6 lessons I learnt from being a startup founder in 2016

Going through my Facebook feed in the past couple of weeks, I noticed a common ongoing pattern amongst friends, acquaintances, and media coverage: 2016 was a shit year and hopefully 2017 can only be better. 2016 did see the disappearance of some icons and celebrities, increasing terrorist attacks, the rise of anti immigrants movements and policies, countries pushing protectionism, elections of not so popular candidates, you name it… All of these sad events are however, for most of us, outside our circle of influence (reference to Stephen Covey and the 7 habits of highly effective people) and therefore haven’t really impacted me on a personal (maybe a bit) or professional (not at all) level.

2016 has been all about focusing on my circle of influence and things I can impact and make a difference with. In a nutshell, 2016 has been all about ChefXChange that I co founded 2 years ago. And 2016 taught me a lot, 2016 was a rollercoaster ride, one that I would have never envisioned, 2016 has drained me, yet made me stronger, 2016 will be a year I will always remember, but that doesn’t mean 2016 was a shit year. It taught me a lot about being a start up founder, and I thought I would share some of the most valuable and actionable lessons

6 Lessons for Start Up Founders

6 lessons for start up founders

Right to Left: co-founders Karl Naim & Marc Washington

1. Perseverance, Perseverance, Perseverance

There is always something that is going to go wrong, this is the name of the game: don’t despair or waste your energy on things outside your circle of influence. Focus on where you want to be going, whether you like it or not it is going to be a bumpy ride. We started the year with a signed commitment from an anchor VC, which then decided to pull out 5 months later, leaving us in a tough position vis a vis our commitments and growth plans. This was in no way seen as the end for us, but just a setback. Will power is stronger than any obstacle thrown at you.

2. Be hungry for customer feedback

I always preached this from day 1, and sharing this with every team member. Customers will make or break you. They can become your strongest ally, ambassador, marketing channel, or your worst enemy. You’re better off with 100 customers that love you, than thousands that just like you (Brian Chesky, Airbnb). Do not shy away from getting feedback from your customers, over the phone, via surveys, and reward them for that feedback. It is not always extrinsic rewards (a prize or a discount); intrinsic goes a long way too (customers who see that you take their feedback seriously and act on it, will be customers for life, they will feel entitled and are making a difference). Don’t waste time making assumptions, test them yesterday: get out there as early as possible and tirelessly get consumer feedback early on to keep improving your product/service

3. Doing more with less

The vicious circle and dangerous game most start ups play is raising the most money as quickly as possible, therefore making the headlines. This might have worked ok for companies that needed to fuel impressive growth, but a vast majority of start ups fail because of having raised too much money. With money, comes high revenue expectations, and quick results in a very short amount of time. Additionally, the more you have, the more you will be prone to waste and spend without consideration. Losing a USD1.5M commitment from a fund earlier during the year, made us focus a lot, made us lean, and made us generate more with every dollar spent. Aim at having profitable economics from day 1, not at raising insane amounts to flatter your ego.

4. VCs can be dysfunctional and have their own problems

By now you might wonder what happened with that VC that ended up pulling out of their commitment. Biggest lesson learnt from that inconvenient situation was that VCs also do have their own internal problems, miscommunications amongst different teams, as well as not always aligned agendas. It is primordial to not only tick the box of getting along with them given it needs to be a happy marriage, but also doing your due diligence on them, like them doing a due diligence on you. Additionally, getting a VC onboard shouldn’t just be about financial commitment but strategic added value such as helping you build partnerships, acquiring new customers, etc…

5. Transparency matters

My co-founder and I have always been believers in sharing as much as we can with our team, and encouraging top down as well as bottom up conversations. We hold bi-weekly calls with our team in every city. One of them is sharing the success stories and progresses achieved by each city, and the other one is an open forum where a team member takes the lead to discuss a topic. Share the good times and the bad times. Transparency shouldn’t be just a buzzword. Lack of transparency, especially in small teams, will lead to mistrust and even more dangerous, gossip. This then leads to poor engagement, lower productivity and higher turnover. Be transparent with all your stakeholders: team, investors and clients.

6. Empower

When hiring for your start up, make sure that you sell candidates on your passion, vision, and the impact of your business on the world, along with the candidate’s role in making that vision a reality. Go for self starters, fast learners, as in the early stages there will be a lack of hierarchy and organisational structure. You need people that can take full ownership of challenging situations and push forward: pro-active vs reactive.

A startup’s major competitive advantage over large corporations is its ability to move quickly, and that is because every person in the team is doing the work of 10 people. Everyone runs out of energy, but the most successful start up employees are able to recover that energy faster than anyone else

To conclude, I am very much looking forward to what 2017 will bring in terms of lessons, successes as well as failures.

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