717: Start Up Secrets: How This Entrepreneur Mentored 150+ Founders to Success | Feras Alhlou

Podcast Cover Image: Start Up Secrets: How This Entrepreneur Mentored 150+ Founders to Success featuring Feras Alhlou
Podcast Cover Image: Start Up Secrets: How This Entrepreneur Mentored 150+ Founders to Success featuring Feras Alhlou

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Are you ready to dive into the world of entrepreneurship with an expert? 

Join us in welcoming Feras Alhlou, an entrepreneur, author, speaker and board member who has not only founded and scaled businesses in Silicon Valley and beyond but also mastered the art of turning ideas into 7 and 8-figure ventures. 

In 2019, he made headlines by selling his digital marketing consulting company, e-Nor, to Dentsu, a top-5 global media company. In his current venture, Start Up With Feras, he empowers aspiring entrepreneurs in the consulting and services sector to kickstart and thrive in their ventures.

With over 150 founders under his advisory wing, Feras brings a wealth of experience, insights, and a dash of martial arts prowess (yes, he’s a 3rd-degree black belt in Aikido) to the table. 

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Start Up Secrets: How This Entrepreneur Mentored 150+ Founders to Success

Introduction

Jeff Tomlin: I’m Jeff Tomlin and on this episode, we’re pleased to welcome Feras Alhlou

Feras has founded, grown, and sold businesses in Silicon Valley and abroad, scaling them from zero revenue to 7 and 8 figures. In 2019, Feras sold e-Nor, a digital marketing consulting company, to Dentsu, a top-5 global media company.

He served as an advisor to over 150 founders. In his current venture, Start-Up With Feras, he’s on a mission to help entrepreneurs in the consulting and services space start and grow their business. He’s an author, a speaker, a board member as well as a 3rd-degree black belt in Aikido, and he continues his lifelong dedication to nonprofits.

Get ready Conquerors for Feras Alhlou coming up next on this week’s episode of the Conquer Local Podcast.

Jeff Tomlin: Feras Alhlou, welcome to the Conquer Local podcast. Thanks so much for taking some time out of your busy day to join us here. How are you doing today, sir?

Feras Alhlou: I’m doing great, Jeff. Thank you so much for having me. Appreciate it.

Startup mentor: Learn by doing, then Build Systems to Scale. 

Jeff Tomlin: Hey, well, it’s really good to have you on and you’ve got a fantastic background. In these little chats, we don’t have a lot of time together, so I try to squeeze all of the wisdom that I can out of my guests. And so I’ll just jump into it. You’ve got a great background, lot of startups and a ton of businesses that you’ve mentored. Why don’t you kick me off a little bit with off the top of your head, what are some of the tips for businesses that are just starting out and things that you think that should be at the top of mind for someone that’s getting started? I always say to people that are considering getting a startup off the ground, that action is the number one thing, but after action, it sure helps to have a plan. So what are some of the top things from your perspective?

Feras Alhlou: Yeah, sure. I think initially you’re laying the foundation, you’re building, you’re not sure exactly what you’re building. But in a way, and also you’re experimenting. When we started our first agency, it was at the dawn of internet. We were doing web design, a little bit of SEO, a little of pay per click. We didn’t know any of this stuff. And later we pivoted into analytics and we’ll talk about that later. But initially, I think it’s all about trial and error, whether it’s in your subject matter expertise, in pay-per-click and SEO and email and commerce. You got to learn the stuff and experimenting is part of the learning process and making mistakes and messing things up. It’s just part of it. So don’t beat yourself up too hard. But then at one point, I think once you do maybe 3, 4, or 5 projects, you understand the pain points of the clients. You understand how to deliver better, you understand how to sell better. I think once you start to lay the foundation, you got to start setting up systems. You got to set up processes, even if it’s just yourself initially. So I think that’s really important to scale, to grow the business is once you understand and do maybe four or 5, 6, 7 of these projects, start documenting how do I sell better? How do I define the scope better? How do I set expectations better? How do I do it more efficiently? How do I automate? I think that’s really important, even if you’re a solopreneur, even if you’re just a one-person agency initially because all of that hard work is going to help you when you have your first hire or second hire, they can then dig those processes, these systems and help you grow more efficiently. So that’s definitely tip number one.

Startup Journey: Experiment, Learn, and Adapt.

Jeff Tomlin: I love that idea that first and foremost, you have to have this expectation in your mind that at the very beginning, you are indeed experimenting. I’ve seen a lot of people, and I’m definitely one of them in the past, you have an idea in your mind, you’re kicking off whether it’s a product or an entire business. And you’ve got an idea in your mind and you very quickly get attached to that idea. But there’s so many unknowns that you’ve got to prove out, and so you have to have that expectation. You’re exactly right, and I totally agree with you that off the hop you have to have this mindset of experimentation. And if you’re thinking in an agile sense, you should try to de-risk all of your assumptions with this rapid experimentation.

Feras Alhlou: Yeah. And there’s the subject matter expertise, the domain knowledge, the technical part of it that’s important too. Even if you are really strong in let’s say SEO, implementing SEO for an e-commerce site is different than maybe for a B2B business. So you start to learn and as you do more projects, you’ll learn you’re adding to your own knowledge base, your own database. There’s also the other aspects of the business. So we talked about the technical part. Now there’s also soft skills, how to communicate, how to listen if you have people, how to manage people, how to have empathy, all that good stuff. And then you have the mindset, you mentioned that Jeff, in terms of that learning mindset, which is crucial in my mind for consultants, for agencies. You’re a subject matter expert, you got to know this stuff. So that learning mindset also, that resilience instead of getting back up after you fall and you will fall. It’s not when, it’s not if, it’s when. And sometimes there’s small tumbles, sometimes major falls, but you got to be able to also work on your mindset and build that resilience muscle that dealing with ambiguities. Who knew that, I mean, we started a web development and web design company and then this thing called pay-per-click, that’s like the early days of Yahoo and Google, what is this? And what I remember, is Jeff going to clients and say, “You want to buy this service?” And they say, “What?” People are going to just click on this ad and I’m not going to get any business and I don’t know how to answer that. And then you learn, right? Rejections and you learn from those rejections. And then I go back, the next sale, I said, “Let me show you your competitor is ranking there and they’re paying for those ads.” And that was one way for me to sell pay-per-click. This is like 2003, 2004. So who knew that I was going to be a Google certified partner? I didn’t. Even like a year and a half prior, it wasn’t even on the radar. So a lot of new things will hit you. A lot of things you’ll learn and you’ll have to recover from these falls that we discussed earlier. And there’s also a lot of opportunities to pick up a new maybe service line or a new skill set that can help you grow that business that you didn’t even think that you would be doing.

Build Resilience and Learn from Past Challenges

Jeff Tomlin: I couldn’t agree more that one of the most important things for an entrepreneur is to have resiliency because I mean, I’ve experienced so many of the things that you’re talking about. There’s things that come your way that you have no way of seeing ahead of time, things you run into, challenges that you don’t expect, and there’s ups and downs along the way. When you’re talking about mindset, is that type of resiliency something that people can learn or do you feel like it’s inbred in you and there’s a group of people that are natural entrepreneurs or are there people that can learn that mindset and grow it?

Feras Alhlou: Well, some of us might have it and might be strong at it. I think for me, I had to learn from the ground up. But a lot of people who start businesses and I speak with one to two founders on the average every week. When you come to start your own agency or to grow and scale your agency, I mean, you’re not just doing it from scratch, in a way. You have skills that you’ve developed in your previous career. Even if you’re in your younger crowd, if you just finished college maybe five years ago and you have four or five years of experience under your belt, you have experience in that field, in your professional environment. Also, outside of work, I’m assuming you have a hobby or you’ve done things. So all of that, I think you bring all that to your agency. So when you’re pitching, especially if you’re new to sales, which was the case for me when I started my first business, I did not know about sales. I never sold anything before. But when you go and meet the business owners, they look you in the eye. People buy from people. So the confidence that you have, the professionalism that you have, the things you’ve accomplished in your career awards, whatever it is, bring that and share that with your potential client. I think that’s all helpful in the sense that if you’ve had personal challenges and you were able to recover, I would in a very, share that with potential clients because people buy from people and if you share with them how you’ve recovered, I think in your personal life, you can also understand that as a new business owner, even if you struggle and have issues, you can be able to help them. You can be able to recover and help them.

Jeff Tomlin: Love it.

Feras Alhlou: So bring all of that to business in a way that will help you, I think connect better with clients.

Social Responsibility Builds Culture and Attracts Talent 

Jeff Tomlin: Nice. One thing that you talk about is setting solid foundations, and one topic is establishing a core identity for your business out of the gate. One of the things that’s important to you is social responsibility. Maybe you can talk about that a little bit and sort of the impact that that can have on your business culture, your client relationships going forward, maybe why is the social responsibility part of it important for you?

Feras Alhlou: Somewhere somehow I got the volunteering bug early in my life, so I’m grateful for that. And my wife and I actually have always found ways to volunteer. And when we started our very first business back in 2003, we couldn’t afford to donate. We couldn’t afford to make large contributions or even small contributions, but we were always finding ways to help nonprofits. So we were in the field of web design in online marketing. We would go to a nonprofit and offer maybe a two-hour session on educating their board or their executive or their team on how to the proper best practices for a website. Building a website or for maybe running an SEO campaign or maybe go to Google and get that, I forget the name of the program now, but there’s a program where they give you a thousand bucks or now maybe $10,000 to nonprofits to free ads and how to set that up. So I think that was really important for me personally. But then when you start to do this as a leader, as a founder, that culture of sharing becomes, I think part of the company culture. And in the early stages of our business, we said we will take, once we became profitable, we would take 1 to 2% of our top revenue, and we would donate this to nonprofits and we would ask our team members to bring nonprofit causes they believe in, and then we would distribute the funds accordingly. That’s when we were profitable. But even earlier on, you as a leader, as a founder, helping others and being of service, it just sets the tone for the organization. It’s very rewarding, obviously, for those who are receiving the help. And I think it’s also rewarding for us as human beings when we’re helping others and we’re being grateful about the resources that we have.

Jeff Tomlin: When I look around at some of the brands that I admire, especially in the technology space, it’s usually companies that have a culture of being helpful because I think that people like buying now from people who put value out there first and seek to be helpful and absolutely help you resolve an issue. But I can really relate to what you’re talking about, whether it’s coming from a point of having a charitable aspect to your business or just having a mindset of being helpful. I can certainly relate to that and the value that I see in brands that do it really, really well.

Feras Alhlou: Yeah, I mean, also it was hard at times to attract top talent. And when the candidates would interview with us and they would hear from other team members, the interviewers about the company culture and that, hey, by the way, we help others and if you want to go and volunteer, and a lot of that, we’re in Silicon Valley. And so we adopted a lot of the googly stuff at the time, in terms of if you want to go and spend a couple of hours at the gym, we’ll cover that. If you want to maybe go help a non-profit and take half a day off, we support that. So building that early on, I think in your business, don’t wait till you make it. Because a lot of people say, “When I have more money, when I make it big, I’ll donate.” I don’t know. I think that habit has to, when you have a lot of money, it’ll be difficult to give maybe a large amount of money. So I think to start small, even an hour a week if you’re taking on your ride home, they could call help a young entrepreneur in your space, in your industry, in your town. Help them, even if you only have two years of experience in entrepreneurship, you know a whole lot more than someone who’s just starting. And when they see you do that, it just builds an amazing culture for the company. And it could be another hiring advantage, like look at how great of a company we are. And that definitely was my experience.

Jeff Tomlin: I heard somebody say, “If you don’t have a habit of giving when you don’t have, you are probably less likely to give when you do have.”

Feras Alhlou: A hundred percent. Yeah.

Aikido: Harmony & Focus Translate to Business

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah. Hey, I want to talk a little bit more about mindset Side story, I have a sixteen-year-old son, and last year he started wrestling.

Feras Alhlou: I saw that on Instagram. Yes.

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah. So he was a little late to the game, but he was really, really good at it. And then he had a ton of success this year. Super proud, he came second in provincials and he’s off to nationals next week.

Feras Alhlou: Nice.

Jeff Tomlin: I’m super happy. I’m really, really proud of him. I was excited for him joining wrestling because I thought I’m a big sports fan in general, but I think that that’s one sport that can really help build mental toughness and competitiveness. And so I’m really supportive of him. And now you’re a martial artist, and so I want to talk about that a little bit. By the way, I don’t know anything about martial arts, and someone was explaining them to me, and I don’t know if it’s accurate, so you can correct me if I’m wrong. He said wrestling is about grappling, boxing is about punching. TaeKwonDo is a lot of kicking. Judo is throwing. Aikido is kind of grabbing and breaking. And I thought, oh, that’s vicious. I don’t know if that’s true, but it sounds like a tough martial arts. You’re a third-degree black belt. Tell me a little bit about that. And then connect that to the value you get out of it in your business life.

Feras Alhlou: Sure. No, thank you. And again, congrats again on your son going to nationals. So I’ve dabbled, I’ve explored different arts, but for the last 15 years or so I’ve been committed to Aikido. So Aikido – Ai is harmony, ki is energy, do is way. So it’s the way of harmonizing energy. And the concept is if someone is attacking you, you want to get out of the way. You want to rechannel that energy. And then as one of our teachers says, we direct that energy and introduce them to the mat. So this has been some throwing, there’s some joint blocks, but martial arts in general, I think there’s obviously the martial aspect and there’s the art aspect. I think I see a lot of parallels. There are a lot of systems in life and there’s the Aikido system, the martial arts system, and there’s the art part of it. And I think consulting for all of the others there who run agencies, your consultants, there’s a lot of parallels. I mean, if you do painting, if whatever art, whatever training you do, that practice the 10,000 hours that road to mastery in martial arts or in consulting is the same. You got to put the hours. Being fit outside the dojo. You can get your coveted black belt and be happy. But then if you’re not eating healthy, if you’re not also doing your cardio, you’re not going to be as an effective martial artist as possible. Same thing in consulting, if you’re not taking some time to learn, if nothing’s wrong, to network, if you’re not taking time outside of work to also just maybe spiritually or having some sort of way to have mindfulness or maybe learning intellectually. So there are a lot of parallels in dealing, and rechanneling the energy that attack in Aikido versus an unhappy client screaming at you. You can scream back, not good, understand why they’re screaming and maybe help them resolve the issue. Maybe they just had a bad day at work and it has nothing to do with you or your agency. So these are some of the parallels that always come to mind.

Business Growth Requires Reinvention & New Leadership Skills

Jeff Tomlin: Well, I’m going to work with my son a little bit on, maybe I can work on my physical and mental toughness along with him. And one thing I wanted to ask you before we break is, as businesses grow, they go through different phases. And because you’ve worked with so many businesses and you’ve grown a number of businesses yourself, why don’t you talk a little bit about what you see, how businesses have to adapt through different phases of growth? Because in my experience here at Vendasta, so we’re about 700 people now. We’ve gone through a lot of different phases of growth over the years, and we’ve found that we’ve really had to not only change our systems but change our organizational structure. Someone once said to us, you ship your org structure. And so there’s a lot of things that need to adapt. And so from your experience, what are some of the things that you think are important for businesses to be mindful of as they grow?

Feras Alhlou: As individuals, we have to reinvent ourselves. And as businesses, we have to do the same. So when you’re a new founder and it’s only you and a few people, that’s one thing. And then once, let’s say you hit a million dollars and you have maybe 15 people or so, that’s great. But to go from 1 million to two, from one to maybe five, what got you to 1 million will not get you to two or three or 4 million. And same thing as when I was managing a group of 45 people at one phase is one thing when I was managing 125 people was a completely different phase in my journey. So I think reinventing yourself, not just in the technical skill that you have, but also in terms of management. How do you spend more time thinking and working on the business, not in the business. I think that’s really important. How do you learn more people skills and dealing with adversities and dealing with issues that potentially have nothing to do with work. When we had the pandemic and people had a lot of issues at home. So I think always maybe a common theme of this podcast is about learning, and I think it’s really important. And last other point there is, Jeff, for founders finding people, whether it’s your business partner, your co-founder or co-founders or maybe your senior team who bring complimentary skills to the table, no one knows it all. No one can do it all by themselves. So as you go to a new phase of growth, what skills do I need that I either have to learn or bring someone else to help me in this next phase of growth?

While Passion is Important, Business Success Demands Skills and Sacrifice

Jeff Tomlin: Yeah, definitely something to digest. Feras, if you had one takeaway for the audience that you wanted to make sure that they had top of mind as we break, what would that one takeaway be?

Feras Alhlou: I would say passion is optional. Skills and sacrifice are not. So at times, you have to do things that you hate and you don’t like because that’s what’s required to get the job done. You can get passion outside of work, you can get passion later. But as business owners, as founders, as executives, sometimes you can’t find passion in what you’re doing today or this day or this week, but skills and sacrificing and putting in the time, putting the effort, I think they’re always needed. So that’s one thing to keep in mind as you’re growing your business.

Connect with Feras Alhlou on startupwithferas.com

Jeff Tomlin: I appreciate the insights and I want to thank you for joining us on the Conquer Local podcast. If people wanted to continue the conversation with you, how do they reach out and contact you?

Feras Alhlou: Yeah, thanks Jeff, and I really appreciate and love the discussion. Yeah, you can go to StartupWithFeras.com Feras, spelled F-E-R-A-S. We have a daily newsletter you can sign up for. And then we also have our YouTube channel at Start Up With Feras as well. And yeah, I’d love to hear from the audience and wish everyone the best of luck on their journey of success.

Jeff Tomlin: It was an absolute pleasure meeting you. Absolute pleasure having you on the podcast and having a quick chat with you. I hope we can do this again and have a fantastic week, sir.

Feras Alhlou: Likewise. Thank you so much, Jeff. I appreciate it.

Conclusion

Jeff Tomlin: I really enjoyed my conversation there with Feras. A couple of takeaways to keep in mind on your entrepreneurial journey. Number one is Develop a growth mindset and learn from your mistakes. Building an agency or any type of business is an iterative approach.  Experiment, learn from your failures, and adapt your approach. Focus on developing both technical skills such as SEO and analytics, and soft skills such as communication, project and client management. Building resilience will be essential as you face challenges and setbacks along your journey.

Secondly, Invest in your team and give back to the community. As you grow, empower your team members and create a positive company culture. Social responsibility is also important – find ways to give back to non-profits and your community.  Building strong relationships with your team and your community will contribute to your long-term success.

If you’ve enjoyed Feras’ episode discussing building and growing a successful digital marketing agency, revisit some of the older episodes from the archives. Check out Episode 621: Building Trust and Growing Your Agency with Jack Pires or Episode 617: 8 Steps to Grow Your Business with Jason Swenk

Until next time, I’m Jeff Tomlin. Get out there and be awesome!

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