Starting Your Own Company: There's No Blueprint

Chris Ake

Age: 30

Job: President, Kreativ; Co-Founder & President, Grand Apps

Location: Grand Rapids, Michigan

Chris and I connected through Davide Uccello, one of my YoPro interviews from a few weeks ago. Like Davide, Chris is a young entrepreneur with a surplus of wins under his belt. I particularly enjoyed hearing about the earlier years, where he invested a ton of his time into his first business. It was clearly a smart investment on his end. Read about it below.

Give us a brief background on yourself.

I was born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, and then came to Grand Rapids for school, where I played baseball. My senior year there was actually the year I started my first company, and everything just kind of spiraled from there.

What has your career path looked like since your first company?

Currently, I have four separate brands. Three of them are separate entities. The first one I started is called Grand Apps, which we started back in 2011, just before mobile marketing really took off. Our mission was to help make mobile marketing for small businesses easy. We started locally in Grand Rapids, but soon took our services globally, serving clients everywhere from Australia, UK, South Africa, USA & more. Naturally, we started with mobile app development and it has expanded to other areas, which I can tell you more about. We have an agency called Kreativ Strategies, which is the umbrella we use to house all of our projects with Grand Apps. All of the businesses work really well together and we hire each of the other businesses for everything, so we’ve got something good going on. We are actually undergoing our biggest office renovation right now. We just signed a lease for a 3,000 square foot place and we will be putting all of the companies under the same roof now. We have a lot of clients who work with a few of the brands so this will make it easier for everyone. By putting the different businesses all under the same roof is sort of like we are trying to build something bigger than ourselves.

What did the beginning stages of starting your own company look like?

Leading up to my senior year, I had absolutely no clue what I wanted to do, which is the case for probably 87% of students. Then, in one of my marketing classes, I had an assignment where I had to read an article and present it to the class. About ten minutes before class, I researched said article and it was about coupons. And I thought to myself, this guy is going to make a billion dollar industry from online coupons? Now at this time, I wasn’t really into tech, but I just started going down this rabbit hole. I got really into it and tried to get my friend in on the plan. Unfortunately for me, he had just gotten his dream job, so I used the $2,000 I had to my name to hire somebody from India to build the site I had envisioned. This all happened before my senior year of college.

During the last four to five months of school, I was working at an event downtown, and I met this guy Jacob, who told me he was starting a company and we just had some synergy. He approached me in November and said he thought that mobile was going to be the next wave, and he said we should get into this. I was taking 15 credits and working 30 hours on the weekend, all while making cold calls in between my classes trying to make sales for this guy I had just met. Jacob was 27 at the time and I was 22, so he really was my first true mentor and partner. We registered Grand Apps in November of 2011 and got off to the races. I’d like to add that for all of 2012 and half of 2013, I was waiting tables every single weekend on top of this work. We started the company from Jacob's basement, which also belonged to the chiropractic clinic above it. Imagine shag carpet, some wood paneling, and a restroom we couldn't even use, so we went to the 7-11 across the street. I had to buy stuff from there just to use the restroom, so it was definitely what you think of when you think of a startup.

What are some hardships you’ve had in your young professional career, and how did you overcome them?

One that I can think of right away happened right around when I graduated, and I got pretty sick. I had an infection on my neck that turned into a lump on my neck. The first thing I did was, of course, go to WebMD, and you can imagine how that went. I didn’t have health insurance, I was on my own, and I was pretty scared. It sucked because I was going to the doctors all the time, where they couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me. And to top it all off, I was waiting tables and trying to start the company, and I went through sort of a depression which lasted about six months. I wouldn’t talk to anyone, and it was literally hell for me. I’m happy it happened because it built a lot of character and gave me lessons that I could reflect on later. It also made me realize that mistakes at work really aren’t that big of a deal and life will go on, especially when I put something like this into perspective. As long as you’re living, you’re good. That was the hardest thing for me. So when I hear about people wanting to give up after a few months of something, I say work for it, because my partner and I were doing what we were doing for two whole years before we made any money, but we got through it. Luckily everything is good now, and I’m healthy again. Having this happen to me had some really positive results. To this day, I am very health-conscious and it’s a big focus for me now.

Has your age played a positive or negative role in your career?

Both. The way that it has helped me is that people know that I am the young guy, so they look to me for marketing and tech needs because they think I just get it, being a millennial and whatnot. Now, on the other side of things, my age hurts me because people will also say, “well, what do you know?”. Now that I’m 30 and have a few gray hairs, I’m right in the middle there. I would say when I was starting off at age 22, it definitely hurt me a lot more than helped me, but there’s more of a balance now in my current stage of life. I’ve also tried to use my age to my advantage when meeting with new people, or whomever. I’ll tell them, “so what, I’m young, but I have a lot to learn and that’s why I am here,” and I think that resonates with people.

How did you find investors?

So we actually had no investors. We bootstrapped everything. It all came down to having somebody believe in me, and that person was Jacob, my first partner and mentor. I helped him with his company, so he saw that I worked hard, and that’s why he got on board. As far as raising capital, I’ve never actually raised any capital, and I really want to at one point in my life. I want to pick a product and go raise it. Approaching clients can be tough, and you have to respect that you’ll get a lot of no’s. It was humbling for us to say the least.

Why have you stayed with your job for seven years?

Based on my personality, I’m competitive. Entrepreneurship really works for me. I never thought I wanted to be one, but at a very pivotal moment in my life when I was getting a lot of requests from clients to build more pages, I decided to teach myself how to build pages. The more I went through with it, I started thinking to myself “Chris, do you want to be known as the best damn WordPress developer in the city, or do you want to be a really bad-ass entrepreneur?” Either one is going to take an equal amount of time, but I knew the answer immediately because I knew I wasn’t going to be the best developer. So, we went ahead and hired WordPress developers. I fought myself for years on what I was really good at and really doubled down on my strengths. I started seeing my success when I learned to use my strengths and accept them. So now, the reason I like my job is because it fits me, and it allows me to constantly solve problems. There is no blueprint to run a business or how to start one; it’s whatever works for your organization. I like the challenge of doing new things, but it’s also important to remember to slow down. I’ve been having this conversation with a lot of younger people recently, who might see me after seven years of doing this, and now here I am with four big projects. I try to tell them to slow down and just really build something up. I have the infrastructure in place, and we are built up, but we had to focus for six years to get here. So that’s the reason I like it. I’m having fun, and I really never feel like I work at all.

If you could describe your career in a phrase, what would it be?

It has been a rollercoaster, to say the least. It is not a steady progression. An investment with a vision in mind. I knew what I wanted to build, but I had to invest a lot of time with no return at the beginning. People are not as willing to take those risks. You have to focus, and I think I put a lot of time at the beginning, where I learned so much in my twenties, that I now am more dangerous going into my 30s. Try to focus on money, sure, but really focus on the experience and skills you want to build up so that when you’re in your 30s, you know how you want to leverage all of that experience. Just keep in mind the long-term vision. I think a lot of people in their twenties are comparing themselves to others, especially with social media. Take a bit of a gamble, risk, and invest in your twenties, and then your thirties are awesome.

The YoPro Know's Takeaways:

- Use your age to your advantage

- There is no blueprint in starting a company or how to run one

- Focus on the skills and experiences you want to gain

- Take a bit of a gamble, risk, and invest in your twenties, and then your thirties are awesome

Check it out: Grand Apps, Kreativ Strategies, Grand Rapids