Last month, we celebrated 10 years of Okta, the company I co-founded with Frederic Kerrest. In 2009, we set out on a mission to securely connect any organization to any technology -- a journey that led us to our IPO in April 2017, a growing product suite and team we're proud of today.

Despite our successes so far, the road has also been rife with uncertainty and surprises. I still have a photo of Frederic and I standing in front of a whiteboard that displays one of our first goals, written in bold letters: "10,000 customers in three months." We were optimistic and driven, but also wildly off in our early expectations. It wouldn't be the last time we'd find ourselves in that position, but we learned many lessons in how to get a company off the ground and keep the engine running since then. Together, we discovered that nothing worth doing is easy or quick.

To mark this milestone, I wanted to share 10 takeaways from our journey for those in the early stages of building a business today:

1. Remember the barbell.

A barbell requires equal weight on either side, with a thin bar in the middle. Founders should always balance two key priorities: the long-term vision and relentless short-term execution. Very little energy should be focused on the "middle term." Many entrepreneurs focus solely on their dream and put too much weight on the "vision" end of the barbell. That's important, as investors will have faith in their story, trust them and buy into the idea. Those who spend too much time in the middle lose sight of their long term vision while also failing to focus on rigorous execution, struggling to build momentum.

2. Get the big bet right.

Ensure your long-term vision is tied to a larger trend, and bet big on it. Usually, that takes the form of identifying an addressable market or recognizing significant change to the status quo, like the rise of cloud computing. Once we solidified our big bet, we learned from companies we'd admired that had done it before us, like Salesforce and Workday, and we could maniacally execute on building the company from there.

3. It's a journey of 1,000 miles.

I like to say "the journey of 1,000 miles begins with someone who has no idea how long 1,000 miles is." The reality is that many founders would never start if they actually knew how long it took. Building a company takes tenacity and requires staying dogged in your pursuit of chasing your vision. There are no shortcuts, so build strength and endurance to run the full marathon.

4. Create a category.

It's human nature to copy other people; it feels safe, and it appeals to our innate desire to fit in and please others. But when it comes to building a business, creating your own unique category enables far greater success -- as anyone who worked for Marc Benioff at Salesforce learned as we watched him pave the way for CRM in the cloud. It will be hard and lonely at first, but it will pay off. Eventually, energy and momentum will build around your new category and you'll own it. Then, being in the driver's seat will feel like the most natural thing in the world and something you're uniquely qualified to do.

5. Go fast and don't look at the wall.

This phrase comes from the world of race car driving, but it applies to entrepreneurship as well. Once you're in the driver's seat, there will be other distractions and variables that make up the proverbial walls on the course ahead. Whether they are competitors or shifts macroeconomics, if you spend too much of your time focusing on them rather than on just going fast, you're not likely to win. Even worse, you may find yourself in a wreck.

6. The customer is always right (in the short term).

Let your customer guide you. We discovered the importance of this one early-on at Okta: before launching, we tested a cloud monitoring service and found our customers had bigger fish to fry, resulting in our pivot to identity. Over the years, we've tested every idea and new piece of functionality with our customers, and we've been most successful when our strategy resonates with them. In enterprise software, there's nothing more important than listening and reacting to customer feedback. That being said, always remember to stay pragmatic enough to stick to your long-term vision and don't be afraid to ignore suggestions that don't resonate with your end-goal.

7. It's all about the people. 

When it comes to building a team, never stop thinking about how yours can communicate better, break down barriers, and share more information. Frederic and I often say, "We win as a team, so don't lose alone." Your employees are all shareholders in the company; they believe in the vision and have big goals to hit. This one sounds trite, because everyone says it, but if you're sincere in empowering your people, it will foster a culture where everyone celebrates success and faces challenges together.

8. Communication is hard.

When you're working hard and driving fast, it's easy to put good communication on the back burner. But that will lead to misunderstandings, especially when everyone is coming to the conversation with different contexts and assumptions. Positive and team-driven communication relies on empathy and understanding other people's perspectives, so reinforce the need for your team to assume positive intent. It takes effort to communicate well, and it's always worth it because good communication lays the foundation for teamwork and creates a positive place to work.

9. Lead from the front. 

Don't ask teammates to do anything you wouldn't want to do yourself. The Monday after our IPO, Frederic took a customer sales call at 7 a.m. -- yes, we all celebrated that Friday, but went right back to work the following business day. Because leadership is how you behave, and behavior and leadership drive culture. You have a responsibility to encourage everyone at your company to lead, regardless of title or job description. Create a culture that empowers people of all levels and roles to share ideas and show others the way.

10. Believe in yourself. 

Know that the people you look up to, and those who have been successful before you are no better than you. Achieving success requires placing trust in yourself to make it happen. By first acknowledging to yourself that you can do it, you can begin to cultivate and spread what I like to call an iconic mindset: a belief that you were meant to build a category-defining company.

Always remember that no matter which milestone you've hit, there's always more road to travel. Even after 10 years, the journey to building a successful company is ongoing and requires constant learning. It means celebrating your successes along the way, but it also means staying humble and open to fresh ways of thinking. Doing so will ensure your idea stays relevant and enable you to build the most effective team to make it come alive.

Published on: Mar 8, 2019
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