Life as an Entrepreneur at a Seattle Web Design and Development Startup
We’re Grilling efelle Owner and CEO Fred Lebhart on the Ins and Outs of Starting a Small Business and Keeping a Company Thriving
It’s Global Entrepreneurship Week! What’s that, you say? Per the GEW website, “Global Entrepreneurship Week is a celebration of the innovators and job creators who launch startups that bring ideas to life, drive economic growth and expand human welfare.”
Here at efelle, we thought we’d celebrate by putting our own fearless CEO—and entrepreneur extraordinaire—Fred Lebhart on the hot seat to answer questions about his life as a small business owner. Below, he digs into the best parts about running a team and the joys of helping other businesses thrive.
What inspired you to leave your Fortune 100 company job and start your own business?
I left my stable Fortune 100 corporate job to jump into uncertainty because (a) my team was being outsourced, and (b) I had moved through eight positions in nine years and was travelling more than I was home. I learned to code websites while spending evenings and weekends in places like Titusville, PA, and Bozeman, MT, originally because I had nothing else to do during work trips. It quickly became a passion seeing my designs come to “life” as fully functional websites.
Shortly after learning the basics, I saw the value of helping small companies compete with their bigger competitors ONLINE, which at that time was still the wild west.
Was running your own business something you always aspired to do?
I wanted to own a business from a very young age. I had an import business for German car parts when I was 16 (VWs were really, REALLY cool in 1988), and by the time I was 18, I was running the company I was working for, J. Bert Roberts & Co., Inc. That was the best education EVER—since my boss was constantly traveling I had to sink or swim. I originally hoped to buy his company after he retired, but the lure of corporate life and business travel looked appealing at the time, so I went that route with the idea that I would say YES to every opportunity as a way to grow my skills and mind toward solving business problems.
What surprised you most about starting your own business? What was your biggest learning experience?
What surprised me was realizing that the term “it's just business” is really dumb. EVERY business out there started with a normal, human person and their best idea. That's what I love about what I do: I have the honor of meeting people who came up with a product—or refined and perfected their service offering—to the point of monetizing it.
We've worked with over 800 companies so far, and I've been part of each and every one of those in one way or another, from strategy to design to marketing...It's been an honor and an education to observe and learn from all of these people.
But the one thing all of them have in common is that their business is PERSONAL, and it means everything to them. Their business is their life—it's an emotional rollercoaster, and almost every business owner I've met has put their entire life into their company. Businesses became much more than just products or brands to me because of this, and I appreciate every small detail that has gone into refining a product.
There's no such thing as “It's not personal; it's just business.”
(Unless you're our COO, Tod Riedel; that guy is more even tempered and mild mannered than ANYONE I've met.)
Another surprise was learning how difficult it is running a service company vs a product-based business: Your knowledge is your trade but your hours are your product. It’s very easy to spend 16–24 hours working on a project and earn little or no profit. That's what the first year in business was. And since designers and developers are typically perfectionists, we’ll sometimes spend unbillable hour upon hour micro-clicking pixels into perfection.
What’s your favorite part about what you do now?
That's evolved; it used to be seeing a website I created live on someone else's computer. Then, as we did more logos and branding, it was seeing a sign on a building, built around a logo we created—or even better, on a van/truck. So awesome!
But today, it's getting to meet the people behind so many different brands and types of businesses and learning about their specific needs and challenges, then helping solve them.
I know it sounds cliché, but this is my favorite part of my “job”: watching a client's revenue climb, or their bounce rates drop or their AOV skyrocket—it's honestly a rush!
Is there any advice you received early in your experience as a business owner that you’ve held on to since? Any advice you ended up not following (and are glad for it)?
There was a great piece of advice my first boss gave me at age 15 that I've never forgotten, and I live by it today, 30 years later:
“If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” - Troy Guff, West Seattle McDonalds, 1987
This applies to everything.
I had several bits of advice early on surrounding what I should mold efelle into as an entity, usually around focusing on a specific “latest/greatest” platform or changing to a mass-production template-based business.
Had I listened to most of this advice, the company would've failed. By staying true to the goal and monitoring/adjusting for an evolving industry, we've become one of the best digital marketing firms in the country. I know I'm biased, but our team has won 107 national & international awards, and last year alone we produced 99 CUSTOM website projects. That's insane to me based on where we started.
But had I followed some of the logical advice I was tempted to follow early on, we would've died out as a commodity service company versus an industry-leading, brand-driven custom eCommerce shop full of awesome people doing what they love.
Do you have any advice for other aspiring entrepreneurs?
Nothing that they haven't heard already. But I'd say that if you're going to do it, be prepared to fall. More than once. And know when to get up or give up!
I've watched people fail in business and then thrive in a corporate environment (and vice versa). We all have our own sets of strengths and weaknesses, and our job in life is to learn how we can be of service in a way that drives fulfillment. In my experience, if you set out with a focus on helping the people you work with get what they want, you'll (a) lead a much more fulfilling life and (b) wind up much more successful than how you started.
Also, your team and company culture is EVERYTHING. If you have the wrong people on the bus, you're going to fail—regardless of how hard you work or how great your product/service is.
When it's time to grow, I recommend reading, Who by Geoff Smart (for insight into this topic by people much smarter than me).
You've Got Questions, We've Got Answers
Still feeling in the dark about what we do? Want to chat website design and development? Looking for ways to amp up your online marketing efforts? We're here for you. Call us today at 206.384.4909 or reach out via our online contact form.