The business journey of an average entrepreneur is full of trials and errors. Starting and building a successful company is a task that only a few have the courage to undertake. And for a good reason.
With research indicating that roughly 50% of startups cross the 5 years mark of operating on the market, the chances of running a business that not only survives but also thrives are slim. However, with the right product, people and strategy in place, it’s something that can be done.
In this article, I’d like to share with you my 6 most valuable lessons that I’ve learned building my startup from scratch to over 140.000 happy customers. I also asked fellow successful entrepreneurs to share their tips.
Ready? Let’s dive in.
Lesson #1: Quickly validate your ideas
This should come as no surprise, and yet it’s so common to see entrepreneurs who invest their time, energy and money into building and launching complex products that no one wants to buy.
Determining and testing the demand for your product or service is crucial for the decisions you are going to make about your business in the future.
This is why creating and testing the MVP (minimum viable product) is such a popular advice to new entrepreneurs, and it couldn’t be further from the truth.
This was also what we did at Tidio.
Before the product in its current form was developed, we were experimenting a lot with other ideas. For example, in 2013 one of them was a tool called Tidio Elements which was a website editing tool. It did okay. However, what really took off and showed us that there exists a real interest was a live chat solution we’ve created in the meantime.
At first, it was a simple customer communication tool that people could install on their websites, mainly for their eCommerce stores so that they could talk to their website’s visitors in real-time. It quickly turned out there was a demand for such a solution on the market as more and more online shops were being opened.
Fast forward a few years and Tidio has become a complex, all-in-one tool for customers’ engagement and sales automation.
With 3 separate modules, including live chat, chatbots, and upcoming mailing features, the app has been installed on more than 300.000 websites.
If it wasn’t for the MVP testing of our early products, we would never have created Tidio. It’s important to remember that failures are a part of the journey. In fact, all the “failed” products that we’ve created before Tidio came to life in its current form, were what led us to eventually build a live chat.
Following this principle of validating ideas quickly, we’ve implemented chatbots and are now in the process of testing and launching our new mailing feature to make Tidio a powerful all-in-one tool for customer communication, sales, and email marketing.
Here are a few of my tips on how to test your business ideas without spending a fortune:
- Use “SPRINT” methodology to build a prototype and test it with a chosen group
- Pitch your ideas using email outreach and LinkedIn
- Offer free access or samples to industry influencers
- Conduct focus group interviews with a target group
- Perform product demos and hire UX researchers to test the usability
- Build an effective landing page for your product
- Create waiting list sign-ups
For instance, here’s a great real-life example of testing an idea for an online SEO blueprint course by a successful entrepreneur Glen Allsop from Detailed.com using the waiting list. On his landing page, he mentions that the course is now closed and gives 16 convincing testimonials from people who joined in previous editions. For those who didn’t make it in time, Glen suggests joining the waitlist.
It’s a great way to build some buzz around your upcoming product or service, without actually having it built. You can test the idea, see whether there is any interest and decide if it’s worth creating and launching depending on how many people expressed their willingness to try it.
Also, don’t forget to pay close attention to the feedback collected from your first users. You can follow our steps and make a chatbot for your newly created landing page to help you gather opinions from your audience and customers. It’s yet another great way to validate whether the product or service you are offering meets their expectations, as well as what should be improved.
Lesson #2: Find experienced mentors
One of the most important things that beginner entrepreneurs can do is to surround themselves with more experienced business people. In fact, research shows that mentored companies grow 3.5x faster and can raise 7x more money.
That’s quite impressive, isn’t it?
At Tidio we were lucky enough to encounter people who believed in our project and who support us with their knowledge up to this day.
There are various ways to find mentors for your projects:
- Industry networking events
- Linked and Twitter
- Platforms such as GrowthMentor.com
- Small business development centers
- Startup incubators
If you decide to get funding for your startup, you also can try reaching out to angel investors who often become advisors for the businesses they’ve decided to fund.
Why is it important to have a mentor? Here are some practical reasons:
- You get to avoid making silly mistakes
- You save time
- You can validate your ideas (how many times have we stubbornly pressed ahead with an idea we thought was good, but which was completely unvalidated?)
- You won’t be driven by emotions, but rather by numbers
- You can network better and get access to interesting people
Here’s what Aditya Sheth from Venngage has to say about connecting with potential mentors and partners.
“I’ve never shied away from using cold email to find and talk to amazing mentors and just interesting people I can learn from. It’s allowed me to connect with amazing founders from companies like Twitter, Kettle & Fire, etc and some of my favorite authors and bloggers. It’s also allowed me to scale my own personal network, and you know how they say, “your network is your net worth.” Well, it’s true.
Remember this: If you want to find great mentors or build amazing relationships, cold message or email people. Ask them for advice. People don’t like being sold to, but they love giving advice.”
Bonus Tip #1: You can use email finders such as VoilaNorbert to find email addresses from any website’s URL.
Bonus Tip #2: You can also scrape email addresses from LinkedIn, simply by going to the “Contact Info” of people you want to reach out to, for example, your mentors.
Lesson #3: Hire engaged people
The topic of hiring is a complex one. Each entrepreneur I’ve met has a different idea of how their dream team would look like. However, one thing is universal - hiring people who are both skillful and willing to learn and be engaged is the recipe for success.
In our case, once we’ve decided that starting a live chat solution is the way to go, we were only four passionate people working long hours to make things work. In fact, we managed to build a prototype of Tidio Live Chat in 2 weeks and then launched it for the world. The product started getting attention and the higher the demand, the more work we had to put into making it better.
Now, with more than 140.000 unique users we’ve hired 54 talented people who work hard every day to grow Tidio and become the #1 customer engagement and marketing automation solution for small businesses.
Here are some of the best hiring practices that we’ve used at Tidio, and which you can replicate for your own start-up:
- If you want to find the right people, create a perfect candidate profile
- Use word-of-mouth to find good candidates to save time and money on advertising job positions
- Hire people with multiple skill sets so that they can be responsible for several areas
- Hire for a candidate's attitude and willingness to learn (check if they develop themselves professionally via courses, conferences, etc).
- Make people feel appreciated from the start, not only monetarily but also in terms of recognition for their work. Notice their success, give praise.
Take a look at what Emil Hajric, CEO at Helpjuice says about the onboarding process for new hires.
“One thing to keep in mind is that regardless how motivated, skillful, and engaged a given employee is - it typically takes time, an understanding of your organization’s various work processes, and a feeling of belonging before said employee reaches their full potential to contribute to your organization.
This is where employee onboarding comes in. Your new employee made a lasting impression on you to get hired, so make sure you reciprocate by making your new hire feel welcome and a part of the team.
Doing so allows you to minimize the time it takes for new hires to align with your company’s overall culture, vision, and mission. This, in turn, leads to improved employee engagement and productivity as well as the ability to retain your new hires for the long term.”
Bonus Tip #1: You can use an employee feedback tool to automate the process of giving feedback among peers, as well as gathering suggestions and ideas in one, organized place.
Bonus Tip #2: Collect employee feedback during the onboarding process as this not only helps with potentially improving the process for future new hires, but it also makes current hires feel valued right off the bat by showing you care about their opinions.
Lesson #4: Build a community from the start
Creating a platform for your users to voice their concerns, ask questions or give feedback is crucial if you want your customers to stay loyal to your brand. Building a community from the start is also a good idea if you want to start building an email list.
At Tidio we’ve created a Facebook group called Tidio Community where we actively interact with our users. This group has helped us to strengthen our relationships with our users and get better insights into what our audience is expecting from our product.
Ideally, you should aim to create a group on your own platform to avoid being dependent on third parties. However, this can be expensive if you are on a shoestring.
Here are some options for places where you can build your community for free:
- Facebook groups
- LinkedIn groups
- Twitter chats
We are not the only ones creating a platform to give voice and support to our users. Here’s what Jack Paxton, the co-founder of VYPER said about building a community.
We created a Facebook group in the early stages of launching VYPER. Our goal was to build a group of customers so that we could:
- Provide support
- Inform them on new products and features
- Provide advice and value through blog posts
- Consider feedback from users in the group
Today, that group has grown into a strong community that is made up of people that have a common interest in our brand. Having a community that's focused on your brand is crucial when starting a startup. That community can support your business in its early stages.
To help with engaging your community, creating graphics to share alongside various prompts is a great way to start conversations with everyone in your group. Consider a #TipTuesday or #FeedbackFriday as ways to get members talking.
As mentioned above, it’s also crucial to build a list of email subscribers right away. Collecting leads is an important part of your sales funnel.
Building a community is also great for strengthening your branding. Having a strong brand is what can make or break your business. Here’s what Irina Weber, Brand Manager at SE Ranking says:
Your brand is much more than your physical being. It's important to make them have certain thoughts or feel a certain way when they come into contact with your brand.
Brand positioning is what you need to focus on to create a long-lasting impression on people and turn them into potential customers.
If your customers feel an emotional attachment to your brand, you can have a fair chance of recalling your brand and talking about it to others. It’s a subconscious effect, but ever-so-important.
Lesson #5: Invest in smart marketing
It’s common to see many founders with a background in IT who forget how important marketing is for achieving success. It doesn’t matter how awesome your product is if people don’t know about it.
Don’t fall into the trap of trying to do everything or spending lots of money on advertising. Instead, think of the smart ways of doing marketing, especially if you are bootstrapped.
One of the ideas that require no funds is to partner up with other small businesses who aren’t direct competition. That works exceptionally well for SaaS businesses, including Tidio.
Here is what fellow entrepreneur and founder Stefan Dobois from Survey Anyplace says about it.
“Given the number of players competing for the attention of your audience, it's hard for small businesses to be heard online.
A great way to cope with this is to join forces with other small companies who:
- Market to a similar audience
- Are not a competitor
- Use similar marketing and promotion channels
Start a closed community with these businesses to promote each other, engage in joint marketing campaigns and build long-term relationships.
An example is the "B2B Bloggers Boost Group". It is a Facebook Group created by a small software vendor (Survey Anyplace).
The community consists of content managers from similar companies who help each other with content creation and getting mentioned.
To prove the efficiency of such a solution, here are the SEO results we got after months of collaboration.”
Impressive, isn’t it?
And here are other tips for doing smart marketing:
- Start a blog and optimize your content marketing for SEO (focus heavily on investing in SEO and link building for your content and landing pages). You can publish less content as long as it's SEO-optimized and has the potential to drive free organic traffic.
- Experiment with SEM (ads) only to check which keywords have the potential to bring you qualified leads and conversions.
- Use free tools when possible. Ask for discounts, negotiate.
- Consider affiliate marketing or a referral program to gain more traction.
- Network and make connections with people in the industry on Facebook and Slack groups. Ask for feedback and advice.
- Install live chat and chatbots to automate communication with your website's visitors and your sales processes. Focus on delivering the best customer service experience possible.
- Monitor all marketing changes and their effects on your results.
- Use different variants of cold emails to pitch your products to your audience. See which work best.
- Don't focus on social media unless you are sure it will bring you clients (social media reach is poor nowadays and you have to spend money on ads to have an effect).
A befriended entrepreneur, Darren Foong, Growth Manager at ReferralCandy and CandyBar says:
Another aspect of Smart Marketing is figuring out where the leverage is. Do the smart work, and scale the hard work.
Let's take content as an example. As a startup, you'll need to experiment and figure out what works best for your audience, across your channels: what content works for SEO, newsletters, product copy, social channels, and so on.
You'll probably need to do most of the research and writing from day one - that's the hard work, but the smart work figuring out what works.
Once you figure out what works, the equation changes. You can make bets on topics or research, and leave the writing to part timers or new hires: people who can write, but don't understand your tone or customers yet.
We used to write every single word on CandyBar.co. That was unsustainable. Now we focus on knowing what our customers want, writing explicit briefs, and guiding better writers to produce those articles. Do the smart work, and you can scale the hard work with people later.
Lesson #6: Always focus on the numbers
As an entrepreneur, it is crucial to have at least a basic understanding of finance and accounting. Apart from monitoring your revenue, here are some metrics you should pay attention to:
- CAC (customer acquisition cost)
- LTV (lifetime value)
- MAU (monthly active users)
- Churn rate (and retention rate)
It’s not only recommended, it’s required. The most successful entrepreneurs are those who are obsessed with numbers. A common mistake is to “follow your intuition” while what should be done is simply the math. Always think logically, not emotionally.
This is especially important for start-up founders who are trying to get funding. These are the metrics that investors will be carefully monitoring before they make a decision to lend you their money.
Too many founders are driven by emotions and not numbers, and it kills their business. But investors want you to quantify your potential success - they want to see real numbers that help them to predict your businesses future. This is especially important when you will be deciding on your pricing strategy.
If something is costing you more than it’s bringing in, be brave and kill your darlings (cut your losses, even if it was something you personally liked about your business/product).
Also, once you can afford it, hire a CFO, but make all hiring decisions slowly and astutely so that you don’t burn money on the wrong employees.
In the mainstream, starting and launching a startup is meant to be fun, exciting and hugely rewarding. Yes, there will be challenges along the way, and - yes - not all startups make it. But if you use the tips in this article and do the right things, there’s no reason why your validated idea can't make it to the top.