The first year is always the hardest.
For us, it was the first year of launching our company. While this wasn't my first time starting a new business, I've learned that it doesn't get any easier.
And it should be this hard. Because the rewards of building a startup are boundless.
It's a never-ending rollercoaster that brings with it ecstasy, pain, and fulfillment -- often simultaneously.
Here are six startup lessons that you'll learn as a first-time entrepreneur.
1. Question the status quo
One of my favorite questions to ask is: "What if I did the opposite for X period of time?" This question positions you to accomplish two things: 1) ask if the traditional way of doing something is actually the best way, or if it's because it's always been done that way. 2) "X period of time" gives you an out. It allows you to test your theory without committing long-term.
When we first started Jumpspeak, we had no idea if people wanted to learn how to speak a new language with chatbots. But if we hadn't questioned the status quo, we wouldn't be here today.
2. No one cares what you're selling
This is worth repeating. No one cares what you're selling, other than your loving mother of course. What everyone else in the world cares about is their own problems and how you can solve it for them.
We made the mistake early on pitching the solution of what we were bringing to the market but no one listened. Then we shared why we started our company. The beginnings of our journey, the purpose behind it, and the ineffectiveness of current solutions is what got people inspired and fired up about what we had to offer. Even today, we rarely talk about what we're selling, and focus instead why we're doing this.
3. How do I protect the downside?
This is my favorite lesson from Richard Branson. As wild and adventurous as he seems, his most popular advice to entrepreneurs is to always protect the downside. An example is when Branson started Virgin Airlines, he structured a deal with Boeing so that if the business didn't work out, he had the option to return all of the planes. This type of deal was unheard of in those days, and his total risk of capital was a few thousand dollars instead of millions.
The question isn't meant to prevent you from taking blind risks, but to help you take calculated risks. The first one can put you out of business, while the latter may change your business forever.
4. Let them fall on the grass (including you)
Onboarding and training new team members is something we've been working on optimizing. We're nowhere near perfect, but we've learned that letting them fall gently on the grass is often better than being bogged down to micromanagement.
Falling on the grass means making small mistakes that are quickly reversible with little impact to the company or customers. By leaving space for small mistakes, we have a more independent and empowered team that can take responsibility for their own work.
5. Think subtraction, not addition
Adding more money, more resources, more features to a problem is rarely the solution. Money and resources are not exactly abundant when you're starting a company, but creativity and simplicity is.
Doing less with more is a skill you're forced to develop, and we've even made it as one of our core values.
Another example is, instead of having a To-Do List that never ends, it's just as useful to have a Not To-Do List.
6. Focus only on what you can control
It's as easy to get caught up in what you can change as what you can't change. The problem with the latter is: you have zero control over it. Bad things will always happen to us that are beyond our control, and getting frustrated or holding grudges is not going to make it disappear.
This is why we choose to spend less time on external factors, like what our competitors are doing, and more on internal factors, like how we can satisfy our customers better.