10 ways to help your start-up succeed

Here's how to avoid some of the most common pitfalls entrepreneurs encounter.

by Katarina Skoberne
Last Updated: 01 Oct 2015

1. Work your passion

Do what you know, understand and love. Great businesses are born of passion and are started because the founder could not but make them happen. Great businesses do not start because someone decided she would ‘be an entrepreneur’ and looked for an idea to start a business, they start from insight and drive.

2. Know your market

Start with what someone needs and wants and do it well. As per Peter Thiel’s recently published book Zero to One, start with a small target audience that’s not being served and has an appetite for your product or service. Do not apply the ‘I will take a small percentage of an enormous market’ formula – that market is probably well served and it will be extremely expensive to gain any market share, however small.

3. Have a plan and process in place

As short-term and agile as a plan may be and as often as you may change it, you will only get something done in an already chaotic environment with a plan and process in place. Follow Abraham Lincoln: if you have seven hours to cut down the tree spend the proverbial six sharpening your axe. Think, plan, model before you do – I see way too much work being put in to fix mistakes. Try to avoid a permanent sense of urgency: stick to the plan and do not reprioritise every day when unexpected things come up, or you’ll end up doing nothing, poorly.

4. Delegate well

It’s said that as a start-up founder you work so much that you can only have a maximum two out of the three Fs – Family, Fitness, Friends. Sure, you have to put in the hours, but the 24/7 approach is not constructive, nor is it motivating. And it is often due to a lack of mastery of certain tasks that the founder insists on undertaking. However brilliant you are, you aren’t brilliant at everything: delegate. Do. Not. Micromanage.

5. Don’t mistake arrogance for confidence

Until you prove you are Steve Jobs, treat your employees, your fellow entrepreneurs, your customers – everyone – nicely and with respect. Confidence is not a behaviour, it’s an inner belief. If you have it, you’ll find it easier to deal with the day to day stress and uncertainty of a start-up, if you don’t have it, don’t think arrogant conduct will make up for it.

6. But don’t mistake confidence for competence either

Start-ups often have a high churn – sometimes because of cultural fit, often because they hire team members that are brimming with confidence and enthusiasm that don’t make up for actual skill. It’s natural to mistake confidence for competence, so consider doing what comes less naturally and hire at second and third glance, and by all means after a probation period. The enthusiasm of college graduates goes a long way, but do balance that with experienced team members. They will also serve as a reality check.

7. Hire for cultural and business fit

Organisations will often claim they do that, but in a start-up it’s paramount. A start-up is an organisation in permanent transition that requires self-starting, accountable people used to working outside their comfort zone and often outside their job description – preferably ones that have already worked in this kind of an environment. And hire people who understand business – i.e. the need to build revenue and generate a profit. This sounds like a no brainer, and it always surprises me to see companies planning for expenditure, like they were given a budget to spend and not an investment.

8. Don’t be, do

Hire people who want to ‘do’, not people who want to ‘be’. That is, hire people who get satisfaction from achievement rather than status, or money. There’s a lot to do in start-ups, but you won’t be rich and famous for quite a few years, if ever. And lose the ridiculous titles: Tim Berners-Lee, who invented the World Wide Web, calls himself a Web Developer. That’s all.

9. Hang onto your integrity

Difficult situations will bring out your core – and if you demonstrate integrity, you will motivate, inspire and garner loyalty in ways that team building and away days never could. Don’t worry, you’ll have ample opportunity to show what you’re made of.

10. Get enough sleep

This is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, from former MI5 Director General Eliza Manningham-Buller, who also said it was one of the best pieces of advice she’d ever received. Your productivity, your decision making, your motivational skills all suffer when you’re tired. Work on getting sleep instead.

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