Building a Nation: 5 Startup Lessons Learned When I Was 15

I was 15, and all I knew was that the lacrosse media sucked.

With that insight as motivation, we built Lax Nation. In so doing, our team built a media company with a devoted community from 2003–2005. Our dev team (a 16 year old who I never met in person) built a CMS from scratch. We were bootstrapped and profitable. We blogged before it was cool. We were totally on to something.

The Problem

Lax Nation’s story begins like so many others: I had a passion and identified a problem associated with it. My passion at the age of 15 was lacrosse, and my problem was that the lacrosse media acted as fans rather than journalists. Their interest in advancing the sport (shortsightedly) informed their work more than any sense of journalistic integrity.

The Solution

The most interesting analysis of the sport and the economy of manufacturers and retailers growing around it lived in forums. Lacrosse fans congregated on specific forums to review products, debate controversies in the NCAA, and analyze the fledgling Major League Lacrosse (MLL). I hoped to synthesize, elevate, and sharpen the voice of this community in the form of a scrappy, honest, fearless media outlet.

It worked. We did it.

I picked members of the forums with a sharp wit, a clear perspective, and a knack for pithy writing. These men and women, my writers (I had writers! wtf?!), came from all over. Some of them coached NCAA teams, others played for their college or high school teams, and others had corporate jobs and a fond memories of athletic glory. They all enjoyed writing, agreed with the vision, had time to spare, and liked getting free lacrosse equipment.

Lessons Learned

Fast forward 13 years: I’m 28, work at a startup, and dream of doing my own. In my free time, I learn from the masters and read the startup canon (most recently consuming the works of Eric Ries, Paul Graham, Noam Wasserman, Steve Blank, and Fred Wilson). Much of what I learn from these readings and from my work confirms that we were on to something with Lax Nation; it’s also a bittersweet wake-up call that if we had just done a few things differently, we could have become something much bigger.

Lesson 1: Never underestimate the power of a shared vision.

Our writers’ satisfaction with free equipment as compensation speaks to a broader principle: dedication to a compelling vision is the best intrinsic motivator a company can foster. I knew nothing of equity and couldn’t pay any salaries. Free equipment was my only tangible currency, but I offered the intangible promise of fundamentally altering the community dedicated to the sport we loved.

It required a great deal of work to maintain focus on this vision and its credibility. We had to demonstrate meaningful progress toward it. Whether in appearing at conferences and having our name recognized, getting angry calls from the subjects of a negative review, to stoking the flames of debate through aggressively opinionated content and active participation in comments, it was important that writers always felt that they had a stake in, and indeed were responsible for, moving the needle of lacrosse-related discourse. It has to be lived, not just imagined.

Lesson 2: Assume everyone will help you, and many will.

The writers did the yeoman’s work of building the site, but we got a nice boost from some big names. Surprisingly, professional lacrosse players were eager to contribute to the site from its very inception. We had major (in our world) celebrities writing op-eds and reviews, doing interviews and helping us out. They asked for nothing. We gained instant credibility. Some charm, the offer of a platform, and a nod towards our mutual interest in bettering the sport was all they needed.

Lesson 3: It’s easiest to stray from values early in a company’s life; don’t!

We gained a sizable audience, bringing in thousands of visitors a month (no Google Analytics made tracking these metrics a bit tricky), and started to land our first advertising contracts. Our biggest advertiser was Brine, one of the biggest equipment manufacturers and the focus of many of our reviews.

A few months after their ads went up, we posted a scathing (and well-earned) critique of their first helmet (the reviewer had his nose broken during testing… not a good sign). I received a call from Brine’s Director of Marketing insisting that we take the article or the ads down, our choice.

Knowing what this meant for our bottom line, we took the ads down. Instead of compromising our integrity, we posted a followup to the review detailing Brine’s demands and our commitment to our values. The article circulated widely, traffic spiked, and our credibility was cemented. It was our proudest moment, and one I still reflect upon often.

Lesson 4: Anyone can start a company.

When I tell people the story of Lax Nation now, their favorite part is always that no one knew how old I was. I remember going to the U.S. Lacrosse Convention in Philadelphia (to which I had to take the train because I wasn’t a licensed driver yet), and standing with my best writer. He was 28 or 29. Speaking to an exec at one of the major lacrosse manufacturers, he asked, “Do you want to meet Ben Stern?” The exec said, “Oh, yeah, is he here?!” The writer told him to look around, see if he could pick me out. After four failed tries, he pointed to me, and said, “it’s this kid here.” It took some effort to convince him that I was actually the guy behind Lax Nation.

Whether in press booths, conventions, or advertising meetings, my age was always the first topic of conversation. But once we got past it, everyone was all business. Once people know you’re serious, it doesn’t matter what you look like, how old you are, or where you come from. Good work speaks for itself.

Lesson 5: Missed opportunities are everywhere; education can fix that.

When I started college, I passed Lax Nation on to my two longest-tenured writers for a nominal sum, who used it as a launch pad for their writing careers. One of them is now among the best writers in the whole sport of lacrosse. I’m glad it served this purpose.

However, had I known what I know now, Lax Nation would have been incorporated, I would have postponed college to double-down on its growth, and I would have built upon our very strong foundation with a view toward a viable business. We did so much of the hard work of building a community, establishing a firm foundation of values and vision, and reating a sustainable business model. We were also forward thinking in the what internet-based media outlets would look like.

I started the whole project with $350. To think, how many kids are out there with similar drive, thinking about real problems in their world that they can fix? How many of these kids have the resources and the expertise to just go do it? With a little push and a tiny bit of capital, as well as some guidance from those who know the ropes, there might be thousands of world-changing businesses lurking just beneath the surface.

I had the benefit of an old Mac G4 tower, a dial up internet connection, and the naïveté to just go build Lax Nation. I just needed some mentorship, someone to challenge me, and someone to show me the ropes.

I would love to see this built, not just in the way of a Thiel Fellowship but as a fundamental part of American education. Entrepreneurship is the backbone of this country; shouldn’t American education reflect that?

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