Before college, Alex Fletcher’s only work experience was as a maintenance technician at an apartment complex for his father’s company. Alex kept busy carrying refrigerators upstairs and getting apartments ready for their next tenants. He moved out to Colorado to attend CU Boulder, starting a degree in Architecture only to find out he was more passionate about Business.
Alex is a problem-solver, and while in college, he noticed a ton of problems people were ignoring, especially in the outdoor travel industry. As a passionate mountain biker and snowboarder, he saw how limited the sector was and he asked himself, “What is holding this industry back?”
The outdoor industry wasn’t helping itself, so he did what all entrepreneurs do: start a business to solve the problem.
It’s difficult to be an entrepreneur — whether you’re a recent college graduate or have managed multiple companies. One year into his first business, this is what Alex wishes he knew before starting his own company right after graduating college.
1. Don’t start a company right out of college
When you’re a freshly graduated student, there is a lot you don’t know, especially about running a business. It’s why the average age of an entrepreneur is 42 years old. When we graduate, we don’t really know what a “good customer” is. We also usually don’t know all the ins and outs of the market we want to get into.
What happens for a lot of young entrepreneurs is they start too early. They neglect the time it takes to gain proper real-life experience and eventually fizzle out from so much rejection and loss.
Especially right out of college, it’s easy to fall into decision paralysis. When you’re in college, you analyze reports and focus immense time and energy on the tiny details. If you take as much time doing that in the real world, it’s going to be too late. Your startup becomes irrelevant.
Instead, focus on the problem you want to solve. Talk to the people who are experiencing the problem, and then build your solution. Quickly. Solve the rest later.
Become comfortable with rejection
Entrepreneurs have to get really comfortable with rejection, especially as a first-time founder. One way to do this before starting your own business is by working for a startup or small fast-paced company in your field. In fact, 58% of entrepreneurs worked at corporations before starting their own company. This is how you learn to handle rejection because fundraising is difficult. You’ll be told 100 times “no” before you get your first “yes.”
For Alex at Origin, a scheduling and booking platform for outdoor guiding companies, he soon realized that for the company to grow exponentially, they’d need thousands of customers because of how fragmented the market is. Other SaaS platforms in other industries may only need a few hundred customers. But he has passion.
Alex gets to talk to people who love the outdoors. Even though it’s going to take more work to hit the critical mass needed for a successful platform, it’s all worth it because he loves the industry and market.
You need to be passionate about your business. It can’t just be about the money. You must have a passion for the problem and a love for building great products.
Choose what you want to be in for.
2. Work at a startup before building your own
If you want to be an entrepreneur or want to build a startup but don’t have an idea just yet, find a job at a startup first. This is what most founders do. It’s why entrepreneurs are 125% more successful when they’ve worked at a previous job in the same industry they want to get into.
It can be a small and nimble startup like Origin, or a company with 50 employees and hiring more every quarter. The important thing is to gain experience with how fast-paced companies operate, the relationships you need to be successful, and all the different hats you’ll have to wear. You won’t get this experience in college. In fact, if you build a startup without much experience right out of college, it’s like getting “drop-kicked into the real world,” says Alex.
To recruit and fundraise, it helps to have this experience and helps to have it shown on LinkedIn. Angel investors, venture capital firms, accelerators, and (maybe) the newer equity crowdfunding will look to see if you have previous experience in startups. Without it, it could be a hard sell to prove that you have the chops to make them money in the future.
The same goes for recruiting employees. Having previous work experience proves that you know what it takes to provide security and reliability for someone looking at your job descriptions.
Go lean with your planning
Finally, in startup culture, few care about your 40-page business plan they made you create in business school. Chances are that by the time it’s done printing, it could be outdated with a new idea or new information you have about your business. A startup is about execution and speed, so you need to start lean.
You need your minimum viable product (MVP), you need to show how you’re better than competitors, you need good leadership skills, and you need traction. You learn this a lot faster by working at other startups first.
3. Don’t start your company alone
It’s nearly impossible to establish a startup alone. In business school, everyone wants to start a company. They think it’s just going to be them, they’re going to make all the money, and they won’t need anyone’s help.
More often than not, whatever it is you are building will require a complementary skill set, whether that’s business/finance, sales/marketing, or design/engineering.
When you’re working at a startup before building your own, you’re actually more likely to meet someone who also wants to found a start-up. Not just that, but working for a startup grows your personal and professional network. You could also find people with complementary skills you might lack. It took Alex a long time to find an engineer to partner with without the network gained from working at a startup first.
That’s the tricky part. As a founder, you have to be good at everything or at least understand every part of the business. If you can’t jump in to help with a task, then you’re falling behind by not being able to move forward fast enough. Alex understood he knew next to nothing about software development and engineering, so he searched for an engineer. He also wasn’t a pro at marketing, so he looked for marketers.
You don’t have to be good at everything
It’s normal to not be good at everything. Part of assembling a team is finding people who bring value. It doesn’t help your business grow by hiring someone who doesn’t have the necessary skills.
For instance, if you delegate tasks too early and don’t choose the right person, you may spend too much money and do a lot of hand-holding to make sure your employee knows how to do certain tasks. This slows you down.
Not only is it important to find people who are skilled, but you want to find like-minded individuals who are also passionate about the problems you’re solving. There’s nothing like the camaraderie that comes with a team. You get to experience all the significant milestones your company accomplishes. At the same time, there are people who will commiserate with you when things don’t go according to plan.
Build a team and find people who are passionate about the same issues as you.
4. Your team is your biggest asset
People are the most important part of starting a company. It’s key to attract and maintain the best people. One of the top reasons startups fail is due to their team. In fact, 23% of startups that don’t succeed didn’t have the right team.
It’s not just startups. You’ll find that with any company. Your biggest challenges and biggest wins will be around people. In order to succeed, you need a great team.
Find like-minded people who get excited about what you’re doing. When Alex interviewed Jessica, their Digital Marketing Specialist, they spent most of the interview talking about mountain bikes and how they wanted to make them more accessible to others. It’s important to Alex to find people who can relate to the problems he wants Origin to solve. He also wanted to make sure he was working with people who wanted to help the company move forward.
Having a team of people who support each other and push the company forward is the number one way that will help you succeed. Make sure you have a great product that solves a problem. Find people you can rely on so you don’t have to do it all alone. Learn from other businesses. And don’t forget to keep making strides forward, no matter how small and insignificant they might feel at the time.