As part of my series about the “5 Things You Need To Know To Create a Successful Service Business,” I had the pleasure of interviewing Nico Hodel. Nico Hodel is Co-Founder and CTO of Start It Up NYC, a programmatic marketing and web development agency based in New York City that provides content marketing, app development, digital advertising, innovation consulting and event production services for startups, B2B companies, small businesses and entrepreneurs.
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 around the world Nico took on an advisory role at the company to build Start It Up NYC with business partner Adi Patil, where he now works full time as CTO.
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 Nico! 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?
A lifelong techie, I developed an interest in computer programming and software development early on . While still in college, I began helping working professionals design, develop, and maintain their websites, eventually moving on to larger and more sophisticated projects ranging from web apps, mobile apps, and search engine optimization work. As the projects increased in scale I grew a small team of developers and web designers under my former company Valence Digital. Eventually, I met my current business partner Adi Patil, with whom I built Start It Up NYC to expand our range of web service offerings.
What was the “Aha Moment” that led you to think of the idea for your current company? Can you share that story with us?
Start It Up NYC started when my business partner Adi Patil and I realized that businesses could benefit from thinking about different aspects of their business as one cohesive whole. At the time, Adi worked at Yelp, having already sold his former company Magnifier Marketing out of college, and I was still managing web development efforts at my former company Valence Digital for a number of different clients.
We shared a common perception that many firms were torn in different directions working with different teams for app development, marketing, branding, and content production. The end result was that many firms were unable to see the big picture and take a holistic approach to different parts of their business.
One common example was a firm that invests heavily in app development without incorporating the future marketing efforts of the app into the development process. Such firms routinely sink hundreds of thousands of dollars developing a sophisticated app with exotic technologies without realizing that there isn’t a market demand for it, or that certain features that are key to the app’s marketability weren’t included in development, or that certain features were introduced completely unnecessarily or prematurely.
For such a firm thinking about developing and marketing their app in tandem would be a competitive advantage. In fact, comprehensive market research and data analysis should be conducted before the firm even begins the development process.
We wanted to offer firms accelerator-style consulting services that allowed them to think about different business goals in tandem and to walk them through the growth of their business each step of the way. It was from this realization that Start It Up NYC was born.
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?
The funniest mistakes we made revolved around taking on the wrong clients. Since the need for technical services is dire in many companies, we were approached by the strangest and most neurotic of characters throughout the years. The end result was that we wasted a lot of time, often in comical ways, trying our best to cater to clients that would change their mind about crucial decisions on a whim, blatantly disregard contracts that they signed, and forget to pay invoices.
I’ll resist the temptation to name any specific clients or situations to spare them the embarrassment but many of them put us in such crazy positions that we couldn’t help but laugh.
We learned the hard way that not all clients are created equal and that while taking on a bad client often makes for funny stories, the stress they produce is rarely worth the comic relief they provide.
Thank you for that. Let’s now pivot to the main focus of our interview. Extensive research suggests that “purpose driven business” are more successful in many areas. When you started your company what was your vision, your purpose?
Start It Up NYC started less as a company and more as a cause. At bottom, we wanted to spur and support innovation. We saw that many business owners were bringing great ideas and expertise to the table but floundering when they tried to execute those ideas while trying to adapt to the rapidly changing tech ecosystem we live in today and wear many hats at once.
We saw entrepreneurship and innovation as the only ways to address the joblessness and economic inequality that has come to define our time. We saw the oncoming onslaught that automation and AI will have on the jobs of today, and we wanted to support the companies that will create the jobs of tomorrow. Along the way, we wanted to create a few ourselves.
What do you do to articulate or demonstrate your company’s values to your employees and to your customers?
To our employees, we provide every possible opportunity to learn new skills and gain new experiences. We emphasize to them the need to master the art of learning as the only way to innovate their way out of the problems we’re solving for our clients and of the fast-moving tech ecosystem at large.
To our clients we provide objective insight about how to solve the problems inherent in growing any business, and we don’t hesitate to provide our honest opinion, even if it isn’t in our own best interests. We’ve turned down clients, for example, that we didn’t think we were best positioned to help innovate and grow, or if we thought it wasn’t the right time for them to work with us.
Do you have a “number one principle” that guides you through the ups and downs of running a business?
My number one principle would be to embrace empathy. Empathy is the tool you need to see something through the eyes of another person, and doing so is necessary to solve problems for another person: the cornerstone of any service-based business.
Balance that empathy with a healthy respect for your own time, worth, and interests and you have a winning formula for success.
Can you tell us a story about the hard times that you faced when you first started your journey? Did you ever consider giving up? Where did you get the drive to continue even though things were so hard?
We had many hard times throughout our growth at Start It Up. Servicing startups isn’t easy. Many of them are strapped for cash, most of them fail, and almost all of them are volatile. It takes a lean, specialized team to service them in a way that makes sense.
So, how are things going today? How did your values lead to your eventual success?
Over the years, we’ve learned to limit our risk by diversifying our base of clients, successfully scaling a content marketing and Search Engine Optimization (SEO) service that services larger business-to-business clients.
What’s remained consist, whether we’re servicing large companies or small ones, is our drive to help them innovate and problem solve.
Based on your experience and success, what are the five most important things a founder or CEO should know in order to create a very successful service based business? Please share a story or an example for each.
1. Prioritize Work-Product: No matter what service you’re offering, your focus should be on doing the best job possible. Many service-based businesses prioritize sales and acquisition over doing good work for their existing clients. This is a mistake. Focus your team’s time on doing superior work for existing clients, and new clients will often flow through referrals. Your best marketing material is the work you’re doing and have done for existing clients. Prioritize doing good work and sales will often flow naturally.
2. Under-promise and Over-deliver: Always provide additional perks and value outside of the contract you have in place with clients free of charge. As a service-based business, your clients should always be top-of-mind and any chance to provide additional value should be capitalized on.
Some of the perks we’ve offered clients in the past include free tickets to conferences, introductions to investors, and introductions to potential partners. Keep you clients and their interests top-of-mind will help to build your relationship with them and win their loyalty.
3. Create Clear Scopes of Work: The only downside to over-delivering for clients is that some will develop completely unrealistic expectations of your business. That’s why a Scope of Work, a contract that clearly defines what work, responsibilities, and tasks will be performed for a given project, is crucial.
In a dreaded phenomenon known as “scope creep” clients will often ask you to perform all kinds of tasks that are outside of the contract they’ve signed with you. It might sometimes make sense to indulge them if their ask is reasonable, but make sure they understand that the additional task is outside your Scope of Work and something you’re providing as a complimentary perk. There’s nothing worse than being reprimanded for a service you’re providing free-of-charge to be nice, so make sure they know that’s the situation before you agree to indulge them.
If their ask is unreasonable, it’s crucial that you have a clear and concise Scope of Work agreement you can point them to to make it clear why you can’t deliver on their demand.
4. Be Responsive and Become a Good Listener: Make an effort to respond to your clients’ inquiries as quickly and cordially as you can. In reality, for many clients you will be regarded as more than a service provider. Many clients will see you as a sounding board, guide, and confidant. Clients are people, and they have emotional needs just as they have business needs. Running a service-based business means understanding that reality.
5. Know Your Worth: Over my seven years of involvement in service-based businesses, I’ve learned that if you put yourself in a position where you can be taken advantage of, people will do so. With the rise of temp, contract, and gig work, business owners have often come to expect something for nothing, and can easily undervalue the work done by any agency, no matter how exemplary. As a result, in many industries the only way to earn respect is to demand it. Produce a superior work product, provide additional value, be responsive and supportive, and then stand proudly behind that value you’ve provided.
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?
In terms of Start It Up, it would have to be my business partner Adi Patil. We’ve experienced the highs and lows of entrepreneurship together and have given each other the fortitude to continue on in our common mission to support innovation. Although similar in many ways, our differences in attitude in temperament tend to compliment each others strengths and weaknesses in important ways.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I’d start a movement of innovation and entrepreneurship. I believe it’s impossible to reverse the clock when it comes to technology and that our only option is to innovate our way out of the problems it presents.
How can our readers follow you on social media?