Startup Rules of the Road

I met with two 20-something budding entrepreneurs this week, just by chance. I love working with and mentoring these young people. There is so much energy and hope to better themselves and make the world a better place too. And so much they need to learn. I thought I would encapsulate some of my advice that I gave them, and perhaps motivate you to reach out to someone you know who is looking to start their own business and send this post their way too.

  • First, it is so often said that you have to find your passion. But it is very true. If you are going to suffer the long hours and the many frustrations of starting your own business, you need to have something that is going to power you through the darkest times. If you come up with a business idea that doesn’t get your groove on, drop it and think of something else.
  • Find the narrowest niche you can and fill it completely and hopefully exclusively. It doesn’t really matter what you do. What matters is what everyone else isn’t doing, and how you can complement or fill in the gaps. The narrower the niche, the better. It helps if you can explain your niche in a short sound bite too, because that is what you are going to be doing a lot of. And don’t be afraid to change to a new niche when the market shifts or as you get better at understanding what your customers need, too. You aren’t going to be running MegaCorp (at least, not yet), so being flexible is key.
  • Understand your own limitations and use them to decide on the nature of the businessyou wish to create. For years I have had a one-person freelance writing business, designed purposely not because I am anti-social, but because that is my preferred work style. You need to think through the implications of your ideas and understand what you are getting yourself into with the particular business you have in mind. One friend of mine designed her freelance business around a small staff, because that was what she was comfortable with. Different strokes….
  • Building a website because isn’t the same thing as building a business. While is certainly is the case that many businesses are going to have some kind of online presence, they just begin with the website. A corollary to this is:
  • If you aren’t technical, find someone who can help and treat them well.Make that: treat them extra well. When I built my first website back in the early days, I hired a kid all of 19 years of age. Now I would hire even younger: they have the skills, and they work cheap. But sometimes you want to partner with someone with more maturity, and realize when that is needed.
  • Pick domain names, corporate names, and other names to match and be easy to speak and remember. This is so important. There is a site called that can help you figure out if your chosen name is available on hundreds of social networks, and even search the US Patent and Trademark Database. This is a good place to start.
  • Don’t forget about email newsletter marketing.Email may be going the way of the dinosaurs, but it is still a very powerful tool that can help spread your word and get you customers. One friend of mine built up his business big time with a weekly newsletter: over a year he had more than two thousand subscribers, and a regular business. The service provider that I use for my email newsletter charges me the grand sum of less than $5 a month.
  • Speaking of monthly costs, keep your recurring costs low. It is amazing what kinds of services you can get these days for free or nearly so in just about everything. Look at what you can get on open source sites. You can host your own blog, set up your own domain, sign up for cloud-based accounting, and a lot more for less than $500 a year, in some cases a lot less. It used to cost me $500 just to have a server sit in a rack someplace. My friend Bruce Fryer has a site called CheapBastardStartup that has links to running his 100% virtual corporation. He suggests raising $50,000 and get a product and customers and then go after the big money once you have proven your concept. But I suggest starting with even less dough – say $5000 – and see how far you can run with your idea with that. Don’t figure on paying yourself a salary, at least initially.

I am sure that there are lots more ideas for getting started. Feel free to share them in the comments.


4 thoughts on “Startup Rules of the Road

  1. As a corollary to your “as narrow a niche as possible”, I always like the thoughts from Paul Hawken, of “Growing a Business” fame. He said if you tell someone your business idea, and they say it is crazy, you have a chance. If they think is is a good idea, it is too late. Someone else is already doing it.

  2. David
    Good article. There are many things I want to add as I am both an entrepreneur as well as a mentor to many as part of my association with TiE Silicon Valley.

    However, I will only add few comments to this. If you are planning to do more than one person company, look for a partner that has complimentary skills and preferably earlier.

    As far as starting with less money it is not always feasible and depends on the idea you are pursuing. Yes it is cheaper and easier to do many mobile and internet startups with lot less money but that is not true of every type of company.

  3. You are so awesome! I don’t suppose I’ve read something like that before. So great to discover somebody with some unique thoughts on this topic. Seriously.. thanks for starting this up. This website is one thing that’s needed on the web, someone with some originality!

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