The first four questions every founder needs to ask

I get your profile. You’re in your twenties or maybe early thirties, starting your first business, and have a short runway before it either takes off or crashes and burns.

You’re convinced that your initial focus should be on attracting the best people to build out your team, landing the first anchor customers to grow revenue, and forming partnerships to spread the word. Or, maybe you’re still focused on sharpening your positioning and tweaking the product so that you can secure that round of funding.

These are all necessary steps in launching your company. But you’re getting ahead of yourself if you think these are the building blocks of startup success. Instead, your most important first moves are not transactional, but rather psychological—not about rational decision making, but more about making relationships and experimenting.

Listen up if being an entrepreneur is part of your DNA. Or if going to work for “the man” is a nightmare. Or if the sweet smell of success gives you swagger, and the fear of failure keeps you up at night.

While I hardly have all the answers, as the late country star Waylon Jennings sang, “I got a couple more years on you, baby. That’s all.” So after almost 20 years of working with hundreds of entrepreneurs, and in that time starting a few companies of my own, here’s my list of four questions for you as you embark on your new venture.

1. What’s your attitude when it comes to long-term commitment? I’m not talking about being positive, passionate, or even having a winning personality that attracts business. It’s hard to always feel that way after one of those long and disappointing days in trying to get a new company off the ground. Instead, I’m talking about the insane amount of persistence that you will need to stick it out as an entrepreneur.Many years ago, a guy named Daniel came to my office for some advice. He struck me as highly intelligent, creative, and idealistic, but a bit naïve and all over the place.   I lost touch and until recently didn’t realize that it was this Daniel who is the mastermind behind one of my favorite brands. Yes, after struggling for over 15 years, full of doubts, triumphs and setbacks—Daniel Lubetzky founded KIND bars and has grown it into one of the most popular food products. He wrote about the kind of grit that kept him going in his new book, Do the KIND Thing.

2. Do you know what lane you’re in? Some people have a magic touch for certain types of businesses. My good friend Dave Schwartz, the founder of Rent-A-Wreck, is a genius when it comes to cars, real estate, and the storage business—talking about the offline category he helped invent. And he’s humble about what he doesn’t know and is a fanatic about staying in his “lane.” He warns about people who achieve some success and then think they’re “bulletproof and know everything about anything.”While your lane might be wide, stick to fields and skill sets that come naturally to you. Focus on what you do best, rather than trying to reposition yourself to be a better fit with the latest category.

3. Do you really know which people you need to hire first? Forget about the first employee. Sometimes even before you find your co-founder, you’ll need a great accountant, lawyer, and insurance guy. These outside professional advisors are key to laying a solid foundation for a sustainable business.

When my long-time accountant, Steve Frushtick, unexpectedly died while exercising earlier this year, I was devastated, as were countless of his other clients. Sure he helped us file our taxes, but that was the least of it, as we didn’t make a move without him—from constructing compensation packages for employees to negotiating business deals. It prompted fellow clients to rightly describe Steve as our “financial rabbi.” So who’s yours?

4. Is your significant other truly supportive of your entrepreneurial spirit? There’s one person who’s the most important of all, and ironically, you don’t usually even work with her or him. I’m talking about your husband, wife, partner, girlfriend, boyfriend, etc. I have a new friend who’s delaying meeting someone until his business really takes off. Wrong, I told him. Finding that special person will help drive your success and put your life in balance, provided he or she is supportive and helps empower your dream to be an entrepreneur rather than have you play it safe as some suit.

While usually not as risk-tolerant as you, your significant other knows how to ride the roller coaster and make you appreciate how far you’ve come, while reminding you that you and your startup are not the center of the universe. Sometimes, when all else fails, your partner might encourage you to put things on hold and just get a job that pays the bills. But both they and you can never lose faith in your ability to do your own thing.

If you forget most of this advice, let this one word be your takeaway: Alps, as in the mountain range. Being a founder is an uphill climb, but once you get traction and look how far you’ve come, it’s the most exhilarating journey on earth.

Photo credit: Apps for Europe/Flickr

 

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