One year ago we officially launched EVAN. We knew the application wasn’t perfect and we didn’t have every detail figured out, but here we are a year later, living our mission of helping small businesses receive on-demand, non-traditional IT support. It has been a fun exercise for me to look back and see how far we’ve come.
You might not know that the fail rate for startups is 90%. While this statistic drives me to succeed every day, for the first time this past year I’ve been able to put faces and names to some startups that didn’t make it. I believe that startups and all businesses—old or new—must be continuously learning and seeking to improve to be successful. To say I’ve learned something new every day for the last year is an understatement, but I decided to pick my top five lessons learned to share about the journey to growth and success.
1. Your teammates and employees are your biggest asset. Be selective and intentional in hiring.
Building a team as a startup isn’t easy. Many companies have job descriptions that come with an appropriate title. Managers are in place to train and develop employees. Typically, a company culture has been established and the office is buzzing with people who know the drill and have settled into their routines. Thanks, in part, to millennials, the mundane 9-5 grind is starting to go out of style as companies offer remote work and flexible hours. But when it comes to the actual job functions, most employees want structure and clear guidelines. You don’t often find that with a startup in its early phase, so what you really need is a group of people who can figure things out and get it done.
Here’s what I’ve learned about hiring:
- Hire a personality rather than years of experience for any non-technical function. Don’t hesitate to look at people with backgrounds in a completely different industry.
- Be honest, open, and upfront in the interview process about the ambiguity of the role and your expectations.
- Cut the cord as soon as you feel it’s not working with someone.
- Outsource strategically where you can.
2. Set goals. Then assign responsibilities and metrics around each goal.
Once you have a good team in place, make sure each person is intentionally working toward specific goals and KPIs for each milestone. The last thing you should be doing as the founder of a startup is micromanaging your team. Ensure your employees are results-driven by having them track progress to their goals, and in turn, you will have quantitative insight into what’s working for your company and what’s not. For example, we realized fairly early on that outside sales reps were consistently not meeting their goals and were bringing in significantly fewer customers than our other efforts around customer acquisition. Digital and PPC campaigns were more effective at converting customers, so we stopped spending money on sales reps and put that money where we saw the biggest ROI.
3. Done is better than perfect.
You could drive yourself crazy trying to achieve some form of perfection in everything you do for your company, but that’s a waste of time. A friend of mine and founder of a startup spent months making tiny tweaks to her website before launching because it wasn’t perfect in her eyes. She was scared for her website to go live because of the criticism she might receive since it wasn’t “perfect.” All her fears were for nothing once it finally launched, but it could have launched 6 months sooner. Ask yourself, “What’s the worst that can happen?” The answer: maybe you launch a product, service, or even just pitch a concept and some people hate it. Or maybe you launch an app that’s buggy so you lose a few early customers. At least you’ll get real feedback and insight into what people think. Then, you can spend time making the updates and tweaks that are necessary. Don’t sit on something just because it hasn’t reached perfection—there’s no such thing.
4. Feedback is great, but not all opinions should be treated equally.
At times, I’ve received negative responses and unsolicited advice when talking about EVAN, our mission, and our vision. It’s hard to hear any kind of negativity as it relates to something you not only believe in but have made your livelihood. So when you hear negative feedback, always consider the source. My technology-averse uncle told me he would never let someone work on his computer remotely and that he wants to look his IT professional in the eye when working with them. My uncle runs a successful business, but he’s not our target customer. He doesn’t understand what “the cloud” is, and he still pays his bills by mailing in paper checks. On the flip side, I’ve gotten positive and supportive feedback from friends and contacts, but they didn’t become customers. People sometimes say nice things to avoid hurting feelings. The valuable feedback is from the people you consider your target market, especially the customers who are actually using your product or service as intended.
5. Stay true to your mission and values.
Everyone in your organization should know your company’s mission and values like the back of their hand. Don’t just document and save them to a shared file. Post them in the work space, preach them, discuss them, and live them. When making decisions, always go back to the mission and values to guide you. It seems simple, but several times over the course of just one year, we started to stray from our original purpose, which had instant negative effects. We became less cohesive as a team and confusion seeped into our brand and message until we found our way back. You must be flexible and adjust initiatives and strategies based on what your customers and the market is telling you without losing sight of your purpose. (See my other articles around EVAN’s core values if you want ideas around what those look like.)
The biggest lesson of all when running any business or startup is to keep learning from both your failures and successes. Plenty of times I’ve felt scared to try something out of the box or felt stupid for trying something that didn’t give me the outcome I expected. But I learned, I grew, and I went on to try things that did work. I can’t wait to see what lessons this next year brings.