Since graduating from Full Sail’s Web Design & Development program in 2010, Michael LaPlante has kept busy.
Actually, busy is a bit of an understatement. In addition to running his own company, LaPlante Web Development, he’s currently a Senior Web Developer at FireEye, Inc., a company specializing in online security. He’s worked as a consultant for dozens of startups, and serves as the current organizer of Tampa Bay Startup Weekend, a yearly event focused on connecting entrepreneurs and innovators.
With so much going on, it takes careful coordination to ensure every ball stays in the air. We caught up with Michael to talk striking a balance between multiple jobs, plus tips for businesses that are just starting out.
Michael works with distributed teams—meaning his co-workers and employees are spread out all across the country. The same goes for most of his clients. Working in the virtual space is a far cry from the hip offices of Silicon Valley (what most people envision when they hear the term “startup”). But for Michael, working from home allows him a certain flexibility, one that is key when it comes to code-switching between job modes. His strategy? Focus on one job at a time. Since a large portion of his consulting work is based on the West Coast, he takes advantage of early mornings on the East Coast to tackle his responsibilities at FireEye.
“I’m usually working by 6:30 or seven in the morning,” he says. “I’ll put in 12 hours, take a small break, and then pick up with my West Coast clients until 11 p.m. or so.”
Keeping lines of communication open is a critical component of staying on top of all of his work, and Michael has a system for making sure he responds to everyone in a timely manner. “Email is my lifeline,” he says. “I’ll flag anything that’s important in an email, and then I give myself between 24 and 48 hours to respond.”
Delegation is also an important aspect of handling workflow. As LaPlante Web Development has grown over the years, Michael has had to bring on more employees in order to scale output to the amount of work coming in.
“I like to be hands on,” he says. “A few years ago, a mentor of mine came to me and said, ‘The best thing you can do for you business and for your peace of mind is hire someone.’ It was scary, because at the time it was just me. If I failed, that was on me, and I didn’t have to worry about putting somebody else in a bad spot.”
Despite his inclinations to try and do it all himself, Michael did hire someone. Output improved immediately, which allowed the company to take on new clients. The quality of work he was able to achieve with help meant lots of word of mouth referrals. Eventually, he had to hire another person, then another. Now, his company boasts six employees and two contractors on staff.
“I’ve grown to trust my team, and as a result I’ve empowered my employees to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made,” he says. “At this point, I feel like my business is self sustaining.”
Which isn’t to say he’s completely hands off. During Full Sail’s Seventh Annual Hall of Fame Week, Michael stopped by the Full Sail On Air Studio to chat with Web Design & Development Program Director Chris Burke. While there, he further explained his approach for running a lean distributed team.
A big part of Michael’s business strategy, and one he tries to impress upon clients, is banishing notions of what a startup should be. “There’s a huge misconception that all startups are or should be completely tech based, and that simply isn’t true,” he says. “If you take a hard look at any industry, you’ll find that most things have already been invented. So it’s less about inventing something from the ground up, and more about improving on something that already exists.”
He points to companies like Casper—a business focused on re-inventing the way people buy mattresses—as an example of taking a process that’s antiquated and using creative problem solving to make it better. Building a brand you believe in has a positive ripple effect that extends to clients and customers, as Michael explains in the following clip.
When launching a business, it’s important to build trust in the community as well. It’s one of the reasons Michael is so passionate about Startup Weekend, which bills itself as “an intense 54 hour event which focuses on building a web or mobile application which could form the basis of a credible business over the course of a weekend.” A big part of what Michael tries to accomplish during Startup Weekend is simply putting the right people in contact with each other. For those looking unable to attend an event, he suggests seeking out other ways to connect.
“Co-working spaces are a great environment for a new business, because it puts you in contact with other startups and people. It gives you a chance to network and vibe with people who might be in a position to help you down the line.”
Making contacts isn’t always easy, but it’s an essential skill for any business owner to have. In this clip from the Full Sail On Air Studio session, Michael discusses the importance of soft skills both as a networking tool and as a way to garner a client base.
Being a part of a supportive community also helps limit the fallout from setbacks. “Most businesses are going to fail in their first iteration, but it’s better to fail fast and learn from it,” says Michael.
Starting any business—even one that has moonshot potential—is a risk. Embracing the concept of failure early on will make it easier to pivot an idea down the line, which could mean the difference between staying alive in an increasingly flooded market versus ending up dead in the water.