24 #Startup Tips From My First 24 Months

Two years ago, I logged on to the tax office website of the Commonwealth of Virginia and took the five minutes required to register a business. Impassion LLC was my second start-up and, as such, I thought I had some idea of what I was getting myself into.

Of course, I was completely wrong, and in the two years since Day 0, my life has been a crash course in how to (but more how not to!) run a business, especially in Afghanistan.

And now, two years later, two years older, and (I’d like to think), two years wiser, here’s what I’ve learned about the world of self-employment and entrepreneurship:

1) Everything they say about start-ups not taking off until at least year 1 and most likely year 2? 100% true, so make sure that you’re in it for at least two years — or be prepared for a lot of entrepreneurial existentialism and angst along the way.

2) Everything feels more intense when you’re in charge. The stakes are higher when you have to actively decide on not only every aspect ofyour business, life, and career, but also that of your team. When you’re seeing the benefits of your decision-making, you’ll feel euphoric. When you’re seeing the negative repercussions, you’ll feel the lowest lows you’ve ever experienced. The only way that I’ve found to deal with this is to embrace this truth full-heartedly — just think, there’s something powerful about being so in charge of your own life.

3) Imposter Syndrome never truly goes away. It may get better with time, but in those moments of low, it’ll be back. Once you accept that you will always have doubts about your success, you can use that fear to motivate you.

4) Build a life outside of work, and a support network unconnected to your start-up. It’s a matter of time before things go badly and you will (temporarily, hopefully) want to strangle your co-workers / boss / team. It’s OK. And it’s way more OK when you don’t lose your entire social circle, temporarily or otherwise, over it.

5) There is no normal, so as they say, “don’t compare your outtakes with someone else’s highlight reel” Though it might seem like there is one path to start-up success, it’s not true, so don’t compare yourself and your progress to that of your entrepreneurial frenemies (as my friend@TedGonder recently put it) that are getting accepted into accelerator programs, getting their first (or second!) round of seed-funding, Instagramming the networking events at the local co-working space of the week. Community is great, but don’t get caught up in the hype.

6) At some point, you’re going to want to jump ship. Another opportunity will come along, and you’ll be tempted to take it. That’s OK. Whatever you decide, though, be intentional. Remember the original reasons that you had for founding your company. Weigh the pro’s and con’s. And if you decide to leave, do it and don’t look back.

7) Once you make a decision and commit 100%, good things will happen. Paulo Coelho put it especially beautifully in The Alchemist, when he wrote of the whole universe conspiring to help you. This concept shouldn’t be a surprise to most founders — we call it “create your own luck”. Committing 100% just happens to be one of the best ways to creating that luck.

8) The irony of being an entrepreneur is that you will get more job offers than if you were applying for jobs. People like people that are doing stuff, and not just talking about doing stuff, apparently. Don’t get offended by their assumptions that you actually are just waiting for a real job to come along, but don’t beat yourself up for getting tempted either. And as a side note: if you’re searching for a job, consider trying to start something yourself. People will notice.

9) Really, really, really scrutinize tax laws, regulatory frameworks, and government policies and debates about policies. Entrepreneurs are celebrated as independent and individualistic, but no one starts a — successful — company in a vacuum. So even though entrepreneurship is inevitably going to be full of uncertainty, some things are actually quite certain if you just do the research. [On the other hand, had I done all the research, I might not have wanted to start a company in Afghanistan, which was also the best decision of my life.]

10) Just because people are cool/talented/dedicated does not mean you should go into business with them. Think carefully about the contributions that each of your potential founders can bring to the table because, let’s face it, having three incredibly hard-working teammates that all lack core skill sets or entrepreneurial mindsets won’t get the company very far.

11) Learn to trust your gut instincts, and don’t take advice just because the advisor seems older and more experienced. Take advice that is freely given a chance, but remember that critical thinking is alwaysyour friend.

12) Burn-out is NOT a badge of honor. Listen to your body. Busy for the sake of busy is bad. Not sleeping is very bad. Not taking the time to exercise or eat right s very, very bad.

13) Saving up for a house and running an early stage company are probably not that compatible. We’ll just file this under the things-that-are-obvious-to-everyone-else category.

14) That said, do take care of yourself financially. You are your greatest investment, so pay yourself a reasonable salary, or at least have a clear plan and timeline of how to get yourself to your desired salary.

15) GIVE. YOURSELF. BREAKS. (And don’t feel guilty about taking them.) Also, figure out how you best recharge. For you, Miss Guo, that means that you need one day a week (or at least a few hours of that day) of lazing around in PJs, doing nothing, ignoring work email, and watching bad TV.

16) Systems and processes are a lot harder to set up once things are already up and running. This is especially true when “things up and running” means everything was done wrong the first time around, and is held together by duct tape and paperclips. Invest in the time to do things right the first time.

17) Stay on top of your finances. Go over receipts on a daily or at a minimum weekly basis. Look at your cash flow statements. Learn the basics of everything your finance team is doing.

18) Keep meticulous records. Also important: having a good filing system so you can later find said records.

19) It rarely looks as chaotic from the outside as it feels on the inside.And as a corollary, start-ups are supposed to be messy and never have enough time to get things perfect.

20) Don’t underestimate how much your attitude, as the boss, affects team morale. Taking the time and putting in the extra effort to smile, even when you really just want to crawl into bed, goes a long way.

21) But also don’t try to be your employees’ best friend. Or their therapist. Especially not their therapist. Having a positive company culture is good, and building a team and a community is great, but never forget the bigger picture, which is not to befriend your employees, but to build a great organization. And sometimes, that means you’re going to be called a cold, hard bitch.

21) No one is indispensable. The sooner you realize this, and the sooner you realize that a bad employee is WORSE than no employee, the freer you will be to make difficult but needed HR decisions.

22) Surround yourself with strong advocates. Not yes-men, but people that believe in you and that will fight for you, even if sometimes, that means they’re leading the charge against yourself.

23) Figure out what you’re good at doing, what you love doing, and what only you, as the boss, can do. These are often NOT one and the same and, as the one in charge, make sure you never neglect #3.

24) Your start-up is NOT your baby. So take a step back and breathe. Because really, when the worst thing that can happen is starting over again and you realize that you are now a master of starting over again, well what’s the worst that can happen?

Here’s hoping that whatever the next two years bring, learning comes with it.

Thank you to all my friends, friendtors, and advocates for being with me and supporting me along the way.

For more, check out previous lessons learned:

1) Start-Ups: 5 Truths and a Question 2) Don’t Start a Business in a Vacuum 3) A good compilation of good questions 4) To Learn Lists 5) It Never Hurts to Ask 6) Be Open, Be Bold, Be Hungry

-E. 3.18.2014.

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