OWNER'S MANUAL

7 Classic Principles of Successful Start-ups

Every new venture is different, but the principles for success often remain the same.
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Running a start-up can make you look like a figure on an Egyptian bas-relief: Your body is going one way while your head is constantly twisted backward to see which of your mistakes might be gaining on you.

Want to spend less time looking back at what you've done wrong? Embrace the classic principles of successful start-ups:

1. Money can be the root of all failure.

I know--a capital-intensive venture can require significant sums. But most businesses require little funding to get started. A venture capital friend assumes an inverse relationship between the level of funding and the long-term success of start-ups.

Short-term success is easy when you have money to burn. Without tons of cash, you'll work through and benefit from a problem instead of just throwing money at it.

2. Action always beats thinking.

A detailed plan is great, but stuff happens, and most entrepreneurs don't make it past the first three action items before adapting to reality. (I started a company assuming I'd provide book design services to publishers; I ended up writing books instead.)

Spend some time planning and a lot more time doing. If you're unsure, do something--then react appropriately. It's easy to ponder and weigh and evaluate and assess yourself out of business.

3. Spend only on what touches the customer.

Leaving a corporate position for a start-up with the assumption your amenities should be equal? Sorry. Before you spend, always ask, "Does this touch the customer?" If it doesn't--don't buy it. If you're a lawyer, your office reinforces your professionalism; if you run a store, no customer should even know your office exists.

Spend what money you have where it makes a real difference to your customers. Success is never defined by a fancy office and amenities. Success is defined solely by profits.

4. Only hunt what you can kill.

Almost every start-up dreams of finding an enabling customer, but those are tough to land. Focus on prospecting where you have a reasonable chance of success.

Later, you can leverage your customer base--and what you've learned along the way--to successfully hunt bigger game.

5. Never compromise on location.

Classic example: restaurants. Short on cash, the budding restaurateur (love that word) chooses an inexpensive (meaning terrible) location in the hope that great food and impeccable service will create destination dining. Typically, only creditors view the restaurant as a destination.

If you truly have no competition--which in reality is almost never the case--and there truly is a market, maybe customers will come to you. Otherwise, they won't.

6. Making a living is never a right.

No matter how hard you work, no one has to buy what you sell. "Fair" applies to how you deal with customers, suppliers, vendors, etc. Fairness in no way applies to whether you deserve success or failure. If you catch yourself thinking, It's just not fair. I should be able to make a decent living at this, stop. You earn the right to make a profit.

No one is responsible for making sure you can earn a living--except you.

7. Don't do things that don't generate revenue. 

Everything you do should generate revenue. Stop creating esoteric spreadsheets. Quit printing fancy reports only you will review. Stop spending time on the golf course in hopes that networking will result in customers. Minimize administrative tasks, and focus your efforts on generating revenue.

Sure, you can do what you love and the money will follow--but only if what you love doing is generating revenue. If it doesn't pay, for now at least, put it away.

IMAGE: Getty
Last updated: Sep 12, 2012

JEFF HADEN | Columnist

Jeff Haden learned much of what he knows about business and technology as he worked his way up in the manufacturing industry. Everything else he picks up from ghostwriting books for some of the smartest leaders he knows in business.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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