Sir, yes sir! Four key strategies for creating a million-dollar start-up

Keenan Beasley, 32, a West Point graduate and college football player, left a brilliant career in brand marketing leading global brands like Tide, Duracell, Lysol, L'Oreal and Gillette — to launch his own advertising firm at age 29. BLKBOX, a NY-based millennial marketing agency which boasts global clients Beach Body, Smirnoff, French's Mustard and others, is already profitable just two years in with revenues over $5 million. Here's his advice for launching a start-up.

I wrote a business plan when I was 26 years old, sitting on a couch with a friend from Miami, drinking 40's (cheap beer for those who haven't had the pleasure) and Hennessy. At the time, I was serving as an assistant brand manager for Procter & Gamble, and every day, I was fielding the same questions from people throughout the company:

Hey Keenan, you're a millennial, what do you think about this?

Hey Keenan, how do we amp up the diversity on this?

Hey Keenan… why don't you start a business?

That last question wasn't from anyone at P&G. It was the one that kept running through my head, on constant repeat. I was already functioning as a consultant within the company — why not build an agency that would provide that service on my own terms?

"Starting a business before you're 30 is the craziest, stupidest thing you can do. Until it's the smartest."

A few years later, along with my business partner, Dionna McPhatter, we launched The Strategy Collective, now called BLKBOX. But it hasn't been all roses. Starting a business before you're 30 is the craziest, stupidest thing you can do. Until it's the smartest. And it requires all of you. For me, that meant I've had to lean on the lessons I'd learned during my time as a cadet at West Point, an NCAA athlete, and later, as a global brand manager. If you're always learning, no time goes to waste.

Adopt a 'cooperate and graduate' mentality

Believe it or not, my experience at West Point has been invaluable as an entrepreneur. It seems counterintuitive. How does a guy who was drilled to be an officer in the U.S. Army — one of the squarest, most hierarchical organizations on the face of the planet — end up running a creative agency? I'll spare you the "business is war," analogies. In reality, I learned how to multitask at West Point. I learned to transition from early morning military formations (where I was a soldier), to the classroom (where I was a student), to the football field (where I was an athlete). As anyone who is an entrepreneur will tell you — you have to be able to adapt quickly to whatever role you need to play in order to keep the business moving.

West Point also drilled into me the concept of "collaborate and graduate." You juggle so much as a cadet — and you learn very quickly that the only way to get it all done is to work together. I think too often today, entrepreneurs are seen as lone wolves that go off into a dark room and come out with a brilliant idea that's ready to shake the world. That's not my experience. I take every meeting. I regularly talk to other entrepreneurs. I seek out help from mentors and know that I won't be able to survive if I go it alone.

Find your competitive advantage

You learn similar lessons as an athlete — the importance of team. But as a former defensive lineman-turned-entrepreneur, I'm constantly remembering the value of competitive advantage. On the football field, the only way to win was to cultivate speed, strength, endurance and mental toughness that outpaced our opponents. In the same way, without a competitive edge in business, you will get lost among the throngs of other people doing similar work.

When I began to contemplate starting a marketing agency, I knew I needed to articulate my edge — what would set us apart. The questions my managers asked me at P&G became a guidepost. The corporation was busy trying to understand young, diverse consumers — and here I was, completely in tune with the people they needed to reach. My first business plan was birthed out of that difference.

Too often, young entrepreneurs think that a good idea alone will sustain a business. But, try to think like an athlete. Everyone is showing up to the field ready to play the same game. What's your competitive advantage? Consider where your peers already turn to you for expertise. What questions are they asking? What opinions are you giving that really resonate with people? That's your edge. That's your starting point.

Keenan Beasley Co-Founder & Managing Partner, The Strategy Collective.
Source: Keenan Beasley
Keenan Beasley Co-Founder & Managing Partner, The Strategy Collective.

Know when it's time to quit your day job

The time to start a business is when you are confident that you have enough knowledge and an idea of where you will be successful. For Mark Zuckerberg, that meant dropping out of college and starting right away. My route was different. I'm grateful now that even though I wrote a business plan when I was 26, I didn't enact it until I was four years older, and two levels higher, serving as a vice president at L'Oreal USA. Those in-between years were essential to my development as a leader and my confidence as a young entrepreneur.

And just as important as it was to decide when to start, was to decide when I would walk away. Dionna and I set a financial goal for our first year in business. If we could reach that number, we decided, we would continue down the path. Now, two years in — we can't imagine going back to our jobs in the corporate world. But not all businesses are successful, and I'm grateful we gave ourselves a clear benchmark to hit. When we reached that goal, we knew we'd landed on something special.

Never stop learning

Everyone knows that starting a business is hard, but the level of difficulty has been higher and harder than I ever imagined. Being young has its advantages — it means I have more energy, more swagger, and more years ahead of me than a lot of my competitors. But it can also be kryptonite, especially if you let ego get in the way of your own development.

I carry a notebook around everywhere I go because I'm convinced that no matter where I am, no matter who I'm talking to, there's something I can learn. Learning means accepting the fact that you might not have it all together and that something you created might need to change. In fact, The Strategy Collective is in the middle of a full re-brand — a new chapter. It's not that what we've done in the past is wrong — it's that we see new opportunities for growth in the future. Humility is an essential ingredient for successful entrepreneurship. After all, the businesses that die are the ones whose leaders think they already know the answers.

Commentary by Keenan Beasley, co-founder, managing director,BLKBOX, a millennial advertising and marketing agency. The West Point graduate is also an adviser to a number of start-up companies and a regular lecturer at the USC Marshall School of Business. Follow him on Twitter @kbeasley97.

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