When I founded Rethink on July 1, 2015, I’m not sure I 100% knew what I was doing.
Sure, it’s possible to tell the story so it sounds like a foreordained triumph, and that version of events is not totally inaccurate. It goes something like this:
“By July of 2015, I had spent 15 years in compliance, building the content team and a 500+ title library at one of the first-ever large compliance vendors.
When clients started clamoring for more innovative, modern compliance materials, my company put me in a product strategy role to come up with the next generation of compliance learning.
I found innovative formats already in use outside of compliance — whiteboards, infographics, and new course formats — and created prototypes on compliance topics. Clients loved them.
After a change of management and a new strategic direction, my company told me: “Stop showing these prototypes to clients. They want to buy them.” Which of course was the whole point.
I knew that clients needed a new approach and I wanted to create it for them. So I left my company and set up shop with some talented colleagues and the rest is history.”
But as my friend who worked at an NGO on the ground in Syria during the height of the war once said, everything that seems clear from 50,000 feet is a lot murkier on the ground.
For me, the path to starting and growing Rethink was mostly a process of ruling out what I didn’t want to do anymore:
- I was done trying to serve clients within the constraints of a big box compliance vendor where service and product innovation were being squeezed out in pursuit of software-level profit margins.
- I tried joining a small, innovative communications company that I thought I could scale up to revolutionize the compliance world. Guess what? Small companies that have been small for a long time often don’t want to grow.
- I designed a product and content strategy for a cybersecurity start-up and built the first generation of training products. The products were great — but the founders had no real cybersecurity credentials (I didn’t either), so the company struggled to get traction with the CISO buyer.
In the meantime, do you know what did have traction? Rethink — which I launched simultaneously with experiments 2 and 3 above.
From the start, clients sought us out. Part of it was that I’d spent 15 years building a network, and people knew I cared about great content and they were curious to see what was possible. But total strangers — including at some of the biggest companies in the world — also read our blog posts and attended our webinars and then called to learn more.
It was immediately clear to me that clients really were hungry for compliance materials made with care — something new, something different. They still needed to cover the same teaching points as always (the fundamentals of bribery or insider trading don’t change) but they wanted to do it with style, heart, and creative quality.
They wanted a compliance vendor who remembered there were humans on the other side of all those compliance materials — and understood that, increasingly, building effective programs depends on connecting with those humans, not just collecting course completions.
Viewed through this lens, founding Rethink Compliance was only a means to an end. I didn’t set out to start a company. The market wanted something. I wanted to provide it. And starting a company was the only way to get there.
So in the spirit of accidental entrepreneurship and learning as I go, I’ll share the seven biggest lessons I learned in the seven years that followed.
Lesson One: Start with what your client wants.
At Rethink, the last thing we want to do is lock ourselves in a room and pontificate about what the compliance market needs. Why do that when the compliance market is full of compliance practitioners that are happy to tell you what they need?
At Rethink, we try to put clients at the center of all our decision-making — from product development to marketing to how we run our course customizations.
It always, always leads to better outcomes than if we tried to guess.
Lesson Two: It helps to be in an awesome industry.
Compliance and ethics really is an amazing industry.
Not every field out there is made up of professionals who wake up every day thinking about how to make people and businesses — and, ultimately, the world — a little better. Not every field has the camaraderie, the goodwill, and the inclination to openly share trends, leading practices, and new ideas.
We want to be the partner of choice for compliance professionals who care. We want our products and services to empower them to make a real impact within their organization.
It’s easy to get excited about the opportunity to serve clients who really believe in their mission and believe their work matters.
Lesson Three: If you get your product strategy right, you can learn or hire for everything else you need.
For me, starting a business was less a giant leap and more a series of careful steps.
I knew what the market needed and I knew how to deliver it. Everything else — from accounting to business structure to hiring to sales — I had to learn as I went.
Perhaps my biggest realization in starting a business was that I didn’t need to know everything to get started. I just had to get started — and then I needed to identify what I needed to know next and either learn it or hire it.
The great news is that we live in a time when much of the best advice in the world is available in an instant on our devices. Knowing how to figure out the questions, and then figure out the answers, is a superpower for company building.
Lesson Four: Great mentors help you move faster and avoid painful lessons.
As a direct follow-on from Lesson Three: A great mentor who has already done what you are trying to do can make your path ten times easier and faster. The same is true of someone who has accumulated specialized knowledge it would take you years to learn.
I was and remain shameless in seeking advice. I’ve tapped people in my network for everything from sales strategy to company structure to recommendations for accountants, law firms, and design resources.
Here, it helps to make yourself into someone who people enjoy helping. I personally follow a process called “Natural Networking” that I learned from Ramit Sethi, who I mentioned above.
One critical element is his “closing the loop” technique: Once you’ve sought advice, you write immediately to say thank you and outline what you plan to do next based on your conversation. And then you write again once you’ve taken action to tell them what you did and what results you got and thank them again for their advice and time.
The process is simple and commonsense — of course, people are more likely to give you valuable advice if they know you value their input and will put it to use. But not everyone takes the time to follow up — or even receives advice graciously. You will stand out if you do.
Lesson Five: Great partners make company building a joy.
To figure out how to build a business, I’ve read a lot of books — and “The Founder’s Dilemma” was particularly instrumental, contributing critical insights at exactly the right time.
A central point in the book is that you need to be extremely clear about your ultimate aim. Do you want to grow and scale the company for a larger impact? Or are you the kind of business owner who wants to keep things small enough that everything passes through you, letting you remain involved in every little detail?
The book taught me that too many business owners straddle that line, doing a little of both. Or they pick one path or the other without really realizing they are making a choice.
After I finished the book, I realized instantly that — if Rethink was ever going to have the reach and impact I thought it deserved — I needed a management team. That was one of the best decisions I made, and I’m surprised I had the foresight to make it as early as I did (it truly was a piece of luck that I came across the book when I did).
Each day, I am so impressed with the skills and talents of my fellow leaders at Rethink. They are so highly talented and they contribute so much to what we’ve built and where we are going. I’m so glad they’ve decided to go on this journey with me, since they help make my experience — and our company, and me as a leader — immeasurably better.
Lesson Six: Good leadership requires growth — whether or not you want it.
Silicon Valley coach Jerry Colonna says: “Better humans are better leaders.”
The stark truth is that when you found and lead a company, sooner or later you will come up against your weak points. Often, your limitations will be perfectly obvious to one or more people — and sometimes your whole company.
For instance: I am great at product and business strategy. I am bad at filing expense reports or completing certain administrative tasks on a timely basis. Sometimes I talk when I should listen. And, left to my own devices, I will send people many more articles and books than they are interested in reading.
I’m trying to get better at all of this. But recognizing these things can be extremely humbling. As former IBM CEO Ginni Rometty puts it, “Someone once told me growth and comfort do not coexist and I think that’s a really good thing to remember.”
Sometimes I solve the problem by improving myself. Sometimes I solve the problem by firing myself from a task and hiring someone more qualified than I am to handle it.
And, in line with the Serenity Prayer, I often need to ask for the wisdom to know the difference.
Lesson Seven: Be unfailingly optimistic.
One of my mentors gave me this advice, and I love it. I try to operate every day like the best is yet to come — which, after seven years of steady growth, gets easier to believe each day.
It was harder — and even more necessary — in those early years when we were trying to get the company off the ground.
Certain things can contribute to confidence: Listening to your clients matters. Developing products the market wants matters. Establishing a track record is huge. As Ramit Sethi often says on his new podcast: “Confidence comes from competence.”
Still, starting and growing a company means operating in the face of the unknown.
When you join an existing company, there can be a sense of certainty that it will exist with or without you. When you’ve started a company from scratch, no matter how successful, part of you worries it can wink out of existence in an instant. You are highly aware of all the risks and deeply dialed into all the ways things could go wrong.
There is simply no assurance that success will continue or that things will go as planned.
In these circumstances, optimism is one part emotion and one part will. You have to choose to show up optimistic every day — even in the face of doubt and uncertainty. The good news is that, if you can, it’s contagious. Optimism also has a momentum, so it pays to get to a point where it feels genuine.
Those are my seven lessons. What are yours?