Copyright © 2015 by Elizabeth J. Taylor and Rebecca S. Bachmann
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1. Make sure your vision and your team’s vision remain aligned. All members of your startup should be working purposefully towards the same goal.
Humans infer information based on their own experience but assumptions can be wrong, therefore ensure that your presumptions are correct. With over 34% of invested startups fail due to team conflict; therefore, aligning vision and goals is essential. Too often, team members have different expectations, aspirations and wishes, hence it remains incumbent to the success of startups that right from the start there are no unspoken implications.
Our tip: Prior to signing or having the shareholder agreement drawn up, schedule a ‘fun day’ including an activity that puts the founding team at ease (in the morning) and a serious conversation about short-term and long-term goals as well as overall expectations (in the afternoon). Make sure that the atmosphere and overall frame of mind is favourable and emphasise that everyone should be honest and outright about their intentions and plans. Encourage suggestions, ask about no-go decisions, make sure you thoroughly comprehend everyone’s needs and keep going until every founders feels like they have an understanding regarding the other founders.
2. Decide on your number one growth priority: Determine what the right KPIs (key performance indicators) are, analyse the status quo, set goals, and record your failures and successes to measure growth.
If a startup team gets their priorities right, puts in the work and still fails, then at least they failed doing everything right. Figuring out what the main focus of every day should be is not an easy task; ignoring everything else and implementing that decision requires even more discipline. But due to the extremely limited time of founders, focusing on the wrong priorities can have detrimental repercussions.
Our tip: Instate a weekly meeting of no more than 15 minutes standing. Review your status quo and compare current results to the those of last week’s meeting. Every team member should agree on the number one priority and do what’s necessary to see a positive impact by next week’s meeting. In the rare cases where team members don’t agree on what the number one priority is, a targeted discussion should be had, but by the end of the 15 minutes, a decision must have been made with the understanding that it will be implemented by everyone. Given members will be standing, this small action expedites the speed of the meeting—no one likes to be standing for 30 minutes.
3. Know how to distinguish between being busy and being successful: Growth is not the same thing as activity. Make sure you know where you want to go, what’s keeping you from getting there and what you can do to get there faster.
Due to the agile environment of startups, one has to make sure that time is best utilised. There is no room for aimless work or unnecessary lifestyle business tasks. Setting goals is an integral part of being able to measure impact and address accountability. While on the one hand productivity must be maximised, on the other hand knowing what’s most important and why remains integral to being able to work purposefully towards the correct objectives.
Our tip: Create a chart of immediate priorities, set goals, measure impact and keep all those ‘trackable’ records in the same place. You know you’re doing something wrong if by the end of the day you are not seeing progress. The beauty of a small startup is that you can see the fruit of your labour immediately, therefore not being able to meet your set goals means you are not focusing on the right KPIs.
4. Don’t let the urgent drown out the important.
Sometimes there are so many things coming at you at once, it becomes difficult to discern between what is incumbent for the long-term success of your startup and what simply seems like it may blow up your day and/or startup.
Our tip: In order to ensure that the urgent does not drown out the important, asses the potential repercussions of not performing a certain task. Whenever you are unsure what should take priority focus on outcome versus immediate urgency. What do you loose if something is not addressed immediately? What is your strategy for the future? When choosing between a primary goal (in line with your long-term goals) and an unexpected urgent matter, ask yourself how you could use your time if you didn’t take care of that matter and focused on your primary goal instead.
5. Prioritise: Whatever it is that you need to do to keep on track, do it.
A crucial and essential part of prioritising is planning; take the time to make a plan, then stick to it. Be diligent and disciplined in looking at the status quo and assessing your needs. Be realistic and honest with yourself and your team. Welcome feedback and remember to follow the plan you have outlined. After all, there is a reason you took the time to make it in the first place.
If you want to grow you need to get tasks done. Find what ever it is that it helps you do that, whether that’s structure, games, incentives, etc.
Our tip: Research has shown that a visual presentation of goals with a timeline has yielded positive results for individuals and groups. Writing goals down and making them available (whether it is on a whiteboard in the kitchen or in the virtual water-cooler area) will motivate your team and allow a ‘space of reference’ to refer to when working off the To-Do list.
6. At any given time make sure you know about the most important metrics of your start up (CLV, cost per acquisition, etc)
You will have a hard time tracking your goals if you don’t measure your key KPI’s. Not only is it important for the overall strategy and business development, but it is also a great source of motivation and a necessary step to assign responsibility and ensure accountability. You have to stay on top of the status quo, especially in the initial weeks, or when launching a new feature, beta testing, or any major changes take place. You can only optimise processes if you know whether or not they are working. You can only implement changes or foresee the necessary areas where change is desperately needed if you actively search for them by looking at your metrics.
Our tip: Break down all the numbers, create a visual representation and make the reports available to everyone. Schedule the review of them as an integral part for the decision-makers and / or department heads bi-weekly tasks. Make sure that the numbers are made available and reviewed at least biweekly by one person, who will then coordinate with the appropriate employees in their respective functions.
7. Give it your full attention: Be determined! Don’t allow yourself to take half measures. If your heart is not in it completely, don’t do it.
You have to love what you do and you need to exert passion in your daily activities; while not every entrepreneur feels the need to change the world, one should, at least, have a goal that is relentlessly pursued. The drive behind that goal —changing the world, financial independence, or creative fulfilment— needs to compel the accomplishing of things. When it comes to entrepreneurship, the needed determinations cannot be taught or acquired. With all highly-competitive, high-stress efforts —running a marathon, driving a race car, or running a startup — precision and discipline is needed. These imperatives may only come from within.
Our tip: If you don’t want ‘it’ enough, do not found a startup. Derive the necessary attention and power from reminding yourself that creating a startup is choice. Just as you have the choice to close down your startup when you no longer feel like you heart is in it anymore. The most successful startups cater to an underdeveloped market, or create a new market altogether; they stem from a necessity to solve problems or tackle a particular challenge. If your reason for starting a company does not stem from a monomaniacal need that comes from within, remind yourself of whatever keeps you going.
8. Ensure that you play to your strengths.
In a car race between an Aston Martin Vanquish (573 HP) and a land Rover Defender (113 HP), the Land Rover would probably win if it takes place in the desert. Make sure everybody on the team does what they do best and not waste time with activities that are not their strong suit.
Our tip: Hire based on needs, assign responsibilities based on needs and most of all encourage open lines of communication and exchange to ensure that if someone is not playing to their strengths, an adjustment of responsibility can be carried out swiftly and effectively. While a more traditional educational model was based on an university degree, nowadays most millennials acquire skills by continuous studying and challenging themselves.
9. Realise what you can’t afford to lose: time. Thus, figure out what you need to do, when you need to do it, and how are you going to implement.
If you are serious about succeeding you need to realise what your most valuable resource us: time.
Our tip: Don’t multitask. Make lists. Plan your day the evening before. Complete your most important tasks before 9am or at make them the first item on your daily agenda. Keep to your schedule. Only check your emails 4X a day, at most. Put electronic devices on ‘Do Not Disturb’ when engaging in tasks that demand full concentration.
10. There is all the time in the world and yet, no time at all. Make sure you spend your most valuable resource on what matters most. Take the time to do it well.
One should not under estimate the importance of taking a break once in a while. Everyone has finite resources. During your professional and personal life, prioritising needs and ensuring activities are structured create positive impact.
Our tip: Keep to your schedule. Both leisure activity and task should be as outlined on your agenda. This way we condition our brains and develop behavioural patterns that aid the long term productivity of our work. Set goals, even during holiday. The brain releases serotonin, dopamine (and depending on level on concentration and nature of task, even adrenaline); we can condition our brains to derive pleasure from small successes. The nature of running a startup is associated with risk. In order for our brain to go into ‘risk-reward’ mode, we must set attainable, realistic goals every day, ensure that we reach them, and complete them. For example, when on holidays, one may set the goal to swim at least 1 km per day; while working one may set the goal to go for a 20-minute, morning run bi-weekly.
11. Understand Need vs. Want
Distinguish between need and want: Whether it is talent, a patent or a wireless connection, most things you believe are irreplaceable are just an additional obstacle to conquer on the way to success. Knowing want you and your startup truly can’t survive without helps to establish protocols and priorities to ensure that you have everything you truly need.
Our tip: On an ongoing basis, create a set of parameters to know what you absolutely need to stay on top of all times. It is always good to have goals so curating a list of ‘wants’ can also be beneficial, but not necessary.
12. Find the right balance between ongoing competitive analysis and stressing out over becoming the market leader.
It is difficult not to loose sight of your goals if you see the long path still ahead of you. Measuring the market share of your competitors, focusing on USP and defensibility and attempting to anticipate your competitors moves ahead of time can be a great asset. One should engage in those activities with caution though, because devoting too much time to looking at what the competition does versus focusing on growing your own business detracts from your own purpose of growth and increasing your own marketshare.
Our tip: Depending on industry, development stage, team size, churn rate, market share and various additional factors the right balance of competitive intelligence and analysis can be determined. If you feel you lack the competencies in that area, a good alternative is to hire someone (a contractor, outside firm, etc.) to create a quarterly report as well as ongoing monitoring on a need-be basis.
13. Don’t devote yourself to the illusion that it’s going to be easy!
Adjusting your expectations offers relief in the long-term. Many entrepreneurs start out not having truly fathomed the challenges ahead of them. Depending on your current threshold value, you may need to adjust your expectations even further.
Our tip: Hope for the best but expect the worst! It is always better to have planned for contingencies and account for potential failures, then it is to simply hope for the best without having a backup plan. You don’t want to be the person that is over-run, surprised or shocked by sudden change of circumstances. Be honest and realistic. If you feel like you lack the needed objectivity, assign another member of your team or consider outsourcing certain sensitive matters. Approach any analysis without emotion and ego. Remember, give yourself time off as well. Don’t forget to reward yourself and maintain a balance that helps you keep your sanity.
14. Adjusting to the new normal
While still building your company you will give up certain comforts, you may need to consolidate and above all you should get use to the idea that your life will most likely change fundamentally for a couple of years.
Our tip: Entrepreneurs can remind themselves that (if all goes well) the less comfortable aspects of startup life will hopefully be replaced by some comforts that may otherwise would have been unimaginable Beyond that, if your primary intention is to get rich fast by founding a startup, you may wish to redo those calculations and take a look at the odds of success.
15. There are some mistakes you need to make yourself. In order to gain insight and learnings, some activities need to be experienced firsthand.
Not what an entrepreneur wants to hear, but truthful nonetheless. Regardless of industry, development stage, or personality, most founders possess some beliefs that are set their behavioural patterns are on ‘auto-pilot’. The lessons we learn ourselves are the hardest and the ones we remember most. But somewhere on the way, you’ll probably think back and recall that moment when you learned that one lesson you couldn’t believe before. Sometimes pain is the only teacher.
Our tip: Listen cautiously to the advice of others around you. Always ask yourself how their stories and experiences could apply to your own circumstances. Reflect on your own life and be honest about your limitations. If possible, try to ascertain where your personal bias and prejudice may impact your judgment. Analyse your own upbringing and choices thus far and maybe you’ll notice some areas you have a very strong about; ask yourself where this opinion comes from and whether it may be clouded somehow.
16. Don’t make excuses. If you want it badly enough, then find a way to get it.
Making excuses is bad form; one should not try to justify their bad behaviour. If excuses are directed at employees, co-founders, suppliers, or worst of all—customers—it’s bad enough. However, it’s not nearly as dangerous as justifying one’s bad behaviour to oneself.
Our tip: Create a corporate culture of accountability starting with the CEO and senior management. Small things, such as the tardiness of being late to meetings, demand responsibility to be taken. A precedent needs to be established the person responsible has taken full accountability for their actions and is making amends.
17. Keep it simple.
There is almost no area this advice does not pertain to. Whether it’s breaking down a list of tasks, logo, or pitch deck: Focus on the essentials.
Our tip: Input from others proves helpful. Ask someone, who does not know the product and/or industry, for a few minutes to listen to your pitch. Do they understand the product? Ask them to take a look at a graphic. Do they have a strong sense of what the service is? Their input may prove insightful.
18. Seek advice, rather than money, from potential investors.
When fundraising, ask for advice and feedback rather than money. This engages with an expert who might otherwise not entertain the idea of investing in your startup. Investors get pitched all the time; not getting pitched is a welcome change of pace and may just peak their interest. Adding that to competence, an interesting product, a good team and a humble attitude, and your chances of getting funded increase twofold.
Our tip: Engaging with industry experts, including investors, is a must as a startup founder. However, you don’t want to be ‘that guy’ who pushes his products non-stop and tries to ‘sell’ everyone on it. You are the interesting entrepreneur, working on an exciting project who will gladly share news of growth, ask questions, listen intently, and seek advice. Exude your confidence in running a long-term, profitable company; be the person aware of their own limitations and who is thankful to not be the smartest person in the room.
19. Implementation is everything.
At the end of the day, the execution of your idea is what sets you apart from the other thousand companies that didn’t succeed. While ideas are a dime a dozen, few people have the ability to turn an abstract concept into a thriving company. Startup founders not only face the challenges of building and running a company, but maintaining vision, drive and discipline.
As Guy Kawalski said: “Ideas are easy. Implementation is hard.” If you insist on a signed NDA about your idea, perhaps you are not confident enough about your process. If you believe it is easy to ‘steal’ your startup, then the much bigger problem would seem to be your USP and defensibility. At the end of the day, a signature is only as valuable as the person giving it.
Our tip: Nobody is like you. Based on who you are, what you’ve done, and the experiences which comprise the essence of your being, the approach you take will be unique. The way you handle certain aspects of your startup, how you talk to people, and how you can conceptualise turns your uniqueness into an asset. Find a team of like-minded people, play to your strengths, and be honest. If one person is the idea guy, then that person should find people to build their dream; if one person has an incredible prototype, then find a business development or marketing genius. Together, an idea or prototype evolves into a thriving business.
20. Reputation takes years to build; it can be destroyed within a second. Make sure you always operate with integrity, remain true to your word, and treat others fairly.
While a person has about 3 seconds to make a first impression, a company must always operate with integrity to establish and uphold a trustworthy relationship with their customers and partners. As Winston Churchill said: “By the time the truth has a chance to put on its boots, a rumour will already have spread halfway across the world.” The same can be applied to misunderstandings, which is why reputation management should be on top of the list when it comes to managing business. relations.
Our tip: Build relationships based on trust. This pertains not just to your co-founders and team, but to customers and partners. If you get it right 99 times, but mess up 1 time, people seem to remember that one time. Personal connections to key people who will champion your efforts are of great value in a situation where the record needs to be set straight.
21. Focus on value, not money.
Looking beyond money and superficial satisfaction is the best strategy for long-term success. Most resources are available in abundance: money, expertise, ideas, etc., but what’s needed to build a successful startup starts and ends with the exchange of value above all. If you are known to be a person who has consistently been of value to others, then value will be provided to you in return. There are immaterial assets you can utilise, such as personal relationships and being considerate, that will help you go much further than a mere cheque.
Customers may pay extra for security features of your B2B SaaS product, or even 24/7 personal customer service because it is of evident value to them. 2.5 million Americans have paid an annual $100 membership fee for the Global Entry program offered the U.S. Customs and Border Protection department. With this program, frequent fliers pay to skip massive lines. Think about your customer’s needs and desire. Maybe your customers will shop via your fashion e-commerce platform because it offers free, customised gift wrapping or extra-fast shipping.
It is a common misconception the amount of money you receive earn is proportionate to the value you provide.
Our tip: Find out the underlying motivation of your consumers and cater to those needs. Use first-principle reasoning without being distracted by superficial shininess, empty trends or theoretical reports. When it comes to providing value it is easy enough to ask for and offer feedback.
Make sure your choices are guided by market research, customer validation and competitive analysis. Establish what your USP is, who your customers are, what they want, and then give it to them.
When building a relationship with an investor, ask yourself what you want and how you are planning on getting it. No matter the amount of zeroes on the cheque, it is oftentimes the advice, experience and expertise that are far more valuable.
22. Validate before you build, kind of.
Would you make guesses about the result of an experiment you are conducting? Would you spend money based on assumptions, instead of feedback from a focus group or early adopters? I sure hope you wouldn’t. Startups build products and provide services for their consumers, which is why they are the ones who should determine the direction of the offering. Whether you are just getting started or thinking of adding more features to an already successful product, simply inquire customers by watching them interact with the potential products or add-ons.
Our tip: In the very beginning of the entrepreneurial journey, entrepreneurs should start running their idea by anyone who will listen, followed by an object to interact with, such as a wireframe, a cardboard prototype, or a MVP based on a reduced minimal feature set. As the entrepreneurial journey continues, still seek feedback, tips, and ideas from consumers. This proves to be the best strategy to not overspend on an unproven hypothesis.
23. What holds true for you, and possibly even your entire startup team, may not hold true for your users or customers. Expect to adjust your strategy.
It would be naive and ludicrous to think your opinion and taste is universal. While market research might help you to a certain extent, nobody can truly read the mind of others.
Every startup has user acquisition targets or needs a certain amount of clients. Therefore, be open when making unilateral decisions, especially when it comes to consumer behaviour.
Our tip: In this context, one should not let their bias or beliefs tune out the voice of the customers, team, or advisors. Because one may possess a thorough understanding of the facts, one may be wrong, after all. Secondly, continuos testing is required. While it is important to let the results guide the validation process, people claimed one thing about their behaviour while their actions did not reflect their choice. Keep an eye out for changes, understand feedback, and do not let ego get in the way of listening.
24. Do not try to raise funds before your startup is post-proof of concept. Investors want to make sure that they realise a good ROI; presenting them with assumption-based predictions only wastes their and time.
Investors and startups take on a certain amount of risk if funding takes place before the startup is at the post-proof of concept stage. In order to compensate for the unknown component of whether the startup will be successful or not, investors will oftentimes offer term sheet conditions that are not ideal. In turn, startups may accept these conditions because they desperately need the money. In an ideal situation, no pressure exists for the startup to accept money because they proved their concept. Therefore, they have multiple offers for investment, paving more-fair conditions or the runway is long and overall development is on the track.
Our tip: Ideally, investors approach you. Your efforts should go towards making your startup as attractive and successful as possible. If you can do that, then you don’t have worry about when to approach investors, they will run down your door themselves. If your runway is shortening, however, and you don’t seem to have a choice, try and find a way to create a test or pilot project. Demonstrate and prove that your assumptions are correct by providing proof, even if those results are not derived from a 1:1 scale project. Find the resources to clearly highlight the value of your offering and use them to your advantage when asking for funds.
25. Know when to pull the plug. Pay close attention to your surroundings, be objective, ask for feedback, but close down your company when that is the best choice.
After examining the factors of why your company is not where it should be and working till the eleventh hour to offset those factors, it is time to face the facts and realise you have not been successful with this particular venture. However, it is of the utmost importance that you know why you are closing down your business. In order to understand, ask for feedback; oftentimes you may think that your impediment to success is one thing when in fact it may be something different all together (e.g.: One may assume that their value proposition is not good when in truth their data set is too small).
Our tip: Thoroughly test your assumptions and forget all previous research or results. Go back to the basics and look at the market, your customers, team, product, location and competition with a new perspective. Eliminate one factor after the other individually and look for changes. Once you know what the hinderance to your success is ask yourself realistically if you can fix it; if not, move on.
26. Productivity is highest in the morning.
Our tip: Spent the first two hours of each day working on the most important tasks. Don’t check your emails, texts, or social media. Do not any interruption for the best part of the day to get work done.
27. Make an emotional connection with your customers, invite their input, listen to their feedback, and show them your appreciation.
Advertising in the classical sense (billboards, leaflets and mass emails) is nearly dead. Marketing has turned into a contest for people’s attention and they want to feel special. The best marketers are excellent storytellers and know how to appeal to people’s inner drives and thoughts.
Our tip: Create surveys, contests, giveaways, etc., to iterate how customer-driven the startup is. Create a culture that exudes: “We are building this for you: the customer. So, tell us what you think”. Reward your first followers,users, and/or clients. The beauty of a startup in the early stages is it can create individualised responses and interact with customers on a personal level.
28. Don’t forget that it takes time to educate people about the product or service you provide.
This is especially relevant when your product or service creates a new market. But even in a competitive space, consumers will ask why they should buy your product, hire you, or engage your services as opposed to those of established competitors. Setting yourself apart can be done by emphasising your USP, cheaper pricing, or faster shipping, to customer service. If the product and/or service is novel, you might have to pound some pavement to gain a bit of traction and those first few customers. Look for early-adopters, whose open minds will be more receptive to a new way of doing things.
Our tip: Ask yourself why you created your product or service. Why was it necessary in the first place? Did it stem from seeing a less-expensive alternative to competitors, a better add-on, or a high-caliber variation of an existing product? Keep coming back to your initial reasoning of why you wanted to create the product or your company provides and why you it would be more successful than your competition’s. Your offering should be better than that of your competitors. If you are creating a new market altogether, chances are it will take much longer for your consumers to engage with your product then you initially anticipated. In that case, double the calculated timeframe and costs.
29. Don’t underestimate the importance of sales.
Sales is an activity most startups will have to engage with one way or another. Just because you are not selling a product, providing a service or needing to acquire clients, it does not mean that you don’t have to sell to people. Persuading sign ups on your platform, social media engagement, or any other tasks need capable individuals who can devise a sales strategy and execute t it. Selling is about convincing people and making providing value.
Our tip: If you need to work on your sales skills, find someone who can help you become better. Learning sales skills will be invaluable, both professional and personally. Alternatively, hire a sales person, even temporarily. If he or she can deliver results, as long as the cost of hiring does not outweigh the overall revenue you generate because of them.
30. Your journey starts long before your launch.
This generation has a very short attention span. Companies must compete to leave a memorable impression on the consumer mind. The challenge is to be more than a blip in this fast moving world. Before you launch, it is essential to have a plan, contingencies, thorough analysis and preparation for every stakeholder (customers, employees, partners, etc.).
Our tip: Build anticipation and excitement for your product before it’s available. Turn the early adopters into evangelists for your startup; think about giving them a small role in the startup’s infancy. Interact with users/customers ahead of time, since you will have other priorities taking up your time after launch. Perhaps these will be your first users.
31. Build a brand around you and your startup.
Building a brand and establishing a corporate identity may set you apart from being a company with a similar product and/or service. Hiring great talent and creating a loyal customer base remain challenges of both established businesses and young ventures. From colour scheme to Tweets, you are known for everything that contributes to the image that you project towards the outside. Investors, potential hires, and current and future customers are the recipients of what you project outwards.
Our tip: Guest blog, give presentations, contribute to a online or in-person community, etc. Don’t give too much of your time doing PR, but make sure people know who you are and what you stand for. Depending on industry, development stage, goals and needs, different approaches are necessary. It is also important to remember if a mission statement isn’t followed by the company, values cannot be detected from the outside world. Be consistent.
32. The days are long, but the years are short.
Founding a startup is, with all hopes, one of the things that you love to do. It may be a trial at times, an inspiration at others. Working for yourself may be an exhilarating experience, but remember your family, friends, and health are things to be grateful for. Take care all of them. ###
About the Authors:
Elizabeth J. Taylor (@itsEJT) and Rebecca S. Bachmann (@RSBachmann) are co-founders of Sollertis Strategy, an adventure capitalist and consulting organisation, geared towards strategic and operational support to established startups and investors.
Find out more on: http://www.sollertis-strategy.com
Connect via Twitter: @SollertisS