Did you know? A survey by the University of Phoenix showed that 63% of 20-somethings have a strong desire to start a business. That’s a great first step: DESIRE. But what else does it take to start a business that is sustainable?
Kevin Sandlin, a serial entrepreneur and 7-time startup veteran, shares his experience in this article. Since Y2K, right around the time many of these 20-somethings were born, he has started seven businesses. Five of them failed. In that time, he’s learnt from experience what it takes to be a startup founder.
When you swing at a golf ball, baseball, or tennis ball, your stroke doesn’t stop at contact with the ball – it continues to follow-through. Unfortunately, most people stop right after they make contact with the ball, and then watch as it falls. This same principle applies to founding any organisation, including a technology business. The founder must have a long, strong vision for the future. What will this industry, this space, this company look like in 20 years? Will it still be relevant then? As the founder, it is your job to convince others to see, share, and invest in your vision.
Far too often, a young entrepreneur will have a superb idea for how to solve a great, big problem; but lacks the ability to communicate the problem, the solution, and why he or she is the right person at the right time to build a business around solving that problem. The only way to learn and get better at communication is to do it constantly, and continuously get feedback from objective, non-friendly, third parties who are not afraid to tell you that (a) your idea is bad or (b) the way you communicate your idea is bad.
Not everyone is going to like your idea, agree with your idea, see your idea, or care about your idea. But not everyone is your target prospect, so not everyone matters. If someone who is not your target audience tells you your idea stinks, don’t get offended or upset. Just ask them why they don’t like it. This is your opportunity to learn something new. Far too many would-be-entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs) stop when the first person says “NO!” regardless of whether that person was a prospect or not. Being a founder and entrepreneur demands you to be a little thick skinned. You have to be able to push through the naysayers, haters, and other negative Nellies, and that takes persistence.
Okay, so you have a vision, you can communicate that vision, and you’ve shrugged off all the folks who say it can’t be done. That alone takes energy, but not nearly the energy it will take to acquire your first 100 customers or raise capital. Consider the old adage that if business were like baseball, we’d only have to get it right 30% of the time to be legendary. Well, 30% of what? That’s where the energy is required: getting the “at-bats” in front of potential customers, partners, investors, co-founders, employees, and anyone else whom you need to be on board with your vision. Here’s a great Quora conversation. It begins with the question, “Which startups were rejected several times by VCs before getting funded?” to which the first epic answer is, “All of them.”
As a founder, there are millions of tasks you have to do every single day. You cannot possibly do them all, and yet they must all be done. The key to success in the early stages of any startup is to focus on the things that really matter. David Cummings, founder of Pardot and Atlanta Tech Village, wrote recently that “Metrics don’t matter at the beginning”. In his blog post, Cummings recommends that founders focus on revenue, unaffiliated (e.g. not friends of friends) customers, and product market fit. That’s just three out of the ten hundred things you feel you have to do every day. Focus on those three things in the early days of your startup, and you’ll soon get past the beginning.
In all likelihood, you will not be like Instagram (acquired by Facebook for $1 billion barely 2 years after founding), so it’s important to instil patience as a habit. At the start, nobody would know who you are or what you’re doing. Thereafter, real prospects will start to pay attention, even though it takes a long time to get a prospect to adopt a new way of thinking, much less a new way of doing something. One of the biggest obstacles to accepting newer, more efficient solutions to any problem is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it”. Change is hard and takes time. Are you patient enough to stand the test of time?
Paul Graham, principal at YCombinator, has famously written that startup founders must “Do things that don’t scale”. This means to go through all the processes that will someday be automated, farmed out, or done by interns. But right now, in the first few months or year of a startup, there’s just you. If you don’t do it, nobody will, and it’s got to be done. In a recent discussion at General Assembly’s Atlanta campus, I moderated a panel of three high-tech hiring executives. They all used some variation of the term “grit”, and referred often to the need for people who “get sh*t done”. That’s what “grit” looks like. Can you get it done, no matter what it takes?
8. Tech Skills
Does this particular item seem unnecessary? It might, but more and more each day, serious technology skills are required of founding teams entering accelerators like TechStars, YCombinator, and 500Startups. The thought behind these requirements is that in order to build a technology-centric business, one must start with tech-savvy founders. I was invited to discuss joining a partnership in the Atlanta area to develop a business focused on growing tech entrepreneurship and startups. After a few meetings, things were progressing, but I had to miss one of the discussions because of a prior commitment. I asked if someone in the group could send me a summary of the talking points, decisions made, new developments, etc. The response caused me to immediately remove myself from that group. They replied, “We haven’t hired a secretary yet.”
That last point is a great (and, unfortunately, true) anecdote that illustrates the days of hiring a secretary to do the miscellaneous are gone. Today’s startups are small, lightweight, fast, and nimble, and their founders (that’s you!) are fully adept at using, learning, and developing technologies that can change the world. Do you have what it takes to be a founder?
Skill up. Be your own boss.
This article was originally published on the General Assembly blog in November 2015. General Assembly is a global pioneer in education and career transformation, specializing in today's most in-demand skills. The leading source for training, staffing, and career transitions, GA fosters a flourishing community of professionals pursuing careers they love. GA offers free events, multi-hour workshops, and multi-week part-time and full-time courses – now all online – in tech, design, and business topics.
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