Ed’s note: This post written by guest editor Alex Molloy, CEO of Valiant Finance.
Starting, running and managing Valiant Finance wasn’t always fun and rainbows. It’s been a constant learning experience and these are just a few of the things I picked up along the way.
1. “Don’t go it alone – find a partner you trust”
It is probably tempting to start your business by yourself, unless there is an immediately obvious partner. Otherwise, you have to go searching for someone, make sure you have the same vision for the business, make sure you can trust them, etc. It all sounds pretty hard compared to just getting started. However, all the evidence points to the value of having a larger, diverse team to share the burden and draw on different backgrounds and experiences.
More directly, there is a startling amount of work involved in getting a business off the ground. Legal structures, accounting systems, payroll, insurance, rent, utilities, telecommunications, banking, etc. This is a long list and it is just the boring stuff before you even consider the product or service you’re delivering to your customer and the endless work of developing, iterating and marketing it!
Share the burden with at least one other person who feels as passionate about the business idea as you do. Split the work, hold each other to account, and motivate and challenge each other – nobody else will care about your business as much as the founder team!
2. “Find a mentor”
Perhaps our biggest lesson! Mentors are anything, from commercially experienced friends and family, to investors, to third-party mentors available through services like BizConnect. Once you have the mentor, talk to them a lot. It is tempting to hold back on your mentors for fear of “annoying” them. Don’t!
Mentors help you with three totally critical things. Firstly, they can save you time by answering questions you would spend hours trying to answer otherwise. Secondly, they can guide you through uncharted waters. For example, considering doing a mail-out in your local area? Ask a mentor who has already done it how they did it, how much it cost, and how many customers they got out of it. If the question doesn’t apply to them, they can probably give you the phone number of someone who can answer it in a heartbeat.
Lastly, mentors can help you keep perspective – you can lose perspective when you’re buried in the detail of getting the business running. Mentors help you step back and make sure you’re still serving your customer and are addressing the right priorities.
3. “Change what you’re doing if it isn’t working (data!)”
All the testing in the world won’t help if you don’t act on the results. If your testing indicates you need to do something different , act quickly. Make the change, keep testing customer reactions, and keep confident – if the customer pain-point was real, you will find a way to solve it, even if you didn’t nail it immediately.
4. “Do small tests for each business risk”
Every business has risks, even if you’re selling a well-established product. Are you marketing to the right customers? Do you have the right inventory? Is the storefront well-arranged?
Make a list of every risk you can think of – a place where you might make a wrong decision that would impact the business. Prioritise the risks – which ones would have the greatest impact on your customers, on your costs? Then get inventive ways to do low-cost tests.
Wondering whether you should hold a particular piece of inventory? Get a small number of them and place them prominently. Wondering how to market? Try a little bit of everything, and then ask your customers how they found out about you – see what worked and test if it can scale.
5. “Don’t think about the competition too much”
Thinking about the competition can be a big time-sink. While you’re still planning your business, thinking about competition is great – you can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and plan for what you will do differently or better than them.
Once you launch and have an endless to-do list, thinking about the competition can be a distraction. The human competitive vibe will kick in, making you want to do better than them, rather than focusing on your customer. There are enough hurdles without thinking about the other guy.
Often the reality is that you and your competitors can both exist and thrive (particularly as startups), and to the extent that you can’t, focusing on the customer will serve you better, anyway.
6. “Be transparent about your hopes and concerns”
You might think that it’s your role as a founder/manager to hide your doubts and disappointments from your business partner, family and friends. But building a business is a marathon, not a sprint, and while some short-term emotional bottling might be sustainable, you’re going to need to vent occasionally to maintain your sanity. This is part of the reason having a partner and team can help. Buoying each other makes you that much happier when times are tough.