April 14, 2015

Six Keys to Startup Survival from Inc. Magazine’s 30 Under 30 Entrepreneurs

The “roller coaster” is the most common metaphor used to describe the process of building a startup. But for many entrepreneurs, it takes awhile before there are any ups to balance out the downs.

“Everyone says (the startup journey) is a roller coaster, but really it’s more like you just keep going down this huge slide and you never know if you’ll make it to the other end,” said Morgen Newman, founder and CEO of MixedMade, a food startup that exploded in 2014 behind its creation of Bees Knees Spicy Honey.

Newman was the featured guest in one of a half-dozen 30 Under 30 sessions at Inc. Magazine’s recent GrowCo conference in Nashville, Tenn. The speaker track featured some of the best and brightest young entrepreneurs who have recently been honored in the publication’s annual special issue.

For Newman and his fellow young innovators, launching a startup is fun … kind of. The overall experience is more classified as “type II fun,” or an experience that is miserable while it’s happening but fun in retrospect. For most of these businesses, the initial suffering leads to learning, and that learning fosters fulfillment and growth.

With that in mind, here are six lessons in startup survival shared by this year’s Inc. 30 Under 30 speakers at GrowCo.

Innovation is an iterative idea … with great timing

Innovation is far more than one great idea. For Desiree Vargas Wrigley and Ethan Austin, it’s a continuous mindset that must be woven into an entrepreneur’s personality and a company’s culture. The co-founders of GiveForward described innovation as an on-going series of “Ah ha!” moments that are fueled from intense focus on mega-trends in an industry and great timing. Without a complete understanding of the demand, limitations, and competition in a particular industry, the best idea can fall flat, become quickly outdated, or be years ahead of its time.

Embrace constraints

For GiveForward, a crowdfunding platform that helps people raise money to pay emergency medical bills, the constraints were clear from the beginning: Vargas Wrigley and Austin had no technology experience, no business experience, and no money. What they did have was an idea, and an ability to embrace obstacles as opportunities to learn. “If you want to innovate, build constraints into your business and then swim downstream, fast,” Austin said, noting that success hinges on how you react to the challenges at hand.

After an unsuccessful launch in 2008, GiveForward pivoted its model to fit holes in the market, recruited an army of skilled interns, focused on building a great culture that attracted top talent despite low pay, then integrated its platform with emerging technology around social media– which was just starting to explode. The outcome was pretty decent.

Hire right

For Abe Issa, being able to grow your idea is a combination of effort, confidence, and the right team. The founder and CEO of Global Efficient Energy is making a name for himself as a “ninja sales leader” by training a team that closes on cold-call leads at 2.5-to-3 times the industry average. That sales success is a direct result of his ability to hire teammates who are extremely coachable, dedicated to outworking the competition, and focused on providing great customer service. Issa believes confidence fuels all of these necessary attributes, for you can’t build a relationship with a customer and sell an idea until you’re first comfortable selling yourself.

Embrace your audience

Shama Hyder, the founder and CEO of The Zen Marketing Group, is forever focused on engaging audiences through the right channels and the right content. Hyder urges startups to use free tools like Google Analytics to identify a core audience, then cater to it. “You’re not going to please everyone, so you need to find your primary audience and learn what they are truly hungry for,” Hyder said. That starts by meeting them in their “natural environment.” If analytics show that a majority of traffic is coming from mobile, for instance, a business better invest in a great mobile experience for its users.

Whatever the method of engagement, authenticity is directly tied to its ROI. The more authentic the interaction, the bigger the payoff — especially with video. In Hyder’s opinion, online video is the “closest thing we have to face-to-face interaction,” so businesses would be foolish to ignore it.

Over-communicate

There is no such thing as too much communication, especially when going through a change or a challenge. When MixMade’s production was nearly crippled by an enormous Christmas rush in 2014, Newman sent more than 700 personal emails to customers to update them on the status of their Bees Knees orders — which were on the verge of missing their guaranteed holiday delivery. Constant communication with his team helped them collaborate on solutions, and constant communication with customers helped manage their expectations and earn respect.

While there used to be power in hoarding information, Hyder noted that social media and customer-driven marketing have flipped the script. People are today’s media, so sharing information with them offers businesses an unprecedented opportunity for growth.

Smile … or don’t

The final takeaway is simple: Choose to enjoy the ride, or don’t. “Leaders can freak out while making their way to the top of the cliff, or they can smile and get to the top of the cliff,” Newman said. “But when you freak out, it really makes the whole experience more unpleasant for you and everyone else sharing the journey.”

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This year’s Inc. Magazine 30 Under 30 issue will be released on April 23. For more on the rapid rise of young entrepreneurs, listen to the full TechnologyAdvice interview above with Donna Fenn, the organizer of Inc. Magazine’s annual 30 Under 30 list. The full interview, which was conducted by TechnologyAdvice’s Clark Buckner, can also be downloaded here.

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