When entrepreneurs speak of their company, it’s rare to hear them say: “I have a small business.” The expression sounds too much like a governement categorization, and it connotes a type, style, or scope of activity that may not reflect their big dreams.
My advice, though, is that regardless of the Small Business Size Regulations set by the U.S. Small Business Administration, think of your potentially multi-billion dollar enterprise as a small business as long as you haven’t reached $50M in revenue.
You need confidence to start a company as well as a mom-and-pop, and prosaic common sense to make it succeed. A startup is not a miniature version of a big company. So see yourself as who you really are: a small business “owner.” Language shapes reality: as unglamorous it may be, this wording will force you into a continuous sense of personal accountability. Here are two simple examples of what this means in practice:
Never create excuses for yourself. For example, “I can’t sell because the product is late.” Chances are that it’s your mistake in the first place. You didn’t take the time to understand what creating a product actually entails; you basked in the role of the visionary while delegating blindly; you hoped for the best instead of looking straight into the eyes of your engineers; or selected the wrong engineers and then chose to ignore your blunder.
But the buck stops with you and you have to make up for your bad judgment. Find a few early adopters who need your half-baked product and who will help you define the right priorities to complete it. When you offer something of real value, customers do pay, because they have a vested interest in your success. The really good people in large companies like and support startups, because the agility of startups is what enables them to showcase their own talent.
Don’t feel entitled to anything. Don’t whine about your funding hardships whether it’s to get a first or second round. Even if you are funded, stop imagining that you need millions to breathe, and always think like a bootstrapper.
Your resume and your idea may be worth millions, but for the time being put all your former or future “accomplishments” in a closet and look at your bare bones present. Wake up every day with the thought that you have to prove yourself. If you, as the CEO of this startup, haven’t spoken with a few customers during the week, you are not doing your job.
Are you expecting things to fall straight into your lap? Bad idea. There is no bailout for small businesses. The family business down the street only gets what it earns. You are in the same boat even if you aspire to sail the high seas. The company owns you more than what you own of it: this will be true for a while. Start small to get big.
Remember BASIC? It stands for “Beginner’s All-Purpose Symbolic Instruction Code.” That’s also how Bill Gates and Paul Allen started. Their first customer: the manufacturer of the Altair 8800 personal computer, MITS in Albuquerque. Their first year revenue: $16,005. Microsoft wasn’t a small big business—it was simply a small business that grew and grew and grew.
If you want to be the next Bill Gates, force yourself to be personally accountable as a small business owner, and one day, you may be running the next Microsoft, Apple, or Google.
Marylene Delbourg-Delphis was the CEO of ACI, ACIUS, Exemplary Software, and Brixlogic. She is currently a board member of CitizenLogistics and ObjectiveMarketer and provides sales and marketing wisdom to startups.