When the S#!t Hits the Fan (and it will)

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When building your company, you will inevitably have a number of “it’s over” moments.  A moment like this happens when things have become so dire and hopeless that closing up shop seems like it’s your only viable option.  Every entrepreneur goes through this.  In startups, WIFOs are so commonplace that surviving one is a rite of passage.  After a while, you will become hardened to these kinds of shocks.  People you work with will wonder how you hold it together when the world seems to be crumbling around you.  There’s only one thing that matters, and that’s not what happens to you.  All that matters is how you respond.  So get mad for a few minutes if you want to.  Then, after the initial shock of the third “catastrophe” this week wears off, regroup and figure out next steps. You’ve got work to do.

Be Frugal, Not Cheap

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Cash is always tight in a startup, so you have to watch every penny that goes out the door. But there comes a point when frugal turns into cheap, and you end up doing more harm than good. By skimping on certain expenses you could seriously hinder your business’s ability to perform or to expand.

Entrepreneurs are notorious for trying to do everything themselves.  Taxes are a great example of being too cheap.  Rather than paying a bookkeeper $50 a month, founders often try to do their taxes themselves.  Not only does it take them forever to learn Quickbooks and add the necessary entries, but they’re usually wrong.

There are two things you should do to be frugal and not cheap. First, make a monthly or quarterly budget of projected expenses. By doing this in advance, as part of a larger strategy session, you take the out of the decisions, and do what’s best for the business. Second, especially when it comes to larger capital investments, do a back of the envelope payback period calculation.  Figure out how long it will take to “earn back” your initial investment.  This payback period should give you an idea as to whether the proposed expense will be worthwhile.

Be careful not to be too cheap.  Otherwise, as Henry Ford said, “If you need a machine then don’t buy it, you’ll eventually find you paid for but don’t own it.”

Build it Like You’re Going to Sell It

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Even if you have no intention of selling your business down the line, it is always smart to begin with the end and build it as if you are going to sell it.  On the winding road of life, you never know what lies around the next curve.  Your situation could change drastically in the future, so it’s always better to have the option to sell.  What does “build it like you’re going to sell it” mean?  First and foremost, this means taking yourself out of the picture. The less dependent the business is on you, the more valuable will be to someone else.  Businesses that depend on the founder are usually not sellable.  You may be the rainmaker now, but reduce your burden by hiring other rainmakers. Get yourself out of the picture and build an organization that can sustain itself. This way, even if you never end up selling the business, it can provide the lifestyle you hoped for when you first started out.

Your Reputation Precedes You

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Your reputation is one of the few things that will stick with you forever.  It’s a small world, even in big cities like Los Angeles or New York City.  You will end up working with and running into the same people over and over again.  How you handle yourself and your business will quickly solidify your reputation in the business community.  Your reputation is very sticky, and once set, it’s hard to unstick.  As Warren Buffett said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.”  It only takes one or two events for your reputation to be set. As a result, make it a top priority to protect your reputation and that of your company.  Protect and nurture it with the business community in the same way you handle it with your customers.  Be transparent, direct, and honest.  There is little adversity in the good times, so you will be judged most by how you handle yourself in the bad times.  Therefore, when times get tough, dig deep and do the right thing.  When in doubt, take the moral high ground.  It’s longer and harder, but worth the extra effort. Even if the right decision means you have to shut down your business, an untarnished reputation will allow you to bounce back quickly.

*Core Values

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Coming up with your core values may sound like a luxury reserved for Fortune 500 companies that have time and money to burn.  Don’t be fooled – they also have a role to play in your startup.  Think of your core values as your purpose personified.  Transcending your activities and strategies, they give life to “Why” by making your company’s reason for existence tangible and real.  They tell the world why you’re here, what you stand for, and what you believe in.  They offer guidance as you try to navigate the tempestuous startup sea to find safer waters.  Choose values that reflect the founders’ attitudes, the company culture, and – most importantly – what the company aspires to become.

Every branch in the U.S. Military has its core values etched in stone. But their core values have to do with much more than fancy plaques on walls.  The military lives and dies by them.  Do the same for your startup. Hire and fire based on your values.  Live them from the beginning, and they will become self-fulfilling.  Use them to define your raison d’être and to inspire a brighter future.

What Functions Should Be Outsourced?

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A dilemma most entrepreneurs face is what business functions should be outsourced, and what should be kept in-house.  It’s a trade-off, and sacrifices are made either way.  Outsourcing can be more expensive, but it’s also possible to get extremely talented and specialized people this way.  It can also keep your costs variable, making it a good way to get started and test your concept.  In-house employees will be a lot more committed, but top-notch people are also a lot harder for startups to hire and retain.

In most situations, the right answer is to hire employees for your core capabilities, and outsource the other functions.  For instance, if your company is a website, your programmers should be in-house employees.  If you’re running a bakery, you shouldn’t outsource the recipes or the baking.  The core functions of your business keep the wheels turning.  Outsourcing might create too much risk.  Your core functions are also your competitive advantage and secret sauce.  They’re the reasons customers prefer you to your competition.  It’s hard to outsource your competitive advantage.

Who’s the Bad Guy?

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Startups are at war.  You have to outwork and outsmart the competition if you expect to win.  You and your team will put in 12 hour days, week after week, year after year. It gets tiring and trying, to say the least.  To deal with all the perspiration, you and your team will need a lot of inspiration. What inspires you and your team to work so hard, and refuse to quit against all odds? What motivates you to go the extra mile when your brain is fried and your body begging for rest?

A surprisingly easy and effective way to get your team fired up is to identify a “bad guy.”  Set your sights on a direct competitor or evil empire that you and your team want to beat.  This competition makes your struggle very real, because now you have a tangible enemy to aim at.  You can track their activities, and use that as fodder to get your team fired up.  Everybody loves the underdog story, and no one more than the underdog. Pump your team up with little competition and get them excited about crushing the bad guy.

Your Network is Your Net Worth

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Networking should be one of your top business-building activities.  The stronger your network, the more valuable you are to your business, and to other individuals.  Over time, you network will enable you to orchestrate major business deals, refer business to associates, help a friend land her next job, or even introduce future couples.  Use your network to make other people successful.  The more you help now, the more you’ll benefit down the road.  While the payoff is not immediate, your network is your net worth.

To be a mover and shaker you have to move and shake.  Resolve to have at least one network development meeting every week.  Make a list of your top 40 people and start reconnecting with them.  When you meet new people, be sure to follow up and stay in touch. It sounds obvious, but few people actually do it.

Over the long haul, your network will be one of your most valuable assets.  Creating value through your network is like any other asset – you have to invest well before you can cash out.  Invest heavily.  It only takes one call to change your life, so start networking like your future depends on it.

What To Measure

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“What gets measured, gets managed.” Peter Drucker’s famous axiom rings true for all businesses, regardless of their size or industry.  Anything that gets measured will naturally receive more attention by you and your employees.  Metrics are measurements important, quantifiable business activities.  Metrics can instantly tell you how efficiently your business is operating, and make it easy to identify inefficiencies.  The most common metric is the sales conversion funnel, but what you measure is limited only by your imagination.

Metrics help your company transition from a startup to a professionally managed company.  Like most tools, however, they can also do more harm than good. For example, they can be time-consuming to implement effectively.  They can also create an administrative burden.  Resist the urge to track anything that can be measured.  Find the right balance and focus your energy on a few useful metrics.

The best way to get started with metrics is to ease in.  Pick your company’s most important business activity, and find a good way to track and analyze it.  Starting with one metric will give you a good idea of how valuable and time-consuming metrics can be.  From there, continue to expand your set of metrics slowly.

Forget the Mission Statement

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Big companies can afford to do four-day retreats in the mountains to do trust falls, sing Kumbaya, and pay outrageously-priced consultants to come up with impressively meaningless mission statements.  You don’t have this luxury.  You’re fighting a war with about as much hope of winning as your grandpa beating Deep Blue at chess.  You can’t afford a meaningless mission statement.  You need a rallying war cry that will inspire the troops to follow you on your kamikaze march.  You need something actionable.  You need what Guy Kawasaki calls a “mantra.”  A mantra is a three- to four-word phrase that captures the heart and soul of what you’re trying to accomplish. It needs to be inspirational, aspirational, and attainable – inspirational in that it moves and motivates your team to action, aspirational in that it’s a meaningful and worthwhile goal, and attainable in that it’s realistic and achievable.  Forget the $50,000 mission statement.  Spend an hour and come up with a mantra that inspires your company and makes things happen.