9 Lessons I Learnt Launching My Startup Straight Out Of University
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It’s been two years since I co-founded and resigned from my first start-up. I’m not far into my entrepreneurial journey, but I’ve already learnt more than I thought possible, including some hard-won lessons that smashed my preconceived notions of entrepreneurship.
Here’s what I wish I knew before I started.
1. Only solutions are valuable
It doesn’t matter how cool the idea or product is — if your business does not solve a customer problem they’re willing to pay for, you don’t have a business model capable of growing. People want their lives to be simpler, easier, and more convenient. Remember: No one cares about your idea; they only care about what you can do for them.
2. A business partner is like a spouse… so pick wisely
Your business will in all likelihood consume a huge portion of your life. Ensuring that the person or people you work so closely with share your values and vision is imperative. There’s value in working with someone who complements your skill set, but not at the expense of your vision or trust.
Work with people you can have fun with, pursuing the dream you all share. Encourage and remind one another of your dreams and values, and lighten each other’s load during tough times. Don’t allow past negative experiences to cause you to write off partnerships altogether.
3. You’ll feel alone
The reality is that you will — at some point — feel like an alien on earth. Unless someone has walked in your shoes, they won’t understand your lifestyle. They will think that they do, but they don’t. This is okay.
Just make sure that you’re filling your tanks with enough rest and fun to make it worthwhile, knowing that you don’t need to go it alone. Keep your family and friends close. They won’t always understand what you’re going through (or why), but they are your support system.
4. A Degree won’t always help
The benefit of a tertiary education is being taught to think, rather than the knowledge you gain. A degree will never be able to prepare you for every circumstance you face, but your ability to be flexible, take initiative and in some (most) cases, be wrong, will allow you to overcome the challenges that will come your way.
Joichi Ito, head of media at MIT, says it best, “Education is what others do to you, learning is what you do to yourself.”
5. Make time to live a balanced life
As much as your business is important and is going to consume your thinking 24/7, you need to make time for yourself. Life needs to be lived in a balance of rest, fun and hard work. As soon as that goes out of balance, you cannot operate to the best of your ability.
If you’re only focused on growing your business, then keep this in mind: Your business needs you to be the best you can be — and that means you can’t burn out or you’re no use to anyone.
6. Fuel your passion
Make sure that you give time to fuelling your passions with dreams and idea-generation. We function best when we’re excited by the future, but use that to motivate the present. Lack of learning and growth can affect your passion, so make time to learn, brainstorm and be inspired. We cannot create a world that doesn’t exist if we don’t put time into dreaming.
7. Stop planning, start selling
When you decide to start a new business, there are endless possibilities. That’s a good thing, but until you start selling a product, those are just dreams. Have an idea, and go for it. We want to sell something of value, which can only be determined by the customer’s view of it, so test it out and see what they say. If they buy it, great, and if not, that’s okay, because you have a starting point.
You know what doesn’t work and you know where you stand. LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman famously said,
“If you aren’t embarrassed by the first version of your product, you launched too late.” Get out there, start selling, and you’ll develop a product that the market really wants and needs.
8. Separate business from emotions
Resigning from my start-up was one of the toughest things I’ve done, and it played with my emotions. We only truly care for something to the extent that it costs us, and my start-up cost me a lot. Thankfully though, I’m fortunate to have some wiser and more experienced people around me, who I could take comfort in, and learn from in that time.
Sorry to burst the bubble, but it’s just business. Learn to bounce ideas off people who will give you good perspective when you think your world is falling down around you, because it probably isn’t.
9. Have a purpose
When I went into business, I had the desire to help young entrepreneurs start businesses and create as many jobs as I could in South Africa. As time went by my focus shifted from the people to the product, and as a result, I lost my passion for what I was doing. The product wasn’t going to be enough to motivate me because it wasn’t what I was passionate about.
I still worked hard, gave my all and operated through silly hours, but I became impatient and insensitive because I was driven by pressure from my board to hit targets, rather than being a remarkable business, and as a result I allowed that to affect me and my staff. People are more important than things. Always remember your purpose; it’s what will get you out of bed in the morning and allow you to thrive every day.
To quote a friend of mine, “Our generation loves the idea of adventure and to be a part of someone else’s adventure, but we don’t want to be our own adventure.”
I challenge you to be bold; courageous; to create your own adventure and live a life that is full. The only difference between your dreams and your reality is your daily lifestyle. It’s not a sprint, it’s a marathon, and you’ll never reach the finish line if you don’t start.