Heinz Marketing is now officially ten years old.  What started as just me with a laptop and a bus pass on November 24th 2008 has lasted longer, grown bigger and had a greater impact than I could have ever hoped for or imagined.

To think back at what has been both exciting and terrifying brings a combination of smiles, laughter, pain, tears and a massive amount of gratitude.

Ten years ago, you might remember, was just a few weeks after the stock market tanked us into a mini-recession.  My wife was also pregnant with our first child.  So, of course, I quit my job (and benefits) and decided to go out on my own.

But my wife was also my greatest cheerleader.  In those early days I think she had more confidence in me than I did myself.  We did have back-up plans in case things didn’t work out, but she believed in me. Beth, for this and countless reasons, I am eternally grateful.

PayScale was my very first client.  What I thought (and hoped) would be a couple months of work to get me started lasted over a year and a half.  Thank you Mike Andrews and Mike Metzger for believing in me.

I had numerous smart people give an inexperienced new consultant advice that not only helped me avoid early mistakes but invaluable lessons that have stayed with me every since.  Thank you especially to Don Gregory, Carlos Hidalgo, Brian Carroll, Jill Konrath, Ian Morris, David Huey, Dave Chase, Robert PeaseJuli Bacon, Shannon Swift, Jill Sherensky, Mark Jones and Hugh Siler to name just a few.  I would surely test the word count limit of WordPress if I tried to list everyone who has materially impacted my journey and our company’s growth.

Thank you to the clients who have fired us and the voices who have publicly challenged us.  Thankfully this list is short but every experience has helped us get smarter, stronger and better.

Maria Geokezas was crazy enough to join me as our first full-time employee nine years ago, and she’s remained crazy enough to still be with us as our Vice President of Client Services.  I am so grateful for her leadership, guidance and strength – attributes I could easily also give to so many who have and still work for us today.  I am proud that our leadership team (Maria, Brian and Sheena) have each been with us for several years.

Thinking back on ten years triggers two things for me.  One is to recognize and thank those who have made it possible (some of whom are highlighted above).  Two is to reflect on what I’ve learned.  And although ten years has generated thousands of lessons, there are ten I’d say have stood out as the biggies.

Over the next couple weeks I’ll write a bit about each of those “ten lessons from ten years in business”, starting with this one: Put Your Values First.

I didn’t document the company’s Core Values when it wast just me.  I just did what I thought was right.  But as we began to hire contractors and eventually employees, I wanted to make sure we were starting from the same set of rules.

It wasn’t important for me to dictate how everyone did their work.  If they had a different approach or tactic that got the job done, fine.  But it was important to me that we all made decisions based on a common set of values.

The first set of Core Values I wrote myself, but ever since we’ve reviewed and adjusted them as a company.  We hire new employees based in large part on how we feel they will live up to, represent and defend our values (internally and externally).  We evaluate new clients and partners the same way.

And yes, we have fired a small handful of clients for not living up to our values too.  Although those clients were paying their bills (which of course helped us make payroll) choosing our values over their money wasn’t really a difficult decision.

On good days, when the skies are clear and things are going well, your values are easy to follow.  But when the storms roll in, standing firm on your values can get more difficult.  That’s why it’s been so important to build those values as the very foundation of our business.  They are the rock on which everything we do is built.

A values-first business helps us make daily tactical decisions and long-term strategic ones as well.

It’s also not enough to just have them written up on the Web site and framed on the wall.  We talk about our values daily and reward employees with helmet stickers at each all-hands meeting for following them.

So, first lesson learned from ten years of business is to put values first.  The next lesson may sound contradictory but I promise it’s not.

Putting your values first helps you put yourself first as well.

Lesson #2: Put Yourself First.