WHAT ONLINE BUSINESS ENTREPRENEURS AND OWNERS CAN LEARN FROM STARTUP FOUNDERSAfaq Khan
I have been part of tech startups twice during my corporate career. While those two startups were worlds apart in terms of the actual products, target markets and eventual exits, nonetheless I worked as the product guy and lessons learned during those gigs were pretty similar. As I stepped into online business several years ago, I realized that while there are some stark differences between an online business (or a small business) and a startup, there are also just as many similarities. There is just enormous amount of lessons and principles that online business owners and internet entrepreneurs can learn and borrow while starting, growing and scaling their businesses.
Let me summarize the 11 key lessons that in my mind would help every internet entrepreneur out there.
Lesson #1: You have to be willing to build yourself if you want to build a successful business.
Four years ago, I pretty much knew nothing about running an online business. However, that is what I wanted to do and obviously my prior corporate B2B experience in the areas of marketing, sales and engineering came super handy. However, I knew nothing about B2C and things like content marketing, SEO/SMM, traffic channels, conversion optimization, web-based tools such as wordpress or woocommerce or Stripe and building support systems to automate most of the repetitive tasks.
However, I had my reasons to pursue online business such as passive income driven business models, tooling and automation, location independence, enormous economic upside to name a few.
It was incredibly difficult to balance your time between a corporate day job and pursuing online business in your downtime. I knew it would take exceptional discipline to build something valuable and that includes learning, experimenting and doubling down on what works. After continuously learning, trying and failing some, I started to see positive results and strong consistent passive income which eventually paved the path for me to quit my day job and pursue online business full-time.
Bottom line, without strong commitment to personal development and growth, idea of building a business can easily turn into a pipe dream.
Lesson #2: You have to be willing to embrace failures.
Here, I am not referring to doing lip service to accepting failures, but rather truly embraces challenges, problems, fears, doubts, distractions, adversity and failures. If you’re not failing, then you’re still in your comfort zone which is not to be confused with strength zone which is necessary. When you start a business, honeymoon period doesn’t last much longer.
Learn from what you do and take your valuable experience to the next thing.
Lesson #3: The only way to persevere through adversity is to follow your calling or your passion.
There is no right time to follow your passion other than NOW. Now, I am not trying to suggest burning ships or jumping ships and never look back. Obviously, you have to look at where you are in your life, your responsibilities what have you, and then come up with a plan that takes you closer to your passion one step at a time. If you are sitting in your dorm, then by all means, just jump right in. Once something becomes a must, it will be done.
Let me also footnote this lesson by saying that you also need to know when you fold something, i.e. know your odds for failure as well as success.
Lesson #4: Don’t dabble and avoid the overnight success or get-rich-quick syndrome.
Let me tell you that there are no schemes or plans that can get you rich overnight. Let’s say hypothetically that there are, believe me that it matters HOW you get there, how you “achieve” success. Don’t believe me? Look around, and you will find plenty of very successful people with tons of money, but they are not content or happy or peaceful. Before you start a new venture, be sure to have good reasons why you’re doing so, and then stick to it until you drive it to its logical conclusion. It doesn’t mean that you never give up, what it means is that you don’t dabble from one venture to another without any real commitment. It is also critical to not overextend yourself with too many things when looking to increase your revenues or sales, just focus on one or two things that really matter (i.e. 80/20 rule). If you look around and look at the wealthy people, they mostly didn’t diversify their time or efforts, they started with one thing and stuck to it over a long period of time and returns were enormous (Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett etc.).
Lesson #5: No amount of funding or begging will buy you market success. Build a great product.
In a startup world, funding and valuations bring some big bragging rights. You obviously need funding for those sales, marketing and R&D spend if you are chasing a billion-dollar market. However, if you build a product for which there is no market, no amount of funding can buy you market success.
With online business, you need to focus on bringing value to your target customers. In fact, it doesn’t even matter how crowded the market is, you can always re-segment a market and cater for that tiny underserved segment to begin with. Once you’re successful, you can expand to other customer segments. Look at Amazon, Jeff bezos founded it to be the largest bookshop in the world, i.e. he didn’t start with the goal of catapulting the entire offline retail. While it is good to have a broader vision, keep in mind that execution only happens in one tense – Present.
Lesson #6: Get yourself an advisory board or a mastermind group or at least a mentor.
In a startup, without advisory board, it is virtually impossible to sail to success. If you have good mix of folks who have been there and done that, you will avoid tons of stupid mistakes.
Enroll into a mastermind or find a mentor which can be offline or online. You can also read books to learn new domains of knowledge.
Lesson #7: Deliver. Deliver. Deliver. Always be shipping.
In business, obsessive perfectionism can be lethal so treat it like a disease. Don’t ever wait until you can’t add any more bells and whistles to your product, just focus on core set of features and launch. As they say, opinions are in the building and facts are outside. You need to get your product in front of your customers and seek real unbiased feedback.
Lesson #8: Don’t hire too early or too late.
Business is not a one-man army, it is a collection of smart people who are motivated to band together to achieve something. When you’re starting out with an online business, you will be a one-man (or woman) army and that’s how it’s supposed to work. If you hire early or for wrong reasons, you will bleed valuable cash. Here are my two rules for hiring.
- It must be something that I am not good at or it is way too costly for me to spend my time on it (if you think your time is valued at $10/hour (typical rate for an overseas freelancer), then you need to pause, rethink and reboot).
- If you love or truly enjoy doing something, then don’t outsource regardless of the costs involved. We’re humans and we are most productive and creative when we’re happy and derive sense of meaning from what we do day in day out. If your blog is your “product”, then you’re the face of your brand.
Hiring employees full-time (or W2) is costly and complicated due to rules and regulations involved, take your time and wait until you’re ready. If you have to find a partner or co-founder, make sure that they have same goals as you do, or it won’t work. Ask yourself a question, what if you have to part ways with the person 3 months, what would happen? Would you be able to handle that?
Lesson #9: Celebrate the small wins.
Life as a business owner or a startup founder can be pretty lonely and full of unseen and unforeseeable challenges. Celebrate your small victories and use the positive energy to propel you forward.
Lesson #10: You and your business are two different entities.
Yes, we all love what we do and take pride in. Whether that’s a dream job or a business. However, your job or your business are NOT you. You can easily be eliminated from your job or forced to sell your business, and that is not end of the world.
Lesson #11: Start with the end (or exit) in mind.
There are countless startups out there with nice products but for various reasons they don’t make good buyout targets. If your online business is product based, as opposed to a blog or about promoting affiliate products, you need to think about the exit. Remember those movie scenes where a guy is lying down on the beach in Jamaica and sipping Pina colada? Well, let me tell you that is only possible for business owners who built something that was exit worthy and they eventually sold it. No business can be relevant or successful forever, so you have to take cash off the table when appropriate.
Last but not least, subject matter discussed in this post, as well as others, is covered thoroughly in various online courses offered by Private Label Mastery. Please feel free to share your questions or comments, I will be answering them over the next few days.