Building a Startup is Navigating an Obstacle Course
It would be no fun if starting a business was simply plotting a straight line between your idea and success, with no challenges along the way. Zigging and zagging amongst the obstacles is the fun part of being an entrepreneur, and it’s what sets you apart from the average worker who knows exactly what he or she has to do every day to get paid. Relish it, or if it scares you, don’t try it.
That doesn’t mean that starting a business should be a random walk into the unknown. There are certain foundational elements that every entrepreneur must build on to succeed, as well as some critical tools we all need. I found these tried-and-true principles summarized very well in a recent book “The Zigzag Principle” by serial entrepreneur Rich Christiansen:
- Assess your resources. At some point financial capital if usually needed to meet business goals. But it’s not a substitute for the other critical resources, mental capital (domain knowledge, skills, and passions), plus relationship capital (friends and advisors). Money results from mental and relationship capital, not the other way around.
- Identify your beacon in the fog. Start with a big audacious goal to guide you, so that every once in a while you can hit a smaller goal, to provide a break in the fog and catch sight of the beacon before those next steps into the darkness. Goals need to be written down, measurable, and realistic. Expect your fair share of zigzagging to get there.
- Create a catalyzing statement. This is a key element of every elevator pitch, with enough specificity and fuel to keep you and everyone around you moving toward the beacon in the fog. This quantified big dream should be a long-term goal that your short-term zigzags are all leading to. Use your values as the foundation.
- Drive your startup to profitability. A first zig of getting to profitability is important to every business, because being broke and always fighting for funding can cause a lot of pain. More importantly, profitability can drive you to find hidden assets, zag to interim revenue sources, and force you to pace yourself in getting to that final destination.
- Define processes and add resources. After the initial zigs and zags to get profitable, it is time to formalize and document the processes that worked. Only then can you expand those things that led to your initial success. It also means that it’s time to stop micro-managing, hire some of the right people, and start giving up some control.
- Scale the business. This is implementing a model that you can replicate, to get your product or service out across the country, and around the world. Scaling models charge by the transaction, or subscriptions, or have digital assets with no cost to reproduce. Switch to a mindset of working “on” your business, rather than “in” your business.
- Stay within your guardrails. Set up some rules to constrain your zigs and zags to prevent “out of control” situations. Common controls include some spending limits, time commitment limits, financial milestones. These guardrails should be closely aligned with your values. Practice the art of saying “no,” and the discipline of delegating.
- Develop reward systems. To keep you and your team from burning out, you need to define a simple system of motivators and rewards. Too much reward leads to an entitlement mentality. As you hit each zig, you need to take a break from the intensity, celebrate, and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
The alternatives to planned zigzags are a planned straight line, or a planned random walk. Neither of these are realistic for an entrepreneur seeking success, but I still see them every day, and I see the pain that results. Smart entrepreneurs are nimble and flexile, bootstrap to the maximum degree possible, and pivot for emerging opportunities. Be one.
Written by Martin Zwilling
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