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How to Weather the Storms of a Startup

How to Weather the Storms of a Startup
Image credit: Michael Lea/QMI Agency Files

Running a startup is not all sunny days and clear skies. In fact, first-time founders and serial entrepreneurs alike will tell you, there are weeks and months of struggles, minimal hard-won successes, daunting lessons, crushing pressure, and financial instability involved in running a company. That’s why it takes a certain kind of person to believe in themselves and weather the sturm und drang that may wash over them. For an idea of the unwieldy weather to come, read on.

A Rain on Your Parade: The passion is out of balance. 

In the earlier phases of a startup, hiring time is always a phase of mixed emotions and excitement. You should be happy that you’re turning this partnership or solo project into a team, and you’re excited to see your progress. On the other hand, you may not really have the funds to hire the best talent you can find -- often you may even have to outsource your biggest responsibilities, or offer the new hire equity and experience (which doesn’t look as impressive as a biweekly paycheck). This turn of events can cause a slight disparity in passion: You see your startup as your reason for living, and this person may see your startup as another job. You’re on that grind every waking minute, and they’re part-time players.

But don’t let that get you down. If you can win over your employees with an awesome product and your sheer ambition and energy, then you can surely win market share.

Ain’t No Sunshine When She’s Gone: You haven’t found the right cofounder yet.

Nothing quite highlights the loneliness of quitting your day job to be a full-time entrepreneur like riding solo, without a cofounder. A cofounder in the operation you’re trying to run is more than just a friend, more than just a “business partner.” Your cofounder helps balance your skillset, open you up to a new network of important people, flesh out your ideas, and even help you get funded, since investors often look for a more secure team dynamic. It's important to remain patient and not rush into finding just any partner. Flying solo lets you expand your skills while you look for the Bonnie to your Clyde. You may even find that you can handle the operations all on your own.

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Rain Check: You hired the wrong programmers.

Developers and engineers can be notoriously hard to find, especially if you’re operating on a tight budget and are based outside of Silicon Valley and Boston. Yet, there’s little you can do without these angels. You may try to snatch some budding engineers out of university, but it’s still a gamble. If you can afford an A-level programmer, you may not be able to afford many others. When it comes to hiring developers, you might not need top-level experience, but you should make sure they’re obsessive about their work ethic, willing to learn, and excited about your startup. After all, a newbie can be supported and grow to A-level status.

Rain for 40 Days and 40 Nights: Your product is running behind.

Most startups, as much as the movies would have you believe, don’t run like clockwork. Products don’t get built in a garage in an uplifting montage and immediately wow influential members of industry. Especially now that everyone pictures themselves as an entrepreneur. Most of the time, the last thing to come through is the product itself. Often, a founder will make thenrounds at conferences and hear, again and again, “This sounds like a really great idea; please come back to me when you have a working prototype and we can talk money.” 

On top of that, you have to consider when is the right time to ship to market, and calculate how much you’ll have to compromise financially. It is like waiting for the storms to end, and for the sun to come out -- only you don’t really know when that will be -- especially because the CTO you just hired right out of grad school in exchange for equity is shaping out to be a horrible meteorologist.

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Isolated Showers: The market is smaller than you had anticipated it to be. 

You’ve finally launched, and you’re ramping up your campaign to full force. However, for whatever reason, your numbers are falling flat. After the initial bump in early adopters, you haven’t been getting much hype, and your subscribers haven’t really turned into customers as you had predicted they would. Maybe you launched your product with a few bugs still left in it, or maybe you got it all together, pristine and exactly as you want it, but you arrived late to market on the heels of one of your closest competitors. Or maybe people who had thought it was a great idea when you talked to them think it’s just that: a great idea, but not a bankable business.

Whatever the reason, it’s important to have an open mind about this situation and go back to the drawing board. Think about potential features you can roll out, or get your marketing team together to craft a unique social media campaign. Timing is everything, so watch the market. These are the days you should be praying for a rainbow to appear.

“We Got Cows:” You’re scaling way too fast.

So while you were still mapping out your projected timelines (which are, inevitably, running behind), you decided, “Now is a great time to hire a marketing team.” There’s a blog for a product that doesn’t really exist yet, a growing number of early adopters who are waiting, like you, for the app to come out; you’re commissioning great content and paying out of pocket for it, and shopping around for an office space because your data is telling you that as soon as you get the product out, people will be positively chomping at the bit to get to it. Maybe you’ve just raised a million on Kickstarter, and you’re making up for lost time by hiring a few new employees.

At this point, it’s important to stop what you’re doing, take a step back, and maybe take a quick look at the hurricane that’s about to descend at your footsteps -- premature scaling is the number one definable cause of startup failure. Whether your company has too much of a good thing and is falling behind, or it isn't ready for such large changes, premature scaling is something to be aware of. Even if you’ve been blessed with a windfall of money and a bump in sales, you should still consider which of your efforts aren’t necessary and scale at a rate both you (and your business) can handle.

The Calm After the Storm: You’ve already failed.

No matter how rocky the last stretch was, know that you’re in good company. A startup failure -- something that happens to 90 percent of companies --- is only the first milestone towards success. Albert Einstein himself said, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” You’ve just found another couple of ways that won’t work. Maybe you’re actually relieved that the struggle is over, that you’ve cut the cord and now you’re taking the time to go over all the storms you’ve weathered. Now you know more about yourself, know what to avoid in the future run, and, finally, you can see clearly now, the rain is gone.

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