Diane Court: Nobody thinks it will work, do they?

Lloyd Dobler: No. You just described every great success story.” – Say Anything

Perhaps the most surprising thing about successful entrepreneurs is that sometimes, their success comes from the most unlikely of places. Maybe it was a small feature you introduced to your product that won your next thousand customers? Or was it the accidental growth hack you discovered while looking through your data?

There are thousands of great entrepreneur success stories that inspire and challenge us to be better versions of ourselves. We hand-selected these three entrepreneur success stories because the tricks they used to become successful are just as applicable today.

For many of us, MailChimp is synonymous with email newsletters. Starting from humble roots as a side project for Ben Chestnut and his co-founders, MailChimp hit a major inflection point when it switched to a freemium product in 2009.

Under the freemium model, the number of MailChimp users shot up from 85,000 to more than 450,000 users. User acquisitions costs scaled down and Ben and his team decided to spend some of the money they used to spend on Google Adwords on MailChimp schwag like t-shirts and hats to reward customers converting from free to paid. What happened next surprised everyone on the team.

It turned out that their customers were such big advocates of MailChimp and the mascot Freddie that they started sharing photos of them wearing Freddie t-shirts and hats on social media. Freddie has shown up in Machu Picchu, or next to MC Hammer, or on the Hawaiian local news. By giving their customers the tools to share MailChimp with their network, the company was able to further grow their customer base at an even lower acquisition cost.

A recent study found that referred customers are 18% more likely than others to stay customers and projected a 16% increase in profitability. How can you empower your customers in your business? Here are three tactics you can do right away at your small business with minimal costs:

  • Give away cool gifts for your best customers: The best schwag is the schwag that is both useful and highly visible. Clothing is easiest, but also consider bags, stickers, pens, or try things out in left field like cookbooks or calendars.
  • Create a working group: Some of your best customers probably want a place to share tips on how they can use your service. Use an online forum (like a LinkedIn Group) or a Meetup so your customers can help each other out. These working groups are also a great resource for your first-time customers.
  • Showcase exemplary customers: The best way to give back to your customer is to promote them. It’s easy to showcase some of your best customers on your wall (literal or online). A simple gesture like a customer of the month recognition nurtures customer loyalty.

Kevin Plank talks a big game and that’s one reason why Under Armour has become so successful. As a college football player at the University of Maryland, Kevin wanted a t-shirt that wouldn’t hold moisture and weigh the player down. In 1996, Kevin Plank started Under Armour to solve that problem.

Because of his sports background, Kevin had connections to at least a dozen former teammates who ended up playing in the NFL. He began mailing samples of his microfiber shirt to friends. His first order was to Georgia Tech for $17,000. This led to an order to the Atlanta Falcons. By the end of his second year, he had sold $200,000 in product.

Competing with the likes of Nike and Adidas wasn’t easy. Many times, Kevin had to project a larger company to win deals. For example, when the Falcons came calling, they wanted a long-sleeve version, which hadn’t been developed yet.

Kevin’s response was: “Of course we make it in long sleeve.” Kevin then drove to the contractor to figure out how to make their shirts in long-sleeve. As Under Armour grew, Kevin began taking important meetings with potential customers. Since their offices at the time was a warehouse of shirts, Kevin would take meetings in the back room of Clyde’s, a bar in D.C., and claim the “offices were being renovated.”

All businesses may start small, but they don’t have to feel, look, or act small. Thanks to modern software tools and the sharing economy, you can project the best version of your business. Here are three tools you should consider as you scale your business:

  • Hire a virtual personal assistant: Personal assistants are no longer just for fancy CEOs. Thanks to companies like Zirtual, oDesk, or Ask Sunday. Four-hour work-week guru Tim Ferriss famously outsourced all aspects of his life, including online dating!
  • Modernize your back office: At Gusto, we deeply believe in the modern back office. That’s why we partner with other modern software providers like Xero, FreshBooks, and QuickBooks Online. These tools can make your back office more efficient so you can focus on your main business.
  • Outsource your design: One of the best ways to project the impression of a large team is great design. Outsourcing services like 99Designs and or platforms like Behance and Dribbble are great places to find high quality designers at affordable rates. You can also use platforms like Squarespace or Weebly if you’re looking to get a professional looking website up quickly.

Nick Woodman, founder and CEO of GoPro, started his company in 2006 because he wanted to take pictures while surfing and racing. The initial years at GoPro were challenging. Nick travelled to surf shops and trade shows up and down the coast in a 1971 Volkswagen. He even sold the first GoPros on QVC. It wasn’t until a 2009 trade show where they sold out their new Hero HD camera when the company hit their revenue ramp.

GoPro was not Nick’s first company. In the early 2000s, Nick joined many others and started a dotcom company called Funbug, before it shut down in 2006. With GoPro, Nick gave himself a deadline of four years to make GoPro successful. With a timeline, Nick knew any moments lost in non-productive activities could delay his growth or jeopardize his company. He even had a post-it to remind himself: “I am doing this.”

Being your own boss means you make your own schedule. This has its advantages and disadvantages. To keep yourself on track, consider these three time-management tips as you’re running your business:

  • Set periodic short-term and long-term goals: It’s important to be reminded of your short-term and long-term goals. Since every company is different, set your timeline according to when you have ample time to execute your goals and measure their success.
  • Get back to people: The best salespeople are timely in reaching back to a client or prospect. To help you manage your selling process, use tools like Boomerang or Streak so you’ll get reminded when to get back to an important contact.
  • Know when to call it quits: This is probably the hardest thing to learn as an entrepreneur. Sometimes your business, product, or feature just doesn’t have market fit. Be diligent in measuring your Key Performance Indicators so you know when you have to make the tough call and shut it down.
David Cheng
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