A Founder’s Journey Requires Finding Your Niche With Steve Ohanians
November 21, 2022
VENTEUR spoke with Steve Ohanians, Co-Founder and CEO of WebEnertia, a digital agency that designs and develops websites and digital brand experiences for B2B organizations. Ohanians co-founded WebEnertia because he was obsessed with designing and building websites in the '90s, not because he wanted to scale and grow an agency. His passion motivates him to push the needle forward for his agency and the world of digital 20+ years later.
The entrepreneurial journey is one of self-discovery. What have you learned about yourself while building your business?
Accepting difficulties and failures is part of the entrepreneurial journey, and finding love in what you do is just as rewarding as doing something you love. I transitioned from a more functional design role to CEO and have loved both aspects of those positions. Any leader will tell you that their team is their most significant asset – but I believe it's more than that. You must appreciate your team, clients, and partners and never take them for granted.
The entrepreneurial journey is often lonely. Have you experienced loneliness as an entrepreneur?
I started my company with a business partner who is still an integral part of our company. This partnership allowed me to have a sounding board and support for decisions, whether those decisions were right or a misstep, and we've also remained close friends.
What role has intuition played in your success as an entrepreneur, and why do you think this is the case?
As an entrepreneur, making difficult decisions is a regular occurrence, and intuition does play a significant role in success. But it's important to understand that intuition is not just your gut decision in a vacuum—it has to be informed by experience, data, and other contexts to help make the right decision.
The Psychological Warfare
Entrepreneurs generally sleep less, work more, and let their health slip. This combination, combined with loneliness, often results in insecurity, self-esteem issues, and low self-worth. Have you experienced any of these issues as an entrepreneur?
The dedication and extra hours were never inconvenient; the responsibility of being a business owner and doing an excellent job for my company, clients, and employees gave me anxiety. To help manage my anxiety, I am honest with my business partner and family about my battle, and I'm mindful that my expectations for myself outweigh others' expectations of me. It's also essential to maximize the things that make me happy, whether at work or away from work.
Newer entrepreneurs often equate their success with the success and value of their business. If their business fails, they are a failure. If their business succeeds, they are a success. Have you experienced this warped perception of reality?
I was never the entrepreneur that started 100 businesses, failed at 98, and killed it on 2. I accidentally became an entrepreneur because I was doing what I love and had a survival instinct to keep doing it. That meant I put a lot of thought, effort, and strategy into every decision, especially the risky ones. However, I did learn along the way that minor setbacks serve as necessary learning blocks to move you and your business forward.
What are your three biggest fears as an entrepreneur, and how do you manage those fears?
1. Making a significant mistake that threatens the viability of my business and team.
2. Not having enough work to support the viability of my business and team.
3. Regretting not doing something.
What are three mistakes you made early on as an entrepreneur, what did you learn from them, and how can others avoid them?
1. Paying Attention to the Details Like Proofreading
We misspelled "marketing" on the sign for our first office. My team and I learned the importance of proofreading very quickly. It was pretty embarrassing for a digital marketing agency. Typos and spelling mistakes are a big deal in marketing and can harm your credibility.
2. Trusting Others With Tasks
When I co-founded my company, I tried to do it all and had a hard time letting go and delegating specific tasks and responsibilities. I had an incredible team, but as the leader, I needed to trust others with important decisions. I had to learn that I was the bottleneck and required to give over some responsibility to others. Ultimately, this was better for me and our business because it freed me up from many tasks and enabled me to focus more on the strategy driving the company forward.
3. It’s Critical To Find Your Niche
Start your business without determining your niche and the factors differentiating you from competitors. You'll try to serve every potential customer, regardless of their industry or alignment. Know your mission and your values first. Then, move from there when accepting new clients. It's better to know your niche and serve it well than try, and fail, to serve every company under the sun.
What are three things you see that are often overlooked by entrepreneurs you encounter, and how can other entrepreneurs be aware of these things from the beginning?
1. Be Flexible With Your Time
Some people choose the entrepreneurial route because they believe it'll give them more control over spending their time than a traditional nine-to-five would offer. Yes, you get more control over what you're doing, but you also have less control over how much time you spend on it.
When you become an entrepreneur, every actual and potential company problem becomes your responsibility to figure out. Rarely do those problem-solving sessions fit within a 40-hour work week. It's not that you can't have balance in life as an entrepreneur. You certainly can and must have time to spend on personally valuable things.
However, it will never be even half work and half personal time. This is why it's so important to enjoy what you do, learn to delegate, and rest when it's available.
2. Don’t Forget Your Existing Customers
Many entrepreneurs focus so much on generating new leads and finding new customers that they neglect their existing customers. This is a costly thing to overlook. Your current customers are an incredible asset, and serving them during and after the buying process is crucial. One positive customer experience can improve everything from the business's bottom line to your brand's overall reputation in the marketplace.
3. Do What You Love
This is easier said than done, of course, but every entrepreneur should work to figure out how they can do what they love in their work.
First, find something to enjoy in your work. The best way to combat burnout is to be proactive and look for things to enjoy daily. Learn to delegate the tasks that weigh down your schedule or add frustration, and focus your energy on leadership, building your company, and the elements you enjoy.
What are some seemingly insurmountable obstacles you've faced as an entrepreneur, and how have you overcome them?
1. Going through embezzlement by an employee.
2. Winning that first game-changing project bid with pure determination while not exceptionally qualified.
3. Bootstrapping a very successful business without funding or taking on any debt.
What are three ways you have managed to boost your productivity without causing burnout?
1. Rest and Time To Take a Break
I am at my most creative (and therefore most productive) when I am rested and have sufficient time away from work. I schedule a trip once a year and entirely remove myself from work. My team knows I am (for the most part) unreachable, which helps me to disconnect. As a result, I always come back with more creative energy and ideas.
2. Delegate Tasks
I learned the hard way just how essential it is to delegate tasks at work. Now, I've taken a step back on some of the everyday processes of our work—specifically design and development—and trust my team to take care of them.
Now that I've delegate, I've focus more energy on the company's direction and other important initiatives. Of course, it doesn't mean I'm hands-off and unable to participate or contribute to the critical decisions in our client's projects. It means that I'm not weighed down by the responsibility of making those project decisions while making larger company decisions.
3. My Job Is Ultimately My Passion
I spend every day doing something I love. This enjoyment helps prevent burnout because I am passionate about my work and find every day enjoyable. If I could encourage entrepreneurs in anything, it would be to find a passion for and an interest in what they're doing so that they can be motivated to keep on for years and decades to come.
How can newer entrepreneurs develop a healthy work-life balance even when it seems impossible?
A healthy work-life balance is subjective, and it takes time to figure out what you, as an individual, need to thrive. It's rarely a 50/50 work-life balance that ends up working in the long run. My advice is to take any opportunity to do the things that bring you joy, whether grabbing a spontaneous meal with friends and loved ones or playing an instrument. These little pockets of personal time can help balance entrepreneurs' stress and strain.
What three key pieces of advice would have made your entrepreneurial journey more manageable, and why?
1. Balancing Your Life
Don't expect a perfect work-life balance or total freedom in your schedule. Instead, learn to enjoy your work and your time, and know that it may never be equally divided.
2. Say No
Whether this is to prospects that don't align with your niche, trends that don't fit your brand, or tasks that you can't reasonably manage, say no and say it early, so you don't get stuck in a rut of being an overcommitted "yes" person.
3. Praise Your Team
As a leader, it's easy to get caught up in perfection and in trying to build your business to be the best it can be. Remember to celebrate your team, give direct and sincere praise, and focus on your company's good deeds.
What is the most significant difference between how an entrepreneur sees their career path versus how an employee at a company sees their career path, and why?
Entrepreneurs have more ownership and responsibility in their career paths than employees at companies. Entrepreneurs do a considerable amount of decision-making to determine what they want to do, how they want to do it, and whether or not they'll be able to sustain it. It's an enormous amount of pressure, but it's also a great deal of freedom that entrepreneurs carry. You get to define everything from how much you make, to the tasks that are your responsibilities, to the team you work with. It takes a great deal of vision to create a company, build it, bring people on board, and continue to grow the brand. You have to be very future-oriented.
For people who work for larger companies (that they do not own or did not build from the ground up), there is still plenty of decision-making, but ultimately, you're not defining the direction of a brand. For the most part, employees are active participants in the growth and direction of their companies—and they can play a critical role in defining those things—but they don't carry the same responsibility or ownership as entrepreneurs.
Ultimately, it comes down to the cost of the career path. Entrepreneurs will likely pay a higher price by taking on this role—but they may also reap a higher reward. Once you're an entrepreneur, you're always an entrepreneur. You never lose that entrepreneurial spirit that drives you to want to own projects and create new things. On the flip side, employees at companies can easily up and leave and create a new career path or start at a new company at any given time. In some ways, being an employee offers greater personal flexibility because you are ultimately only responsible for yourself, not your company (and your company's employees) at the end of the day.
Entrepreneurs turn to VENTEUR for the insights necessary to succeed in business. Our mission to empower entrepreneurs has never been more important than it is now. Financial contributions are critical for VENTEUR to continue providing in-depth resources and original journalism for the entrepreneurial community. Please consider making a contribution to VENTEUR today.