eventually built a model that has allowed them to gather up to 10x more ratings and reviews than other review aggregators.
Q: What do you attribute Shopper Approved’s success to?
I think that the main key to our success is our drive for constant innovation and our willingness to think outside the box. We looked at all our competitors and tried to figure out what they did best and what they did really bad at, and then made every effort to keep the best parts and throw away the worst parts. That’s a winning formula for any business that you want to build. Then we just ran from there and just kept making things better and better.
Tip Three: Find the Best Way to Market/Sell Your Product/Service
For some companies, word-of-mouth is the best way to sell. For others, online advertising is the fast-track to new customers. Shopper Approved makes most of its sales by making outbound sales calls. To find out the best way to sell your specific product, you may need to do some market research, see what your competitors are doing, or you may need to take a leap of faith and try something outside of your comfort zone that you wouldn’t consider doing typically.
Q: What would you say was your moment of success with Shopper Approved?
One of the big moments of success happened about two years in, when we took a leap of faith and opened up our first call center. That was a huge risk for us because we’re very conservative by nature. We never saw ourselves as ever being the type of people that would own a call center. I always had a negative impression of what a call center was like.
Starting a call center ourselves was way outside of our comfort zone, but it’s definitely paid off.
The people who work for us love what they do and enjoy a professional office atmosphere. It’s definitely a different type of energy than what we have here in our main offices but that’s to be expected in a sales environment. But I think they really enjoy the faster pace.
Bottom line, if we weren’t willing to take a risk and try a different marketing channel outside of our comfort zone, we never would have experienced exponential growth.
Tip Four: Hire Rock Stars
Employees are the backbone of every business. It’s ultimately the people you hire that create the culture that you want in your company, so hire people that fit that mold. These are the people that are going to uphold your values, represent your company, make decisions that affect your future, and can either build you up or break you down.
Q: How important have good employees been to your success?
They are critical to our success, especially because we have other companies that we are running and building and so we have to have amazing people to run Shopper Approved in order to build our other companies. We only try to hire rock stars. That’s what we call them. As the company has grown we’ve become more and more picky about who we hire. They have to be self-starters, independent, positive, willing to get whatever work done that needs to be done – and no drama!
When hiring, Scott and his team created an 8-step process that starts with a very simple set of instructions on how to submit your resume and do a writing test, then progresses to a voicemail recording where the candidate answers some questions, and ends with a dinner interview with the potential candidate and their significant other. One of the critical things that Scott looks for is whether or not people can follow simple instructions. If they don’t follow instructions to the letter, then their resumes are instantly deleted no matter how good they look on paper.
Tip Five: Keep Innovating
Steve Jobs once said “A lot of times, people don’t know what they want until you show it to them”. Innovation can’t necessarily be found by asking consumers what they are looking for. Continuing to improve current products and services and thinking of the next big thing is an important key to becoming an Inc. 500 company.
I think that we have to always be thinking about what the next big innovation is in ratings and reviews or whatever other market we go into. We need to always keep trying to stay one step ahead of what the market is doing. What our competitors are doing. If we always stay one or two steps ahead, we will continue to stay relevant and in demand.
Bonus Tip: Go for the Big Fish
When Shopper Approved approached Google, they were a tiny fish in an ocean of massive predators. But that didn’t stop them from taking chances. If your goal is wide distribution to the masses, reach out to the mass retailers that seem out-of-reach, but will help you achieve your fullest potential. It’s terrifying to approach the big league names, but landing one of the “big fish” is a defining moment for many companies, and can be a huge step to an Inc. 500 award.