One of the most persistent myths of entrepreneurship is that 90 per cent of startups fail within the first two years.
The accuracy of the statistic is debatable, but what's not up for debate is how tough the haul is for the first three years.
Making the mental adjustment from employee to employer was the initial hurdle I had to get over. Having just careened over the three year "since we registered the business name" milestone, I thought I'd share the lessons learned from being a newbie entrepreneur for other aspiring self-employed types:
1. Think big, even when you're small.
It's all about perception. Acting with the confidence of a larger business can set your startup apart. Going head to head with established players, we invested heavily in branding and marketing materials and a premier virtual office address, all in an effort to demonstrate credibility out of the gate. It seemed to work. Most people thought we'd been around for 20 years, even though it had only been weeks. Just make sure you limit that image of a big fish to brand building – don't carry it over into spending like one.
2. Don't go it alone.
Surround yourself with advisers, mentors, and other entrepreneurs who can help you think through the myriad of decisions flying your way and help boost your spirits when things look bleak. Before launching Executive Roundtable, I assembled a group of advisers (former clients, colleagues and influencers) and met with them quarterly to get input on the business strategy and direction. Not only was it a great way to get feedback on the business, the group helped me keep on track against my goals. If you'd rather not start your own, check out what's out there. Groups for startups abound. Google them and get involved.
3. Do the work and the numbers will take care of themselves.
I found the quickest way to slow down my business was to spend my time obsessing about money. When I spent my time thinking about what I could do to help leaders instead, the business started to flow. Instead of thinking about your bank balance, think about the customers you need to be calling.
4. Be prepared to shift gears.
It's important to start with a vision and an idea, but don't ignore early feedback on your product or service. When clients weren't responding to our initial sales approach, we adjusted our strategy. Recently we've been able to slowly reintroduce some of the ideas that, in hindsight, we probably tried to launch too early. Selling is all about what your customer wants to buy, not what you need to sell.
5. Buckle up, it's going to get bumpy.
Being an entrepreneur is a lot like riding a roller coaster. For every high you get from landing a new client or making a great pitch, there's a low that comes from cancelled orders and delayed projects. Keeping a list of accomplishments helped me keep my eyes on the big prize. And, continuously paying attention to my sales funnel has helped temper the disappointments and delays. For every low, there's a high that's coming around the next bend if you keep at it.
6. Chase the vision, not the dollars.
In the first few years of business, cash is going to be tight. I probably could have made more money slinging lattes at a coffee shop. I met with lots of newbie entrepreneurs who had visions of replacing their six-figure salaries in their first year. Most of them ended up closing shop and heading back into full-time work. The lesson I took away was this: unrealistic salary targets can cause you to make poor short-term decisions that affect the long-term viability of your business.
7. Nobody's going to do it for you.
Creating "partnerships" and "alliances" with other organizations always sounds like a good idea. Dreams of easy referrals and shortened sales cycles dance in your head. In my experience, the only alliances that worked for me were the ones where other client bases were completely aligned to my own (but not competitive) and they were as hungry for business as I was. But most importantly, they shared the same core values around work. Without those three components, you may find yourself overinvesting in coffee talks.
8. Reflect on your accomplishments.
Twelve months into my business launch, all I could see was the giant to-do list of things that I hadn't done for my business. Writing an update to my program advisory committee gave me a great opportunity to reflect on what I had done. Now I take time each month to reflect on what's been accomplished (as well as that 90 day to-do list).
9. To grow, you have to let go.
My main objective has been to build a business, versus a solopreneur. By the start of year two I knew that I was going to have to start handing my baby over to others. Hiring is never easy, but it takes on a whole new meaning when you're potentially paying someone more than you're paying yourself. After juggling three part-time hourly people, I realized I needed to bite the bullet and hire one full-time person. What I've learned is that hiring someone full-time before you need them allows you more time to train and mentor them, which makes letting go so much easier.
10. Help others.
It's easy to become consumed in the challenges of your own startup and feel like you don't have the time to have "networking" meetings or "informational" interviews. But the reality is that business today is all about relationships. Many of my "info sessions" have led to business leads, speaker recommendations and expert panelists who've contributed to the growth of our business. And some have been duds. But to get, you have to give.
And here's one last lesson that might be the most important one of all: believe in yourself and your vision. In the early days of my start-up, there were plenty of times when I wondered if what I was doing was worth it. Plus, you'll always run into people (who aren't your target customers) who are quick to tell you what you should or shouldn't be doing.
In my experience, when you start to compromise on your vision, you water it down and risk alienating the very people that you want to serve. You're not for everyone, nor should you be. But what I know for sure is this: be true to what you believe and the clients will come.
Special to The Globe and Mail
Glain Roberts-McCabe is the founder and president of the Executive Roundtable, a high-potential leadership engagement and retention organization for mid-career leaders.