You don’t need an MBA to start a business. In fact, some of the world’s largest organizations are run by CEOs and owners who dropped out of school altogether and entered into the business world through an alternative route. Most entrepreneurs agree: First-hand experience is the best education.
In the absence of a one-size fits all blueprint for starting a business (trust us—we’re working on it) mistakes are natural, and rarely do all the pieces come in one box when you’re building something from scratch. How do you ensure you don’t make an irreversible error while pursuing that real-world learning experience? We decided to ask several notable entrepreneurs who successfully navigated to the other side:
Q: You weren't always a seasoned business owner or CEO! Tell us about something you learned while in the trenches of starting your own business that you wished you'd known before.
Although they may not be able to run their businesses better in hindsight, these now seasoned business owners were gracious enough to share insights into what they wish they had known way back when they gave their dreams wings.
A: Startup vets share 23 tips they wish they knew on starting and running a business
On elbow grease:
“There isn't time to learn how to be an expert in every area of the business. Play to your strengths and specialize in one to two areas that you can do better than anyone else - then either offload the things you aren't good at to a co-founder (if you have one) or hire to fill your gaps. The people you hire should be smarter than you in whatever area you're hiring them for.”
- Benji Hyam, Grow and Convert
“There are SaaS products out there to make your life much easier. From companies like Stripe for payment processing, WordPress for CMS, mongoDB for database hosting, and to Zapier who makes them all work together, getting a website up and running can be done quickly and effectively utilizing the various SaaS solutions out there.”
- Sol Orwell, SJO.com
"You can't do everything yourself. Micromanaging isn't going to get things done faster. It only makes employees feel unappreciated and untrusted, and adds to your workload. Instead, create a reporting system to receive timely updates on projects and give employees ownership of their work so that they can use their talents to shine."
- Vladimir Gendelman, Company Folders, Inc.
“Exercise and get enough sleep. Working 100 hour weeks is simply not sustainable, no matter who you are.”
- Michael Unigo, Sellbrite
“I wish I knew the true meaning of a word "funnel" and the importance of analytics tools. For first 2 years, through a poorly designed registration form, we were losing 70% of a potential signups. Fixing registration took less than a day and the conversion to signed users went up 300%. We had multiple wins like this over the past year, all thanks to funnel tracking and advanced analytics.”
- Mike Sadowski, Brand24
Like Mike’s statement alludes to, many tools out there are built to make you smarter. This is why listening to that cold call or reading that cold email pitch isn’t always a waste of your time.
On facing fears (... or more specifically, rejection):
“Whether you're dealing with co-founders, employees, contractors, or customers, make sure you properly align expectations and incentives. It's almost always better to ask the tough questions and risk getting a "no" early, so you can focus on what matters.”
- Casey Armstrong, Full Stack Marketer
“No matter how long you stay at it, there's always a challenge that you're never sure how to solve.”
- Chad Halvorson, When I Work
Empowerment happens when you embrace the challenges, the no’s, and the barriers and make the choice to either make note and move on or change as needed to adapt.
“Instead of raising capital to try and buy your way to success, simply publicly shout to the world how successful your venture will be - that confidence has a way of attracting all the success you want. No one does this because they are too self centered. They think ‘What if I tell everyone I'm going to build a $1m/month company then I don't - the world will think I'm a failure’. Convince yourself first, tell the world, success comes.”
- Nathan Latka, NathanLatka.com
"You never know unless you ask. Can you get a raise? Can you take ownership of a new project? Can you charge more for your product? Can you connect with your "dream" mentor? Frame it properly (what's in it for them!) and ask.”
- Casey Armstrong, Full Stack Marketer
“It's easy to start a business that you *think* solves a problem people have. But I wish I knew that it's best to actually go out and talk to your potential customers. As nefarious as they can be, Reddit users can provide you a lot of insight simply by asking them, 'What can my business do for you?' You'll get a lot of responses filled with problems to solve. Not all of them are worth pursuing. However it's a good start to solving the question if you really are helping people with their problems.”
- Jason Quey, Decibite
Being bashful about something great never got anyone noticed and staying silent when you have the solution to a problem only leaves others in pain, so speak up! Get your name out there in the public and tell your story. Casting a wider net at first will help you find interested customers early on as well as possible investors that want to be a part of your movement.
Steps to take:
- PR & Marketing: Get some publicity around your story or products. Every organization should have a Twitter.
- Demo Days: Take the stage and present your offering. From there, stay engaged in other presentations and network.
- Personal Social Channels: A twist on an ancient proverb, ask yourself: If your followers don’t know you’ve started a business, did you really start one?
- Get crafty! Guerrilla Marketing never died, so get original and get OUT THERE.
On making sure you’re covered:
“Don’t ignore the legal mumbo-jumbo and the importance of a full-proof contract. Onboarding customers without proper legal framework is the worst mistake one can make.”
- Laxman Papineni, AppVirality
“The importance of having a partnership agreement that is very detailed, especially including roles and responsibilities, and penalties if a partner decides to simply stop working on the business but collecting half the profits. Yeah, I've learned this the hard way…”
- Kane Miller, StarterPad
If these brief and somewhat ambiguous anecdotes don’t scare you straight, just ask fellow entrepreneurs, stories like this are a dime a dozen for naive leaders with a few friends and a big dream.
“I have realized the significance of pricing the product right, and would recommend every entrepreneur to give it special attention.
- Laxman Papineni, AppVirality
It’s a message you see on many job boards, but the same rules that apply to negotiating a salary also ring true for pricing your product or offering. Don’t sell yourself short and risk leaving capital on the table.
“You're the prize, not the client. That's insanely difficult to wrap your head around -- not to mention your heart -- when you're starting out. Sadly, nothing smells worse than desperation and nothing turns off prospective clients and customers more. In fact, not only can desperation sour a sale, it also led me to undercharging and ultimately being devalued by the clients who did say 'Yes.' Set the bar high -- especially on price -- right from the jump.”
- Aaron Orendorff, Iconic Content
“That MVP stands for Minimum Loveable Product and the most important aspects of success are: Team, Product, and Distribution. In that particular order.”
- Ömer, Bynd App
Just like with a job offer, do your research:
- What does the competitive landscape look like?
- Where do you stand?
- What do you have to offer that no one else does?
Bring all this information to form your unique value proposition and establish a competitive price.
To the same point, don’t get complacent with what you know is possible, instead what you wish you could achieve:
“It's simple to get a business going if you have two things: passion and a strong work ethic! I had no clue my 5-minute (literally) business idea would produce a strong, 60-employee, 6-figure business in just a couple years. I would have set bigger goals at the beginning. It's amazing how easy it can actually be to become an entrepreneur - as simple as, just DO it!” - Julia McCoy, Express Writers
On making friends:
“Not everyone has the same work ethic as me. We learned some valuable lessons by hiring a few folks early on that didn't know the meaning of hard work. Proper vetting during the interview process is key!”
- Bradley R. Arkell, Dollar Hobbyz
“Everyone has a different capacity for knowledge, output, and curiosity. The earlier we understand it the better we'd perform as a team.”
- Jilliene Helmen, RealtyMogul.com
“It’s important to be in a community with others who are at the same stage, whether in person or remotely. These people can help you through the hard times you have as an entrepreneur and will also celebrate your successes with you.”
- John Doherty, GetCredo.com
A big takeaway is that you shouldn’t wait to reactively find the right people to solve for a problem, building a network is something you should do so that when an opportunity presents itself you know just who to call! As Michael puts it below, waiting to find the right people will leave you with a pretty dry well:
“Recruiting is a full time job. By the time you are finally ready to hire and really need the help, there is never enough time to find great people. Start recruiting EARLY and keep your candidate pipeline full!”
- Michael Ugino, Sellbrite
On thinking long term:
“I wish I knew how to invest my money. I was focused on the business, and once I started making some cash, I naturally invested in stocks. But I picked individual ones, and didn't spend enough time evaluating best practices. Because it was a bull market, I thought I was smart, but once things went sideways, I lost a lot of money. Invest in index funds, and don't day trade - focus on running a business.”
- Ross Hudgens, Siege Media
Educate yourself to what you’re entitled to as a founding member at a company. That means getting familiar with your company’s cap table but also looking at different options when issuing restricted stocks. If you’re not familiar with the 85(b) tax election read this blog and save you and your cofounders some major money down the road.
...but not just about investments:
“Have a long term view. Things of value just don't get built in a week. It takes time to cultivate your offer and refine your message.”
- Omar Zenhom, 100mba.net
“Stay true to your mission. It's easy (and even exciting) when new opportunities present themselves. But, just because there may be a big pot of gold at the end of the tunnel, doesn't mean you should leave your other gold behind to chase it. There are a lot of temptations along your path, you just need to remember to stay on course, otherwise you'll never reach the end.”
- Chad Keck, Promoter.io
It’s only natural that impatience can cloud your vision with the stress of hitting short-term goals. But while some things yield overnight success, others take time to build and see results.
“I wish I would've been better at long term strategy instead of obsessing over quick fix tactics and growth hacks. Even though I'm a very impatient person, I’m shifting gears into working on things that clearly show long-term thought and don’t scale straight to snowball :)”
- Johnathan Dane, KlientBoost
It’s important to mention that these business owners may be seasoned but they aren’t done learning! These tips are only what they’ve been able to reflect on thus far, but there are still lessons they’ve yet to come across.
Reflection is important at any stage because the beauty of entrepreneurship is that you’re always discovering something new.
So as you go forth, promise to do two things:
- Every time you learn something new while building your business, write it down in your own list of entrepreneurial advice
- When the day comes and you’re asked for your tips in hindsight of running your business, be flattered that you’ve come so far, be open with what you have learned and be humbled by the fact that no matter how far you’ve come, there’s still so much you do not know.
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