10 things I learned in 10 years as a Web entrepreneur
It’s been 10 years I am in the web business. I’ve founded 3 companies, helped tens of others being a business angel, an advisor, a board member or simply giving a hand. I am often asked to talk to wantrepreneurs about my experience these days and I thought that sharing with you what I share IRL could be a great subject for my first article on Medium.
Disclosure: I’m French so
1/ Pardon my writing
2/ The things I learned mostly apply to France or Europe, things could be different in the US.
Ten (+1) lessons learned being a (web) entrepreneur
Embrace the unknown
As a Business School graduate, I was offered a full-time position at P&G in their Paris office. I would have been in charge of everything merchandising for a new brand of washing powder. At the time it sounded like the holy graal for every guy from my college. Wearing a tie, spending long hours in the Parisian Metro everyday did not sound as dreamy for me. So I decided to apply to a position at a company dealing with “web development”. I didn’t even know such companies existed nor what it meant, but there I found guys in flip-flaps and t-shirts, no sign of a tie. Plus they were working on terrific computers. They spoke a language I didn’t understand “agile”, “Java”, “UX”, “recovery plans”, “Struts”, “servers”…
Even if I didn’t understand what my job as business developer could be I accepted the offer. One year later, I met there my first co-founder and we started our own company 12 months after that. The company became the most comprehensive Job Search service in more than 15 countries.
Make choices that are not obvious at first sight. The journey can be full of opportunities.
When you build your first company, you have to understand a lot of things are about to change. Believe me, a LOT! You will have to deal with a certain type of social pressure with people don’t getting what you’re doing with your life. You will need to check if your partners in life (either your pal, your kids, your pets, your parents, …) will be supportive and accepting your new life. You will have to cut on your social time, cut on your hobbies, even if you are not a workaholic. You won’t have the same agenda as your friends. Accept it.
Are your ready to change your mind if you are wrong? Are you able to make tough choices such as firing someone, or negociating long hours with 100 times bigger company? Are you prepared to be punch in the face by your competitors? Better know yourself and your environment before starting. It will help you start your entrepreneur’s journey.
If you know yourself, you can choose your own path
Come on guys, life is short. If you are trying to build your thing, your own company. Make it really yours! Re-think everything you’re not comfortable with: organization, hierarchy, work hours, … It’s more fun to do it “your way”. The way our parents have worked over the last 30 years is not the way we (nor our kids) are gonna work. So embrace the change. Rebuild the work environment within your company. It will help your recruiting, your efficiency, then your growth. Don’t be trapped by what you learned at school.
We all had a blank page, focus on execution, not ideas
All entrepreneurs started one day to think about their future company. Sometimes there’s an idea, sometimes it starts with a business deal, sometimes it starts with a blank spreadsheet. Anyway, we all started once from scratched. Don’t be afraid of trying to find your business idea, or the right product. Some guys have been rejected 4 times before being accepted to YC. You don’t have all the ressources to start your company? Go find them. Don’t freeze because of your lack of tech skills, or your empty pockets. When I started my first company I had barely no money, a student loan, and no programming skills. The only thing I had was a kind of a vision, and the ability to execute the business once the product is ready. I figure out a way to make it: finding a tech cofounder, grabbing financial help from the State — Yes France is the greatest country for tech entrepreneurs — and hiring some interns to achieve the MVP.
So get out and get things done, no matter what. If there is no solution, you don’t have a problem.
Write a plan
Obviously, your business plan sucks. It always sucks. It’s always wrong. But it’s important to write your plans, write your vision, write your business model. What will make it right is your execution. You need to write things down to be able to refer to it now and then. When you have tons of things to do and to deal with, referring to your previous plan is a way to keep your head up. You’d better rewrite it regularly. I often meet entrepreneurs with a “BPache” (Business Plan headache) who feels like it’s time consuming and that it adds no value to their day to day activities. They are wrong, more wrong than their business plan. This kind of exercise is a way to develop your entrepreneur’s mindset. Do it, no question.
Keep things organized
To be clear, I wasn’t good at that thing at all. But I learned. When I started, I didn’t have a tool to track what I said to customers or prospects except my emails. I didn’t see the value in having tools such as a CRM because I was signing contracts, business was good, why would I like to add more process? Because when your company grows, you need to share information. The later you setup tools the harder it will be to make it usefull. I highly recommend to setup a CRM tool, a collaborative tool to work on your projects and most of all a back up system within the first days of your company. Everything is outhere for free (or almost free). We use Podio, Evernote, Gdrive and Highrise for a few bucks. And God this is awesome. Don’t tell me your projects or your customers are not worth a few dollars to keep things on track!
It’s hard to say it, but the main competitor of one of my companies has been acquired for a billion, yes a f****** billion! Why did they make it? Their vision was more comprehensive than ours but most of all they executed damn fast! They had opened 30 countries when we only had 5. They knew how to grow a business globally. We didn’t get that. That’s not dramatic, we were doing great, but we will never be the number world wide number one.
When you have all your KPIs green, why wait? Take the plunge, get things done quickly.
Don’t do it alone
The entrepreneur’s journey will be hard and long. Having someone to share your questions, your failures, your successes will help you run that marathon. It’s too hard for a guy alone to make good decisions on everything. Splitting the work, sharing the vision and the pressure will ease your day. Find a co-founder, Find an advisory board, you will be smarter.
Work with the right people
Everyday, you choose to hire someone, to work, partner or not with a company. On the HR side I can’t do nothing but agree with Guy: hire A-players. But not only you have to hire A-players, but you must find people who share your vision and your culture. Same rule applies to your investors. Sell your vision, not shares to VCs. One day, there will be rough times and hard choices to make. You will need to be sure to have the right guys on both side of the table. When I raised my last round, one of the first thing I shared with my investors was our “culture book” (in fact ten slides explaining how to behave and what’s valuable in our POV). I asked the VCs the same thing as every future employee: read the slides, if you are not comfortable with one line, please don’t sign the term sheet.
Don’t be fooled: the VCs has his own agenda with your company, sharing your vision and culture does not mean he shares your exit strategy. Share with him your KPIs and 12 month strategy every month or quarter so that he can align his plans. Make him validate your 12 month action plan, to eradicate any misunderstanding.
Get out of your comfort zone
It’s where the magic happens. Indeed, I am deeply convinced an entrepreneur has to take some personal risks to keep his focus and foolproof determination. Either it’s a question of social status, a question of money, a question of skills. I need to feel the pressure on me to overachieve things. As an entrepreneur you should love pressure, and turn it into energy. Getting out of your comfort zone is all about this: take risk to go further, get more energy to get things to the next level. In France, we have a lot of support for Innovation, so that you can build a company from scratch without investing much of your own money. Sometimes it does not help entrepreneurs being ambitious, because it gives you what’s needed to build a 1 Million euros / 10 people company in three to five years. That’s not a crazy goal. Taking financial risks is IMHO a way to have higher goals.
I think you should only hire when it hurts. When you can’t do nothing but hire someone to take your company to the next level. You shouldn’t hire someone to do a task one of the founders or early employees don’t know or are not able to do. You should get your hands dirty doing things that don’t scale : cold calls, hiring, testing the UX, writing some specs… You should know everything about your products, about the missions of your colleagues. So that you can anticipate their problems, provide solutions, help and repeat. One day, I hired a VP Sales giving him all the cards to run the biz dev, asking him to do things I didn’t want to do anymore: cold calls, expos,… When a founder is not close to the business, it won’t work. Be close to your customers, no matter what it will cost you.
Never Give up
Sounds cheesy but it’s definitely true. As an entrepreneur, you always have to believe it’s possible, that there is a way to overcome any problem. Look at Phil Libin Story. Tenacity is the key. You may have to pivot, you may have to fire a big part of your team, shut down a part of your business, but keep trying. Back in 2008, during the crisis, We had developed a really profitable activity that went from skyrocketing numbers to barely zero in 3 months, because nobody wanted that feature anymore. We didn’t shut it down, we offer it for free to grab the market share. When the crisis was over, we were doing well again on that line. Our competitors didn’t do that, today they’re part of the deadpool. Don’t give up on vision, Execute differently.