It started in a hotel bathroom in New Orleans.
I was 20 years old. I was sitting on the toilet. I was crying.
That was the setting when I started my first company.
A month or so passed before I told my family that I had become an entrepreneur. I called my mom. She cried. That was my welcome to entrepreneurship.
I remembered the wide range of emotions I had during those first few months. Confidence, doubt, excitement, overwhelm, confusion, and naiveté. Are you feeling those too?
If I could go back to those first several months, these are the reminders I would give to myself.
1. Take complete care of your first customers.
Your first customers, clients, or users should become the most important people in your world.
When I got my first few customers, I didn’t really focus on taking complete care of them. Instead, I made the mistake of endlessly hunting for new customers. That took so much time and energy that I neglected the customers I had worked so hard to get.
Needless to say, I lost those customers.
Take complete care of your first customers. Reach out to them. Learn their names. Understand their needs. It’ll pay off down the road.
2. Be unafraid to tell people that this is a new business.
One of the challenges new entrepreneurs grapple with is their identity. Should you fake it ‘til you make it? Should you act bigger than you really are?
I faked it. I also portrayed my startup as being bigger than it really was. And I think I missed out on winning some amazing starter customers because of it. When you’re just starting up—especially if you started a service-based business—think hard about how you want to represent yourself.
If you’re starting a service-based business, I encourage you to tell people that you’re just starting. Clients who appreciate the honesty will be more lenient with you as you learn the finer details of running your business.
Regardless of your business type, here’s something to keep in mind.
Unhappy customers are made when they get less than what they expected. This means that the expectations you set have to be accurate to what you can actually deliver.
Telling people you’re new in business is a great way to set appropriate expectations.
3. Perform free work, and make it your best work.
My jaw hits the floor when new entrepreneurs refuse to do free work.
Trust me on this one. Some of your most loyal customers can come from performing incredible free work for them.
That’s been absolutely true for me.
4. Don’t ask for free help.
Free help is something that you give, not something you ask for.
It’ll be tempting to ask your friends for free help. Don’t do it. Instead, turn it into a transaction. You’re starting a business, and businesses operate on transactions.
If you don’t have any money, then find something valuable that you can do for them.
5. Move fast, but take it slow.
There’s so much ground to gain when you first start out. The early stages are important in business because you’re learning if people actually want what you’re selling. Move as fast as you can to learn as much as you can.
Go as fast as you can so you can learn as much as you can, but don’t grow yourself to death.
Here’s what I mean. Once you get a little traction, you may think that you’re ready to grow your business. You might want to start hiring people, buy the new company truck, or other moves that aren’t appropriate for your stage of business.
Work hard to master your business at the current level you’re at. Once you’re ready for the next stage, then move on.
6. Don’t buy into the “X Steps To Y” courses.
One of the most costly mistakes I made when I first started was that I spent too much on courses, books, and other things that promised “X Steps To Y.”
I’m talking thousands of dollars. More importantly, I spent too many valuable minutes on the courses.
Looking back, I realize why I bought those courses when I was at that stage. First, going through the courses felt like work. I felt like I was accomplishing things, but I wasn’t accomplishing the most important goal for my startup: making sales.
The second reason I was buying into these courses was because I was looking for a shortcut. There aren’t shortcuts.
Anyone who know me knows that I’m actually a big advocate of paying for courses, learning materials, mentorships, and conferences. But there’s a time and a place for all of that.
The time and the place is not when you are just starting out.
7. For now, ignore the idea of scale.
A popular—and important—topic within the entrepreneur community is scale.
When people talk about scale, they’re talking about how to replicate the product or service for a large number of customers, clients, or users.
It’s fun to think about scale when you’re just starting out. Big goals are good goals. Huge visions are inspiring. But don’t get ahead of yourself.
Do the unscaleable when you’re just starting out, like taking complete care of your first customers.
The time to really think about scale is once you know that people want what you’re selling, you can deliver on your promises to your customers, and that you can replicate that delivery over and over again.
Until you can check those boxes, do the unscaleable.
8. Show up, follow up, and follow through.
This is the most basic—and powerful—reminder for new entrepreneurs.
Show up to meetings and events, especially if they’re optional. You never know what’s going to happen, when it’s going to happen, and where it’s going to happen. Showing up allows serendipity to play a role in your success. All of us need serendipity.
Follow up with the people you meet, even if you don’t see the benefit of connecting with them at first. Invite them to coffee. Learn all you can about what they’re working on and what their challenges are. Find a way to help them. The karma will come back to you.
Whatever you promise people you’d do, be sure that you follow through. And when you do, expect nothing in return. Free work is something you do, remember? I’d be lying if I said that this approach will lead to money every time.
But goodwill goes a long, long way.
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Photo: Calvin Shoop