If you ever decide to forego a “real” job in favor of starting your own company, you’re bound to make at least a few rookie mistakes. If you’re lucky, most are the kind that are easy to fix and learn from.
But most entrepreneurs, in hindsight, agree that there are some things you’re better off being prepared for. Hindsight is definitely 20/20—especially when you’re the boss. Consider these lessons you don’t have to learn the hard way.
Changing how we approach and build modern solutions to personal dilemmas and satisfying intrinsic human needs is everyone’s passion.
We’ve picked up many, many useful tips and wanted to pass some knowledge along. Below is a list of 10 things we wish everyone known before creating a startup.
Solve Your Own Problem
Many businesses and failed numerous times. When you finally find success, it is because you created a solution to your own problems and turned that into a business. Many launched many new companies and websites to foster their business and help people.
Do Your Market Research Early On
Like most entrepreneurs, you must be passionate about many ideas and opportunities. Many have also launched and funded many startups only to realize later on, as they learned more about the market, that they should have done more extensive market research early on. It is important to understand the industry you are playing in, your competitors, and the market forces at play. Even more so, it’s important to understand your customers–their behaviours, pain points and decision making processes.
Be Extremely Focused
There is a tendency for entrepreneurs to try to do too much at once. But the key to success in the beginning lies within having laser focus. If your product or service solves a big problem, try to focus on a niche instead. Facebook started out as a social network for college students. Only when they were successful with that niche did they open their service to the general public.
Keep It Simple
One may think that offering customers a large number of choices is the smart thing to do. Yet, more choices lead to decision making paralysis. It is usually the company that provides users with fewer choices that wins. Examples include: In & Out Burger’s simple and limited menu, as well as Apple’s limited number of choices for most of their products. As a startup, resources are limited. Focusing on providing a simple product or service with less choices, less steps, less features may be the way to go.
Bootstrap Whenever Possible
Raising money to launch a startup is very common among entrepreneurs. In doing so, you give up valuable control of your business. When entrepreneurs had to do it all over again with their company, many decided to bootstrap. Writing the software code yourself, hosting the service with a cheap ISP and using free marketing resources at your disposal, you would be able to launch the business with your own money.
Think Carefully Before Taking Money
Whenever possible, venture capital (VC) money should be considered unacceptable except in specific circumstances where VCs can add significant value to your business. Being a young founder in your mid-twenties, you may be asked to take on an experienced CEO. Times are now tough after the dot-com crash when online advertising went from $20 CPM down to under $2 CPM. Instead of sticking with your strategy to revamp the company’s business model. So it’s better to fund your own money and it’s advisable not to be dependent on any third source.
Focus on Intellectual Property Early On
Entrepreneurs may not focus too much on intellectual property in the beginning, but copyright and trademarks are important and will be increasingly crucial in protecting one’s product, service or brand once some success has been achieved. When you launch, one of the first things anyone does was to apply for a trademark. The trademarks which have since acquired secondary meaning, have come in handy as many competitors try to encroach upon our space.
Screen Your Hires Well
Some of the worst hires have been always experienced with first few employees. Back then, people lacked the resources to perform detailed background checks. They have too experienced many fraud degree holders whom we hire unconsciously and later they prove to be a setback for the company.
Leverage Free Marketing Opportunities
As an entrepreneur with a limited budget, spending money on marketing can be a very costly proposition. When launching, many looked into free marketing opportunities. First leveraging free online resources such as Craigslist, then moving onto PR opportunities to get free media coverage for their service. A controversial product or service may shun away investors but it was a gold mine when getting lots of free media coverage.
Have Strong Agreements Up Front
One of the most important lessons to have learned over the years as an entrepreneur, is that whenever there is the possibility for misunderstanding put expectations down clearly in writing. A strong agreement with partners, investors and employees are crucial.
Let’s begin with the most common distinction between these two terms. In general, we think of growth in linear terms: a company adds new resources (capital, people, or technology), and its revenue increases as a result.
By contrast, scaling is when revenue increases without a substantial increase in resources. Processes “that scale” are those that can be done end masse without extra effort – if I send an email to 10 people or 1 million, my effort is essentially the same. Which is why enterprises use email marketing so heavily. It scales so effectively. Or for another example – an insurance company that scaled business operations by simply switching to a cloud business phone system.
But this is just the technical distinction between the two words. Let’s look a little closer at what each looks like in practice.
Growing a business
Generally seen as the definition of a successful company, growth refers to increasing revenue as a result of being in business. It can also refer to other aspects of the enterprise that are growing, like its number of employees, the amount of offices and how many clients it serves — these things are almost always linked to growth of revenue.
The biggest problem, however, is that it takes a lot of resources to sustain constant growth.
Take for example an advertising agency that currently has five clients, but which is about to take on five more clients. Increasing the number of companies, it sells to will bring in more money, but chances are it won’t be able to get the work done without hiring more people.
Because of this, financial growth can only be achieved while making larger losses, too.
Companies that offer professional services, like the advertising agency above, will always have to deal with this problem. Taking on more clients leads to hiring more people to support them — while it increases revenue by adding clients, it has to increase costs at the same time.
Scaling a business
Because of the costs associated with growth, modern founders have become obsessed with the idea of scaling.
The key difference with growth is that scale is achieved by increasing revenue without incurring significant costs. While adding customers and revenue exponentially, costs should only increase incrementally, if at all.
A great example of a company that’s successfully figured out how to scale is Google, which in recent years has been adding customers (either paying business clients or ad-supported free users), while being able to keep costs at a minimum. As of 2017 it had seven products with over a billion active users each, while only employing about 88,000 people.
The difference between growth and scaling becomes clearest when a company isn’t a startup anymore, but is not a large corporation yet, either. At this critical stage the business will have to decide between growing at a regular rate or switching over to faster company scaling.
If it wants a shot at making a lasting impact on the industry and perhaps even society as a whole, it has to be done without accumulating a high amount of overhead.
Unfortunately there’s no clear-cut path to successful scaling — if there was, it would be much less impressive to build a million-dollar company. There are a couple of things to keep in mind, however.
Startups vs scaleups
Here we have two more terms that are often confused. You probably already have a firm grasp on what a startup is, but how does that compare with a scaleup?
An entrepreneurial venture that has achieved product-market fit and now faces either the ‘second valley of death’ or exponential growth.”
To put that another way, once a startup has proven that it has a product people want, it’s time to take that product to the masses. This usually requires massive investment in new people, offices in different markets, and lots of advertising in the form of hosting educational webinars, attending tradeshows, prospecting and closing leads, and other tactics.
Which actually sounds sort of counter to our earlier definition of “scaling” – increasing revenue without increasing investment. But if successful, a scaleup will add exponential growth with only linear or marginal investment. Essentially, if they can unlock new markets and reach new audiences, a scaleup will grow faster than previously possible.
Key challenges for scaleups
For the sake of argument, let’s imagine a business moving from startup to scaleup overnight. What was previously a local company with around 50 people in one cosy office is likely now moving international.
If it were simple, every company would do it. So what are the difficulties most scaleups face?
They need investment
This is the most obvious prerequisite: today, most young companies need significant investment (usually from venture capitalists) to scale up. This often comes in the form of series B or C funding.
Earlier funding rounds are used to build a minimum viable product (MVP) and establish market fit, and if they’re able to secure further funding, it’s to expand quickly.
They need scalable processes
Typical scaleups have a product that scales well – it appeals to buyers far greater than the current market served. But, because they’ve moved quickly as a startup, a lot of internal processes aren’t designed to scale.
The most obvious of these are company expense policies. As a small company, you don’t really need an expense policy. If someone needs to travel or buy something, they can sort it out with the founders directly. But once you have multiple offices and handfuls of people traveling at once, this is simply no longer an option.
It’s tempting to believe that diversification will be the catalyst for you to scale. Introduce a new product range or add extra services and this will unlock a flood of new revenue.
But “if a business is growing through an ad hoc series of actions and decisions, those start to fall apart as you grow larger. Small gaps will become chasms. Confusion and inconsistency will become chaos. And if employees are operating from their own playbook, there’s no way to deliver a consistent product or experience.
Achieving scale requires a level of repeatable and predictable systems. Refining and developing these systems is how companies are able to go from thousands of customers to millions.”
My name is Mathias Mancha Pwol CEO Fresh From The Farm Agric World Ltd. An agricultural startup in Nigeria who believes in bringing the harvest to the people with no Hussle. I am a university graduate, a lover of music and entertainment.
How did the idea for your business come about?
2018 when I went to Lagos Nigeria to do my compulsory youth service as directed by our government, I realised access to food was a serious issue due to the high population and demand. To cut the story short, since I was coming from the northern part of Nigeria where we farm a lot, I seized the opportunity and started supplying farm produce from my hometown to the cities (lagos). I smile deep Anytime I remember how i started this business with just 3 bags of irsih potatoes.
What was your key driving force to become an entrepreneur?
In Africa, there is this believe by our parents that as long as you are not an office worker, you are unemployed. To change this narrative in my family and community at large, I decided to work on a dream of being and employer not an employee.
How did you come up with the name for your company?
Since my intentions was to supply fresh farm produce to the market, someday whispered “FRESH FROM THE FARM” in my ears; but since the name was not available for registration and I really needed something like that, I now added “AGRIC WORLD” to it.
How did you raise funding for your venture?
Before going into the Agric business, I was and I am still a music/sound producer in which I produced music, jingles, adverts, documentaries etc. Since I had some funds saved already, I just risked it all and started chasing my new dream.
How do you build a successful customer base?
When I was on my customer base research, I realise that integrity and trust was what every potential customer spoke about. So I took it upon me to make sure I supply any product as agreed without compromising the quantity or quality.
How did you get involved with Agri business?
As I said earlier I saw the need and demand of food in the cities and I decided to seize the opportunity. Not withstanding, I came from a family where we farm almost everything we produced. I just used my education to turn the family hobby into business.
How does someone get you excited and willing to commit?
I always love people of integrity, let your Yes be Yes and No be No. I hate when you want to play smart on me when transacting business. I believe in a win-win situation.
How do you advertise your business?
So far it has mostly been word of mouth where by I go to the markets and ask them what they want. Also we have been active on all the social media platforms promoting our brands. We hope to someday advertise on TV, magazines and Radio soon.
To what do you attribute your success?
First of all to God and to my father who has been a mentor in this journey. Then to myself who believes that my generation needs people like me to succeed.
To be yourself and be willing to sacrifice a lot for the success of the company.
What do you look for in an employee?
Be willing to work as a family not am employee.
What made you choose your current location?
The surplus availability of farm produce and low cost of labor.
What kind of Corporation is your business?
Private limited company, from Locally (Nigeria).
What’s your company’s goals?
To be the most available and trusted farm produce supplier in Africa”.
What is unique about your business?
We believe in bringing the harvest to the people with no Hussle and at an affordable price.
What are your responsibilities as the business owner?
Brainstorming, idea formation and execution, paper works, search for customers and contracts. As a startup with little funding, I am involved in almost every activity in the business.
What made you choose this type of business?
Experience and need.
Does your company help the community where it is located?
Yes, we partner with smallholder farmers where by we buy directly from their farms then we supply to the market. Also, we also have plans of massive employment in our community soon once our rice mill factory is completed.
Have you ever turned down a client?
Yes, and the reason has always been because of either price or payment terms.
As long as it is your dream, chase it until it turns to reality.
How do you find the right investor for your start-up?
If you’re an entrepreneur, you probably have asked yourself this question more than once-in-a-lifetime.
As the over-all tech industry is maturing, capital is more plentiful (but paradoxically competitive), the costs of technologies are constantly dropping, and code is being increasingly commoditized. This leads to more companies being built-up faster and for less. The culmination of all this? A lot less white space, and more serial entrepreneurs competing for seed funding.
With this in mind, what do you, as a founder, need to know to ace your increasingly competitive seed round raise? Here are 6 questions you should ask yourself to prepare:
1. Realistically, are you venture scale?
Even without venture capital, you can build a valuable business. You can bootstrap your way to success. But, if you want to raise money, you better be ready to meet the following criteria:
10x return: To build a venture fundable business, you need to create a value of this scale (or more.)
Velocity: How fast can you grow? There is a tremendous difference between getting to $1M annual revenue in 6 months or 6 years.
This matters for two reasons: 1) Investors will extrapolate your future growth rate from your past performance 2) When you’re raising venture money, you’re building with someone else’s money and there is an often unacknowledged cost to that — namely your ownership and ultimately the funders’ returns.
Product < Business < Asset: VCs are searching for high velocity, high return investments. Startups with clear long-term assets are more valuable, which could be a database of genetic information that’s 20X broader than any competitor, or market share in an industry where there is 15+ year lock-in. At the bare minimum, make sure you are building a business, not a product. (If your go-to-market plan is to leave this to the salespeople you plan to hire at some future point, this ultimately will not work — certainly not for venture scale.)
Bottom line is if you are not venture scale, but you’re raising money — or spending — like you are, you have a problem.
2. How competitive are you?
As a founder, you are laser-focused on solving the challenges directly in front of you. While it’s critical to “stay in your own lane” to some degree, you can’t afford to ignore these three absolutely critical competitive dynamics, if you want to be venture-funded:
Cohort effect: When you start raising money, whether you realize it or not, you automatically become part of a peer group, other companies that have raised as much as you have, or to a lesser extent have comparable metrics (revenue, traction/adoption.) If you are way behind in your peer group, you won’t stand out in a weekly VC partner meeting, all else being equal. You could still come out ahead, but your team, market, and defensibility will have to be that much more impressive.
That’s why I generally advise founders to determine what to call their round based on traction, and use the earliest label which can apply. Be within a cohort where you can compete effectively: it’s the adult version of red-shirting for sports teams.
Winners take all: Assuming that your startup is successful and that you’re tackling a valuable market opportunity, 2–4 direct, formidable competitors will likely arise in your space. Most founders don’t look this far ahead, but by then you’re either at the front of the pack, or not — and in the latter case you will lose out on investor money.
Because of the winner-takes-all effect of technology (where the bulk of value accrues to the market leader), few VCs will rationally put money into the #3 or #4 competitor in a space. And, that’s why we evaluate competitiveness from our first meeting, because who wants to put 4–6 years into a business to run into a brick wall down the road? Neither the founders nor us.
You simply don’t get to be the #1 or #2 in your space without planning and executing on that plan from day Amazon is a fierce competitor, one of the best of our era.
Sector bias: Don’t get discouraged just because you are in a less competitive funding sector. While many funds are generalists, the reality is that they will typically focus on the most profitable sectors, and sectors with structural risks, like health care or education, may be tougher to close investment.
This is also a good reason that sector-focused funds are becoming a lot more common. You should take advantage both of them and of strategic angels in your sector, who can crucially help you navigate hard-to-open sales doors with their industry connections.
3. Are you right-sizing your fundraising based on fund dynamics?
Want to know the truth about VC firms? Simply by looking at the size of the fund, you can tell if your company is the right fit or not. The secret rule of thumb that most VCs have: any single investment needs to be able to return the entire fund. For example, a friend at a $800M fund confesses to me that she won’t take a meeting unless she can see clear sightlines to a $300M business. Given the rule of thumb, she’s actually being permissive.
On the other end of the spectrum, angel investors can have a fantastic outcome with a $50M run rate company, and consequently may be willing to take risks much earlier. Don’t waste your early fundraising cycles if there isn’t a fit, especially not in pursuit of a brand name for your term sheet.
4. Where are you on the seed gradient?
While the metrics at each round change every year, we’ve observed internally that even seed companies fall out in distinct spots along the seed gradient. Know the stages, metrics, and amount of your round, so that you stand the best chance in your cohort — review my 2nd question for you again.
5. Do you have a startup Olympian mindset?
Those who are drawn to founding companies have grit, creativity, and determination. High growth companies require all this — and more. Sometimes liken the process of finding great entrepreneurs to seeking Olympians.
Many people (including me) run an occasional 5K or 10K for fun on the weekend. But envision the difference between the weekend warrior, and the Olympian, who has configured her life to support training, has a team assembled to handle the various aspects of growth, and is ruthless about trying what works and discarding what doesn’t.
If an investor does not move forward, please don’t take it personally, or see it as a fatal blow aimed at the business you’re building. Ask for feedback, learn from it, and look for investors who are excited about your business.
6. Are you willing to optimize for investor fit?
Nothing is more painful than watching startups being ill-served by investors who do not have the best read on their strengths or market dynamics or simply have different values. You may be thinking. Yes, but when you’re spending years of your life on your startup, having the right partners at the table is worth getting right. The worst case scenario is that you build an 8-figure business, only to have one of your investors vetoing a profitable exit that doesn’t align with her/his economic interests.
How do you prevent this? Make sure that you and your investors match up on:
Product principles and prioritization
How involved you want them to be
How they handle it when things don’t go well
Also, speak with other entrepreneurs in their portfolio, which will help you answer the key criteria mentioned. Reference checking is a two-way street! Finally, remember not to ignore your gut. With team members and investors, ask yourself this one question, “Who am I most excited about collaborating with?”
Winning as a startup founder is about building something amazing, but it’s also about building relationships, supporting your team, and having fun on the journey. As you gear up for your seed round, make time to reflect and refocus.