Entrepreneurship certainly isn't for the faint of heart. To prove it, here's an alarming statistic from Inc.: 96 percent of businesses fail within 10 years. Of those that survive, a shockingly low percentage have revenues of $1 million per year.
With odds like that, it's no wonder many successful entrepreneurs wish they could travel back in time to give themselves advice before they launched their first startups. Below, the founders of ten successful companies — all of which have broken the $1 million revenue or funding barriers — share the most critical lesson they've learned running their startups.
Play to Your Strengths
“The one thing I wish I'd known before starting my company is that you can't be good at everything, nor can you do everything yourself," says FE International founder Thomas Smale. “Focus on your strengths. Ideally, try to work with a partner or co-founder who has a different skill set, and then hire in areas you lack."
“I wish I had known it was okay to run a business I am passionate about versus following a money trend," says Ash Kumra, co-founder of Youngry. “The former always endures, and the latter leaves a business immediately when times are tough!"
Relationships Are Key
“I wish I had fully realized that networking and building relationships is essential to helping your business," says Digital Flash co-founder Laura Mignott. “Asking for help and advice from those you've met is essential."
“I wish I had realized how powerful and important it is to stick to your mission and vision and to communicate it constantly with your team," says MaxCDN co-founder David Henzel. “We never even wrote ours down. It was just in the heads of the founding team. As we grew, we hired strong people in leadership positions who brought in their own ideas. We started to walk in several directions, which stunted our growth."
Scaling Can Be Secondary
Jeff Epstein, founder and CEO of Ambassador, says he would love to go back and tell himself that it's okay to do things that don't scale. “Of course the goal is to build scalable, repeatable processes, but it takes time and effort to learn how best to solve the problem your customers are paying for," he says. “Learning from those customers is invaluable as you impart that knowledge across your company."
Making the Team Work
“The one thing I wish I'd known before starting my company was the impact quality employees make," says Urban FT co-founder and president Kasey Kaplan. “It seems obvious to hire good people, but often times they can be hard to find so it is easy to make compromises. Find people who excel in an area and align with your company's culture."
Go With Your Gut
“I wish someone had told me that you should trust your gut as much as your advisors," says June co-founder Lane Campbell, offering a cautionary tale about having blind faith in advisors. “I wasted over a year because I shipped a product with a co-founder that my advisors encouraged me to work with. I got bad vibes from him, and he eventually left on bad terms. I ended up suffering through an extra year of hard work of re-recruiting a new team before finally finding a path to monetization."
A Supporting Cast is Crucial
“I wish I'd known before starting my company how valuable my support team would be to my success," says Millennial Retail co-founder Colt Parsons. “I'm talking about our legal firm and accounting firm. Now that I have the right folks in place, it has truly allowed me to focus on growing our business, and I have confidence that our legal and accounting partners are keeping us on the up-and-up."
Focus On Three Big Things
“The one thing I wish I'd known before starting my company is that the CEO/Founder has three main jobs," says WiseWear.com founder and CEO Gerald J. Wilmink. “The first is setting the overall vision, product roadmap, and strategy, and communicating those to all stakeholders. The second is hiring and retaining the best talent for the company. The third is raising money to finance the business."
Work Smarter, Not Harder
“I grew up hearing things like 'The secret to success is hard work' or 'The early bird gets the worm,' and I took that very literally. I woke up at 3:30 a.m. every morning so I wouldn't 'oversleep' and worked every waking hour of every day. If there's one thing I wish I learned before starting my first company, it's the concept of working SMARTER, not harder," says Predictable Profits founder Charles E. Gaudet II. “That's the difference between someone in the same industry working 80 hours a week and barely scraping by versus another person working half as much, yet making ten times more. Working smarter is about finding leverage in everything you do and growing your business systematically so you can experience ever-increasing growth, year-after-year, without requiring you to be at the on-going helm of your business."
No amount of advice is a substitute for experience, but the sage words above can help first-time founders avoid some of the all-too-frequent traps that plague business-owners.
Although time travel isn't yet possible, there's a simple, time-tested, free trick that comes close: keeping a journal. As you experience setbacks and breakthroughs in your startup, write them down. You'll undoubtedly learn even more from them when you revisit and reflect on them later. Details will fade with time, so don't try to rely on memory alone. By keeping your own “Things I Wish I'd Known" list up to date, you can ensure that before you launch your next venture, you'll have a carefully-curated list of tips from a very reliable source.