Give Blaine Vess an A for effort in launching StudyMode

Entrepreneurs don’t always like to admit when they have doubts about achieving success, but Blaine Vess definitely had them in the early days of StudyMode.

“I was hedging my bets for sure,” says Vess, the company’s founder and CEO. “It’s silly because even once we had pushed past $1 million in revenue with just two people in 2007, I still had a consulting job. I was still thinking, ‘OK, you never know what’s going to happen. Maybe this won’t work out.’ It took me a while to get to where I was like, ‘OK, this is it.’”

Vess carried on and today leads a global company that has more than 90 million users visiting StudyMode’s network of sites each month. He developed the company while he was a student at San Jose State University and it now provides students with more than 1.7 million model essays, papers and book notes on a wide variety of topics.

Vess and his team stress that their work is not about plagiarism or about giving students a way around doing their homework. They work with services such as Turnitin to prevent plagiarism and ensure the company’s resources are being used with integrity and honesty.

The efforts to build a reputable business paid off when Vess was named a finalist in the EY Entrepreneur of the Year™ 2014 Greater Los Angeles Awards program.

But it took a special level of dedication and commitment to move past being a startup and become a full-fledged business.

Are you ready?

It was 2011, nearly 12 years after Vess and his two friends launched StudyMode.

“We decided we wanted to reinvest in the business,” Vess says. “We knew that we had to really change in order to grow this thing and not kill the business or just become stagnant.”

One challenge that often arises in a business as it grows is the ability to make smart decisions regarding the structure of the company. You have expertise for what you do; but do you have the same knowledge for how you’re going to do it?

“Some of our earlier hires were good people, but they weren’t right for the business,” Vess says. “As we started hiring more people and bringing more intelligence into the business, we started to figure a lot of things out.”

As he built a stronger team, Vess had to work on his own readiness to be the CEO of an expanding company.

“What do I need to be?” Vess says. “I’m the CEO of this company. How do I behave? What do I do now? It’s so different from when you have nobody except your friends reporting to you. How do I become a better leader? What’s the vision? That was challenging for me and became a day-to-day focus.”

About six months in, however, things started to slow down in a good way, just as they do for a rookie quarterback trying to lead his team down the field and into the end zone.

“We hired a general manager and a chief technology officer who really helped us understand some of the things we were doing wrong and some of the team members who maybe weren’t good fits,” Vess says. “Now it’s a lot more calculated. There is a lot more intelligence behind what we’re doing.”

It’s OK to be cautious

The key to success as a young business, or one that is more established but is going in a new direction, is recognizing that you need to get others as excited about your idea as you are.

“It’s really easy to come up with a business idea,” Vess says. “But you need to create something that actually fills a need.”

There is no doubt that there is a huge rush that comes with taking an idea from your creative mind and watching it become a huge business sensation. But you always have to manage expectation and risk.

“One of my favorite shows is ‘Restaurant: Impossible,’” Vess says of the Food Network program that finds the host trying to save restaurants that are on the verge of shutting down. “So many times, the people are saying, ‘I have no real experience at this, but we just put up $250,000 to buy this restaurant and fix it. And now we’re in serious trouble.’ That’s really dangerous.”

Perhaps it explains Vess’s cautious approach in those early days.

“Many people think it’s really true that if you build it, they will come,” Vess says. “That’s just not always true.”