In the hit HBO series Silicon Valley, six young geeks found a software company and, with their inexperience, make huge and often hilarious mistakes.
The series resonates for me because I know what it’s like to be a rookie at entrepreneurship. I was 24 and a college music major when I started my software company. Thirteen years later, we have nearly 450 employees and more than 5,000 customers.
Trust me, I’ve had a few “Richard” moments during this journey — Richard being the shy programmer on Silicon Valley who is so worried in his role as startup CEO that he suffers night sweats. But as the Japanese author Haruki Murakami wrote, “Everybody has to start somewhere. You have your whole future ahead of you. Perfection doesn’t happen right away.”
The first time you do anything big in life can be scary, and that’s especially true for fledgling entrepreneurs, who are putting their dreams, reputations, futures and finances on the line. Follow these six tips, however, and you just might make it after all.
1. Have crazy confidence in your product or service.
When my company JAMF started in 2002 and focused on Apple users — we now help more than 5,000 businesses and schools manage their iPhones, iPads and Mac computers — Microsoft’s Windows was still the dominant desktop computing platform. Apple was a niche product for artists, musicians and teachers. Many people thought we were nuts for targeting such a narrow market. They said we had to add Windows support to be successful. But we believed in our strategy. So, be like us: Don’t be afraid to defy conventional wisdom.
2. Make your own good luck.
I was studying music at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire around 2000 and working at a sandwich shop. When the eatery closed, I took a job at the university, providing tech support for professors’ Macs. (I had fooled around with Macs in high school and was minoring in computer science.) Then, my boss got transferred to another department and I took over his job. I got an idea for an automated software tool that could make the task of managing Macs easier, and thought I could make a business out of it.
I started putting in 100-hour weeks — mind you, I was still a student, still had the tech-support job and was spending virtually all my spare time developing the software tool. By 2002, however, JAMF had been incorporated, so our business was in a good position when Apple introduced the iPhone in 2007 and the tech giant’s fortunes began to soar.
You could say luck was a factor, and I wouldn’t disagree. But you can make your luck through hard work and correct sensing of a market.
3. Focus on your product or service, not running the business.
First-time entrepreneurs often struggle with the dual responsibilities of building the product and operating the business. But the more you can focus on the first and outsource or postpone the second, the better. You can easily find people capable of, say, keeping your books. Only you know best how to build value for your offerings.
Customers won’t be attracted to you because you run your business well, but because of your great product.
4. Operate on a shoestring.
When it’s time to hire employees, making payroll will become the No. 1 thing you lose sleep over. Your employees have families to support, mortgages to pay. They entrust you with their livelihood.
So, put off hiring until you’re absolutely certain that that move is necessary to maintain and grow the business. Then, set a goal of six months’ payroll in the bank. Do whatever it takes — make sales, rent cheap office space, keep expenses to a bare minimum — to reach it. Obtain a bank line of credit for immediate, urgent needs, assuming you have confidence you can repay the loan.
5. Stop talking, and just listen.
A rookie mistake that new entrepreneurs often make is yapping to customer prospects about how great their solution is before giving those customers a chance to talk about the problems they need solved.
So, truly listen to and empathize with your customers. You’ll stand a much better chance of making the sale and building a long-term relationship.
6. Appreciate what your life experiences bring to the entrepreneurial table.
I didn’t set out to be an entrepreneur. I was a music major, specializing in classical piano. Yet music training had fostered an intense concentration and focus that have served me well as a startup founder. Music theory has helped me understand how to break down large challenges into more manageable pieces. Everyone has a unique background, and it’s only natural to apply past life experiences to the entrepreneurial journey.
Laughing at the characters on Silicon Valley is fun. So, enjoy. But in the real world, you can avoid those characters’ mistakes even if you’re starting a company for the first time.