Lynn LeBlanc, CEO and founder of HotLink
By Lynn LeBlanc
June 29, 2015

MPW Insider is an online community where the biggest names in business and beyond answer timely career and leadership questions. Today’s answer for: What advice would you give your 22-year-old self today? is written by Lynn LeBlanc, CEO and founder of HotLink.

My first taste of entrepreneurship came early. At 8 years old, I was walking the floor in my grandfather’s metal foundries in the Southeast, a little kid in a pink hardhat who wanted to participate in the business. I sat in on board meetings, and I even got to run one in my grandfather’s absence — I cannot even imagine what those middle-aged board members must have thought of this. And though my grandfather’s seven-days-a-week, do-whatever-it-takes approach to grow the company shaped my views on entrepreneurship, there is still plenty of advice I wish I could’ve given my 22-year-old self.

Here’s what I learned:

Experience matters
There’s no amount of training or intelligence that can replace the value of real-world business operations. When I moved to Silicon Valley in 1991, I had had the lifelong learnings of an entrepreneurial family, but I also had 10 years of technology, sales, and marketing experience at IBM (IBM) — which was invaluable. I would tell any 22-year-old aspiring founder to work for another company before he or she starts his or her own. I’ve met a lot of young engineers who want to jump into entrepreneurism too early in their careers. They are excellent technologists, but they haven’t yet built the business knowledge to understand what it takes to lead a startup day to day. Seek out experiences in multiple-function areas, take note of what works in those departments and what doesn’t, and then weave those lessons into your own business. It’s much easier to apply creativity and innovation if you have a solid business foundation.

Customers decide what’s truly innovative
The target customer’s frustration with the status quo is the entrepreneur’s biggest opportunity. Learn to spot those frustrations in the market, and then build differentiated solutions that address those pain points. The trick to doing this is to be best and first — but not too far ahead of the market. Customers need to be hungry to adopt a new approach. If they aren’t, the first one to market could flame out, leaving an opening for later me-too offerings to succeed. If you get the technology and the timing right, the next step is to make sure everyone in your organization knows they’re in sales, too. It takes the persistence and relentlessness of the entire team to succeed.

Bring the right people with you
No one builds a company alone, and few do so successfully when surrounded by strangers. By the time you start your own company, you’ve likely worked with some amazing colleagues in other businesses. Bring them with you — particularly entrepreneurial engineers. Cultivate mutual trust with your team, and model a strong work ethic people will want to mirror. Make sure the team you build is composed of committed A-level players who want to work alongside you to build something great. Then reward them proactively — through financial compensation, as well as increased responsibility and opportunity. Everyone values a leader who is truly committed to accomplishing goals and maintaining success.

Spend conservatively
Entrepreneurs must understand that spending wisely is critical to success. Conservative spending will help you stave off opportunistic vendors who want to sell you things you don’t need. Stay alert to what really matters and what doesn’t. If you can stay off the VC hamster wheel of continuous fundraising and overspending, you’ll find that there will be many more lucrative exit strategy options open to you later. To do that, you’ll need to call on real-world experience to determine which expenditures will deliver real value and which ones you should resist. Consistent conservative spending will enable you to turn great ideas into valuable and lucrative businesses.

Read all answers to the MPW Insider question: What advice would you give your 22-year-old self today?

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