Start-ups never have and will never be easy. You’re trying to start your own business from nothing and break into a market that’s probably already over-competitive. But the fact is, every business, no matter how big or small, starts from somewhere, and all of them have struggled to make their mark at some point.
My journey was no different when it began back in 2004. It was difficult, and I faced problems that were impossible to anticipate; prejudices, social norms, and internal conflicts made sure of that. But if I had quit then, I could never have known that years later, it would become the software house it is today.
Having said all that, do I have a foolproof plan for you to get your start-up off the ground? No, but what I can give you are the things I’ve learned trying to make it to this point, and hopefully, you can put that knowledge to good use.
1. Be opportunistic!
“I’ve always said I’m a very opportunistic person. I see an opportunity, and I jump at it!”
Would you believe that I never even knew that my future was to be an entrepreneur? I was studying medicine at first! But when the opportunity came knocking at the door, I took it and ran with it in the form of helping my dad run his business.
New businesses especially should jump at every opportunity! None are too big and none too small. Listen to your gut and take risks when you want to. No one’s a better judge of your potential than you, after all.
It was only through taking risks and grasping every new opportunity that I managed to build Genetech up—always following my gut.
2. Don’t get comfy
Once you get comfy, that’s when your growth stops.
One should never get too comfy with their company or start-up’s position, not even briefly. They should always be reaching for new heights, tackling more challenges, and moving forward.
A perfect example of this was when a similar situation occurred in Genetech, not a few years ago.
The company got too comfy with the incoming revenue at the time, slowly becoming static. But then we took a huge blow when a (particularly loaded) client decided to up and leave, all of the sudden. It took a whole year of damage control for the company to heal from a hit that bad. Not to mention we had the threat of shutting down looming over our heads constantly.
Thus, no matter how unnecessary it may seem, it’s always important to keep growing and keep climbing. You never know when life’s going to decide to knock you down a couple of pegs after all.
3. Experience vs. Book-learned, which side should you be on?
Books are a nice boost, that’s true, but they don’t teach you how to navigate your market socially or how to make sure you have the right employees, and they definitely don’t teach you when you should be taking risks. If that were true, then every graduate from business school would be running a Fortune 500 company!
You learn all of that through experience.
Initially, I had neither. Gaining experience from my work and learning what I could on the side, I had to balance both forms of knowledge to better myself as a businesswoman. Neither one is better than the other; if you want to be successful, you should try to have both.
4. A company is only as strong as its members. Who do you employ?
“I would watch to see, do they look me in the eyes? Or are they looking away? I won’t employ anyone that can’t look me in the eye when they talk.”
So you know to start small, but who do you even employ? Not everyone is going to be the perfect fit, right?
Well, when hiring someone, I look for three things;
Gauge the first two by watching how people present themselves in the interview, their posture, language, and eyes. All three factors of an interview tell you something different about the person sitting in front of you.
Then gauge ethics by questioning them about their previous employer. The logic behind this being, if they didn’t respect their previous employer, what are the chances they’ll be any different when working for you?
Always remember, you can teach technical skills, not personality traits.
5. If time is money, get ready to invest a fortune.
“There were a lot of nights I slept at 2 or 3 am; some nights were just no sleep. There was even a time I was at my desk till 2 am on the night of Eid!”
If you plan on seriously starting and running a business, you should be prepared to put in some serious amount of time and effort. It’s only through tireless work that you’ll be able to get your idea off the ground. Otherwise, you shouldn’t even bother trying to make it work.
There will be nights when you get home at 3 am, and there will be nights when you don’t go home at all. You spend the whole night working, take a 15 min power nap at your desk, down a cup of coffee, and start the next day. And that’s okay! You get the luxury to choose your hours once you’ve established yourself, so better get to work!
6. Leap when you need to, but be smart about it.
I took many risks to get Genetech off the ground, but you should consider other factors before doing so. For example;
– Always do your calculations! If this project succeeds, what will the profit be? What would the loss be? A project with a higher potential loss than profit just isn’t worth it.
– Always remember to gauge whoever it is you’re taking the risk on or with. Chances are, you will probably have some gut feelings about them.
– And finally, always remember to consult your team. Your team is your biggest asset and a part of the company too, plus they will most likely have ways of looking at the situation that you do not.
7. Let’s talk about finances.
Now no one likes talking about finances!
Nevertheless, it’s essential. When you start a business, you need to financially sustain it for a while since it will take that long before you stop losing money, let alone make a profit.
By my estimates, a new business owner should be starting with enough liquidation to support the company for at least eight months to a year!
This allows you to take the time to work out any kinks in your business plan and sets your company on the right track! All without having to worry about any annoying financial problems that may take up precious time and resources.
8. Evolution is key, observe and improve.
“I would always watch other companies and see, okay, what are they doing? Will that work here? What about here? No? Okay, leave it.”
When starting out with a company, it’s fair to wonder about the specifics. How many employees do I begin with, and how much should I pay them? How big of office space should I start with?
Well, the answer to that is simple! There is none. Depending on the industry you work in, all of these questions have different answers.
What you should do, and what I did, is to let your company grow naturally. Observe the market and your competitors, change what is needed according to necessity, that’s evolution. And to grow, your company will need to evolve constantly.
The Bonus Tips!
Can’t fish with just a stick, can’t run a company with just one skill.
“One thing I hate more than anything is a team filled with people who are the same. Every team needs to be diverse, I don’t care where you got your degrees from.”
When it comes to assembling your management team, diversity is critical! Find one person who’s good at finances, one person good at business decisions, one good with technical aspects, and so on.
And besides technical diversity, it’s important to have a team with good gender diversity, class diversity, etc. People come from all walks of life, they all accumulate different experiences, which makes it, so the way they think is different from yours. That’s the way I do things in Genetech, and that’s how I can make sure I always see the bigger picture.
Having a team of like-minded people with the same story as you? You severely limit yourself, only seeing one possible path out of many. Don’t do that. The more cards on the table, the more choices you have, and the more options you have, the more chances you have to make the right decision.
Guerrilla marketing, if you don’t use every resource you’re already losing.
Guerrilla marketing refers to a type of marketing deemed “unconventional.” Most companies tend to stay away from it. But not Genetech, and not me! I figured out a way to market the company’s services that still bring in most customers.
Without going into too much detail, Genetech’s advertising model focuses on monetarily rewarding clients for sending more customers our way.
Many organizations tend to look down on this kind of marketing, but when you’re a start-up just trying not to fall into a loss, you use every tool on your belt. Even if your marketing choice is non-conventional, if it’s bringing in clients, you’d better be using it.
I’ve done my share of time as a mentor. I’ve imparted my experience and knowledge on people time and time again. But it takes more than just listening and taking notes to turn an idea into a successful business; it takes effort.
No matter the industry, no matter the size, and no matter the finances. From a start-up to massive corporations, every business needs to work just as hard to stay in the game. There will be sleepless nights, financial problems, arguments, and scares, but you only lose once you give up. These tips may help now and then, but the real key to success lies in your idea and motivation. Best of luck!