When it comes to starting a business, there is no way to be completely prepared as you embark on your journey. Several of the most important lessons you learn will come through experience, trial and error. Many sources say that as many as 90 percent of startups fail within the first five years; but it doesn’t have to be that way.
As I enter the sixth year of my entrepreneurial journey with RestoraPet, a company I founded that has grown more than 500 percent in the last year alone while completing a multi-million-dollar Series A round, I want to share the 10 most important lessons I have learned along the way. The rest, you’ll have to figure out for yourself.
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Find your ikigai
The most important lesson for an entrepreneur to learn is to define their “ikigai,” a Japanese concept that roughly translates to “a reason for being,” encompassing joy, a sense of purpose and meaning, and a feeling of well-being. Your Ikigai is what gets you up in the morning and moves you throughout the day.
As an animal lover, my Ikigai is the desire to help pets and the people who care for them. I am blessed to have been able to translate that into something impactful and tangible. Every day, I receive letters from pet owners telling me how my products have changed their pets’ lives, and the feeling of knowing I’ve made a difference hasn’t gotten old—not even after six years.
I encourage all budding entrepreneurs to take a step back and think about the thing that gets you out of bed in the morning.
Find your lean niche
Once you’ve found your Ikigai, it’s time to think about where it fits in with your talents and the ways your ikigai can bring meaning to the world and meet the needs of those around you. Once you have these things in place, you can think about ways to monetize them and identify a business niche.
Early on, I knew I wanted to create something to visibly improve the quality of life for pets of all ages, but a lack of resources and capital served as a barrier. I needed to develop something unique and, at the time, do so affordably.
I happened to be researching some groundbreaking antioxidants and their effect on the body, and after years of home-based research (funded by my day job), I came up with a unique formulation and funded a field study, and I did so inexpensively. The results were overwhelmingly positive, and at this point, it occurred to me that I had found my niche.
Whatever it is you’re interested in, there is bound to be an underserved market in which you can carve out your niche (giving yourself a leg up), and also fulfill your ikigai.
Build a great board of directors
I find tremendous value in creating a personal board of directors, which should consist of five people to guide you on your way to success.
The first person is the one who questions the things you’re doing and asks the right questions. The second is your connector: this person helps you network and introduces you to the right people. The third is the challenger, whose sole job is to push you to be your best as both a person and an entrepreneur. The fourth person is your Yoda—this wise person should help you leverage the lessons learned along your entrepreneurial journey and grow from them. Last but not least, your fifth advisor is a “reverse mentor.” This individual should constantly challenge you by offering different perspectives and thereby opening up your field of view.
Develop a plan
For the best path to success, it’s important to develop your own business plan. I painstakingly spent hundreds of hours developing the plan for RestoraPet so it would be both in my own voice and something I knew inside and out, from beginning to end. Granted, I could have easily and affordably hired someone to perform the demographic analysis and someone else to write the plan, but I wanted to understand my customers on as deep a level as possible.
The desire and willingness to always dig in and do these things on my own, despite having the resources to bring in help, was one of the critical reasons I received a multi-million-dollar investment. Although my business plan wasn’t perfect, I was able to intimately defend it (as its sole author) and investors genuinely appreciated my efforts, which was key to receiving that investment. They encouraged me to develop a unique perspective and not only wanted to hold me to the projections I made, but also wanted me to prove I had the work ethic and was able to put in the time to make this work.
Ask for help
As a company grows, a smart entrepreneur will realize that there will come a time to ask for help. This is where your advisory board comes in. Networking and leveraging alumni connections also becomes critically important to successfully launching and growing your business. Once you’ve gone through the exercise of building your own business, it’s infectious, and others will ultimately believe in your authentic passion.
Making up my team, I have a member who has been involved in distribution for 50 years, the CEO of a $20 million company, a biochemist, a former mayor and U.S. Trade Representative, and the founder of the largest pet store chain in the world.
Even in my early days, I was able to bring these people on for very little equity and no cash compensation, because they knew what I was doing was innovative and believed in my business.
Get a solid task management system
I follow a methodology called “Getting Things Done” based on a book by David Allen. The idea here is that I have a way of classifying every bit of information, whether it’s on paper, a request that comes in via email, or an ongoing project I’m working on.
I classify the relative importance of every task and do the most important items right away, then delegate anything else that can be delegated. I am constantly organizing the projects I’m managing at any given time.
Suffice it to say that a list that started as one page on one screen on a laptop has now become 15 pages, and yet I don’t ever lose sight of anything I’m working on, and that’s because I’ve got this iron-clad task management system that works for me. I recommend every entrepreneur find what works best for them and stick with it.
Take smart risks and don’t take failure personally
This was a lesson I struggled to learn early on in my journey, when I was turned down for an investment and blocked from a big opportunity I believed I deserved. While I never thought about giving up, the sense of failure affected me deeply and shook my confidence in what I was doing—both internally and externally. I had to work through that in order to move forward and find bigger and better opportunities.
I challenge entrepreneurs to continue taking calculated risks in times of uncertainty and doubt. I’ve talked to a lot of really talented and intelligent entrepreneurs with a lot to offer who have told me things like, “I’m working at Ernst and Young making $200,000 and I’ve got this side business I’m incredibly passionate about. All I need to do is make $200,000 a year in the business and then I’ll jump ship and I’ll do it full-time.”
The problem with this game plan is that it keeps you from putting your whole heart into your side business and, at this rate, you’re never going to be able to match your current salary with the revenue of your side business. There will never be a perfect time to jump ship, so you have to think hard about where that reasonable jumping-off point is.
Ask yourself: “What is the one thing I can do today that still allows me to put food on the table—or allows me to stay motivated and afloat?”
It’s important to understand that sacrifices will ultimately have to be made. My wife and I spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about how we would make things work. Those sacrifices have paid off and will continue to pay off in the long run.
Always take care of yourself
This is a piece of advice I absolutely did not follow for a long time, and I learned my lesson the hard way. I had two stress-related surgeries in a 12-month period because I was pushing myself so hard, doing absolutely anything I needed to do for the business, and not listening to my body.
Whatever self-care means to you, I encourage you to not lose sight of its importance. For me, that means regularly practicing mindfulness and meditating frequently. Study after study shows the benefits of mindfulness to people of all ages. You can be incredibly productive, busy and organized, and not feel overly stressed. But the truth is, you don’t need to kill yourself to be successful, and doing so will have no benefit to your business.
Any doctor or nurse working crazy long hours will tell you they’re nowhere near as effective at the end of their long shift as they were at the beginning, and the same goes for an entrepreneur. So, take care of yourself.
Protect your equity
Protecting your equity is important, but a good entrepreneur is also willing to give some up when the time is right.
I bootstrapped my business, aggressively protecting what I had built until I had the valuation necessary to bring on investors without giving away too much equity in the process. Had I taken on an extra $200,000 during my seed round when the company had a much lower valuation, I don’t think my multi-million-dollar Series A round would have been fruitful, because I wouldn’t have had the equity to spare.
Do something today
“Nothing has happened in the past; it happened in the Now. Nothing will ever happen in the future; it will happen in the Now.” This quote comes from my favorite book of all time, “The Power of Now,” by Eckhart Tolle.
The idea here is simple: When the future comes, it comes as the now, and likewise, the past happened while it was the now.
I’ve talked to so many people who say, “I’m going to get to it one day, or eventually something will happen.”
I’m not telling you now is the time to quit your job. I’m also not telling you now is the time you must instantaneously develop your business plan. But now is the time to think about what you’ve always wanted to do.
Ask yourself: What is the very first tiny, incremental step that I can take to begin reaching my goals? There’s no better time to take that step than right now.