Chicago entrepreneurs: Why start-ups must 'play up'

Today we invite Chicago-based entrepreneur Ross Shellman to share his thoughts on how start-ups, both inside the Windy City and further afield, can think big from day one…

Five years after our initial funding event, Target Data is thriving. We have had our ups and downs, successes, failures and a whole lot of fun. When I think back, I see that we have held true to the belief of, 'playing up' – acting like the company you want to be, not the company you are today. I believe many young companies get this wrong. To discover the advantages of playing up, here are a few lessons that young CEOs can use.

1. Never use the phrase "when we are bigger we will…"

This is where it all starts, too many great ideas are killed by these words. It can be so easy for young companies to fall into the trap of using this phrase, whether referring to people, resources, technology or almost anything else. In the very early days of Target Data, we invested heavily in two key areas: people and technology. It would have been very easy to say "when we are bigger, we will build a world-class infrastructure" or "when we are bigger we will hire a person like that." Instead, we built technology and hired people that made companies five times our size envious. Was it more expensive and risky? Absolutely, but it was worth every penny.  

2. Over-hire for all positions

The people you hire will make or break your company. Target Data’s technology infrastructure would have been useless without terrific talent to back it up. It’s a crucial point that differentiates. The most critical decisions a young CEO will make will involve people.

At Target Data we utilize our clients’ customer data to develop highly targeted marketing campaigns. While we use world-class technology to do this, without great people it would be impossible. 

Talent is the difference between success and failure. We started the company from a base of strong talent and over-hired in every position. Most of our management team has held officer level positions in global corporations. It was a bold move to hire some of them as early as we did, but the business grew into our people, not the other way around. 

Chicago entrepreneurs: Inside Technori

Too often, early-stage companies hire key managers that are just too junior. This strategy doesn't make sense in the early days of a high-growth company. Senior talent can make an enormous impact. The amount of lost productivity when changing out junior managers is risky and dangerous.

The experience a senior team brings will also help you side-step common pitfalls. Focus on one thing and one thing only: delighting customers. This is much easier with the right team in place.  Hire the best people you can afford, period.

3. Deliver top quality service and the profits will follow

I wish I could take credit for this saying.  Early in my career, I worked for an incredibly successful entrepreneur. Many of my views on business come from working closely with him. His message was simple and strong: "deliver top quality service and the profits will follow". This is part of our culture at Target Data and it truly sets us apart.  

It is not uncommon for larger companies in our industry to charge start-up fees or never touch client data without being paid. To me this makes no sense. We embrace every new client and actually deliver value before we ever sign a contract. My team wants to show our clients how their customer data will drive a smarter acquisition strategy. Many young companies believe they cannot take the risk of investing in their client without figuring out up front how they will get paid. Worry about the profits later. Trust me, they will come.

4. Build a culture of productivity, not activity

No matter what you read out there, there are no medals or prizes for outworking everybody else. Don’t get me wrong; we work really hard at Target Data. We manage millions of dollars of marketing programmes for our clients. When client deliverables are on the line, nothing else matters.

Chicago entrepreneurs: Start-ups in the Windy City

I am referring to the common culture that encourages bragging about how many hours people work, how little vacation they take, or their lack of time to do anything with family or community. This is the wrong way to measure success. If this thinking pervades an organisation it signals lack of infrastructure and the wrong people. Put the right people in the right seats and get out of their way. Give them the tools and resources so they can succeed and encourage them to find a work life balance.

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Please see for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.


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