Being a solo founder is hard. You’re solely responsible for your company’s progress and performance. As a result, many entrepreneurs (including a lot of the founders we interview for Bootstrappers) have sought a cofounder to complement their skill set. Not enough credit goes to those founders who embark on the journey alone.
One such founder is Joe Binder, who started WOAW by himself at 21. Specialized in the UK market, WOAW helps CEOs and founders build their personal brands on social media. While initially a solo endeavor, Joe’s company has now grown to 16 employees and generates more than $1.3 million in annual recurring revenue.
From YouTuber to Startup Founder
Joe Binder, the founder and CEO of WOAW, has always been interested in entrepreneurship. “I was the kid who would import headphones and phone cases from China and sell them at school at the age of 14,” he says.
He had the drive and interest to start a business, but others saw him as someone who wouldn’t go very far because he wasn’t doing well in school. Joe says, “A big turning point was learning that I’d only be able to get a grade C in GCSE math. So, I made it my mission to move up and spent the next few years studying as hard as I could.” He worked his way to the top of his class and earned a place at the prestigious Cambridge University.
While at Cambridge, Joe started a YouTube channel about life as a Cambridge student that included himself and his friends. He grew that channel to over 20,000 followers and accumulated over two million views.
Through that process, he learned a lot about personal branding, how to build an online reputation, and how to attract and retain people’s attention. “It was like a crash course in everything from video editing and social media analytics to online community building and personal branding,” Joe says.
But once he graduated, he realized that he didn’t want to be a full-time YouTuber and joined a social media marketing startup. He says, “It was a mess there. We had a brilliantly charismatic salesperson, but no one understood how to deliver on the promises they made to clients. After six months, they ran out of money and I lost my job.”
Nevertheless, Joe had gotten a glimpse of what social media as a service could look like and saw the potential of offering it to entrepreneurs who didn’t have the time or understanding to do it themselves. He says, “I knew exactly what I wanted to do: Create content for individuals to help them scale their online reputation.” He started WOAW as a solo founder in January of 2018.
WOAW helps founders and CEOs see their personal brand as an asset, using social media to construct a unique audience that they can access at any time. They take care of everything from content strategy and analytics to photography and design, reinforcing the role the founder’s brand can play in their startup’s growth.
“A personal brand lives outside of the founder or CEO. As its own entity, a personal brand can be built up and, therefore, leveraged on behalf of the company to reach specific goals. For example, if a company wants to raise funding, we create a strategy to help the founders appeal to more investors. If the company wants to show off its culture to attract more talent, we help it do that,” Joe says.
According to Joe, it’s not all about likes, but the value of the social media audience. “That’s what WOAW constantly comes back to: Who are we actually speaking to and why are we speaking to them? We don’t get caught up in creating click-bait content designed just to get likes. Instead, we look at an individual’s brand and how an online piece of content will impact both their online and offline reputation.”
Sometimes the Hardest Part Is Staying Motivated
When you start a business, you can feel overwhelmed. Everything – growth, customer acquisition, hiring, web design, marketing, pitch decks, and ROI – rests on your shoulders.
Joe admits that it was a painful experience. “It was a constant battle of thinking you’re not good enough versus believing in yourself. In the early stages, that self-belief was nowhere to be found. It was also at a time when I had some very smart and ambitious friends from Cambridge who were all getting started with their careers, making lots of money right off the bat at companies with a lot of growth and learning potential.
“Meanwhile, I was dashing around Central London’s co-working spaces several times a day just to network and win clients. It felt like I was running around in circles, not knowing where I was going. I would compare myself to my friends, which has always been a struggle of mine, who had stability, money, and a clear direction – and I had none of that. That was a difficult thing to grapple with, especially as a 21-year-old.”
One of the biggest obstacles for the founder was simply sticking with it and staying motivated. He was young and ambitious and wanted to grow the business quickly, but no one was talking about personal branding (yet). Now, if you look at the market, lots of companies offer personal branding services. But at the time, winning a client for WOAW meant convincing them that their personal brand was important.
Joe says, “I thought because I had this relatively big YouTube channel, I’d be able to convince people to hire my company to build their brand, but that wasn’t the case. So to get my first client, I offered to run a free campaign. I would produce content for them for a month for free on the condition that if they were happy with it, they would give me a testimonial that I could use publicly.”
To get the ball rolling, Joe put a thousand pounds ($1,300) of his savings into WOAW. He used that to pay for freelance writers and designers who helped him create those initial campaigns. His first ever client was extremely happy and Joe secured his first testimonial. He was able to take that testimonial to the next person and convince them to take a chance on him.
“Once I had collected several of those testimonials for free work, I remember how excited I was to get my first paid client for £425 ($545) for one month’s work. That client ended up signing a three-month contract and suddenly I had a bit more direction in terms of what this business could look like. We had a retainer income that we could project into the future. Then I was able to take that three-month retainer and the resulting case study and level up each time,” Joe says.
“It is worth acknowledging that I came from a position of privilege, even though Cambridge wasn’t always on the cards for me. There was a level of academic success that I could fall back on if necessary, which afforded me a lot of risk-taking when I started my business. Another major factor was that I was living in London with my family. Being able to start a business and not have to pay monthly rent in London is also something that not every entrepreneur can do. So it’s important to acknowledge that I was very lucky in that respect.”
While it was difficult for WOAW to build a customer base in 2018, now clients come to it. That’s not only a result of all those strong testimonials, but also that personal branding has become key to CEOs and founders. Now, it’s a simple pitch for WOAW, as the market doesn’t need to be educated anymore. The main challenge has shifted to hiring the right people at the right time for the company to support its growth.
There’s a Learning Curve to Becoming a Good Leader
For the first year and a half, Joe worked on his business alone (with the help of contractors and freelancers to deliver campaigns). Then WOAW went on a hiring spree during which time several employees joined and left the company.
Joe says, “Either they would leave or I would have to let them go after the probation period because they weren’t a good fit. That was difficult. It’s a side of entrepreneurship that people don’t talk about as much. Young founders get a lot of credit for being young founders, but where’s the praise for the employees that join them in the first place? Because it’s not easy to be working for somebody who doesn’t know how to run a business or manage people. So I have a whole world of respect for those people who joined me in the early days when I was still figuring out how to be a leader.”
Often coming straight out of college, young founders might have preconceptions about what management means and how they should run a business – without any practical experience. They might get inspiration from online advice or examples in the media. “For me, it was watching Harvey Specter on Suits deliver harsh feedback and thinking I wanted to be like that – and then realizing that you can’t lead and motivate people like that in real life,” Joe says laughing.
Joe shares that in the beginning he was more reactive than proactive. “It takes people a few times to make the same mistake before realizing that it needs to change. I actively switched to being more proactive with how I run the business, how I communicate with the team, and how I give feedback.
“The biggest thing I learned over the years is that you don’t need to be liked to successfully run a business. As a person, I enjoy being liked by others. But I’ve seen that it can come at a detriment to the business and the team. I didn’t want to share negative feedback (that was constructive) because I thought it would upset someone. But those thoughts limit your ability as a leader. My advice to other entrepreneurs is to stop worrying about being liked by everyone and focus on doing what’s best for your startup and your team.”
The feedback loop is now an important part of WOAW’s company culture. “Instead of giving one huge dose of feedback when everything has gone wrong, acknowledge all the things that do go right throughout. If you can start a culture where you consistently share feedback – both positive and constructive – it will create an environment where you can openly share with your team when it really matters,” Joe says.
While Joe has truly grown into his role as CEO, he says he’s still learning as the company expands. “It’s a big team and I’m a solo founder, which holds a level of emotional weight. Every single problem that happens or any question that arises will always come back around to you. So many things happen, even just in one day, you need to have the mental and emotional bandwidth to support your team and coach them through it. You need to learn what to give your energy to because there isn’t an endless supply of it.”
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