It is stated that in the mid 1100s French Abbot Bernard of Clairvaux first coined the phrase we now know as "The road to hell is paved with good intentions." This phrase has two interpretations. The first is that failing to act on your intentions leads to failure (hell) and the second is that sometimes your good intentions can trip you up as you act upon them. It strikes me as a critical component of any start up to negotiate around this truism in the following ways:

  • Put the effort in

I am a huge believer in smart working. I know that successful people maximize their time on the things of most value to them. That isn't much help as a guiding principle when you are just starting out though. As entrepreneur you need to do everything--accounting, legal, admin, mailing, sales and operations. An acceptance that you are going to work dumbly, not smartly at times, and an understanding of how this will impact your morale is critical. You need to get excited about slogging through the long hours in each and every discipline needed to successfully start a business.

  • Avoid burning cash

Cash is critical to new businesses. If it is your first time as an entrepreneur you will have no real concept of what it is going to feel like having no money in the bank. And just because a client signs a contract doesn't mean much to you--you need their back office people to actually pay your invoice--maybe 30-90 days from when you "earned" the money. And this is your new life. You need to preserve cash like it is water in the desert. Not until you've got more than enough to cover two months of payroll can you consider paying yourself.

  • Learn to be outstanding at prioritization

Successful entrepreneur Chad Sandstedt of TagniFi likes to self-fund his ventures. He notes that avoiding external money means you get all the benefits of your efforts, and you are free from external involvement. The flip side is the far smaller footprint as the business grows just from your seed capital. This requires an ability to properly plan and prioritize the stages of growth, and to have the courage to stick with them.

"When I define my priority list I need to accept we are not going to start task two until task one is complete, and I need to make sure my list is in the best possible order to drive the revenue growth."--Chad Sandstedt, CEO, TagniFi

One additional benefit of this approach is that your business model has to be simple. The lack of big teams brings a singular focus. So TagniFi have a single revenue stream, a single product and all eyes and focus are on that.

  • Learn to be effective with email

Some people equate a clean email box with being effective and efficient. While this might be true when you are controlling someone else's business, it is less valuable when you are building your new business. I find that many great entrepreneurs manage to completely avoid the temptation to manicure their email. I am sure that many of these only answer emails related to major priorities--developmental or revenue related. The rest can wait, and are correctly deprioritized below their own agenda and focus. If you really need them to action something you will actually need to call and talk to them, or expect a long wait. My observation of the strongest entrepreneurs I've worked with is that they spend more time talking--phone and face to face--than in the solo voids of email or messaging channels, which can make you feel busy, but are not necessarily a great way to spend time.

  • Develop a passion for self-assessment

Former hedge fund manager turned private equity visionary, Joseph Sanberg, is meticulous. As he works with his investment companies (and he is a hands on investor in many, such as the soon-to-launch Aspiration) he makes the CEOs sweat the details. He believes that as you work, you create really meaningful management information and you can only leverage this if you track it and study it. So for Sanberg, there is a huge value in studying both your successful as well as unsuccessful meetings.

"A key factor that differentiates successful and unsuccessful entrepreneurs is a passion for self-assessment. Those that work in organized companies enjoy structured as well as informal feedback loops. However, the entrepreneur must make up for the absence of these sources of feedback by administering a disciplined, self-governed process of detailed review of what works, what doesn't work and why. Understanding the root causes of success is as important as understanding the root causes of failure. Otherwise, success becomes random instead of repeatable."--Joseph Sanberg

  • Create value through a sum of all the details

The best companies in their categories--Zappos, Goldman Sachs, Facebook, whoever you like to think of, all have their imitators. You'd think it would be easy to replicate companies that are so well understood. But no, because out of sight are all the little details that differentiate these firms, in how they operate, develop and think, that is capitalized on again and again. Their competitors--be they entrepreneurs, or heavyweight corporates, don't have the passion for the details, or don't think they matter, and so never generate the same returns and ultimately lose.

  • Pick the road less travelled

If you want to get wealthy, or build a business, avoid doing what everyone else is doing. It saddened me when travelling in The Gambia to see five women all set up in the same business--selling fruit to the visiting tourists--and build their stalls right next to each other. The competition forced down pricing and also made them get aggressive with pitching the passing tourists, reducing the appeal in the buyer's market of their own creation. A counterpoint to this is ESP, a mid-sized entrepreneur-led company from the UK that operates in the decidedly unglamorous area of industrial tissue paper products (think public restroom or hospital paper products). Despite the market being dominated from a sales perspective by huge multinationals, ESP's Chairman Carl Theakson saw and grew an opportunity into a national business that is more profitable than the industry giants due to different target markets and capabilities.

  • Choose your customers wisely

Last but not least it is critical that entrepreneurs pick the right customers. At times when starting up any revenue may seem desirable. This is not the case. Some will abuse their knowledge that they are an early adopter to smash your business model, confuse your proprieties and take advantage of the situation. The good first clients look very different--happy to take the risk, collaborative, and realistic. They also see the value of what you can deliver today as being worth the money. And it is worth remembering that the selection of each and every future customer may need the same degree of attention and due diligence.

Published on: Nov 4, 2014
The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.