My co-founder and I both attended Wharton as undergrads, where we “concentrated” in entrepreneurship (in addition to finance, accounting, legal studies and philosophy). Within the confines of a semester, we wrote multiple business plans, negotiated the details of term sheets and collaborated on teams vying for theoretical capital.
While the skills learned no doubt gave us perspective and provided a structure for entrepreneurial thinking, after 2-plus years of developing a startup, it’s become apparent to me that studying entrepreneurship was just as abstract (if not more so!) as my studies in philosophy, especially with respect to starting and building a bootstrapped company.
The lessons outlined below may not be as sexy as term sheet negotiation and capital raising, but they are key to the success of a resource-constrained startup.
1. LEARN HOW TO SELL, QUICKLY.
You need to be profitable from day one. Consequently, you need to think about what you’re building as a sustainably profitable venture with a real business model. You do have investors, but they’re your clients, and they’re not giving you money because you have an impressive management team, large addressable market, previous accomplishments or world-scale strategy.
The question on their minds’ is, “Can you fix my problem?” They only care about your ability to address their specific needs in a way that’s better than the current solution. They don’t care about anyone else’s issues.
2. LEARN HOW TO BUILD RELATIONSHIPS.
You may be lacking financial or strategic advisors, but no one understands the problem that you’re trying to solve better than the customers you’re courting. Your first set of customers will effectively become your advisors and most valuable advocates, providing deeper insight into the issues you’re trying to solve and a better grasp of your customers’ needs.
Your first 10, 50 and 100 clients will define your brand and help you shape your business, so make sure you listen to them instead of trying to expand, rapidly. Better insight and understanding of your customers in the beginning is key to setting your business in the right direction.
3. LEARN HOW TO ENGAGE CLIENT REFERRALS AND LEVERAGE THE MEDIA.
You may not have the budget for marketing programs, but even if you do, there’s nothing better than a referral from a satisfied customer. Word-of-mouth marketing from current customers creates a trusted network that results in a supportive, invested client ecosystem.
With regards to PR, take the opportunity to engage writers directly with your story. It means a lot to a writer when they receive a custom note from a founder instead of a standard template message from a PR firm or marketing rep.
4. UNDERSTAND THE SCOPE OF WHAT YOU’RE EMBARKING ON — AND THE SIGNIFICANCE OF DETERMINATION AND PERSEVERANCE.
This is where our traditional entrepreneurship curriculum failed most fundamentally. Successful entrepreneurship rarely happens within the confines of a year, let alone a single semester, and our half-hearted attempts at starting businesses every semester (only to let them die during winter and summer breaks) reinforced a misleading expectation: that success can be validated quickly.
Building a successful company takes time and patience, 2 assets that you can’t raise from any venture capitalist. Yes, capital can help you hire and attract resources, but in the early stages of a startup, doing all the work yourself will provide you with perspective on the full scope of what you’re building.
Being in control of your own destiny also allows you to go at your own pace. While you obviously need to be aware of market pressures, avoiding pressure from outside investors lets you to take the time to better lay the foundation of your business — a foundation that, one day, might support an empire.
The Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC) is an invite-only organization comprised of the world’s most promising young entrepreneurs. In partnership with Citi, the YEC recently launched #StartupLab, a free virtual mentorship program that helps millions of entrepreneurs start and grow businesses via live video chats, an expert content library and email lessons.