Stress, pain, misery. Starting a small business sounds like fun. And it is, actually–fun, rewarding, and ultimately life-changing. But it’s also a huge undertaking, which shouldn’t be approached with a half-baked attitude. You’re not a candidate on The Apprentice, willing to stake your hopes and dreams on a comedy business plan that would be laughed out of any serious investor’s office. This is your life, and the livelihood of your family. It’s your chance to turn your idea into a reality.
It’s no coincidence that start-up similes almost always end up being about marathon runners. Of all the small businesses that make it, none have done so by luck. Getting off the blocks is one thing. Running the race to the finish line is quite another. You’ll need to do the business equivalent of training, eating right, and listening to the people who know how to push you further. And that process begins with a few home truths. Knowing what you’re getting into is the only way to understand what you’ll have to do to make it.
So get your mental gym shoes on, and come with us. We’re going on your first training run…
If you don’t believe in your brand, no-one else will. It’s the simplest, oldest and truest bit of wisdom in the small business playbook. You can’t pitch an idea you can’t get behind. And you can’t navigate through the tough times if you’re sailing a ship you don’t love. The simple reality of every start-up is this: if it’s going to succeed, you have to be able to convince investors, clients, and staff to come on board. If you can’t even convince yourself, it’s all over.
Doing the same stuff as all the other brands, but a little bit better? Same same but different isn’t good enough. For a start-up to make an impact, it’s got to offer a completely new way of solving consumer problems. For every successful small business, there are hundreds of ideas that didn’t make it off the drawing-board. Inspiration’s what you need, if you want to be a record-breaker.
Bigger, faster, harder, stronger? Not if you’re a start-up. Pump up your brand with unnecessary gear - flashy premises, a high-rolling lifestyle - and it’ll look great for about three minutes. But when the first emergency hits, and you’ve got no credit left to fall back on, all those show attributes will fall away faster than you can say ’24 miles to go’. No, the secret to long-term business success is to run like (you guessed it) a marathon expert. Actually, scratch that. An ultra-marathon expert. Steady, smooth, and conserving as many resources as you can. Endurance is your best asset when the road is long.
Many entrepreneurs start a small business with a view to selling it on. But the exit plan, while it’s a keynote for investors, shouldn’t be the reason you bring a start-up to life. The best businesses succeed because the people who started them created something they really wanted to own–and if they sold in the end, they did so because someone made them an offer they couldn’t refuse. Or they’d taken the company as far as they wanted to go, and it was time for fresh life to be injected into the brand.
If you’re not building something you’d want to keep, you’re not building with enough care.
It’s just business, they say, as they do something that in any other walk of life would be called unethical. But here’s the newsflash from the start-up world: an entrepreneur and her business are often the same thing. It’s not just business at all. It’s who you are, and how you want your clients and partners to perceive you.
When you build a small business, you’re frequently doing it for reasons that go beyond simple monetisation. You want something that’s different from the world of big business. A friendly way of doing things is part of your proposition. Competition is good, but underhandedness will bite you in the butt in the long run. Be nice (don’t confuse niceness with weakness, btw), and you’ll be treated nice. Get treated nice, and you might just survive.
Anything can be started in your spare time - but at some point, a successful hobby becomes a full-time commitment. The scary part is, all of a sudden you’re not dabbling with your start-up on the side. Now you’re out in the cold with no holiday pay, no sick pay, no PAYE and no clue. And you’ve got a whole lot of time to fill with a growing business.
The big question, to which there is no magic answer, is ‘how do I find the business to fill the time?’ This is the crux of every ‘shift moment’. The bit between having your idea and realising you’ve got a fully-functioning business is the bit that makes you or breaks you. And the first investment you put into it is more time, with no monetary return.
Simply speaking: you have to free up the time to chase the investors, perfect and market your product or service, and test your small business in the real world. And during those crucial months, you’ll need to give all of your working time to a project that probably isn’t making you any money.
No successful small business ever got off the ground without investment. Even if you start with nothing, and run on nothing for the first year, you need to start putting aside cash for the times you can’t do without it. Budgeting for a start-up isn’t just about controlling the financial factors you know about. It’s about squirrelling capital away for the mistakes that come out of nowhere.
The life of an entrepreneur is often stressful. But don’t confuse long days and impossible deadlines with the misguided belief that pain is good. Pain is painful, and stress hurts.
Ultimately, working every hour in every day and never having any fun will take you down, and your small business will go down with you. Successful businesses are run by people who are prepared for stress. They know it’s coming, and they have systems in place to deal with it. Time spent away from the office. Time spent with family. Stress makes you ill, and ill people can’t run start-up brands.
When you’re all alone in your garage, staring at the screen of a MacBook and wondering if you can afford a space heater, who’s going to help you see that you’re not crazy? A support network is the difference between a visionary and a crackpot. And it takes many forms. Your family and friends are there to give you the emotional support you need, as your small business takes its first nervous steps on its own. Professional networks are there to bounce ideas off, to share skills, and to offer expertise and practical advice. Find people who have been through the process of creating a start-up, and accept all the assistance they’re willing to give.
Kids running around screaming? TV on in the next room? Suddenly working from home isn’t looking so good. Wherever you locate your small business - home office, coworking space, cafe - atmosphere is vital. Good work happens when your professional space is separated from your domestic space. So no more working in the kitchen. Find a place you can dedicate to the creation of your idea. Surround yourself with the things that make you work better. Be tidy. A successful business has a home of its own, and that’s the place you go to be an entrepreneur. Kitchens are for making sandwiches, not business connections.
There. We’ve made it to the end of the first run together. There’ll be many more training miles to clock up before your small business is running smooth and steady. But with every piece of information you collect, and every connection you make, your stamina will rise and your technique will improve.
Every start-up post you read takes its metaphor and stretches it to breaking point. So I’m going to sign off with one more piece of–not advice exactly, but, well, I guess it’s a homespun truth to ease the pain of all that stretching down you’re doing right now. Here’s where the start-up becomes a different thing from a marathon runner, subjectively at least. Marathon runners will always tell you, with a faraway look in their eyes, that you run distance on your own. You don’t. Marathons are run with other people. That’s how you make it to the end. Look around you. Take advice from the brands and entrepreneurs that have travelled this route before. And good luck.