[This article is a part of our First Person series, in which people share their stories and thoughts about their startups, lives and careers.]
Starting up is a beautiful experience that makes a profound impact on an individual and helps develop one’s character in more ways than one. You are no longer living a “sheltered” life, or have a boss or team to hide behind. The startup leader needs to have a well-rounded personality who cannot ever say, “It’s not a part of my job,” even if he wished to say it. The need of the hour will make him/her wear many hats and learn fresh skills all along the way.
I have immense respect for people who give up their well-paying corporate jobs to follow their dreams, irrespective of the outcomes, because it takes guts. For those who have left their corporate jobs or intend to do the same, I thought I would put my two cents in. I wanted to share seven important things that have made Conquerem’s journey a very enjoyable and pleasurable experience so far. I am not saying it has been all sunshine and flowers every day, but it could have been a mess had I disregarded any one of these mantras.
1. Conduct high quality market research in the early days:
If you are about to or have already left your job, I assume you would have already set your eyes on a problem, opportunity or a gap that you want to address. But even before you write a line of business plan or code make sure you spend considerable amounts of time to validate your idea. Talking to your expected target audience, your customers and stakeholders, and conducting on-ground research definitely deserves top priority, instead of jumping headfirst into building a product, or a deck for that matter.
As a startup, you will encounter many barriers and challenges, and the only way around them is to know your stuff- better than anyone else. At Conquerem, we focused several weeks on just talking to the right people. In my case, since I was targeting a number of emerging countries for a parallel roll out, I flew to Singapore – the Asian epicenter of large businesses and service firms- to have candid discussions with the potential stakeholders of my business. This turned out to be extremely handy. Unbiased information from candid potential customers and users will either give you further validation or help you alter some of your visions accordingly. Either way, it’s a win-win situation.
2. Breakdown your vision into action items, with deadlines:
You need to remember that you are now in the driver’s seat- so drive responsibly! Unlike your corporate job, don’t expect any line manager to draw up a vision for you and your work. Not only will you have to create a vision, but more importantly you will have to break it down into realistic tasks and goals, for yourself as well as for the team that you want to build.
Building a ‘plan of action’ document with resource allocations and deadlines is the key to effectively building and running a business. The action items need to be realistic and should be achievable with your existing or future team. Setting target dates for your tasks will show its benefits in the progress of your startup, and it will also ensure that you don’t suck yourself dry of energy, resources, patience and determination. You are only human and unless you want to end up working aimlessly, set your priorities straight by defining your goals.
3. Build an employee handbook even before you bring the first person onboard:
A handbook stands for your company’s culture and operating procedures. We built an induction guide and a handbook even before we employed the first person at Conquerem. The book can evolve but the basics should be clear, because it is equivalent to laying a strong foundation for a long lasting relation. This book pays off a lot – for eg, Conquerem runs fully on cloud so everyone knows the basic internal rules to add value to the team and avoid any inconvenience and double-work. This may be the same even for a minute aspect, like how to name and manage versions of the same file or how to provide feedback. It may sound insignificant but these things do have an impact on productivity, effectiveness and team dynamics.
Furthermore the handbook should entail all the important laws and regulations, eg. the work from home policy, so that there is no scope of (mis)communication. In fact, I would urge startup leaders to be the first person to sign it themselves. You must acknowledge that you are only as good as your team. So don’t try taking detours or taking your employees for granted.
4. Handpicking your team:
You may have budget constraints, or your office maybe in off locations, maybe even in your house, but you must never EVER compromise on talent. Don’t get someone on board just because you think you won’t find someone better. Such compromises start to haunt you at a later stage and can also jeopardize the career graph of the person you compromised upon! At Conquerem, we received almost 500 applications for 10 internship positions in our first year, after shortlisting 40– and candidly speaking to each of them, we chose 15 people for face to face meetings and finally narrowed it down to 10 people for summers. Did it take time- definitely! Was it worth it- hell yeah!
Spread your fishing net as far as possible because you might find adept candidates at the most unusual times or from the most unusual places. But make sure not to hire someone who you think won’t fit in well in your team and your vision. Invariably, quality trumps quantity.
5. Don’t over-burn, or it will burn your startup:
Make sure not to succumb to worldly desires during this whole period because it will only put you in an unpleasant situation later on. No matter how much money you have in the bank- always think efficient and effective. Don’t be frivolous. Get an old aircon or laptop even if it has a few months of life left, instead of buying new ones; and make sure never to waste any energy/electricity. Never block capital.
If you ever feel like burning some money, spend it on your product, the team you build or the brand you build instead. You could sponsor a certification for employees or invest in building the brand. Comparatively, this will give way more positive results – it makes you look nicer to your users and more cost-conscious to your investors. No point painting the town in your brand’s colours when your team is being deprived of basic amenities. Controlling your burn rate and prioritizing expenses gives you a better sleep and clearer focus of what really matters.
6. Don’t pass on your pressures to others – keep the team’s morale high:
Your team looks up to you. Irrespective of any personal issues or disappointments early on- you should not let it show. Remember, when you are building a young team, they get apprehensive more easily than you do, and that brings about attrition. People read big into the small stuff, like delaying the stipend by a day, the internet not functioning well, etc.
One of the major questions you should consider is- would YOU want to work for your startup? So work to make the environment comfortable and stress-free. This will bode well for the whole team (including you), promising good delivery of tasks and the desired vibe among coworkers.
7. Don’t be hasty:
You must learn not to rush things, because success takes time. I am yet to see an “overnight success” doing justice to every alphabet of this notion. Patience and determination is extremely important. Don’t drive too fast thinking it will make the road shorter. Feeling pressured into doing things too fast is what should be avoided at all times. Endure and persevere, because if you simply hurry things, it will impact negatively on the work of your team. There will be errors in your research, execution or in other areas – something, as a startup, you absolutely don’t want. Ironically, if you push things too soon, it may only take you farther away from your goals.
To sum up, if one approaches this path sensibly, responsibly and maturely, starting up can be a priceless experience not only for the founder, but for its employees, customers and investors. Unfortunately, it can’t be learnt sitting in a classroom or enrolling in an online entrepreneurship course.
Hard work pays off all the time, so no matter what your next day or week throws at you, don’t ever give up hope. Leave no stone unturned and keeping pushing hard to see your vision transform into reality. There will be days that will leave you unnerved, but then take a moment to remember the dream you had, long before all this happened, and stay true to it. Trust me it will be worth it. Keep hustling!
About the Author:
Rachit Khosla, a strategy consultant at heart, founded Conquerem in mid-2015. Conquerem is the world’s first marketplace for market research and boutique strategy consulting firms focused on Emerging Markets. Rachit, an alumnus of Manchester Business School, UK, is the former Country Manager and Director of Solidiance and has rich experience of advising Fortune 500s and large conglomerates on Asia Market entry and growth strategies.