If I Only Knew Then What I Know Now: Lessons from the Entrepreneurial Edge
Jeff Shackelford, executive director of Digital Sandbox KC, has a unique and diverse professional background with a rare combination of Fortune 100 enterprise experience coupled with entrepreneurial, startup and early stage ventures. He has a successful track record of raising equity capital of more than $500M.
Celebrating it's one-year anniversary this February, Digital Sandbox KC is an unprecedented partnership among private companies, universities, entrepreneurial support organizations and government agencies across the Kansas City region designed to spur the creation of high growth companies. Digital Sandbox KC provides proof-of-concept resources, including market validation, prototyping and beta testing support for the development of digital technologies within new and existing businesses.
To date, Digital Sandbox KC has helped provide support for more than 150 early-stage companies and helped secure more than $7M in early-stage equity investments.
The idea is the easy part.
I often tell people that having a great business idea is the easy part. Building and executing a solid business plan around that great idea is the hard part. It separates the emotional “idea guy” from the pragmatic, meticulous entrepreneur.
I have an “idea book” I’ve carried around for 20+ years where I’ve written down all of the ideas that have popped in my head. Over the years, I’ve seen some version of many of my ideas brought to market by someone who was willing to do the painstaking work required to turn an interesting idea into a real business.
Ideas (businesses) never fail. They’re just experiments that we should learn from.
I’ve often heard “experienced” entrepreneurs refer to “failed businesses,” and I stop them and ask, “Did you learn anything from it?” They always tell me it was one of their greatest learning experiences. So why would we refer to it as a ”failure”?
Some of the world’s greatest inventors and entrepreneurs had many “learning experiences” before they achieved what the world calls success. And great entrepreneurs put those “learning experiences” to good use in their future ventures.
You can’t do it all.
Trying to be all things to all customers or trying to expand across the world in 30 days is a formula for failure.
Spreading you and your precious company resources too thin means you may lose the laser focus and clear vision you need to drive your business in a sustainable, profitable fashion. Stay focused on the key product components and key markets and avoid chasing rainbows.
Your business is not your child.
Creating a deep, parent-like emotional attachment to your business can cloud judgment and make needed changes nearly impossible to implement. There may come a time when you have to give up control to investors or transfer operational responsibilities to a COO. Or even close it or sell the business entirely—not something you would ever do with one of your children.
Being totally committed to your business’ success means you remain objective and willing to do what it takes to drive it to the next level.
Unless you ARE the smartest person in the world, look for help.
Just because you may have come up with a great business idea by yourself doesn’t mean you have to be a one-man band trying to play orchestra music.
Always be looking to supplement your intellect and talents with potential business partners, advisors and mentors. It gets really lonely during the stress-filled days if you are all alone on the entrepreneurial island. A well-rounded and balanced management team greatly enhances the chances of success and future investment.
Be very, very careful when bringing on partners and employees.
Before any investor will put their money in your new business, they will typically do a significant amount of due diligence. You should use this same approach when adding to your team.
Make sure you take the time to learn as much as possible about them, both professionally and personally. After all, you most likely will be spending much of your waking hours with them and the success of your business will depend heavily on them.
Never forget, the closest anyone ever gets to perfection is on their resume, and we can all prepare and ace an interview. Does that really give you deep insight into who you are about to add to your team?
The success of your business will rest on the shoulders of the team you build, so take the time to really know who you’re bringing on.
Sometimes you have to slow down to eventually go faster.
As entrepreneurs, we’re all wired to go as fast as possible all the time. We see the ability to get to the next milestone in as short a time frame as possible as a key advantage. Often times, we may be creating our own inefficiencies by not taking the time to build the operational infrastructure and processes the business will need to scale to the next level.
By simply focusing on the immediate task at hand without developing a view of the future usually means re-working (more time and money) the solution. Always be thinking “will this scale when we hit the next level?”
Unless you ARE the smartest person in the world AND you don’t like to sleep, give up some management control.
So it was your own great idea, your personal financing, your sweat and tears that got your business launched and on the path to success.
Do you really think you can be CEO, COO, CTO, head of sales, chief marketing officer, top customer service rep, HR, director of purchasing and company safety officer…all at once, all of the time?
To grow your business you will have to come to grips with giving up some responsibilities (that means control) to others so you can focus on what you do best.
Just remember, be very careful and due full diligence when adding to your team.
Your business will not immediately disintegrate if you are away from it for more than 24 hours.
It’s OK to have interest (and a life) outside of your new business. In fact, it probably has a profound effect on how productive you are in the business.
Clearly, virtually all startups involve long hours and consume most of your functioning brainpower. It’s important to still nurture personal relationships (if you have kids, they shouldn’t question who you are when you arrive home), have a hobby that allows you to both physically and mentally get away to recharge your battery.
It’s amazing how problems you thought were nearly unsolvable become minor obstacles after getting away and clearing your head.
Include all of your team members (employees) in your success.
From the genius tech guru to the part-time guy cleaning the offices, include everyone in the success of the company. After all, they are the ones who do all the heavy lifting every day to make it all work. Find ways for them to share in the rewards, and let them know they are an integral part of your team.
Sometimes it just takes stopping in the middle of a busy day and telling someone thanks for their hard work and dedication. And in today’s virtually all-digital world, I still find a personalized, handwritten “thank you” note to be a sincere gesture of appreciation.
It doesn’t magically get easier.
Many believe that once the business is launched (or funded) and hits some magical milestone that everything just falls into place and the business becomes easy.
With each stage comes a new set of challenges and new milestones that have to be reached. You will most likely be working as hard as you ever have at each new phase.
That said the exhilaration of turning your idea in to a real business and driving rapid growth is incredible. Think of your business as a journey versus having some predefined end-point.
And make sure you take time to celebrate the many milestones you will have along the way.