What to Do--and Not Do--as a Startup

These seven lessons will help keep you on track during the early stages of your business.

learn more about Paige Arnof-Fenn

By Paige Arnof-Fenn

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Wouldn't it be great if someone could give you a "to do" list when you were ready to start your company that would guarantee your success? Even better, what about a "to don't" list of things to avoid at all costs?

Through experience, I've found there are no shortcuts to launching a business--you have to do your homework to understand your customers, competitors, market conditions and risks. But there are some principles I've found to be very effective for growing both my company and my clients' businesses whether they are startups or Fortune 500 corporations, whether they sell consumer products, professional services or technology products.

Even though we are all start from different places, these seven lessons have certainly served me well over the years:

1. Stop selling and start sharing. People are much more interested in what you have to say when you're sharing your knowledge, your passion and your experience to help them solve their problems. Focus on being interested in them, and don't worry so much about being interesting. It's amazing how interesting you are when you're paying attention to your customers' needs. People buy from those they like, trust and identify with. Building rapport creates that trust and credibility. Just remember, it's about the relationship, not the sale. Nobody likes to be sold, but everyone likes to buy.

Do: Listen to what your prospects and customers say with their words and body language.
Don't: Pull out a brochure or sales sheet unless they ask for it.

2. Differentiate or die. What makes you unique vs. the others in the market? Make sure there's something special about your product or service other than the price. Own something important in your customers' hearts and minds. Being good is no longer good enough--you have to find something where you're great. Use your imagination and creativity to set yourself apart from the crowd. I once worked with a business owner who always wears red. She works in a male-dominated field where everyone has basically the same credentials so at least she's easy to spot at events. "The lady in red" gets most of her work by referral, which is a great way to build a business.

Do: Talk to real customers and ask them for a report card
Don't: Chase last week's/quarter's/year's trend

3. Solve problems people will pay for. Revenue is validation. Are customers voting with their wallets? Are your products or services the "nice to have" thing or the "have to have" thing? Be very important to your most important customers--they should think of you first for any needs in your category. Also, make sure you have more than just a "one off" good idea. Although great businesses start with great ideas, not all ideas are company-worthy. Many of the dotcoms forgot that the business model must actually work, that cash flow matters and that it's not just about building awareness but about making the sale. Janet Jackson got plenty of attention for her wardrobe malfunction in last year's Super Bowl, but did that sell more of her products?

Do: Test, tweak and try again.
Don't: Ask your friends or family and call it "research."

4. Leverage the evangelists. There are people out there using your product or service who would be glad to tell others about your business. If you can make them happy, they'll help you spread the word to other like-minded customers. And here's something to keep in mind: They may be using your product or service for purposes other than the ones you initially intended, so make sure you really understand what they like and dislike about your business and, more important, why. And remember, it's not about pedigree or job title--your champions can come from anywhere. At one of the startups I worked for, a hair stylist made a key introduction for our company. Friend-raising can, in fact, lead to fundraising, so make friends before you need them.

Do: Make it easy for your evangelists to try your product or service.
Don't: Discount the negatives. There may be an important insight buried within.

5. Be visible. Wasn't it Woody Allen who said that 80 percent of success is just showing up? Invisibility is not a good business strategy--if people don't know you exist, then guess what? You don't. You don't have to run a Super Bowl ad to get noticed, but you do have to be active in the communities you cater to so people know where and how to find you. Whether you have a technology business, a consumer products company or a professional services firm, you're in the relationship business. If there are businesses that target your same customer base, then find creative ways you can each leverage your contacts and databases to multiply your outreach. Best-kept secrets are just that: secrets.

Do: Put your mouth where your money is, too.
Don't: Hide in your office or behind your computer online.

6. Create extraordinary experiences. The relationships you have with your customers are based on the cumulative experiences they have with your employees, product, service and business. If your brochure or website makes one claim but the reality is very different, it's the firsthand knowledge that will be remembered by your customers, so make sure you deliver on the promises you make every time you connect with your customers. Is it such a surprise that most of the airlines are going bankrupt while Jet Blue and Southwest are profitable?

Do: Consistently reinforce your key messages in everything you do.
Don't: Forget that every employee, partner and affiliate is an ambassador, too.

7. Put passion above all else. Customers are savvy--they know when something is genuine or if you're just going through the motions. So do your employees, partners and affiliates. If you don't enjoy what you are doing, find something else to do! It's hard to compete with someone who gets up feeling excited every day and who's full of ideas about their business. To them, what they do doesn't feel like work. Enthusiasm is contagious, so determine what it is you enjoy doing and then share your gift with others whose talents may lie somewhere else. When everyone plays to their strengths, the results are superior.

Do: Work you love and believe is important.
Don't: Waste time. It's your most precious commodity.

Paige Arnof-Fenn

Paige Arnof-Fenn is the founder and CEO of Mavens & Moguls, a strategic-marketing consulting firm whose clients include Fortune 500 companies as well as early stage and emerging businesses.

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