The idea built up slowly in George Weiner’s mind. When it became an obsession that kept him up at night, he created Whole Whale.
In this edition of How I Started, George tells us how he leveraged the network and skills he built up during his early career into a business that was profitable from day one.
Before Whole Whale, George was CTO of DoSomething.org for seven years, where he implemented innovative data and technology strategies. Under his leadership, the organization built a community of more than 1.5 million young people taking action.
He created Whole Whale to help other nonprofits benefit from the digital strategies he developed.
Here’s how George Weiner started.
What do you sell?
Whole Whale is a digital agency that leverages data and technology to increase the impact of nonprofits.
When did you start this business?
I started Whole Whale in 2010.
Where did the business idea come from?
The idea was built over time in my previous work at a tech-savvy nonprofit.
Then it became an awesome idea for an article.
Eventually, it wouldn’t let me sleep.
Did you have a written business plan?
Yes, my business coach recommended that I create a business plan.
Stating goals on paper and having others review them has a powerful impact on behavior.
While I didn’t go back to review the plan, it was a critical first step to acknowledge the assumptions and core elements of what the company was.
What business structure did you start with and why?
I started Whole Whale as an LLC in Delaware. As we grew, we became an Elect C Corporation for tax purposes.
I considered starting as a nonprofit but found the structure too limiting.
What would you do differently if you were starting today?
If I were starting today, I would go after higher paying clients sooner.
I would manage to a balanced budget rather than a surplus, and I would hire full-time staff sooner.
Customers and Revenue
What was your financial runway when you started?
I bootstrapped — I waited to land a large client with contracted revenue before leaving my job.
How long until you became profitable?
I am very risk-averse, so we were profitable on day one. We’ve been profitable every quarter since.
If clients were not going to pay for our services, we would take that as a signal from the market that we shouldn’t exist.
How did you get your first customer(s)?
90 percent of our initial customers came from my personal network and my history of giving away advice for free.
My first customer was a small retainer that I was doing as a side freelance for a friend. As those small retainers built up, I was able to build a revenue runway.
How has your customer acquisition evolved?
We have moved from 100 percent of customers coming from my network to 20 percent.
As our client base grew, our high-quality work led to referrals from past clients becoming the primary source.
Following that, we work diligently on our content and front-end marketing to drive business leads.
Name 2 – 3 tools you and your business can’t run without.
What one tool have you discovered that has changed your business, and why?
Slack has led to increased communication and efficiency for client management.
Asana is also critical for tracking activity.
Email marketing software?
Growing your business
What was the first position you hired?
My first employee was a Digital Whaler. This position is like a Swiss Army knife — someone who could do a little of all of my skills.
Do you use coaches, mentors, or a mastermind group? If so, how did you find them?
Yes, mentors like Seth Godin inspired me to start the company in the first place.
The people I met in the nano-MBA program helped keep me motivated.
A coach, Jerry Colona play a huge role in keeping me focused on how to evolve my vision.
What books would you credit with helping you start, grow or scale your business or mindset?
I try to read a minimum of three books a month by leaders in business or thought.
There are so many different lenses through which to consider your business depending on the phase you are in. I think it is important not to get caught in just one author’s lens.
That said, these books had a huge influence on my early career:
- Purple Cow and Permission Marketing, by Seth Godin.
- Books and tactics by Perry Marshall about marketing and ads.
- Web Analytics 2.0, by Avinash Kaushik, framed the importance of web analytics.
What is the best piece of business advice you ever received?
Pay yourself first. If your company can’t feed you, how will it be able to feed others? This is a grounding thought.
Your idea will never work for one of two reasons: it’s never been done before, or it has already been done.
Seth Godin reminds people to ship things into the world instead of getting caught up on should or shouldn’t.
The risk-averse way to launch a business
The story of Whole Whale demonstrates that starting your own business doesn’t have to mean taking huge risks.
Because George Weiner waited until he had contracted clients to make the jump, he knew the idea behind Whole Whale could work.
Make sure you don’t miss the next edition of How I Started, when we’ll get behind the scenes with a story from another entrepreneur who turned ideas into action.