Startup Success Commandments for 2016
1.Thou shall have a “board of entrepreneurs“. Bet you didn’t see that coming. I know the talk of the town is to have a board of advisors and eventually an official board of directors but if you really want to scale rapidly, you need a think tank group of peer entrepreneurs. This experiment never fails: ask 5 experts for advice and you will get 5 doomsday scenarios. Ask 5 founders for advice and get 5 captivating stories and strategies to leverage for your startup development journey. Got a product launch issue- ask two different founders and one will say they leveraged HARO (HelpAReporterOut) while another will say they pitched at tech crunch. Can’t raise capital for Series A- one founder will say why they bootstrapped and another will tell to leverage capital from an accelerator overseas. The point is, trouble-shooting at each stage of development accelerates with a tight network of founders. Furthermore, when you have those big wins, you can celebrate with a group of innovators who truly understand why that successful rebrand launch last week really mattered.
Thou shall have a “board of entrepreneurs”.Why I live by this. When I first launched Vendedy, I was quick to get as many advisors as possible. I had experts in different fields- from emerging markets to venture financing to mobile app development. They were an amazing sounding board for feedback, support, and validation. The problem though is that the majority of them weren’t entrepreneurs- which means their advice was limited to the scope of theoretical and academic discourse. Furthermore, for the ones who were entrepreneurial- I found myself building my business to get their approval with bi-monthly updates when I would have been better off focused on product development. It took 2 years before I realized that troubleshooting startup development problems were easier with founder networks. As a result, I found the best balance with speaking with advisors was on a monthly/ quarterly basis. That way I had more time dedicated to business development and more time to reflect on what I needed and showcase progress but also issue out specific needs of my board. Gone were the days of “status update” meetings to real candid feedback, support, and mentorship.
2. Thou shall reframe your asking strategy. Not everyone can give you money, but everyone can give you something. Be clear on what you need and be direct. People tend to hate fluff and tend to put you on the bottom of a never-ending to-do list if they have to think too hard about how to help you. Being succinct with what you need helps people either say “no” but here’s an alternative or “yes” and here is what you need. You need people to fall in either camp because maybe is a state of limbo that does not help you. Furthermore, don’t just see people for the one thing that you need. Leverage support in different ways. Whether it’s a free pass to a conference, in-kind services, insights on a market, feedback on your product, introduction to funders, partners, and influencers or photos of you pitching to a crowd- anyone can provide you something valuable. You just got to ask.
Thou shall reframe your asking strategy. Why I live by this. In 2014, I drank the startup kool-aid and thought that if I couldn’t fundraise a seed round, my company would not succeed. I arbitrarily quoted a $250k ask amount to dozens of investors. It wasn’t until two failed IndieGoGo crowd funding campaigns and a last minute drop on a $200k seed round with a VC firm that I realized that I had to leverage my network differently in 2015. So I spent December researching all of the cash prize deadlines for the entire year ahead. I also researched every hackathon listed to see what corporations were sponsoring the event to check their site for free in-kind service offerings. I pitched my friends different versions of my service offering to gauge their reactions when preparing for a pitch event. After a while, everyone became valuable in some way. By the end of it all, I sourced $300k in one year. $50k in liquid capital and $250k in in-kind marketing, legal, and tech support. That was a lot better than the $0 I raised in 2014.
3.Thou shall let others do the work for you. Founders spend hours researching for resources to get their company up and running. Yet bloggers across the web are already curating the top conferences to go to, the top free resources to use and the top ecosystems to leverage each day. Stop going straight to google for one thing. Always start your search process with “Top” + “Whatever you are looking for” + “the year”. If you are looking for free resources then type “top free resources for entrepreneurs 2016“. And just like that, your world just got ten times easier.
Thou shall let others do the work for you. Why Live by this. I remember spending hours searching for top events on Eventbrite and Meetup to get exposure for Vendedy. I would search all of the events for the entire year in different target cities like New York, San Francisco, London and Dubai. I went to all of the ones that I found because I was not able to identify wish one was best in terms of exposure to press and investors and ones that had a speaker line up that could provide tangible insights. I remember taking a photo of all of the events I attended during the year and lost count after 100 tags. I saved money by emailing the event organizers in advance to volunteer and receive free tickets but I wasn’t aware of the time wasted traveling to all of the events. There is a fine balance between business development and being a part of every event listed in the startup ecosystem. So one day while doing my usual search on Eventbrite, I looked at the recommended alternatives at the bottom of the screen. I skimmed it and thought, it would be nice if someone would curate the top conferences to go to in one place. And at that very moment, I searched “top startup conferences to attend in 2015”. There were dozens of insightful blogs, articles, and videos to highlight where startup founders should be and why. I don’t regret my experiences attending multiple events but now I do things differently and leverage blog articles to weigh out my decisions on attending top local and global events.
4.Thou shall focus with a list. Have a checklist for each stage of startup development.There are 7 key phases of startup development. Make sure you know them. Ideation, Beta Testing, Product Development, Customer Acquisition, Marketing, Funding, Branding. Everything else is an extension or accessory to these core areas. Period. When everything is a priority, it’s important to start listing out all of things you need to do and tackle them by order of possibility. Huh? What’s an “order of possibility”? Well, it’s what you can do based on resources at your disposal. If you got $20 dollars, the only possible thing you can do is buy a domain. When you figure out how to get $100, then you can maybe get a cool website theme design. Point is, list out what needs to be done and check them off as you go along. That way you can visually see progress. Doing activity for activity sake will drain morality. Lists are a great start to getting things done and a great closer that indicates progress.
Thou shall focus with a list. Why I live by this. During my first year of getting my company up and running, sleeping was not a priority. I would wake up early and sleep late at night. I didn’t want to miss out on opportunities. At a certain point I was doing tons of activity but wasn’t sure if I was progressing in the right direction. Sure setting goals is a great benchmark for evaluating progress but goals are always changing in the startup world and what I needed to manage was not my goal setting capabilities but my execution capabilities. The best way to do that is to track how you simply “get shit done”. In 2016, when I started to host business boot camps, I noticed that my list structure in business development made it much easier for other entrepreneurs to follow. I have a check list for everything- marketing launches, product releases, etc. That way when people give me more ideas and resources to progress my company, I benchmark that advice with the current to do list I have under that project. Depending on my resources and time, I either execute on that additional item immediately or group it into a to-do list that can be completed in the future (1 month from now, 1 quarter from now or even one year from now).
5.Thou shall not value the order of execution but execution…period. There are too many articles and startup frameworks programming new founders into the belief that all startup companies start at the very beginning. Everyone has their own startup journey and for some, it starts at ideation and for others, it starts at funding. Wherever you are, make sure you just execute. How you go about it is up to the market opportunity and your ability to service it.
Though shall not value the order of execution but execution…period.Why I Live by this. I remember how difficult it was to get Vendedy to scale. We had way too many variables in play with our original business models and after 2 years of running, it was almost embarrassing to start from scratch. So instead, I spent an entire quarter watching how to videos on Skillshare with their 3-month 99cent plan. It was a great decision. I immediately selected different areas of my business to revamp not from scratch but from where it left off. So when it came to product development, I learned how to code, revisited previous app demos and launched a beta in 2016 to my followers. Some might say it would have been more important to go back to the drawing board and start customer interviews all over again. But, at the end of the day, it worked for us. So I don’t advise startup founders to go in a particular order when building a company. If you can- great! But real startup development stories have no typical “beginning, middle, end” structure. Shit happens- so in the end, execution is what really counts.
6.Thou shall embrace contradictions. Everyone will have opinions, facts, inputs, reactions and insights that will clash when it comes to ways to build and scale your company. Employees might disagree with your investors and the customers might disagree with your advisors and you might start disagreeing with you own self. It’s a rollercoaster and a great leader does not try to find similarities across all feedback channels but instead, leverages multiple inputs to make a strategic decision. Yet strategic decisions can only happen if you are aware of the contradictory nature of the startup world and embrace it. Trust your gut when rational seems hard to follow.
Though shall embrace contradictions. Why I live by this. Finding my inner voice in the beginning was tough. I wanted to be inclusive of all of the support coming my way and that went beyond funding and partnerships. With support came people’s opinions and many of those opinions were contradictory to what I believed was right. Investors thought we should focus on e-commerce platforms since many of our competitors were successful with that model. Advisors thought it best to focus on local vender development training since the opportunity for social impact was so high. And my team thought we should travel place to place and engage locals into supporting street markets. Man- this is three drastically different business models. In trying to create a company, my support network was giving me 3 opposing paths of development. Even guest judges would flat out tell me that my business model was stupid and left me in shock because I knew they had no freaking clue about global street markets. This does not include the countless list of opinions shared by influencers I met at events and users at different stages of our business. Many got offended when they heard updates that didn’t feature their expertise or inputs. Others decided to sit back and play the “wait and see” game since they felt at one point I will pivot back to their insights. It was a rollercoaster. As time progressed, the contradictions increased and I realized why. My demeanor was too eager for the advice. Yes- I said it- I was too damn open to advice. Everyone wants to say that being open and receiving feedback is critical to success but I think it’s important to push back just a little bit. Take the advice but make it clear that you will take it into “consideration” not “implementation”. As a daughter of 3 generations of street vendors from Haiti who traveled to over 30+ countries to track street markets- I am truly a domain expert. I started to trust my inner voice and exude that confidence when speaking to different stakeholders. Since my demeanor changed, the delivery of insights and inputs changed. The advice was still contradictory but I was able to internalize it better.
7.Thou shall understand the psychological price of entrepreneurship. In today’s world, entrepreneurs are viewed as heroes. Why? Well, we see entrepreneurs as innovators, disrupters, and individuals taking on the world’s grandest challenges and glorifying their leadership against all odds. As a result, many entrepreneurs try really hard to carry the mental medallion of entrepreneurship at the risk of their mental health. Building a company from nothing is hard and doing it with enthusiasm despite all rational proof that you will most likely fail is practically insane. Be mindful of the invisible entrepreneur syndrome and seek hope when you need it. Many entrepreneurs suffer in silence as they grind out each stage of startup development because they don’t want to alter people’s perception of their probability of success.
Though shall understand the psychological price of entrepreneurship. Why I live by this. If you look at my Facebook feed you would think I’m living a dream. Every other month I’m in a different country speaking at major conferences and every other week there is a different article feature about my story. It seemed like I was in the big leagues and in many ways I was but that was no way a reflection of my actual reality. In 2014, after 3 months of launching my company and accepting features with IBM and the Clinton Global Initiative, my father passed away. The loss was catastrophic for me mentally. In the midst of a demo pop up, I got a call I never thought I would get. I immediately got on the next flight to Haiti and hours later my father passed away literally in my arms. I held his body for a long time because I was in such state of shock that I could not process anything. I didn’t even give myself time to heal because I was so focused on raising a $250k seed round. I had to keep team morale high and smile through it all. I didn’t even let my team talk about it. I kept strong in the face of it all but deep inside I was crying out for help. I cut off all friends, distant family members and became synclinal of the world. No one could tell because I still was gracing magazines with a smile on my face. 2015 was no different. I had more to prove so more reasons to keep smiling so that investors would consider investing and so that partners would continue supporting us. But like the previous year, I had shocking news in the fall. This time, it was great news but I knew it would be damn near impossible to fundraise with this update. I was pregnant with my first child. It was bitter sweet because though I was excited and happy to be a new mom- I knew in my heart that the startup ecosystem would write me off- because how can a new mom keep up with scaling a company right? My husband became my outlet to share my stresses and difficulties in running Vendedy. That wasn’t all. He shared his method of dealing with the stresses of entrepreneurship- long walks. It was an incredible insight. We spent hours walking almost every day and eventually, I just took walks on my own. Had I not expressed my sentiments to him, I probably would not have discovered this stress reliever. Entrepreneurs should do more of this. Showcase your trials and tribulations and share how you cope. Not only will you be incredibly useful to aspiring entrepreneurs but you might be potentially saving someone’s life. Depression is real and even though I am well regarded as an inspirational hero, I have my days when it’s just too much to get up. I candidly share stories of the good, the bad and the ugly on my social media so that others can be empowered to do the same.
8.Thou shall document everything. Since people are more captivated by why you do things and not what you do, it is important to document the journey of the why from the very beginning. Whether it’s saving the answers to every competition prize you’ve applied to or screen shots capturing any event you pitched at- these details will get blurry over time and sometimes the growth of development is the deciding factor for future investment, partnerships, and press features.
Though shall document everything. Why I live by this. I’m a life historian at heart. Since I was a little kid, I would scrapbook all of the best moments of my life with the hopes that one day I will share those experiences with my children. So that habit translated into the documentation of my startup journey. From photos to records to reports- these documents increased efficiency amongst my team. For example, I applied to over 96 startup prize/grant competitions in 2015. I documented all of my answers as well as highlighted the wins, rejections and feedback points. In 2016, I was able to give that document to an intern to copy, paste and edit to apply for new competitions without my input. We basically automated our grant fundraising process. Documentation is not a chore when it creates huge opportunities for funding, press and team development in the long run.
9.Thou shall network on facebook, slack, and whatsapp. I understand that the go-to place for professional networking is LinkedIn, but more than one-sixteenth people’s waking time is spent on Facebook. If you post updates on your company or projects on multiple facebook groups, then you are guaranteed to get immediate eyes. Slack is the new platform for following top conversations and questions on any area of startup entrepreneurship so use it to engage and extract the best resources. Whatsapp chat groups is another captivating way to pool people together to poll and share tips. When I have a problem or issue, Whatsapp groups from my Draper University and Singularity networks are my go to place. So if you’re not in at least 20 startup related groups or networks on either of these 3 channels- you are missing out.
Though shall network on Facebook, Slack, and Whatsapp. Why I live by this. I spend tons of hours a week on Facebook and not just to watch cat memes- I’m networking! Facebook groups are a powerful way to get your story out and onboard users, partners and influencers. In early 2016, I started to go beyond my alumni network groups and join startup groups. Within a day I started to see the value. Contributors would post free ticket passes, email contacts of reporters who needed a quick story, and tons of insightful articles that truly benefited my company. I soon became obsessed and registered with over 100+ Facebook groups. I bucketed each interest at the local and global level. 20 are related to school network groups. 25 are startup ecosystem groups and the rest are best on interests where I can share my insights. Whatsapp and slack became my go to place to blast any issues that I was dealing with and get immediate inputs from other entrepreneurs. I even used Whatsapp to win a competition. I was competing for a $5k giveaway and needed as many likes as possible. Once I posted on my Whatsapp groups, the entrepreneurs in the group reposted the link in other Whatsapp groups. And just like that- I won.
10.Thou shall embrace the fact that “marketing is reality”. Every single action you take can be branded to your benefit. Make sure to document behind the scenes experiences (the team coding, team meetings, Monday morning routines etc.) and share it so people can follow your story. Try to speak at events often and if the invitations aren’t rolling it- create your own opportunities by hosting events at local libraries, restaurants, and parks. Your personal brand can be the best foundation for launching companies, global speaking engagements, and exclusive influencer invitations. Make sure you have a personal site that is hosted (at a discount), searchable and providing additional sources of revenue.
Though shall embrace the fact that “marketing is reality”. Why I live by this. As stated before, I have a habit of documentation. I took so many photos and videos of my startup journey that I had to get a hard drive dedicated to just Vendedy media. After 3 months of launching Vendedy, I realized that all of those videos and photos are the precise reason why we got the awards that we got over the years. Saying what you do is one thing but showing it is an entirely different thing. Images of our story and behind the scenes was circulated all over the net and I became very aware of the premium brand we were building over time. I received several interviews and partnerships just from a photo post alone. Branding requires a story and the best way to tell a story is through powerful visuals. I picked up on this early on and I can candidly say that it was a huge contributor to our progress.
What are your top laws of entrepreneurship? Share in the comment section. In the meantime, get top tips like this one with your e-book copy of How to Launch & Scale Your Startup, Lessons from a Forbes30Under30 Entrepreneur now.