Mark Asthoff — Unsplash

What I learned as a first-time entrepreneur in 2016

Étienne Mérineau
Jan 8, 2017 · 11 min read

2016 has been a rollercoaster year for pretty much everyone I know. On a global level too — from the ever-increasing number of terrorist attacks to the rocky U.S. presidential election — 2016 is a year that will go down in history. Perhaps for all the wrong reasons.

Entrepreneurship: our only hope

As we embark on this new year, it would be easy to take a gloomy view of the world. Geopolitical and economic instability is rising globally. And the prospect of Trump’s first year as Commander-In-Chief does nothing to reassure the world.

That said, I believe there’s one untouched, ever blazing beacon of hope in the world: entrepreneurship.

Everywhere in the world, we’re witnessing the rise of a new generation of entrepreneurs —from Nigeria to India to Scandinavia — far beyond the glorious frontiers of Silicon Valley. I’m convinced the next generation of entrepreneurs will drastically change the face of the world for the better (it’s the reason why I’m so proud to be a MIT Launch mentor in 2017).

17 tips to help you on your journey

On January 4th, 2016, I resigned from my high-paying advertising job to take the big leap of faith. A year later, after a year of ups and downs and unexpected twists and turns, I’m ready to share with first-time entrepreneurs 17 hard-learned lessons. No amount of reading can fully prepare you for the journey ahead as everyone’s path is unique (that’s what makes the entrepreneurial journey so exciting). Yet, I hope this little list can ease the bumpy yet fulfilling ride awaiting you.

1. The world doesn’t owe you anything

Let’s start with the cold hard truth: no one cares about you. When you work for a big company, the company’s brand and reputation does the heavy lifting for you. You get free tickets to events, reps wine and dine you, the world seems to revolve around you…When you launch your startup, the party is over. You’re on your own. All of the sudden, no one truly cares about you (except fellow entrepreneurs who have walked in your shoes before you).

From that point on, you have to earn people’s attention. How? By outworking and out-networking your competition. By caring a little bit more than others. Passion is contagious. It’s your most precious asset especially in the beginning. Your energy will make people believe in you and your project when there’s still not much to believe in.

2. No team, no steam

No matter how talented you are, you can’t do it all alone. I consider myself a great generalist (a.k.a T-shaped) but I realized early on that it would be impossible for me to achieve my goals alone.

There’s a reason why investors would rather invest in teams vs individuals. Great teams create great products. And great products create great companies.

Entrepreneurship is a hard game. Mentally and physically. You’ll have more steam to cross the desert with a solid team by your side. And your co-founders can balance out your weaknesses, and vice-versa.

Side note: ALWAYS BE RECRUITING. It’s tough to retain talent in the early days. You can’t wait for needs to arise to actually start recruiting. The train is moving too fast and you could end up with second-best candidates (which could do more harm to your business than being short-staffed).

3. There’s no magic bullet

Shortcuts only exist on keyboards, sorry. No matter how fast and hard you work, things take time (sales, partnerships, recruitment, etc.). That’s why it’s critical that you pick an idea and industry that you’re truly passionate about. If you’re not in it for the long haul, you’ll fail to have patience and resilience to go through the growing pains that filter the would-be entrepreneurs from the real ones.

4. Make magic happen

There’s no magic bullet but sometimes magic does happen. When everything goes to shit and you see no light at the end of the tunnel, resist the temptation to take a day off and lie in your bed in the foetal position. Keep moving. Proactivity creates magic. When you keep the energy flowing (keep pitching, keep ideating, keep reaching out to potential customers…), great things end up happening and falling on your lap as if by magic. These moments are golden. Savour them. They’re little taps in the back that the universe is giving you.

Side note: Analysis paralysis is a cancer. Avoid it at all costs. Try things and learn fast. It’ll always be more useful than a slick Powerpoint filled with assumptions.

Jessica Walsh — 40 days of dating

5. Screw perfection

If you’re a perfectionist, prepare for a shock therapy (I was one!). When you’re in Corporate America, you have the time and resources to make things perfect (or near perfect). When you’re an entrepreneur, you no longer have that luxury.

Speed beats perfection every day.

So here’s one useful tip for you: good enough is good enough to ship. If you don’t build you don’t learn. The beauty is that you’ll quickly realize how imperfect your assumptions were to begin with ;)

6. Plan to change the plan

Having no plan is stupid. What’s worst: having a plan and sticking with it when it’s clearly misguided. As an entrepreneur, you’ll have to learn to be agile and open-minded. Stick to your guns when your gut tells you to. But don’t be too rigid either: if you’re blocking incoming insights, you’ll follow the wrong roadmap and it may be fatal.

Stronger — Kanye West ft Daft Punk

7. Harder, better, faster, stronger together

Partner up. It’s tempting to want to build everything alone to capture all the value. But with limited resources, it’s often unrealistic and inefficient. Partnering up with other startups in your space that are building a complementary piece of tech can be a sound strategy that will add a lot of value to your offering almost instantly. It is a cheap and effective move to accelerate your product roadmap and help you hit the market faster (and learn in the process!).

8. Showing up is half the work

Get on the plane or in your car and show up in person when it matters. We live in a formidable world where virtual tools like Skype and Slack enable us to work with anyone anywhere in the world. Yet, when things are on the line, there’s nothing like a good old face-to-face meeting. That’s how you can truly bond and make things happen. So jump on that plane when it counts, you’ll never regret it.

PS. On two occasions, I made a 24-hour trip to New York this year. Guess what: I closed critical deals each time.

Side note: Never turn down invitations to connect with new people. Serendipity is real and it can work wonders for your business (LinkedIn can be a powerful tool for that).

9. Your gut is all you got

The entrepreneurship journey is filled with timely decisions, big or small, that can have a huge impact on your business going forward. When it’s decision time, it’s easy to get overwhelmed by all the noise.

Learn to trust your gut feeling: it’s your best ally and most valuable asset.

To facilitate decision-making, it can also prove handy to have a clear set of values and guiding principles that you and your team can rely on, especially in clutch moments. It’ll help you stay aligned when the road gets bumpy and decisions get tougher.

PS. As an example, here’s an outline of our guiding principles that we drafted when we incorporated Heyday.

In reference to Facebook’s original branding: “The Facebook” (The Social Network)

10. Branding is vital

See your startup as a brand from Day 1. Having no money is not a reason to make branding an afterthought. Designing consciously every interaction your startup has with external stakeholders can go a long way. A special attention to your name, URL, website design, content creation, tone and manner, job postings, email signature, and all these other key details will make a world of difference when pitching to prospective clients or recruiting new team members.

The same applies to your personal branding as a founder. Make sure your online presence is top notch. After all, a Google search has a lot of weight in the first impression you make in the digital world.

PS. Here’s a classic post by Paul Graham on the importance of naming in the startup world.

11. “Cash flow is oxygen”

I stole this line from Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship at MIT and senior lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management, from whom I had the privilege to learn at the Inaugural MIT Entrepreneurship Bootcamp.

Two years later, this line I had scribbled in my notebook revealed its truth. You can really burn money fast. As a bootstrapping entrepreneur, this is especially true as you simply can’t afford to make that mistake. Make sure you are super frugal in your spending. Avoid office overhead, overpriced conferences, and the other startup stuff that can quickly add up. Keep things as lean as you can for as long as possible. This piece of advice may help you survive long enough to find product-market fit and build a great company that would have died otherwise.

12. There’s no glam, just sweat

Launching a startup certainly sounds cool. When you see twentysomethings like Evan Spiegel make the cover of Forbes magazine, you can’t help but dream of the same trajectory for yourself.

I got news for you: entrepreneurship is not as glamorous as it looks.

At the end of the day, “CEO of nothing” is a glorified title for “unemployed”. To all aspiring entrepreneurs I say this: if you think you’ll raise a ton of cash and have an army of people doing the hard work for you while you speak at conferences and live a lavish lifestyle, you’ve been daydreaming too much. If you’re not ready to roll up your sleeves and bleed in the trenches during the first year, you’re already dead in the water.

13. Servicing can be a blessing

We all dream of building a kick-ass SaaS platform that attracts millions of users and makes money while we sleep. But to get there, you usually need money. Lots of money.

Depending on which vertical you’re tackling: servicing can be a good first step that will help you get started, keep the lights on, and generate revenue while learning from your first customers. You can then bootstrap your way to product-market fit where you’ll be in a much more advantageous position to raise capital (you already have customers!) and build a winning SaaS based on your learnings.

14. The best marketing is free

A lot of people believe you need tons of money to advertise your product or service. This couldn’t be further than the truth. Big brands squander millions in media every year and still struggle to gain customers attention.

In a world where cutting through the clutter is harder than ever, the key to get people’s hard-earned and fragmented attention is to create value.

In fact, the best marketing is the one that doesn’t feel like marketing. For early-stage startups, this means taking the time to think creatively about how you can showcase the value of your solution in a radically useful or radically entertaining way.

It may mean creating a highly-curated newsletter that establishes thought leadership or architecting a newsworthy stunt like running a marathon to showcase your sweat-free business shirt product. For me, it meant crafting insightful content on Medium until I got a spot as guest writer for VentureBeat or flexing our creative muscle to hijack the third presidential debate during last year’s general election.

Bottom-line: Focus on creating value and you’ll stop chasing leads. You’ll see customers, VCs, journalists, and talented new hires start coming to you.

15. Leave your ego at the door

Entrepreneurship is a very humbling journey. It’s filled with small wins and small blows, and a truckload of uncertainty. Confidence and self-esteem are key to weather the storms and show resilience. But if you let your ego get in the way, you won’t be ready to take the necessary steps to succeed. That may need doing trivial work, sending cold emails, asking advice to more experienced entrepreneurs or listening to your customers to challenge your assumptions. On Day 1, you won’t be dealing from a position of strength so learn to accept it.

Embracing your vulnerability will make you stronger. You can’t be an expert at everything and part of wanting to be an entrepreneur is having an eagerness to learn a new thing everyday. Don’t be afraid to meet people more experienced or smarter than you are. Don’t be afraid to test a product when it’s half-baked and you’re slightly ashamed of it. You’ll learn from your mistakes and you’ll grow exponentially, both professionally and personally. That’s what makes the journey all worth it.

Side note: We’re all winging it. Even Richard Branson or Steve Jobs had no idea what they were doing when they started out in business.

16. Time is the limit

No matter how driven and energetic you are, you’re still a human being who needs to eat, sleep, and shit. There’s only 24 hours in a day so you must spent your time wisely. Working hard is worthless if you’re not working smart. As such, reassess your priorities at the beginning of every new day or week to realign on your OKRs and long term goals.

As a general rule of thumb, here’s how I spend my time:

  1. Product
  2. Business Development & Marketing
  3. Recruiting

Side note: Although tempting, getting overly engaged in the startup scene can have its drawbacks. Attending tons of events and spending too much time in the echo chamber can quickly become a distraction and slow down your progress.

Credits: Me!

17. Recreation is re-creation

We all make the same mistake the first year. We are all pumped and ready to fire on all cylinders. We eat poorly. We rarely exercise. And we feel guilty for taking a day off.

Taking a break is not only good for your mind and body, it’s actually vital for your business. Some of my best ideas came on vacation or shortly after, resulting in significant value creation for Heyday. It’s essential that you take a step back every now and then: it’ll help you gain more clarity on the way forward and spark new creativity.


Here’s to all first-time entrepreneurs

Happy 2017. I wish you all the best in your new journey. The world needs you. Take the leap. It’s the only path to creating real value for yourself and for others. Trust me, no matter how frightening you’ll never regret the move.

Cheers!

PS. If you liked this post, make sure you press the ❤ button below and please share it to your friends and network. It would mean the world to me :)

Étienne Mérineau

Written by

Cofounder, CMO @ heyday.ai | Forbes 30 Under 30 | My purpose is to help brands create more human & personalized customer experiences @etiennemerineau

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