Last month my company celebrated its six-year anniversary. We were the classic start-up story in many ways: no clients, no office and no prospects. The only thing we had was a vision of what we wanted to create and the steadfast belief in our ability to achieve it.
Nobody can ever be truly prepared to take that first leap into entrepreneurship, particularly those of us who came from big company backgrounds. It is as scary as it is exciting -- and maybe the fear is really what makes it exciting in the first place. There are so many things we learned along the way, but some of the most important factors that drove our success were:
- Pick the lowest hanging fruit first. For most start-ups, two things matter most: cash and credibility. Starting with the places you have the strongest proposition or connections will enable you to lengthen your financial runway and generate real customers for proof of concept and testimonials.
- Understand that luck matters. We started Launchpad only a few months before the market crashed. Our timing sucked, but ultimately, we were lucky. Many agencies won new business only to have it evaporate as the economy froze in fear. We won a client who grew dramatically despite the recession. Our long-term success has been a result of doing amazing things with the luck we got, but we never discount the importance of being in the right place at the right time in our overall success.
- Get scrappy. Since the beginning we sought out ways to move faster and spend less without sacrificing anything. A little creativity goes a very, very long way. A few examples: We’ve moved three times in four years, and have saved six figures each time by not simply using the "recommended" contractors and moving companies. We have never paid recruiting fees, instead leveraging tools like LinkedIn, not just for job posting but also to proactively identify people who would be great for the positions we’re staffing for. Yes, this all takes a little more effort, but the benefits FAR outweigh taking the simple solutions.
- Know your numbers. Quickbooks is awesome, but that’s not what I mean here. As a startup what really matters most is cash flow: how much you have, when you will get more and when you have to pay people and vendors. We built a tool in Excel early on that helps in understanding exactly where we will be in the immediate and long-term. Knowing these numbers intimately has helped us act quickly when decisions need to be made.
- Leverage your family and friends. Crowdsourcing is not new; entrepreneurs have been tapping their networks since the beginning of time. The people close to you generally want to help--they just don’t know how. Maybe the help could be financial, maybe it’s advice, or perhaps your uncle is a good friend of a potential client. Be specific with your ask and communicate with your network regularly about how your business is doing. They will be excited for you, and that could translate into help in ways you never expected.
- Prepare to get dirty. I’ve seen so many new business owners struggle with the fact they have to go back and do tasks they haven’t done in many years. Get over it. When you own a business you are the business, and need to be prepared to jump into virtually any role, big or small. People fail because they buy into the romance of owning a company, instead of the reality of what it takes to run it. There was nothing romantic about sweeping the floors of our office before a big client meeting. But it had to be done, and there was the broom…
- Be a sponge. The best entrepreneurs are those who constantly ask questions, listening and learning. Not everything you hear is going to help, and what worked for some will not work always work for you. But the one thing successful people like to do is share what they feel made them successful in the first place -- case in point the article you are reading right now. Talk to others that have been there, then take the very best of what you’ve learned and apply it to your own situation.
- Have fun. It is impossible to do this unless you are enjoying what you do. Starting a business is one of the most stressful, non-stop paths to choose. The office may close but the brain never does. Neither does the stress. Make it fun. Make the worst day running your company better than the best day working for someone else. That’s far easier said than done, but if you don’t this will eat you alive.
- Don’t believe your own PR. The moment you sit on your laurels and start thinking about how awesome you are is the day the wheels start coming off. If you’re growing, then inevitably what you did yesterday is not always going to be right tomorrow. You need to constantly look for bumps in the road and course-correct before small problems become big ones.