This article was initially published a year ago on the Launch36 blog. I stumbled on it today, and thought I should re-publish it here. Enjoy!
Launching a startup is irrational. If you’re a startup founder, you know that already. You never have enough time, you go through a roller coaster of emotions and you barely have any time for anything aside from your business. However; despite the chaos of entrepreneurship, I have chosen to embrace startup chaos and turn it into a career.
If you are still reading this, you might be asking yourself why, despite the aforementioned issues, would a 17-year old choose to be an entrepreneur? After all, wouldn’t a secure government job with a pension or a traditional career like an accountant, doctor or lawyer make for a more pragmatic choice? I choose entrepreneurship as a career because each day is different and the reward that comes with solving a problem fuels my passion for making the world a better place by creating something new from nothing.
Failure is only fatal if you quit
For over 3 years, I’ve been working on few startups and have had mixed results. I would like to take the opportunity to tell you about them and what I learned from each of those ventures.
My first startup was called Idealinput. Our goal was to help small business owners receive feedback on their marketing strategies from marketing experts at a discount.
My next venture was called Shopulse. It began as a marketplace where shoppers could find the discounted merchandise from the world’s best boutiques.
Now, some of you might wonder, what exactly did I learn from these experiments? The short answer is that there are too many to list but here are some lessons learned that could help you if you are considering or are on an entrepreneurial journey:
1. Don’t hear what you want to hear, listen!
I’m talking about validation interviews here. Validation interviews look easy: you plan your call, you might write a script, get on the phone, and boom! There you have it. It’s that easy, right? Wrong!
I believed each call validated my assumptions; however, there was one major problem… I was biased towards the greatness of my solution. Shopulse was my answer and I wanted to hear from customers that I was solving the right problem for them. Without realizing it, was ignoring the red flags. I only focused on the positive remarks and tried to justify why Shopulse would work for the customer. What a BIG mistake!
When I go back and read my interview notes again, I realized the interviewees gave me plenty of signs that Shopulse was not a scalable business model. Rather than listen, I focused on what I wanted to hear, built an MVP (Product) using my own capital only to realize later that we were not going to be able to scale. It’s hard not to fall into this trap so consider this a warning that if you believe your own hype, customer interviews could be pointless.
I did finally manage to get this straight by realizing that I was not listening to customers. Now, when I do customer interviews I try to focus on the warning signs. The problems that arise in an interview are usually problems that you’ll have to watch out for if you pursue the idea, or reasons why your idea won’t work; so don’t take them lightly and focus on the good stuff, or you’ll lose plenty or precious time and resources. And in a startup you can always make more money but you cannot buy more time…
2. Mentoring is a brain to pick, an ear to listen, and a push in the right direction
Some aspects of my business, like goal setting, validation and the process of building an MVP are all things that I thought I was doing right; turns out that I’ve been able to avoid a lot of mistakes by leveraging the advice of some amazing mentors through Launch36 and Clarity. When I was losing focus or taking unnecessary risk, mentors have helped me get me back on track. Without them, I would probably have spent 10x more cash on useless, and invalidated features.
3. Do not make simple things complicated
For entrepreneurs time is your enemy and being efficient is a priority.
I spent at least one or two months on building a “simple MVP” to show prospects. Big mistake! My OCD wanted the MVP to look real, but at the same time, I forgot that the point of an MVP is to be as simple as possible in order to validate your assumptions. As a result; it took too long to validate our assumptions, we lost precious time and money, only to realize later that we were heading in the wrong direction.
A lean startup is about making stuff simple, but we insisted on making it complicated. We learned it the hard way.
4. It is not only what we do, but also what we do not do, for which we are accountable
On June 16th of 2013, Clarity.fm founder Dan Martell and I were co-working at a local coffee shop. When we started chatting about Shopulse, he asked me if I was accountable for something, turns out my answer was no.
Being a teenager living with mom and dad, I had no paychecks or bills to pay. Therefore, if Shopulse failed or if I would not hit my goals I was accountable to nobody. I did not have something that would really push me to the max in order to reach my goals. That’s when he asked me if I wanted to do a deal, a deal that he calls, “The Martell Method”. The deal consisted of generating $800 in net profit by the end of July, or, I had to give $500 to a charity of Dan’s choosing and follow-up with a blog post explaining how and why I failed.
As you might already have guessed, I said yes, without really thinking about the deadline and the actual challenge. You are now reading this blog post, and about that $500.00, Dan ended up donating it to Charity:Water, which at least made me happy even though I failed.
Turns out this was all worth it. I benefited from accelerated learning, the feeling of working on a “real” deadline, and boy did I learn.
My biggest learnings were:
- Before accepting a challenge, think about how you can reach it, not just in your head, but do the actual math. For example, if I had been brighter on that day, I would have realized that for an e-commerce store of our kind, $800 of profit in our first month is hardly feasible.
- Smart goals are important. If you know from the start that you won’t be able to reach them, you already lost.
- Stop making things complicated.
- And all of the other lessons learned explained in the rest of this post.
5. Be sure to set attainable goals
Goals are important in order to succeed. One of the biggest mistakes I made was to keep these goals in my head. By keeping them there, they would often be postponed, modified, forgotten, and as you can imagine, it was as if they didn’t exist.
That was when I started Shopulse, and without fixed, smart goals, we were not focusing 100% on what we should have focused on in order to grow, succeed and of course, reach milestones. It took us 10 times longer than it should have taken to finalize basic tasks.
Prior to our last pivot we set clear goals that I would read everyday. It took us a maximum of one week and $0 to invalidate. Today, S.M.A.R.T. goals are part of my life, and I’m not hiding them either.
6. Failing is learning
So many people are afraid of failure, but I still don’t know why? To be honest, I was afraid to fail when I was working on my first venture, but I quickly learned that failure is not something to be afraid of. In fact, I embrace failure because of all of the learning that comes with it. More than often, people fear failure because they’re afraid of what their peers will say about them, but that’s just unwise. Be your own person and do not let others dictate your choices.
The ultimate reason why I was afraid of failing is mostly because I knew that I spent months working towards a specific goal, and failure was like if all of those months of hard work were gone. Although true, it would have been stupid of me to proceed with a startup that I knew wouldn’t work – I would lose even more time. If I would never have failed, it means that it would have been impossible for me to learn from my mistakes and get stronger for my next opportunity. Think of failure as a learning experience that will help you achieve the next step. Don’t run away from it.
To conclude, if you have the persistence, passion and motivation to be a startup founder, do it! I love every second of it; it’s the reason I wake up in the morning. I’m someone who just can’t live in the mold that society has cast for me and living an average life is not an option. The thrill of a startup is certainly exciting, and failures are part of the job, but you never stop learning. I also can’t forget about all of the amazing people in the community that have supported me on this journey. Everything that I have accomplished and learned up to this date would not have been possible without my parents, friends, and mentors. So that’s it, surround yourself with the best people you can find and success will follow.