This is how the start up fairy tale works. A young guy straight out of college – or better yet – dropped out of college, wide eyed but smart, wants to do things his own way. The normal rules don’t apply to him, he cannot be constrained by petty regulation or societal norms. He stays up late into the night, coding feverishly with his two bearded friends. They are all on skateboards, working in a garage, wearing shorts. Even though it is Athy. In November.
Finally they break through, they have seen a way to disrupt the traditional model. They will transform everything in the transport/ accommodation/ wotsit industry forever.Unfortunately no one takes them seriously. Men in suits laugh at them. Until one day this all- seeing, all knowing demi- God of an investor believes in them. He sees the enormous potential that all others have scorned. After a flurry of meetings he comes to Athy and sprinkles them all in fairy dust. They have more money then they ever dreamed. But of course it was never about anything as demeaning as money. It was about disrupting. Transforming the transport/accommodation/ wotsit industry. Soon they are working out of a huge building fashioned like that original garage in Athy, still wearing shorts, the original skateboards hung on the walls like a crucifix for all others to worship.
And so the start up fairytale goes. Details may vary, San Fran rather then Athy, three beards rather then two but you get the picture; this is how start up land works.
A year ago I founded my own startup, WorkJuggle.com. According to both fact and legend I was already starting at a loss; I am female, in my forties and well educated. What hope did I have?
Let’s start exploding a few myths.
It is really hard to start your own business.
It is literally one of the hardest things you can do. Leaving behind all that you know, your corporate existence, a safe pay check at the end of every month and stand out there by yourself and try to make a living. You have to try and figure out how to build a product, get customers, get paid and then manage your VAT returns. All very different skill sets, none of which a convent education and a third level degree may have set you up for. My mother who loves to comment on my business struggles says the two worst words of the English language are “start-up”. And that could be true. But for me – the two best words of the English language are “recurring revenue”. And you don’t get that working for someone else.
It is actually not that hard to start your own business.
It really isn’t that hard to start your own business. It has literally never been easier. Starting up a limited company, doing taxes they are all totally do-able. None of it is rocket science they are just steps which have to be figured out. The rise of social media means it has never been easier to reach customers, often completely for free. You can build a website easily using a template builder like SquareSpace and that is if you even need a website to begin with. Twitter, Instagram, YouTube are all free (albeit a little noisy). The trick, the really hard bit is having something to say that is worth listening to. That is not free. That is hard work and shouting is not the same as having something to say. Shouting in CAP LOCKS is still shouting and could you please stop as you are hurting my eyes and ears? Thank you.
You need to have a big ego.
You need to be able to say I can see this – this gap/ this opportunity and no one else, literally no one else on the planet can see this gap/ this opportunity. Alternatively you need to be able to say that you can do this better then the existing players, either cheaper, faster or in some way that is meaningful; that no-one can do this like I can do this. You need people to believe in your vision of something that may not even be built yet. You need to have a big ego.
You need to be really humble.
Since starting my business I have been kept waiting in reception rooms for up to two hours. I have had my emails unanswered, my calls untaken. I have installed my own printer, done my own invoicing and of course, cleaned my own office when I could no longer find my laptop buried underneath everything else. This pretty much never happened in corporate life (apart from maybe the laptop). So to start your own business you do need to be humble. You need to accept that you will get things wrong and that while that customer may be your priority, you are at the end of a very long to do list for them.
Everyone wants to work in a startup.
Why wouldn’t they? The cool buildings, the pool tables, the shorts. They don’t have boring conferences, they have summits. They don’t slave over the computer for hours, they have hackathons and all nighters. You need never pay for your tea/ coffee/ chai latte again. A start up is glamorous, sexy, cool. All the best people want to work there.
Very few people really want to work in a startup.
The very people who are attracted to that kind of glitter are the very people who don’t actually intend on doing any work while there. Work like writing reports, finding customers, chasing revenue, that kind of work is not cool, it is something for other people to sort out while you are over here sipping your craft beer, braiding your beard. These kind of people love the start up fairytale the most. They are forever going to events to meet the fairy tale investor who will sprinkle them with money and make sure they never have to deal with customers again. They never stick around for very long.
Investors are everything
As above, investors are the Santa Claus of the start up fairy tale. Elusive but everyone STILL BELIEVES. People will say or do anything to get an investor on board. I have heard people promise they are going to the be the next “Uber/ LinkedIn/ Twitter etc..” take your pick. They will stick in as many on trend words as possible; AI, Data, algorithm, anything to distract the said investor from the fact the start up may not be that different from what is out there currently and 90% fail within the first three years taking most of the investors money with them.
For them raising money is the job. Not getting actual money from customers but raising money from investors. This kills me, the slavish adulation of raising money rather then making money is seen as the big achievement in itself.
Investors are nothing
The stories you rarely here are those start ups which are self funded and seeking customers and revenue from day one, like 37signals who built Basecamp and generate millions of dollars in profits every year. Note the word profit and not revenue. They are considered an aberration because they were profitable from year one. No one talks about them. They do not fit into the start up dream of expensive office space and hiring like mad. I spend all WorkJuggle’s money like it is my own because it is. So any money I am spending today means it is money not being spent on Irish dancing lessons, football boots and – well, food. That gives you focus. That means you don’t hire unless you really have to. You don’t spend money on nonsense conference, sorry summits where you will not meet one potential customer and you will not spend money like it is free. Because even though it isn’t yours, money is never free.
The customer is always right
Without customers we have nothing. They are the life blood of the business. They dictate whether we are doing things well. And we are lucky at WorkJuggle, our customers are genuinely really supportive. They are the innovators, the forward thinkers. They look at something new and rather then go with the tried and tested they decide to break from the pack and do things their own way. Our customers are wonderful and have helped us grow our business beyond our own expectations. They are always right.
The customer is not always right.
Sometimes the customer is an idiot. Sometimes the customer does not always know best. Sometimes the customer has a small start up but a large ego and think they can shout down the phone at people who work with me. That particular customer can fuck off. And maybe one day that customer will be like Tony O’Reilly or Jeff Bezos and have a big company which matches the size of his ego. But you know what? He can still fuck right off.
So there is no counter point to cash flow. Cash flow really is everything, till the end of our days. Amen.
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