Starting up? Plan for the Long-Haul
It can be difficult for the leader of an entrepreneurial start-up to take a long-term approach to people, product, and positioning.
Jet-fueled by what I remember as equal parts exhilaration and abject fear, newly-minted entrepreneurs are laser-focused on the here-and-now (despite what their business plans may project for the months and years to come).
So, here's a flight plan replete with a checklist of long-term, strategic tips for high-flying entrepreneurs who are new to the game. It may not assure a safe landing, but I guarantee it will help you avoid some of the turbulence you're bound to encounter right after take-off:
1. Make sure your brand promise is scalable.
I'm simultaneously advising two start-ups on a pro bono basis. The leader of one didn't care for my suggestion that he frame his message in a problem-solution style. "My customers don't have economic problems. They're proud to be enrolling their kids in our after-school science program," he said. I reminded him that, while the moms in his well-heeled hometown may have money to burn, that most surely won't be the case when he expands to other, less affluent venues.
Be sure to create a brand promise that will stay relevant as your business grows.
2. You don't always go home with the partner you bring to the dance.
When we started Peppercomm 18 years ago, my business partner and I were convinced we needed to offer equity positions to three other key players in order to attract and retain blue-chip clients. We were wrong. All three of our original partners are long gone. Two now work for large holding companies. The other has a small start-up in Texas. While each helped in the early years, not one of them proved pivotal.
Be patient. Make sure your key contributors are worthy of equity positions before handing over the keys to the kingdom.
3. Never stop listening.
The two-person PR firm we set up in my business partner's one bedroom apartment in 1995 bears no resemblance whatsoever to our integrated strategic communications agency of 2013.
That's because we always listened to our client's needs, paid close attention to what competitors were doing, and went with our gut instincts when the timing seemed right for a new product or service. As a result, we now offer events planning, licensing, Web design and, yes, Virginia, stand-up comedy training for client organizations. If you had read that list to Ed and me 18 years ago, we would have laughed out loud.
We've learned to drop products and services that don't resonate, not to launch a product or service just to stroke our ego, and to always keep evolving.
4. Ignore the siren call.
Most start-ups are anxious to land their first big-name account. We surely were. And, when we nailed a huge consulting firm's business, we thought we'd won the lottery.
I remember Ed's comment after the new client had signed off on a then-staggering budget: "Steve, this is better than sex!" And, it was for a while. And, our relationship with the one big client grew and grew. Soon, it accounted for 40 percent of our billings. Then, guess what? Our direct report was canned and his replacement fired us. We panicked, firing lots of people and desperately cold-calling every prospect in our database. We survived. But, we've never allowed any client since then to account for more than 15 percent of our billing.
Resist the siren call of the mega prospect. Trust me, it's not better than sex.
5. Stay relevant.
I recently met the principals of a research firm we were looking to acquire. As a man of a certain age, I felt comfortable asking these somewhat long-in-the-tooth Boomers how they attract--and retain--Millennial prospects and employees. They looked at each other, shrugged their shoulders, and lamented about the good old days. So much for that acquisition.
While Millennial entrepreneurs think they may be immortal, the sad fact is that, one day soon, they'll find themselves being the oldest person in a meeting.
It's crucial to stay current (and relevant) to the wants and needs of prospects. I'm particularly well-versed in counseling clients about their Twitter, LinkedIn, and Facebook strategies because I'm fully immersed in those worlds. You'd be surprised how many members of my age cohort aren't. As a result, they have little, if any, credibility with next generation decision-makers.
My first year as an entrepreneur was easily the best of my life. I loved every second of it. But, I had no one advising me about a long-term strategy. I adapted (and persevered) as events warranted. You don't have to do the same. There are countless resources that can help you make the most of today while anticipating the challenges of the long-term. So, read up and ask questions. We'll do our best to answer them on Facebook and Twitter.
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