In The Startup Playbook, David Kidder writes about the fascinating startup stories—the good, the bad and the ugly—of 41 successful entrepreneurs and asks them to divulge lessons from the trenches. A few common themes emerged: 1) don't fear failure (in fact, you should fail often); 2) focus on the big ideas rather than the to-do list; 3) always look forward and think ahead; and 4) develop a product that will improve lives and leave a positive impact on the world.
Below, we've crystallized our favorite pieces of advice from each entrepreneur profiled. Do you have anything to add, or does a particular nugget of hard-earned wisdom speak to you? We'd love to hear in the comments.
1. Sara Blakely, founder of Spanx: Overcome your fear of failure. Every day during her childhood, Blakely’s father would ask her, “What did you fail at today?” It taught her to perceive failure not as a bad thing, but as a good effort to try something new.
2. Seth Goldman, founder of Honest Tea: Invest in guerrilla marketing. Your message is just as important as the way it’s presented. When customers interact with your brand and connect with your mission, you’re much more likely to develop a long-term relationship with them. 4. Steve Blank, founder of E.Piphany: Be comfortable breaking rules.
3. Chris Anderson, founder of Future Publishing and CEO of Ted Talks: Don’t just follow your own passions. Also follow the passions of others. If someone is passionate about an idea, chances are it represents a bigger opportunity.
In the startup world, you’re breaking conventional rules and need to be able to adapt to change and live in a somewhat chaotic state. 5. Matt Blumberg, founder of Return Path: Keep track of your time—religiously.
Blumberg swears by keeping and updating a calendar to accurately reflect all his activities. He assesses that quarterly, allowing him to make improvements for the future.6. Rodney Brooks, founder of iRobot and Heartland Robotics: Be unreasonable.
If you’re not pushing your employees beyond their comfort zones, they won’t reach their personal bests, and your company won’t achieve its full potential. Robin Chase (photo: International Transport Forum/flickr)
7. Robin Chase, founder of Zipcar: Maintain flexible values.
Chase argues that it’s essential to give up your beliefs if you’ve got statistics and market research telling a different story. Flexibility often leads to growth and opportunity. 8. Steve Case, founder of AOL and Chairman and CEO of Revolution LLC: Hire a scalable team.
Make sure new hires are passionate about your venture and your team can (and wants to) grow with your business. 9. Marc Cenedella, founder of TheLadders: Translate ideas into relatable concepts.
Storytelling is a powerful element of successful marketing. If people can’t relate to your idea, it’s unlikely they’ll want to support it. Einstein is the perfect example: He understood obscure concepts and explained them in a way that made sense to people.10. Jeff Bussgang, founder of Open Market, UPromise and Flybridge Capital Partners: Make time for your family.
It’s easy to get caught up in the nitty gritty details of building a company and forget about what really matters most in life. Your family will be there for you through thick and thin, and you’ll perform better as a leader when you invest time and energy into your family relationships.11. Chip Conley, founder of Joie de Vivre Hospitality: Take advantage of being an outsider.
Some of the biggest market opportunities are discovered by outsiders who haven’t been enveloped by the tendencies and thought patterns that often go along with being part of a group. Outsiders can point out a previously unrecognized need.12. Jeff Dachis, founder of Razorfish and The Dachis Group: Endure critics, even if they’re laughing at you.
Sometimes people—whether they’re your co-workers, investors or even family and friends—just aren’t ready to hear an idea. You won’t earn respect in your field overnight. Once your ideas are executed, the marketplace will validate your “crazy” ideas.13. Michael and Ellen Diamant, founders of Skip*Hop: If you’re failing, you’re innovating.
The reverse is also true: If you’re not failing, you’re not branching out enough. Failure provides some of the best data.14. Chris Dixon, founder of SiteAdvisor, Founder Collective and Hunch: Daily rejections mean you’re forging forward.
While it’s hard to face all these rejections, Dixon believes if you’re not dealing with it every day, your goals aren’t ambitious enough.15. Marc Eck?, founder of Marc Eck? Enterprises: Let your experience (and the advice of others) guide you.
As Eck? puts it, “[Y]ou can’t always learn everything in school. Sometimes your philosophy develops from your interaction with the world.”16. Kevin Efrusy, founder of IronPlanet, Corio and general partner at Accel: Be willing to risk everything on your radical idea.
If you’re not, you could be missing out on major industry changes. You need to always have your pulse on the next new “disruption” to put you in an offensive position instead of a defensive one. Courtesy of Caterina Fake
17. Caterina Fake, founder of Flickr, Hunch and Findery, and chairman of Etsy: Keep your anxiety to yourself.
You’ll always have anxieties, especially if you’re taking big risks. If you let your day-to-day anxieties come out at work, it will infect your company. Be sure to protect your employees and deal with your anxieties in another way. 18. Mitch Free, founder of MFG.com: Be wary of toxic comparisons.
While there's value in learning about your competitors, too much analysis can lead to groupthink—you’ll wind up being similar to your competitors without offering anything new. Keeping yourself free of comparison allows you to “cut [your] own road,” Free says. 19. Lisa Gansky, founder of Ofoto: It’s okay to be paranoid.
Going to the extremes can obviously be detrimental, but Gansky argues that a little paranoia can motivate you to stay on top of market trends and keep yourself relevant. 20. Tom Gardener, founder of The Motley Fool: Ask yourself why you’re being paid.
If you understand why your customers choose you over a competitor, you can improve your product or service and offer something even better. 21. Eileen Gittens, founder of Blurb: Take off the rose colored glasses.
While it’s important to be in love with your idea for a business, you also need to listen to people who tell you “it’s crap” or offer suggestions for improvement.
22. Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org: Use your good fortune to breed more.
Talk show host Stephen Colbert's endorsement of Best opened a world of opportunity. Be ready for the right exposure, or you could lose out on a chance for major growth.
23. Joe Green, founder of Causes: Have a strong vision but be open to adjustments.
Green likens building a company to climbing a mountain: You know you want to get to the top and have an idea about how to do it. But you can’t see what it’s like to climb the mountain until you get up there, and you may have to make adjustments to achieve your goal and survive. Balance a commitment to your vision with quick “pivots” you need to make along the way. 24. Scott Harrison, founder of charity: water: Make your brand epic.
Invest in your design and ensure everything from your logo’s font and color scheme to video production are of the highest quality. Every small-business owner has a passionate mission—if yours looks good, you’ll have an edge. 25. Scott Heiferman, founder of i-traffic, Fotoglog and Meetup: Let your obsessions and curiosities drive you, but make sure they’re useful.
Starting a company should be like falling in love ... it’s joyful, there are ups and downs and it’s on your mind all the time. But be sure your mission is useful to people. As Heiferman says, “I don’t need a cup with mustache. I need something useful.”26. Reid Hoffman, founder of LinkedIn: Execute an idea when everyone else still thinks it’s crazy.
If you’re running your idea by friends and colleagues who think it’s obvious, it’s not a good sign for your business. When you arrive early, it will be harder to raise money but you’ll have a lot less competition and the potential to emerge as an industry leader.27. Jeffrey Hollender, founder of Seventh Generation and American Sustainable Business Council: Research potential investors.
Hollender recommends talking to three CEOs who have received money from an investor to find out what it’s really like to work with him or her. It’s very important to find out about the investor as a person—in Hollender’s case, he chose investors that weren’t aligned with his values and therefore was fired from a company because he publicly stated it wasn’t up to his standards. 28. Ben Horowitz, founder of Opsware: Don’t succumb to “incrementalism.”
People want to see a product that’s 10 times better than what they’re used to, not just a little better. To get or maintain status as an industry winner, you need to innovate and push beyond what your competitors are doing. Tony Hsieh (photo: Getty Images)
29. Tony Hsieh, founder of LinkExchange and Venture Frogs, and CEO of Zappos: Early on, hire people who can take on any role.
Startup team members must be able to wear many different hats. If someone has a “that’s not my job” mentality, that negativity will hinder growth.30. Cyrus Massoumi, founder of ZocDoc: Maintaining focus means different things at different times.
During startup, this means making many immediate yes or no decisions, but as the company grows, you need to shift your focus to articulating a vision, inspiring your team and ensuring that everyone works well together—so you can trust others to make those immediate decisions for you.31. Jim McCann, founder of 1-800-Flowers.com: Build a network of company “alumni.”
McCann used to get upset when someone would leave the company to work elsewhere—before he realized the advantages of having contacts in several different companies and industries. As long as people leave the company on good terms, they’ll likely be happy to continue contributing to the community you’ve built.32. Stephen and Heidi Messer, founders of Linkshare: Categorize your to-do list by “air,” “water” and “food.”
Prioritize by importance of decisions and tasks. “Air” are the tasks your company needs every few minutes to survive. “Water” tasks/decisions need to be made in a few days, and “food” tasks are still vital but really don’t require immediate attention.Elon Musk (photo: Getty Images)
33. Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Spacex, Tesla Motors and chairman of SolarCity: Wishful thinking is toxic.
Sometimes people refuse to learn from their own failed experiences. Be willing to shift your thinking instead of clinging to an idea you know deep down won’t work.34. Jacqueline Novogratz, founder of Acumen Fund: Be humble.
Novogratz makes it a habit to recognize how much we depend on the work and establishments of those who have come before us, and tries to achieve the same while having a profound impact on humanity. 35. Hosain Rahman, founder of Jawbone: Everything you produce is a prototype.
It’s important to remember that you’re never done. You may have zero, one or a few successes in your back pocket, but that doesn’t guarantee success for the future. Your customers’ needs are always evolving and so should your products.36. Adeo Ressi, founder of TheFunded.com and The Founder Institute: Tap potential.
Everyone has potential, and Ressi is a self-proclaimed master at extracting it from individuals. He believes if “you’re a human being on the planet today, you have potential.” 37. Linda Rottenberg, founder of Endeavor Global: Say no.
If you say no to opportunities that aren’t a good fit for your company, it defines who you are and enforces your mission just as much as when you say yes.38. Kevin Ryan, founder of AlleyCorp and CEO of Gilt Groupe: Ideas are important, but execution is key.
Without effective, swift execution, your ideas aren't worth much. Ryan recommends having a fast three-month head start, deciding whether this is possible is an early indicator of success.39. Kirill Sheynkman, founder of Stanford Technology Group, Plumtree Software and Elastra Corporation, and managing director of RTP Ventures: Be directly involved.
Spend time with each of your employees or teams, learning their goals, concerns and processes. As a leader, you’ll be able to help make them more efficient and understand your company from all angles.40. Jeff Stewart, founder of Mimeo, Urgent Career and Lenddo: Develop an obsession with technology.
If you’re not able to embrace technological change—and the myriad ways it can help your company—there’s someone else who will.41. Jay Walker, founder of Walker Digital and Priceline: Be solution-oriented instead of people-oriented.
Walker disagrees with conventional entrepreneurial wisdom that “it’s all about the people.” He says it’s all about finding solutions to problems that people experience. If the best person is trying to solve the wrong problem or comes up with the wrong solution, it won’t work.Like this article? Read more about startups.Photo: facebook.com/spanx