I’ve been in the startup space for almost 3 years now, and during those 3 years, I’ve had many experiences for which I’m incredibly grateful. From pitching to billionaires at Draper University to speaking withOhio’s Speaker of the House about increasing diversity in business to winning the Catapult Incubator Demo Day, I’ve experienced the soaring highs that come with building a startup and the crushing lows that can devastate you. Below are a few lessons I’ve learned along the way.
Hold your co-workers to high standards
I first became interested in business when I was 16. I attended the MIT Launch Summer Program, a high school boot camp where we learned about entrepreneurship by actually starting startups. I owe quite a bit to Launch– not only was it a great way to get introduced to the startup world as a high school student, but Launch taught me how to think like an entrepreneur: to be optimistic and have a growth mindset. No matter how cheesy it sounds, those skills will drive you through the hardships that come with running a startup. However, looking back, one of the biggest mistakes I made early on was conflating optimism with looking past others’ mistakes. Even during MIT Launch, rather than of confronting low moral or missed deadlines I made excuses for my teammates and I often took it upon myself to do their work. This tolerance not only hurts my company, but it reduced my efficacy as a leader and it normalised behaviour that I should have nipped in the bud. Confrontation is difficult, and even today I have to make a conscious effort to hold my teammates accountable. But having high standards is the only way to succeed in the cutthroat startup world.
Choose your co-founders and first employees very carefully
Finding the right co-founder(s) is incredibly difficult. Finding great first employees is arguably even harder. After my summer at MIT Launch, I decided to continue with my idea during my senior year of high school. I knew I needed to find people to work with me, but I had no idea how to find the right team. I ended up becoming co-founders with two of my classmates. Ecstatic to have them on board, I made the rookie mistake of quickly labelling them as co-founders, neglecting to even vet them. Over the course of a year, I realised neither of my teammates had a particularly strong work ethic, neither were as committed as I was, and the one founder that had some technical experience ended up building a buggy website that cost thousands of dollars and wasn’t scalable. Long story short, bad co-founders and bad hires can be incredibly costly– both time and money-wise.
Listen to your customers
In the end, the only people that matter are your customers. If your customers love your product, you’ve reached the Holy Grail: product-market fit. I often see entrepreneurs clinging to one idea for dear life, even though no one seems particularly inspired by it. Becoming emotionally attached to your idea and ignoring your market is a dangerous game in the startup world. This past year I decided to pivot my startup from a business to consumer model to a business to business to consumer model because data showed that I hadn’t quite developed the right product for the right market. Data from your customers should be the driving force in your startup’s strategy. For me, the decision to pivot was difficult to make, but I knew listening to my customers would be the right choice in the end.
Use data to drive your decisions
Like I mentioned above, data should be the driving force in decision-making. For example, for me, the piece of data that ultimately led me to pivot my startup was a key conversion I tracked over several weeks. I was able to formulate a compelling story that showed if someone’s willingness to pay price point is met, that customer has an almost certain probability (91%) of buying. I realised I could involve businesses and have them install the Savy widget into their sites– giving them access to crucial willingness to pay data while I gain visibility forSavy. If your data tells a compelling enough user story, you shouldn’t hesitate to act on it.
Learn how to code
The first piece of advice I give to any non-technical founder who’s trying to build a tech startup is to learn how to code. It’s a daunting task, but definitely not as difficult as it seems, especially with the plethora of resources online. In fact, I’d never written a line of code before October 2015. Now, only a year later, I’ve built several websites, dev apps, site scrapers, and, most importantly, I was able to build out my vision for Savy. Learning how to code is incredibly empowering, especially when you know you have the capability of building the next Facebook right at your fingertips. If you’re looking for a good place to start, check out https://freecodecamp.com.
Scrappiness is definitely a skill that needs to be learned. One of the best examples of being scrappy I’ve come across is how the co-founder of Vungle, Jack Smith, used Linkedin ads to get into the esteemed accelerator, Angelpad (read his story here). For me, scrappiness manifests itself in several different ways– for example, I’ve developed a script that scrapes Instagram bios (sorry Mark Zuckerberg!), looking for stores that might be interested in using Savy on their websites. Even before I learned how to code, I was incredibly resourceful– taking advantage of free trials of products and reaching out to my contacts to get discounts for subscription sites.
Don’t be afraid to ask for help
Startups are hard. They’re messy. There are going to be times when you find yourself losing your focus when things start getting really hard. This is when you find people to help guide you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help– you’re going to need it to succeed. Feel free to email me if you need any help with your startup or if you have any questions firstname.lastname@example.org.