Startups are so hard that you can’t be pointed off to the side and hope to succeed. You have to know that growth is what you’re after. — Paul Graham
When I started my so-called startup in 2015, I thought startup=early stages of a company. In other words, to me, so long you start a business, between starting it and reaching some form of organic growth, you are considered a startup.
If we follow Paul Graham’s definition of startup=growth, my startup flopped miserably, stagnating in growth for two long years. At that time I didn’t even know what growth means. More customers, profit, staff?
All I knew was that I wanted to make more money, build an asset, control my schedule and not having to worry about client work while babysitting my kids. I had great ambitions and purposeful desires, but zero execution that could have made my business a successful startup.
Since 2015, I’ve learned invaluable lessons that helped me turn my failed startup into a thriving business today. Hope these will help you too:
Always make marketing and sales a priority
I spent too much time being the designer, refining the quality of the service to deliver the best I can to one customer at a time. Not that I shouldn’t give my best. I was still operating on freelancer mode which equates to trading hours for dollars.
My time would have been best spent chatting with people who are looking for such a service, giving them something of value like creating relevant content that solves their problems and offering them either a free trial to test us out or a coupon code for a discounted rate.
At that time, the business side of things was still new to me. I was too comfortable doing the work itself because I’ve been a freelancer for more than ten years. It’s a hard habit to break to quickly shift my focus to work on marketing and sales.
Truth is, I didn’t think I enjoyed doing marketing and sales and never thought those were important for businesses to thrive. I used to think that I should do what I enjoy doing. Since these are not what I like to do, I thought there’s no need to do them.
Zero marketing = poor business
For at least ten years, I did zero marketing. How did I survive? Partly by luck, partly by referral and partly by just going hungry when I didn’t have work to do. Referrals came to me without having to blink. That helped bring me great income up to five figures a month, but that didn’t teach me how to start a conversation with strangers and somehow get more people to buy.
Always be marketing — Scott Bywater, follow him on Linkedin for daily marketing tips
Not putting marketing and sales into priority is the worst way to run a business to stay profitable, ever. Now, to make these a priority and set myself up for success, I always make sure to make them my first to-do task of the day, every day.
In this way, I know I’ve spoken to a few people and written a few articles by noon. Those get settled before my day gets filled up with business operations, staff training, customers’ requests, family, friends and other urgent matters.
Hire right from the start
This one isn’t that obvious until you drag your feet to grow a business at snail’s pace for four years. It feels worst when your competitors who started later than you get ahead of you in a shorter time. This is a failure for me, and it’s a great lesson I will never forget.
When I started this startup, my thoughts were overly simple: “I’ve been freelancing all my life, I just have to charge my clients differently than I used to”. Then I went on to spend my time working on their projects one project at a time.
Since my model is “request as many design changes as you like”, I received tons of requests a day by a small group of customers. I had so much to do, yet revenue stays the same. So I started to look for designers via Facebook Groups. I thought I could pay someone to just offload some of my work.
The nightmare didn’t end. What I passed to the other designer did not seem to fit the customer’s requirements. Some of them started to feedback that there was a drop in quality. I saw myself spending at least four hours a day redesigning the work to get to the quality that was expected of our team. The time could have been better spent growing the business.
Train your people to deliver quality work
No doubt, quality is always important and should be well-baked into the design process. But I should have hired the new designer first, to know what to expect from this designer. Then, communicate to my customers that this will be the expected maximum quality they will see from our team.
I could also give my customers a two-week free trial to test us out. That’s when I should be giving all design projects to my new designers and keep my hands off working on them.
That will eliminate the chances of me trying to input the value I have been giving my customers when I was offering them a one-to-one customised design service. It will also give me the time I need to be doing sales and marketing to grow the business.
The staff you hire may be highly talented with a great work ethic. However, it’s only now that I realise nobody will ever have the same ownership as the founder. It’s not that employees will never try their best.
What I’m saying is, for the most part, they do not harbour the exact same love as what founders have over a baby who’s not their own right from the get-go. We as founders have to take time to build a strong and trusting relationship with our staff to make this happen.
Hence, I should have hired a designer do all the design work right from the start, then train them to become better people and better designers. That will help make them feel closer to having more ownership over the company, which leads to building a better culture in the team.
Look far but break up the tasks
In 2014, I started to do something radically different than before. I started to wake up at 5 AM in the morning to write my goals, meditate and read good books.
I was freakingly obsessed to grow my business up to at least $100,000 monthly recurring revenue. Who doesn’t want that and who wouldn’t wish for that? Same for me, I want that dream to become a reality as much as anyone else.
I followed a number of gurus’ advice to be fearless and amp up my goals, dream big and write them down. That’s what I did, I followed to the “T”. Guess what, I never reached that milestone, not even close!
The big mistake wasn’t the goal that I set. It was the tasks that I told myself to do to reach that goal. What do you have to do to get $100,000 MRR? Looks like a lot isn’t it? And I fell for that! I started to list down tons and tons of things that I wanted to do. I got so excited about them that I did everything on the list and did not carry on with them after the first week of listing them.
In retrospect, I should have just listed out one thing that I know will move me closer to my goal. Big goals are great, but they can overwhelm you if you don’t chunk them down to bite-sized pieces that are manageable by the day. In other words, look long term but first accomplish the smallest thing that can move you closer to your goal, even if it’s just a teeny weeny step.
The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step. — Lao Tzu
Do one small thing well and do it consistently
This may sound obvious, but it doesn’t feel like it works when you actually do it on a day-to-day basis. The results or outcome, be it negative or positive are too small to be felt because it takes consistency.
I made the mistake of overlooking the importance of working on one small thing that can contribute to the larger goal that could happen in a year’s time. I thought that to reach a bigger goal, I had to do many things.
That could be right if we imagine the endpoint and sum up all the things we need to do to get there. Don’t be fooled, when you are starting out, don’t think of doing all the big things at one go to make a huge impact. You will end up not doing anything at all.
Simply complete one thing for the day and do this consistently. This will get you moving the needle just a little. For example, if you need to get a landing page done, what’s the smallest thing to accomplish this? Most likely, the copy. Set a schedule to start and a deadline.
Next, only work on the copy during the scheduled times. Once that’s done, move on to the next thing, could be the design of the page, etc. One by one, your landing page will eventually be completed to bring in leads and revenue.
The small things will add up that will lead to the impact you wish to achieve.
In short, here are the key lessons you can takeaway:
- Value your time
- Focus on sales
- Schedule everything
- Start with one small step
- Do everything consistently
Start getting consistently focused on the things that are important to growing your startup. Build the business you’ve dreamed of and live the life you’ve always wanted.
You can do this.