An Entrepreneurs Guide to Growing Your Startup
- I remember when we got our first office, it was at WeWork, then we sublet it out in someone else's office, and then we ended up getting our own office that was bigger. We had to change offices three times in one year because we were just kept growing and growing in a headcount. (upbeat music) - Hey, Neil. Welcome to "The Leaders Lab."
- Ah, thanks for having me. - Yeah, of course. So Neil, you know, I just introduced you, of course, tons of accolades and everything from Wall Street Journal to Forbes.
And you know, you got started on this path, I know, really, really young. And I didn't talk about that in your intro, but I'd love to hear a little bit more about, kind of your upbringing and how you became, you know, this marketing guru. Where did it all start? - Yeah, sure. So I don't know if I'm a marketing guru, but nonetheless, you know, I'm 38 now. I started when I was 15 1/2, let's round up to say 16. And I was looking for a job.
You know, I wanted a high-pay job. I don't want a minimum wage job. Back in the days when I was 16, minimum wage was much lower than it is now, although I still think it's low right now. I wanted a high-paying job, so I was going on site tech, monster.com and CareerBuilder,
and trying to find jobs. LinkedIn wasn't really popular back then. I don't even know if it existed back then. Either way, I ran into some high-paying jobs, but they all required certification for software, or certain types of companies like Oracle certifications, and that kind of stuff. I just, A, didn't have.
And B, the other thing it required was college degree. Being 16, I didn't have a college degree, I wasn't a brainiac. So what I started doing was, I was like, "All right. I can't find one of these high paying-six figure jobs being 16, what I'm going to do is just create a job board, like a monster.com."
because when I was browsing these sites, I was looking at their stock price, I was like, "Whoa, some of these guys are worth hundreds of millions of dollars. If I make 1% of what they make, I'm going to be a rich person. I'll never have to work a day in my life." So I created my own job website, learned how to create websites, paid some people for the areas I couldn't figure it out." And I would work nine to five minimum wage jobs like cleaning or picking up trash and cleaning restrooms at a theme park to help pay for the contractors that would help me, you know, pop my own job website. Got it out there, no one came to it.
And saved up more money, working nine to five cleaning up toilets. And then I paid a market for him to help me out, got no results again, and then I had no choice but to learn it on my own because I was running out of money. I want to start learning it on my own. Go ahead. - I'm sorry, Neil. I just wanted to pause just for a second because I didn't want to get too far from it, but you're 15 1/2, and I mean, of course, everybody wants like the highest paying job, right? I mean, to me, it's like the same kind of thought of like, you know, "I want to be LeBron James."
Or something like, what instilled in you that you could do that? Like what, I mean, did you have parents that were just like, anything's possible? Or like what is- - Ignorance. - Yeah. - Ignorance. I was just young and I didn't know better. - So you were like, "Why not? I should be able to get a 100K job, and I'll figure it out." - Ignorance, yeah.
I was uneducated. I didn't know how the real world worked. I also thought when you pop up a website, people just come to it. I learned that, that doesn't, that's not the case. And then I had to pay a marketing firm, right? - Sure. - So when I started learning it on my own, I got good results, started getting over 100,0000 visitors a month to my website, and I was like, "Wow, this is amazing."
But you know what? Still wasn't really generating any revenue from it because I didn't know how to monetize and, but I got good at the traffic side, didn't do well on the other end of monetization. And I was like, "You know what? This is going to be really hard. I'm good at this traffic side. Let me just call up all the people that do Google ads and pitch them saying like, 'Hey, I'll get you guys more traffic. If I get you the traffic, pay me. If I don't, pay me zero.'"
And that's really how I started. - So I love that everything that you did, I mean, especially early on, you had these instincts that went, "I know what I'm good at, I know what I'm not good at." I'll hire into what I'm not good at. See if someone can provide value. If they don't, I'll try to figure it out on my own." I'm curious, so how did you get at that young age, how were you able to attract, did you say 100,000 people a month to your website? How did you do that? - Raking the website on Google.
Social media wasn't as big back then, but I was ranking the site on Google. Not paid ads- - Not enough versus- Very cool, very cool. And so how long did this go on and what happened next? - I kept doing it.
One of the clients we had, it was one of my first clients, was a power supply manufacturer. Drove them 25-ish million a year in revenue from the web. I was the one who drove the revenue, I drove the leads, and then someone else had to close the leads. And then the owner of the company introduced me to his son who owned an ad agency.
His son got me clients like Blue Cross, Countrywide. I had roughly four clients from the father and the son combined. He's getting five grand a month per client, making 20 grand a month. I was a happy little kid. - Yeah. How old were you at that point? - I was 16.
- Still? Oh my gosh. - So yeah, things move fast. Technically, I started when I was 15 1/2, so I had a year and a half to start making some progress. - Wow. So you're knocking down, you have a business doing a few 100,000 dollars a year then by the time you're 17 years old. - Uh-huh.
- Amazing. So where did it go from there? - Kept going, did well, grew into the millions. And then the recession happened in 2008, and then it started going backwards. And it started getting worse and worse. At the same time, few years before that, we started creating a software company called Crazy Egg. And Crazy Egg was like, "All right, all these people spend money on ads, let's help them optimize their conversion, so that way, they get more of those clicks turning into sales or leads or whatever you want to call it."
And that business was growing during the recession. So we stopped running the ad agency, closed it down, focus all the effort on the software company, and let that grow. And it was a nice win for us. The software company kept growing.
It's still growing today. It's much, much larger. And then from there, I did a lot of other businesses. I've ended up coming back full circle. My current company, which I've had for five years now that I spent all my time on is NP Digital. It's a ad agency that is leveraging software and AI to make things more efficient and provide better results to customers.
We're 700 plus employees. We were number 21 on the Inc 500 list, the first time we got on that list. And yeah, we still growing even in a bad economy. - Very cool. And you're the co-founder in that company.
Who's your partner in that? - A guy named Mike Kamo. He runs a lot of the operations. Technically, we have a CEO now named Mike as well, Mike Gullaksen, and he runs the whole company. - So as you scaled up from, did you end up going to school or because you were already, or you know, secondary education, did you go to college or did you just skip it because you were already pretty well-invested in the business world at that point? - I ended up going to school. I went to college. I didn't want to go to college, but my parents forced me to.
- Right. - They're like, "As Indian kid, you need to get your college degree. That's what they all have. No good Indian girl is going to marry you unless you get a college degree."
And then eventually, my parents just wanted me to get married and they didn't care if it was Indian or whatever race. And then eventually, I got married and they were ecstatic. My wife is a mutt. She's mixed, in other words, right.
But I went to college, got my degree, took me 5 1/2 years, took the last year and a half to finish one class because I just didn't care to graduate because I already making decent money by then, right? - Sure. And I mean, you're running these companies on the side. And yeah, I mean, you've got a pretty compelling day job.
- Yeah. College didn't do anything for me. I still haven't used anything I've learned in college and it actually slowed me down, but I didn't learn. - But you got the degree. So mom and dad are happy, right? - They're happy. They don't care anymore, but you know, back then, they didn't know how long this was going to last, was going to keep making money or not.
So yeah. - So what made you choose to partner? You said NP Digital started about five years ago? - Uh-huh. - And how did it go from, I mean, was it, you said you're at 700 employees now in five years. Did it start from nothing or did it used to be something else? Or like, because that's a- - Yeah. Start from nothing.
- Wow. So talk to me about that- - I remember during, yeah, it was fast growth. I think our first year, we did 5 million in revenue. Second year, I think we did 18, and it just kept growing.
- And how about number of employees? What did that look like after say, a year versus three years? - I don't know, but it kept growing with the revenue. I remember when we got our first office, it was at WeWork, then we sublet it out someone else's office, and then we ended up getting our own office that was bigger. We had to change offices three times in one year because we were just kept growing and growing in a headcount. And then I didn't want to sign a five year lease, so I was just like, "Ah, let's get the cheapest office we can that we can just cram people into." - Right. I see that a lot with WeWork clients, I mean, especially in the tech space when they're growing, right? because I'm a WeWork member.
And yeah, you just see people come in, take over suites, and then, I mean, either they don't make it and they're out, or they make it and they're like taking over more and more and more space. What have you learned about yourself? Because, I mean, you're a marketing guy. It seems like you have very amazing entrepreneurial instincts as well. What about on the leadership side? What's that been like for you? You know, is running a team your strength or is that something that you- - No. I'm a terrible leader, I really am.
I'm good at ideas and where I want to go, and pitching and sales, but I'm a terrible leader. So we hire people who just focus in on that. And I don't spend any of my time on that kind of stuff. - Well, I think that alone gets you out of the terrible category, but I know what you're saying.
I mean, I think the terrible leader is the one that doesn't know that, and keeps trying to do it anyway and screws up their own company, right? I mean, so I think just having the self-awareness to go like, "Here's my lane." And you know, have you ever heard that saying that everybody that owns a business is either the leader, the artist, entrepreneur, or the artist or the entrepreneur. Have you ever heard that? - Haven't before, but I have now. - Yeah. So I see you as this probably mix of the artist and the entrepreneur, and maybe even more of the artist because the entrepreneur, I think that, you know, like when you hear the term, and I think it's overused, but when people say serial entrepreneur, that would be somebody that's really in it to turn it and flip it and make money, right? Kind of like, you know, "What's the ROI on this? How long do we got to stay in it?" - Yeah. - "When can we go IPO?" I don't think that's you either, but the artist part, I think you have entrepreneurial- - I love what I'm doing. I don't care about the money.
It's silly, but when you love what you're doing, you just love what you're doing. - Yeah. That, literally, would be the artist quotation. If you looked up the, you know, if what I'm talking about was in a dictionary and they said, "Define an artist." The quote that an artist would say is, it's not really work If you love what you're doing.
And the entrepreneur's thing would be something like, you know, it's only good business if you have ROI after the first year or whatever, right? So they're not as invested versus the leader manager wants to build and invest in teams, right? And so I think it's whether you've heard these, you haven't heard these terms before, but you're aware of them only because you're aware of who you are, and you go, "Look, I'm not that leader manager. Let's bring that person on." Right? - Yes. I'm definitely not that leader and manager,
and I don't enjoy it either. - What about your co-founder? Where does he fit into all of this? - He's a leader manager. - Okay. That makes sense. And so he's a leader manager, but you guys, because of the size of the company, still need to bring other people in to help you run it. So your day-to-day is probably more on the product vision, things like that, I would assume, and- - That's strategy, things like that, yeah.
His is more on recruiting and sales, and then the CEO handles everything. - All the day-to-day? That completely makes sense. That sounds like based on personalities, a really good division of duty. So our audience is primarily, I would say, people in the, not the most junior side of their career, but not at the end of it either.
I'd say somewhere in kind of the sweet spot of their career, you know, the money making years, and both corporate types as well as entrepreneurs. When you are, you know, our audience is different than your client base probably in terms of, you know, we are working directly with companies, I guess, on their strategy and where to go to market. I think ours is, like I said, this mix of individual companies, but then also, you know, these larger corporations where there's leaders within those corporations. And I was listening to you on another podcast, and it sounds like you guys really leverage, like from a social media standpoint as an example, you guys leverage, it seems like every, every vehicle that's out there, right? It's like TikTok, what's the strategy? Instagram, what's the strategy? And I maybe completely wrong in this because that's why I'm asking the expert, but I've always been like, for my kind of business, which is talent acquisition and it's very niche and it's very leadership oriented, and you know, we have a specific type of both client and candidate, I've only looked at like, when it comes to social media, I just look at LinkedIn, you know. I'm not going to probably find my candidates or my clients on TikTok as an example. I don't, at least that's my perception.
Am I wrong or do you think most businesses should be looking at all of these avenues in one way, shape, or form? - So your current correct in one form, but wrong another, and I don't mean it in a bad way. You're probably going to find majority of your customers on places like the LinkedIn's, right? But if you're creating content for LinkedIn or YouTube or Instagram or Facebook, you can repurpose the content, use it on TikTok and all the other platforms. Now, the majority of your customer base is not on TikTok, but a small percentage of them are. So if you're creating the content once, you can reuse the same content, put it everywhere and get a bigger bang for the buck. It may not do as well on TikTok, but something's better than nothing.
- Yeah. What I heard- - And that's probably a better way to think about it. - Absolutely. And I heard you see something on another podcast I was listening to, and I don't remember the term that you used, but it was something around, you know, people getting familiar with you, right? Like just people getting used to- - So in marketing, they call it the rule of seven. When someone sees or interacts with your brands, sometimes they're much more likely to engage with you, evangelize you, become a customer, et cetera.
And the way you do that is you be omnichannel. You got to be on all the channels to really get out there. Because the way these algorithms work is if you have a 1,000 followers and you post something, 1,000 followers don't see it, a fraction of them see it.
So you got to actually put it out everywhere. - And so your take is, yes, yes and no to what I said. Yes in the sense that know that my demographic lives in a certain spot.
For me, that's LinkedIn. For somebody else, maybe that's Facebook. And so maybe the content is like, "Okay, we're making this primarily for a LinkedIn audience, but since we're going to do it anyway, we might as well reach out through these other avenues." - These are on Facebook, Instagram, TikTok, Twitter, and all the other social channels that you can think of. But yeah. - Yeah. I guess maybe I'm just like an old,
maybe I'm like aging, dating myself here. But like, it's funny because when I think of TikTok, I just think of like 16 year old girls dancing. You know what I mean? And so my perception- - Used to be that way. - Yeah.
- It used to be where a lot of kids, they were the early adopters, but it's changed. When Facebook first started, it was just college students. Now, I bet your parents are on Facebook and all your friends are on Facebook and the older demographics are on Facebook.
They eventually adapt once these platforms start taking off. - So what do you, would you, I guess, you know, when you guys are advising other companies, and I think most of your client base, I'm guessing now, is kind of larger companies. What is your client base now? I mean, I guess maybe I shouldn't assume that. I should ask you, what does that look like for you guys? - We work with SMBs all the way up to Fortune 1000 companies or Global 1000 companies. So we handle all ends of the spectrum. Majority of our revenue does come from the global 1000 type companies.
- So what does, going back to the SMBs, what does that look like? Like an intake meeting, is it someone's coming to you and saying, "Help us put our whole marketing strategy together." Or is it, and what does that look like? - Honestly, market training, but they do come to us and they say, "Hey, I need more traffic, I need more sales." They come to us with a problem.
Then we sit down and we analyze and we figure out if we can help, then what it's going to look like. And then we come up with a plan and say, "This is what we can do. This is what it's going to cost. Does it work for you?" And we do a whole presentation.
I'm, you know, what is it called? Summarizing it into a 30-second deal. But it's involved of many phone calls, many hours of diligence and research and analysis. And probably, it takes a few weeks before presentation is out.
- Do you guys get into, beyond just social and all of that, is it also email campaigns? Is it- - Everything. So everything digital. So we'll do email marketing, conversion optimization, social media, both organic and paid. I don't know if I mentioned conversion optimization, but SEO and paid ads on Google and media buys and connected TV, like literally, the list goes on and on. - Is this the space for you that, because you're still, even though you've been at it for, what? 22 years now, at least, you're still such a young guy, and you're an artist.
So this is your artist, it's your love, it's your baby. But at the same time, do you see yourself branching out into other areas? because I know this has become a kind of a bigger thing than it was initially, but what does that look like? - You know, so people have asked me that, and I've thought about it. You know, what's funny is four or five years ago, I would say, "Yeah, I would branch out into a lot of other stuff." But I'm happy. I'm happy in what I'm doing.
The market is big. And if you look at the marketing industry, it's just massive. I think I'm pretty good, you know? I just keep on- - No, I like to hear it.
That's the artist. See, that's the artist again, Neil. That's, it is. It's the artist because it is the love for the work, right? It's the, you have a craft, you're very good at doing it.
The entrepreneur would not like that, right? And it's funny because most of us that own businesses, I think I've always, when I've had to look at this too, I'm probably more of a leader out of those things. And obviously, you have entrepreneur instincts. It's what got you to do what you did when you were 15 years old. It's got me to, it's why we own our own businesses.
We have that, we have that gear. We just don't necessarily live there. You kind of live in the artist gear. I live in the artist and leader gears a little bit. When I'm talking to someone that's a the, that serial entrepreneur type, they would not like the day-to-day, right? They'd just go in to make it and then move on essentially, you know.
And so, yeah, the other reason I ask though, is it seems like your business, and it sounds like it did a little bit, you were mentioning one of your clients earlier where you guys can drive traffic to them, you can do your job really well, right? You could take them from whatever, maybe they get 500 hits a month. And now, you take it to 5,000. But then what about the conversion after that? So do you guys get involved at all into sales or do you have partners that you bring in? - No, no, we do it all.
We'll handle the traffic, the conversions. We'll track the revenue, the cost to acquire our customer, the ROI. We'll work on the whole funnel. We'll figure out what's wrong and what needs to be fixed. - Very cool. Well, I-
- Well, we can fix a product. So if a business isn't doing well because people don't like the product and has terrible reviews, I can't do much to fix that. That's more, so the business owner or the entrepreneur or the company to fix that.
But I can work on the traffic and the sales portion. - And I'm assuming you're trying to vet some of that stuff out anyway when you do like an intro call, and whether you can help them or not, right? - What we do, there's some people we know we can get a ton of traffic to, but they got one star reviews literally on their product, and they're like, it's a lost cost. And we'll talk to them, be like, "Hey, I've thought about improving your product."
And they're like, "Oh no, those people are wrong." I'm like, "Well, if you think those people are wrong, it doesn't matter what we're going to do. If they want to leave one star reviews and you have hundreds of them already, it's not going to do any good."
- Right. Right, no- - This is like you're just going to drive more traffic, and they're never going to convert, right? So it has to be a team effort. I'm not saying I'm right, I'm not saying they're right, it's just different viewpoints. So might as well work with companies that have similar viewpoints, and we know we're going to get along. - Do you generally, and I guess I'm still talking about small businesses, I guess it could be small or large.
So when you guys come in, let's say, you know, I'm a company owner, I bring you guys in, you kind of evaluate everything that we're doing. You suggest some ways that you can not only up our kind of branding but get people to our website, like you said, maybe we've got good reviews so you figure it can convert. Do companies then stay with you on kind of a subscription basis or monthly basis forever? - It's an annual contract. - Or do you teach them how to do it and you move away at some point? - No. Companies usually hire us
because they don't want to be taught how to do it. They just want us to do it. We used to go to the route, we used to try to teach them how to do it, and then we would get a lot of pushback and say, "Can we just pay you to do it?" That's how we actually ended up starting. And it's an annual contract, monthly retainer but over an annual contract.
And yeah, people stay with us for a long time. - That's very cool. If people, and I still want to hear about some other things, but if small businesses, because I'm guessing that our individual business owners that are on here, generally, that would consider small business being under maybe 50 million a year or something like that, if they want to do business with you guys and we'll have all your info in there. But do they, you guys just schedule an intake call with them then and go over exactly the stuff we're talking about? - Yeah. They just go to npdigital.com.
So N as in Nancy, P as in Paul, pretty much my initials. N as for Neil actually, P as in Patel. So npdigital.com,
and they can learn more and schedule calls and all that kind of stuff from there. - Very cool. So I wanted to know along this journey, you said you got married, do you have kids? - Uh-huh, two kids. - Yeah. So what's this? What's that balance look like for you? because you've got this company that's hyper-growth over five years.
Are you an 80-hour a week guy or is it pretty, do you got a pretty nice balance at this point? - No. I don't have the nice balance. I work heavily. I travel almost every single week.
Most of my flights are international. I try to create a balance and spend time with the kids or take them with me or the wife, et cetera. My wife is really understanding. Kids, it's a little harder. But when I am here, I try to spend a lot of time with them and really make things happen. Like for example, my daughter wanted me to pick her up today. I have another podcast interview during the time she normally gets picked up.
I'm going to talk to my wife to see if I can pick her up like an hour early, go and pick her up from school, spend some time with her, do a puzzle. And then do another podcast recording later on, so. But when I am here, I try to be like in it 110%, which is hard at time.
That's what I try to be. - It also sounds like from what you were saying though, it's like it's different when, I had somebody ask me recently, because I'm a coach in a recruiter's program where one of the things that we're trying to, I guess one of the selling points, and it's not my selling point, I'm just coaching in the program, but one of the kind of marketing points is, you know, learn how to automate your marketing, learn how to automate your business so that you can work basically less hours, right? Set up automation machines to let stuff come to you. And then somebody got back to me because they saw my calendar, right? And it's pretty busy, right? And they said, "Well, hey, you're like the guy teaching this stuff, you know, why don't, I mean, how come you're not working a 30-hour, 20 hour work week, or in Tim Ferriss' case, four or whatever, you know, and it."
And I said, "Listen." - It's the artist in you. You love it. - Exactly.
And that's what I was saying. I said, "There's a big difference between having to go to work and wanting to go to work." And if, I guess if I changed anything with the marketing, the program, it would be get yourself to a point where you don't have to from a financial standpoint, work this many hours, right? But if you want to, then that's just how you choose to spend your time. And you know, so that was part of it. The other part, and you can relate to this very much.
So it was like, this is our second year in business, and I think we'll make the Inc 5000 this year as well, and- - Ah, congratulations. - No. Thank you. And I'm looking at it and I'm going, "How do you not take advantage of that?" Like sometimes there's stuff in front of you that is so exciting and big that it's like, I almost feel like it would be a, this is going to sound weird, but I almost feel like it's a calling or like a spiritual thing where it's like, the universe is conspiring to make all these things kind of happen at the same time, who am I to ignore it? Now, at the same time, paying attention to my relationships, paying attention to that imbalance sometimes and trying to make it as good as possible. I agree with, a that to me, is the challenge, but it's not like, "No, I'm not going to follow this even though we're having these, all of these amazing opportunities because I need to be home two hours earlier or every day or whatever, you know? And yeah. So I hear you. And when you're having the kind of growth you guys are having, even when I asked you like, "How many employees did you guys have? Two? I don't know.
because it's moving that fast for you guys, right? That it's hard to even look at the benchmarks because you whiz by them so fast. - It's not that. It's part of that, but it's more so like just having fun doing it. - Yeah. - I don't keep track of things like that. I'm more so keep track of other metrics, which for me are more important.
Like what are the results we're providing to customers? What does their growth look like? I just love what we're doing. For me, you know, it's just like, "Yeah, it's cool that we're adding more headcount." The number I really keep track of right now is how many countries we're in because I want to see if we can get into 50 countries. It's just a question of how long is it going to take. - That's very cool.
Yeah, I've always said, I mean I think when any of us look back, it's funny because we won't remember like, "Oh, in the year 2023, we generated 63 million in revenue or whatever." And it's like, you won't remember that. You will remember the client that was in the toilet and really kind of desperate when they brought you on, and they ended up bringing their business all the way back and taking it IPO or you know, dramatically changed their life, or created 1,000 new jobs. They're like, those are the kinds of things I think that stick, you know. - Well, unless you're the entrepreneur and you're- - Exactly. - And you're, like, you know, when you're breaking down your definitions, the entrepreneur would more so care about how much money they made that year.
- That's true. And there's nothing wrong with that, you know, like when I was bringing it up, no. - Don't get me wrong. We want to make more money every single year, not always possible. You know, if you continue on for 100 years, you're going to have some bad years. But it's more so, you know, for me, it's passion and love first before anything else.
- Yeah. I think it's sort of like what are you leading with, right? And then do the other things follow, do they become a byproduct of that? So going into that just a little bit, where do you want to take this? I know you said you're pretty happy with where you're at from a career standpoint right now, not a lot of big immediate goals on the horizon, but as you look forward, are there personal or professional things that you want to do longer term? Have you given that a lot of thought or are you just more like to live in the moment? - No, I didn't give much of it a thought. I live in the moment. Other than with family, one thing I would like to change is spending more time with them. So that's all the other. That's the main thing, of course, on my mind.
But other than that, you know, I'm pretty good, and I'm making strides on that as well. Over the next few months, we'll be taking some time off and spending it with the family. So that'll be good. - Yeah, I found that the best way for me to do that was to just do it right, like block it anything else, and then it seems to happen, you know? - Totally. - Very cool.
Well, I've loved having you on. By the way, our audience doesn't know this, but Neil was on with me last week or was going to be on with me, and was gracious enough to reschedule for today because I had a conflict. So thanks so much for doing that. What are some ways that people, like I said, you mentioned and, the, your company, and how to get in touch with you there. We're going to put all this in the show notes, but where else can people find you? - Neilpatel.com.
All my social handles are Neil Patel, N-E-I-L P-A-T-E-L. And our ad agency is NP Digital.