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Building a Startup is More Than What You Think

Cai Yuqian

April 27, 2020

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Photo by Clark Tibbs on Unsplash

We’ve heard many successful and exciting startup stories

“With the exciting idea prompting him to do something now, he dropped out of college and started to experiment in his parents’ garage. Raised by a family of entrepreneurs, he has been influenced by the mindset to conquer challenges and solve them on his own since he was a little boy. Now it was his chance to show the world that he could truly make a difference. It was indeed a triumph — one of the greatest tech startups was born, and he became the widely discussed new star in the business world, generating wealth worth billions in his pocket.”

You may think the story was taken from a book or a media article, but truth to be told, it was completely made up by me. Many of us have heard similar stories once in a while, and sometimes they sound so similar that certain patterns of those entrepreneurs’ trajectories could be generalised. MBA students who luckily met their co-founders and went on to start their business out of an idea that flashed across one of their minds one day, college dropouts who were smart and “geeky” enough to build the first product completely on their own, and ex-consultants or ex-bankers who were tired of the corporate life and just wanted to take back their autonomy to create their own version of the ideal business … these figures have swamped the media for a long time.

A person using smartphone and laptop at the same time
There are so many exciting startup stories out there. Photo by Austin Distel on Unsplash

Behind the glamorous, it’s usually all unbeatable grit and resilience

These stories were inspiring and amazing, but they can seem distant and unrealistic for many people at the same time. It doesn’t mean that those stories are fake — blog posts, podcast interviews, and media articles sometimes unconsciously or unintentionally simplify the startup journey while showcasing the brighter side of building a business. What is left out is often the blood and sweat coming from an entrepreneur facing constant challenges and hurdles.

While the protagonists of the mainstream stories we hear often possess a common set of characteristics and traits, the majority of entrepreneurs are unlike them — every entrepreneur is unique in their own life journey and why they start out pursuing entrepreneurship in the first place. One podcast that tries to bring more down-to-earth entrepreneurship journeys is The Startup Story. The host invites entrepreneurs from different backgrounds, such as immigrants, girls who stopped pursuing education after high school, and decommissioned military personnel, to talk about the roller coaster ride they’ve been through.

One of such stories is Her Organics, a subscription service that delivers organic tampons to women. Her Organics is Mia Plecic’s 6th startup and her 5th e-commerce startup. Mia’s current success could not be achieved without the challenges she went through. For instance, as an inexperienced teenager, she spent time trying to figure out e-commerce and Instagram marketing in her bedroom selling toothpaste, and she has gone through huge losses in a partner relationship. Her story is a true embodiment of perseverance and motivation.

Personally, I feel that these stories are much more genuine. They show the possibility of starting a business no matter who you are, where you came from, and how much you earn every year. You can almost hear their grit and resilience through their narration, and those emotional flashbacks about invaluable lessons that they could never get if they did not try.

Especially during this difficult period of the COVID-19 pandemic, there are currently numerous entrepreneurs struggling, trying to keep their business alive while having to face enormous uncertainty. The reality is, some business will survive and even thrive throughout this crisis, whereas some will, unfortunately, meet their doom (if you are an entrepreneur or a business owner who is currently having a hard time navigating through the crisis, we have a two-part guide that may give you some help).

A toddler's standing in front of beige concrete stair
It's never easy. Photo by Jukan Tateisi on Unsplash

Building a startup: tremendous complexity under uncertainty

Startups are all about solving a problem and creating value with limited resources under extreme uncertainty. What’s more, there has been the misconception that building a startup is about building a product that customers like. The truth is, it’s only part of the story — building a startup is also building a business that seeks to survive and thrive.

One of the biggest shifts you need to make as founding CEO of a scaling startup is realizing that your product is the company, not the product itself.” — Tim Chen, NerdWallet’s CEO

There are a myriad of things a startup founder needs to take care of and the focus during the different stages of their business can be very different.

At the early stage of building a startup, where the central activity is to achieve product-market fit, founders are laser-focused on solving the problem with the right solution. Understanding their customers and their associated journeys, assessing competitions, and deciding between pivoting and persevering are some examples of critical things that will be on a founder’s mind.

Next up it’s all about money because any business person will be able to tell that “cashflow is king”. A robust business model is what truly enables a product or a service to take flight. Therefore, mastering fundamental financial metrics, such as revenue, costs, margins, customer acquisition cost, and customer lifetime value, is of utmost importance to keep the business viable. If a founder is considering raising funds, navigating through that world is nothing less of a grand challenge.

But even if you have a great product and a pocket of money to run the business, if nobody knows you, your brand will be regarded as non-existence. Sales and marketing, the art of making your brand unique and relevant, soon come into play. How a startup tells its story, how it goes to market and builds its sales pipeline quickly sit on a founder’s to-do list.

Finally, people, the blood of every business that builds value and culture, is what founders need to wholeheartedly nurture and take care of. Building meaningful and healthy relationships with co-founders and employees is no easy task, as you may have already heard of many startups that went bust because of poorly handled internal conflicts.

Seawater crashing onshore
Survive, then thrive. Photo by Aleks Dahlberg on Unsplash

It’s about a vision with a mission to be done

One certain fact is that most successful startups, regardless of their industry and scale, create and stick to a shared vision and mission from day one. At the end of the day, you should want your company to make a positive impact on this world, just as Steve Jobs said,

“I hate it when people call themselves ‘entrepreneurs’ when what they’re really trying to do is launch a startup and then sell or go public, so they can cash in and move on. They’re unwilling to do the work it takes to build a real company, which is the hardest work in business. That’s how you really make a contribution and add to the legacy of those who went before. You build a company that will still stand for something a generation or two from now. That’s what Walt Disney did, and Hewlett and Packard, and the people who built Intel. They created a company to last, not just to make money. That’s what I want Apple to be.”

All the best to the entrepreneurs out there striving to make a difference!

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