A recent University of Phoenix survey showed that 63% of 20-somethings have a strong desire to start a business. That’s a great first step: desire. But what else does it take to start a business that is sustainable? Since 1999, right around the time many of these 20-somethings were born, I’ve started seven businesses. Five of them failed. In that time, I’ve learned from experience what it takes to be a startup founder.
When you swing at a golf ball, baseball, or tennis ball, your stroke doesn’t stop at contact with the ball – it continues to the full follow-through. Unfortunately, most people stop just after they make contact with the ball, and then watch as it falls. This same principle applies to founding any organization, including a technology business. The founder must have a long, strong vision for the future. What will this industry, this space, this company look like in 20 years? As the founder, it is your job to convince others to see, share, and invest in your vision.
Far too often, a young entrepreneur will have a superb idea for how to solve a great, big problem, but lacks the ability to communicate the problem, the solution, and why he or she is the right person at the right time to build a business around solving that problem. The only way to learn and get better at communication is to do it constantly, and constantly get feedback from objective, non-friendly, third parties who are not afraid to tell you that (a) your idea is bad or (b) the way you communicate your idea is bad.
Not everyone is going to like your idea, agree with your idea, see your idea, or care about your idea. But not everyone is your target prospect, so not everyone matters. If someone who is not your target audience tells you your idea stinks, don’t get offended or upset. Just ask them why they don’t like it. This is your opportunity to learn something new. Far too many would-be-entrepreneurs (wantrepreneurs) stop when the first person says “NO!” regardless of whether that person was even a prospect or not. Being a founder and entrepreneur takes a thick skin. You have to be able to push through the naysayers, haters, and other negative Nellies, and that takes simple persistence.
OK, so you have a vision, you can communicate that vision, and you’ve shrugged off all the folks who say it can’t be done. That alone takes energy, but not nearly the energy that it takes to acquire your first 100 customers or raise capital. Consider the old adage that if business were like baseball, we’d only have to get it right 30% of the time to be legendary. Well, 30% of what? That’s where the energy is required: getting the “at-bats” in front of potential customers, partners, investors, co-founders, employees, and anyone else whom you need to be on board with your vision. Here’s a great Quora conversation. It begins with the question, “Which startups were rejected several times by VCs before getting funded?” to which the first epic answer is, “All of them.”
As a founder, there are ten hundred things you have to do every single day. You cannot possibly do them all, and yet they all must be done. The key to success in the early stages of any startup is to focus on the things that really matter. David Cummings, founder of Pardot and Atlanta Tech Village, wrote recently that “Metrics don’t matter at the beginning.” In his blog post, Cummings recommends that founders focus on revenue, unaffiliated (e.g., not friends of friends) customers, and product market fit. That’s just three things out of the ten hundred that you have to do every day. Focus on those three things in the early days of your startup, and you’ll soon pass those early days.
In all likeliness, you will not be like Instagram (acquired by Facebook for $1 billion barely 2 years after founding), so it’s important to instill patience as a habit. Early on, nobody knows who you are or what you’re doing. Later on, only your real prospects care who you are and what you’re doing, and it takes a long time to get a prospect to adopt a new way of thinking, much less a new way of doing something. One of the biggest obstacles to the adoption of new, more efficient solutions to any problem is, “That’s the way we’ve always done it.” Change is hard and takes time. Are you patient enough to stand the test of time?
Paul Graham, principal at YCombinator, has famously written that startup founders must “Do things that don’t scale.” This means to do all the stuff that will someday be automated, farmed out, or done by interns. But right now, in the first months or year of a startup, there’s just you. If you don’t do it, nobody will, and it’s gotta get done. In a recent discussion at General Assembly’s Atlanta campus, I moderated a panel of three high-tech hiring executives. They all used some variation of the term “grit,” and referred often to the need for people who “get sh*t done.” That’s what “grit” looks like. Can you get it done, no matter what it takes?
8. Tech skills.
Does this particular item seem unnecessary? It might, but more and more each day, serious technology skills are required of founding teams entering accelerators like TechStars, YCombinator, and 500Startups. The thought behind these requirements is that in order to build a technology-centric business, one must start with tech-savvy founders. I was recently invited to discuss joining a partnership here in the Atlanta area to develop a business focused on growing tech entrepreneurship and startups. After a few meetings, things were progressing, but I had to miss one of the discussions because of a prior commitment. I asked if someone in the group could send me a summary of the talking points, decisions made, new developments, etc. The response caused me to immediately remove myself from that group. They replied, “We haven’t hired a secretary yet.”
That last point is a great (and, unfortunately, true) anecdote that illustrates that the days of hiring a secretary to do the little stuff are gone. Today’s startups are small, lightweight, fast, and nimble, and their founders (that’s you!) are fully adept at using, learning, and developing technologies that can change the world. Do you have what it takes to be a founder?
Skill up. Be your own boss.