[Note: This post is part of a Startup Edition series on lessons for new entrepreneurs]
“I sense you’re going to be very successful,” my cab driver said. As San Francisco afternoon traffic lurched forward, the conversation had gotten very personal, as taxi cab confessions often do.
“There’s something about the way you carry yourself, and how you communicate your ideas,” she said.
“Why do I feel like I’m bashing my head against a wall half the time?” I wanted to say. “The other half of the time feels like I’m punching sand.”
I bit my tongue.
“Thanks,” I replied.
Perhaps I should be applauding the fact that a nagging, ever-present sense of discomfort had an inspirational effect on a complete stranger. It certainly didn’t feel that way at the time.
I’m sure this feeling of disquiet and unrest is shared by many entrepreneurs. While things may appear “normal” on the outside, below the surface is a boiling sea of conflicting emotions. With so many mission-critical decisions to make it’s hard to recognize and celebrate incremental progress.
“Being succesful in entrepreneurship is not about intelligence, it’s about perserverance,” Scripted.com co-founder and CEO Sunil Rajaraman said on a recent episode of the Entrepreneur on Fire podcast.
In spite of all the hype-making, entrepreneurship is the furthest thing from glamorous. If you aren’t making it on a box.net or Pinteterest level, you’re fighting an uphill battle for survival. And the biggest struggle is to keep yourself focused on the mission at hand. As I’m learning, entrepreneurship is about how to make peace with being uncomfortable.
While each entrepreneur’s journey is different, here are five pieces of advice I have for young, first-time startup founders and small business owners.
1. Starting is the easy part
Launching a business is exhilarating.
Pandora founder Tim Westergren recently wrote on LinkedIn about his heady startup days back in 1999. Crammed into a studio apartment, and surrounded by whiteboards, he and his Pandora co-founders were confident they were going to revolutionize the music industry, and put artists first. They even raised money from investors who believed in their mission.
And then $#!t got real:
We began running out of money and wound up in a long, grueling fight for survival. It took almost 4 years, a few business model changes, and 348 investor pitches before we were able to raise another venture capital round. By the time we got to the closing in March of 2004, we had deferred close to $2 million of salary, racked up massive credit card debt, battled lawsuits and eviction notices, and experienced just about every other imaginable challenge for a young business. It was a wild process that by all measures we should not have survived. As I enjoy the progress of Pandora, those days are never far from my mind.
Do you have the grit to suffer through four years of the so-called “trough of despair?” That’s how long it could take to get real traction–if it happens at all. And the more audacious your vision, the harder you will have to fight.
Creating product-market fit is much harder than getting the ball rolling.
2. Balance passion and practicality
In order to make it as an entrepreneur you have to have passion, but pragmatism is the attribute that will get you much further.
“Make something people want,” Y Combinator founder Paul Graham says.
While you may think your idea is going to set the world ablaze, you’re not your customer. Neither are your friends and family.
Practice customer development to ensure you’re not going down the wrong road with a product or service no one needs. A fast and easy way to “get out of the building,” and get real feedback is to take your product idea or prototype to a coffee shop ask random strangers for their honest opinion. Even if you have to buy a few coffees, and hear some unwanted criticism, it’s a lot cheaper than building a full product no one buys.
3. There’s no shame in having a job first
Starting an entrepreneurial career as someone’s employee can be a safe and advantageous way to ease into startup life. You have a steady paycheck, and you get to learn from other people’s mistakes at no cost to yourself.
Fellow Startup Edition writer Jason Shah wrote:
I didn’t buy the, “Work on 0.0001% of a product that touches millions,” argument. The control-freak, narcissist in me wanted to own the damn thing.
After all, Jason had just sold his five-year-old company before graduating college. Not too shabby. But Jason admits he didn’t know how much he didn’t know until he started working for someone else.
When I worked on my own, I didn’t have analytics teams, useful dashboards, and a kickass in-house multivariate testing tool. Sure, you have Google Analytics, Mixpanel, and others. But Yammer has provided a 101 in the AARRR metrics and focusing on engagement, retention, and virality with a certain clarity that I didn’t have on my own. With millions of users, I have been able to measure things on a new level vs. the purely qualitative data I got from user testing with my other products that had much smaller user bases.
The most successful entrepreneurs are in their forties and fifties, running companies you’ve never read about on TechCrunch, Mashable or The Verge. With age comes experience. Working within an organization allows you to see its deficiencies, and to build up a rolodex of potential customers once you’ve launched a product.
And while tech acquisitions are rare form of exit, startups created by former employees to solve enterprise problems become juicy targets. Marc Benioff of Salesforce was a long-time Oracle employee before striking out on his own. And established players like Microsoft and Oracle often buy smaller firms for their customer relationships, and recurring revenue, or simply to snuff out a rival.
Today’s Salesforce would be a pretty rich meal.
4. Seek out mentors
Mentorship is a vital and increasingly-scarce form of career education. You’ll make plenty of startup mistakes of your own, but a mentor can help you spot many before they happen.
Priscilla Claman writes in the Harvard Business Review that you should seek out a “personal board of directors for your career,” a panel of expert mentors who can advise you across a range of professional aptitudes.
There’s no need to hold meetings or even inform each person of his or her status as a board member — but you do need to select the right people and stay in touch. Just like any good board, the people you choose should have different contributions to make to your thinking….The people on your board of directors should know more than you about something, be better than you are at something, or offer different points of view.
Sometimes you’ll have a mentor and not even realize it. That person you go to for advice could be the corner shopkeeper, or in my case a local restaurateur whom I jokingly refer to as “my guru.”
While it’s great to have a mentor who understands your business, it’s equally valuable to have a mentor who can provide you with valuable life insights. I’d say this is even more important than having an advisor. “The night is dark, and full of terrors,” as Game Of Thrones character Milesandra is fond of repeating. Recruit allies to your cause whose perspectives will keep your grounded, motivated and focused on the big picture.
Bonus: Podcasters are great mentors
You can and should listen to entrepreneurship podcasts to hear how other startup founders made it work, and to learn from their failures. Podcasts such as Mixergy, Entrepreneur on Fire, Foolish Adventure, The Lifestyle Business Podcast and the Web Domination Podcast are great resources, because you won’t always hear from the same handful of founders who dominate the mainstream news.
The process of entrepreneurship is the same, whether you aim for an IPO, or you just can’t stand working for someone else your whole life. Entrepreneur podcasts allow you to tap into the minds of fellow entrepreneurs and learn from a wide range of industries and perspectives.
5. The world needs you
Even when you feel at your loneliest point remember that the world needs entrepreneurs like you. There are many time when you will feel alone, confused and aimless. It happens to everyone. And you may be building the wrong product, and have to start again from scratch. But the world is full of problems, and problem-solvers like you are in short supply.
“I’d rather see you fail at your own startup then succeed reading about someone else’s,” As Dave McClure from 500 Startups says.
Your time is now. The world needs you!
This post was part of a Startup Edition series on lessons for young entrepreneurs
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