Wasted investments. Naiveté. Being completely broke and liquidating a 401k and spending a quarter of that money on travel expenses to meet with one possible investor.
Those things might not sound like the ideal starting place for a local marketing superhero, but they were the original calling cards of an idea belonging to a possible one – Signpost CEO Stuart Wall. Before Signpost, a marketing automation startup, grew into the 250-person company it is today, Wall got inspiration from his family, and then persisted in finding the best people to join him. Like many growing tech companies, Signpost’s success was driven in part by the people who were around in the beginning.
Looking back, it was not a good idea to liquidate his 401k, Wall says. He was trying to help his sister’s business, Half Baked Pottery & Gifts in Indianapolis, with advertising on Google.
“It was a nightmare,” he says. “The AdWords campaign was really complicated. For any business that’s local, as opposed to ecommerce, there was no measurement. You know if people clicked on your ads, but you don’t know if anyone came into the store because of it.”
His sister, Christen Wall, was experiencing the classic marketing failure symptoms of a motivated, passionate business owner. She’s all about pottery and her customers, her brother says – not marketing.
“She’s not as good at collecting emails from customers and sending marketing emails,” he says. “It inspired me that there needs to be software that empowers local business owners to be world-class marketers,” he says.
Signpost was officially founded in 2010, and Half Baked Pottery was a customer then, and it’s a customer now. Wall’s grandmother was also a customer, one who signed up organically and didn’t even get a family discount. Honest feedback often comes from family members, Wall says, and though it might make the customer success team a little nervous, that input is something that helps the company stay close to its other customers.
Wall says that many tech startups struggle with finding a perfect-fit co-founding developer, as Signpost did, but that finding the right people to hire is one of the most important things a leader can do.
“I think it’s two things: skill and will,” Wall says. “To work for a startup, you need people with high will. People who are really passionate about being at the company, being entrepreneurial, are collaborative, and building toward our vision. And you also need skill. Chris and Seth had skills I didn’t have.”
Christopher DePatria is Signpost’s vice VP of enterprise sales and Seth Purcell is the CTO. Wall found them both through his network.
Someone referred DePatria to Wall. After six LinkedIn messages, DePatria agreed to meet for coffee.
“When you’re a really small startup, it’s hard to compete for really good people,” Wall says. “You have to be super scrappy. I was really persistent with Chris.”
He says that entrepreneurs often try to launch startups with their friends, but that sometimes isn’t the best way to go.
“People tend to hang around other people who are similar, but that’s not always a good idea,” he says. “You want to hire people who are different from you and compliment your skills.”
Having a network of individuals does support business growth, and Wall says that the quality of the network is what matters to him.
“Some people go with a really broad network, but it’s not always very deep,” he says. “I think it’s better to surround yourself with people who can help you, and you can help them. It’s important to actively manage your network. It’s not good to have mentors around you if they’re not actually helpful.”
It can be tough when first starting out, he concedes, but the best way is to approach others by offering something valuable.
“Anything you can do to be helpful when you meet with the person. I think people don’t like other people reaching out to them with nothing to offer in return. They don’t have time for that,” he says. “Try to position it in a way that you’re providing something, maybe connecting them with someone else, or referring an employee they can hire.”
If he could do it all over again, Wall says he wishes he had had a bigger, better network to begin with.
“In part, it’s about advisers,” he says. “I wish I had been more intentional with finding experts for what I wanted to do. Starting and scaling a SaaS business is hard. I wish I had spent more time networking with those people and bringing them on as advisers to the company.”
April Nowicki is a contributor at Street Fight.