Launch! 10 startup tips to go from concept to cash
A number of books address business skills and motivational approaches for entrepreneurs, but this new one brings together a wide range of case studies beyond the usual suspects, and provides 10 useful sets of lessons for entrepreneurs to go from concept to cash.
In his book Launch! The Critical 90 Days from Idea to Market, serial entrepreneur and startup coach Scott Duffy offers pithy advice and inspiring quotes, such as this gem from the late great African American literary icon, Maya Angelou: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.”
The 12 chapters are spread across 218 pages, and make for a quick and interesting read as well as a useful reference. Here are my key takeaways from the 10 sets of tips from Duffy’s playbook for startup founders.
1. Find and grow your big idea
There’s never a bad time to start a business, or a bad age. What matters is your insights and determination to succeed. Learn from those who think out of the box – they actually do not even recognise that there is a box to think outside of. If you have a big idea, break it into smaller pieces. Don’t whine about pressure from the boss, or lack of time, or costs, or educational background, or what others think. Get fear and ignorance out of the way.
2. Manage your risk
Separate your business from your personal account. Confide everything in your spouse (‘chief venting officer’) and set time aside for personal life. Get a professional to manage your books from day one. Get legal help to guard against litigation. Do exercise to stay healthy and think creatively; schedule your work around your exercise, not the other way round. Movements effectively change your mood. Stay focused by controlling your ‘inner dialogue’ – ask the right questions and that will help steer you away from risk and panic. Develop this into a positive habit.
3. Create a supportive environment
Stay away from the proverbial crabs who pull you down. Create a Fab Five circle of friends and Top Three mentors – and change some of them as your business scales. Also find others to mentor, it gives you new perspectives and a sense of empowerment. Build your own personal brand – be authentic, original and sincere. Show how you can overcome failure.
4. Plan effectively
Have not just a big idea, but clear goals, a strategic plan and a sense of direction. Where do you want to be in three-five years? Get feedback from customers, trust the data. Don’t treat your business as a hobby, go fishing instead. When you walk into a new industry, be humble and enter with a beginner’s mind.
5. Build the A-Team
Build a good team so you can work on the business rather than just in the business. Be the CEO: Chief Energising Officer. But if your heart is actually in the product and not the daily running of the company, get someone else to be the CEO. Distinguish between the roles of visionary, entrepreneur, manager and sharpshooter. Scale your talent, and let them go if they can’t scale. Maintain the key relationships with partners and customers. Create a culture of continuous learning. Get a business coach if necessary. Make sure you have full agreement with your partners on commitment of time and finance, and voting rights as well as exit strategy.
6. Unlock creativity
Create a common purpose in your organisation, a sense of community and pride of ownership. Hire great people, help them think wild ideas and give them the resources to execute. Encouraging experimentation and small bets, and don’t penalise failure. Combine business with pleasure, and brainstorm in unusual settings. Open people’s minds and break down organisational silos.
7. Be smart when you raise capital
Be lean, thrift and scrappy as far as possible. Be clear exactly when you need funds, how much, how fast, from whom, and in exchange for what. Be prepared for the hard work, stress, disappointment and even disillusionment when dealing with investors. Be careful about how much equity and preferences you give away to investors. Investors have heard a lot of hype before, so stay away from making tall claims and trying to be everything. Build a great team and a great pitch. Choose investors who can give you more than money, but networks, talent and brand.
8. Launch, listen, learn
Don’t start by doing too much – begin with a minimum viable product. Don’t be like a hammer only looking for nails. Collect great feedback and learn from it. Be prepared to receive negative feedback, even if you think the customers ‘just don’t get it.’ It’s OK to focus small; there are riches in niches. Develop avatars or persona of your customers; don’t just profile them, engage them in conversation. Leverage social media, but be authentic in your presence; an ‘hour of power’ online each day goes a long way. Learn how to engage effectively with partners, master the art of barter. Ask customers what matters to them, and how they know their needs are being met.
9. Stay the course
Whittle away till you have a good product and team. Look for growth opportunities, but be aware that sometimes growth will also burn your cash and cannibalise you. To become even more efficient, keep a detailed diary and identify areas where you can delegate even more. Stay in the ‘zone,’ in the flow of things.
10. Be prepared for crises
Learn how to see things not just at normal road speeds but race-car speeds. When things begin to go wrong, don’t go into denial. Identify the problems, get your full team involved. Get over your ego and reach out to advisors, mentors and other seasoned entrepreneurs – it is a badge of honour for them to help you and they will. Cut fast and cut deep if you need to trim your team. Make sure you have your family on board to understand the depth of the crisis, you may actually discover new sources of strength and support. Join startup clubs and entrepreneur meetups.
And once you have succeeded, give back to other entrepreneurs, invest in new businesses, and give back to society, the author concludes. After all, it is the dreamers who keep the economy moving, who create jobs and growth.
Duffy draws on his own experience as well as stories of other entrepreneurs to come up with these 10 Tips. Larry Ellison, Mark Zuckerberg, Mark Cuban, Jeff Bezos, Reed Hastings, Richard Branson, Larry Page and Sergei Brin were not experts in their eventual domains, but were creative, persistent and eager to learn from their original insights.
You do not even have to be first to succeed – Bill Gates invented MS-DOS to improve the computing experience, and then Steve Jobs improved on the PC experience. Some startups chose such effective partners that they eventually get acquired by them: Quote.com and Lycos, Lycos and FOX Sports, Sportsline and CBS, Xoom.com and NBC, and Duffy’s own SmartCharter with Branson’s Virgin group.
Mark Moses of Platinum Capital inspired his team to scale up by riding a two-ton elephant to the company annual meeting, and ‘elephant’ became their metaphor for growth. Irv Robbins and Burton Baskin were relatives who both entered the ice-cream business as competitors, then decided to pair their complementary skills. They tossed a coin to see whose name would come first in the new company, and Baskin-Robbins became history.
Marty Metro started Boomerang Boxes to sell used boxes for half the retail price, then pivoted to a new company UsedCarboardBoxes.com in a B2B model. Basketball star Magic Johnson’s life seemed to come crashing down when he was found to be HIV positive – but he used the experience of his diagnosis to create the Magic Johnson Foundation to help combat HIV and inspire others.
Sara Blakely came up with her idea of hosiery and tights when she had to cut the feet off a pair of pantyhose one day to go with her trousers and boots – and thereby started a new line of underclothing with the company name Spanx, which eventually made her a billionaire.
Michelle Patterson took over the California Women’s Conference but almost went bankrupt when the investor funding failed to materialise – she reached out to her family, friends and colleagues and they pulled her through. This eventually led to creation of the Women’s Network and Women Network Day in May.
Cristi and Andy Funk started the Pink Lotus breast cancer clinic which almost went bankrupt during the 2009 economic crisis, but sheer diligence kept them going till they recovered and eventually went on to get Sheryl Crow and Angelina Jolie as patients.
The book has a terrific range of inspirational quotes, beyond the usual suspects; here’s a sample below.
“Champions don’t let others write their story. They write their own story.” – Lou Holtz
“Everybody’s got a plan, until they’ve been hit.” – Mike Tyson
“I don’t know the key to success, but the key to failure is trying to please everybody.” – Bill Cosby
“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who has practiced one kick 10,000 times.” – Bruce Lee
“I find a way to simple first.” – MC Hammer
“If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.” – Albert Einstein
“Most people fail in life not because they aim too high and miss, but because they aim too low and hit. And many don’t aim at all.” – Les Brown
“Panic faster.” – Jack Welch
“The CEO has to be the Chief Energising Officer.” – Mark Moses
“The problem is not the problem. The problem is your attitude about the problem.” – Captain Jack Sparrow, Pirates of the Caribbean
“When the glass looks empty, don’t pray for rain, head toward the river.” – Greg Reid
“You’ve got to chase your passion like it’s the last bus of the night.” – Gary Goldstein
The author Scott Duffy himself has quite a few quotable quotes of his own:
“Ask a better question – and watch how your life changes forever.”
“Honest and educated feedback is like gold.”
“Look to learn – as well as sell.”
“Open up to the sense of possibility.”
“Risk should not be risky.”
“You have to live your life through the windshield, not through the rearview mirror.”
Scott Duffy is a best-selling author, speaker, angel investor and business consultant. He began his career working for author and speaker Tony Robbins, and went on to work for several big media brands like CBS Sportsline, NBC Internet and FOXSports.com. He also founded Smart Charter, an online booking tool for private aviation, which was acquired by Richard Branson’s Virgin Group. He can be followed on Twitter at @Scott_Duffy.