I've been accused of being a serial entrepreneur. Some of us just have it in our blood. I started my first business in grade school, baking challah bread with my grandmother's recipe and selling it to neighbors on my bike. A huge success at first, my enterprise hit a snag when I scaled too fast and ended up with a quadruple batch of dough that quickly overwhelmed my non-commercial kitchen. I was subsequently shut down by the health department (aka, my parents). Live and learn.
Twenty-plus years and several businesses later—including the 11-year-old Table XI—I've learned some other things, too. Here are five things I'd tell any entrepreneur trying to get a business off the ground:
1. Learn about your customer’s needs and try as hard as possible to deliver a solution that solves the customer’s business problem.
Whether you’re running a product or a service-based business, make sure you're solving a real business problem. Pretty pictures or a big pile of features are totally useless if the problem is not meaningfully solved. Solving problems relies on subject matter expertise, which can be gained through experience working in a target industry or acquired by carefully listening to your prospective customers.
2. Hire the best people you can possibly find and treat them like people, not like interchangeable resources.
Karma is real: Be mindful of it in the way you deal with your employees, prospects, business partners, and clients. You’ll be rewarded by loyalty, flexibility, and referrals of other prospective clients and team members.
At Table XI we employ the whole person. Our developers are some of the best coders out there, but they’re also film buffs, foodies, musicians, gamers, and marathon runners. We like that. We try to provide innovative spaces and resources to do the work—some of our most popular workstations are standing desks—as well as reasonable hours and flexible schedules that fit our team’s lifestyles and allow them to pursue their personal interests. We find ways to tap into their creativity and passions in the projects they work on. Ultimately our work is better for it, our team is happier, and we find we’re able to recruit and retain top talent in an increasingly tough market.
3. Watch your cash. Many perfectly profitable businesses fail due to cashflow and capitalization issues.
Told to me first by Sam Harris, who ran his own insurance agency for years, this point is ultra pragmatic, but true. You need to know where you stand with cash at all times and structure your products and services around the realization of cash. If you can't pay your employees or your vendors, you're dead in the water. One of the first things I did when I started Table XI was begin building a relationship with a bank. We applied for a line of credit as early as possible. We’re still with the same bank today, and they’ve supported us every step of the way, even through the occasional sticky situation.
4. Read Guy Kawasaki’s The Art of the Start.
In my view this is the single best book on entrepreneurship ever written. Among other things, it talks about the importance of making meaning (vs. money), creating a mantra (vs. a mission statement), pitching constantly, and communicating succinctly (the 10/20/30 rule). I’ve recommended this book to every aspiring entrepreneur I’ve ever talked to, and used its core principles to help launch every company I’ve ever started. Additionally, I'd suggest checking out The Entrepreneur's Guide to Business Law, which looks at the legal issues that can arise during the different stages of launching a business, and discusses strategies for dealing with them.
5. Work on something you’re passionate about—don’t do it for the money.
Ideally, you’re going to be locked into this project for a long time, working long nights and making sacrifices (often daily) to get your idea off the ground. The best advice I can give you is to love what you’re doing. Sometimes, despite having the best team, technology, and ideas, the money still doesn’t show up. The hard truth is that many businesses fail, so you might as well enjoy the ride.
Entrepreneurship is hard work, requiring dedication that goes beyond 9-to-5. These are just a handful of suggestions to get you going, but there's a lot more to the discussion if you're thinking about starting a business. If you're already an entrepreneur, what would you add to this list? I love hearing others' stories and talking to people who are trying to launch new ventures, so leave your thoughts below if you'd like to connect.