Advice from a young entrepreneur: 5 business strategies to adopt in 2017
In his latest blog, 25 year-old start-up founder James Gupta draws on the business lessons he's learnt from the last 12 months. Heed his advice...
Having stirred up conversation on Startups.co.uk with this article on the ‘vanity metrics’ used by start-up businesses, Synap founder – and serial young entrepreneur – James Gupta is back with his latest blog. With 2017 on the horizon, Gupta shares the business lessons he’ll be taking into the New Year…
I’m writing this from a plane headed to South Africa, for my first holiday in almost two years. It’s been an exciting, but busy few months at my own company Synap, that’s seen us grow from 0 to 1,000 paying customers, our first commercial contract, and our first employees.
As things wind down for Christmas, I thought I’d take stock of the key things I’ve learned over the last year. In no particular order…
1) Practice articulating your vision
I often find it easier to explain other people’s business ideas than my own. Over the last year, I’ve become increasingly aware that this isn’t a particularly unique thing to me – a lot of founders struggle to concisely articulate their vision to investors, family or journalists.
Whilst seemingly counter-intuitive, this is a completely understandable phenomenon. When you’re so closely involved with something, it can be hard to ‘see the forest through the trees’ – when someone asks about your company, you instinctively want to tell them about everything you’re doing, and plan to do in the future.
This doesn’t mean that there isn’t a core business idea behind your company, but it does mean that maybe you don’t fully appreciate what it is. One of the reasons we encourage people to not only practice quizzes, but to write their own on Synap is that writing something down and explaining it to someone else betters your own understanding too.
As the founder of a company, you need to understand what the core idea behind your company is – not only for your own benefit – but so that you can then explain and sell that vision to investors, employees, directors, journalists and customers.
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Practice articulating your vision; with friends, in front of a mirror, or by writing it down in a journal, but practice it often and test out different ways of doing it until you find a winning analogy, metaphor or phrase. Not only will you understand your company better, but everyone around you will too.
2) Try to make yourself redundant
As the company grows bigger and bigger, I’ve become increasingly wary of the question “So, what do you do?” from friends. They already know I run a company so clearly that’s not the answer they’re looking for… they want to know what I actually do.
In any other job this is a relatively straightforward question but, in our case, it’s more difficult. What I ‘do’ varies tremendously from week to week, it depends on what needs doing at that time. A few months ago, I was mostly focused on doing our accounts but this month something else has come up so I’ve been helping to develop our iOS application. In January I expect I’ll be focusing more on pitching.
I think what the last 12 months, in particular, has shown me is that as the CEO of an early-stage company you do whatever you need to do. No job is above or beneath you.
Your long term aim – and indeed the only way your company can ever grow past the ‘sole trader’ stage – is to delegate responsibility to other people, and (assuming you plan on exiting at some point) ultimately to make yourself redundant.
This is more challenging than it seems. Firstly, handing over packages of work isn’t something that can be done overnight. A monkey with a calculator would make a better bookkeeper than I would, but for me to successfully handover that task requires some careful consideration with regards to how we manage our expenses and what software we use, and then sourcing and identifying the right person (or team) to manage it for us.
That in itself requires planning, training, resource investment that has to come from you. After you do delegate a piece of work, you still need to retain oversight over it; there will be mistakes, there will be miscommunication, and ultimately the buck stops with you.
Finally, delegating only frees up your time in so much as you are free to spend more time on a different piece of work, as a CEO something is always next in the queue.
‘Making yourself redundant’ might seem like a self-defeating goal to aim for, and of course it’s a little hyperbolic, but if you think about the steps you’d need to take in order to make yourself redundant in the long term – you’ll come up with a plan for making your business self-sustaining, and spending your own time on the areas where you can add the most unique value.
3) Remember to breathe
The easiest thing to do when running a company is to disengage from relationships and hobbies and focus 100% on the task at hand.
It’s hard to spot when you’re overdoing it, and of course there are some weeks where you just have to roll your sleeves up, pop a caffeine tablet and get on with it but, in the long term, that single-minded devotion to one thing can be just as harrowing as any other addiction.
It’s important to take a step back once in a while from your business and focus on other aspects of your life. Not only for the mental benefits that come with maintaining healthy relationships and experiencing different things, but also because a lot of our best ideas come when we’re not actively working on a problem.
Our brains consolidate and organise information – creating new mental models and updating old ones – and they mostly do it when we’re disengaged from the thought process itself. This is why we have the phrase ‘sleep on it’. In fact, according to some research, it’s the reason as to why we dream; it’s why Archimedes had his best ideas in the bath and it’s why companies put ping pong tables in their offices.
So rather than keeping you from getting things done, spending time working on your hobbies and your relationships will actually help your company in a big way. Furthermore, many of the most innovative ideas come from outside the realm in which they are applied.
By maintaining interests in a number of different areas – whether that’s military history, music, ballet or football – you’re going to discover more concepts and metaphors which you can absorb and apply to other areas of your life, including your business.
My personal example is reading. I always tell myself that I don’t have enough time to read an actual book yet, every time I do, I know that I discover at least one new concept that I can actively apply to my role as a CEO. In 2017 I’m going to try to avoid the ‘I’m too busy!’ excuse and make some time for reading something completely unrelated to business.
4) Don’t let perfect be the enemy of the good
As the founders of companies, we have a particular vision for our product and this can be both a blessing and a curse.
It’s a blessing because the vision is often what inspires us to start a company in the first place and, when articulated well, it’s also what rallies other people around us and it becomes embedded in the DNA of the company itself.
However, it can also be a curse because it’s hard for reality – constrained by time and money – to live up to expectations. In the real world, compromises have to be made. If you’re a start-up running on a shoestring budget then your app probably isn’t going to be as slick as something from AirBnB or Spotify, who have had millions or billions invested into development, and can attract the best talent from across the world to work with them.
In software development, we refer to the phrase ‘Always be Shipping’, i.e. – have a release schedule, and stick to it. If you let things delay your release over and over again, then you’ve allowed the pursuit of perfection to become the enemy of the good.
Nothing is ever perfect. Everything is a compromise. Something is better than nothing.
Every founder has a vision – but no-one delivers 100% of their vision on the first release, not even the legendary stubborn Steve Jobs. Successful founders are those who can find the right balance of something between perfection and nothing.
5) If everything you do pays off, you’re not taking enough risks
In other jobs, generally speaking, your duty is to avoid failure. In start-ups, failure is a near certainty and your job is simply to mitigate the effects of it.
Start-ups play a unique and crucial role in the economy – they can grow incredibly quickly and, in doing so, offer very lucrative returns for those who invest their time and money into them. The price we pay is risk. Early stage businesses are incredibly risky, and the combined jobs of founders and investors is to identify good ideas and steer the teams to success.
Risk, and therefore failure, is inherent to this process. Failure happens in the start-up community as a whole – as evidenced by the daunting failure rates of early-stage businesses – but it also happens with particular initiatives within any given company.
Over the last year, my business has had a number of failures. For example, we’ve tried different ways of marketing our product – some of which have been completely untenable, some of which have been so-so, and others that have been very successful.
We had to try them all out because otherwise we wouldn’t have known what worked. Sure, we can make educated guesses based on our knowledge and the collective knowledge within our sector, but ultimately we had to try different marketing tactics out for ourselves. As Thomas Eddison said, “I didn’t fail 1,000 times, I discovered 1,000 ways not to make a lightbulb” – and that’s what you need to do too.
In an early stage business, if everything you do works – if all the features you suggest adding are well received and adopted, if every marketing plan goes off without a hitch, and every new hire is a perfect match – then you should strongly consider whether you’re playing it too safe.
There’s nothing wrong with playing it safe if you’re working in a larger company that’s what you’ve been hired to do but, in a start-up, people have invested in you to do something that hasn’t been done before.
You should operate on the assumption that other people have also made investments in the same space, and unless you take a few risks, they will beat you to it.
My advice for 2017?
There is no single ‘right way’ to run a start-up, and no single guide that can tell you what to do. Everyone has their own personal styles, and there are some things you can only learn through experience.
These are a few of my tips that I’ve picked up over the last year but the general point I think is to remember to take care of yourself and take a step back when required. Hobbies, relationships and other interests can often be an advantage, rather than a hindrance to your success.
Taking a step back from the day-to-day, in order to focus on the bigger picture once in a while, can be hugely beneficial.
Twitter: @gupta_james Web: synap.ac