Diving into entrepreneurship is daunting, but plenty of people have blazed the trail already. We talked to founders, mentors and venture capitalists for some unexpected tips on how entrepreneurs can build leading businesses.
Founders may be those best suited for advising entrepreneurs on the challenges ahead. They’ve been there before, nurturing an idea to life and helping make the tough decision to get it off the ground.
Jacqueline Ros, co-founder and CEO at Revolar
"Remember investors are people too. Nobody wants to feel used. It's important to focus on building real relationships with people and real relationships take time and effort. Bridge the gap and make it as easy as possible for them to relate to you and your endeavors. Also, talk to an accountant first and set yourself up to get as much money back as possible so you can reinvest it in your business."
Adam Greenbaum, founder and CEO at WhiskerCloud
“If you do not push yourself to your mental and physical limits every single day, you're going to fail. I know that sounds dramatic, but it's true. There is so much competition in all spaces and only the strong survive. When you think about what goes into running a business, marketing a business, day-to-day operations and everything in between, there is never enough time. Being mentally strong and able to push through hard days, weeks and moments make the difference. My company's best weeks have come after the worst ones because that's when you work a little harder. Whether it's loud music, motivational speeches or anything else that gets you pumped and motivated, find it and use it.”
Alex Kronman, co-founder and CEO at flytedesk
“Be careful of mirages. The path to building a company is littered with people, places, opportunities, tools, and organizations that seem like a silver bullet. There is no such thing so don’t fall for it and get back to the difficult, messy, necessary work that’s actually going to build your business. (hint: if it’s not revenue it’s probably a mirage)”
Melissa Risteff, co-founder and CEO at Couragion
“Set a sustainable pace from the start. I pride myself on setting realistic goals and exceeding expectations – and have throughout my career. But somehow when you are co-founders in the early days of your startup, you lose sight of tried and true experience. To say that our team is highly achievement driven is an incredible understatement. We were on a path to burnout within the first few months all caused by insanely aggressive goals that we placed squarely upon ourselves. In the first 100 days we launched a student iPad app, educator companion app, and administrative app – all while recruiting 25 amazing role models, filming them and post producing 75 videos. It’s not that we didn’t meet our goals – it’s that the goals themselves were so unrealistic and we didn’t keep each other in check. Now we constantly strive to keep a more measured approach to our planning, outcomes, and achievements in every sprint.”
Suzy Gutierrez, co-founder and managing director at TechrIoT
“Don't startup without a roadmap. Starting a business can be exhilarating and exhausting all at the same time. If you have a plan and a process to document outcomes, it will be easier to accomplish your goals. I suggest using the Lean StartUp Business Canvas as a guideline to make sure you are addressing all of the critical elements of your business plan. Once you’ve developed a roadmap and tested it with real customers in your target market you can begin your startup up journey.
“Entrepreneurs tend to want to boil the ocean and do business with everyone. My advice: Carefully select who you do business with. Facilitate business opportunities with your target market, not the universe.”
Bryan Leach, founder and CEO at Ibotta
"I have a 'Rule of Half' — bad (and good) outcomes are about half as likely to transpire as you fear (or hope). Take a deep breath. Also, it's a myth that you can't start a tech company unless you can write code or build a prototype yourself. Business folks can add value in early stage startups too."
A good mentor can help an entrepreneur avoid common mistakes, push through when things get tough and help make hard decisions when needed.
Sue Heilbronner, founder and CEO at MergeLane
“Co-founders should consider how their personality types interact. My most common resource for this evaluation is the Enneagram. As we founded MergeLane, we were extremely conscious of the personality characteristics of our team members. I am an Enneagram Type 8, a forceful gut type that wrestles with a need to control. My co-founder is a Type 1, with a more diligent, analytical style and an ingrained view that there is a "right" way and a "wrong" way to do things. Ninety percent of our early disagreements as co-founders were around this dynamic, and since we understood it well (and now far better), we were able to see where the blind spots were in each of our approaches and optimize for how complementary these approaches can be.
“Personality typing systems are adopted in larger companies, but I think they're rarely used by startup founders. Whether it's the Enneagram, which I think is extremely accessible, or some other system, I believe in understanding the types of the founders and building teams and company practices that leverage them separately and in combination.”
“No one cares about your crafted, poetic code except for your teammates and other developers. Sadly, it’s not valued unless there is a security breach or some other performance issue that causes serious money to be lost. My advice is: stick to a disciplined, agile process, but shipping software is more important than anything else. Code will be out of date and useless no matter how well it’s written because of changing business decisions both in startups and in the enterprise. Expect to throw code away — you are not throwing away an investment. You are refining your vision as you get a sharper view of the market and product direction.”
“My advice: If you want to think different & innovate, hire different. I see a lot of tech teams and a lot of founder teams. One thing I don’t see nearly enough of is diversity in them, and that comes at a cost.
“Don’t make the mistake of thinking that diversity is a feel-good catch phrase, or a nice to have — it’s a crazy-valuable asset that far too many overlook. For example: one extensive study found that diverse sales teams brought in 41-58 percent more revenue (not bad!), and founder teams with at least one woman on them outperform other startups by 35 percent and as much as 63 percent. ...
“So, a word of advice: By the time you get to your 4th hire, it should be someone who doesn’t look like you, or the rest of your team (gender, age, race, education, etc).
“Take the time to diversify; you’ll be glad you did.”
To get your enterprise off the ground, you’ll probably have to turn to venture capitalists. Luckily, they want to see businesses they invest in grow just as much as you do, and have plenty of advice for how to see that happen.
David Gold, managing director at Access Venture Partners
“Don't ever ‘pitch’ investors. Raising investment capital is a social sales process. The more time you spend in your interaction with prospective investors understanding their investment focus and goals and then discussing your business and how it fits those goals, the better. The best ‘pitches’ are the ones where your deck is a tool that you reference as needed to enhance the dialogue but where you never run through it from front to back taking ‘at’ your prospective investors.”
Entrepreneurs often need to build teams of executives to help them run a business. And one day, they may need to hand the reigns to another executive as the company changes. Those executives can provide valuable advice on what successful businesses do that growing businesses can take advantage of.
Jerry Colonna, CEO at Reboot
“A few weeks back, I was with my Buddhist teacher, Sharon Salzberg. We were doing a talk at my client company, Etsy. We were discussing the ways in which things such as the dharma can be applied to leadership. We grappled with the question, ‘How do you lead in a way that is true and authentic while still staying focused on execution?’ Someone from the audience asked me, in connection to that question, ‘What's the most important thing Sharon taught you?’ Without hesitating I said, ‘To love myself.’
Promise Phelon, CEO at TapInfluence
“Discover the success of failure. When starting a new company or a new job, most of us spend a lot of our time doing everything we can to ensure we will NOT fail. Inevitably, we all end up failing at one thing or another and there’s no way to avoid it. Rather than working yourself into a tailspin about what you might be doing wrong, embrace the reality that you WILL fail. But also understand that this failure is going to be accompanied by the biggest learning opportunities of your career. Those are the moments where you make conscious decisions to change course and that is where you will truly find your success — buried deep under the failure.”
Raychel Muenke, executive vice president at Kindara
“A great and unexpected piece of advice is to ‘Know your No.’ Many young entrepreneurs are super excited and ready to take on the world which can lead to saying ‘yes’ to too many choices. Getting absolutely clear on the things you are willing to say no to can be a great guiding principle.
“This will help when fundraising (are you willing to say no to the money if the investor is not aligned with your vision?), setting priorities (can you say no to shiny projects that do not advance your core goal?), and hiring (can you say no to a new hire that is not an exact match for your needs?).
Being a successful entrepreneur requires a mix of thoughtful Yeses and Nos. ‘Knowing your No’ will help keep you focused on the path to success.”
Brad Kopitz, CEO at Artifact Uprising
“Ego is the true enemy of innovation. It will kill a great idea, company, team and culture faster than anything else. Never let it have a seat at the table in your company. In the early days especially, it takes every team member lifting together to make a company fly. It means coming together to iterate on ideas, launch things quickly, innovate. That comes from understanding that no one person is smarter, better or more sophisticated than another. Greatness comes from the blend of the perspectives and skills of the team. When ego creeps in, decisions are made (or not made) based on jockeying for personal credit rather than what’s best for the company. Let that happen for an extended period of time and you end up with a lot of politics and mediocre ideas, rather than a high functioning team and great ideas. Kill it everywhere you see it, even in yourself (which is often the most difficult).”
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