Quiet and Boring: How to Build a Successful Startup

A few days ago, Indeed (a job aggregator site) announced that they had been acquired by a Japanese company called Recruit Co Ltd. One story I saw pegged the acquisition close to a billion dollars. I’ve heard through the grapevine about some very happy investors.

Indeed is a very successful company. And while you’ve probably heard of them, there’s very little about them in the public eye. The founders, Paul Forster and Rony Kahan, are not celebrities, and their company isn’t in the press daily or weekly.

Nice and quiet. Head down for 8 years. Result: Fantastic exit to a company most of us haven’t heard about.

A lot of startups these days try and compete on coolness or some funky “wow!” factor that may exist for a moment, and then disappears quickly thereafter. How often do you see a flash in the pan startup heaped with praise and accolades … only to completely forget about it a week later? The press and many early adopters are off chasing the latest shiny object.

Indeed may have never been terribly shiny in the eyes of tech pundits and early adopters, but it certainly was shiny enough for the acquirers, founders, investors and employees.

I also think the chasm between Indeed’s early adopters and the mainstream population was smaller than it is for most tech startups. If you’re building a local-social-mobile app you’re going after an early adopter crowd that’s incredibly distant from regular folk. Indeed was helping people find work. That wasn’t targeted at the elite developers in Silicon Valley. It was targeted to everyone else.

I met Paul Forster and Rony Kahan a number of years ago when I was running Standout Jobs. I liked them immediately, and recognized the quiet intensity with which they ran their company. I don’t know if I appreciated that fully at the time –I was still trying to “make a lot of noise”– but I appreciate it now. It’s all about focus: achieving it, having it on the right things, and maintaining it long-term.

The key with Indeed is that they were (and are) solving a real problem. There are millions of jobs out there scattered across the Web; Indeed did a very good job of aggregating them in one central place and making them accessible. They also took a proven business model (Google’s AdWords) and copied it. Nothing wrong with that.

Too few startups these days are genuinely solving super painful problems.

I’m not even sure most startups truly understand the problems they’re trying to solve. The recruitment space is a great example of that: you can say, “finding top talent is hard” because it’s essentially a universal truth. But that’s not really the problem you need to solve if you’re going into the recruitment space. When you peel away the onion and you discover that HR people are terrible marketers, or HR people are largely powerless in their organizations, and so on, you realize that you have to find the real problem at or near the heart of the universal truth. Indeed did that in part by making job posting into its aggregator dead simple, and by delivering a huge audience. I don’t know if they’re quite as dominant in Google today, but a few years ago they ranked at the top or near the top for nearly every job-related search keyword you could think of. They rocked SEO like it was nobody’s business, and that’s a big reason they drove so much traffic.

Solve real problems.

Keep your head down and focus.

Shiny objects are sometimes pure gold, and sometimes just tinfoil.

Press, parties and startup ecosystems are fun, but none of them build billion dollar companies.

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  • http://blog.simonsayz.ca/ Simon Therrien

    Great post Ben. “Press, parties and startup ecosystems are fun, but none of them build billion dollar companies.” so true. Look at Google, search engine existed before they launched but what they did was to be so good at it. Just like indeed did. They didn’t create a product with lot of features who only seem to fix a problem but something that could truly stop the pain.

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Agreed, Simon — and thanks for stopping by and commenting.

  • argo

    Indeed has about 550 employees, not 25,000! Fred Wilson has a good post on them…

  • http://www.techhustlers.com/ Eric Strait

    Kindness goes a long ways argo, and I think that you could have found a much better way to say this. Not sure if you meant it that way, but it appears you were right with the employee count, but came off as a slight jerk perhaps.

  • http://www.techhustlers.com/ Eric Strait

    Great post and insight Ben. You are one of the most sound thinking entrepreneurs I know, and I know a quite a bit of them. My hope is that it will get spread around the startup blogosphere. Ben, you can be my startup wingman anytime lol :)

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Was a typo on my side…

  • http://philgo20.com/ philgo20

    Very interesting acquisition for us as we’re in the same space.

    Job search is still mostly an SEO game and it’s hardly changing for now. Will be interesting to see if anyone social media company but LinkedIn can compete the SEO traffic.

  • http://www.EventMobi.com Bob Vaez

    Your post really resonated with me and what we are going through right now. We (EventMobi) too are in a niche market, our clients are event planners and it doesn’t make sense for us to make noise in the startup or tech scene for a product that has nothing to do with them!

    However, this does hurt us in terms of finding talent from the local tech community as we don’t get much coverage from startup/tech press. We decided not to raise funding and have been growing organically and that apparently is not sexy enough for bloggers, magazine editors and publishers to write about a bootstrapped company that has grown organically so fast that doesn’t need VC money anymore :) But I’ll take “quiet and boring” over “noisy and broke” any day! Thanks for a good Sunday read.

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Bob – You can still participate in the community without the press attention. You can run hackathons, go to events and still build a network — but I agree it’s harder without the fanfare. And recruiting comes from being tapped into the community and knowing what people are up to, and when they’re ready for a new career move.

    Best of luck…

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  • http://twitter.com/startupdispatch Startup Dispatch

    Ben, thanks for this post. Sometimes the obvious needs to be reiterated. Too often you’ll see startups chasing TechCrunch and Mashable press instead of building their company.

  • http://bettermarketing.in/blog Unmana

    “I’m not even sure most startups truly understand the problems they’re trying to solve.” Best line in an awesome post!

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com/ Benjamin Yoskovitz

    Thanks. Appreciate the positive feedback.

  • http://www.radiovybe.com/ Toval Ezeani

    Wonderful post Ben. What you narrated has been my guiding principle in founding http://www.radiovybe.com (launching soon). We focus only on making radio streaming more fun and social.

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  • Brian

    Good stuff! The article hits most nails on the head.

  • kyaw kyaw naing

    I like this post a lot. Happy customers(because, as you say, you solve their real problems), and reasonable profits — all that matter.
    Thank for the inspiration.
    ethidminds blog

  • Karen

    Great post! Thing you are writing about are very important i agree with that! But i also want to add that name plays great role too! My startup began to work only after i’ve changed the name with the help of this guys http://domenames.com

  • Superior LLC

    Nice post very interesting….

  • http://twitter.com/PairMobile Josh Hillis

    Love this article, always hoped our company will be something you use and don’t even know.. Spotlight focus isn’t always the thing you need… Thanks Ben, happy to know what we were doing naturally isn’t crazy!!

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting Josh. Good luck!

  • http://www.perhakansson.com/ Per Håkansson

    Very good insights. I really like the quote “Press, parties and startup ecosystems are fun, but none of them build billion dollar companies.” I enjoy tech entrepreneurship but could live without all the recent attention, popularity and glorification. In the end of the day it’s about solving real problems, building real value and making real money. :)

  • http://twitter.com/byosko Ben Yoskovitz

    Thanks for stopping by and commenting Per, I appreciate it.

  • Jeff

    I disagree that entrepreneurship is always about solving problems. What problem does a new movie solve? Are you in pain if there might not be a decent action film this year? What problem did Facebook solve? Were you in any pain that you could not connect with your friends and family? Some things are about fun and time wasting. They solve the universal problem of what should we do with our time and what can we get excited about. Whose problem did Groupon solve? Were consumers in pain for 50% off a back massage? I think businesses were in more pain after they tried deep discounting out.

  • http://www.instigatorblog.com/ Benjamin Yoskovitz

    I see “fun and time wasting” as problems — “how can I entertain you for X amount of time per day?” for example…

    If you’re aiming to entertain, how can you measure whether you’re doing that successfully? How can you do that before investing a ton in advance? Movies are hit-based businesses–very hard to do. Games are similar, although more and more game companies are launching MVPs, experimenting in smaller markets (like Canada), etc.

    Facebook solved a problem of connecting people.

    Groupon solved a problem of local marketing. It may have -as well- caused problems for some merchants, but they cracked the nut on local marketing in a huge way.

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  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=711716316 Erik Endress

    Outstanding. And very much the philosophy we subscribe to. Even though we are right outside of NYC, we don’t spend much time at meetups, mixers or events where we could likely have lots of smart people telling us how great our product is. We spend our time selling it to our customers, who pay us real money (in many cases, alot of money) for it. And then we deliver great service. Solve a real problem? Indeed. We built a way for teaches and school personnel inside of a school safety emergency to share information in real time with First Responders when their lives depend on it. sharewith911.com

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