The 5 Worst Tips I Received When Starting My Business
Grow Your Business, Not Your Inbox
At every stage of my journey as a startup founder, I’ve sought advice from mentors, industry experts and other entrepreneurs. Whether my aim was to gain insight into the unfamiliar market I was entering or obtain guidance on growing a business and building a team, I was always -- still am -- a big believer in hearing what others have to say.
There is, however, a caveat here, because the key to seeking advice is knowing when to ignore a suggestion that goes against what your gut instinct is saying. Doing that is not always easy, though in some cases for me it was easy, because the guidance was so obviously misguided that it was easy to ignore.
Here are the five worst startup tips I heard and the (hopefully, good) advice I can offer on knowing when you can rule out those tips for your business.
1. "Customers won’t buy what you’re selling."
When you’re trying to disrupt an industry or do something unique, so-called experts love telling you why it won’t work. When Jeff Bezos was trying to raise funds for Amazon in the mid-'90s, he met with a lot of resistance from people who simply couldn’t imagine people shopping online. In fact, one of the first questions many investors asked him was “What’s 'the internet'?”
During the early days of my beverage company, I met with an executive at Coca-Cola to discuss my idea and get some advice. After explaining that Hint beverages were deliberately sweetener-free as a way of helping people drink more water and be healthier, he insisted that “Americans love 'sweet.'”
As he was talking, I realized that his perspective was completely skewed by his experience of selling sodas. He simply could not believe that the problem I was trying to solve existed or that a significant number of people shared my desire to be healthier.
The lesson: Don’t let industry incumbents or otherwise out-of-touch experts tell you that you won’t succeed. The only people who can answer that question definitively are potential and existing customers themselves.
2. "You need industry experience."
If you’re disrupting a market or taking on a major established player, it often helps to not have too many preconceived ideas about how things should be done. Elon Musk has a software background and made it big with fintech service, Paypal. His car company,Tesla, has been even more disruptive, playing a major role in transforming the automobile industry as it shifts toward electric-powered vehicles that are increasingly more like computers on wheels.
Before Hint, I had no beverage industry experience and was often told that my company wouldn’t succeed unless I hired people with insider knowledge to help me. Yet every time I recruited anyone with a background in the soda business, to help with industry-specific challenges like product development or distribution, I found myself constantly battling that person's natural instinct to do things the traditional way.
Conversely, my best employees have been the ones who are first and foremost passionate about the problem we’re solving and driven by the thought of taking on the large incumbents. You can train people on how to sell beverages, but it's much harder to teach them how to think differently.
The lesson: Unless you teach people to think differently, you’ll end up going down well-trodden paths until your business is just another of the also-rans and not a trailblazing new leader.
3. "Your product must be perfect before you can launch."
Many successful tech companies work off the foundational idea of building the plane while you’re flying it. They start by getting off the ground with a minimum viable product that solves a basic user need. Then they add new features and performance enhancements through regular software updates.
I like that approach: True, my company’s first beverages didn’t have a long shelf life because I was determined not to use preservatives. Yet while this limited the number of retailers willing to stock our products, it didn’t stop us from going to the market to see if customers wanted what we had to sell. At the same time, we continued working until we came up with an innovative solution to the shelf-life issue.
The lesson: Your product or service doesn’t need to be perfect. It just needs to solve a problem effectively and gain a foothold in the market. "Good enough" is always better than "too late."
4. "Fake it 'til you make it."
Asked which attribute leaders need most to succeed when big changes are happening, Dell Technologies founder Michael Dell said, “I would place my bet on curiosity.” Curious people are not afraid to ask even the most basic questions to expand their knowledge, even if that makes them look ignorant or naïve.
When you lack industry experience, it’s often tempting to pretend you know more than you do in meetings with investors, suppliers and partners. This is just another way of ensuring you merely join the status quo instead of becoming a unique and outstanding presence.
Every supplier told me that the only way to solve our product’s shelf-life issue was to use preservatives. As an industry newbie,I could have taken the easy path and agreed, pretending I understood the reasons behind what they said.
Instead, I used my ignorance as an excuse to ask the most basic questions, which probably made me look extremely green. But there was a silver lining there: My back-to-basics approach helped one of my suppliers rethink its standard processes and come up with an alternative approach its tech people hadn’t considered before.
The lesson: If you fake it ‘til you make it, you’ll be too concerned with fitting in to ever challenge the way things are done. Remain curious and you’ll stay on the fast track to learning and success.
5. "You can’t focus on anything else."
Growing a new business is a constant battle and often a losing one: 50 percent of startups fail in first four years, according to government statistics. You’ll put in long hours and often feel it necessary to do nothing else but work on and think about your business.
And that’s the pathway to burnout. Yet, when I started out, a number of people told me that I’d have to sacrifice all other aspects of my life if I wanted my business to succeed.
Not true, I found out. In fact, it’s important to look after yourself as well as your company. You need to exercise and eat well, spend time with your family and friends and have other interests, whether that means sports, the arts or a hobby. If you follow me on social media, you will know that I spend every morning taking my two dogs on a hike. It’s my own way of clearing my head and focusing in on the present.
The lesson: Being a rounded person is an important attribute for any leader. Your business will demand a lot of your attention, but it shouldn’t exhaust all of your time and energy.
Tips are optional.
It’s hard to distinguish between good and bad advice, especially when it comes from people who have your best intentions at heart. In certain circumstances, you may benefit from listening to experts, bringing in those with industry experience, developing a "perfect product," faking a little knowledge and being singularly focused.
But overall the key is to trust your instincts and believe in yourself and your mission. That will be your ultimate guide along the road to success.