Living the dream: The realities of starting a business

Huddle co-founder Alastair Mitchell shares the five business maxims that made the difference in his start-up story

Chances are, if you’re reading you’ve either made the leap and set-up your own company or you’re an aspiring entrepreneur who is either just about to or seriously considering pursuing your own venture.

Having set up Huddle back in 2006 with Andy McLoughlin, I’m all too aware of the trials and tribulations of turning your dream into a reality. And believe me, in the first few years, it involves working long hours, a terrible diet (pizza is the staple of entrepreneurs nationwide!) and almost constant feelings of uncertainty. But, for every down there are numerous ups and life as an entrepreneur sends you on an incredible journey.

You can go from feeling like Richard Branson one minute to Del Boy the next. Huddle has now grown from a two-person bedroom start-up to a company with 200 people, offices in San Francisco and New York, and clients such as SEGA, Kia Motors, Unilever and the Cabinet office, so I can assure you that the roller coaster ride is worth it!

In the spirit of sharing the entrepreneurial wisdom, here the top five tips I’d like to impart to all the aspiring young entrepreneurs out there.

1. Spend every waking hour researching and developing your idea

When setting up your own company, you need to spend every free moment working on your idea. Yes, this may get you into trouble with your other half and prove a challenge when you’re balancing your current job with your new venture, but you want to make sure you get it right. Look at what is out there already, what’s in the pipeline and see if there really is a market for your idea. Your friends and family might not necessarily be the best people to bounce an idea off – they’ll try and be as nice as possible! – so try and find a mentor that can give you a steer in the right direction and some objective advice.

2. Be uncompromising in your vision

Ensure that you don’t add to the endless list of bad products in the world and trust your gut feeling. Organisations live and die by their products so you have to focus on building the very best product you can. While you can certainly seek and take advice from trusted advisers and mentors, don’t dilute your product too much. Andy and I had a very clear and simple goal when we set up Huddle and that was to help people get their jobs done and work better together. This remains the foundation of the business today.

3. Network, network and network some more

Your network of contacts is vital and will prove invaluable when you’re looking to expand your team and gain feedback on your product or service. Take advantage every connection you have – help can come from the most random places. My first boss was Huddle’s original angel investor and this initial funding helped us get started. While online networking has never been easier thanks to LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook and other sites, there really is no substitute for meeting people in the flesh.

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4. Your customers are key – get them involved as soon as you can

Customers provide invaluable feedback, the comfort factor for prospects and proof that there is something tangible to your business for potential investors. Whether it’s an in-depth case study, press announcement or a simple logo and one-line testimonial for the website, having a customer willing to say “we use this and we love it” is as powerful a marketing message as one could wish for. Happy customers will be an extension of your marketing team (when you eventually have one) and true evangelists for your company, so place them at the heart of your business.

5. Be ruthless from the off

It’s not a problem to give away a chunk of your business as you get started – but be mindful of how much it is worth and be ruthless from the very first day. Even at the beginning, you need to be firm and strong when negotiating and doing deals. If you let people walk all over you, you’ll set a precedent from that point onwards for people to take advantage of you and get the upper hand in any negotiations.

And most of all – enjoy it!

Alastair Mitchell co-founded enterprise content collaboration company Huddle with Andy McLoughlin in 2006. Since then the company has raised $40m of venture capital in a series of rounds, has offices in London, San Francisco and New York, and names 80% of the Fortune 500 and UK central government as its clients.


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