Starting a business means being at the right place in time with a proper plan of action, but there’s no such thing as perfection. With countless variables at play, it’s easy to say things would have gone differently with just a bit more knowledge and experience.
There’s no point in regretting the past – what’s done is done. However, there’s value in sharing personal experiences and passing on wisdom to the next generation of business leaders.
Start your time machines – here’s what entrepreneurs said about starting their businesses and what they wish they knew back then.
Start on the Right Foot
Every business is inspired by a unique set of circumstances or desires, and entrepreneurs should absolutely lean into what makes their company unique from square one.
Still, there is a universal to-do list for any new business out there, and it’s vitally important not to skip any steps when starting out. Business founders may want to follow a basic blueprint when launching a company from scratch to not miss any key objectives.
“Starting a new business will always start off with specific roadblocks,” said Kamron Kunce, Senior Marketing Manager of 4Patriots. “Finding your niche, discovering your target demographic, and figuring out funding are three issues that every business faces. When starting off, it’s more important than ever to set goals for yourself that are obtainable. You want to be optimistic, but being realistic is also just as important. Push yourself, but don’t expect major results immediately. Great things take time to grow.”
The culture of instant gratification runs contrary to the essence of entrepreneurship. Everyone wants success now, but very few people are willing to put in the effort, energy, and most importantly – the time necessary to make it happen.
Aspiring entrepreneurs should do away with the idea of “overnight success” and embrace the fact that their business will probably take a while to get off the ground.
“If there was one thing I wish I knew before starting any business I would emphasize how important patience is in a startup,” said Chris Gadek, Vice President of Growth at AdQuick. “It gets extremely stressful to not find success immediately and then you find yourself feeling as if you are failing, even though this is how all businesses start. Map out a proper success plan. Set feasible goals that are ambitious, but obtainable. Push yourself to grow your business to achieve any goals set and get ready for a bumpy ride.”
Without patience, founders might find themselves frustrated or burnt out early on, which will only leave them stuck on the runway.
Let the Customer Guide You
Ever notice how vocal people are on social media or review sites, especially when it comes to negative feedback? It’s a blessing and a curse for modern businesses, but there’s no denying that dissatisfied customers help companies improve.
Of course, this dynamic only works if brands are willing to receive the feedback in an objective way and implement changes that actually make a difference. The best companies are able to do this seamlessly and improve incrementally each day.
“I’d be sure to tell my younger self that the customer is always right – no exceptions,” said Travis Killian, Owner and CEO of Everlasting Comfort. “When you adopt the fact that the customer is always right, then you’ll see one important reaction, time and time again. Whether you need to offer a refund, or a free month of service, keeping a customer is priceless. And what may have started as a complaint, may just well turn into a customer for life – all because of the way that you turned a negative into a positive.”
Now that everyone’s opinions are amplified online, businesses should pay close attention to the good and bad feedback they see on every possible platform.
Efficiency Above All
Entrepreneurship has always been a time-sensitive game, but the nature of business in the digital era makes things even more high-pressure. Founders are racing against the clock, trying to meet strict deadlines and satisfy shareholders while trying not to run out of cash.
In response to this high-stakes arrangement, businesses need to put a premium on efficiency. Does it save time and make people more productive? Bring it on board – we’ll figure out the cost later.
This goes for everything from product development and sales to marketing, service, and customer engagement online.
“If I had the opportunity to send my younger self a message, I’d explain the absolute importance of customer engagement and using time-saving tools that allow for even more engagement,” said Timmy Yanchun, Co-Founder of LTHR Shaving. “When we look at this today, it would be difficult to say that emerging tech hasn’t helped create a stronger bond between companies and their customers. Whether it’s utilizing a special tool for your email marketing campaigns or uncovering the latest data to apply to your targeted outreach strategies, a couple of clicks saved here and there can free up your time for even more engagement – like responding to customer comments and suggestions.”
Automation and outsourcing can also help speed things up, but may run the risk of sacrificing quality for convenience.
It’s common for entrepreneurs – especially young people stepping into the fray for the first time – to make things more complicated than they need to be.
Instead of trying to do everything at once, these eager business people need to focus on one thing at a time and simplify as much as possible. This will ensure a sustainable pace and long-term productivity for everyone involved.
“Keep it simple,” said Brent Sanders, CEO of Wicksly. “In entrepreneurship, it’s easy to get in over your head while striving to make your dreams actualize but ‘easy does it’. Overcomplicating your work life will likely land you a breakdown of some fashion.”
A powerful idea to keep in mind is to see if something can be removed from the equation before adding anything new.
Never Get Complacent
After months or even years of grinding, the first taste of success is something to celebrate for the founders of a business. However, this satisfaction can turn to complacency before long, so executives must work to keep their swords sharp and continue to push forward.
“Given the opportunity, I would tell my younger self that I have to pay special attention to the needs of my customers,” said Jared Zabaldo, Founder of USAMM. “If you become distracted, or worse yet, complacent, that simply provides the competition with an opportunity to sweep in and provide the service that your customers expect – and deserve.”
Once again, customers will be a reliable weathervane to show business leaders what they should – or shouldn’t – do next.
Trust in Proven Systems
It’s so common for young startup leaders to seek the next big revolution or disruptive approach to doing business. This might happen once or twice in a generation, but in most cases, founders should stick to what works and move their businesses forward at a steady, sustained pace.
Take marketing for example. There are so many new concepts and technologies that can help put a business on the map, but ultimately the same reliable techniques are going to be what makes the biggest difference at the end of the day.
“I would visit my younger self, and remind myself that no matter what anyone tells you in the future, blogging is NOT dead,” said Heidi Robinson, Chief Operating Officer of Because Market. “Blogging remains to be as useful as ever before, even increasing in popularity and continuously showcasing new ways to harness its power. All businesses can profit from a blog filled with high-quality content that has been optimized for SEO, ensuring that the articles will rank on search engines and draw more visibility.”
Easier said than done, right? Everyone has some degree of anxiety about the future, and this feeling can be amplified by the pressures of getting a business off the ground.
It takes boldness, bravery, and the ability to block out doubt now and then to make a dream come true. Every young founder should find their own mental hacks that help them beat anxiety and uncertainty – the sooner the better.
“If I could have a chat with my younger self, I’d include a reminder that anxiety stifles creativity, and that I should plan to use every bit of inspiration that I can to ensure that my company remains visible,” said Amir Yazdan, M.D., Founder of GroMD. “In this way, I hope to engage more potential customers than ever before. So, when anxiety begins to creep into the equation, I steady my focus and brainstorm a little. New ideas are just the right medicine when it comes to thinking clearly and remaining stress-free, and I wish I’d realized that much earlier on.”
Is it possible to completely remove doubt and stress? No, but the world’s strongest minds are able to use these negative emotions to drive them in a positive direction.
Maximize Your Network
It’s never too early to start networking, even if a business is just in its initial stages.
With a globally-connected internet, there should be nothing holding back young entrepreneurs from making contact with other like-minded people and building a network that will pay off big down the road.
“When face-to-face with my younger self, I would have quite a few tips on how to be a successful entrepreneur, said Rachel Jones, Head of PR at Hope Health Supply. “But, at the top of my list, would be actionable tips on how to build a brand. For starters, begin networking like crazy. Join discussion groups and post on boards within your niche. Through the connections that you make, begin submitting guest posts to high-traffic sites and participating in roundup articles where you will be able to provide a quote and receive a backlink.”
This aggressive approach to networking should never end, either. This is how business leaders stay at the top of their fields and make lasting impacts on the world.
Listen to the Audience
We all have the tendency to cater to our own interests and create the products we want to see in the world. This is the driving force behind innovation, and it shouldn’t be suppressed.
On the other hand, a growing business needs to honestly examine the demands and desires of the customers as well. Founders might need to make compromises and broaden the scope of their business if they want to keep things profitable at first.
“Not having a full understanding of what your customers actually want and need is a big mistake,” said Daniel Shapiro, Founder & CEO of Fourlaps. “When starting a business, it is natural to work on your own passions and want to produce everything that fits your particular tastes but you have to recognize what the customers want and want you to offer might not be exactly aligned. Therefore, remember to tailor what you produce to the needs of your buyers.”
Down the road, there will be time for more targeted offerings and passion projects, but it might be smart to start off with a more accessible approach.
Stay in the Present
So much of entrepreneurship is a test of mental fortitude and emotional strength. Sure, there are ups and downs that can be quantified on screens and bank accounts, but the biggest losses and victories will be experienced on a personal level.
Up-and-coming business leaders should do their best to stay locked into the present moment and not let external events dismantle their inner focus and self-worth. This is how people go from being average to superhuman in the world of business.
“I would tell my younger self to not let current circumstances define my faith in myself and faith in my career,” said Olivia Young, Head of Product Design of Conscious Items. “Worrying about the future based on what my past or present looked like made me overthink and doubt myself. Once I recognized the power in believing in yourself regardless of how my situation appeared gave me a rush of power and determination.”
Enjoy the Journey
Starting a business is not something that everyone has the pleasure of experiencing. In fact, a super small percentage of humankind will ever embark on this type of journey in the first place! Rather than feeling stressed and strained, aspirational young people should have some perspective and enjoy the unique position they find themselves in.
“I would tell my younger self to remember to have fun,” said Benjamin Smith, Founder of Disco. “We have this idea that business is supposed to be all work and no play which definitely keeps you professional and efficient but this mindset can rob the joy of creating and leading. Running a business should be fun and passionate so I would remind myself to keep my focus while also remembering to enjoy the ride.”
Avoid Burning Out
The path of entrepreneurship is as much about forming one’s own identity as it is creating products and services to sell to the world. Founders often discover a lot about themselves along the way, and usually end up wishing they took things at their own pace from the outset.
“I wish I could tell myself to find my own stride instead of striving to match everyone else’s stride,” said Nik Sharma, CEO of Sharma Brands. “Pacing myself could have saved me from a multitude of burnouts I endured along the way. As an entrepreneur, you learn that you are the architect of your outcome. It is extremely important to recognize your power in controlling your environment as opposed to letting your environment control you. I would tell myself to set the tone for my path instead of looking outside of myself for validation.”
This serves as a powerful reminder that there is no perfect way to start a successful business. Everyone will bring something unique to the table, and there are an infinite number of viable ways to make progress.
Commit to the Long Haul
Expectations are sky-high for ambitious young people these days, so it makes sense that so many people are feeling pressured to succeed as soon as they graduate high school or college.
The truth is that many entrepreneurs took their time to figure out their place in the world before going all-in on a business, and even then, the path isn’t laid out in a crystal clear way.
Some companies take months to gain traction, while others take years. Founders should avoid working themselves into a frenzy to hit an arbitrary deadline when they have so much life to live.
“In every startup story, there is bound to be a wrong turn here or there,” said Artie Baxter, CEO of Paperclip. “The No. 1 key I wish I would have known before starting is: everything takes forever to happen. Starting a business isn’t typically a weekend project. It’s something you’re putting all your energy into for the long haul. It’s important when starting your business to take the first steps with this in mind. Having the idea implemented in your head that it will likely take much longer than anticipated for a business to achieve success, will benefit you in the long run because it will encourage you to keep pushing forward when things get rough.
Considering that entrepreneurship is getting more popular in culture, it’s even more important that this message gets out to the masses – young folks in particular.
Learn from the Competition
So many businesses are started for reasons that aren’t necessarily related to making a great product for customers. Some companies are founded to boost egos, while others are meant to show off an impressive technology that doesn’t yet have a tangible application in real life.
As founders test out different ideas and set forth on new ventures, they need to ask themselves whether their idea is all fluff, or if they actually have a leg to stand on.
If founders need a point of reference, there’s no better place to look than companies in their field which have already made strides in the right direction.
“One piece of advice I can offer to other business owners is to consider the consumers first,” said Brandon Werber, CEO of Airvet. “Many startups in our space focus on building tools for veterinarians alone, that can’t be used by all pet owners. And finally, don’t look at it as a competition – it’s a compliment to keep a strong connection with pet parents in between office visits.”
Comparing oneself to the competition can be detrimental, but in some cases, it serves a powerful purpose for finding an edge.
Manage Work/Life Balance
The work/life balance dynamic needs to be talked about in the young entrepreneur crowd since so many media and cultural depictions of the culture have an unhealthy focus on productivity.
Yes, starting a business is risky and will require some sacrifices along the way, but this doesn’t mean a young person should completely shut out all social or family obligations if they want to be successful. In fact, a proper balance is going to help them succeed in the long term.
Many great recent startups were the natural result of inspired and creative living. Successful people find a way to harness their passion and turn it into a profitable venture.
“Make sure it’s something you like to do so that it never feels like its work,” said Michael Scott Cohen, CEO of Harper and Scott. “Being passionate about what you like to do can make it easier to integrate daily life activities together and help create a balance. It’s also important to remember, there can never be a perfect balance. Keeping an open mind and willing to make adjustments is also pivotal when trying to balance both your business and personal life at the same time. And although at times there might be a world of chaos, these are all obstacles that will help you learn how to manage a work-life integration.”
Take Time to Reflect
When a business is in its infancy, it can seem like there is never enough time in the day to get things done. This type of pressure can be positive and push people to accomplish great things, but it can also be destructive if founders fail to maintain some perspective on the situation.
“Something I wish we had known prior to starting our first CPG business is that sometimes less is more,” said Tyler Giroud, VP of Operations at Reason to Smile. “As a team, we’re definitely of the ‘go go go’ mentality, and early on, mental stamina definitely came into play. The more we come together and reflect on our weekly progress, the more I realize that taking a step back and working intentionally on a few areas is much more effective than trying to sprint our way through 10+ areas at once that could use improvement.”
This also speaks to the importance of having a team of diverse personalities to make sure that everyone sees the pros and cons of each decision, and that things progress at a steady pace.
Learn from Every Mistake
Young people will spend years earning straight-A’s in school and doing all the right things to pad their CVs only to find that the business world works in an entirely different way.
This can be a shock to the system for many people, but these are simply the universal lessons that must be learned early on.
Every successful business leader will say the same thing: there is just no perfect preparation for starting a company, and experience is the ultimate teacher.
“When we launched Teles Properties, I remember realizing there was so much I wasn’t prepared for, even though I had an excellent education at UCLA,” said Peter Hernandez, Founder, and President of Teles Properties. “Our business plan had to be tweaked and modified almost immediately. We had a saying, ‘Do more of what works and shelve the rest.’ It would be nice to know how everything will work out, but if we did, we wouldn’t be fluid.”
This isn’t to say that traditional education isn’t valuable, but everyone must go through that stage of discomfort as they bridge the gap to the real world.
Go All-In on Passion
For some business leaders, there is very little distinction between their personal lives and the companies they run. These are the people with family businesses and those who hire close friends to work alongside them to achieve their dreams.
Things can get a bit messy with this approach, but as long as everyone stays focused on the goals at hand, it can be a highly satisfying way to live life, and the rewards can be huge.
“I wish I knew that running a business is like a 24-7 job,” said Jay Shah, CEO of Auris, Inc. “It requires working every day of the week and after hours to truly be successful. It can also be very demanding though, at the same time, rewarding. You have to be passionate about it as well. Our company is a team of audio geeks, explorers, and designers, and we are all passionate about our work, creating audio solutions that simplify and enhance a modern lifestyle.”
Build Unbreakable Beliefs
There’s one important question that every aspiring business founder needs to ask of themselves: is this company something I really believe in?
It seems like an obvious thing to think about, but many entrepreneurs might be surprised by the answers they tell themselves. Maybe they aren’t quite ready to take the leap into starting a business, or there is something else calling out to their soul that takes higher priority.
The danger here is that some business founders already dedicate so much time, money, and energy to a given goal that they don’t want to turn back. This is where the tough decisions need to be made, even if it means making a big change in direction.
Of course, if the passion is there and there’s plenty of momentum behind an idea, they might as well embrace the journey and get to work.
“Everything starts with a belief system,” said Eric Gist, CEO of Awesome OS. “When you’re going after something you’re passionate about and believe in, that will show in everything you do. At times I’ve seen someone try to sell me on a product, idea, or service, and I can tell they don’t really believe what they are selling. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter how much you practice your sales pitch if you truly don’t believe in your product/service. How can an audience be excited about what you’re doing when you’re not even excited about the product itself? When starting with a belief system, the energy and excitement that the idea or product you have and are bringing to the market should prove that this will make a positive impact on people’s lives. From there it’s all about recruiting the right people and acquiring talent that are passionate about the mission you’re on. Make sure it’s people that you can count on and trust. Once you get the right group of people, getting the right team, all that’s left to do is make the mission come true.”
All the great business leaders in history were highly skilled at building teams and leading them toward success. It’s impossible to say if we’d even know these household names if it weren’t for the complete cast of characters that helped these companies gain steam in the first place.
Alternatively, poor hiring decisions can be equally detrimental to one’s mission. Young business founders need to assemble their teams with extreme care and be willing to let people go if things are starting to backslide.
“I wish I knew that you need to pick your partners wisely,” said Grant Hosking, Co-Founder of Total Hydration. “Find someone that balances your skill sets, that you enjoy spending time with, and have a good working dynamic with. Communicate as much as possible upfront including responsibilities, expectations, goals for business, etc. You are also going to have numerous setbacks and failures. Oftentimes you may think that your idea or business is not going to work out. It’s the strongest entrepreneurs that problem solve and push through the challenges that are ultimately successful.”
Knowing this, new entrepreneurs should spend substantial energy on developing strong social connections and learning to work well with others. These skills will end up being invaluable when things ramp up.
Learn from Failure
Growing up, young people are taught to avoid failure at all costs, even if it means playing it safe. This mentality works well for school and college where there aren’t really any major risks or rewards, but the business world requires a big mindset shift to see failure in a different light.
“Most people are afraid to fail, so they never try or extend themselves beyond their comfort zone,” said Dottie Herman, CEO of Douglas Elliman. “But failure means you made the effort to do something worthwhile. If things didn’t work out, so what? Brush yourself off and move on. We don’t know what we’re capable of until we try — and if you aren’t failing, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
Failure isn’t just about learning smarter business strategies – it’s an important process of personal growth required for getting to the next level in life.
Give Yourself Credit
High achievers tend to look for the smallest problems and shortcomings in a situation, then criticize themselves endlessly despite accomplishing so much. For some people, this is just the way they are, but there’s definitely a time and place to reward oneself for victories.
Self-critical people should zoom out and acknowledge what they’ve accomplished so far, or at least admire their own initiative for going after their dreams. This will help them maintain mental balance down the road and enjoy life more fully.
“You are more capable than you give yourself credit but the journey will be harder than you ever imagined,” said Sarah Morgan, CEO de Even Health. “Build a powerful team, know your numbers, and track your progress.”
Don’t Rush the Process
Countless businesses never gained traction simply because founders tried to do too much, too fast. A healthy amount of self-motivation is necessary to get things moving, but rushing oneself and pushing others beyond their personal limits is a recipe for disaster.
Top leaders in the business world are able to organically inspire others through their own actions and perspective, rather than shouting orders and deflecting responsibility. These are the positive leadership styles that create great company cultures and gain momentum over the long run.
“Breathe. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither are businesses,” said Ben Cook, Jr., Vice President and General Counsel of Cook Capital Group which owns Printed Kicks. “I’ve always been incredibly impatient when it comes to getting tasks done, and like most business owners, I don’t have many ‘off days’. Some things take more time, though, and the quickest result is rarely the best answer. Slow is smooth and smooth is fast.”
There’s no turning back time, but these lessons from entrepreneurs offer some key insights into how the best businesses start from zero and find their place in the world.