I spent the last year of my life learning what it takes to be the sole founder and employee of a company. The accrual of founding experience is the sort of knowledge that can't be built by working alongside a CEO or in a senior level role supporting C-level management. And while you'll certainly learn a lot about the challenges of making executive decisions in these sort of positions, absolutely nothing compares to hands-on experience trying, succeeding, and/or failing at building a company of your own making.
The following is a list of tips I've picked up from building my own company. Pardon the foul language. I use it only to emphasize in a humorous way, and believe I've earned the right to use it after a year spent working 60 - 80 hours a week for very little pay (isn't being an entrepreneur fun).
1. Plan to spend as little money as fucking possible.
My biggest mistake with Oh Tiny Heart was estimating beyond my means. I don't care if you're venture-backed, surviving on personally built capital, or living off your trust fund: if you have money, your goal should be to not spend it. And in the event you need to spend it, spend as little of it as fucking possible.
In the early days of Oh Tiny Heart, I built the company on my own personal savings. I didn't seek crowdfunding help (though I definitely consider myself well-versed in what it takes to run a successful crowdfunding campaign), didn't actively pursue investors (the idea of giving away pieces of my company did not appeal to me), and I certainly didn't accept borrowed money from friends or family. A life spent living frugally has taught me that money comes and goes, so I wasn't too worried about whether my efforts would help me "strike it rich" or leave me homeless on the streets (something I'm also familiar with, and am subsequently not afraid of).
This lack of fear was my first error.
One month, Oh Tiny Heart brought in over $6,000 in net revenue. For a small DIY company in its infancy, this was a huge deal. Excited, I increased my revenue goals, began allocating my budget toward company improvements I didn't actually need, and doubled down on my ad spend. Because of this, I ended up spending money on things that skewed more toward the "nice-to-have" side of the "success recipe" versus the "must-have-this-now" portion of the equation.
These poor spending decisions and lack of long-term foresight are the root of what caused me to run out of resources so quickly. I will never make this mistake again.
2. Accepting help is okay. Not everyone is out to get you.
When someone offers to help, take the fucking help. I don't care who it is. If someone is excited about your brand, volunteering their time to help you scale your business, and eager to see you succeed, accept their offer. It is rare that a brand will develop a community so rabid about the product or service that it will do anything to aid in its growth. If you work hard enough and successfully develop customer loyalty, you'll likely get these sort of offers regularly.
Don't be an idiot like me and refuse to accept help.
You'll quickly find out that there's a lot you can't do on your own. For me, because all of the products I shipped were handmade and hand-packaged, this added up to hours spent in front of a sewing machine, multiple paper cuts accrued from personally signing thank you cards, and sore wrists from the amount of hammering and craftsmanship that went into every piece of the product branding experience.
Loyal customers would often write in to offer their assistance packaging and shipping Oh Tiny Heart products, help I could've seriously used, but a combination of paranoia and pride prevented me from accepting their help. I immediately assumed that volunteers would steal my ideas and recreate what I was doing on their own time, and I was also under the impression that I was superwoman and could do it all on my own.
I was wrong.
Not only did I run out of money quickly, I also burnt out quickly. It's just not humanly possible to work like a machine 80 hours a week and assume you won't need a break.
I should have accepted the help when it was offered.
3. Every successful company needs a great story.
Want to build a company with a rabid and loyal community? Easy: have a really great story.
Companies who've built a successful narrative such that customers immediately feel personally and emotionally tied to the brand will develop a cult following. Work to seed that messaging into the company's mission statement, its core values, and into everything it offers, and you have a recipe for brand success.
Customers are moved by stories that tickle their insides in a positive way. Because Oh Tiny Heart has such a story, my customers were (and still are; hey guys!) enamored with the idea of seeing a work-from-home dog mom take over the industry with her tiny DIY business. Because of this, the Oh Tiny Heart "office" (a postal box legally registered to the company location but existing only in a UPS store) regularly received fan mail, gifts, Christmas cards, and more. In fact, I would often meet up with customers face to face and leave that meeting walking away with homemade cookies and treats for Mylo, my rescue dog.
You can't fake that sort of community excitement. Their love for Oh Tiny Heart resulted in a wave of evangelism that swept the dog industry, boosting sales beyond what I thought was possible.
I attribute much of Oh Tiny Heart's rapid growth to the storytelling and narrative arc I built around the company, and I've seen the same sort of success with other brands I've built alongside successful CEOs.
4. Get ready to never see any of your friends ever again.
Building a company is hard. It requires intense focus, almost all of your time, and you'll likely fall asleep at night (if you're lucky enough to sleep at night) wishing you had more time in the day to work, wishing "sleep" wasn't actually necessary, and dreaming about ways you can improve the business.
Because of this intense focus, what precious free time you have will be spent attempting to rest, surfing the web gathering inspiration for your next business move, or actively devouring books on strategy to help you gain an upper hand against whatever competition you might have.
"Friends" won't like that. Likely, you'll often hear, "Where have you been?" "Why do I never see you anymore?" "Take a break! Hang out!" All of which will make you groan and sigh because:
- What money you have to spend on "friends" is money you'll realize is better off spent building your company.
- The amount of time it takes to get ready, get across town, and hang out with those friends, then get back home tired from the experience is time you could be spending working on your company.
- You've spent so long staring at your computer and involved in your work that you've developed social anxiety and don't remember what it's like to interact with people face to face.
- The time you do spend out with your friends, your mind is elsewhere, thinking about ways to build your brand.
My advice to you? Be clear with your friends that they may not see you for a few weeks. Months. Years. While you actively work to scale your business, you won't be available for Sunday brunches and Friday night open bars. Who has that kind of time? Not you. You're an entrepreneur, now! The people who support you will understand, and the people who are only "friends" with you for selfish reasons will bail.
5. Don't put up with schadenfreude bullshit.
Some people hate to see others succeed. By starting your own company, it will be the only thing you'll want to talk about in what little social interaction you have (likely posts on social media, since you're too busy working to actually see people face to face). This will invite your "haters" to come out of the woodwork with their bullshit negativity and crap about how what you're doing isn't good enough.
One day, I posted on Facebook to rant about how excited I was for Oh Tiny Heart's new packaging. Our customers already loved and raved about the previous packaging iteration, but I just knew the new packaging would make them flip their lids with how "fancy" it was.
I was building a luxury brand.
Packaging is just as important as the product.
A former "friend" of mine quickly began to tear apart everything I'd worked on, passive aggressively referring to me as "sweetie", and using condescending + unnecessary language to harshly criticize me, ending each statement with, "Lol, just saying."
Cue eyes rolling.
Me being the non-confrontational person I am, I thanked this friend for the helpful input, and directed my focus back to the task at hand. As the saying goes, "Ain't nobody got time for that."
A few days passed without incident.
Then, on another day of success with Oh Tiny Heart, I posted on Facebook how excited I was to be partnering with some huge brands in the industry. Again, this "friend" took the liberty of knocking down my achievements, once again using condescending language to "LOL" at my accomplishments, and mentioning how if they were in my position, their way of running things would have been much more efficient.
What you'll quickly learn as a founder is that while not everyone is out to get you, some people are. And those are the people you'll want to cut out of your life as quickly as possible. It doesn't matter how long your "friendship" has lasted, what sacrifices they've made for you over the years (though I doubt they were many), or how close they are with your actual friend circle. When you're an entrepreneur, your passion and motivation to succeed is your life blood, and anyone who sits around sucking your motivation away like a fucking vampire who thrives on doubt and negativity needs to be staked in the heart with a "Blocked" on every social media and digital contact platform you can muster. No expla-fucking-nation needed.
You are not required to take shit from anyone, so don't.
If I can leave you with one parting piece of wisdom, it is this:
It is okay to fail.
The goal of this experience should be to learn what it takes to start, scale, and then maintain a business. It is dumb to look back at your failures and think, "That's it. I'm a failure. My entire existence and future will now be forever determined by this single fuck-up, and I'm just quitting life, now. That's it for me." Go into this experience tackling everything head on. No one is telling you what to do, and you are your own boss. So use this time to do everything you've always wanted to do while in a junior role, and walk out stronger, smarter, and better prepared.