The Top 10 Lessons Learned in the Trenches of Startup Year 1
Here are the top 10 things I learned in my first year of running Cladwell, my Cincinnati startup.
After a year, I'm more ready to admit how little I know. I hope that some of what I've learned so far can help you:
1. Large pitches don't bring you immediate investment. But you should still do them. I pictured coming back from every pitch event with stacks of checks or at least a firm handshake from a gray-haired investor saying, “Well done, young man. My people will call you on Monday.” I think this is like thinking that if I hang out at a bar for an evening, I’ll come home with a wife.
I’m not against pitch events by any means, but this is what they are good for: awareness, eventual money and friends.
Pitching lets people know that you exist and are doing cool stuff.
You can definitely meet investors at these events, but this is only to offer them a first impression. Sealing the deal happens months later after your 45th email in 24 hours.
You will meet other entrepreneurs at these events and that can be really encouraging, helpful and fun.
2. Mentors are better than one-off advisors. If someone gives you really helpful advice, do what the person says and then ask if you can meet with that individual again. The reason this works better than one-off meetings is that the advice gets smarter the more you meet. They begin to think about your product before and after meetings.
3. Talk to your customers constantly. The whole team needs to talk with users regularly and ask for feedback. This has been really hard for us to do consistently, but it has been so helpful.
4. Don’t forget to live. There is a general mind-set among entrepreneurs about putting in tons of hours now so as to have an awesome life in the future. I’m all for diligence, and even sacrifice, but it must be tempered with other rhythms that ensure investing in children, wives, friends, bodies and souls.
Here are some additional ideas from my company's staff:
Take off 24 hours once a week. It's good to stop one day each week and realize that the world keeps going.
Work at home one day a week. For those with kids, your presence at home makes a difference.
If possible (and if your company allows it), involve your spouse in your work -- even if it's only a couple hours a week. It's nice to work together.
Once a week my whole staff eats a meal together with our families. It reminds us that we’re human and makes everyone feel like we’re part of a team. Maybe you can do something similar.
5. Be honest with your branding. During your company's startup stage, people are more interested in you, the person, than your crafted brand. If you are authentic, this will help the social media marketing go easier and feel more integrated with your life.
6. Beware of volunteers. The main issue is that their involvement doesn't result from business. There is no trade taking place. Therefore this is fundamentally something other than business. (Educational internships fall under a different category.)
7. Fundraising will take twice as long as you think. What's the longest you can imagine that it will take to raise money? Double it.
So start early. And conserve money, especially when you feel like you have time to spare.
And return to your investors. Your friends and family investors can help give you the runway you need during the vetting process for a new investor group.
8. Celebrate. It's tough to do this because it never feels like the right time. Therefore do so often! Is there a new feature that's gone live? Celebrate. Did more funding come in? Celebrate. It’s Friday? Celebrate.
9. Don't network or promote yourself. Do make friends. It is all about fostering a community. Community is built on friendships.
10. Be gracious. People can end up hurting other people, whether they are business partners, employees or investors. Entrepreneurs operate in a world of the future that's all about generating ideas and navigating through any of these rough turns requires grace. Absorb the pain that others inflict on you and allow others to do the same with you.