10 Lessons Learned From Being a Startup CEO

2015 marks the third year anniversary of Love With Food. It’s surreal to think that three years ago I was a team of one, and now we are a team of 15 people. I’ve spoken at many events in the last three years, even one titled “How to Turn an Idea into a Multimillion Dollar Business.” I’ve also been in the press, here, here and here. All good news, but it has been nothing short of a roller coaster ride.

Am I glad I ditched my engineering consulting career for a risky venture? Hell yeah, but it wasn’t a walk in the park. It’s been a hell of a ride that never ends! No business school will ever be able to teach what I’ve learned–the only way to learn is to walk the journey. One founder recently told me, “You’ve earned your badge of honor because you’ve suffered the pain.” So what did I learn through this walk of pain?

1) It’s damn hard and it doesn’t get easier

If someone tells you it’s going to get easier after you’ve raised the next round, it’s a big lie. It doesn’t get any easier. You’ll feel good the day after you closed the round, but the pressure to deliver exponential growth immediately kicks in. I’ve raised two rounds of funding, and it didn’t get any easier after each round. In fact, the more money I’ve raised, the greater the expectations and the greater the pressure. The challenges I had to deal with were much bigger and more complicated over time.

2) Hiring and Firing

My criteria for hiring now is culture fit, which is mainly comprised of being hungry and ambitious. This combination is the key ingredient for startup growth. It trumps any MBA, Ivy League education or “C” level experience. If grit is not part of your DNA, then a start-up is not the right environment for you.

Firing fast is also crucial. I dreaded the first fire, but once the person was gone, many problems also went away instantly. When someone underperforms or hurts the culture, it’s important to act fast otherwise the person could be toxic to the environment.

3) Importance of having a mission statement and core values

Love With Food’s mission statement is

To provide the BEST snacking experience by helping consumers snack smarter and do good at the same time, and by helping food brands understand consumers better with insights and direct connections via social media.” Our core values are:

  • Team Excellence and Happiness
  • Above and Beyond Customer Service
  • Create Win-Win partnerships with our Vendors
  • Ending Hunger
  • Always be bold, creative and fun
  • Always be curious. Never stop growing and learning
  • Be respectful and humble

It’s easy to lose sight of the end game as we grow. It’s good to have a mission statement that’s communicated frequently to align everyone and to ensure we are all moving toward the same end goal. Setting our core values sets the expectations on our behavior and actions. It sets the guiding principle on how we treat one another and how we work.

Having a mission statement and a set of core values are important because they help the team understand right from wrong, especially in times of conflicts. It helps to resolve disagreement because the solution must always be aligned with our mission.

4) Never outsource online marketing. My biggest mistake

Since the beginning of LWF, I’ve been in charge of online marketing. I’m a software engineer learning the ropes of the online marketing world. I started playing with Facebook ads back in 2011 and got very proficient in running Facebook ads. In early 2014, I decided to outsource our acquisition to an online agency, expecting the agency would do a better job than me. After all, it’s their bread and butter. Well, I was so wrong. They couldn’t acquire new customers as efficiently as I could. Lesson learned — no one will ever understand our customers better than me or anyone on the LWF team because we live and breathe the brand everyday.

5) Follow your gut

I’m a very analytical person. I love looking at data and making decisions. However, for an early stage start-up, most of the time, we don’t have sufficient data to analyze. So I often follow my gut. It’s hard to go wrong when you make decisions based on your first instinct because your first instinct is almost always right!

6) Know your personal system

As a founder, it’s very easy to work non-stop. I work about 14–16 hours a day everyday, including weekends. I stopped exercising because my theory was exercise less, so I could work more. I was completely wrong. The six months that I stopped exercising was my worst. I wasn’t a good leader. I was always cranky, exhausted and I was experiencing a higher level of anxiety and stress 24/7.

Exercising isthe only time I have for myself. It’s the only time I’m doing something for my well-being. Exercising keeps me centered and my thoughts more clear.

7) Listen to your body

I’ll wake up in the middle of the night panicking or in cold sweat. There are so many things on my mind, which issue should I start tackling first? Often, I would wake up thinking of one particular problem and this one problem disrupts my sleep night after night. My body was showing me a sign. Out of the 1,001 issues, whatever was continuing to awaken me, it was the biggest problem I had to take care of immediately.

8) The more I accomplish, the bigger my fear

As the company grows, the sense of responsibility just gets stronger. The fear of failing my team and my investors accelerates. I can be quick and reckless when I was a one-woman show but now, whatever decision I make, it affects 15 people on my team and many more investors.

9) Rejection is part of the game

In the last three years, I probably heard 50 times more No’s than Yes’s. By now, I’m immune to rejection. People may reject me and my ideas for many reasons, but I never wasted time finding out why. I would rather spend my time and energy on the next hustle.

10) The ultimate price is loneliness. Have someone to talk to

The entrepreneurial journey is a very lonely one. One of our very early investors made a pact with me. He would only invest if I promised to have lunch with him once a month and share with him all the good, bad and ugly. I thought it was silly since I didn’t need a shrink, but I made the promise anyway.

I’m so glad I did. I fully understand now his intentions. He’s a serial entrepreneur and he knows how lonely the journey is. I look forward to our monthly lunches and I honestly will tell him all the challenges, stress, big plans, good news, every little detail of my roller coaster ride. Not only is it it’s good to pour it all out, it’s even better to have someone who has been there, done that, to tell me what I’m going through is normal. You wouldn’t believe how comforting it is to hear that, to know that I’m doing my job right and how I’m feeling is normal.

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