This post is part of the “Small Business, Big Ideas” series, in which business leaders, entrepreneurs, and innovators share their stories of overcoming obstacles and achieving success. “Small Business, Big Ideas” is sponsored by Chase.
SumAll, a New York-based startup that provides data and analytics for small businesses, is extremely young, but according to CEO Dane Atkinson, growth has been “white hot.” The company is up to 35 employees, and is now tracking about a quarter trillion visitors across its many data partners and clients.
The idea behind SumAll is that it’s really hard for small businesses to know whether their marketing efforts are working. So the company takes a huge variety of data from Google, social sites, places like Amazon where small businesses sell things, and a variety of other partners, and puts it into an easily digestible visible format so companies can see what’s working.
The company’s also unique in its emphasis on doing good and being transparent. 10 per cent of everyone’s ownership goes into a non-profit arm, and everyone knows each other’s salaries and the companies ownership structure.
We spoke to Atkinson about how to manage rapid growth, and about what advice he has for other aspiring entrepreneurs.
Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Business Insider: Where did the idea for SumAll come from in the first place?
Dane Atkinson: It came from some pain when I was running Squarespace. We had a team of I think six or seven analysts just trying to make sense of all the data we’re creating out there and that seemed really absurd. Then we started look at the different ecosystems, and the small businesses that have small marketing teams that were really disadvantaged on how they they were getting information, so we tried to apply our brainset to their needs. We do think that this data stream is a monstrous cloud issue and it will be almost its own category so we kind of feel like we’re in the early days of search or social.
BI: How do you manage rapid growth?
DA: The first thing that happens when you start doing something right is everyone wants to pull you in their own direction. So when we started putting social components on top of the e-commerce components we had Fox, Siemens, all these gigantic corporations call us up and say, “Can we pay you a million bucks to build this towards our market?” And that was the first sort of challenge; to keep the discipline to say no we’re going to do something bigger or something different, at least [different from] the enterprise market. Which you know, VCs have a hard time turning away money.
The second thing that happens is everyone tries to buy you. We had three or four companies try to acquire us in our first year, which is very flattering but it’s also a distraction. You have to say no to those temptations as fast as you can so you can prevent them from being something that affects your culture. The next thing [that happens] from going so fast is you have to scale up your infrastructure. There’s a reason that Twitter had the whale. We had strain in our own infrastructure and we had to slow down a lot of the features we wanted to put into the market because we couldn’t process that much information.
BI: How did you make it through those growing pains intact?
DA: I’ve been on this road and not made it through these challenges before, but when we started this company we made a huge investment in our culture. That’s why we created a non-profit, that’s why we created transparency guidelines. A big piece of it was making sure that everybody on the team had alignment with our aspirations, that we weren’t looking for a quick exit, but that we really wanted to do something meaningful under our own steam.
Having laid that foundation really shortened these conversations. If you were to evaluate these sort of things in stream without having pre-defined them it’s a lot harder. It’s a lot easier to say with confidence that we should turn away millions of dollars when they aren’t in front of you. When they’re in front of you, it might still be the right decision, but the temptation, the fact that you can translate it into the new apartment you can get, that gets really stressful. One of our smart choices was to decide that step up front, that we’re taking a swing towards the better to do something more meaningful, to create a culture and environment that actually shows how companies can build themselves better. It’s not easy no matter what, but the investment in protecting yourself is good.
BI: Did being transparent make things easier or harder?
DA: I think it’s made it easier. Normally in a company, those moments are destructive as all get-out. If you’re in a company and you haven’t had transparency or haven’t at least had a discussion about what everybody wants, when somebody comes by and offers you a meaningful amount of money, and it’s just the CEO and CFO who run off and have lunches and say no, it leaves everybody else at the organisation somewhat wondering, you know, why are they choosing? Was it not worth it for them but was it worth it for me? They don’t really get a sense of how they were considered in the equation.
Because we’re transparent, we’re able to express the calculation; you who have only been here for a few months would only walk away with a couple hundred thousand, but if you take a swing with us, it might become more.
BI: What’s a piece of advice that’s stuck with you through your career?
DA: There’s a book’s worth. We’re all a product of our experience, so there are tons of scars and smart lessons that stick with us. I think one thing that I’ve slowly come to realise is that focus is so critically important, and that saying no to great ideas is necessary to get to the brilliant ones. At every step of the way you have to cut towards one path. It’s such a hard thing to do as an entrepreneur because you don’t really have the confidence in where you’re going yourself.
You see these little companies building out service brands because they want to have account executives who work with customers, so they try to spin their products into serving three different groups in the first couple of years and that’s a very adverse situation to get into. We all expect services to do one thing right, allow you to search the world or enter 140 characters or post pictures of your friends. It’s a very simple formula that you just repeat and rinse all the way to success.
BI: What’s a piece of advice you pass on to others?
DA: I usually advise them that this is a long path. Another mistake people make is that they get overly attached to their first enterprise. The best method to grow as a human, or one of the best methods is to be an entrepreneur, because you can’t insulate yourself from the world. If you’re failing it’s not because your manager didn’t give you the right budget, it’s because you suck, you just couldn’t figure out how to make the business work.That is a very real mirror to fashion a better version of yourself. Expect that it takes time, it takes several chapters. Many if not most of the great entrepreneurs out there have done this.
I think the next thing is to try to pick the very smallest change you can make to the market and do that really, really well and then you can build on to other things. But not try to pack on a gigantic category. ‘I’m going to beat LinkedIn and I’m going to make the whole platform work’ — that’s overly ambitious.
BI: How do you go about hiring people who fit your culture?
DA: It’s quite a different learning curve for candidates. We’ve been really lucky and I think that in this environment, differentiated culture is a really powerful selling point. We’ve gotten some amazing people against some pretty extreme competing odds. One of the engineers we hired was listed by, I think, Mashable as one of the top five engineers in New York to hire. He had 50 offers and ours was a third the price of one of the other offers that he got. But again, we sort of self select in our own DNA, we tell candidates that they’ll have to give 10 per cent of their ownership in the company back to the nonprofit once they join, that everyone will know what you make. That definitely navigates to a certain personality, usually a personality that’s more meritocracy driven than negotiation drive.
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