In an increasingly competitive web design world, a business has not only been successful, but has stood the test of time. I recently had the opportunity to interview WebEnertia co-founder Steve Ohanians about his entrepreneurial journey after joining the Inc 5000 list. He and his co-founder Valod Amirkhanian were in their twenties, working in Amirkhanian’s parents’ spare bedroom when they started the business. Now they serve major clients like Google, Facebook and Cisco as well as others in Silicon Valley.
Obviously, they are doing something right. So what’s his secret to competing in a saturated industry and becoming a market leader? While maintaining his status of best friend with his co-founder? I asked him to know.
Shama Hyder: You and your co-founder started your business from a friends room in his parents’ house. Today, your customer list includes companies like Google, Facebook, and Cisco. How did you get your first clients?
Steve Ohanians: When we started out, we were looking for every opportunity to build websites. It doesn’t matter if the website is for a small business in the neighborhood or for our group of friends. By knocking on enough doors, we finally had the opportunity to design websites for startups and midsize businesses.
Once we had the wind in our sails, we knew we had to build trust by delivering. We have a 94% customer retention rate because we value all aspects of the customer experience, from design to accounting. At the end of the day, people are what matters most in business.
Shama: What were the challenges you encountered when starting your business?
Steve: I am an accidental entrepreneur. I co-founded WebEnertia because I was obsessed with designing and building websites in the 90s, not because I wanted to scale and grow an agency. And although today I take on these challenges as CEO, it was a lot of trial and error. The digital agency business was brand new at the time, so I didn’t have peers to count on nor good practices to benchmark to properly develop the agency.
Given our location in Silicon Valley, we compete with the world’s leading technology companies for design, engineering and project management talent. And with the perks, campus amenities, stock options, and salaries they can offer, it’s hard to compete. Hiring is tough, so we had to take a thoughtful scale approach. We purposefully and intentionally hire employees who embody our core values and reinforce our culture, and we will take our time to find the right fit.
Shama: You co-founded your business with your best friend, Valod Amirkhanian. What advice would you give to entrepreneurs who are considering doing business with their friends?
Steve: My first tip is to make sure you and your friends really think about what you’re getting into. Compatibility in friendship does not always translate directly into compatibility in a business partnership. In business, the stakes are higher, difficult conversations are more frequent, and tensions can become high. Amplify that with the different expectations and perspectives of each partner, and the business will emphasize the limits of your friendship. And that inevitably changes the dynamics of your relationship, forever. For Valod and I, working together only increased our mutual respect and trust and made the strength of our friendship much more substantial.
My second tip is to take the time to be friends. We make a point of going to hockey games together, taking vacations with our families and having lunch together every day. Something about sharing food forces us to focus on the outside of work. In fact, having lunch together has become a WebEnertia tradition. We buy the team’s lunch every day at the office, and we ask them to sit around a table, tidy up work for an hour, and have lunch together. It’s our secret to building the camaraderie that we practice with the entire agency.
Shama: What can entrepreneurs learn from your experience and success with WebEnertia?
Steve: Remember to focus on your people. Great culture can attract great talent and it inspires the team to give the best of themselves. Our mission, vision and values are not only clearly defined, they are operationalized in all aspects of our agency. The work we do is difficult, so we are constantly working to create an environment that ensures our team is supported and heard.
Know your weaknesses because identifying them will force you to correct them and grow. Our agency’s operating process includes identifying and resolving issues on a weekly, quarterly and annual basis. I read somewhere that the weaknesses are as weak as you let them be, and it is absolutely true.