Things I Wish Someone Told Me Before Starting A Start-Up
By Irwin Gonzales
Recently, I have been helping a few people who want to start their own company by either being a source of advice or actually dipping my feet in production. Personally, I never took a business class prior to actually starting one. I just went ahead, started it and kept running it in all the wrong ways. It was mainly between trial and getting chewed out where I learned the most, and found a business we could sustain and scale. We had a nice exit which led to this venture I’m currently in now, Cypher. However, I never got to take a full class. How I learned to even start was using any resource I could. I followed lectures, online workshops, and went to small events where I picked experience off people who knew more than me. More so, I looked for a proper and legit mentor but I never had any formal classroom training, only influence.
The advice and feedback I provide comes empirically through experience with Tech companies and being “Lean” trained. So if I had to say anything, it would very counter-intuitive, which raises a ton of eyebrows. I’m not going to go fully into “being passionate” when starting a company as others have covered that already in other articles. I have compiled a list of general advice/harsh realities that I or my colleagues have either experienced, witnessed or are taken from our very own mentors. I am giving this to people who are trying to start or even thinking about starting one in hopes that this will give them clarity and will help them thrive.
1. You’re going to fail on your first try, only because the assumptions on your product or service won’t exactly fit market at first. This is okay because you can learn from it and make a better product with a higher chance of succeeding, which is called a “Pivot”.
2. Business itself contradicts decorum. At least if it comes to scaling a software or product out to the masses. The truth is, most times, you will be forced to make big decisions that may not follow protocol for traditional business. You have to be quick and decisive enough to act on these changes and find a way to thrive on it. You never know, you may discover a new way of doing business that no one has ever seen before.
3. Take your business plan for what it is, a plan. Too many times, I have seen peers & colleagues of mine crash and burn because they mistook their BPs for formulas to success. The truth is, your BP/Pitch Deck/ Exec Summary may never even see the light of day. Your BP is only there as a guide or reference. Something you should change frequently because if you’re lucky enough, updated business plans are less of a headache when putting it in front of investors.
4. Competition is way overrated, at least when you’re starting out. When people initially focus too much on who else has the market, they subconsciously make a clone of their competitors. Acknowledge the fact they exist but focus on your niche and be so good at it that your competitors wouldn’t dream of copying you. That’s how you beat them.
5. The trick of finding a unicorn idea is to not try. I have never heard of a founder(s) that has a unicorn (i.e Google, Facebook, VR, the. first iPhone, Siri.) who popped a brain vessel when it came to stumbling on their golden idea. It is usually found by building something that you would personally use or solving a problem. If it isn’t between that realm, then it’s usually by accident or a secondary by-product that turned main (like Lyft).
6. Think carefully, because this is the next 5 to 10 years. For start ups who raise capital from investors to small business owners who bootstrapped everything, everyone is stuck doing their “business” for a large part of their life. It will be no different for you or me. So whatever you choose to start, make sure you’re not only passionate, but you truly enjoy doing it. For example, if butter-sticks is your business & you absolutely find making them good for your soul, then by all means, make that commitment.
7. Your squad is everything. There is a combo running around in Start-ups called “the hacker, the hipster & the hustler”. In tech, that means someone who can code or build the product, a growth hacker who knows whats in, whats hot on social media & marketing really well and someone who will hustle to get the product or service in the clients or consumers hands and will forge a way for the business. This dream team should also consist of people who you trust and will pull their weight. This is important because going into business with people is like being married to them. When arguments happen (which will happen) your friendship will be the only thing that holds you guys and your business together. Also, usually, when seeking investment, this is the second thing investors look at in most cases of investment (and even acquisition) they look into investing in or buying the team that made the company happen.
8. The first thing is building something that people actually want. Whether it be a product or service. Initially, this ties back into number one. People make their business assumptions based on what’s cool. The thing is, “cool” isn’t always what people want. Most products that succeed have a certain purpose and scratch a primal need. Never listen to promise, only data. Also, never convince yourself an idea is good if it really isn’t. Have the notion that you are wrong most of the time. It’s hard but it will yield amazing results.
9. This work is by no means glamorous, especially at first. There will be a lot of “No’s”, failures and plenty of people who think you’re batshit crazy for risking it. You’re stressed all the time, broke, you wear a million different hats at once and failure is always right behind you through every mistake you might make. The quote: “being in a start-up is like jumping off of a cliff and trying to build an airplane on the way down” comes to mind as I write this. Don’t think it stops there either when you have a “good business”, you will always be plagued with issues.
“ The CEO of Google still has problems in his empire, people don’t see it because these are problems only the emperor can see”.
10. You will be broke & struggle for a long time, and that is okay. Trust me when I say that for start-up founders, this is totally normal (unless you come from money). The best companies & their founders have humble beginnings in garages or glory stories of going all-in and risking it all. Remember, in these stories, they highly emphasize the turn out. It’s important to remember what they won’t tell you: that those successful people were also broke and struggling at one point like every other person trying to start a company. As long as you’re broke & struggling for the right reasons, you have absolutely nothing to worry about.
11. If you start a business, know it. This seems like a no-brainer but you would be surprised. There are a ton of horror stories of founders who didn’t understand certain aspects of their business, sometimes worse; at a partner meeting. I firmly believe a good founder knows what’s going on in their company, Steve Jobs is an excellent example of this. Whether or not he was a real programmer, he knew his business and products inside-out. The details on how they were constructed, what tools they use and even what color the bathroom sign was. The man was detailed and meticulous. I’m not saying to micromanage, but be aware of what’s going down, even if you aren’t a master at it. I say this is valuable as a founder because you will be able to give useful feedback on a product to your engineers and it also proves to investors that you know what you’re talking about which makes them feel safer when trusting their money to you.
12. Do things that DO NOT scale. Doing things laboriously at first will do wonders for you later down the line. Zappos took photos of individual shoes, Facebook started as a Harvard-only social network, AirB&B hand wrote to every single renter they had and knocked on 200 doors to get their first users & Pinterest approached anyone in a coffee shop to try it out and went to Apple stores and downloaded their app in every device. The goal is to find a way to make something that is not supposed to scale fit into a model that does.
“The first 15 reviews of your app will lead to your next 150, make sure that the first 15 are really really good”
It dictates a thriving future in the company. Not only have you secured a unique market, it builds good WOM, establishes good customer relations and proves that people will pay to keep this business alive.
I apologize that this is so much, but there is plenty more I would love to share. If you had the gut to really stomach and digest all of that not-so-awesome news, then I urge you to consider business, it might just be your thing. This article is the product of that I learned empirically and through other people. These are also things I wish someone told me to consider when I started out.
As much salt as I’m giving, I have to say this is by for the most rewarding thing I have ever done, there is a certain pride knowing that you’re fighting against the current, it’s even better when you feel like you’re winning it especially after loosing for awhile (which is again, normal). I love doing this and wouldn’t trade it for anything else. In my other articles I stated my “Why” but in a nut shell, this is a chance to do something big! Like, Google big, possibly. So when someone asks what it’s like to start a start up, I tell them this:
“In Start-ups, there is hell to pay but a true entrepreneur would walk through hell 10 times over for even a chance of success even if they admit it or not”
If you remember that and hold that close to your heart, you should be fine! Again, I hope this helped and gave some clarity or provide a window into what it’s really like in the start-up scene! Good Luck!
Irwin is a 23-year-old entrepreneur & full-stack software developer. Manila-born & San Francisco-raised, Irwin sold his first company and is currently on his second venture Newdesto. On his spare time, Irwin likes giving back by helping others by providing them knowledge and guidance in start-ups & tech.