By creating a startup is a heady experience. It’s a lot like the early stages of being in love: you think about your business all the time; you worry about whether it’s right for you and you’re right for it; you want to spend all your time with it; you share your values with it; you daydream about your wonderful future together.
But, along with all of this joy and excitement, there are many tiring days, many slightly unglamorous nights in budget hotels, and sometimes you really feel like you aren’t getting anywhere fast. To that end, in this blog post I’m sharing some of the things I’ve learnt along the way. This is not an exhaustive list, and it certainly won’t all resonate with you in the same way, but it’s a reflection on my journey so far delivered in the that hope it can save any readers some time, pain or frustration, or even – maybe – give you hope.
This is critical. Starting a business is damned lonely, and although it is liberating being able to make all the decisions yourself, sometimes it is also completely overwhelming. And, of course, you can’t possibly know everything. So you need to find your tribe, ideally people who are at roughly the same stage as you. I found mine via the Escape the City startup accelerator, and I have found it so valuable to have people to bounce ideas off, critique your work, share their expertise, and generally keep you motivated when things get tough. There are also a surprising amount of MeetUp groups and meetings on Eventbrite that focus on starting up, and these are also good sources of support. Try a few different things out and find people who spark your enthusiasm and who you’ll enjoy spending time with – and don’t underestimate how important this is for your continued success!
One of the key things I’ve learnt is that you need to change your mindset to be successful in a startup. There are a lot of aspects to this: being prepared to constantly push outside your comfort zone; finding ways to build resilience; being agile in your response to the market, the list goes on and on.
All of these are useful bits of advice, but the single thing that’s made the most difference to me is the switch from a Success-Failure mindset to an Optimizing for Learning mindset. Traditionally we are conditioned and trained to focus on outcomes, and many people who start businesses are high achievers who have developed a powerful ability to get good outcomes for their former employers.
However, this Success-Failure mindset will not serve you well as a startup, as issues and problems will come hard and fast as you are learning, and if you allow yourself to view these as failures you will quickly become dispirited. Instead, think of everything you do as an opportunity to learn something. This is a simple but extremely powerful reframing.
Firstly, before you do anything decide what you want to learn. This could be “I want to see if cold emails deliver any sales”, or “I want to figure out which Facebook ad will get the most traction”, or pretty much anything really. But approaching every task as a learning experience really opens your thinking up and avoids the sense of failure. So, for example, I sent out about a dozen cold emails a month or so back, and got no responses at all. With my old mindset I’d have viewed this as a Failure. All that work, no replies, must be a failure, right? But instead, I make the choice to view this as a learning experience. Perhaps, for my business, cold emails are not the right route to market. Maybe I need to build credibility first, or focus on face to face connections, so next I’ll design a test for those and see if the results are different. So, stop thinking Success-Failure and start thinking Learning.
I am starting a tech business, with the aim of developing a Saas company which helps businesses understand and track workplace diversity and inclusion. So, ultimately, I am going to need data analytics, data visualisation, machine learning, process automation, and even, potentially, artificial intelligence and predictive analytics. This all sounds expensive, and probably will be, but you can get started without spending a huge amount. For example, although it’s painful and manual, you can do data analytics in Excel, Google Sheets or Airspace. Visualisations can be done in Infogram, Venngage, or Tableau.
Of course, you want your own proprietary tech, but unless you have several hundred thousand in your bank account – or you are aggressive in chasing VC funding – you are not likely to be able to start with that. Focus on what the customer is going to see, not on how you get it to them. So for my customers, what they really want to see are visualisations of their pay data. I can do this in Airspace, and then use Infogram to produce a really professional-looking report.
I have paid for Pro subscriptions to a few things, but the total cost of doing one report is probably only around £20-30 (plus my time, but hey, you’re an entrepreneur, your time is essentially free until your business can afford for it to be otherwise). So, yes, I want to build something wonderful, but I don’t need to have all the tech in place to get started, and it’s likely that by hacking together some tools and just getting the product my customer wants, I’ll learn about what is really worth spending money developing and what might be a really cool feature – that nobody actually wants…
In my experience, people decide to start their own businesses because they long for freedom and independence. This is great, and you will definitely have plenty of that, but don’t take it to extremes and be afraid to ask for help. You can’t know everything, and there are experts who can save you time and money. I am terrible at social media, but there are people out there to whom it’s second nature and who can do some stuff for me much more quickly and effectively than I could. But don’t take advantage – these are skills they could charge for, so think about how you could help them with their projects or objectives.
Twitter feed shows that you aren’t just taking their knowledge and giving nothing back. It’s also worth remembering that as a species we are hard-wired for stories, so people do really enjoy hearing a startup founder’s story. I’ve been blown away by how generous and helpful people will be once they know a bit about what you’re doing and – critically – why. So own your story, be honest about the help that you need, and always, always, have an ask. If someone offers their help find a way to accept the offer, even if you’re not sure if you need it at that moment. You may well do in the future, and these early supporters might well become your most loyal customers or evangelists.
Easy to say, sometimes hard to do. But remember why you started a business and make sure you are doing enough of the things you wanted to do to offset the pain and worry. I have found that I enjoy spending time with Diversity and Inclusion consultants and advocates much more than I enjoy selling to HR departments – because they share my passion and are incredibly energising – so although I hadn’t intended to go down this route, I am now working on an offer which will appeal to this customer segment, and I am going to make sure
I spend time with them to keep my energy up for the more challenging sales channels. Remember that you are spending your daily life working on this business, and one of your success criteria for it should be, am I having fun? If, on balance, you are not enjoying it, why are you doing it? Make sure the fun, the rewards, the enjoyment doesn’t get overwhelmed by the nitty gritty of accounts and SEO and battling with SquareSpace and chasing sales.
So those are my reflections on starting this journey. I hope it’s useful for some of you, and I’d love to hear your thoughts on any omissions or advice that has really helped you.
Nancy is the founder of Umbrella, a company that uses AI to overcome corporate bias and provide equality of opportunity at work. She also runs Business Inclusivity, diversity consulting and leads the technology and content teams at Maverick, a strategic and operational consultancy to publishers.