Startup activity is on the rise!
At Bizdaq, we’re very excited to see that the UK is quickly becoming a nation that is leading the way in entrepreneurship.
For all the new and potential entrepreneurs out there, we thought, wouldn’t it be useful to know in advance the lessons that others learned the hard way?
Well guess what? We’ve rounded up insight from some of the most successful startup experts to help make your road to startup success a little smoother.
We ended up with a final list of 27 respondents who we specifically asked:
“What piece of advice would you go back and give yourself when you first embarked on your startup?”
Here are just a few of the many insightful things you can learn from this roundup:
1. Not being afraid to ask for advice from those who are likely to have faced similar issues
2. Ensuring that your business is structured for growth and thinking on a global scale
3. There are also quite a few mentions of getting advice from people who know more than you and finding talented people to help grow your business.
Just for your convenience, we’ve created this handy list of experts with quick links to each of their answers.
Feel free to skip through to your favourite expert or grab yourself a drink and read all the responses.
We personally recommend you go through each one as the answers we received were pretty great!
Founder and CEO, Pimlico Plumbers
Founder & CEO, Wooju App
Founder and CEO, Mallzee
Founder and CEO, Crunch
Founder and Director, Pooch & Mutt
Founder and CEO, The Consulting Consortium
Co-founder and CEO, Snaptrip
Director, Smith & Sinclair
Martha Lane Fox
Founder of lastminute.com, Chancellor of the Open University
Director of Cospa, Startup Britain and Founder of Tenner
Founder and CEO, Rebel Kitchen
Founder and Managing Director, Living the Dream Performing Arts Company
CEO, Clear Books
MD, Ormsby Street
CEO, 51 Degrees
Co-founder, Wheyhey Ice Cream
MD, The Forge Public Relations
CEO, Coller IP
Corporate Commercial Partner, Gorvins Solicitors
Founder, Camp Katur
“It’s a well-known fact that I left school when I was 15 years old to start my plumbing apprenticeship, but the truth is that was my biggest mistake! I should have got out of there at 14 for all the good staying on another year did me.
By the age of 14 I could read and write and the final year did nothing but bore the hell out of me, wasting time turning up to classes, and probably ruining them for some of the other kids in my class who wanted to be there.
The point here is that some people aren’t academically inclined and a one size fits all recipe for education that says the classroom is the only ingredient is a complete mistake.
I was lucky that I was able to regain my love of learning when I started my apprenticeship, but I could have just as easily become disillusioned with life and never got going again as a result of sitting around not doing anything in school for an extra year.”
“Only ever raise strategic money that opens doors – anyone can raise dead money. Your investors should be seen as an extension of your product team and need to be the right fit. Think of creating a gang.”
“I started my first business in 2001, when I was at university. If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice, it would be to think on a global scale. It took me until 2008 to embark on my first business trip around the world. That same year, I organised the first WebMission, to San Francisco. It was to be the first of eleven such trips, taking me beyond the US, to Brazil and India, with over 150 British high-growth companies.
Today, I begin all of my new projects by asking, on the one hand, if the idea is both simple and valuable – I then ask myself if I can see it spreading internationally. Even though Tenner (in which we challenge school pupils to see what they can do with £10 in a month) involved over 20,000 people this year, I can’t help but imagine what it would look like in 50 countries. The UK is a terrific place to do business, however we’re only 1% of the world’s population. Businesses which limit their overseas adventures to the holidays are missing out on incredible discoveries, success, and fun.”
Martha Lane Fox
“Make sure you have as equal a workforce as you can. Men + women = strongest teams.”
“When you’re new to something, you can never plan for the mistakes that you’ll make. So when you make them, learn from them fast for next time, pick yourself up, and treat obstacles as something to overcome – not get defeated by”
Utilise the power of networking
“I believe that the power of networking – getting out there, talking to people and building relationships are key to making things happen. Have the confidence to ask for advice or potential contacts, you never know, their help or connections could be invaluable.
Networking isn’t just about promoting your business, it’s about building and developing relationships with people and looking for opportunities to help and connect people – and although they might not be able to return the favour, unexpected opportunities may come from unexpected people.”
Get financial advice
“Seek advice from your bank, and take advantage of the advice that’s all over the internet. Find out about funding, particularly the Government’s new Start-up Loan Scheme.”
Believe in yourself
“The belief you have in yourself and your business idea is your most precious commodity and communicating your passion about your product or service will make people remember you.”
Tell your story
“It helps to be able to tell a good story about yourself and your business. I have got some amazing PR and opportunities through telling mine: that I set up Living the Dream when I was 16 years old, as a means to fund my own performing arts training and education as I couldn’t afford it and my parents couldn’t afford it.”
Do some good
“I’ve learned from Richard Branson’s business philosophy, “Have fun, do good and the business will come”. I sincerely endorse his view that every business has a moral obligation to make a significant positive difference in today’s world. The key is to help others selflessly in any way you can, and the karma will return to you when you need it most.”
“I would go back and tell myself that it all takes a lot more time than you expect. As fast as you can make things move you are at the power of your clients, suppliers and logistics beyond your control. So plan ahead!”
“The best piece of advice I would give myself when I first started Pooch & Mutt is to get help from people who know more than you. When I first started I was doing everything myself; a VAT return would take me over a day, then I found out I could get an accountant to do it for £75. My day was worth more to me than £75! I was worried about hiring, as I didn’t know how to deal with payroll etc. I then found a company that I could outsource all of our payroll to for very little investment. That meant that I could both be confident that payroll was done properly and hire people to do other jobs properly.
When you are trying to do everything yourself, you often don’t have the time to do it well; it is difficult to switch from being an engaging, friendly sales person or account manager to pressuring suppliers to do things quickly, to working through cashflow with your accountant. They are very different mindsets. In my view the person running the company should be able to do every job in the company, but they should employ people who can do it better.”
“Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. This might be totally new to you but other people will have faced the issues and problems that you currently do”
“What I learned in my experience of building RefME so far is that you have to have a strong vision, then find amazing talented people to help you turn that into reality. I actually think my experience of being in a band throughout my teenage years really helped me learn about how the creative process and complex group dynamics come together to produce something amazing. It also taught me to learn from failure and made me determined to seize amazing opportunities when they come along. The most important advice that comes from that is to stick with what you believe in, and don’t be afraid to fail. Failure is an option! As long as you learn from your mistakes you’re winning the battle, and the rest falls into place eventually – with LOTS of hard work.”
“It’s tricky to retrospectively give yourself advice as all of the problems we’ve had as we’ve grown the business have been really valuable learning opportunities. Whenever we have problems and work our way through them we always try to pick out something valuable at the end. For example in the early days we aggressively went after the accountancy software market, but we realised that the real value in our service is not that we’re a software provider with human support, but that we’re an accountancy firm with cool software – that’s our unique selling point.
We adjusted all our marketing to highlight the human side of the business and things really took off. We weren’t a small player in a highly competitive market any more; we were a fast-growing, exciting player in a stagnant market. Thankfully lots of people were looking for what we were offering and we’ve grown about 50% every year since then. If I had to go back and give myself some advice I’d make myself realise that earlier – it was a quite small but completely fundamental shift in our thinking.”
“I think the start up environment at the moment is encouraging entrepreneurs to focus solely on getting your business to unicorn status in the quickest time possible, like Uber, Facebook, Airbnb etc. I think that can encourage people to make bad strategic decisions and ultimately reduce their chances of success.
I would tell myself to not worry about the $billion idea and focus on how I can make the most significant and impactful business possible for the sector I’m trying to operate in. Then look at how best that business should be funded, likely exit routes and valuations.”
“The one piece of advice I would go back and give myself is “be selective when taking advice from people”. Everyone you speak to seems to know how to run your company…or so they claim. They will have an opinion on how you shouldn’t have run a certain promo or how the problem you are trying to solve is not important enough to merit and application or how there is no product market fit yet. I’ve taken advice and opinions from a range of different people over the years. Taking advice from the right people can be crucial in succeeding, but taking advice from the wrong people can be crippling and often results in you making a few bad decisions that kill the company. Therefore, it is really important to pick whom to take advice from and ignore everyone else. Make sure that you listen to people who have a proven track record and are not just talking gibberish to support their own ego/ take part in a conversation for conversation’s sake.
**Caveat – user feedback is different. When it comes to making product improvements it’s important to listen to everyone who us USING your product. The above is relevant to people giving you advice on how to run your company.”
“I would say that there isn’t only one single piece of advice but a couple of things I would suggest.
Define your goals clearly – start with the end goal and work backwards from there.
Choose your company name wisely – make it sound like a big company even it is a small start-up.
Build an amazing team – choose the right people to join the company and the journey will be a lot easier.”
“Failure is often only postponed success which is why it matters less what mistakes you make but how you move forward.”
Eggs and baskets
“We lost a massive amount of money early on with a large customer. What did we do wrong? We put – not exactly all – but a large number of our eggs in one basket. We had a large contract with one of our buyers and after their business collapsed we learnt a set of very important lessons. Not only did the experience teach us the need to diversify risk; but it also taught us the importance of keeping a close eye on overdue debts and doing everything possible to chase down dubious debtors. It’s a lesson we carry with us to this day.”
Learning when to say no
“Second is a mistake I like to think we were not alone in making. We made a number of deals early on with lock-in clauses that were far too onerous. Despite offering you the lifeline your business needs to get up and running, the first deals are not always the best. Much as everyone loves a sale, sometimes short term gain can lead to long term pain. In our case, the exclusive agreements meant we had a period where we knew we were being taken in a less profitable direction but had to wait for the end of the deals before we could do anything about it. The experience taught us a very valuable lesson: that sometimes it is better to say no.”
The high cost of doing it all
“One of the biggest mistakes when you start out is trying to do it all. Budgets are tight, and you can’t afford to hire people. But as you grow, remember that you can’t be an expert at everything. When we expanded, I found myself working incredibly long hours and feeling like I was juggling so much that I couldn’t keep up. Very early on I realised that it is our employees who make IglooBooks special and we share the load (and opportunities) together.”
Not all growth is good
“When I was starting out in business I would never have believed I would ever write these five words but it’s true: not all growth is good. Not if you’re not ready for it anyway. As a former salesperson, I was taught to chase every opportunity (and, to be honest, in that respect nothing has changed). However, in the early days we didn’t have the right structure in place to cope with the fast rate our business was growing. As a result, we had to expand far more rapidly than we had planned. But this taught us an important lesson: you need to have a reactive as well as a proactive business plan. Since then, ours has served us well – and means that we are now in the best position to cope with any unexpected growth.”
“It’s difficult to pick one piece of advice that helped me through my whole career – I’d have to share three. The first piece of advice is that change requires time – and it must be managed rigorously, but empathetically, to be successful. Secondly, you will reach your goals faster by limiting your focus to three tasks at a time. Finally – and perhaps most importantly – it’s all about your customers! Focusing on what your customers need and how best to deliver that in line with your business goals will ultimately lead to success.”
“Entrepreneurial optimism can be a double edged sword … it’s an absolute requirement that powers the entrepreneur through tough times but, if it’s blind or unrealistic, it can become a negative and huge warning sign to others, particularly investors.
I witnessed a recent pitching event at the Business Show and admired all for taking the stage, apart from one consistent irritation with their presentations …. Almost every one of them tried to convince the panel that …. “we have no competition”.
Now I’m all for the sensible delusions of start up entrepreneurs. Without ludicrous ambition, endless optimism and remorseless tenacity – there would be no start-ups, no enterprise, no Dragon’s Den – but, everyone has competition!
It’s this blind optimism and occasional detachment from reality that risks becoming a danger, particularly in the assessment of potential success. It’s the reason why – even with start ups that stack up – investors and detached observers will half the forecasts and double the timeline of what is likely to happen vs. what is predicted to happen.
Regular ‘reality’ checks are crucial and for that reason it’s important to bring in external support and advice. Be it an experienced investor (who adds value over and above the cash), strong team and/or leaning on a mentor.
When it comes to launching and driving forward a start up … expect the worst, hope for the best and let realistic optimism drive your vision and success. “
“One piece of advice I would give myself is to delegate earlier and trust others. Starting your own company is exciting and you want to keep control of everything, but soon there is so much to do that you must hire capable employees and most importantly let go.
I thought initially that I should and could be responsible for everything – hands on from the technical side through to marketing and sales. I could do several things very well, based on my educational background, interest in programming and training as a chartered accountant, but equally many were totally out of my comfort zone.
Wanting to be involved in everything in your start up can slow a company’s development and growth rate down, especially if you’re the ultimate decision maker, so I had no choice but to free the reins. The art of delegation is a really important business skill and one that I have really focused on honing since. What I’ve realised is that other people – better qualified and skilled – can get you where you need to be faster, more capably and usually more efficiently.”
“I’d tell myself to make sure the business was structured for growth. When I started my first business, it was focussed on customer service – people doing what they were best at and recognising their uniqueness – and that lead to more demand and the need to grow. Of course with growth, what works when you are small won’t necessarily work when you become bigger and it’s necessary to standardise certain things within a business. So even if it’s slightly less optimum in the beginning, people should always start with a structure when building a new project, team or company. Doing so means that when success leads to growth, they are ready for that to happen and can accommodate that growth. There’s no point building a successful company that then gets strangled by its own unique and strange ways of doing things!”
“Build simple “great” things – Don’t try to build many things or complicated functions badly, start building something your customers love to use, and then evolve it. Trying to achieve too many things might result in nobody using them. Listen to your customers and understand what they really need, rather than what they believe they need.
Go lean, or go home – Try not to develop an all-singing-all-dancing product or service at launch. The lean approach to product development allows you to leverage your agility as a small start-up and respond to your market quickly in a way that a big corporate company cannot – simply due to bureaucracy and logistics. This really is the blessing of the small startup. Your mantra should be “Work lean, be responsive”. It’s the smart way to go!
Get the right partners, but keep the core – Don’t be afraid to ask for help, and do not try to do everything yourself. Outsource all those activities that are not core for your business, and just take a lot of your time, so you can focus on what it is important. Having said that, it is key that you and your team control the core of your business. You cannot rely on third parties to deliver success.”
Hunger & Patience
“If I could give myself any advice it would be to practice patience and cultivate a strong hunger for work. In the start-up and entrepreneurial world you have to be extremely hungry; this means developing an appetite for success greater than the man or woman next to you. This certainly rings even truer if that person is farther ahead on their entrepreneurial journey. Desire fuels success.
On the flip side, the smart start-up entrepreneur will be equally focused and patient, with managed expectations of how fast you can grow within your available means. It’s unwise to set unrealistic expectations in the short-term; this could result in an individual burning out because they sought to chase an unachievable target.”
“In any niche industry, your network is your net worth. The old adage “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know” has survived the test of time for a specific reason: because it’s true. In fact, this saying has never been more relevant. Cultivating relationships are critical to successful business; after all, individuals will choose to go out of their way to do business with people they like. There are certain palpable ways to improve your network – get out more, attend different events, increase your social outreach, write engaging blog posts that demonstrate your unique knowledge and be willing to put yourself in the public domain and under the spotlight.
Building a solid network serves as an essential foundation for success. The ones around you will help leverage your business when it’s doing well, and will pick you up when times are hard.”
Choose your counsel wisely
“Most networking events will be filled with people ready to offer you well intentioned and helpful advice. But beware. Advice falls into two categories.”
“Advice related to the process of running a business is easy to assess. It is more often than not consistent and relatively simple to implement. For example; managing cash flow, or claiming government grants.”
“The second type of advice isn’t really advice, it’s the other person’s opinion. When provided by someone with gravitas it carries great weight. However it is just the opinion of someone who invariably knows less about your business than you do. It’s almost always coloured by their memorable positive and negative experiences.
Spotting opinion and assessing it accordingly is an underrated skill, but essential for the budding entrepreneur. The cost associated with pursuing poorly considered advice can be high. For example; advice from an investor who advocates pursuing a viral marketing approach reduces consideration of a direct marketing approach.
All advice is helpful but needs to be reflected on, questioned and sought from many sources.”
Scott Adams – Dilbert – “Advice is just ego and ignorance disguised as helpfulness”
“If we could go back to the start of Wheyhey Ice Cream we would definitely stop rushing every decision. There was so much urgency to GET STARTED that we ended up making a whole host of mistakes. Yes urgency is important when creating an innovative product in order to ensure that you are first to market etc., but also understanding that the creation of the product and the creation of the business that surrounds that product are two separate things.”
“Time management and the right mindset are two things to work on right from the outset. When you first leave employment to begin a startup it can be hard to structure your day as there is no one to tell you where you have to be at certain times.The feeling of freedom is exhilarating but can also be quite frightening, like looking into an empty void! I found it helped to create a detailed timetable for each day, including time for admin and new business as well as ongoing client work, plus an hour of ‘free’ time as you often find things take longer than you think, especially as at least initially there is no one to help with some of the admin or IT issues for example! And above all – don’t panic. Work will come in, often not from the direction you expect, as long as you have the right business idea in the right location and stand out from the competition, and do your marketing. Instead of panicking, take a logical look at what you can do to move things forward and seek advice where necessary. Many professionals are happy to give startups some initial advice free of charge.”
“Many start-ups still don’t think about IP (or their wider intangible assets) until “the horse has bolted”. We still see many start-ups that have lost their brand name and domain names because they have not realised that registration at Companies House doesn’t automatically secure rights to use their trade marks and brand. Unfortunately when someone else has registered the mark with the UKIPO, it is difficult to then claim that the mark really belongs to your company. Even worse, many companies inadvertently infringe registered trade marks because they have not checked the register before they start trading. It is not just the potential damages that they risk paying, it is the costs of rebranding, signage and printing and the reputational damage or loss of reputational capital that ensues. We see some large organisations that have developed through rapid organic growth in this category too.
Start-ups are also often driven by the excitement of progressing an inventive idea. They are often so keen to take it to market that they don’t stop to do the necessary due diligence. There are still companies that are disclosing their inventions and ideas before patent or design applications are filed – this “leakage” means that the company may never be in a position to control its IP rights.”
“If you’re going into business with a co-partner or co-shareholder, or a number of them in fact, it is essential to get contractual documentation drawn up, which will govern your relationship. Reaching an agreement and getting this done from this outset will ensure that you are protected should a future unforeseen scenario occur, for example the death of a partner/shareholder or a falling out between them.
At the start of a venture, all member parties are enthusiastic, positive and vying to make a success, plus their business has minimal value behind it. This is the time to sort out arrangements for potential future situations. The longer you leave it, generally speaking, the more issues arise, the more stubborn people become and the harder it is to reach agreements.
Here at Gorvins, I have seen countless situations where co-partners or co-shareholders have had a disagreement, but did not outline their relationship together with the business from the start. These can often turn very messy, very quickly and legal fees to rectify the situation can escalate rapidly. Consulting legal experts at the beginning can help you and your business get off to the best, proactive start and save you a lot in the long run.”
“Starting up a new business and becoming your own boss is extremely exciting but don’t let the excitement overshadow reality. When you are desperate to start a business it’s easy to run before you can walk and agree to anything and everything often leading to naivety. Take a step back, slow it down and become savvy. Do not give too many trade secrets away and always play your cards close to your chest as you never know who knows who ie competitors!
Never be afraid to take risks or make mistakes, starting a business is a journey into the unknown mistakes are the biggest learning curves and don’t be scared of failure none of us plan to fail but if ever you do at least you can say you tried rather than say I wish I had….”
Well, that was it!
27 opinions from expert entrepreneurs on their top tips when starting a business.
Whether you agree with them or not, we would love to hear what you think about their answers.
Let us know your thoughts in the comments and get involved in the conversation!
If you could go back and give yourself one piece of advice when you first started your business what would it be?!
We would also like to say a big thank you all our experts who contributed to this post! We hope you enjoy the read and please share if you think it was useful!