Everyone in the startup world has heard the adage: “Launching a business is not a sprint; it’s a marathon.” But really, the comparison isn’t kind to entrepreneurship. A marathon at least has an ending point, a place you know you can reach and then rest. A business just…keeps going. (If you’re lucky!) But here’s one way in which a marathon really is like a business: Without proper training, you’ll definitely fail. Shin splits from the marathon, employees splitting from your business. Stress fractures from running, stress from ruminating. You might even puke from both.
Passion and adrenaline will only get you so far. Way too many entrepreneurs show up at the startup starting line without so much as a stretch, and those folks may barely make it past the first mile marker. Seasoned entrepreneurs and advisers agree: Before you jump into the race and hope to go the distance, you need to go through basic business training. Here, your guide from a wide range of coaches.
Step 1: Train in your off-hours.
You know the saying “Don’t quit your day job”? OK, seriously, don’t quit. New businesses can seem instantly promising and exciting and full of potential, but they are almost never going to pay you a living wage immediately. “So often people say, ‘We had this bit of momentum, and we all quit our day jobs and jumped into the company,’” says Duncan Logan, CEO of San Francisco coworking space RocketSpace. “And then the momentum died off and they realized they’d made a terrible mistake—that it wasn’t a business yet. It was still a hobby.”
Logan’s advice: The best way to prepare for a launch is to run your new business as a side project and stay in your current job for as long as possible. Sure, this means you’ll be juggling two jobs and potentially stressed out of your mind -- but that’s good training for when your new startup takes over your entire life anyway. (Of course, this also means you may be building your business on your current employer’s dime, so be mindful of that: If you keep your day job but are too distracted to actually focus on it, you’ll quickly lose it.)
Step 2: Know why you’re launching.
Do you know why? It sounds like a stupid question, but take a moment to really ponder it. Why are you about to devote your life to this startup? Why is this a business the world must have? Do you believe that strongly in it -- not just in its potential, but in what it stands for?
If you don’t have a good answer, stop right now. Don’t restart until you’ve figured it out.
“When you have a decision to make and you don’t know what the right answer is from a financial or traction standpoint, you’re supposed to lean on your values,” says Blake Smith, CEO of Cincinnati-based online personal stylist Cladwell. But in the early days of his business, he says, he realized he’d never fully clarified his values. “Instead, I would ask other people what they thought and lean on them, which really caused me to spin my wheels in my business.”
Eventually, he says, he figured it out: His core business values were about authenticity and a desire to represent transparency in the clothing industry. That was his north star; every decision he made could be based on staying true to those ideals. “You have to be able to lead from your own values,” he says. Clarify yours at the start.
Step 3: Write it down.
The written-out business plan: It used to be a standard part of launching a business. But many ’treps today are dismissive of it, says Donald F. Kuratko, executive and academic director of the Johnson Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation at Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business. They tell him that a business plan is old-fashioned and ineffective, a holdover from a simpler economy.
Wrong move, Kuratko says. No matter the business and no matter the industry, every entrepreneur needs to study the market problem they’re addressing -- and that means understanding the market, and developing a concrete strategy for how they’re going to land that first customer. There’s no room to wing it.
“If you can’t articulate those things clearly, you’ve got a problem right off the bat,” Kuratko says, and the exercise of writing a business plan reveals those issues. “You want to make sure those points are addressed before you start, like making sure you have the right shoes for running a marathon.”
Step 4: Take your benchmarks seriously.
You don’t begin training for a marathon by running 26.2 miles. You set your goals more modestly—start with a few miles, work up to 16, and so on. The same principle holds true behind the desk: Begin by laying out your interim goals, to ensure that you grow in a timely manner (you know, before the money runs out). These can be quarterly, six-month or even annual goals; it doesn’t matter, so long as you decide what success looks like and are realistic about whether you’re achieving it.
And that’s the easy part. Now you’ve got to stick to them.
Logan, the coworking-space CEO, is a cautionary tale in what happens if you ignore your benchmarks. When he started his previous company, he set some hurdles for the first year -- and decided that if he missed them, he’d fold the company. Then he missed them…and instead of taking action, he says, he created excuses. He set new benchmarks and gave it another six months. Those weren’t met, either. Ultimately, he dragged the company along for two miserable years before finally shutting it down. He could have saved everyone a lot of time and just quit when he knew things weren’t working.
“You need to have a very honest set of metrics and know that if you don’t meet them, you have to reevaluate before you’re broke,” he says.
Step 5: Enlist key critics.
A running coach will be your greatest cheerleader -- up until the point where it’s clear that you won’t reach the finish line. When you’re stumbling, a good coach will tell you to quit before you hurt yourself. Now it’s time to find your business coaches.
Logan recommends creating a “trust circle” of two or three people who can give you brutally honest, critical feedback on your business. Few people will provide that once you’re up and running -- because they know how hard you’re working -- so he recommends assembling this group before you start. “As much as it might hurt, you need someone who will tell you, ‘Your baby’s ugly. We know you love it, but it’s just not going to happen,’” Logan says. “You need those people in place early on, because it’s so hard to see it as an entrepreneur.”
Step 6: Prep your personal life.
Just like with marathon training, the hours spent away from home during a startup launch can wreak havoc on your work-life balance and spur resentment among loved ones. But Scott Bailey, managing director of the startup accelerator MassChallenge Boston, has some good news for you: It’s OK -- important, even -- to leave work and see your family!
“That feels like it goes against everything almost everyone else expects of entrepreneurs, because people -- especially investors -- want to know you’re full-time focused and dedicated,” he says. But nobody wants to see you friendless and alone. That’s bad for you, and bad for your business. “Sacrifice other things,” says Bailey -- but not your relationships.
How? Set limits at the very start. Talk to your family about what’s most important to them. Maybe it’s your doing chores around the house, or attending kids’ ball games, or not checking your phone at dinner, or staying away from the computer while on vacation (as much as is reasonably possible, at least). When you stick to these agreements, your family will feel appreciated; you may be busy, but at least they know when they have you.
Step 7: Build a home budget.
when training for a marathon, you cut back on pizza and beers. But when you prepare for your startup, well, you might just want some cheap pizza and beer. The rationale is the same: It’s time to monitor your intake—less junk food for the marathon, and less-expensive food for your budget.
Your startup may take a toll on your finances, which can put stress on your relationships. So before the business gets going, you should run the numbers on your personal finances and set up a strict budget.
“It’s OK if you don’t put a dollar into savings for a while, but you can’t be upside down a dollar every month, either,” says Walter Knapp, CEO of Boulder, Colo.-based advertising technology firm Sovrn. He knows it well: He’s helmed four startups and keeps a careful budget to make sure he’s always able to pay his fixed costs at home. Otherwise, he says, you’ll create “too much stress on you and your family, as well as your employees and their families.”
Step 8: Find your people.
like a running group that trains together, a community of other entrepreneurs can help keep you on pace. Incubators, accelerators and other entrepreneur centers may provide an accessible network. Join them. Reach out to entrepreneurs in similar situations to yours, and try to develop relationships with more experienced people who can serve as mentors.
“You can gain a lot from other entrepreneurs, even if they’re in entirely different industries or have totally different ideas. What they’re trying to achieve and the struggles they face are so similar,” Bailey says. “It’s a great way to gain insights and spark new ideas, and everyone in the entrepreneurial community needs support.”