How many online marketing experts have you seen share all the mistakes they’ve made while building their businesses? Not many, I bet. That’s why Neil Patel’s openness about his own failures has always been so refreshing.
It seems a bit counter-intuitive to tell your agency’s potential marketing customers about the biggest marketing mistakes you’ve made in your career, or worse, to admit to your massive blog audience that what you’ve been teaching them is wrong.
However, if Neil’s success throughout the years has been any indication, this kind of transparency has only bolstered his position of one of the most knowledgeable and respected online marketing experts to date. Today, Neil Patel is one of the fiercest competitive marketers around.
Between interviews where he reflects on his journey since starting his first business at age 16, to conference talks where he gets into the details of his worst business decisions, Neil Patel has consistently reviewed many hard lessons he’s learned as an entrepreneur.
Let’s take a look at some of the biggest mistakes he’s made during his career, and the lessons we can learn from him to build better businesses for ourselves.
Mistake #1: Picking the wrong business partners
As an early entrepreneur, Neil’s criteria for picking business partners was pretty simple. They just had to be a cool Ivy League graduate he was friendly with, who would cosign all his ideas.
After one particularly expensive legal battle with such a business partner in CrazyEgg, Neil realized this formula simply wasn’t the best approach for finding people to work with.
Today, he recommends a few different criteria for anyone considering partnering in business:
- Work with the person for a while before entering into a partnership, so that you can learn their work and leadership style
- Pick opposites, i.e. someone whose strengths complement your weaknesses, and who can constructively question your decisions to ensure you’re doing what’s best for the company
- Make sure the person is financially stable, so that decisions will be made in the interest of the company, and not their personal needs
- Have really good contracts in place that stipulate what will happen if your business relationship goes south
Navigating working relationships can be tricky, but with these things considered, it will go a lot smoother for all the parties involved. For evidence, just look at the positive listener reviews that Neil Patel’s Marketing School podcast gets, a partnership he maintains with Single Grain’s Eric Siu. Seems like he’s figured out how to partner with the right people in recent years, even if that example is more of a collaboration than a proper business venture.
‘Don’t look for an idea, look for a problem you can solve’
Mistake #2: Starting businesses from ideas, not problems
Neil started his first online business as a teen – a job board website called Advice Monkey – because he wanted to get a job but couldn’t find one. Even after learning various marketing tactics and building the traffic on his site, it still did not become successful.
Luckily, he realised the potential of his newly gained marketing knowledge and pivoted to starting an advertising agency, which became a lot more successful, because that was a service companies were clamouring for at the time.
This taught Neil one of the most important rules of starting a business: whatever you’re selling must be something your audience wants, not just something you think would be interesting. As he puts it, “Don’t look for an idea, look for a problem you can solve.”
Mistake #3: Trying to fix your weaknesses
Trying to strengthen your weak areas, particularly as an entrepreneur, is not inherently a bad idea. However, if you are stronger in certain areas and prone to neglecting or doing poorly in others, then spending your time trying to fix the latter will not be the best route for your business.
Neil’s weakness? Managing companies and people. As a result of this, he no longer serves as CEO of his companies. Instead, he hires key people he trusts to run his businesses, while he focuses on what he does best – traffic acquisition, sales and marketing, and making deals.
He has also told interviewers that he doesn’t take on the CEO role for any of his business projects – not even the Neil Patel Digital agency, which still manages to receive positive reviews from customers. “I don’t enjoy being a CEO,” he recently told Mixergy’s Andrew Warner. “I don’t enjoy managing hundreds of employees. I enjoy being a marketer. So that’s what I do.”
Always know where your skills and passions are, and delegate the rest.
Mistake #4: Trying to build multiple projects at once
You may be surprised to hear a serial entrepreneur like Neil Patel advise against building more than one company at the same time. After all, even he says it’s something he still struggles with.
When asked about how he imagines his ideal life and whether he’d still be doing the same work he’s done throughout his career, Neil admits, “I would be doing the same thing, probably a bit less. I’m doing too many things. I’d focus more and just keep growing, and nothing else.”
When you try to build too many things, you often lose focus on the things that actually make your business run, i.e. your sales and revenue, a lesson Neil learned from his first marketing agency, where he tried to build a PPC software company, an analytics company, a web design business and Facebook ad agency all at one, and ended up failing with most of them.
To counteract this approach, Neil recommends having laser focus on growth of one business, and innovating on the core business that generates revenue to attract as large a market share as possible, instead of developing new products. Once your revenue starts flattening or slowing down, then you can focus on expanding.
Mistake #5: Focusing only on growing traffic
Nowadays, Neil is big on converting traffic to your site into users and customers. In fact, it’s the topic talks most about on his personal blog and daily Marketing School podcast. But this wasn’t always the case.
Back in the day, Neil was all about getting loads and loads of traffic to his sites, which sounds amazing until you learn that very little of this traffic converted to actual revenue for his business. “I grew my search traffic by 123pc while my revenue only grew by 12.5pc, he wrote in a harsh review of his own SEO efforts, “not a good deal.”
The problem, Neil admits, was that he was so focused on traffic acquisition, and paid little attention to ensuring he was attracting the right kind of visitors who actually wanted his products and services, and also optimizing his pages to maximise conversions. This is why he focuses so heavily on these topics in his most recent content.
Of course, Neil still advocates for traffic growth, but not as much as he used to. “Yes, I do look at my traffic growth over time as it gives me a good idea as to which of the changes I am making are working,” he wrote, “but I don’t track rankings as I believe it is a waste of time. I focus on conversions and revenue.”
Learn from Neil Patel
According to Neil Patel, what leads to business success is the part that comes afterwards: “What separates the guys that are really successful versus the average entrepreneur is that the successful ones learn from their mistakes and they avoid making the same one over and over again.”
Mistakes are inevitable, especially for entrepreneurs. When doing the hard job of finding new solutions to the problems we have, and turning them into full-fledged businesses, you’re bound to have a few roadblocks and accidents along the way.