What I’ve learned from being in a start-up for a year

5 lessons from a first-time entrepreneur

By Volen Vulkov, co-founder and Harmonizer-in-chief at Enhancv.

I remember the beginning of 2014 — it started with the usual wishes people make on New Year’s Eve. At that time, I wanted to have a higher income, more breath-taking moments with my friends, and many opportunities to travel, see and learn new things…
…now at the start of 2015 I am really amazed of how things have turned up. During the last days of the year I was writing a personal review of my past 12 months and I simply couldn’t stop writing — primarily because for a first time I have actually done many of the things I wanted to. And running a start-up was one of them.

Start-up life is not an easy one, though. Most people — including most of my friends, too — think that a funded start-up means less work and more money. But, to be honest, I have never worked as much as I did in the past year; and I am sure I could have earned way more if I had continued to work as a developer. But still, if someone asks me now to pick between a peaceful and “secure” life or a first-time entrepreneurial experience, I would definitely go for the second option every single time. This is because I have learned, felt, and experienced things that you can’t encounter anywhere else and, things that you simply have to experience!

So which are the most important lessons that left a mark in the last twelve months?

1. Have a working organization inside the team (roles, processes, planning, and meetings) — makes the team feel much more determined and successful.

The planning board at Enhancv HQ

I have seen many founders dividing their businesses into product and marketing part, or product development and business development, traction and services — you name it, they have it. There are many other small roles — accounting and legal e.g. — yet at first, I also thought that is what you mainly do in a start-up — build and sell. Things are different in reality, though. You need a backbone for your future empire.

Setting vision, mission, roles, and expectations from the very beginning and keeping the working processes alive and everyone engaged is a tough job, but it pays off well in the end. Better than a thousand customers I would say. My advice is: allow time for managing your company, or you have to stop work every time something or someone is not working right.

2. Understand which actions really matter and focus on those.

If you had met me on the street a couple of months ago and asked me “Hey Volen, how is Enhancv going?” my answer would be — “Next question, please”. In none of those moments were we doing bad, but there were simply so many tasks on the table that I didn’t want to talk about. I truly believe this is the case with every start-up.

It may sound stupid but for almost a year it was impossible for me to say “we don’t have to do this, it is not important right now” — I thought that we had to do everything, literally everything. And the result was that almost every task that I undertook (and believe me I undertook a lot) was done, but not as good as we all wanted. It took me a long time to understand that it is actually better to finish three things that really matter, than fifteen at 80%.

Now if the same person bumped into me on the street again with the same question I can clearly tell him whether we are having success with something and what we have learned from the things that failed. That makes us faster, happier and gives us the opportunity to further delegate and prioritize.

3. Bring users to your product. It is as important as building it regardless of the stage.

Have you wondered why there are plenty of people that smoke? Although there are so many videos and books about what smoking can cause, when you go out you will definitely see someone with a cigarette in hand. They know it is unhealthy, but they will not stop until the problems come.
Funny or not, it is almost the same situation when it comes to start-ups. I own maybe twenty books about start-ups. In every single one of them I am sure it is written somewhere that bringing users to your product at every stage of the start-up life is vital. Although I have read most of them I was somehow too focused on the product and believed that if we build something awesome users will somehow come alone. And when we were ready with the piece of the product that had to be launched, I was wondering why there were no customers on board.

Now as a newly born entrepreneur and ex-developer I will recommend you with both hands — first talk over, put in writing, test your future product, and then build it. But do not forget to work on user acquisition along the way — it doesn’t matter whether you have a product, website or even a facebook page.
Soon you will understand that everything is so much easier when you have 10 000 users — it has a positive effect on fundraising, featuring in medias, user acquisition, and most importantly — keeping the team more engaged.

4. Expecting more from your team and less from yourself is totally wrong and it is a bad way of leadership.

Ok, let’s make that clear — before making Enhancv come to life, I have done many different things — coding, selling, contributing to different world-changing causes and so on. I can say that I was good in most of them, but I have never felt good enough to be the leader of any of the things that I was doing. I had my first leadership lessons — or as I sometimes call it “my university master degree” — at Enhancv.
I have never been the best student and my “masters” also thought that I didn’t make such a good start. For example — we have a great office (“The Roof”, you can google it, or as a Microsoftee I have to say — bing it), but working everyday on the same desk was a little bit too “banal” for me. Sometimes, I preferred to work till late and spend the next morning in my quiet room where I can be more productive. At the same time, I expected my team to be on time, early in the morning, at the office. I’ve started somehow to be angry at others for being late, but actually most of the time it was me who was late.
I am not saying that you should not expect people in your team to work hard, but you should inspire them, too — and you can’t do it if you are not the example they want to follow.

5. Celebrate wins, have fun, and find time to relax.

It may sound ridiculous, but this was the hardest lesson for me to learn. Look, I am the kind of guy that always goes out, always likes to be with someone, and always finds a way to enjoy the moment. I don’t think I have changed much but being in a start-up maybe somehow changed the way I think.

I remember frequently saying to my friends — “Hey can we meet next week, I’m a bit busy right now”. Sadly this was almost every week. I thought that we could be something more — we could have a better product, more customers, be a better team and so on. I was so obsessed with our vision that sometimes I’d forget to celebrate what we had achieved. And believe me — as first-time entrepreneurs in a start-up together we had achieved a lot. Nevertheless, it wasn’t enough for me.

I am not saying that you shouldn’t strive for more, actually you should always do it, but building a successful company takes a lot of time. Having fun and being thankful and happy for the positive things that happen to you is a part of the journey, too. Go out, meet an old friend or just have a beer with your team celebrating your new customer. This will give you the power to execute more.

And don’t forget to take regular breaks. Working seven days a week will bring you nothing. I think that this is one of the most common mistakes that first-time entrepreneurs tend to make. Don’t get me wrong — rule number one to succeed is: work hard. Yet, in this fast moving world of ours where everyone strives to be as fast as possible, sometimes you have to slow down. There are so many ads for fast food, speed dating, and even for fast sex, that we are thinking being fast is always a good thing. But sometimes less means more. Finding time to truly relax on a daily basis will recharge your batteries, fill your mind with new ideas and give you time to appreciate what you have. Don’t forget it.

Believe me or not, the review that I talked about costed me 3 days. I simply couldn’t stop writing down the things I have learned, the things I have to start, stop or continue doing. But if I have to prioritize them, as I have said before, I will give you those five advises. If you haven’t been in a start-up, do it. It may sound like a cliché, but it will change your life. It will change the way you think and the way you see the world. There are lessons that cannot be learned anywhere else and if you think you are not prepared take me as an example. I was a junior developer with a year and a half of experience, college senior, who had just returned from an exhausting study-abroad program. Was I ready? No. But I would do it again. Writing so much made me feel proud. I think you should do it too — and you will definitely feel the same way.