Summary: Lessons Learned
- Don’t put off dealing with urgent stuff. Sometimes, hours count.
- If you go, leave someone behind who can handle a fire extinguisher.
- Vet your suppliers. Then vet them again.
- Trust everyone, but cut the cards. Spot-check contract compliance.
As a business owner, I’ve had some amazing successes and I’ve made some mistakes. I want to share my story along with 4 blunders startup CEO/founders should avoid in hopes that my experiences can make life easier for someone else.
Setting the stage
Flashback to 2011: I was on my way to Alaska for a long awaited fishing trip with my teenage son Vinson — this after near-endless 18-hour days managing my latest startup, LogoGarden.com. Our flagship product: do-it-yourself logos. Entrepreneurs can make professional-looking logos in minutes. But after a year and a half without a real break, I needed one. I’d sold my previous startup to a public company, so had enough to take Vinson on this trip of a lifetime.
While Vinson and I queued to board the flight, my phone rang. Bad news. Articles and comments had popped up on the web, attacking LogoGarden and me personally. These weren’t just criticisms. They were attacks dripping with venom.
Blunder #1: Let it wait
Regardless, I wasn’t going to screw up this trip with my kid. And where we were headed, there were no cell signals. Zero. I told my SEO consultant I’d take care of the emergency when I got back. Blunder Number One. With buzz moving at web speed, a week and a half later was too late to head off a storm.
Blunder #2: Don’t delegate
Couldn’t I simply have delegated LogoGarden’s response — any response — till I got back? No, for an obvious reason: I didn’t have anyone to delegate to. No depth on the bench. That was Blunder Number Two. Always leave someone to watch the store, someone who knows what to do in case of fire.
My Alaska trip lasted a terrific ten days. My son and I did a lot of bonding. And fishing. But pound for pound, that salmon we caught may have been among the most expensive in history — because of the mess I faced when I got back.
A small handful of professional graphic designers were actively working to destroy LogoGarden’s reputation. Through the blogosphere, they charged that we were systematically stealing their work, claiming it as their own, and profiting from it. And they were calling me, in particular, a thief.
That first day back, I worked all night trying to figure out what these guys were talking about. That’s when I discovered they had a partial point: there was something fishy going on. A word of explanation: to make a logo, you typically start with a graphic symbol. LogoGarden had a library of about ten thousand symbols, organized by industry and keyword so you could find what you need. We paid graphic design studios to create these symbols for us. In some cases we worked through brokers — middlemen who represent studios. Sometimes it’s more efficient that way. Every studio and broker had to sign our standard contract, stipulating that all work they sold us must be original. No copies, no counterfeits, no copyright infringement.
The designers who attacked us claimed that our symbols were indeed close copies. They showed a few convincing examples. And they were right. I took down the offending symbols immediately. I publicly apologized and invited these professionals — and any designer who thought we had copied their work — to alert us and we’d instantly pull the offending symbol.
We didn’t stop there. I put nearly all other business activity on hold and worked full time on the problem, studying every symbol in our library. It was slow going and took nearly a month. I found a few problem symbols, then dozens and ultimately a few hundred out of the ten thousand that someone could say were copies of existing work. I pulled them all, and tried to figure out how we had screwed up so badly. After all, our supplier contract was explicit: Original work only.
Turns out, virtually all of the offending symbols came from one source. A single dishonest broker. We’d been defrauded.
We did have one bit of dumb luck. As far as we could tell, none of our customers had used any of the offending symbols in their logos. So at least we hadn’t profited from the sale of anyone else’s work.
Blunder #3: Trust your suppliers
If I had vetted our graphic symbol suppliers more carefully, this disaster couldn’t have happened. We’d always been strict as to quality, demanding that every symbol meet our exacting specifications (for instance, so it would reproduce well at any size). But I trusted our contracts and the suppliers who signed them to ensure proper provenance. Lesson learned: Trust everyone, but cut the cards. Vet. Your. Suppliers. Then do it again. It could save you a world of hurt.
Blunder #4: Don’t spot-check
Even when you vet your suppliers, spot-check what they deliver to ensure they comply with all contract terms. As I said, we always scrutinized graphics quality in microscopic detail. But a microscope has a really narrow field of view. Every once in a while, , perform a more comprehensive spot-check to ensure that contract terms are being satisfied.
If I had avoided even one of these blunders, today LogoGarden would have grown more quickly. It could have made the difference between good growth and spectacular growth.
Maybe reading these 4 blunders startup CEO/founders should avoid will help you get there faster.
To some small extent, “original” vs. “copy” comes down to a judgment call. Because of our mess, we tried to err on the side of caution, pulling symbols that might not have been actual copies. Another thing: thousands of designers independently create thousands of highly abstract images of, say, a tree, so sometimes two tree symbols look pretty much alike without the designers’ knowledge or intent. That’s different from the systematic fraud in which we were victimized. At the same time, there are design industry websites that publish millions of graphic symbols. Designers post their own work there for other designers to see — useful for these professionals, but also a ready source for pirates.