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5 Essential (But Unexpected) Business Lessons Learned After 5 Years of Running DigitalMarketer [Part 1 of 3]

(This is Part 1 of our 3-part anniversary series! Once you’ve finished this post, check out Part 2 and Part 3.)
DigitalMarketer officially turns 5 this month! Yay, us!
I’ll get right into it…
My original plan was to write a long blog post recalling the early days of DM…

  • Where we’ve been.
  • Where we’ve gone.
  • Where we’re going.

But then I realized something very, very important. (And pay attention, because this is a good marketing lesson.)
I realized that you probably don’t care.
I’m not saying you’re cruel or heartless.
I’m just betting you care way, WAY more about getting your company to 5 years (or through another 5 years) than you care about celebrating the fact that our business is 5-years-old.
And that’s ok.
You should care more about your company than mine. And to the extent that you do care about DigitalMarketer’s mission and values, that’s likely because they align with your own mission and values.
And again…
…that’s ok!
So what follows in this post isn’t a “walk down memory lane.” It isn’t some boring slide show of someone else’s vacation, nor is it an endless stream of pics of other people’s kids clogging up your Facebook feed.
Instead, what follows is a brief summary of the key lessons I’ve learned in getting a company to its 5th birthday. And specifically, the 3 things you can largely IGNORE — that most people believe are essential — during your first 5 years.
(NOTE: Later in this series, I’ll deliver the opposite and share what your company absolutely MUST HAVE early on if it’s going to succeed.)
First, let’s start with…

All The Stuff You Don’t Need to Have Figured Out When You Get Started:

1. A Logo

Don’t get me wrong…a good logo and a good brand is important.
It just isn’t essential.
Lesson #1: Discerning the difference between what is truly essential and what is merely important is a critical skill for growing a successful company.
Some of DM’s early logos were screenshots from Microsoft Word docs (fancy!).
Others included unlicensed clip art, and one was purchased off a 99designs gig for $60. (That one was actually my favorite until someone said it looked like an alien with a GIANT PHALLUS. Unfortunately it’s been lost into the abyss as many wonderful things are, otherwise you’d better believe I’d be sharing it with you here.)
Check this one out…

And this one…
And another…
Obviously, we weren’t even close to being there.
It wasn’t until 2013 (late into our 3rd year) that we finally settled on our current logo…
Lesson #2: Spend 99% of your time, especially during your first year in business, focused on selling and serving your customers. If you spend your first year focused on logos and branding, you likely won’t need either, because you won’t have a business to brand.

2. A Business Model

This is probably going to shock a lot of people, but yes, I’m suggesting that when you first get started, you don’t need to know exactly what you’re going to do or how your’e going to do it.
For example…
In 2011, DigitalMarketer sold one-off courses that I produced. Obviously that wasn’t scalable…
…so in 2012 we pivoted to publishing other experts’ courses. That was more scalable, but the quality was “iffy” (to put it kindly)…
…so that same year we launched our first subscription business. That was a better business model, but we missed on the pricing (too expensive) and product/market fit, so we had to abandon that model.
Then in 2013 we got into the event and coaching business. That made lots of money, but margins sucked.
Also, we ran into scale issues again, because to grow we had to bring on more coaches, and, candidly, there just aren’t that many people on planet Earth who are truly equipped to deliver marketing and business growth advice.
So that same year (2013), we pivoted into services, but again, we couldn’t scale the business, and margins were even worse than the event and coaching model.
As 2013 rolled into 2014, we were stuck.
We still didn’t have a business model that was working, and we were completely out of ideas. It was at this moment of desperation that we asked an interesting, and some might argue, OBVIOUS, question…
“What do we actually do best?”
That was it.
We simply took a step back, and as a team we asked ourselves, “What do we do best?”
NOT… “What do we want to do?”
NOT… “What do we think people will buy?”
Instead, we asked, “Where can we add value?” and “Where do we DESERVE to win because we’re truly great?”
Answering this question led to the creation and launch of DigitalMarketer Lab.
Because at the end of the day, what we’re truly best at is building marketing systems based on actually doing this stuff.
And so that’s what we built. And that’s what we sold. And customers signed up by the thousands.
So by the end of 2014, we finally had our “business model”…it just took 4 years. So if you don’t have your model figured out yet, don’t fret. It took us a while, too.

Oh yeah, and the model is still evolving.

In 2015, we pivoted into the certification and professional education space, only this time it wasn’t at the exclusion of our existing business model. It was IN ADDITION to what we were already doing.

And we were making this pivot to serve a new market, but we’ll talk more on market selection in just a minute.
Lesson #4: It’s ok if you don’t have it all figured out. Stay lean (so you’re able to make lots of pivots) and keep your focus on where you can truly add value…not only on what you believe the market wants.

3. A Team

If you’ve been following this blog for the last month or so, my suggestion that you don’t need to have “the right people on the bus” in the early stages of your business will sound a bit odd.
In fact, I’m sure I’ll get lots of disagreement on this point.
So let me be clear: Having a great team is important. Very important.
(It’s so important I even wrote a blog post explaining how to build your marketing dream team.)
But having that team in place Day 1 (or even Day 366) is NOT essential. And I can say that, because out of all the team members that were working at DigitalMarketer when we first launched back in 2011, only 1, Richard Lindner, remains today.
Some of our team members moved on to other companies that we own.
Some moved on to other companies in our industry.
Some moved on to start their own ventures, and yes…
Some were fired.
So as important as a team is, I can attest to the fact that it is NOT essential. And if you think about it, it makes sense…
How can you know who you need until you know who you are?
In other words, until you have clearly identified your business model, you can’t be certain of who should be on your team.
So what do you do?
The answer: You “settle.”
I’m not suggesting you “settle” on lazy or dishonest people. I’m suggesting you “settle” for smart, hard-working people who sincerely give a damn. And then you do your best to train them the best you can so they can do the job you’re asking them to do.
But let’s be honest with one another…
Unless your company is massively-funded by a well known VC, the chances of you recruiting “rock-star-ninja-all-knowing-all-powerful-superhero” people is slim at best when your company is still small and unproven.
And the fact is, you don’t want them. Not yet.
In the early days, you want scrappers. You want hustlers. You want pirates.
You want people who don’t get huffy if the coffee machine breaks. In fact, you want people who will buy their own damn coffee!
So don’t stress about the team.
Keep payroll as low as you can stand until you figure out how your company is going to make money, and then scale your team only when you absolutely need more warm bodies. And in the meantime, in the immortal words of Stephen Stills…
“If you can’t be with the one you love…love the one you’re with!”
And then you give them all the love, support, and training you can muster.
Lesson #5: It’s ok if your startup team isn’t perfect. Neither are you. So enjoy the craziness of it all. Except their weaknesses and ask that they accept yours, and you just might grow a superstar from the ground up.
So to summarize…
Lesson #1: Learn to discern the difference between what is truly essential, and what is merely important.
Lesson #2: Spend 99% of your time, especially during your first year in business, focused on selling and serving your customers. If you spend your first year focused on logos and branding, you likely won’t need either, because you won’t have a business to brand.
Lesson #3: There’s a big difference between making money and keeping money. Get good at keeping money, because cashflow is the #1 killer of most small businesses.
Lesson #4: Don’t wait until you have your business model figured out before you start trying. Your first idea probably won’t work, so have a Plan B, Plan C, Plan D, etc…and keep your business as lean as possible so you can afford to pivot early and often.
Lesson #5: Accept and embrace your team’s imperfections. Grow together, because whether you realize it or not, you likely need them more than they need you.
Don’t concern yourself with (admittedly) important matters such as company branding, business models, and even your team. While those things are very important, they aren’t essential…at least not in the early days of your business.
At this point you might be wondering, “If none of those things are truly essential, then what is?”
That’s a great question, but I’ll have to leave the answer for another blog post. Right now, I need to get back to work.
The next 5 years aren’t going to happen on their own.

Ryan Deiss

Ryan Deiss

Ryan Deiss is the Founder and CEO of and Founder and Managing Partner of, a digital media and ecommerce group that owns dozens of properties. Ryan has been called one of the world’s leading digital marketers by Shark Tank star, Daymond John. A best selling author, founder of multiple companies collectively employing hundreds around the globe, and one of the most dynamic speakers on marketing in the United States today, he is undeniably a recognized expert on the digital era. Connect with Ryan on Twitter.

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