So you've had a brilliant idea and found a gap in the market that you are in a unique position to fill. Great! Now you just need to turn it into a business. Sounds straightforward, no?
As someone who had been advising companies on their business strategy and customer experience for years, I assumed that the actual business side would be fairly uncomplicated and easy. Oh, how much I had to learn. To give you a bit of a leg up as you start, here are some crucial things I wish I’d known about running a successful business before I started out.
Be prepared to be a jack of all trades
Many of us who have started companies after a successful career are initially sceptical about the amount of work it actually takes to run a company. I know I was. But it does make sense, if you think about it…
All those functions that are invisible in many organisations when they are run well will now be run by you: HR, finance, facilities, asset management, project management, client and customer services, administration, cleaning… this list can go on and on. All you can really do is focus on the critical for now and accept that not everything will be perfect for a while.
Save on everything
With the increasing strain of business rates, corporation tax and economic concerns placing ever more strain on the purse strings of small business and startup owners, it's important that you keep costs to a minimum when starting out. Although it can be tempting to order those "extra-luxurious" business cards and spend on exciting marketing tools, ask yourself if, in the early stages at least, you really need them.
If you want to start a profitable company, literally doing this from your kitchen table is quite sensible. When we started out we got a big shiny office in the flashiest co-working space because we believed their marketing material promise of being startup-friendly and providing excellent networking opportunities. Don’t fall for it - it’s all over-exaggerated (though I really wish I could hire their marketing team).
Start at your home, the local coffee shop, the library, anywhere free. When you grow larger, there are accelerators and incubators that offer subsidized workspaces and basic office spaces that understand what you need: a desk, a chair, the internet, and a space to share with your team.
Build your website yourself using Squarespace or whichever you find easier. If you are doing it right, you will need to be constantly adapting it anyway so creating a full-blown site will only go to waste, especially if you can’t tweak it yourself.
Your marketing collateral
Contrary to popular opinion and despite having previously run a branding agency myself, you don’t actually need a full-blown brand when you are first starting. It makes little sense to create a complete brand identity for something that is not yet defined. A logo and colour scheme are fine to begin with whilst your brand is still evolving. Once you know who you are as an organisation, you can refine your brand.
But not your accountant
This is one area where cutting costs is not going to make any sense. We started with an accountancy company that my partner’s friend used to run but subsequently sold on. Don’t do that. Ask around for recommendations from other business owners – you’ll be able to tell the good ones from the average by how engaged they get in terms of understanding your business. Whatever you do, make sure they’re chartered. I didn’t with our first ones and we nearly went under as a result.
Have a nest egg
This can be crucial. I started my business after having a child and then really started to push the company after having the second. Looking back, that wasn’t terribly smart, as it led to some very interesting personal finance situations. Learn from my mistake and build a little nest egg before you start. The opportunity will still be there once you do, or you will find something even better.
Know your customer
The main difference between a successful startup and a legacy organisation is something very simple: customer focus. A startup company, by definition, is still in search of the perfect product-market fit.
How you successfully find that is by identifying a customer need that is painful enough for them to pay for it. Talk to people and potential customers. Make sure you are always listening to your customers and also observing them. People are notoriously bad at explaining their reasoning (mostly because a lot of decisions we make are automatic).
This is particularly vital to non-technical founders – you need to understand WHAT you are solving before you can work out HOW you will solve it. I can’t recount the times when I’ve heard from founders that their app isn’t achieving the desired result, only to later discover that their customer base would never use one for what the company aimed to do.
Be prepared to eat humble pie
You will be wrong. A lot. I won’t lie - it is painful. But what you get from accepting that you don’t know everything is a new kind of resilience that also enables you to ask for help with things you're not as strong at. This, in turn, helps you develop the emotional intelligence to…
Talk to smart people
It is amazing how often incredibly smart and interesting people are surprised when I ask them for advice. Surely they’d expect this all the time? Sadly not – so many of us get our heads down, tinkering away at our ideas and never share them, for fear that someone else might steal them.
I have news for you - ideas are cheap. Everyone has many, many ideas and some of them are brilliant. But unless you actually make those ideas real, they are worthless. So talk to smart people – they can help you make your ideas a reality.
Build a tribe
The downside of one of my previous points (saving money on a workplace) is that you could end up very lonely. The good news is that this is completely unnecessary. There are active communities on pretty much all social media channels – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, even LinkedIn. Many organisations also run startup-friendly networks, such as the.
Being able to compare experiences with people who have gone through and are currently going through the same journey is incredibly powerful. Not only that, the collaboration opportunities are literally endless and a smaller piece of a larger pie is great for everyone.
I hope this helps you get started. Remember - you don't have to do everything in one go. Start small, build bit-by-bit, and you'll get there.
About the Author
Merje Shaw is the Managing Director of Path59, a Shoreditch-based consultancy which helps large corporations think like startups and improve their digital presence and customer engagement. Merje is also the founder of Scandiscapes, the UK’s first dedicated online platform for Scandi design-lovers.