6 Startup Lessons Learned the Hard Way

I started the first of my six businesses 30 years ago. I didn’t have a formal business degree, accounting training, or even an idea for what business I really wanted to start. All I knew was, I wanted to be my own boss and start my own business. Because I was starting at square one with a lot to learn, many of my lessons came the hard way. But I kept at it, and today, those tough startup lessons learned only serve to make my success that much sweeter.

6 startup lessons learned at the school of hard knocks.

  1. How to Take a Punch

    The thought of being your own boss is intoxicating. It’s a little like getting a puppy. You think about how much fun it will be holding and snuggling your puppy. How it will always be happy to see you and how you can chase it around in the yard. Your puppy is going to be so much fun that you’ll overlook all the bad stuff, like when it eats your furniture or takes a potty break on your new carpet, and how it needs 24/7 attention. Well, your business puppy will come full of hidden costs, economic downturns, failed business plans, lack of customers, demanding banks, startup business credit cards, sleepless nights, evaporating weekends, early mornings, and a lack of cash. Add it all up and It can all knock the wind out of you.

    I started my company in the basement of a factory. We had about 300 square feet of space, no heat or AC, and the floors would flood. The rent was virtually zero, and I still struggled to make a profit. It was tough to be sure, but one of the startup lessons learned was how to be resilient and fight on, in good times and bad.

  2. Prioritizing

    Today people call the combination of social media marketing, PR, traditional marketing, email marketing, SEO, and Web page design “integrated marketing.” When I was early in my entrepreneurial career, I just called it survival! And, just think, all this marketing is one hat, of the many hats you’ll wear as small business owner.

    Because you’ll need to do so much, all the time, you need to learn to prioritize. Ask yourself, what activity will add value to your business? What is the cost of NOT doing something now? What don’t I know that I should? Is it time to research or time to act? What metrics will I use to decide?

  3. Patience

    Seems counterintuitive, right? After all, most entrepreneurs are running around with their pants on fire, trying to keep their small business running. However, this constant state of urgency and reaction can be counterproductive in the long run.

    Chances are that you started your company with a small business plan about how it was going to evolve and develop over the course of at least a few years. But, as they say, once the bullets start flying, even the best plans get reduced to bird cage lining. However, keeping an eye on what your future goals are for the company is key to making smart short-term decisions. Running a business is full of small battles. Sometimes it’s more prudent to lose a few battles so you have a better chance at winning the war.

    Don’t be afraid to cut products that aren’t making you any money, or stem the flow of marketing dollars. If you’re not moving closer to your goal, you’re moving farther from it.

  4. The Power of Employees

    As a business owner, you should always try to find quality employees, preferably smarter than you. They are the engine that powers your business machine. The better the engine, the better production you get out of your business machine.

    Early on in my entrepreneurial adventure, I hired an employee to clean rags and towels for a printing press. To clean the press, he had to use a smelly and flammable cleaning solution and then scrub the press with the towels. I told this employee that he had to hand wash and dry the towels, but I didn’t clearly explain why. What was clear, however, is that there was a laundromat within walking distance of our building.

    My employee took the rags to the laundromat, and when the fumes from the rags (even after washing them) made contact with the pilot light in the gas-powered laundromat dryers, BOOM! The laundromat exploded. No one was hurt, but the laundromat burnt down, and I thought my business would too! Talk about a startup lesson learned the hard way. Fortunately I survived, and my payroll software and accounting software company is booming, but in a good way. Employees are your most valuable and dangerous asset. You must choose, train, and manage wisely.

  5. You Must Sell

    You can have the best idea, service, or product in the world, but if you don’t know how to sell it, what’s the point? So many people who talk to entrepreneurs talk about funding, or inventing a solution, or having a business that allows them to lead the kind of like they want to lead. While being an entrepreneur can be lots of things to lots of people, selling the fruits of your entrepreneurial labors is where the rubber really meets the road. If you can’t sell, you have no business.

    I almost lost one of my companies due to a lack of sales. I had a great product and talented people to implement it, but I didn’t do a very good job incentivizing my sales team, or monitoring how they were selling. I assumed they were calling, explaining my product’s great virtues, and people were buying.

    Truth is, the art of the sale includes who you are selling to, how you are selling to your customers, and the timing within which you try to make the sale. If you want your business to succeed, you’ll have to master all of the above.

  6. You’re Always Learning

    Why? Because the market is always changing. Your customers are always changing. YOU are always changing. Some business models are more evergreen than others, but best practices change. That means you have to change, too.

    If you want to convert from old best practices to new ones and keep up with the twists and turns in the business landscape, you need to keep an eye on what’s happening around you. I use a tactic called info-sponging. I try to learn something new every day, from many various sources inside and outside of the business world. I don’t always see a use for all the information immediately, but, over time, I see how concepts gel and interconnect, which helps me spur innovation.

    If you want to be a successful entrepreneur, you can’t keep your head down and focus purely on what’s happening inside your business. Take time to look around your industry. Establish sources of information. Keep up on trends and innovations. You can bet that your competitor is keeping current. And the truth is, waiting until you’re out of business to put on your learning cap is an experience you do NOT want to have.

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