14 Tips for Surviving the Startup Years

Dreams don’t always become reality, at least not on your timeline.

That’s one of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned as a small business owner. Too bad it took attending the school of hard knocks and letting life, the most valuable teacher, impart this nugget of wisdom into my stubborn brain.

Beyond childbirth, taking the plunge into the entrepreneurial ocean was the scariest thing I’ve ever done. I’d always had a grand vision of running a business where everything would just work itself out, but boy was I sadly mistaken. The first few years were inundated with storm after storm that seemed practically impossible to weather. Each time I took one step forward, I took two steps back.

Fortunately, I made up in my mind that it was all or nothing, and figured out ways to endure through the tough times. And guess what? I’m still standing.

Throughout your entrepreneurial journey, especially during the startup years, you will face storms. But it’s how you react that determines the outcome. Here are some tips to help you endure when the road gets rocky:

1. Mind Over Matter

I’ve met tons of aspiring entrepreneurs who had brilliant ideas, but didn’t quite realize that mega success doesn’t happen overnight. It takes hard work and dedication. And most of those who went on to pursue their passions quickly threw in the towel once they realized the path ahead was filled with roadblocks, and it would take some time to start generating income.

I wish someone would have warned me to control my thoughts before I opened up shop. During the initial months, when things weren’t going my way, I’d sit and have a pity party because I knew I had the tools to get what so and so had, but luck simply wasn’t on my side. But what I failed to realize is that looks can be deceiving; that the individual or company I was comparing myself to was seasoned, had been in the game for several years, and once traveled the same road I was currently on.

The point I’m trying to make is that in order to survive the tough times, you really have to adopt a mind-over-matter outlook. Stay focused and determined, and be willing to do whatever it takes to power through and reach the prize. Most importantly, don’t spend time letting your thoughts paralyze you.

2. Embrace Your Fears

For quite some time, I often asked myself, “What if I fail? Will others tease me and think I’m a loser?” And it wasn’t until I encountered a sales guru by the name of Grant Cardone that my mindset changed. He bluntly told me to “starve my fears by taking swift action,” and it was the best thing I’ve ever done. So in those moments where doubt sets in, I have to remind myself that it’s all (a successful business) or nothing (returning to the cubicle).

Fear is a dangerous emotion that only heightens with procrastination, so the longer you spend contemplating whether or not to move forward, the more you’ll talk yourself out of doing something that can change the course of your business. And don’t expect everyone around you to be supportive; some may be hoping you fail, whether it’s out of a selfish desire to prove a point or pure jealousy.

Having the courage to embrace your fears may take some time, but it will be worth it in the end. Besides, most of those traumatizing visions you’ve had about failure won’t come to pass — unless, of course, you quit.

3. Do Your Homework and Establish a Plan

A few questions to ponder in the beginning stages or before you take the leap:

  • What is it that makes your target market tick?
  • Does your product or service accomplish this objective?
  • If there are other options already out there that are similar to yours, what’s missing and how do you fill the void?
  • Is there an optimal location for your operations?

Consumers are strapped for time, so they won’t spend hours of their day researching why your product will best suit their needs. If you deliver your value proposition and quickly reel them in, chances are you’ll earn their business.

Another tip during the planning phase: Have the talk with others around you that may be effected. You’ll need to communicate what this new business venture will mean for your relationship and any other expectations once operations are up and running. This is particularly important if you have a significant other or children in the household.

During the first few months or even years, your time may be severely limited due to tasks required to get your entity to the profit-generating phase. But if you alert them of this possibility beforehand, chances are there won’t be any surprises.

And don’t forget to start building up a savings cushion to eliminate unnecessary financial stress.

4. Take Risks (With a Backup Plan in Place)

The greater the risk, the greater the reward. But how will you know the outcome if you never take action in the first place?

During the beginning stages of operations, you will have to make a number of decisions that could completely make or break your business. And if you aren’t accustomed to putting it all on the line without knowing the outcome beforehand, this could be a daunting task.

I know firsthand how nerve-wracking it is to leave the stability of the workforce behind to follow your passions, and spend funds you aren’t sure you’ll get back. But I’ve realized the more I put myself out there for the world to critique, the farther along my business progresses. It’s not easy being rejected by editors and potential clients or receiving negative feedback from readers on something you put a lot of hard work into, but it’s definitely worth it in the end.

Whatever risk you take, be mindful of how it can affect others around you, and always try to have a backup plan in place. I can’t stress this enough, especially if you have family depending on you.

5. Don’t Underestimate Startup Costs

Starting a business is rarely cheap, so your plan will need to include realistic numbers for all the expenses you’ll incur to get operations off the ground. If you’re not realistic about these figures, be prepared to sink in lieu of swimming should the money not come piling in right away. A few costs to consider:

  • Research and development
  • Marketing
  • Administrative
  • Salaries
  • Building or office lease
  • Website development and maintenance
  • Equipment and maintenance

And you’ll need to revisit these figures on a monthly basis in the first few years and compare them with your projected income to ensure you’re on track financially.

If you hit a rough patch, turning to a bank for a loan to stay afloat probably isn’t the smartest option either, especially considering the stringent qualification criteria for lending. Joe Sweeney looks at ways to finance your startup in this post, and you can always resort to tapping into your savings cushion, asking family and friends for help, or applying for an SBA loan.

6. Start Small

It’s OK to start small. It takes customers to make a business, so don’t get so caught up in all the minutia or your grand visions that you forget what matters most.

As I mentioned earlier, you may notice a seasoned competitor is launching a new service or soliciting the assistance of a top-notch marketing firm to overhaul their website. But don’t let this deter you from focusing on your competencies and winning over what new clients or customers you can.

Ever wonder what happened to some of those businesses that appeared out of nowhere, swept the media by storm, and quickly disappeared? More than likely, they put the cart before the horse by skipping over integral steps on their way to overnight stardom. But this is a recipe for disaster, because they never really gained an appreciation of what it takes behind the scenes to run a thriving business. (And I constantly have to remind some of my clients that it takes more than money to run a business).

Keeping your startup costs down will allow you more time to get things right. If you start small, work hard, and grow organically, you’ll eventually get to where you need to be.

7. Skip the Fancy Marketing Campaigns

A few weeks ago, I shared a comprehensive list of simple (and mostly free) ways to double your marketing efforts. These are cost-effective strategies that have worked well for me, as well as my clients.

However, some new business owners get so anxious about their idea that they’ll empty out their bank accounts to hire a high-profile PR firm that saturates the market with their product. But what happens when the campaign doesn’t perform as expected? It’s a done deal, and a lot of money thrown into the garbage. (Surge comes to mind as I’m making this point).

A smarter alternative? Keep your money, and go all-out with a compelling call to action on your marketing copy that speaks to the emotions of your target market. Harness the inexpensive power of email marketing, and try and test a few approaches to see what generates the best measurable results.

8. Speak to Your Market

The famous phrase “features tell, but benefits sell” is spot on. With any of your promotional content or copy, your primary goal should be to captivate the attention of your target market so you’re their first and only choice.

Once you’ve earned their business, be sure to solicit feedback so you can continue to produce offerings tailored to their lifestyle. Besides, what better and more cost-efficient way is there to learn about your target market than from their own mouths?

Remember, it’s not about you: It’s all about your customers, and what you can do to meet their needs. Miss this point and you could quickly find yourself out of business.

9. Customer Service is Crucial

During my conversation with Grant Cardone, he also explained how the customer service experience starts from inception. For example, if you’re selling a service that everyone and their brother is offering, you have to be the one to deliver the “wow” experience to set yourself apart. If not, you’ll drown in the deep sea of fish roaming aimlessly in search of new clients.

Treat your clients and customers — even the difficult ones — like they’re your most valuable assets, because they are. Make sure any employees know to do the same.

If you suspect poor customer service is hindering the growth of your business, instead of spending thousands of dollars on training in an effort to get it right, simply begin by treating your next prospect like a million bucks and let it trickle down.

Also, reach out to others who may have been neglected in the past; they’ll be surprised to hear from you, and you could earn their business once again by making things right.

10. Delegate Tasks

I’m a control freak, so I completely get it! Delegating tasks is hard work because you don’t think anyone else is competent enough to complete the work in the same manner you would.

And you know what? You’re probably right. But adopting a jack of all trades, master of none attitude is a recipe for disaster.

Face it: Your business will only go so far if you become more of an employee than an owner. So in the words of Disney’s “Frozen,” let it go so you can focus on revenue-generating activities.

11. Balance!

When my oldest son was born, my life was centered upon him, at least for the first year or so. I took him everywhere I went and his mood affected my actions for the day. (That eventually got old when major fatigue set in; I had to learn to relinquish control).

Anyhow, your new business can seem like a newborn baby in your eyes, but don’t get so strapped to it that it becomes the epitome of your existence or you will burn out. The last thing you should be doing when you’re frazzled and at your wits’ end is making critical decisions or snapping at customers or clients.

Instead, set aside some time to engage in activities that make you happy and don’t forget to get out and explore the world. You only have one life to live, and the business will be waiting for you when you return.

12. Pace Yourself

Sorry to break it to you, but you can’t do it all. I struggle with this each day of my life here on Earth, but I’ve resorted to using massive to-do lists to cope. Basically, I create a business wish list on a sheet of paper, prioritize them, and then forget about it. When there’s spare time, I execute a few of the items and cross them off, making slow but steady progress.

13. Sleep!

My first year or so consisted of nonstop working when the kids were away during the day or asleep in the wee hours of the morning. I’m not sure if I slept more than four hours per day.

One day, I received an infographic from a concerned friend about sleep deprivation and this toxic pattern suddenly changed. Not only is sleep deprivation detrimental to your health — it also hinders productivity and focus. Again: Should you be making crucial business decisions or talking to clients’ on four hours of sleep?

14. Avoid Resting on Your Laurels

Entrepreneurship is like a roller-coaster ride. In the first few years, you’ll need to do whatever it takes to stay relevant. And once you’re established, never stop putting yourself out there or things could go downhill rather quickly. If you don’t believe me, ask any business owner whose doors were open during the latest recession.

Now, take a moment and breathe! The first months, even years, of running your own business are often the very hardest. But you will get through this rough patch. I’ve been there on several occasions, but it’s in those weakest moments that I have to remember why I started. You may cry now, but you’ll laugh later as your business grows and you’re able to sit back and reflect on just how far you’ve come on your entrepreneurial journey.

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