As the founder of a design agency and online design platform, DesignBro, I know from personal experience how tough the entrepreneurship trajectory can be. Founded just over 2 years ago, in the first year, we focused on development and coding, and the second year was all about bringing the company to market.
After multiple pivots and many months of hard work, we have reached a point where now it looks like year three will be all about managing growth.
Before I launched my startup, I scoured the internet looking for advice. I found many pointers, some of them useful, some of them less. One of the key takeaways for me was building a team. Yes! Do get yourself a great team. It is solid advice, but frankly, it’s been well covered (and without a great team you don’t even stand a chance).
However, there are a few bits of startup advice that seemed to be missing, or not sufficiently covered. So here’s the harsh, but real, advice for likeminded people like you who are seriously considering starting up.
1. Time does not exist (at least no longer to you)
Time is not absolute. “Einstein’s general theory of relativity established time as a physical thing: it is part of space-time, the gravitational field produced by massive objects,” and “Relativity says there is no single beat to which the cosmos moves.” The same could be said of your new life as an entrepreneur.
Starting an online business, in particular, is a great thing. However, it’s a terribly challenging thing too. It’s literally like having 3 children in 1 year. I’m not trying to discourage you, I just want to give you an honest heads up. You will have no personal time, you will not have (much) quality time when it comes to your relationship, family and friends. If you’re lucky enough to see them, you may be met with complaints that you’re absent-minded, or all you do is talk about your business. Know that you’re not alone – we’ve all been there.
2. A startup founder’s life is about sacrifice
What are you willing to give up today in order to get what you want in the long-term? In order to succeed you will likely sacrifice much more than you were initially planning.
An early-stage startup is 24/7 but it doesn’t even begin to describe what you need to put in … love, time, effort, everything! You probably won’t get much in return at first (especially if you are bootstrapping your business). Sounds like a pretty bad relationship, right?
Despite the lack of reciprocity in the early days, you will get personal gratification. I wake up every morning asking myself how I’m going to conquer the world. In my personal experience, all the little successes make the sacrifices worth it.
3. Double (or triple) your launch time
As an entrepreneur, things don’t always go according to plan. In a startup, where guesstimates are often the closest estimate you have (until you have actual data) this is even more the case. It takes years to get a successful company off the ground – not weeks, not months.
If you didn’t calculate enough time to grow your startup, you might cut yourself short, as the clock runs out and you feel that things never really took off.
4. Your personal finances must be in order
If you’re bootstrapping your startup the way we did, you’re likely not taking a salary at first. Review your personal finances and make sure you can afford to build your business without waking up to a pile of bills you can’t afford. If possible, ensure you have a way to earn income for an extended period of time (e.g. savings, part-time job, additional business income, etc.) to keep a roof over your head.
5. Get real about your relationships
A startup can put pressure on any relationship. Sit down with your significant other and explain that your new startup is more than “a cool idea,” and be brutally honest about what your commitment will be to your business and your relationship. Most startup founders have a minimal salary (if any) for the first 12-48 months. During that time, unless your partner takes an active role in supporting your efforts (actively or passively) time will be limited.
It’s crucial that your partner understands they are a part of the venture as much as you are, as the sacrifice is theirs too. Give them time to think about the new dynamic a startup will bring to the relationship and if they want to take part in the journey.
6. Going to the market requires more than theory
How are you going to take your new products or services to market while on a tight budget? You might consider social media, sampling, PR, etc. However, when you research what it takes to build and launch a go-to-market strategy you’ll find a ton of theoretical articles. It’s rare to find tangible and actionable pointers, so here are a few:
Hire interns. Duplicate yourself on the dime as quickly as you can. Allow people to learn, receive hands on experience and put them to good work.
Start SEO sooner than later. This is important! Research the keywords that are relevant to your business and create a simple SEO strategy, test it and replicate what works. For example, create and distribute relevant content (i.e. content marketing) and focus on high quality link building. Make sure you don’t get picked up by spammy websites and don’t outsource this (at least not yet!).
A/B test your process. Do you have a sales funnel on your site? Start there!
Define your sales trajectory. Decide if your customers should be found on or offline, keep in mind your cost of sales and make it a trackable metric. In the first few months as you find your best fit, it may be too high, but adjust constantly.
Get comfortable with analytics. Track your progress, see where you are lacking and improve upon it.
Acknowledge being overwhelmed. Get help, create a support network, ask for advice from other founders. It’s no use to struggle, rebuild the wheel and keep going in circles.
It’s hard to differentiate startup myths from startup reality. Without a cold hard look at the facts, the mythology about what drives business success can be enticing and unrealistic. These 6 tips will hopefully prevent you from being blindsided by the challenging work of starting up.
Christiaan Huynen founded the online design platform DesignBro in 2016, and the London office of Cartils, an award-winning branding and packaging design agency that is well-known for its work with Heineken, Pernod Ricard, Carlsberg, and Nestle Waters. Christiaan is a former Chairman Judge for the Spirits Business Design Awards, and has spoken at multiple design industry events including the European Package Design Association, the Global Bottled Water Congress, and Finat – the European Label Forum. He is intensely passionate about branding and packaging design, and thoroughly enjoys sharing information with like-minded people.