(Editor’s note: Don Rainey is a general partner at Grotech Ventures. He submitted this column to VentureBeat.)
In the world of startups, success or failure can be hard to consistently predict. One thing that’s sure, however, is that anyone who starts a business is changed by the process. The continual challenges of meeting the opportunities and issues that arise make it fun and always interesting. I think it is why many people continue to start businesses regardless of the (easier) alternatives presented by employment for somebody else.
Having started a few businesses in my life, I view some of the lessons of the experience as intuitive and others much less so. Given the time and money involved in learning these lessons, none could be characterized as cheap.
They all changed my worldview, though. And they all changed me as a person. I’m glad I learned these lessons, but that doesn’t mean I don’t wish that I knew them originally.
Here are the eight things I wish I knew when I started my first business.
1. Things take longer than you ever imagine – Everything that involves people, resources, tasks and coordination takes longer than you ever think it should take to get done. It isn’t about developing patience, as patience doesn’t really help you keep driving things forward. It is about being realistic in your planning and management.
2. Items that do succeed tend to do so quickly – I have seen more successes — products, projects, employees, etc. — start strongly than slowly. The great salesperson or employee is great from the first day. The strong employees contribute immediately. The product that is going to be a hit gets strong, initial reactions from customers.
3. People will let you down – This will happen in ways you can’t even imagine when you start out. It can range from inattentiveness and laziness to fraud and theft. You’ll see it all from the people you meet along the way. Your faith in people or belief in them can be a dangerous thing. As Pres. Reagan put it, “Trust, but verify.” Blind faith will get your butt kicked again and again. Love and reward your employees, but don’t have too much confidence in them.
4. Good employees are really hard to find – A solid worker isn’t just difficult to find, he or she is really difficult to find. And they’re the first ones to leave. The truth is that 10 percent of the world is competent – and you’re looking for that 10 percent in every hire.
It’s hard to do consistently. And that’s why organizations that do it with frequency have such strong reputations. If you want to build a business predicated largely on finding, getting and keeping quality employees to succeed, you should understand that premise will be your greatest risk. Finding a market and profitably selling to it (usually the greatest risks) will take a back seat. Better yet, pursue a business that needs some reasonable percentage of employees to be really good.
5. Your bad employees rarely quit – For one thing, poor performers aren’t really all that motivated to look, as that might involve actual performance. For another, no one else is likely to recruit them. Your marginal and weak employees are with you for life unless you move proactively. In many years of running businesses, the only time this wasn’t true was during the dot-com bubble. At that time, every idiot could get a 15 percent to 20 percent raise here in Northern Virginia by changing jobs. And they did. Aside from that blessed time, weak employees are your most “loyal.”
6. You will be lucky and unlucky –In the fullness of time, you will be assuredly lucky and unlucky. And sometimes, things that appear to be bad luck will turn out to be good — the weak salesperson who turned down your job offer — or vice versa. You will have ups and downs, and you will win or lose things that you don’t deserve to win or lose. You will be unlucky and lucky, you just may never know when.
7. Avoid the myth and misery of sunk cost – See the item above about succeeding quickly. Don’t chain yourself to the anchors you lovingly create in pursuit of success. If it isn’t working for you or the business, let it go. Understand that it isn’t good money after bad money, it is all bad money. Fire that salesperson, let that manager go, stop selling that product, get used to moving on. You’ll make a lot of decisions in running a business. Accept that not all of them will be right.
8. Fill the pipe, always fill the pipe – The difference between good times and bad times is often reflected in how many of the opportunities, customers, etc. end up closing successfully. In good times, more deals close from a normal opportunity pipeline. In bad times, less deals close from the pipeline. So, fill the pipeline of opportunities, and always look to add to the pipeline. Deals don’t close for a million reasons. Your only defense is to fill the pipe.
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