In this interview, Steve Cunningham, CEO & Founder of Readitfor.me, shares how he started his digital marketing company, his goals for the future and how he maintains a 'giving back' mindset to impact millions of people around the world. He also shares how he inspired his employees to be brand ambassadors as a form of marketing to help his business grow.
For entrepreneurs starting a business, here's some pearls from Steve:
Get good at managing yourself and your emotions; get good at using stories to sell your product/service; ask and listen.
Can you tell us what motivated you to start Readitfor.me, Steve? How did the idea come about?
Readitfor.me came about by accident. I was a lawyer for exactly one week (I believe that’s a world record), and joined my family business.
Shortly after I started up a marketing agency, I began taking meetings with potential clients who wanted to hear about how they could use social media to grow their brand. This was back when there were no real case studies on how to do it, so tons of them used our free consultations with no intention of ever working with us.
As soon as I realized what was happening, I decided that we needed to create our own social media case study if we were ever going close any real clients.
I noticed that on the shelves of the people I was meeting - VPs of marketing and business owners - were business books that I was familiar with. To create some rapport in those meetings, I would ask them what they thought about “this idea from that book.” They would stare blankly at me and finally admit that they hadn’t read “that” book, or any of the other books on their shelf.
I decided that this was the opportunity we were looking for. We would create 12-minute animated video summaries of those books, see if we could get it to spread virally among the people we were trying to do business with, and use that as our case study.
It worked, so much so that venture capitalists called us to ask what our business model was (we didn’t have one), and people started emailing asking us how they could pay for the service (they couldn’t).
So, completely by accident, we had created a business that was originally intended to be a content marketing strategy.
We now have thousands of members from around the world, from solo entrepreneurs to the leadership development programs at Fortune 500 companies and everywhere in between.
What is unique about your business? Is there a competitive advantage that you have over the rest?
We have three distinct advantages over our competitors.
First, our service includes video (along with text and audio) which is very popular among millennials, and which allows our members to turn our content into on-the-fly workshops for groups. Team leaders love these, and you could never do them with text or audio only.
Second, we focus solely on word-of-mouth and partner marketing to grow our business. We have focused all of our marketing efforts on turning our members into ambassadors, which is by far the most powerful (and highest converting) form of marketing. By incentivizing our ambassadors with the ability to generate a (sometimes significant) side-income while promoting a service they believe in, we’ve basically created an army of salespeople. We believe in our ability to continue to execute on this better than our competition, and feel this is a core advantage.
Third, we've built “social good” directly into our model by giving a significant percentage (between 10% - 20%) of every Lifetime Membership directly to charity. This gives us opportunities to partner with companies and charities in ways that we wouldn’t otherwise be able to.
Did you have a hard time starting your business? How did you handle time and resources constraints?
Absolutely. As I mentioned above, Readitfor.me wasn’t intended to be a business at all. For the first 5 years it was run as a side project to our main business, a digital marketing agency.
I wasn’t very good at handling time constraints so we didn’t focus the time and energy in growing Readitfor.me that we should have. This made growing the company very difficult. Even though we're now focused on Readitfor.me full time, it’s still difficult to manage time and resource constraints. There are so many things that we could be doing, that we just have to say no to in order to focus on our #1 priorities.
Today I manage that by having one overarching goal for our team each quarter and we use it as a yardstick to determine whether or not an activity will get us closer to that goal. If it doesn’t, we don’t do it.
What do you attribute your success to? Is there a trait you have or a person who helped you along the way?
First, I would say that I don’t consider our business or myself to be a success. I think that the moment I do is the moment that we’ll stop growing and continuing to have a bigger impact in the lives of our customers.
However, I believe there are two attributes I would say has contributed to us getting to where we are today.
The first is grit - never giving up.
Like any entrepreneur, we faced (and still face) many challenges growing the business. At one particularly difficult moment in our journey, my wife asked me a powerful question: Have you ever considered giving up?
When I heard the words “no, it’s never crossed my mind” come out of my mouth, that’s when I knew that I had what it took to succeed.
The second is a growth-mindset. I believe that the desire to learn and grow every day is one of the biggest competitive advantages a business can have - it guarantees that you'll always improve and become more successful over time.
Have you ever gotten a disappointed client or customer? How did you handle the situation?
I’m of the opinion that I’m 100% responsible for our customer experience, and so if customer has a problem my first and only reaction is to fix the problem.
Of course, there are times when I’m disappointed if a customer cancels their membership, but I use those as opportunities to learn where we can improve and then I move on.
When times get tough, what would you say motivates you to keep going? To not hit the snooze button and to keep fighting for your goals.
Having an overarching goal that motivates me is what keeps me going.
Right now that goal is to sell 1 million lifetime memberships. It keeps me motivated in a number of ways.
There’s the knowledge that we’ll impact at least 1 million people around the world by helping them discover ideas that can transform their businesses and lives. There’s also the knowledge that we’ll donate millions of dollars to good causes around the world which will have impact on the lives of millions more.
Finally, there’s the knowledge that if we succeed in this, we’ll have proven that it’s possible to take a good business idea, grow it mainly through an army of advocates, and by building social good directly into the business model. My hope is that we can inspire some of the next generation of entrepreneurs to do the exact same thing.
Is there a type of marketing that has worked amazingly for Readitfor.me? How did you stumble upon it?
Word-of-mouth and partner marketing. We didn’t really stumble upon it, we consciously made it a part of our business model.
But the inspiration for our extreme focus on this came from the book Grouped by Paul Adams (who helped build both Google+ and Facebook).
The insight from that book was that things that spread virally happen through “regular people” rather than through “influencers.” This dramatically changed my world view and how we approach partner marketing here at Readitfor.me.
What do you consider the biggest milestone that you have hit with your business? What was the biggest thing you did to get there?
Although it wasn’t a big milestone in terms of revenue or growth, it was a proof of concept for our charity program. We recently signed our first corporate deal where a large % of revenue goes to the charity.
We believe it’s the first of thousands that we’ll sign in the next 10 years, and the start of an incredible journey that gets us closer to our goal of selling 1 million Lifetime Memberships and all the good I’ve described above that will come from it.
Who has been your greatest influencer along your entrepreneurial journey? How did they shape Readitfor.me?
There have been so many. However, I’ll pick two.
The first is my wife. I think it’s so important to have people in your life - especially those closest to you - to support you in your entrepreneurial journey. My wife has been there for me always - cheering me on through our victories, supporting me in our defeats, and never letting me let go of the vision we’ve painted for our future together.
The second one is my father. He’s the one who instilled the two attributes I described above in me from an early age - grit and a growth mindset.
He never sat me down and lectured me about it. Rather, I learned it from his actions. I remember clearly watching my father read and listen to personal development programs when I was young. Like any kid who wants to know what his father is up to, I asked if I could join him. He patiently and consistently instilled the desire to learn and grow in me from a very young age.
I can’t thank them both enough for what’s they’ve done for me, and for Readitfor.me. We wouldn’t be here today without both of them.
What are the three best pieces of advice that you would give to anyone starting a business? What do they need to know from the very beginning?
- Get good at managing yourself and your emotions. Entrepreneurship is both exhilarating and exhausting. If you can figure out how to manage yourself, you’ll be able to manage your business.
- Get good using storytelling to sell your product/service. A great product that fills a need isn’t enough. If you can figure out how to get your customers to see themselves as part of the story of your growth, you’ll not only be able to sell more, you’ll be able to build that word-of-mouth engine into your business from the very beginning. If you can wrap that story into some larger trend that is unfolding in the world, all the better.
- Ask and listen. If you can get very good at asking what your customers and prospects want from you, and then listen closely to what they tell you, you’ll never have to wonder what products or services to build, or what improvements you should make in the future. It’s a highly underrated skill.