36 Lessons for Startup Entrepreneurs

Last year, I set out to document as many of the lessons that I have learned in the years since starting my first business in 1999. As it turned out, I had the opportunity to avoid and relearn quite a few of these lessons while I was working on my most recent (failed) startup, c|d8a. Below is a list of those lessons, as blogged one by one last year, from 1 – 36, along with a one line summary so you can more easily find the ones that may be useful to you where you are.

  • Startup Lesson 1: Go – Show up. 80% of success is showing up
  • Startup Lesson 2: You’re wrong – Until you’ve talked to (at least) 100 potential customers about this idea, without actually telling them about your idea, you have no idea what these potential buyers want, need, or will buy, how they want it delivered, or how they will access it.
  • Startup Lesson 3: Five reasons you’re still wrong – Do you really think you’re the only one to think of this idea? Get over yourself. You’re not that smart.
  • Startup Lesson 4: Boil it down – If you can’t explain it to a 5-year-old, you don’t understand it well enough.
  • Startup Lesson 5: Build it NOW! – “If the first version of your product doesn’t suck, you took to long to launch it.” – Reid Hoffman, founder of Linkedin.
  • Startup Lesson 6: Never EVER borrow money for a startup – You can choose to agree or disagree with me on this, but I’ll at least give you something to think about.
  • Startup Lesson 7: Say it out loud: “Most startups fail!” – I had a little over a year of “runway”, which, at the time, seemed like an eternity. “Surely we’ll be making money in 3-4 months!!” Pshaw.
  • Startup Lesson 8: You need some help – don’t get deluded into thinking you can do it all by yourself. Perhaps you can, but that would be extraordinarily rare, and there’s a reason that most accelerators require at least two co-founders.
  • Startup Lesson 9: Three ways to create your plan

    “If you aim at nothing, you’ll hit it every time.” – Zig Ziglar

    “He who fails to plan is planning to fail” – Winston Churchill

  • Startup Lesson 10 (and my 100th post!): Tell the truth – toiling to get your tech startup off the ground to stardom, which would you prefer: constant cheer-leading, encouragement, praise, etc. for whatever you’re doing, or the cold hard truth, good or bad, about what you’re doing and how you’re doing it
  • Startup Lesson 11: You can –  “Don’t ever tell me you can’t do something!” You can. You just have to try it. Same applies to startups. “Why do #startups not start up? Fear, mainly.” – Keith McGreggor
  • Startup Lesson 12: Stay Connected – when I made the decision to leave CWNP post-acquisition, I made a painful discovery. I was very connected in the Wi-Fi industry, but not connected at all in the startup ecosystem of Atlanta.
  • Startup Lesson 13: Feedback – A huge part – ok the only part – of customer discover is getting objective, honest, unfiltered feedback from your prospective customers, clients, and users.
  • Startup Lesson 14: From Paper Napkin Concepts to Market – The question is not “Can this product be built?” In the modern economy, almost any product that can be imagined can be built. The more pertinent questions are “Should this product be built?” and “Can we build a sustainable business around this set of products and services?”
  • Startup Lesson 15: Take Responsibility – The measure of an entrepreneur is in his or her willingness to take responsibility.
  • Startup Lesson 16: it only takes one – one person – Michael Tavani – got it under his skin that Atlanta could – should – be producing consumer tech apps, products, and brands.
  • Startup Lesson 17: Three steps to networking with a purpose – The entrepreneur will struggle greatly to succeed when he isolates himself.  Knowing that, as an entrepreneur, where, when, how, and with whom do you network?
  • Startup Lesson 18: Getting an MBA is stupid – An MBA is not required to be an entrepreneur or work at a startup. If you want to do either of those, an MBA is worthless.
  • Startup Lesson 19: Just get to work – you can get caught up, consumed, and overtaken by the sheer volume of “events” to attend, all in an effort to find that investor who will write a check.  Each of these meetings has purpose and results; however, nobody – NOBODY – has any business attending all of them.
  • Startup Lesson 20: A rant worthy of publication – Scott Hendeson’s epic Twitter rant on the crazy, wild, fast, go-big-or-go-home stuff that’s happening all over the Atlanta startup scene.
  • Startup Lesson 21: Change. is. hard. – I’m talking about your customers.  Getting them to change the way they’ve always done things is hard, especially in old school, non-tech, non-agile, big business, we’ve-always-done-it-that-way industries.
  • Startup Lesson 22: Know your market segments – Believe it or not, your product/service does not apply to “everyone” in the market.
  • Startup Lesson 23: Help someone else – helping other people with their startups is a powerful way to get better at your own startup.
  • Startup Lesson 24: SWOT & Serve – if you’re starting a business, you had better know your strengths and weaknesses, and then exercise what you do best and overcome what you do worst.
  • Startup Lesson 25: Barriers to Disruptive Market Entry – There are the disruptors, the disrupted, and there can be pain on both sides.
  • Startup Lesson 26: Sometimes Surgery is Required – In every startup, there’s challenges, problems, losses, failures, and all things otherwise summed up as “pain.”  Biologically, pain is our body’s way of telling us “something’s wrong!”  We can either address what’s wrong, learn to deal with the pain, or, in some cases, drop dead because we chose to ignore the pain.
  • Startup Lesson 27: Learning by teaching –  when we teach others, we often learn more than we teach.  That’s the great lesson that stems from this very important thing that no entrepreneur should ever forget: continually share your knowledge.
  • Startup Lesson 28: 4 Reasons Startup Culture is Temporary – In my years in the startup world, I have unfortunately seen all too often the culture which was great for a while change dramatically right after a major event in the growth of the company.
  • Startup Lesson 29: Culture is built brick by brick – Like it or not, if you are a founder or early leader, you define the culture of the company, period.  You do this in one of two ways: Intentionally or Not at all.
  • Startup Lesson 30: Consistency Wins – something that separates the top of the pack from everyone else: consistency.
  • Startup Lesson 31: Five ways startups can engage millennials – if you are not intentional about defining and maintaining your culture, your marketplace will do it for you. So here I’ll address what we learned about engaging millennials.
  • Startup Lesson 32: 1-Page Executive Summary – The executive summary is the investor’s quick filter for making a decision about whether to move your startup on up the chain towards the next meeting.  So what should your executive summary contain?
  • Startup Lesson 33: Pick up the rocks – Yardwork is a very good analogy for many of the tasks that come to the startup entrepreneur.  More often than not, you’re breaking new ground, starting new products, changing an industry or at least a space, so by definition, you’ve never done this before.
  • Startup Lesson 34: Keep Experimenting – It’s all fun and games to most entrepreneurs to “try new things”, mainly because that’s what startups are all about: trying new things. So that part’s easy. The hard part is measuring what worked and what didn’t work and by the proper metrics.
  • Startup Lesson 35: How to find THE idea – startups are not created on “an idea”, but rather “an idea to solve a problem.”  What’s most important here is the problem.
  • Startup Lesson 36: Experiment, experiment, experiment – When I originally had the idea for what is now Atlanta Tech Blogs, it was an experiment for me as a way to learn more about and keep up to date with as many tech startups in Atlanta as I could.

I may do this again in the future, since it’s very cathartic to document the hard lessons, both after learning them and as you encounter the same scenarios again and again in startup land. I created these for me, but I hope someone else can learn from them.

2 thoughts on “36 Lessons for Startup Entrepreneurs

    • Kevin Sandlin – Believer, Husband, Dad; Content Marketer, Advisor @atltechvillage; Founder @ATLTechBlogs & @Pitch_Practice; Volunteer Soldier in the GA State Defense Force

      Fixed! Thanks for the heads up.

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