Justin Hong, the current managing partner of Highly Relevant, an internet-marketing company, and founder of Highly Relevant Brands, has two big passions: basketball and entrepreneurship. When asked about his commitment to his favorite team, the Dallas Mavericks, Justin replied, “when the Dallas Mavericks won the NBA championship, it was one of the greatest days of my life…I’d put it up there with getting my first client.”
Entrepreneurship was not Justin’s first career goal. Graduating from Vanderbilt with a degree in economics and working at first as a management trainee for Cintas and a financial consultant for IBM, Justin’s transition to entrepreneurship was inspired by reading Robert Kiyosaki’s book, Rich Dad Poor Dad. The book’s explanation of how wealth is built, a concept that Justin reminds us “isn’t really taught in schools,” inspired Justin to pursue an MBA at the University of Southern California.
While a USC student, Justin wrote a business plan for an Internet marketing consultancy, called The Small Business MBA, and then literally pounded the pavement to source clients. Justin approached businesses in West Los Angeles and Santa Monica and asked them to participate in a marketing survey. The survey ended by asking if the business was interested in a free marketing consultation with Justin, and through one of the marketing consultations, Justin landed his first client.
He also began hosting marketing meet-up seminars to network with other entrepreneurs and prospective clients. It was at one of these events that Justin connected with the founders of Highly Relevant, a fledgling Internet marketing company. Though The Small Business MBA showed promise, faced with student loans and a quickly dwindling bank account, Justin was forced to swallow his pride and take a sales job in order to generate more income. However, he remained in touch with Highly Relevant, and an opportunity arose for Justin to join the company.
Founded in June 2009, with a focus on SEO, Highly Relevant has provided services for over 80 clients (and 100+ websites), laying the foundation for the development of Highly Relevant Brands, a portfolio of Internet businesses including ConcertTickets.com, FixieBikes.com, and VeniceFixies.com. Justin spoke with us from the Highly Relevant headquarters in LA, discussing everything from his love of the Mavericks to his advice for entrepreneurs-on-the-make:
Your journey to Highly Relevant includes a few setbacks. How did you sustain yourself both emotionally and financially?
It’s all about perspective. I always look at setbacks as learning experiences–okay, that didn’t work out, but what can I learn from it? You could consider it a mistake or you could say, “hey, this is something I’ve learned.” You don’t want to beat yourself up about it. You’re always learning, always becoming a better entrepreneur, a better leader. Mistakes and setbacks are all part of improvement, and to make it as an entrepreneur, you’ll need to embrace that.
About making it financially–when I started the Internet marketing consultancy, I only had a few paying clients. It really wasn’t enough to sustain me. I was under a lot of pressure. I had a lot of student loans. I knew that I wanted to go the entrepreneurial route, but I had to set that aside for a time and just say to myself, “I don’t have enough money to support myself right now. I have to go get a job.” I went and got a sales job. It didn’t pay a ton, but I was getting by, and I was getting some good experience. I realized I needed some sales experience, and while working the sales job, I pursued my entrepreneurial projects on the side.
I also get encouragement from writing a “Current Reality Statement.” At one point, when I was working on the Internet marketing consultancy, I had no money in my bank account–literally zero dollars and zero cents. That was the worst. I was so frustrated with working hard and not seeing the results I wanted. That day, I sat down and wrote out everything about my situation, holding nothing back. The benefit of that came months later when I looked back at what I wrote that day, and I was able to see how far I’d come, which gave me encouragement to keep going. I encourage everyone to write a current reality statement, to measure progress and to motivate you to keep moving forward.
There is a lot of competition in the SEO market. What are some of the keys to Highly Relevant’s success?
I’d have to say that building solid strategic partnerships, especially when we were just starting out, was the key to sourcing a lot of our initial work, giving us the revenue needed to build momentum and grow the company. We realized that we could leverage strategic partners, particularly web design and development companies and traditional marketing agencies. When deciding which companies we should develop partnerships with, we first evaluated the other companies in terms of need. What do they need that we can give? What do we need that they can give? And if we saw the potential for a reciprocal relationship, we then paid attention to personality and character. We knew the best relationships would come from companies that we liked and who liked us in turn. Then, as sort of the final point in choosing which relationships to pursue further, we focused on work quality, working style, and communication, wanting, of course, only the best quality work, a working style similar to our own in terms of work ethic and timing, and a communication style similar to our own, particularly in terms of responsiveness. Resources are limited, particularly for start-ups, but for all companies really, and being this strategic in determining which relationships to spend time on helped us maximize the return on our time and investment.
Based on your experiences launching Highly Relevant, what advice do you have for other start-ups?
Hire wisely. Create a solid company culture, and then hire to fit it. Another important factor in Highly Relevant’s success is that we’ve been able to build such a great team. In the beginning, we made some staffing mistakes. We’re located right by UCLA, and with all those college students and recent grad prospects, we initially took on too many–we were kind of bloated with interns. We had a lot of hands to do the work, but we didn’t realize how many resources it takes to manage all those workers. We also didn’t factor in the at-first intangible cost of hiring people who are a bad fit with the company culture–the toll it takes on productivity and morale. From this, my recommendation is to just have your core team and don’t add anybody until you absolutely need to, and then make sure that they fit your company culture.
Make sure you have an established company culture. Decide what your core values are for your company, what three to five values you want to build your company around, and then make sure that everyone you hire aligns with those values. For example, if you’re a company that values freedom and flexibility, and your prospective employee is someone who values discipline and a more rigid structure, it’s not going to be a good fit. At Highly Relevant, our three core values are relentlessness, which is all about work ethic; executing, which is all about getting things done; and then our third value is about attitude and personality–we call it fun/weird. You spend hours every week at the office, with the same team, and you want to spend that time with people you enjoy being around.
What is the next phase for Highly Relevant?
Focus is really important, and after dabbling with building multiple websites as part of our Highly Relevant Brands portfolio, I want to go back and get Highly Relevant running like a well-oiled machine, focusing on growth and efficiency. Once we’ve accomplished that, I’ll focus on each business in the Highly Relevant Brands portfolio in turn, polishing them as well. Now that the foundation is laid, I’m turning my attention back to each individual component, working to maximize its benefit to the whole.
What is one of your personal long-term goals?
I’d like to own a piece of the Dallas Mavericks someday, but I’m not quite there yet.
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