10 Guiding Principles for Growing a Startup Into a Business That Will Last
A decade ago, I was busy earning my daily bread at one of the oldest and largest financial institutions in the world; commuting in and out of the city each day with my newspaper and large iced coffee, 12 hours later to return home all the while thinking how I could switch things up.
It was a job that many would be excited to go to everyday but I really felt differently. I wasn't happy and I felt stifled by all of the bureaucracy. I dreamt of doing more and building something on my own, so off I went to start SkyBridge Capital.
When I shared my new plans with my daughter, who was the 9 years old, she sat there judging and said: "Hey, Dad, are you crazy? Why would you leave Lehman Brothers? They're a real company and SkyBridge is just a PowerPoint presentation that you put together. You're nuts."
Well, 10 years and a host of big challenges and small triumphs later, SkyBridge's investment arm has grown steadily, our annual SALT conference is still in full swing bringing 1,800 participants together each May in Las Vegas and our media affiliate is about to re-launch one of the most nostalgia-provoking names in financial television – "Wall Street Week."
Oddly enough, Lehman Brothers is no longer a pillar or mainstay on Wall Street. The 2008 financial crisis put them out of business. It happened to them, and I know that it could have happened to anybody. In fact, it was close to happening to us.
Related: Lehman Makes Its Stand
I am the first to tell you that all of this did not come to be without many missteps or failures along the way. There were many days, especially during the post-2008 crisis, when we didn't know if our small company would survive. Much of our success and frankly, any entrepreneur's success, is mainly providential. Through this journey I have learned many invaluable lessons, some of them unexpected. Here are 10 things I would want to know if I was starting my business today:
1. Brand matters.
Your brand is your most valuable asset. Period. It expresses who you and your customers are. You have to work on it every day. Trust. Solid Performance. Innovation. Fun. Make it simple. Sure, starting a venture involves countless hurdles – from raising capital, recruiting a team, winning business, solving production problems, and the like. But you don't have a business without a strong brand that forms genuine relationships with any of the three critical Cs: consumers, customers and clients.
2. Don't go into business purely for the money.
Huh? That's why entrepreneurs launch ventures, right? Go into business to create something. Money shouldn't be the main motivator because that goal alone can prove excruciatingly frustrating, especially in the early going. And it won't justify the vigor and grit required. Start a business because you're passionate about your idea and the value you believe you can create. Be a missionary, not a mercenary.
3. Be adaptable.
In 2005, we had a plan. That plan failed. We came up with another plan and that plan failed, too. We finally got things right on plan three. Be ready for that. Building a business requires patience. It isn't just going to take off on day one. There are likely to be many bumps in the road, but the most successful leaders are the ones who are willing to adapt and embrace change along the way.
4. Team and culture are everything.
That's why it's essential to spend time picking the top managers who will epitomize the culture you seek to develop. Culture is critical because if yours motivates your employees (your best asset), it will lead to satisfied employees and customers. The culture has to make people feel that they are working towards something bigger than themselves.
5. Never stop evolving.
The way we communicate and interact today is way different than 10 years ago and it will be different again in another 10 years. Go back to school or take executive education courses, keep current. This is a Mach-4 world of speed – especially in business, technology and the marketplace – and if you stop to rest, a rival or a new entrant can pass you by. Be a long-term thinker, even, as you grapple with one startup hurdle after another. It is critical to being an entrepreneur.
6. Operate with integrity.
Just make doing the right thing a daily habit. No matter what, I would rather fail or shut down our business than operate without integrity. The clients will feel it and so will your co-workers. Operating with integrity puts everyone at ease.
7. Embrace failure.
Ugh, we hate that word. But when you dream big –- and that's what entrepreneurs do –- you're bound to stumble. Don't let failure consume you, in fact make it work for you. Expect it, and don't be self-conscious about it. Simply remember the familiar tune that adventurers hear when they falter: Pick yourself up, brush yourself off and start all over again.
8. Grasp what's happening in the Capital.
Both Washington, D.C. and your state capital. We don't just mean politics. Our global economy triggers constant change that affects every business owner, whether the change reflects competitive, regulatory, economic or societal conditions. These forces can reveal themselves at the local, state and federal level. Take time to stay current with what's happening on the executive, legislative and judicial fronts. It matters.
9. Don't care what others think of you.
Unless you're a masochist. Sure, you must consider your stakeholders, whether they're your investors, employees or customers. But, remember, each of them has an agenda and that often can clash with your own objectives and mission.
While the "nice guys finish last" idiom (blame Brooklyn Dodger manager Leo Durocher for it) isn't really all that true, entrepreneurs must not steer from the mission and principles that sparked their venture. Don't heed the naysayers -- stay on mission.
10. Have fun.
That means seeing the humor in everything and learning to laugh hardest at yourself. Dream big and make sure the people on the journey with you also know how to get the joke. If you can really figure this part out, the last laugh will be yours.
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