Starting any company is no easy feat. It’s tons of work and in reality no handbook on earth can prepare you for the sheer amount of detail and time it takes to get off the ground and running, and I’m not talking about the LLC filings or taxes or your business plan either. I’m talking about the minute details that could make or break you as a company, even if you raise millions of dollars.
With all of the resources available online these days I really find it surprising how many companies fail to see the importance of the points I make below.
So here are some pieces of advice I have for anyone wanting to start a startup from someone who has done it for others and herself:
1. Get A Mentor Find a CEO/entrepreneur who inspires you. One who’s message and beliefs align with your own and emulate them. If you want to take it a step further, send them a message, either via their company email listed on a website or their LinkedIn. (I wouldn’t do Facebook or Instagram as those are too personal for business insight).
Be upfront and honest about your goals as a new or soon to be CEO and why you chose them (i.e. their goals and mindset align with what you aspire to be) and ask if they have time to offer some mentorship advice. Never go in with outright, "I want you to tell me how to start this." That is a big no no.
Be humble and ask insightful questions, and though honesty is key, being too blunt may make it sound like you are too lazy to do the work and just want quick get rich tips.
If all goes well and you hit it off well enough, they may even introduce you to their contacts and even investors as long as you are not direct competition. I personally introduced several startups to key contacts for growth that made a huge difference for brand new idea phase companies. In the startup world it really is all about who you know.
2) Be Ready to Hear Some Not so Nice Things Mentors and trusted sources are here to help, even if it means bursting a few bubbles along the way. It is not all peaches and cream in the startup world, there are tons of failures and even more pressure to succeed, especially as an investment backed startup. So be ready to accept that your business plan or dream may be flawed. It doesn't mean it can't be adjusted but don't become too attached to any idea just yet.
In that same breath I also advise you be ready to defend your idea to the very end. While not everyone may agree with your idea or dream, if you believe in yourself enough you should be able to make something happen.
3) Do Your Prep Work Do some interview preparation for mentor, investor, hiring and media situations. Make up scenarios where you are basically being interrogated, bulldozed, broken down, and demoralized and practice how you can respond to each tough situation in a level headed manner with a well thought out fact based response to undercut their argument against you. Not every interaction is going to be a positive one so being able to deliver your pitch or point under extreme pressure is a necessary skill to have. Practice makes perfect. Never go in blind or cocky.
Mentors and investors who have succeeded in this world know how to survive and know how to call out bullshit when they see it. They won't hand over their hard earned advice or money to just any Joe on the street with an idea.
4) Focus on Culture over Everything All the money in the world won't save you after hiring the wrong people, killing the vibe and/or causing chaos and discord. It will take months (if ever) to rebuild a strong foundation once trust is lost amongst the team.
Never hire the resume/reputation, always hire the attitude/experience. It is not impossible to find quality talent with a good attitude, it will be hard work and a lot of man hours to get your dream team together. Fancy stickers are great to have but no amount of them will ever outweigh the affect of a really awful teammate. Give everyone a chance but when you see the signs you need to take action swiftly to keep the flow flowing.
In a work environment, if one person has a complaint about something that is backed up with clear proof it is pretty safe to assume that they are not the only one experiencing issues, just the only one brave enough to say something.
Be ready to address issues and complaints swiftly and effectively and show your team with proof that a situation has been handled. Building a culture off of trust and execution is the only way you will survive the tough roads ahead. If your team can't come to you with the hard stuff why would they want to stay?
5) Business is not a Democracy I see this a lot, businesses want to give their employees power in the workplace. They want to seem cool and attentive to everyone. This is great at first when you have a team of five. Trying to to make every person happy when you have a team of 15, let alone a team of 30+, all with different opinions and schools of thought is a recipe for complete disaster. Eventually someone will feel ignored and cause instant friction amongst the employees. Favoritism conspiracy theories begin to arise and discord ensues.
Allow your employees to voice their concerns or opinions about certain matters via email, not in a public forum. Personally respond and thank them for their input and tell them it will be taken into consideration but at the end of the day it is your business that you need to run how you see fit.
If you do need all of their opinion you need to speak directly to their heads of department or supervisors to discuss with them first, then come back as a representative for them to discuss directly with you.
Never give everyone the power because soon, no body will have power.
6) Don't Flex Don't use money or names as leverage to get investors, contracts, new hires or poach talent. Just don't. It's tacky and if something changes you then have to answer to the people you promised certain things to and now cannot deliver.
Prime example, I worked with a company that hired an elite engineer in his field. "God among men" is how he was described to me (commence very exaggerated eye roll). He was the best of the best, a veteran in this industry and if we managed to poach him, every single door will be opened to us with a red carpet entrance.
A few days after his hire, the ego and shit attitude comes out. Nothing in his references suggested that he was an ego maniac who could not be convinced that he was ever wrong even if presented with the evidence.
Every single employee filed a complaint about this guy, several threatened to quit and several actually did because of how unbearable he was.
Unfortunately the founding team used him as leverage to secure several lucrative investor and manufacturing deals and while he became more volatile, even becoming combative with the founders, they were forced to smile and allow themselves and good employees to be abused all to secure deals that they promised they would. Of course once the deals were made, they fired him, but the damage was done. Far too gone to ever be fixed.
Don't be like that company.
I always like to end these articles with my disclaimer that I am not a business or startup expert because I truly am not. I have simply have critical first hand experience of what not to do when trying to start a business or startup.
Lessons are the best building blocks to success so I hope by sharing mine you can build yours.