There’s an old saying about first time entrepreneurs — they don’t know what they don’t know.
It can be both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes, this ignorance can work in your favor. First time entrepreneurs have the advantage of unchecked optimism, wide-eyed enthusiasm, and they aren’t slowed down by the apprehensions that caution more seasoned entrepreneurs. But more often than not, this ignorance holds them back. If you’re a first time entrepreneur with an early stage business, there are mistakes that you are making right now that are preventing your business from taking off — mistakes that you probably don’t even realize you’re making.
These mistakes manifest in subtle ways, or don’t impact your life or business until years later, when it’s too late. In the end, you always end up learning them the same way — the hard way.
That’s why I’ve put this list together. These are things I’ve gleaned from the dozens of successful entrepreneurs I’ve interviewed for my podcast, combined with the lessons from my own entrepreneurial experience. You see, I’ve spent more than a decade launching companies like SnackNation, and believe me, I’ve made my fair share of these mistakes too. Here are the top three mistakes that early stage entrepreneurs make and how to fix them, so you can learn the smart way, not the hard way.
Mistake 1. Starting a business without thinking about scale.
My Kolbe score registers me as a high “Quick Start,” meaning that I have an appetite for initiating change and disruption. As an entrepreneur, it means I love taking a new idea and getting it off the ground.
I’d be willing to bet that a lot of you are Quick Starts too. As entrepreneurs, when we see that there’s a problem to solve and that we’re in a position to solve it, we are champing at the bit to get started. We start off so passionately, virtually obsessed with our new idea and getting it off the ground. The problem comes when we fail to think about the next steps.
When I started my first healthy vending business right out of college, I was so inspired. I knew that there was a need for healthier nutrition options at places like hospitals and health clubs, and all I wanted to do was jump in and get things off the ground as fast as possible. What I didn’t realize was how difficult this concept would be to scale. It wasn’t until I had friends and relatives stocking vending machines for me in other states that I realized I needed a more efficient solution.
Eventually my partners and I solved the problem, but I didn’t give it enough consideration early on — and paid the price.
The fix: Factor in scale from the very beginning. As you develop your product and think about launching it, always ask yourself, “then what?”
Think of your idea as a point on the map, and then circle out. How do I solve this problem for myself and my close family and friends? What about the rest of my city? What about cities in other states? What about nationally? Internationally? How do I reach these new people and create demand? How do I maintain a fantastic experience for my new customers as we continue to expand outward? The point is, think about the needs of the business at every stage, and make sure there is a viable path to scale up. Of course you won’t have all the answers right away, but you’ll be able to spot major obstacles early, and choose the right path for you.
Mistake 2. Failing to realize that people are everything.
I truly believe it. People are everything when it comes to business, and the degree of alignment of the people in your business — employees and customers alike — will largely determine its success.
Sure, there are business fundamentals that have to be in place — things like product-market fit, strategy and market potential. But what took me some time to realize is that these are all secondary concerns. People actually trump everything else in your company.
This might seem counterintuitive, but makes sense when you dig in. Think about the etymology of the word company itself. It’s just a military term, meaning a body of people. And what else is a company but a collection of people, working towards the same goal?
Who you choose to join you on this journey is hugely important, and only becomes more important as the business matures and scales. You have to find people who are aligned with your mission, contribute positively to your culture, and are engaged and mindful in their work. And you have to foster an environment that will help you keep them engaged.
It took me a while to reach this conclusion on my own. For me it all came down to the type of problems I was facing. We all know that problems are a fact of life. In the early stages of a business, it’s a matter of dealing with good or bad problems. I found that I didn’t mind tackling problems related to the product, technology or strategy. To me, these were the good problems, because these were usually solvable.
The bad problems were the ones that couldn’t be solved, and at their core, they were almost always people problems. These are the headaches you deal with because you have the wrong people on your team, have the wrong people advising you or are targeting the wrong customers. If there’s a lack of alignment with any of these groups, you usually have to end the relationship and move on.
Discovering this has been a process for me, but the sooner an early stage entrepreneur understands this, the better.
The fix: Think of yourself more as a coach than a player. If people are the most important part of a business, effectively coaching people to do their best is the most important role for any entrepreneur. In the early stages, when your team is small, you will definitely still be doing your share of the heavy lifting. But as you grow, your contribution will become more about coaching your team, providing a vision and roadmap, and inspiring greatness in others.
Mistake 3. Being too afraid to ask for help.
I see it so often. Early stage entrepreneurs whose businesses either fail, or come really close, because of a very solvable problem that spiraled out of control.
Most of the time, the problem in question could have been nipped in the bud immediately if only the entrepreneur had done one thing — picked up the phone and asked someone for help.
Unfortunately, fear prevents most entrepreneurs from actually doing so. To a lot of entrepreneurs, asking for help is a sign of weakness, and they are convinced that success ultimately depends on maintaining the perception that everything is perfect. Bad leaders don’t take kindly to constructive criticism and would rather fail on their own than accept advice from others.
I should know, because I used to think this way as well. I used to be obsessed with being right and perfect all the time. Asking for help was completely out of the question. Like so many of us, I was raised to believe the old adage, “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself,” and I felt like I was the only one who could overcome the obstacles my company faced.
The truth is, there are tons of great people out there who are both willing to help and in a much better position to actually solve the problem than you are. That’s because they’ve been there before and can provide the solution much more quickly, and with far less pain.
The fix: Surround yourself with great mentors. There are tons of people out there who are more than willing to help out a fellow entrepreneur. I used to believe that people wouldn’t be willing to help me unless I had something to offer or if I reached a certain level of success. It’s simply not the case.
Forming these relationships does take some work. I actually set aside an hour each week in my calendar to maintain the most important relationships. It’s usually a matter of a quick email check-in, where I don’t ask for anything, but just see how he or she is doing or provide an update on my life or business.
Once a month I also rate my relationships. I give them a letter grade, and those who fall below the mark get my immediate attention. People are actually looking for deeper, more meaningful connections. As long as you allow yourself to be genuine, curious and even a bit vulnerable, you’ll be able to establish invaluable relationships with people who you can rely on in moments of crisis.
For an even deeper dive on these topics, subscribe to The Awesome Office podcast on iTunes.