I’d thrived in uncertain, ambiguous roles like working in new countries and new industries in my corporate career. So I thought I had an entrepreneurial mindset.
Until I became an entrepreneur.
The deep, daily pressure of trying to survive in an early-stage start-up changes your mindset about work, life, everything.
Mostly for the better!
Here are things I learnt as an entrepreneur that would’ve transformed both my business and writing career, had I known them earlier. I hope folks can use some of these to achieve breakout success in any field by applying the “life-or-death” urgency of an entrepreneur:
1. Always Create a 10x Product Or You’ll struggle to survive
My colleague and I each made 2,000 customer phone calls over two months, calling every night, all seven days a week, after our day-responsibilities, to get our first 100 paying users in the early days of WhiteHat Jr.
We thought we were finally done. Now, the flywheel would start.
Except it didn’t.
Our first users liked the product but didn’t love it. Net Promoter Score was 23, Renewals were 35%, all numbers were good but not great.
A Startup can’t survive on good.
If users don’t love the product enough to refer other users, eventually acquisition costs will become unsustainable and a startup will die.
Your product has to be 10x better than the alternative. Or you just won’t survive.
This time, all metrics doubled.
We had a product that worked just in the nick of time.
I wish I had the same mindset each time I’d written my novels or worked on a new product in my jobs. Is this new product truly a 10x experience versus the alternative? If not, the world doesn’t need it and it won’t stand the test of time. Spiritually too, the world needs more breakthroughs versus noise. Human energy is finite, put it in 10x vs incremental ideas.
2. Know Daily Details as if your life depends on them
We had 15 days of cash left in the bank while our Series A funding was expected to hit in 21 days.
How do we cover the 7 day gap? We did everything from getting bank documents hand-delivered to arranging for personal loans to cover the short-term gap.
The good thing is we knew each inflow and outflow in the company on a daily basis in a fully detailed way.
Old habits die hard. And even as WhiteHat Jr grew larger than the brands I’d worked on in my corporate life, the focus on daily metrics remained so intense that we reviewed numbers daily, obsessively with an ever-increasing management team.
In my past assignments, I would review business thoroughly often at a weekly or a monthly level but never quite experienced the daily life-or-death battle to fix them, which would’ve transformed my performance.
3. Urgency as a life-blood-or the 3 questions every founder learns to ask
A year into starting up, just as WhiteHat Jr was starting to grow visibly, a well-funded player, who was more than a decade-old and had 20-30 times our funding, launched a knockoff product.
It wasn’t unexpected.
Startups face a particular challenge. At first, you struggle to create a new category from scratch. The moment you create this category after months, often years of solitary, uphill climbing, every established company will jump into the category the startup has created, often making the startup redundant.
That’s why a great founding team needs the unique balance of extreme patience in building a 10x product, then extreme impatience in scaling when the product is ready.
In our period of impatient scaling, I learned to ask the 3 questions I wished I’d asked in every meeting or presentation I ever sat in my corporate career earlier:
- What, among this, can we do today? (Long term plans are good but staying alive means moving things forward each day. Small actions today will compound to large results tomorrow.)
- What’re the next steps from this discussion and who is the owner to get it done today? (When you’re trying to survive, you can’t spend even a minute in the day without an outcome.)
- Can we simplify this further more to execute faster? (So critical that it deserves its own point below!)
4. Simplify Everything, then simplify it further
“One does not accumulate but eliminate. It is not daily increase but daily decrease”
– Bruce Lee.
In our early scaling days, one of our investors shared the well diversified media plan of another Education Technology player as an inspiration. They were doing TV, Facebook, media tie-ups, Google, school partnerships, everything.
I felt deeply incompetent. All our growth was coming from referrals and Facebook advertising.
Then, I looked closer. The company had been almost half a decade more in the market with bigger budgets and a fraction of our users or revenue.
Only one or two channels work.
We scaled to 100x our revenues on Facebook advertising and referrals alone. And later, I found it true for nearly everything else–don’t create a video platform for your product when Zoom and many other platforms have already created one; dig a few deep wells with just a few countries and categories to confidently get water, rather than a hundred shallow wells all over the world, hoping for a miracle. And so on. Only a few things work.
Startups taught me once again to simplify everything to its barest essence, a lesson I keep forgetting! And do just that and nothing else.
5. Repeat the “Why” Daily
Discovery Channel had more than 60 million viewers each week. Yet I spoke to only a small sample of our viewers once a quarter, typically through an organized consumer research. For my novels, I barely spoke to the readers of my previous ones before writing a new one.
In contrast, I was compelled to speak to WhiteHat Jr users daily from the first day of the company, whether in responding personally to urgent complaints that came on the CEO’s desk or actively understanding where our funnel was breaking and bleeding cash, or for creating new 10x products like Music. A startup’s relationship with a user is young and fragile. And keeping alive depends on over-delivering their needs.
Being reminded of your mission is a great gift experienced very uniquely by a startup. In whatever I create next, I’d talk to my users daily to truly create a 10x product–which is the only thing that stands the test of time.
Should you do these if your existence was not at stake as is the case in most endeavors? Yes! The constant battle to survive makes everyone in a startup come alive in every fibre. As a result, startup experiences become almost spiritual in their essence versus the dull haziness that often sets in most regular endeavors. I’d replicate this life-or-death struggle mindset in every job!
Which of these principles are you applying daily already? What prompted that behavior? And would implementing any of the above you’re missing transform your work experience? Do let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear from you.