No matter how much industry experience you have, you won’t know everything there is to know about running a business the moment you launch your first startup. There’s a pretty steep learning curve, and odds are you’ll find yourself saying, “I wish someone had told me that,” at least a few times along the way.
If you want to prepare yourself for some of the more difficult and unexpected challenges of entrepreneurship, it’s crucial to listen to the experiences of those who have been in your shoes before. Fifteen CEOs of new and existing companies reflect on what they’ve learned, and impart their best lessons to aspiring startup founders.
Follow your mission. “Let your core mission/ideology be your guide. It is your core that started you down whatever entrepreneurial path you’ve chosen, and it is your core that is the key to unlocking the strategic steps that make the most sense for your venture. If you continuously remind yourself why you’ve embarked on a particular journey, you’ll continue to move closer and closer to your ultimate objective.” – André Walters, founder and CEO of Yuno
Don’t be afraid to break the mold. “To succeed as a CEO you need to be steadfast in your beliefs and not always conform to the perceived ‘norm.’ CEOs will ultimately be measured and respected by their actions, reactions, rate of success and how they impacted the world during their time at the helm. Today is the best time to ever be at the executive level of a company, but the power a CEO has goes way beyond producing great results for your company. It has more to do with leaving your legacy. We all can help bring the world to greater frontiers.” – Ata Gonzalez, CEO of G FarmaLabs
Become an all-around expert. “As a CEO, you are an all-encompassing employee. Be sure to learn from all fields of your business, whether it’s data entry, technology, legal, HR, PR, sales or even from the manual and physical labor side of things. When tasks need to get done, when questions need to be answered, when upgrades are required or additional research needed — even though it may not be your field of expertise — you are the only answer.” – Lior Rachmany, CEO and founder of Brooklyn-based Dumbo Moving + Storage
Recognize when to scale up and change your role. “The characteristics that make a startup entrepreneur successful, being nimble and multifaceted, can prevent the company from scaling. Every company has a threshold at which point that founder has to understand that his role has fundamentally changed and he needs the skills of a good CEO — someone who can set the vision and build the capabilities to achieve the vision — to continue to scale the company.” – Sastry Rachakonda, CEO of iQuanti
Hire people who are smarter, better and faster than you. “Forget your ego — this isn’t a contest! Don’t believe that people who are smarter than you won’t respect you or support your decisions. On the contrary, they know if you are in your position, you’ve worked hard to get there. If you hire people who are ineffective, you will end up doing a majority of their work for them.” –Julian Kabab, CEO of Flashgap
Have a backup plan for your team. “As a startup, we have ingrained in our minds that we must operate as lean as possible, including staff. However, it’s equally important to hire for growth, especially when it comes to specialized positions. You should never have a [situation] where, if [a certain staff member] were to leave, your operation would slow down or stop.” – Jason van den Brand, CEO of Lenda
Look at everything as an experiment. “No product is perfect, no idea fully formed. You will make assumptions, and you should trust your instincts, but the only real way to prove your product is by testing it on real customers. So, don’t be afraid if the first cut of your product isn’t perfection. It will invariably change over time.” – Adam Friedman, CEO of Shareable Apps
Listen to your customers. “We’ve got an experienced team of developers, product managers and marketers, but our customers know the app inside out. We know that they are what brings the product to life. There is nothing better than a customer suggesting a product feature or opportunity that we hadn’t thought of. By being open-minded to consumer feedback, we’re able to build a better product to serve them.” – Vijay Ramani, CEO of Totspot
Find people who already believe in you. “Our global site Finder.com [went] live in September. We learned that, instead of launching the site primarily in the U.S., we needed to focus on our existing Australian audience because that’s where we had eager ears. This doesn’t just apply to people launching a successive product or service; it’s sage advice to people who have networked in fields related to their upcoming offerings. If you get like-minded people who already know and are interested in you behind your launch, you’ve just growth hacked your amplification potential.”– Fred Schebesta, CEO of finder.com
Define and focus on your niche. “Looking back at 2015, we stopped chasing extravagant customer deals and focused more on our core customer base of small and medium-sized businesses. These are the customers that get duped by some of our competitors and the ones we know we can help the most.” – Alexander Goldstein, CEO of Eligo Energy
Know when to be aggressive. “You must win and re-win clients every day, even the comfortable ones. We were focused on making a better product to solve [an important client’s] problem, but we did not engage them in all we were doing. We were passive and polite when we should have been a little more aggressive and forthright. Had we rocked the boat, we would have had a chance. Instead, the boat sailed and we missed it.” – James Ontra, CEO of Shufflrr
Pay attention to fundraising and investors. “In 2015, we successfully raised the largest round of funding on AngelList … and learned how well crowdfunding really works. It provides not only an efficient fundraising model, but also adds valuable investors to your team who can be very helpful in accelerating the business. We also learned the true benefit of including a strategic venture investor, Summation Ventures, to our team.” – David Norris, CEO of MDinsider
Be aware of your opportunities and challenges. “There will be many distractions/opportunities that will try to steer you off course from your plan, which will lead to a high probability of failure. There will be opportunities that you will not want to pass up, they just have to be vetted thoroughly. Being aware of everything around you such as the market you are attacking and additional influencers or investors will help make you a more effective leader.” – Gerry David, CEO of Celsius Holdings, Inc.
Be open to criticism. “As a CEO, you sometimes can get stuck in routines of innovation and development that don’t always factor in the opinions of your subordinates. We routinely have meetings where employees at all levels can provide insights and opinions on how to improve and optimize how we work. You will be surprised what you can discern from individuals that don’t have any other vested interest in telling you anything but the truth.” – Joseph Anthony, CEO of Hero Group
Harness the power of ‘no.’ “There are so many opportunities to consider and it may seem counterintuitive to forego them. The problem is that while these opportunities are attractive and create return, they come at a cost, and these costs can be disastrous for the company. The nature of a startup is to become a leader in a chosen market segment. It is far from a trivial target: How does a small company with limited resources become a leader? Only through focus and utmost discipline, and knowing when to say ‘no’ to certain opportunities.” – Victor Rosenman, founder and CEO of Feedvisor