5 Lessons Learned as a Start-up

05 Jul 2017

Ok, I admit, it’s been nearly 8 months, but more on that later.

Over the past 15 years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with hundreds of start-ups across the mobility and IoT ecosystems. In October 2016, I decided to create my own IoT consulting and advisory firm.

There are hundreds of articles that provide advice for entrepreneurs – be confident, passionate, patient, etc. I won’t bore you by repeating the obvious. The following are my “alternative” lessons from my experience to date.

Lesson #1: Build your “Circle of Sceptics”

Having a circle of family and friends that will support you and tell you how great you are doing is nice, but having a circle of sceptics is more important. Find a group of people who aren’t afraid to be critical of your product, solution or idea. Ask them to give you their honest opinion – and be prepared to handle the impact that might have on you.

I have a group of friends that I trust to give me critical feedback, emotions aside. I would much rather have them help me identify what I am doing wrong or what I could be doing better than to miss out on an opportunity because no one told me the (sometimes obvious) mistakes I was making. At times what they tell you will be hard to swallow, but never forget, their views might be the same views shared by your potential customers.

This is also important because it is likely that as an entrepreneur you won’t have the same level of social interaction you may have had in your last company. You will miss out on those water cooler chats where you informally “sanity checked” your ideas. As such, you run the risk of getting locked into your views, engaging in self-deception and missing the obvious. Feedback is vital to success in any endeavour.

Lesson #2: Create an “Avoid at All Cost” List

When I first started my company, someone told me about Warren Buffet’s “25-5 Rule”. List your top 25 objectives/to-dos and then circle the most important 5. This “Top 5” list should get all your focus, with the remaining 20 going onto a second list – which Buffet calls the “Avoid at All Cost” list. The rationale is that if you have too broad of a list of things to accomplish, you won’t focus on getting the most important things done. The “Avoid at All Cost” list is a distraction.

For me this was a difficult but necessary lesson to learn. I like to do what I want to do, however, just because I want to do something doesn’t mean I should. For example, I love presenting at industry events and have done so over 150 times over the past 5 years. But to be successful on my own, I know I must cut back on these events as they take up far too much time and distract from the activities I need to do.

Strictly following this rule can be difficult. Sometimes things come up that are very close to the Top 5 and you will be tempted to take them on. What I recommend is you talk to someone who will look at the situation objectively and give you their honest opinion. What I’ve found is that nearly every time this happens, it’s because I’m straying into my “avoid at all costs” list like a moth to a flame. And I just need someone to give me a nudge back to my Top 5 list. It’s easy to get distracted.

As a side note, the reason this “Lessons from my First Few Months” article is written in month 8 is that it took that long to get into my “Top 5” list.

Lesson #3: Plan for the Worst

Some people will think this is too negative, but I view it as a simple reality. Things may not go as you plan. Your product or idea might not take off, a disruptive technology or solution could make it irrelevant, or you could run into a “black swan” event. It is always good to know what you will do if everything falls apart.

For my own start-up, I not only know what the worst-case scenario is, but also have a plan for what I would do next – all the while hoping I never need to enact that plan. The side benefit of this is that you will go through some difficult times as an entrepreneur, and knowing that you have a fall-back plan can help ease the pressure and keep things in perspective. Continue building your skills and knowledge so that if you don’t succeed, you won’t be starting at ground zero.

Lesson #4: Know What Problem You Solve

When you start a company, you will have an idea, product or service that you think will be successful. You should also know your unique selling proposition (USP), or what sets your offering apart from the competition. Once you know your USP, ask yourself this question, “Is my view of my USP the same as my customer’s view of my USP?”

I thought my USP would be my IoT industry knowledge and experience, which, to an extent, it is. When I started meeting with customers in my first few months, I found out that they had a different view of my USP. They wanted to meet with me because I was viewed as someone who could provide an “independent” view of the IoT industry.

At first, this confused me. For the past four years while working as an analyst, I always thought I was viewed as technology and vendor agnostic, but that was not the case. I had to be on my own to be viewed as truly “independent”. My view of my USP was not my customer’s view.

At this point I realised I was making the same mistake that I always warn start-ups and customers about – I was selling myself as a “product” instead of as “solution” to my customer’s problems. I didn’t understand what my real differentiator was.

Whether you work for a start-up, large corporate or anyone else that sells something to a customer, you need to ask yourself, “What Problem do I Solve?” Remember that customers buy solutions, not widgets.

Lesson #5: Find Your Escape

Life as an entrepreneur takes its toll. Entrepreneurs often will say they work twice as many hours on their start-up as they did for their last company. The problem is, when are you are starting out, your mind can become overwhelmed with all the things you need to do.

You need to find an outlet that will give your mind a break from work. You will struggle mentally and physically if you don’t. For me, I have turned to exercise and meditation – and for those that know me – you’ll understand how hard the latter that is for me. This combination helps me deal with the physical and mental strain that entrepreneurship can bring.

Each person needs to find their own escape. It doesn’t need to be a physical activity. I know other entrepreneurs who have picked up cooking, reading fiction, etc. The important thing is to find an activity that gives your mind a break, you will need it.

Every entrepreneur and start-up is different. These lessons have helped me to grow my business, but they might not help you. Find the bits that are relevant to you, ignore the rest. And don’t obsess over them – you have enough things to worry about trying to build your business.