Most entrepreneurs and startups make some classic mistakes.
This post will save you some heartburn, time, energy and money.
“Aerodynamically, the bumblebee shouldn’t be able to fly, but the bumblebee doesn’t know it so it goes on flying anyway”Mary Kay Ash
As humans, we can expect to live perhaps anywhere between 50-70-90 years (with some good luck & yes, even considering the possibilities of Silicon Valley’s efforts to extend life and uploading your consciousness – it might just never reach most of us and be affordable at the same time), and I have never really understood why one would do things simply because it’s what most other individuals (?) in the world do when we are hardly going to be here, but for a blink of a second in what is a limited timeline, with the faintest hope of doing anything remotely relevant enough to make meaning of our existence.
The late Steve Jobs, of 2005 Stanford Commencement Address fame and who incidentally also co-founded Apple, NeXT and Pixar, did a good enough job (no pun intended) of explaining what it was that perhaps drives some of the giants that walked, and continue to walk, the Earth.
Note: Not a Jobs fan, admirer or anything of that sort – Elon Musk? Now we are talking.
India is well on its way when one speaks of the ‘Demographic Dividend’ but as challenges regarding all things progressive continue to stare us in the face, we might be served well to place some quarter of our hope in entrepreneurship. As we transit through an era where more and more global problems (think unemployment, global warming, space missions, illiteracy, poverty, the list goes on) require more and more individuals to step up and solve them, and entrepreneurship is one way of doing things (there are multiple ways of making an impact, and all are free to choose the path which resonates with them), shared below are a few learnings from my still limited experience of having worked with some incredible business leaders, entrepreneurs and top management over the years.
Add in how 95+% of ventures tank and hardly few survive long enough to be crowned overnight successes, I hope the below pointers are of some help as you embark on and navigate through your journey of entrepreneurship.
1. Entrepreneurship is not a job, it’s a lifestyle
“Things may come to those who wait, but only the things left by those who hustle”Abraham Lincoln
As much as you would like to believe that the world of entrepreneurship is full of glamour and glory, the truth is, to make it work you will have to dive in head-on and work on it, unlike anything you have ever been remotely passionate about.
Entrepreneurship seldom works part-time (9 AM – 5 PM, or, 7 PM to 2 AM) – once you have tested waters, and are convinced this is something you should be doing: there is only one way to go – diving right in. This means making the venture your full time and all other initiatives part-time.
Wherever you go, whatever you do, you are always thinking of taking your venture to the next level and creating something worthwhile good enough to be used outside your circle of immediate influence.
If you are not passionate enough to the extent of going the whole way: do yourself a favor, save yourself some heartache and misery… and don’t start up. If you love what you are getting into just enough to consider working on this the whole day, the whole week and then the next 3 years (at least) without much hope of early signs of reward, read on.
2. Guard your time, energy and runway fiercely
You only have three things at your disposal: Time, Energy and Runway (cash in the bank before the party blows). Guard all three fiercely.
Use your time to make things happen at your venture
Spend it optimally with your team and customers. Keep educating yourself and improving your product to the level where you can have sane conversations (insane imaginative conversations work even better) with respected minds in your chosen arena without embarrassing yourself; keep taking feedback from all quarters and always keep an eye on the future when planning for your venture. Having said that, ideas are great, but E.X.E.C.U.T.I.O.N is what will get you from Point A to Point B.
Your energy is of paramount importance
Ignore naysayers; their power to influence your thoughts and emotions is given by you. Once you realize that heaven (all things bright and beautiful) and hell (what just happened?!) are manifested inside you by your own thoughts and perceptions, you will be able to see things much more clearly. Your energy determines how and whether you take charge and manage things when shit hits the ceiling: That’s roughly 75+% of your time at your startup when you are working towards executing your vision, rapidly.
Protect your runway
I keep saying this to my friends whom I have the pleasure of working with: “I don’t party. I don’t do drugs. I just need enough money to have petrol in my car and host friends for coffee without second thoughts”. Make sure you always have enough money to survive the next 18-24 months at an individual level without any hope of extra money coming in. Make sure you are not wasting money (getting wasted or showing off) & blowing up the opportunity before you.
There will be enough folks including but not limited to your family, relatives, neighbors, peers, self proclaimed experts, corporate gurus and then some random folks, to tell you that what you are doing is a waste of time, things are not going to work and that you should perhaps consider getting back to a ‘real’ job like the rest of the world. Keep your eyes and ears open, take feedback on your venture where you catch anything relevant, check with your gut feeling (this comes in quite handy when taking on tough decisions)… and move on with what you know you have to do next.
Over time : You will develop a thick skin and not really care what the world thinks of you, gain respect and an open mind for relevant feedback, and will be able to control your emotions and state of being more consistently.
3. Build a great team and brace yourself to tear it down
Now we know that you are God’s gift to mankind and have that brilliant idea (all planned out, of course) which is going to change the world and help you make some money along the way.
Good news: You’ve got confidence. Not so great news: That’s not enough to make things happen.
If you have to create anything big enough to make a dent, you need like minded individuals to join your cause and who will keep helping you take things to the next level. A great team guided with a common vision, relevant skills and strong work ethic will help cut down what you can do alone in 3 years (or perhaps never) to probably half the time or sooner.
Make sure you identify and get recruiting skilled individuals with strong work ethic for different parts of execution entailed. Complement the skills across your team making sure you are planning for most immediate needs (next 3 – 6 to 12 months execution at a time whilst keeping an eye on the future). Given you are fully bootstrapped and hardly have any/ limited cash to offer, equity will come in handy.
Make sure you have a strong startup culture of making things happen, delivering on promises made with those who place their trust and money with you (especially customers) and everyone has a sense of where they are going as a team and why they are doing what they do. Have super frank communication with the team at all times. Never lie to the team irrespective of the situation at hand, and make sure you have each other’s back.
A quick heads up
Hire for skills and hunger (different from having degrees x, y and z) when working on core team. Get on board people who understand what it means to start from scratch, the limitations that come with it, and especially those who roll up their sleeves and don’t mind getting their hands dirty when working (make your own coffee, get your own printout, get into the damn car & deliver the goods yourself when a situation comes up). Having your childhood buddies & folks with a corporate mindset (What’s the budget? Need a fancy title and 3 guys working under me, blah blah blah) as business partners sounds great and easy, but when push comes to shove and they don’t deliver worth even the cost of the paper the equity agreement was signed on, you will be faced with the decision to let them go sooner than later. Talk about easy.
4. Work with those who inspire your trust and respect
If you, your team and your work are any good, you might have the opportunity to explore collaboration possibilities with some incredible individuals as also some other ‘respected and honored’ ones.
Always remember those who were kind to you and helped you when you started from nothing, and make sure you create more than the expected value for those who place their trust and money with you.
Having said this…
- There will be individuals who will tell you and your team that your venture is worthless and that it hardly seems feasible, this whilst making the Vice President of one of the respected unicorn ventures from the nation wait outside the meeting room for another 30 odd minutes, before asking you to meet them again in 2-4 weeks. (Negotiation works in strange ways).
- There will be others who will tell you that you will be finished, and that your reputation will be tarnished globally. If you stop working with them. (Okay).
- There will be others who won’t read up on your venture or the backgrounds of folks in the meeting, won’t check details regarding previous meetings, and then make unsavoury personal comments in their first meeting with you: this when you go in with the intent to help them and their organization. (Try not to lose your cool in a meeting).
Moral of the story
Keep your eyes and ears open, and take calls from within as to how you intend to go forward or not in any direction. Use your gut feeling for taking decisions, know that you are capable of taking a few hits and that no one else writes your destiny but you.
5. Say no to that Conference / Investor Pitch / Honorary position (most times)
As your work gains more traction, your venture and work will gain you enough goodwill to get you access to some of the Conferences for free, get you the opportunity to pitch to investors and you will also have some of the organizations offering you Honorary Positions. Pick and choose wisely.
Sure, you can network. Sure, they can take care of your free food and wine. Sure, you can be seen with some of the incredible entrepreneurs in town that day; but unless the day involves achieving something for your venture: Marketing, Partnerships or Client Acquisition, just skip becoming the entrepreneur who is seen at every Conference speaking about what their venture ‘intends to do in the future.
In cases where unavoidable, accept invitations and try to get something out of the time put in by scheduling meetings in the same building or nearby, beforehand; with enough buffer to connect with folks you might meet on the day.
Unless you are seeking critical feedback on your venture’s business model, intend to partner with a VC, or, have achieved some worthwhile traction and intend to do some serious fund raising within the next 6-12 months; don’t make a habit of getting into business plan or investor competitions.
You are not in the business of winning business plan competitions: that time can be spent pitching to potential partner firms/users/customers.
Honorary positions are great (for making impact at a broader level working with more like minded thinkers and doers) if you have already made enough traction with your venture and are comfortable enough with taking on one more role with the intent to do well there. If not, you may feel good about having a honorary industry position but you might end up without a venture and no impact via your honorary position at the end of it.
Also some of the organizations just intend to use your brainpower and reputation to get some initiative going or some additional work done, without the intent to follow through on making impact happen (we all know this happens). One way to set a filter is to ask them to take care of your travel plus charge them an honorarium for your time (assuming you are offering them at least 2 days or 16 hours, per month). If they don’t value your time enough to even make it across the filter, you surely know how they are going to treat your inputs and time spent there.
Given all of the above, never forget those who helped you on your journey and keep paying it forward where you see genuine individuals.
Remember that you are forced to focus because you are putting in your time, energy and runway at stake to create a potential business with real life users/ customers: get real about what goes in and what comes out.
6. Embrace Rejection and Disappointment
You might be working super hard to make your vision come true and pulling out all stops, but sometimes things just aren’t meant to happen. Sometimes it’s the team, other times it’s the product-market fit, sometimes you might just run out of runway and then again sometimes the time for the idea might not have just come yet. Be prepared to see your life’s work burn before your eyes.
One way to figure out whether to keep at it or quit and move on, comes from answering a question shared with me a couple of years back by my dear friend Yinglan Tan, for whom I have the highest regards and respect.
“Ask yourself whether, if you ran out of money and the only choice you have is spending the last of the money from your Dad & Mom (and it’s all that they have), would you continue to do what you are doing now and with the venture?”
If you happen to have a family with a spouse and kids, you can tweak the question accordingly. The answer might not be easy, but one must do what one must.
The below tweet kind of sums it up:
Remember you have chosen this path, and that you alone are responsible for all things that come with it. Get out of your comfort zone, expand your boundaries and make things happen, and of course… enjoy whilst you are at it, you only have so little time.