1. Communicate, communicate, communicate
Working together with my colleagues, we get to steer the business through a relatively democratic process. I’ve discovered that the more I talk to them, the easier it is to make decisions.
In a start-up, there’s no time for ineffective communication.
Unlike my past experiences where I’ve worked in larger teams, we don’t have as many meetings as we have actual conversations. If you’re going into a start-up, be prepared to start some real relationships, and have an open agenda.
Miscommunication, ego, and politics are really damaging to a small team. Try to leave the drama at home.
Lesson for owners: Foster a culture of transparency from the moment you open your doors. As the business grows you will need to implement policies and processes, but that original culture will be sustained as you grow — and it will be invaluable for your overall organisational culture.
2. Love the process, not the outcome
I have dreamed of running my own business. I imagine myself wheeling and dealing, owning boardrooms with my undeniable charisma, leading a team of happy and well-adjusted staff members with my unparalleled people skills. I have quite an imagination.
The danger of these kinds of flights of fancy is that you tend to fall in love with the outcome, and what you really need to do is fall in love with the hard work required.
This is something that I see in Pieter. He has his fingers in a lot of pies. He isn’t doing it because he imagines himself to be some rich and powerful globe-trotting businessman. He’s doing it because he is in love with the process. He likes putting the work in. He likes dealing with people. He likes seeing how the little seeds he plants will begin to blossom.
Great rock stars aren’t in love with the record contracts, they’re in love with the music. It’s the dedication and devotion to crafting something beautiful that makes them successful. The fame and glory is just a by-product.
If you’re in love with an outcome, a daydream, a lifestyle, be careful. The work is what gets you to the outcome, and if you have no love for it, you will not succeed.
Lesson for owners: Great start-ups are built on passion. You need to love what you do, and enjoy doing it. The cliché that if you love what you do you’ll never work a day in your life is all about the process and not the outcome — and here’s the secret: If you enjoy the process, the outcome takes care of itself.
3. Learn to shift your priorities
We started out with a focus on being a service design agency. We were going to consult to big business and help them innovate and build better products and services. We quickly discovered that service design is quite new and nobody really knows what it is.
While we’re working hard on promoting service design, we also find that we have to rely on our skills as a traditional digital agency to put food on the table.
You have to have an idea of what you want the outcome of your start-up to be. In fact, you need more than an idea, you need a plan. I won’t go into the details around planning and the importance of having a structure to work within, but what I will say is that plans change.
You will need to learn to roll with the punches, adapt, and survive. As I mentioned, communication with your team and your clients is key. You might find that the star product or service that you thought was going to make you rich takes a backseat while other products and services that you like a bit less become the real money-spinners.
While you should never put away your hero product, you might have to reprioritise based on customer feedback.
Lesson for owners: The art of the pivot is often what separates a successful start-up from its less successful counterparts. Being willing and able to change direction based on new information is your biggest competitive advantage. It’s a level of flexibility your larger competitors don’t have. Use it.
4. Learn new skills
My role is that of strategist. In short, my job is to look at the client brief and budget and come up with a direction for the creatives and a plan for the roll-out. I sometimes do more, I sometimes do less.
The first thing that changed at Havas Boondoggle was that I played a role in helping my clients write that brief. I found that I was more actively involved in their businesses and that I was seen as part of their team in a very real way. I started to see myself that way too. Sure, I was an employee of Havas Boondoggle, but I gladly stepped into other roles in other businesses too.
I also began taking initiative in the creative aspect of our service. Taking my strategies a little further into the realm of creative ideation. I found that working for a much smaller business gave me the opportunity to try new things; to spread my wings a little.
The thing you quickly discover is that not only will you start tackling tasks that you’re unfamiliar with, you’ll have to tackle them with confidence. You’re going to have to learn to let go of your fear of the unknown, because if you don’t, someone else from another start-up will.
It’s an awful feeling looking back on something that you decided you couldn’t do, to discover that someone else with less experience than you did it. You’ll definitely discover that there are things that you are terrible at, but that’s one of the benefits of working for a start-up — self-discovery.
Lesson for owners: If you hire the right people for your start-up, they will take your business to incredible new heights. Look for passionate individuals who want to be involved in creating something great, instead of working a normal, safe 9-to-5. Fuel their passion and make them feel like they are integral to your own start-up story.
5. Be prepared to sacrifice
If you’re going to work for a start-up, whether as the boss or as an employee, be prepared. You’re going to work weekends, you’re going to work after hours. You’re going to be on your phone late at night with teammates, you’re going to come in early, you’re going to go home late.
You’re going to spend time sleeping in hotel rooms in other cities, away from your family. You’re going to discover that there are things you’re not good at. You’re going to discover that sometimes the pressure is too much. You’re going to find out how strong you really are.
Being part of a start-up is a very rewarding experience, but don’t do it if you’re not prepared to make sacrifices. Sometimes those sacrifices are time-based, sometimes they require you to let go of preconceived notions you had about yourself.
Lesson for owners: You’re going to be asking a lot of yourself and your team, so remember to stop and also have fun once in a while. Burning out serves no-one. Make sure your team take time for themselves, celebrate and respect each other’s personal lives — and remember why you’re doing this in the first place. It isn’t to turn into a sleep-deprived zombie, but to live your passions.