11 Lessons I Learned at Startups That Keep Me Up at Night
Being an entrepreneur is a frightening experience. You’re constantly faced with challenges that frequently put you on edge.
Over the past six years, I’ve been involved in three different startups. Each offered unforgettable experiences -- most good, depending on your outlook. It certainly hasn’t been easy to co-found, lead or grow any of these businesses, and I’m lucky I’ve worked with excellent teams throughout my career. Though I haven’t yet seen it all, I’ve seen enough to realize the hard reality that is starting a business.
Here is a (relatively) short list of things that easily kept me up at night:
1. You’re replaceable. Your customers, strategic partners, suppliers and teammates will always appreciate your contributions, but there is always going to be someone that’s better, smarter and nicer than you are. You have no time to be complacent because the bar is set higher and higher each day for individuals in your field. Also, no one has the patience to deal with jerks. So stay hungry and never stop treating people well. Do these things and you’ll be irreplaceable.
2. Reputation matters. Don’t become the person everyone loves to hate. Instead, be the most outstanding person you can be. Do nothing that compromises your integrity. Stay honorable. People will like you more.
3. You’re responsible (even when it’s not your fault). It’s true what they say. There’s absolutely no “I” in team. If something breaks, it’s everyone’s job to fix it. It’s unproductive to point fingers and no one benefits from pettiness. Fix it, prevent the problem from recurring and move on.
4. Others depend on you. It’s a scary thought that you’re responsible to more people than just yourself. Your customers trust you to keep them happy, your team members turn to you for their livelihood and your investors expect return on investment. Your actions and decisions impact them, so remember to do what’s best for everyone -- not just you.
5. You’ll eventually have to disappoint people. Some of your professional relationships will have to end. Some of your customers may not always get what they want. You can no longer grow if you’re carrying deadweight employees or fail to fire abusive customers, so trim the fat, but beware of leaving a bitter taste in their mouths or you’ll face the consequences.
6. Too much of a good thing is actually truly terrible. One day, you can be peddling your wares to local shop owners, a dozen at a time. The next day, all of the major news networks want to promote your product -- for free. You gladly accept and receive more sales in 12 hours then you’ve received in the lifetime of your business. Hooray! But wait, this gift has turned into a curse. As a startup, you have to be prepared for the worst-case scenario.
7. You’re forgettable. Despite your accomplishments and the noteworthy mentions of you garnered in the press, within weeks, your business can feel like yesterday’s news. To be competitive and relevant, you must continue to innovate.
8. Building a business costs more than just money. There’s also a price you pay when you make a habit of pulling the graveyard shift evening after evening after evening. Your relationships suffer and your happiness may decline. It’s easy for your work to consume you -- just know that you don’t have to let that happen.
9. Failure happens. It's difficult to stomach, but failure is natural. What makes matters worse is that your family and friends watch your every move anxiously hoping you’ll succeed. You’re allowed to fail and should fold a campaign or project if it no longer makes sense to continue on. When you’re ready to start a new adventure, you’ll be more prepared than ever.
10. Equity is messy. Fortunately, I’ve worked with honest people who’ve sought to compensate me fairly. At the same time, I’ve witnessed many not-so-lucky startup folk get taken advantage of. Be sure to negotiate.
11. You’ll face rejection -- a lot of it. Be prepared to hear 100 -- perhaps 300 -- “no’s” before you ever get a resounding “yes” from someone. You may think it’s a numbers game: the more people you ask, the closer you get to finding your first customer. The real secret isn’t trying to sell more people though. It’s selling your idea, product or service to the right people, improving your pitch, story and salesmanship each time.
I’m only six years and three startups into my career and I, most certainly, have many more lessons I need to learn. Ultimately, it’s these lessons that help you become a better entrepreneur.
What are some surprising things you’ve learned?