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The very first thing you must do when you launch a business

When you launch your business, there is something you must do at the very beginning, and it’s not what you’re thinking a lawyer would advise.

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As a lawyer, you’re already anticipating my answer. You’re wrong.

If you know me as a business attorney, you might expect that my answer to this question would be “incorporate.” If you know me as a partner in a small business lender, you might expect that my answer would be “raise money” or “capitalize the company.” You likely have your own answers – design a great logo, create a website, invest in great accounting software… the list goes on.

I had a “meet and greet” with a prospective law firm client a couple of weeks ago. The company sells audio fixtures and equipment for music shows and festivals. Their work is apparently top notch, their reputation and brand are growing, and they have more work than the three founders can handle right now.

After telling me all of that great news, one of the founders, somewhat sheepishly, confessed that they hadn’t spent much time getting their legal or financial house in order. He was noticeably ashamed that they hadn’t done anything along these lines – hadn’t formed an entity, hadn’t opened a business bank account, nothing.

It’s refreshing to see founders think this way

The founders looked at me, waiting for me to tell them that we needed to get right on these things. I probably should have followed their cue, piled on just the right amount of additional shame, thrown in a healthy dose of fear that the IRS and a slew of unnamed (but aggressive and formidable, mind you) regulators would be right on their tail, and signed them up as new clients straight off. But I didn’t. I patted them on the back. Not literally, but I had no shortage of praise for them.

It’s refreshing to see founders with their hearts and minds rightly focused – on sales, landing customers, wowing customers. So many entrepreneurs spend far too much time behind closed doors, tweaking pro forma models, sprucing up pitch decks, writing wonderful form customer contracts, etc.

All these things have value, but they are a distant second to getting out and finding a customer. In my book, that’s priority number one – get a customer, make a dollar.

You’ve been trained to think about liability, and I don’t blame you

I can hear you now – “But, Brett, if I don’t form a corporation or limited liability company to house the business, I’m personally liable if something goes wrong.” Yep, you might be. But you are also going to be personally liable for a business failure if you spend all your time focusing on back office stuff and don’t get out there and bring in some income. Besides, a company with no customers and no operations is in very little danger of being sued.

I realize that it doesn’t take long to form an entity, so obviously I am being a tad extreme to make a point. And since I am a business lawyer, I want you to form an entity. Better yet, lawyers like me want to be called upon to form that entity. Those other things I talked about – pitch decks and marketing strategies – are important, too, so go do them. But you better be out there operating, selling, and closing at the same time.

Businesses don’t build themselves. They need customers and income.

The Lean Startup Method gets a lot of attention these days. What I love about it is its focus on action. Do stuff, try stuff. Put products and services out there, sign up customers, gather feedback.

Don’t spend two years behind closed doors making your product perfect, particularly if you’re creating a new product or service that the market hasn’t seen before. Guess what? “Perfect” is perfect in the eye of the beholder. The market may flat out not want what you are building, at least in the form in which you are planning to initially put it out there. So make something and get it out there. Keep some of your powder (money) dry to make changes based on feedback.

What do the most successful brands have in common?

In the business classic, In Search of Excellence, Tom Peters and Robert Waterman, Jr. identified a common attribute of hugely successful companies – they have a bias for action. They try stuff, they tweak it, they learn from it. They aren’t afraid to fail, and a lot of this failure should occur in the marketplace, with real customers.

When I launched a mortgage company in 2001, my first startup where I had the reins, I initially spent too much time behind closed doors when I should have been out selling. I was fresh off a stint with one of the largest corporate law firms in the world. In the world of high-end law, you spend a lot of time making things perfect, dotting i’s and crossing t’s. That’s what our clients wanted us to do and they were willing to pay us well for the work. Everything is overstaffed – at least it used to be. Documents get revised again and again, fixing punctuation, making everything beyond perfect.

That mindset cost my own company dearly

That mindset is in sharp contrast to the “git ‘er done” mindset most companies should have when they launch. I brought that bias-for-perfection mindset into my new venture and it cost my company the strong start it needed. Plus, there was that part of me that didn’t want to get my hands super dirty, wrangle with customers, etc. I wanted to build something pretty and let others do the heavy lifting. I wanted to play puppeteer and direct others from on high. Customer service? Sales? Ugh.

Think you need your website just right to get out there? Afraid to show up without your business cards, which are still at the printer? Think your logo needs a little work and don’t want to launch without it being done? Get over it. No one really cares about your logo. It’s so unlikely to make a difference in whether or not you close your first sale.

“But, Brett, what will I say when they ask for my business card?” How about, “I ran out.” Or, “I’m having more printed.” Don’t feel comfortable with those responses? How about, “Business cards? We’re not using those anymore. We’re getting ahead of the curve. They’ll be extinct within three years.”

Say anything. Or nothing. My point is, don’t use any of these things as excuses for not getting out there and landing customer number one.

I learned my lesson in the mortgage company and, for a while, I had the FICO score to prove it. We burned through our capital quickly and our perfect logo, ideal form independent contract agreement, and meticulously organized company files weren’t recognized as currency by our vendors. Those were some lean times for me.

If you have more money than Google, you may never have to get your hands dirty

But if you don’t have a bottomless coffer, you need to have a sense of urgency about getting out there and bringing in customers (and, if you’re the leader, you better be out there showing your team how it’s done).

We got it turned around after I got off my high horse, felt the fire under my arse, and started hustling to bring in customers and build relationships. Along the way, I happened to learn a thing or two about what our customers wanted. Imagine that: a president who understood what it was like to be on the front lines.

Sure, I learned. But I am hoping that you don’t have to sport a 508 FICO score for a couple of years because you learned the hard way like I did. Tweak your pro forma, spruce up your pitch deck, get the messaging on your website just right, hire an awesome business attorney (hint, hint), but, please, pretty please, get out there yesterday and land a customer. Bring in the first dollar. Yes, you. Get hungry, get dirty. Interact. Try. Learn. Tweak your offering. Sell more. Git ‘er done. Everything else can wait.

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Brett is The Startup Shepherd – part startup consultant, part angel investor/financier, and part business lawyer. A six-time entrepreneur and recovering “left brainer,” Brett particularly enjoys helping startups and rapidly growing socially-conscious companies.

Business Entrepreneur

Entrepreneurs: You’re unemployable in your own company, must define your role

(ENTREPRENEURS) Once you’ve built a successful business, it’s time to reexamine your role and determine where you fit in best.

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In my experience, most entrepreneurs are “accidental entrepreneurs.” They happened to be good at something, or they had a unique one-time opportunity to provide a product or service to the market. Then years later, they wake up one day and realize that they’re running a big business.

As an entrepreneur, one of the unintended consequences of building a business is that you become essentially unemployable within your own organization. After living the life of freedom, flexibility and responsibility of being a business owner, it’s difficult to go back to a “nine-to-five” job. This is why many entrepreneurs don’t enjoy staying with their businesses after they’ve sold to other organizations. Within months, they are frustrated that they’re no longer in control and the new owners are (in their opinion) making poor choices.

I see many situations where entrepreneurs are bad employees in their own organization. In fact, they may be the worst team members in the organization by having inconsistent schedules or poor communication skills and/or by inserting themselves into areas that aren’t useful. They can also have too much freedom and flexibility. And while most entrepreneurs insist on clearly defined roles, expectations and goals for all of their employees, they don’t always take the time to define their own roles, expectations and goals.

So why do entrepreneurs become bad employees?

I believe that it’s because they don’t have someone holding them accountable. Think about it: Who do they report to? They’re the owners. Part of the definition of “owner” is being accountable for everything but not accountable to anyone. Having a board of directors, a peer group or a business coach can provide some accountability for them, but another solution is to clarify their roles in the company and then abide by those definitions.

If you find yourself “unemployable” in your business, it’s time to define your role. It starts with outlining your main focus. Do you concentrate more on day-to-day execution or strategic, long-term decisions? Do you consider yourself an owner-operator or an investor?

Most entrepreneurs start as an owner-operator and put in countless hours of sweat equity doing whatever needs to be done to build the business. But over time they reinvest earnings in the business and hire a management team so they can step back and take on a more strategic role. Sometimes it’s not clear when the entrepreneur makes that transition, which can lead to challenges for the entire team.

Focus: Strategic Overview

If your main role is in dealing with long-term, strategic decisions, then it’s important for you to communicate that to the team. Clearly delegate tactical roles and responsibilities to the leadership team.

I’ve seen many instances where owners do more harm than good by haphazardly injecting themselves into tactical decisions that should be handled by the leadership team. Instead of jumping in when they see something they disagree with, I encourage owners to actively “coach” their leadership team to be better leaders. The approach of micromanaging every decision of others will frustrate everyone and lead to an underperforming organization.

I have one client that decided his role was to build strategic relationships and work on a new service offering. He was confident that his leadership team could handle the day-to-day operations of the business. Over time he discovered that being in the office every day was actually a distraction for him and his team. So, he moved his office out of the building.

To maintain his ownership responsibilities to the company, he scheduled one afternoon a week to physically be in the office. Team members knew they could schedule time with him during that weekly window when he temporarily set up office space in a conference room. Not having a permanent office in the building also sent a message to the team that he was not responsible for day-to-day decisions. Sometimes not having an office in the building is better than the team seeing the owner’s office empty on a regular basis.

Focus: Day-to-Day Execution

If you decide that your role is in the day-to-day execution of the business, then clearly define your role in the same way you would define any other team member role. Are you in charge of marketing? Sales? Finance? Operations? Technology? R&D? Or, some combination of multiple roles? Take the time to outline your responsibilities and communicate them to the team.

Just as you define your role, also define what you are NOT going to do and who is responsible for those areas. After all, sectioning off some tactical work does not abdicate you from long-term decision-making. You must set aside time to make the long-term, strategic decisions of the company.

Being an entrepreneur sounds glamorous to those that haven’t done it, but ultimately, the owner is accountable for everything that happens in their organization. It can be quite sobering. And while some entrepreneurs have a delusional belief that they can do everything in a company, it’s not a path to long-term success.

All entrepreneurs have to decide what their role should be in their organization – even if it means that they’re contributing to their “unemployable” status.

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Business Entrepreneur

Startups love pondering inclusion, yet half have no women in leadership

(STARTUPS) Tech startups are a huge part of discussing diversity and inclusion, but something as simple as hiring women in management somehow remains elusive.

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According to the Silicon Valley Bank’s annual report, over half of startups have no women on their leadership team. None.

As hard as this fact is to believe, it is also hardly breaking news. Organizations who have surveyed startups and technology companies for the past several years have seen that long-standing trends that disadvantage women and other genders in the tech space are still at play.

Like many other gendered debates about the treatment of women and other minority workers, this problem is seemingly a Catch 22 or a chicken and egg situation. Critics will continue to argue that the reason ladies aren’t in leadership roles is because they don’t have innate leadership qualities or that once their non-male employees have proven themselves, then they will start getting the resources and promotions that they say that they desire.

Like many other myths about women in the workforce, these beliefs only serve to reinforce the status quo by transferring the responsibility for these frustrating conditions onto the marginalized party.

These beliefs are busted not only because they’re tired gender clichés, but because we have hard data that proves the financial and cultural benefit in long-term effects of women leadership in tech.

However, for all the discussion of diversity initiatives, the likelihood of traditional funding going to women-led startups is still small.

For now, startups with women in leadership roles were more likely to get their funding from investing teams that were also led by females. Wouldn’t it be great if other investors began to not only understand that in 2019 it’s imperative that a company’s leadership reflect the diversity of the employees that comprise it? That workers will be more motivated, feel more understood, and have greater buy-in when they identify with their management?

Empowering women is how more get involved in tech. Diversity of leadership helps organizations thrive. And if something as simple as binary gender diversity is such a tremendous challenge, all other diversity issues are still (unfortunately) a large mountain to climb.

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Business Entrepreneur

C. J. Walker: America’s first self-made millionaire was a black orphan

(ENTREPRENEUR) When you think of our nation’s first self-made millionaire, C. J. Walker is probably not the picture that may come to mind, but this generous genius made it to the top, breaking every glass ceiling possible.

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These days, it seems like Oprah gets all the bragging rights. I don’t think it’s quite fair that some car-gifting mogul gets to bask in the glory of a path that was paved a century ago. **No offense, O Great Winfrey. You’re cool, too. Please don’t take my Altima back.**

It’s time to pay our respects to the first female self-made millionaire in America. My friends, I’d like to introduce you to your new idol, Sarah Breedlove, better known as Madam C. J. Walker.

This gal had just about every card in the deck working against her. Both of her parents and all of her siblings before her were born into slavery. Her mother died when she was five, and her father passed the following year. Orphaned, she lived with her older sister until she married at age 14.

As if that wasn’t enough, a mere two years after her first child was born, Sarah’s husband died. I mean, she just couldn’t catch a break. Unfortunate event after unfortunate event. She then moved to St. Louis to live with her brothers, working as a washer woman for a mere dollar a day. Classic rags-to-riches stuff.

Her brothers worked at a local barber shop, and she wound up learning a thing or two about hair care while sharing a home with them. This planted the seed that would lead to her working with Annie Turnbo Malone, selling African American hair care products. As she learned more about hair, she must have realized she had a knack for it, because she decided to roll up her sleeves and put some indie elbow grease in.

After moving to Denver to work on her own products, she married Charles Walker, who provided the advertising know-how that would help her venture succeed. She adopted the name C. J. Walker and began traveling and training women in the fields of beauty and sales.

Eleven years later, in 1917, she called her first convention of so-called “beauty culturists” in Philadelphia. Here, she rewarded her top agents as well as those who were the most philanthropic towards local charities.

What I love about C. J. is that as her business grew, so did her awareness of the social climate around her. She never forgot where she came from, never hesitated to give back, and never gave up. She lectured on topics such as women’s independence, helping educate other black women in the ways of business.

Upon her death, it was determined that she was the wealthiest African-American woman in the country. In true C. J. style, she left two-thirds of her future profits to charity.

If I ever get mega-famous, I’m doing it the C. J. Walker way: Keep a level head, educate and help others, and put your community first.

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