Developing a great idea into a thriving business comes with a lot of hard work, challenges, and pitfalls along the way. We asked entrepreneurs for their best advice when building a successful startup – including important lessons learned from their personal experience of launching a business.
1. Flexibility is crucial
‘Everyone will emphasize the need for a highly structured business plan and detailed action steps for your company. My advice is the opposite.’
John Matthews is co-owner of City Speakeasy, an immersion based foreign language school in NYC. He learned that listening to his customers was key for his business to grow and thrive: ‘Remain flexible and be able to make adjustments on the fly! We had this idea of what our company was – from the price point we wanted, to the length of the classes we wanted, to how the classes were structured. Meanwhile, the NYC customer was screaming at us that they would take the class if it met their needs. So we listened. We changed the price point, we changed the classes, we changed everything to meet the majority needs of our customers and the business exploded!’ John describes the huge impact this had on customer satisfaction and company growth: ‘Our original class structure had cost us 4x [more in expenses]. The customer didn’t need or even want all the additional items. . . .We were reluctant to change, but in doing so we saved an incredible amount of money and became much more attractive to customers.’
2. Don’t over-focus on your marketing strategy
Think about the variety of channels you can use to market your company and how to best utilise them.
Ian Wright, founder of payment comparison site Merchant Machineadvises: ‘The two biggest mistakes to avoid when building a start-up are being too dependent on any one customer acquisition channel or revenue source. If you are, you’re just one algorithm shift and/or non-paying customer away from bankruptcy. While you should also avoid spreading your net too wide, your start-up should not have a single point of failure.’ You can check out this post from Help Scout covering a variety of marketing platforms for customer acquisition.
3. Make sure your chosen marketing channels work for you
‘Don’t make the same mistake as we did and throw a bunch of money at online marketing without actually knowing what you want and what would benefit you most.’
Max Robinson, founder of Ace Work Gear and FishTankBank, has learned from experience the importance of establishing the best marketing channels for you: ‘For some reason, we decided that we wanted to build a large Facebook following – it was probably related to our ego. But even once we had managed to build the sizeable following, neither our sales nor our engagement had increased. It suddenly dawned on us that we perhaps should have spent more time focusing on building a local and relevant audience rather than chasing the big, and ultimately worthless, numbers. It’s undeniable that generating a huge spike in traffic can be a good buzz, but it is much more effective (and much easier too) to focus on your customers that are closer to home, then gradually build up your audience to a national and international level online.’
4. Don’t wait too long
One of the biggest hurdles is actually having the courage to get going.
Gregory Dewald is a multiple award winning entrepreneur, and CEO of Bright!Tax. Reflecting on his startup experiences he says: ‘The most difficult obstacle entrepreneurs must overcome at the outset is a personal one. It is ‘deciding to do it’. Even if someone has an idea that looks viable (with plenty of upside and scalability), many ‘entrepreneurs in waiting’ do just that – wait. They’ll put it off until the time is right. But the perfect time may never arrive.’ Gregory learned that once you take the plunge, things tend to fall into place. ‘Consciously committing to a new enterprise is a crucial initial bridge to cross,’ he adds. John Guerra CEO & Joseph Guerra COO of Oculuste Sunglasses are currently crowdfunding for their startup on Kickstarter: ‘Do not wait forever to start. Saturate your mind with action-oriented, positive thoughts that will compel you to keep pushing forward even when you do not get immediate results.’
5. Keep your costs down early on
‘Low costs means more profit, which means more chance of success.’
Neil, founder of digital marketing agency Piccana, begun his startup with $50. Now, 2 years later, the company turns over in excess of $500,00/year with 8 full time staff. His key to financial growth? ‘Bootstrap, bootstrap, bootstrap. Keep costs low above all else and focus on making a profit which you can then reinvest. Don’t spend thousands on a website, build something simple yourself to start and validate your idea. Don’t spend thousands on marketing, get out there yourself and sell your product/service. Don’t spend thousands on staff – be prepared to do everything yourself.’
6. Find a co-founder with complementary skills
Look for someone whose strengths balance out your weaknesses.
Jordan Wan, CEO of startup recruiting platform CloserIQ, advises: ‘Pursue an idea you’re truly passionate about, and find a co-founder who’s equally passionate with talents that complement yours. If one of you is more invested in the idea, the relationship won’t work. And if your skillsets aren’t complementary, then you may not have the critical mass of expertise to launch a business.’
7. Understand your value proposition
‘What is it about your product, service and offer that compels people to say yes?’
Bryan Clayton CEO of Greenpal learned from experience how vital it is to understand the key benefit of your product or service that makes you better than the competition. ‘When we first launched, we thought people would like our service because it’s a cheaper way to get their grass cut. What we found through copy testing in different channels such as Adwords and Facebook is that the customers’ ability to get same day service is a much more effective and compelling subset of our value proposition that drives more visitors and more conversions on our landing pages.’
8. Accept the imperfections
Avoid obsessing over minor details and focus your energy where it matters most.
Ben Brooks is CEO of PILOT, a tech startup focused on helping managers retain their best people. He emphasises the importance of shedding your perfectionist impulses: ‘Since I’m the owner of my business with my proverbial name on the door I had impulses to try and make everything perfect. After all, it was a reflection of me, right? I’ve learned that I waste a lot of time and resources on too many rounds of revisions without getting useful feedback, and in the end produce too little as the process is so inefficient. Getting more comfortable with things being imperfect, incomplete, and in process has allowed me to get things to market faster, learn more, and be innovative.’
9. Build a website that wows
‘Your website is a reflection of you and your business.’
Rosa Andersen-Jones, owner of fitness company Barre Base Studio and content creator at Timely points out the necessity of a great website for business growth: ‘Very early on we created a quality website for Barre Base. Looks do matter: if your site looks professional, feels great to navigate and gives your audience everything they need, then your clients will assume that your services will be a close match. Good website design and also great content also reflects the legitimacy of who you are, making your package more attractive to both clients, and potential partners.’
10. Invest time in PR
Public relations is a vital part of your business communication strategy, especially when starting out.
Through PR, you can get your message out to the channels potential clients will use when researching similar services or products. Ben Walker, CEO of Transcription Outsourcing, explains how PR saw his company’s ROI soaring from 10% (using traditional marketing methods) to the 40-50% range. ‘We’ve done conference booths, magazine advertisements, cold calling, email marketing, and pay per click campaigns. None of them have had the ROI that PR has. People don’t want to be sold to anymore, they want to make informed decisions and do the research themselves.’
If you have any tips for starting and running your small business (or things you’ve learned along the way) share them below!