Start-up life has been depicted in television shows like “Silicon Valley”, maligned in books like Disrupted by Dan Lyons, and misunderstood by media outlets for years. For small business owners and entrepreneurs on the front lines, these popular depictions of startup and small business life are light on facts and heavy on sensational storylines.
What’s the truth about running a real small business?
- You won’t have enough money. For anything.
When you’re starting a company, you’ll want to build everything right away. Since that’s impossible, you’ll settle for a more realistic objective, but even then–you won’t have enough resources to build everything you want. That’s why so many entrepreneurs and small business owners seek investment or small business loans to help them grow. In addition to this kind of assistance, there are plenty of resources and tools designed to help you manage things like HR, benefits administration, payroll, and more. When cash is tight, you’ll rely on the tools that provide the most value.
- You’ll waste money on things that don’t help you grow.
Remember that expensive office space you had to have? Or the big ad spend you made right before you developed a cohesive marketing strategy? When you’re just starting your business, it’s more than likely you’re going to waste money on things that won’t help you grow. But here’s the thing: That’s ok. Although no one wants to make a habit of wasting money, getting a business off the ground means you’re going to make mistakes. Just be sure to learn from them–and fast.
- People will offer help and advice. Take it.
If you’re working hard to make your entrepreneurial dream a reality, the right people will eventually take note. Some of them may even offer advice and assistance in getting your business off the ground. As long as you have clarity with regard to your business relationship and you’re protecting your intellectual property, it’s ok to accept advice and help from other entrepreneurs offering insight.
- You’ll think multitasking is the answer. (It’s not.)
From entrepreneurs to small business owners and beyond–everyone has faced the pressure to do it all. But as it turns out, attempting to “do it all” results in doing very little of it well. Recent research from both the Journal of Experimental Psychology and University of California-Irvine indicates that the interruptions we face each day take a serious toll on our ability to complete basic tasks without errors. According to a New York Times article on multi-tasking, humans have a finite amount of neural resources that are used up every time we switch tasks. So, if doing it all is taking everything out of you, that’s because it actually is.Instead, advises Dharmesh Shah, entrepreneurs should try doing less. While everyone’s process is different, try to focus your week around a few core objectives versus chasing every opportunity that comes your way. This will lend focus to your week, and actually make clear what you actually need to get done.
- You’ll have competitors. Capitalize on it.
Founder of Behance Scott Belsky once said, “Great competitors help you win.” This couldn’t be more true, but a lot of first-time entrepreneurs think the key to having a successful business is being the only one with a specific idea. The truth is, competition in a particular space validates the market as a whole. So, stop worrying about whether or not there’s someone building what you are–just build it better.
- You’ll make assumptions (don’t do that).
Startups need to start doing more customer research, says Patrick Campbell of Price Intelligently.Why is that? Good question.According to Cindy Alvarez, a customer research guru at Microsoft, “Customer development is the science of establishing a market that is willing to buy the thing you’re building.” That means talking to current and prospective customers to help validate your ideas about what they ultimately want in a product or service.
- You won’t know how to prioritize.
When you’re growing your company, everything will seem important at the same time. Problem is, trying to do everything means you probably won’t do anything right. If you really want to be productive, forget about multi-tasking and instead, focus on the activities that are truly time-sensitive. That means focusing on advancing your product and providing something of value to the market. If you do this right now, all of the other frivolous markers of success will follow–if you care about them at all.
- You’ll want to read everything about improving your business, and will have (almost) no time to read at all.
On his podcast, Seeking Wisdom, Drift CEO David Cancel talks about his belief that reading is the best way to stay mentally sharp and continue learning as an entrepreneur.But he also makes it clear that if you’re incredibly busy, “reading” won’t mean hours of time devoted to the written word, but rather, small bites of consumption when it’s convenient for you.For Cancel, that means waking early on a regular basis to read actual books (not blog posts) for around a half an hour at a time. This can be an incredibly powerful practice for entrepreneurs who are strapped for time but want to remain ahead of the curve. What’s more, studies show that reading reduces stress, making the rest of your day more manageable.
- You’ll have to deal with un-sexy things like labor compliance and reporting.
Building a team of people is exciting. What’s not? Having to complete all the employee and compliance paperwork that comes with bringing new people on board.Typically, companies hire human resources professionals to manage things like benefits, compliance, and reporting. But if you’re a growing company, there may not be any budget for a staff member to own this part of your business. Still, you’re going to need to stay mindful of Affordable Care Act and other issues if you want to avoid fines.Fortunately, there are free tools that manage all of the paperwork and processes that go with hiring new employees. To streamline your HR and stay compliant, it makes sense for small businesses to take advantage of them.
- You’re going to have to hire people. And sometimes, fire them.
Hiring people is a lot more than recruiting them. It’s also about building an effective onboarding program that prepares people for their early days on the job, and then finding ways to retain your top talent over time. But there will be people who, no matter the level of effort you invest, are either not a good fit, or not cut out for the role. In the event that’s the case, it’s important to take the necessary steps to help them find other opportunities that are a better fit.
- You’re not going to have any messaging. Or content. Or marketing.
When you’re moving at a million miles a minute, and have a tight budget to work with, marketing won’t be top priority. Finding the right messaging and effective channels takes a lot of time, effort, and refinement. Save big investments for when you have established your marketing messaging and are ready to invest in your website and other creative.
- Your product isn’t going to be for everyone right away.
Used by more than 30,000 teams around the world, Slack is the darling of chat clients these days. But it wasn’t always this way. When founder Stewart Butterfield rolled out the product initially, he didn’t know who would be a good fit for the product. That’s why he set out to make customer feedback a priority early on.There’s another key takeaway from Slack’s early experience: Whatever you call your beta, however you announce and operate it, it’s a crucial phase in your product’s development. Wring every bit of feedback that you can from it.By making it a priority to talk to as many types of users as possible, Slack was able to iterate on the product until it reflected people’s wants and needs.
- You’ll compete with bigger companies for the same talent.
In tight labor markets, it’s more than likely you’ll compete to secure the same talent that big corporations are vying for. While some prospective employees are better suited to a small company versus a big one (or vice versa) you can do your best to make inroads into the best talent by providing outstanding benefits, great perks, and giving your company a one-of-a-kind identity through a thriving culture. Instead of trying to be something you aren’t, highlight precisely what makes your company unique and focus on the strengths of your team.
- Your best people will leave.
Building an amazing team is of paramount importance. You’ll put time, effort, and considerable thought into landing the people who will make your business a success. Then, one day, it’s likely that they’ll move on. Maybe it won’t be right away (especially if you know how to keep your top talent), but at some point people will outgrow their roles and have made their contributions to your company’s culture. Do your best to hold onto your best employees for as long as you can, and when it’s time for them to move on, let go with grace.
- You’ll have to deal with legal issues.
Startups and small businesses face a lot of challenges early on that can be discouraging. The good news is, with a little discussion and legwork upfront, founders can avoid a lot of common legal pitfalls. The first and perhaps most important lesson is, Don’t assume people have your best interests at heart. That means go the extra mile to form a proper business entity (LLC, corporation, etc.) and if applicable, be clear with your co-founder(s) about equity, titles, responsibilities, and fundraising. By addressing these issues now, you’ll be in a good place later on to deal with legal issues you’ll likely encounter later on that have to do with the operations side of running your business.
- You’ll face enormous challenges.
In The Hard Thing About Hard Things: Building A Business When There Are No Easy Answers, author Ben Horowitz describes in excruciating detail the struggles he faced as an entrepreneur. Just when it seems like he’s faced all of the challenges he could possibly face, there are more ahead.
- You’ll build the future you imagine for yourself.
The struggle and hardship mentioned above are the dimensions of entrepreneurship and small business that a lot of the books and movies leave out. Why? Because, it’s not glamorous–it’s serious. But through that hard work, committed people end up building the future they imagine for themselves and their employees. And that, though decidedly different than what popular media would have us believe about the experience, is the most rewarding experience of all.