What I Learned as a Founder

IMG_0319I spoke at the wonderful InspireFest last week - as part of the Founder series - and offered up 10 lessons from my days as a startup entrepreneur. Here they are:

I made a whole bunch of mistakes and learned a whole bunch of lessons as a startup entrepreneur and to kick off this session with the great founders you’ll be hearing from this afternoon, I thought I’d share some of these with you. Some are a little contrarian, others so basic you’ll wonder why I’m spending time on them. But what’s “easy” is sometimes the hardest to digest and follow.

1. The first lesson I learned was that having a perspective from one side of the table, as a mentor and angel investor doesn’t help you when you become an entrepreneur. The minute I crossed that bridge and lifted that lens I was deaf, dumb and blind all over again. I was emotionally involved again. I fell in love with my product’s features and functionality again and cared less about the actual market. And that’s a very dangerous place to be. Always be market driven.

2. The second lesson is that being busy is not the same as being productive. It’s nice to be known and saluted the minute you walk into a networking event. It’s nice to have a calendar full of coffees. These things can make the lonely entrepreneur feel like they’re accomplishing something, but the chances are you’re not helping your business. I’ve lived in that false economy of busy and it’s another dangerous place to be.

3. The third lesson is choose carefully. Like New York, Dublin’s startup ecosystem is maturing and you’ve lots of choice in the third party talent you engage for your company - the legal and accounting firms, PR and marketing folks, mentoring programs and workshops, even investors. You may be just a startup now but you’re going big places and to get there you need to have the confidence to seek out and demand the best support you can get from the ecosystem that surrounds you.

4. There are no shortcuts. This was a hard lesson for me to learn: Noone out there in the world has THE answer for you and your business - no mentor or investor, no matter how experienced, can tell you how to get the most bang for your buck on your marketing budget, or where to focus your bus dev efforts, or what your pricing model should be. It’s your job as an entrepreneur to go through the discovery process in a systematic way and find the light at the end of the tunnel. Seek great mentors, listen to their advice and then test it out. The market will tell you whether you’re going in the right direction or not.

5. Tech is challenging. If your product has tech and you’re not tech become an expert listener and communicator, quick. I had a super smart, super patient technical co-founder and we still struggled every day to communicate on product related matters. In a world where you speak different languages, you discover soon enough that yes can actually mean no, no can mean maybe and maybe can mean product tradeoffs you don’t want to make. Every day must be a successful team communication day.

6. The job of the entrepreneur is to be a poet and a plumber. Most of the time I was pretty good at telling a product and strategy story that inspired people and got them excited. I was less good at the numbers. Successful businesses love numbers: acquisition costs, lifetime value of customers, deal sizes and velocity, margins, cash flow, revenue, usage, retention, attrition. Before, during and after. To succeed, get up close and personal with the digits my friends.

7.  Hustle is critical but nothing beats having an in-depth understanding of the macro market you’re selling into. Beyond prospects and competitors, I mapped out a community around my product - like my own town hall of bloggers, reporters, events, investors, trade groups, service providers, investors and partners. I knew the people who were feeding knowledge and value into different stages of my market and where to find them globally. It amazes me how few entrepreneurs do this exercise, when all the information is freely out there for them to gather.

8. REALLY like your cofounder, I mean, Come-to-my-house-for-dinner-on-a-regular-basis, like them. If you don’t, your business will be a slog at best, a failure at worst.

9. Beware of “ good enough”. If you find yourself constantly competing with existing solutions that your prospects call “good enough” you probably haven’t found a problem that needs fixing. I’ve been there and it isn’t fun, so think long and hard before continuing down that rocky road.

10. Finally. Clear of the hype and the entrepreneurial industrial complex, be honest and smart about what your business needs at every stage in your development. I spent a lot of time early on in my startup looking for funding I didn’t need. In lots of types of early stage business funding doesn’t come first, it comes second, after product, customers and sometimes even revenue. Set milestones and make the decisions that will help you to achieve them and succeed at every stage in your business.

Niamh Bushnell

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