As part of my series about the “How Businesses Pivot and Stay Relevant In The Face of Disruptive Technologies,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nico Hodel, Co-CEO of Start It Up NYC, a digital innovation agency based in New York City that provides content marketing, app development, digital advertising, data analytics, innovation consulting and video production services for startups, and B2B companies.
A full-stack web developer and programmatic marketing specialist, Nico ran development efforts at his former company Valence Digital for over 4 years, overseeing a 12 person marketing and development team, working on projects in the Angular, React, and React Native frameworks.
After working on web development projects in the tech, finance, and legal fields with clients from around the world Nico took on an advisory role at the company to build Start It Up NYC, and its subsidiary, the content writing service Rriter, where he now works full time as Co-CEO.
When he’s not on his computer or speaking at a tech or startup event, you’ll find Nico surfing in his native Honolulu, or playing tennis in Brooklyn.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series. Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your ‘backstory’ and how you got started?
I grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii and took an early interest in technology and how it intersects with the field of digital marketing. I was lucky enough to get the opportunity to work in the startup ecosystem out of college and had my first successful exit from a real estate tech startup at an early age.
I continued to work in the web development and digital marketing space, catering to working professionals and firms in the legal and financial industries.
Eventually, I met by current business partner Adi Patil and began work building Start It Up NYC and its subsidiary company Rriter. Start It Up focuses on web development, digital marketing, and innovation consulting services, while Rriter focuses solely on producing written web content for B2B companies.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
One of the most memorable mistakes I made starting out was neglecting to value my own time. Particularly in the startup space, there is a potential for wasting one’s time, effort, and mental bandwidth on projects that simply don’t have the right people, structure, or technology to be successful. That’s why it’s crucial to be particularly discerning when it comes to the clients or companies that you choose to work with.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
I’m certainly grateful for my business partner Adi Patil and the rest of our team for providing the motivation to keep focusing on growth and advancement despite what’s happening on the global stage. That determination and encouragement has allowed us to continue growing and remain profitable despite a global pandemic and its economic consequences.
Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven businesses” are more successful in many areas. When your company started, what was its vision, what was its purpose?
Our vision was to create a movement around innovation and to support companies that were solving important problems. That is very much the ethos of both Start It Up and Rriter.
Thank you for all that. Let’s now turn to the main focus of our discussion. Can you tell our readers a bit about what your business does? How do you help people?
Start It Up provides the web development, digital marketing, and innovation consulting services that companies need to stand out in the information age that we’re living in. We’ve had the privilege of helping startup founders achieve their dream of seeing their companies grow, and executive teams see their businesses modernize and transform.
Which technological innovation has encroached or disrupted your industry? Can you explain why this has been disruptive?
We made the conscious choice to position our company in a way that ensured that we would benefit from disruption. In fact, many of our clients are business owners that are hoping to adjust to the disruption in their respective industries.
Our company structure has always been lean, agile, and inclusive or remote work. That’s meant that we can continue operating profitably, and even begin working with new clients in the aftermath of COVID-19.
This philosophy is very much in line with the ideas that Nassim Taleb wrote about in his book Antifragile, in terms of creating systems that actually benefit from increased volatility.
The way we see it, the more technological disruption, the more opportunities we will have to help companies adapt.
What did you do to pivot as a result of this disruption?
In many ways, the founding of Start It Up and Rriter was in itself a pivot. My business partner and I wanted to pivot away from the outdated company structures and stuffy corporate hierarchies of the past, and into what we see as the future of work. It’s a future that embraces agile company structures that create innovative products and solve important problems.
Was there a specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path? If yes, we’d love to hear the story.
My business partner and I would brainstorm the creation of Start It Up late into the night after we’d both finished our work for the day. We planned how we would build a next-gen, innovation-focused agency over late night chai teas after we’d both finished our day jobs.
So, how are things going with this new direction?
We’ve luckily managed to adapt to the new normal that COVID-19 has produced better than most agencies. Minimizing the overhead and introducing agile principles has been the key to making this adjustment.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started this pivot?
Since pivoting even further towards remote work, we’ve had the chance to expand our network outside of NYC and work with clients across the country. We never would have expected that such a disruptive event could have these kinds of silver linings.
What would you say is the most critical role of a leader during a disruptive period?
The most important thing a leader can do in disruptive times is to be honest, and tether workers to the underlying values of the company. In other words, leaders don’t do themselves any favors by sugarcoating harsh realities. Instead, they should be upfront about the organization’s need to change, while reassuring their team that they can still stay true to the values that animated the work they’ve done thus far.
When the future seems so uncertain, what is the best way to boost morale? What can a leader do to inspire, motivate and engage their team?
An appeal to team members’ deeper values and motivations is often the best approach. The values that you distill in your company culture will provide the spiritual backbone that your team needs to stay the course in challenging times.
Is there a “number one principle” that can help guide a company through the ups and downs of turbulent times?
There is no magic bullet, but one important principle leaders should consider is to embrace a deep sense or gratitude. Regardless of our life situation, we all have a lot to be grateful for, so long as we don’t fall into a disempowering victim mentality that discounts the many blessings life has to offer.
Continually coming back to a place of gratitude for the simple things in life is a centering practice that will provide the presence of mind to keep moving forward.
Can you share 3 or 4 of the most common mistakes you have seen other businesses make when faced with a disruptive technology? What should one keep in mind to avoid that?
The crucial mistake that many businesses make when facing disruptive technology is simply to deny that times are changing and to cling to the past. We’ve seen this with so many enormous companies that feared losing their dominant position if they acknowledged that they needed to change. Facing hard truths is the first step to adapting to disruptive technologies.
Ok. Thank you. Here is the primary question of our discussion. Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a business leader should do to pivot and stay relevant in the face of disruptive technologies? Please share a story or an example for each.
- Embrace Agile Management Principles: Agile principles have become extremely popular in the software development industry, and for good reason. By parting ways from the traditional waterfall approach to software development, executives placed a stronger emphasis on developing minimal viable products (MVPs) so that they could receive user feedback earlier on in the development cycle. This saved firms time and money by allowing them to continually pivot and adapt. The same principles can be applied to companies in other sectors.
- Do Exhaustive Competitive Research: Gathering data about competitors is an important way to stay informed of disruptive technology within your industry. There are a great number of social listening, and competitive analysis tools that allow you to gain valuable data on your competitors and make sure you’re taking advantage of the most up-to-date technology.
- Hire Top-Tier Tech Talent: Working with a team of sophisticated technologists, whether they be managers, developers, or researchers is a great way to spot disruptive technology early. Software engineers and web development professionals spend hours researching the latest tools and technologies that might give them an edge at work. Surrounding yourself with them and picking their brain will help to stay ahead of the curve.
- Never Stop Learning: Many leaders seem to think that they learned all they need to know in college. Nothing could be further from the truth. Taking advantage of online learning resources like Edx.org and Coursera is a fantastic way to stay on top of the latest digital trends.
- Develop A Passion for Technology: Many older business leaders have unfortunate preconceptions about their core competencies. Even successful executives sometimes think that they’re simply “not good with computers,” and that they shouldn’t even bother learning about technology. Recognize that belief as a mere story you’ve been telling yourself. Anyone can learn about technology if they develop a passion and interest in it. Discard negative self-limiting beliefs and embrace a new attitude of curiosity and enthusiasm.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
In terms of the will to recognize harsh realities, this quote by Seth Godin can be very helpful.
“The cost of being wrong is less than the cost of doing nothing.”
How can our readers further follow your work?