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Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

Read: Ryan McMillan - 5 Years as a Founder

Time flies is certainly a cliche, but that doesn’t make it any less true. I’ve been a founder for five years now. There wasn’t a big countdown, nor a party (though perhaps a missed opportunity for one).

Date Published:
Ryan McMillan from Atlas Digital
Ryan McMillan

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Nope, 5 years simply floated by, with me realising that I’ve had my nose to the grindstone for five wonderful, challenging and mostly successful years. It’s been a great honour to start my own company. It’s not that I always thought I would, but somehow it doesn’t surprise me that I did.Atlas Digital isn’t my first company (though it's the first with traction), and I’m certain that it won’t be the last, either. I’ve decided to briefly catalog my experience founding Atlas Digital. For those of you who don’t know, we’re a SaaS marketing agency serving New Zealand and Australia.

A few fun facts about Atlas:

  • Our clients have raised several hundred million dollars combined in VC and angel investment
  • We’ve generated well over 300,000 leads, SQLs or customers for our clients
  • We’re a team of 11 superstars, each with over seven years of experience in their field
  • Our mission is to be the leading SaaS marketing agency across New Zealand and Australia, defined as ‘being the best’ rather than the biggest.

I’ve compiled a few of my key reflections on being a founder over the past 5 years. I hope that the founders reading this that are yet to hit the 5 year mark can take lessons or inspiration from it, that the founders ahead of me can relate to my journey, and those that aren’t founders can enjoy the ride. Hey, you might even decide to start a company yourself.

1. Don’t sweat the small stuff

When you’re trying to generate traction, that is a truly viable business, everything feels like life and death. Bills to pay. Sales targets you’re determined to reach. Recruitment challenges. Every twist and turn in startup land feels like it has the potential to run you off the road.

What I’ve learned is that they mostly don’t. There are so many bumps along the way. Losing deals. Missing targets. Yeah, it hurts. But, failure seems the worst when it's happening to you. It feels different once you look back 12 months later and see that it all worked out in the end. Simply not giving up is the best solution, because there are brighter days.

Sometimes it’s the left turns that we’re forced to make that are right for us all along. The startup space is hard. That’s a cold, hard fact. Once I accepted that, I changed my mindset to expect curveballs. It empowered me to lean in when they arrived. Of course, I avoid them at all costs, but if they do appear, these days they don’t knock me off my feet.

Lastly, if you zoom out and take a 1,000 foot view, you’ll realise that what you’re worried about is probably not that big of a deal in the grand scheme of life.

2. Outsized impacts

I’ve found that the tech ecosystem in New Zealand is so supportive. They push others forward even when it's of no real benefit to them.

Experienced founders, connectors and leaders in the ecosystem have always been so generous with their time, which has been invaluable to grow my own company.

I believe that these founders, connectors and leaders often don’t know the impact that they have. What is a run of the mill 30 minute coffee for them can be a trajectory changing, light bulb moment for someone like me.

Whether it was advice, a warm introduction or encouraging words, it would’ve been so much harder to get here without them and I appreciate immensely everyone who has given me that time.

There are too many to name and I’m scared to forget one, but if you’re reading this, you’ll know who you are.

3. Luck plays a big part

I’m always conscious that luck has played a big role in our growth, particularly, timing. What a lucky break to kick off a SaaS marketing agency at the inception of one of the tech industry’s biggest runs. Yes, that has meant that we have also had to endure the other side of that run, but I still count myself as tremendously lucky.

I believe it's true that in many ways we ‘make our own luck’ (but not always). What we need to do as founders is create as many opportunities to become as lucky as possible. Go out on a limb and ask for that coffee, or more recently, fly to Sydney knowing no one and try to spread the gospel of Atlas Digital. It does pay off.

4. You can do a heck of a lot more than you think

I believe that we create ‘glass ceilings’ for ourselves all of the time. For many, unfortunately there are glass ceilings set at a societal level, which is a whole other story.

What I’m talking about is what we think we’re capable of vs what we’re actually capable of. I used to think that success would be freelancing as a full time gig for myself. That was 4 years and 9 months ago. It only took 3 months.

The act of visualising what success looks like and then getting there has only emboldened me to challenge myself further. Not to relentlessly push myself based on ‘what founders should be like’ in pop culture, but instead to really wonder what I could do with my life and setting my sights higher.

Famous ultra-marathoner, David Goggins, has a 40% rule. “When you think that you are done, you're only 40% into what your body's capable of doing. That's just the limits that we put on ourselves.”

Through being a founder, I’ve realised how much we limit ourselves by what we think we’re capable of. It’s great to have milestones and tick them off one at a time. After all, the best way to run a marathon is one kilometer at a time. But never forget about your final goal. And whatever it is, remember to add a few more kilometers. You might just run straight past the finish line and keep going.

Setting goals can both limit you, and unleash your potential in a way that you didn’t think was possible.

5. Pay it forward and everyone is willing to help you

I’m a massive believer in paying it forward. This has been deeply reinforced by those that have paid it forward to me. When you’re willing to help others, they’re willing to help you.

It might not be that the favour is returned by the person that you’ve helped, but it does manifest ‘good-will energy’ that will gravitate back towards you eventually.

And if it doesn’t, the worst case is that you’ve made someone feel great.

When the sector wins, we all win.

6. Find something that you really love.

It sounds like a cheesy way to finish, but I’m genuinely having so much fun. Business is my profession, and my passion. That doesn’t mean there aren’t still the same twists and turns, but taking heed 5 years later has made me realise how much I still enjoy it.

Famous investor Warren Buffet says that “he skips to work each day”. At 93, I’m not sure that he still does, but enjoying your work helps you enjoy the rest of your life a whole lot more, too.

I couldn’t be more grateful for Atlas Digital, the people in it, our clients, those that have supported us along the way and the wider tech ecosystem that we’re a part of.

Looking forward to the next 5 years to come, too!


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