Working on a start-up is one of the most self-fulfilling experiences you’ll ever encounter. Nothing ever goes as planned, you’ll fail numerous times, and you may experience some of the hardest moments in your life, but you learn at such a rapid pace that you either keep up, or be left behind. Many of my prior projects have failed, and many others were successful, but I’ve learned so much from every single one of them. Entrepreneurship can never be taught, it must be experienced. The following are the 10 lessons learned from a venture capitalist.
1. Entrepreneurship is hard, many are called, but few are chosen
If entrepreneurship was easy, everyone would be doing it, and you wouldn’t have a 10% success rate. It’s easier said than done. You’ve learned about startups failing in class or from others, but it’s not until you’ve experienced it that you realize how difficult it really is. With FreeSkies, we ran into numerous obstacles over the course of the summer in legal, business, and tech. You must be willing to tackle every problem that comes your way. And don’t expect overnight success. You hear that term thrown around often, but every successful company took years and years of hard work and failures before they figured it out. Hang in there and you will be successful too.
2. Entrepreneurship requires more than just energy, it requires insight and timing
The Market always wins. Never let your own passions and beliefs deceive you. You may have the greatest idea and best business model, but if the timing or market isn’t right, you’re sure to fail. Before we ever wrote a single line of code for FreeSkies, we interviewed hundreds of potential clients to see if we were solving a problem they truly had. If you can’t find a market for it, it’s either not the time, or a market doesn’t exist. Iterate on the market, not the product.
3. Sell, Design, Build, in that order
NOT Build, Design, Sell. Before you ever start building, evaluate your market. If you can’t sell your product before you’ve ever built it, there is no market for it. Engineers tend to build before selling. You think you have the next big idea, put in months of work, release the product, only to realize you’re the only one with that problem. Sell before you build! Test your assumptions, then go build what customers will love and recommend. Your product is 80% vision and 20% reality. Spend more time on that vision, figure out the real problem you’re solving, and once you’ve sold your product, that’s when you begin to design and build.
4. Only desperate people buy from startups
Go find that desperate customers and win them over, make them your chief evangelists. Find your niche market, and pursue it voraciously. If your end user isn’t willing to use an 80% product, they’re not your desperate market segment. Your desperate users are those who are willing to use your product no matter how many bugs or issues it may have. It doesn’t need to be complete, it just needs to solve a desperate problem. A great example of this is Cisco. When they first came out with their telecom system, half of the products they shipped arrived dead on delivery. What happened? Their customers bought another one. Cisco was solving a desperate problem that hadn’t been solved, and people were paying an arm and a leg to solve it.
5. Value before Growth Hypothesis, but not together
The value hypothesis tests whether a product or service really delivers value to customers once they start using it. The growth hypothesis tests how new customers will discover a product or service. Before you think about your growth, ensure you’re delivering value. Don’t try to scale too quickly, have some patience and make sure you are deliver real value to your customers before anything else, growth will follow.
6. Double down on what’s working, and don’t worry about what isn’t
It’s inconsequential. It’s important to learn from your mistakes, but stop dwelling on the past. If a certain plan doesn’t work, learn from it, and move on. Find what’s working, whether it’s speaking with certain customers, marketing on a specific medium, or speaking with investors, find what works and double down. When we attempted to contact potential users through blogs and forums for FreeSkies, we generated more response on certain forums, and less on others. Instead of spending time on why we weren’t generating leads from certain forums, we doubled down on the ones that were. A few other teams during our fellowship catered to very few clients, solving only the problems that they had. By the end of the fellowship, they realized they weren’t their real customers, and had built a product with no market. Double down on what’s working, and leave the rest.
7. Leadership requires selflessness
A Leader does not delegate tasks and watch as others do the work. In a startup, a leader is able to put down their ego and place the company above themselves. It’s not about what you’ve accomplished, it’s about what your company has accomplished. Leadership requires sacrifice, it requires taking risks. Pick a direction and go with it. “We might be wrong, but we are not confused.”
8. Be Compelling, Be Passionate
“Follow your passions and you’ll succeed!” Many of you may have heard this advice, but it couldn’t be further from the truth. While it’s important to work on something you truly enjoy, you must also be flexible. A startup requires multiple hats, and if you’re not well equipped, be prepared to fail. You’re not just an engineer, designer, or businessman in a startup, you’re an entrepreneur. Be compelling and passionate in everything that you do, whether it’s coding, presenting, designing, or all of the above.
9. Treat People the Right Way
With Integrity, Honesty, and Kindness. It goes a long way when you’re building your networks. In the startup world, relationships and connections go a long way, treat them with respect. Maneuvering Silicon Valley isn’t about having the best product, it’s about who you know and that applies to everything, jobs, friends, leads, customers, what ever it is, it will be based on relationships. Never burn bridges.
10. Embrace that you are a stumbler
We all are. We all make mistakes. Recognize your mistakes, hold yourself accountable, and be honest. The biggest mistake you can make in a startup, is inaction. You may be wrong, but at least you’re not confused. At FreeSkies, we’ve made many mistakes over the course of the past few months. We recognized them and learned from them, but always held each other accountable. If you make a mistake admit it and learn from it. Heroism comes from empathy.
Bonus: People don’t remember what you say, they remember how they felt when you said it
Make yourself memorable. You’re not selling a product, you’re selling an experience. Focus on the problem you’re solving and don’t play up your product or technology. Focus on their emotions, and you’ll win the crowd.