Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social
By Clara Shih
April 25, 2015

The Leadership Insider network is an online community where the most thoughtful and influential people in business contribute answers to timely questions about careers and leadership. Today’s answer to the question “What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?” is by Clara Shih, founder and CEO of Hearsay Social.

In Silicon Valley (where I live) it can feel like anyone with an idea these days is starting a company. But building a business requires far more than an idea. It requires blood, sweat, and tears to the point of obsession. There is in fact nothing easy about being an entrepreneur. Leaving Salesforce.com five years ago to found Hearsay Social was one of the hardest but best decisions I’ve ever made. It took every ounce of courage and conviction to make the leap from a comfortable job at a big company to a completely blank slate. And I have never looked back.

For those of you ready to take the plunge, I assure you there are few things in life as rewarding. Here are a few of the most important lessons I have picked up along the way:

Be ready for sacrifice
When startups succeed, they do so against all odds. In the beginning, you have nothing except for your own talents and resources. By definition, everyone else is bigger, further along, and more established than you. To win, you have to swim upstream early on–and that requires hard work and long hours. There are no shortcuts.

Our first year in particular was marked by long days and nights that often blurred together. We pulled all-nighters in my living room, and then when we got our first office, we would go home at three in the morning or often just spend the night. There were no sick days or vacations. I regret missing my friends’ birthdays during this time. I stopped socializing altogether except with coworkers. I also had to get comfortable and adapt quickly to not having a salary for an indefinite amount of time. The specific areas of sacrifice are different for each entrepreneur, but there is always sacrifice of one form or another. Success requires focus, and focus is about tradeoffs.

Choose your partners wisely
The ability to evaluate, attract, and build strong working relationships with cofounder(s), early employees, and investors often means the difference between success and failure. I was incredibly fortunate to co-found Hearsay Social with longtime friend and Stanford classmate, Steve Garrity. As first-time entrepreneurs, it helped tremendously to bounce ideas and talk through big decisions and differing perspectives with one another. Our decade-long friendship provided a foundation of trust for us to debate as well as reassure one another through the inevitable emotional roller coaster that is part of every startup journey.

Your key early hires will help determine the fate of your business, too. Hearsay’s first employee, has played multiple roles within the company and recently moved to London to start and head Hearsay Social Europe. Another early employee, started as a customer success manager, later ran our customer success department, and a few months ago moved to Hong Kong to launch our Asia office. The founding team and early employees establish the company culture. At Hearsay, we decided early on that we would value three things above all else: 1) long-term customer success, 2) teamwork and 3) getting stuff done. Since our founding, we have hired and promoted based on these values, which makes them self-reinforcing. The need for strong partners and employees persists throughout the life of a company, but it is especially important in the beginning.

Obsess over your customer
Many companies talk about customer success, but how many actually put the customer first above all else, always? One of Hearsay’s proudest moments happened earlier this year, when a customer of ours—the CEO of a Fortune 100 company–spoke at our January kickoff event and said he views Hearsay as a partner, not a vendor. At this company, the CEO and general managers–rather than the procurement department–own the relationship with Hearsay. It is a true partnership and crucial to our success. This level of trust was not easy to achieve, and is something we must re-earn every day.

In practice, enabling customer success has also evolved significantly since our founding days. Early on, customer success at Hearsay meant customers having my personal cell phone number. It meant pulling all-nighters to fix a bug in the code and other hero moves. Today, we have a global customer support team with a 1-800 number (thankfully!) and quality assurance and site reliability teams. From Nordstrom and Zappos to Apple and Zendesk, a focus on doing right by the customer and delighting her or him is what every successful company has in common. Obsess over your customer or would-be customer from the very beginning, and the rest will work itself out.

Read all answers to the Leadership Insider question: What advice would you give someone looking to start their own business?

4 secrets behind a successful startup by Veenu Aishwarya, CEO of AUM LifeTech.

How this startup failed (twice) and still found success by Kevin Chou, co-founder and CEO of Kabam.

Are you resilient enough to start your own business? by Ryan Harwood, CEO of PureWow.

The most important lesson I learned as a tech CEO by Kyle Wong, CEO of Pixlee.

How to avoid a startup failure by Jim Yu, CEO and co-founder of BrightEdge.

3 things to consider before starting your own business by Sunil Rajaraman, co-founder of Scripted.com.

4 ways to persuade people to join your startup by Nir Polak, CEO and co-founder of Exabeam.

GoDaddy CEO’s 5 tips for aspiring entrepreneurs by Blake Irving, CEO of GoDaddy.

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