Thinking about launching that genius startup? Go for it – but read this first
Words Lu Li
When you look at all the successful young entrepreneurs in London, it can seem that founding a startup is as easy as coming up with a good idea in your bedroom, pitching it to a few investors, and then finding the sunniest co-working space to plonk your MacBook Air.
The truth behind the media image, of course, is rarely that slick. I am a young(ish) entrepreneur, and you could say I’m doing pretty well in terms of success – I currently run Blooming Founders, the UK’s fastest growing network of entrepreneurial women, and will soon be opening Blooms, the UK’s first members club for high-achieving female leaders, which I am totally thrilled about – but my entrepreneurial journey hasn’t always been rosy. In fact, it’s been bloody tough to get here.
Just five years ago, I was a brand manager working for a behemoth in the beauty industry. I had a great lifestyle, but behind the scenes I was struggling with corporate limitations and political in-fighting. Having felt that I could do more with my skills for a while, I decided to quit my job (I’m Scorpio – when we’re done, we’re done.) After all, I went to a great business school and I knew how to launch things. What could possibly go wrong?
The answer is: A LOT.
It took me several years and three attempts to build an idea that would actually stick and turn into a profitable and sustainable business. So if you’re thinking about jacking in your job and finally launching that kid’s coding company, go for it – but you might want to glance through these lessons I learned first.
1. Doing what you love means you’ll need to work twice as hard
Spoiler alert: doing what you love is great, but it typically makes no money. If you do want to make a living (or even a killing) with doing what you love, then you have to put in the hours, days, months and years. You’ll need to build an audience that genuinely appreciates your work. You need to be relevant and stay relevant. Don’t buy into any coaching programme that promises you six figure incomes by following certain steps. Nothing replaces hard work.
2. Find a good product/founder fit
Different types of businesses have very different dynamics and demands, and not every business is right for you. My first two attempts taught me that I am really unfit for running service-based business and that I lose interest in businesses where my work gets too repetitive.
The dilemma here is that you don’t know what you don’t know, and you can only find out by doing it. Don’t try to be perfect. It’s very possible that you will find yourself with a broken business model or clients that drive you crazy. Once you do, pivot (startup speak for “change”) until you find product/founder fit.
3. Validate, validate, validate
It’s fun to envision how our ideas could help change the world, but real life validation counts more than a detailed strategy in the early stages of a company life.
You can use the Lean Canvas to map out your business plan, then go out and talk to your potential customers. Also talk to your potential competitors. Don’t hold back and think someone might steal your idea. Everyone is unique in the way they execute. Be open, humble and listen to the feedback you get. It is the only way to gauge whether you are on the right track or not.
4. Customers first, investors second
Raising investment is seen as a great achievement in the startup world and you might think that you need to raise money too, if you want to be a great entrepreneur.
Last time I checked, business success comes from customers and making revenue/profits. So when in doubt, spent more time in the early days of your company with your customers than courting potential investors. Once you’ve got customers and revenue, investors are much more likely to talk to you and you will be in a better negotiation position.
5. Build your network and ask for help
You might think that you are superwoman (and you probably are!), but the reality is: no one can do this startup thing alone. If you are not part of a tribe of like-minded people who can relate to your problems, then the journey can be very tough and very lonely.
That is the sole reason why I started Blooming Founders. Too many women try to do things on their own (myself included) and we don’t utilise the power of networks. Don’t feel bad about reaching out and asking for help. (Men never do.)
6. Build a good team
Having a good team is crucial for your growth, but you need to invest time to find the right people. Getting free help in the beginning is great, but be aware that you will need to pay for quality (and reliable) work at some point. The more you know what role you are looking for, the easier the recruiting becomes. Being specific helps.
Trust, shared values and effort are more important than anything else. Don’t work with negative people, people who don’t deliver (always measure contributions) or people who disrespect you, even when they have the greatest CV or are not asking for payment. It will come at a cost to your business.
Having a co-founder who you know well and who has complementary skills trumps everything. I wasn’t quite as lucky, but maybe you are!
7. Be yourself and listen to yourself
Everything you put into your business will be an extension of yourself, your strengths and your values. Be acutely aware of who you are because that will differentiate your work in the market. Don’t worry too much about competition. Follow them, but don’t copy them. Nurture your own vision and insights and skills.
Always listen to your body when the going gets tough. Get enough sleep, eat nutritious food, see your family and friends. Do whatever you need to do to balance out the stress you encounter at work. You are the most important person in the whole puzzle!