8 Pieces of Advice I Wish I Had Before Starting My IT Company
The journey was at times long and painful -- here are some things I wish I could tell my past self.
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I started out as a programmer in the early 2000s. Soon I realized that the future for me was in remote work, and made a website that allows people to offer their work and for companies to find employees. Then I sold it, and, having learned from my mistakes, made the next one, with the focus on out-staffing and outsourcing. It seems like it was just a few years ago, but now I have 15,000 remote employees under my supervision, although I have never studied as either a manager or an entrepreneur. The journey was long and painful. Here are some tips I would give myself if I could start over now.
1. Look for clients, not investments
A startup should start with sales. If you don't have an MVP, you can get letters of guarantee from potential customers or just collect applications for a non-existent product. Only after that, after you have some leverage, does it make sense to go to accelerators and funds. Because CustDev and real willingness to invest in a product, turns out, are two completely different things.
2. Learn to take the risks yourself
People who try to share responsibility for their actions with others should not be doing business.
Do not lure employees with options right from the start — you should know full well that your business is worthless and options are just a way to cheaply get working hands under some muddy conditions. You can't build a stable foundation this way.
And do not think that someone will help you with investments — the task of looking for money lies entirely with the founder. If you are not ready to understand the venture economy, build relationships with angels and funds in advance, and trust your partners, you shift all risks onto someone else's shoulders and, most likely, will go bankrupt soon.
Related: 5 Tips for Financing Your Startup
3. Make sure this idea will inspire you in the coming years
Ask yourself: is this business segment really so interesting that you want to devote the next 3-7 years to it? Does it have some personal meaning to you? Do you love the customers for whom you are making a product? If not, it's better to leave this idea for someone else. I've always thought remote work was our future, but if I didn't believe in it, I would never have been able to get through the most difficult times, when I had barely any money and clients. I would not have flown to Miami and had hundreds of meetings a month to find stable clients and startups that needed a remote workforce. If I didn't believe in the cause, I would have never found my drive and would have failed.
4. Stop thinking that someone knows what to do better than you
There is a big difference between training, where they give you all the tools, and coaching. Early stage start-up founders often become addicted to trackers and stop thinking with their own heads. Someone else's entrepreneurial experience and tools are helpful, but you need to rely on your own knowledge and intuition when testing hypotheses and A/B segments. Where does the belief that someone else knows your business better than you come from? You are the №1 expert in this field, and you should remember that when hearing any advice.
5. Find those who are passionate
The truth is that someone else who believes in you and your product is always needed. There will be very difficult days and without support, the risks of giving up halfway increase. That is why many people take help from investors or accelerators: they don't need the money, they need a boost of confidence. Every growing startup must have someone at the start of the journey who supports, listens, and motivates them not to stop. For me, fortunately, it was my employees — because they also saw remote work as something our future needs more of (this idea, believe me, was not as common in 2004). We motivated each other and that's how we got through the first few rough years.
Related: 9 Tips for Startup Hiring
6. Don't focus on non-core clients
There is something worse than a client rejecting you at the last stage of the sale: getting paid from non-core clients. Early on non-target customers are dangerous: they will not be able to get full value from the product, they are unlikely to buy again, and they can ruin your reputation by saying they didn't get what they wanted. Worst of all, they can undermine your belief that the product will be of huge benefit to anyone at all.
For example, at the initial stage, when we had a core of several hundred employees, we were offered to lease a few of them in Moscow to the office of a large company. The money would be very good, but that's not what we wanted to do. And it would be difficult for us to set up processes aimed at outsourcing and leasing employees remotely if we started to do the opposite from the very beginning.
7. Be prepared for routine
A new company rarely starts with an automated product and clear workflows. The first year is tough work to organize every process. If your pre-seed is not $1 million, you should be ready to "deliver orders" yourself, like Jeff Bezos. This is not a Hollywood movie, and it's often quite a boring grind, even when you are excited about the idea. Only after a few months, when you perfectly understand all the processes, can you delegate the most boring parts to someone else.
8. Take an experienced sales manager as a co-founder
Or, at the very least, a sales manager should be one of the first employees you hire when you have done MVP (minimum viable product). There are many great managers and experts among the founders, but very few good sellers. Most startups I see fail before reaching the first sales stage. And the reason is always the same: founders never sold anything themselves and believed that making a good product alone was enough.
If you have no experience in sales, if you are not ready to learn how to conduct negotiations, write scripts, and listen to calls from sales managers every day — your chances of success are extremely small. The same is true in relation to advertising: delegating lead generation to a third-party marketer, without understanding marketing at all, is extremely risky.