The best advice I can give anyone wanting to run a startup is: Do something else first.
Specifically, spend as long as you can stand it working for other people.
I understand that you have an itch, a belief that you have a great idea that can make for a successful business. But when you’re a founder, there is so much you have to know.
You have to run all the functions, you have payroll to think about, all while trying to build your business. It’s brutal.
When you work for someone else, even another startup, you learn so much that you can later put to good use.
For example, a lot of founders don’t know anything about finance and accounting. That makes things tough because you need to know how money moves.
I’ve walked into companies doing over a million dollars in sales that don’t know how to do double-entry book-keeping and lots of other basic things.
Being a founder is lonely, and you will fail. I know, I failed a lot of times. But it’s cooler to fail with other people’s money than yours. Keep learning from people who have been there before you!
You have to be able to sell
When you run a business, sales is everything, and you must be able to sell. You need to understand the difference between sales and marketing, and you need to be able to do both.
But you also need to know how to run operations and finance. What process do people go through when they buy something from you?
Success can hurt you if you don’t have the appropriate infrastructure. Put it this way, if I brought you six new clients tomorrow, would you be able to cope?
On a related subject, you need to learn quickly how to price and package what you sell. I like to say that your maturity as a founder can be measured by how many zeros you can ask for without feeling sick. You should quickly get to a point where you can ask for five without even feeling it.
Too many people struggle to sell without undervaluing themselves. You have to believe you bring value to your customers.
If the things you are saying about yourself are true, and you genuinely can deliver your product or service, it should be valued highly – by you and by your customers.
Sometimes it’s easier for a third party like us at Add1Zero to see that. There are times when our clients will be convinced something they do is valuable, and we’ll have to tell them we can’t sell it.
At the same time, there may be an aspect of their business that they take for granted, and we can see that in fact it has value; let’s sell that instead.
So you don’t want to be “salesy?”
I don’t even know what this means. I understand that people don’t want to be seen as pushy or aggressive, but surely if you believe what you have is valuable, you should be telling people about it?
Why would you be in business if you don’t believe what you sell is valuable? If you do think it’s valuable, why would you deprive the world of it by not being “salesy?”
It’s not pushy to tell everybody about what you do and to show them how it brings value. Telling is selling.
Develop a clear picture of who you want to sell to
Add1Zero is my 13th company in more than 20 years of work experience, many of which were startups.
I do understand how it feels to be so desperate for clients that you take anyone who has money, even though it means splintering your service and doing different things.
I can’t fault anybody for chasing revenue. But I’ve now reached the stage where I have the confidence and discipline to admit when a potential client is not a fit – even to send them to another consultant who can really move the needle for them.
How – and why – I moved into startups
When I graduated from college, we were going into the first tech boom, around the turn of the millennium. It wasn’t like now, when everyone wants to be an entrepreneur – and the technical infrastructure simply wasn’t there.
In those days, you got a business degree and went to work for a big company. It wasn’t totally satisfying, but I’m glad I did it to build my corporate skills.
I was in New York City on 9/11, close to the World Trade Center, and it was harrowing. I did start to think, do I want to die under a desk working for someone else doing something I hate? And the answer was no – I knew I wanted to work for myself.
I remember trying to run our business on the first iteration of Google Apps, and it was awful. There was no Slack or anything like that – we ran on Yammer. We all had Blackberries. We laugh at it now, but the first time you fired up a map on your Blackberry it was amazing. Please appreciate the technology that makes this all work for startups because it’s incredible and we’re blessed.
There are always lessons to be learned
The first company I started did ok. We got to a mid-six-figure run rate. Then, in 2009 we were hit by the recession, lost all our clients, and went out of business.
But the experience was worthwhile because I learned from it, and I was gravitating toward B2B tech services and product businesses.
I learned other things too. I dabbled in dropshipping in around 2012, but it was hard to make a margin when there were people out there with their own inventory. It was clear people like Amazon were going to rule that world.
I came to not like the treadmill of project work, having always to keep an eye on the next one. Recurring revenue and subscription models started to make sense for me.
I also learned a lot about marketing. As an entrepreneur, you really need to know what you’re talking about and have an idea about branding, messaging, and copywriting.
But possibly the biggest lesson I learned was to focus on the big picture. None of the little things are really going to kill you.
It took me too long to realize I should work out daily, eat right, keep a journal, and generally do the right things even when it’s hard. What I thought was a big deal 10 years ago really isn’t. Anyway, even awful things can be useful learning experiences.
How Add1Zero can help your business
We founded Add1Zero to help B2B services and tech companies make more revenue.
If their sales are in the mid six figures, we’re all about scale, and we help companies move to the mid seven figures – literally, add a zero to their numbers.
We come in at a moment when founders are feeling the stress of running sales and all the other functions.
Most people want to be CEO, not the chief sales officer – we can come in and build the revenue machine.