10 lessons every entrepreneur should learn

December 9, 2014, 3:52 PM UTC
Chicago startup OhSoWe
Chuck Templeton, stands in his Lakeview, Illinois, backyard on Tuesday, May 24, 2011. Templeton is part of a new Chicago startup called OhSoWe, in which neighbors can borrow tools and other household items. (Brian Cassella/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images)
Photograph by Brian Cassella — Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

Undoubtedly, as an entrepreneur, you’re going to get a lot of advice from a multitude of sources—friends, partners, mentors, and investors—about what it takes to run a business. Some of it will be useful and some of it won’t. Knowing who and what to listen to can be tricky not to mention overwhelming. I experienced this confusion firsthand while founding OpenTable, and I see how it affects the entrepreneurs I mentor today. So here’s my best advice for navigating the information tug of war that inevitably happens when you start a business.

It’s a marathon, not a sprint

The goal is to increase your chances of success. Being an entrepreneur is hard. It takes sacrifice. There are no overnight successes (well, maybe one or two), but for most successes out there, the real backstory is much more tumultuous. Success is almost never linear. Sometimes there are ups and downs, rights and lefts, forwards and backwards. OpenTable (OPEN) took 11 years to go public. The goal is to take one or two steps forward every day, with the understanding that there will be setbacks. My favorite analogy is comparing entrepreneurship to mountain climbing in Antarctica. Successful climbers don’t dwell on the peak; they focus on the next 20 feet, and then the next, and then the next. Building a business takes time. You need to be able to weather the storms and take advantage of serendipity.

There’s no such thing as an expert

Listen to what mentors have to say, but remember that you are the only one building this business at this particular point in time. No example before you is an exact replica of your business. And just because something worked in the past, or didn’t work in the past, doesn’t mean that it will or won’t now. I don’t believe in experts. The idea that anyone (including me) is an expert is silly. There are people that know more than others about a particular topic, but often times the mentors you will encounter have a worldview that fits a particular time and business in history. But once things change, their view, which used to be insightful, will likely be obsolete. To me, many “experts” are a product of a time. With that said, there’s obviously things you can learn from mentors, but their word is not gospel.

Don’t be a ping pong ball

Be open to feedback. Learn, but don’t be a ping pong ball. I prefer to work with entrepreneurs that have what I consider humble confidence. I like entrepreneurs that are somewhat self-effacing. They take feedback well and realize that while they are smart, they can’t do it alone. (And that some luck plays into everything.) With that said, entrepreneurs must evoke confidence. Again, they take feedback well but don’t bounce around on ideas. They have a point of view and they own. It’s their unique take on the world, and they are building their business around it.

Get out of the building

Always be action-oriented. Building a business isn’t about sitting around a white board and hypothesizing about what customers might want and how to grow your business. It’s about getting “out of the building” and interacting with customers. What do your customers actually want? How should you sell to them? If the problem or pain is big enough, they will buy an imperfect product. So get to a minimum viable product ASAP and find out who will pay and how much they will pay. Get your product into the wild and learn from your customers.

Be maniacally focused

I say this so often that one of Impact Engine’s portfolio companies made me a shirt with this slogan on it. I like startups that are extremely focused on a single revenue model, a single customer segment, and a single solution, to start. Once you’re bigger, you can divert resources to more than one initiative, but in the beginning, it should be all about figuring out your revenue model and growth model. How do you make money: revenue model. How do you scale that money: growth model. I’ve seen several startups fail because they are trying to scale multiple sales models to multiple customer types.

Don’t worry, be scrappy

Get as many “at bats” as possible. Most entrepreneurial efforts fail. And most of your ideas will also fail. The best way to increase your chances of success is to be alive as long as possible. The best way to do that is to be frugal. Benjamin Franklin talked about being frugal and industrious. So be wise with your money, but not in a way that suffocates growth. The longer you can stretch your runway, the more chances you have at bat. And hopefully one of those chances leads to a hit. My friend and entrepreneur Chris Gladwin says it so well, “to be in business you have to be in business.” Once you have the revenue model and growth model figured out and there is arbitrage in the business, then you can invest aggressively. Businesses have a natural rate of growth that capital can help accelerate, but at some point the marginal capital is wasted and inefficient.

Don’t bend the map

Balance lean startup methodologies with being unreasonable. You have to be unbiased about your business. Do you really see it working? In orienteering, they call it “bending the map.” When you come upon a hill during a hike, you mark it with your compass to find it later. But when you try to find it on the map you get disoriented, and you trick yourself into believing that the hill you see on the map is also the hill you see in front of you. But deep down, you know that it’s not. Entrepreneurs can get caught in that trap as well. They know something isn’t right but they fool themselves into believing things are working. While you shouldn’t give up on your dreams, you need to be incredibly honest with the results you are seeing and adjust accordingly.

Look for the innovators

Think about the Adoption Curve (innovators, early adopters, early majority, late majority, and laggards). Look for the innovators in your space as the first (and possibly) most valuable customers. If their pain is big enough, they will take a suboptimal product, because for them, the problem is so painful that they need a solution immediately. They will be open and happy (for the short-term) with an MVP. They will also give you the benefit of the doubt as you continue to build out the product and bring on more (early adopters and early majority) customers. If you can’t find any innovators or early adopters that will use your MVP, then you are probably not solving a real problem.

Luck goes both ways

Luck is always involved in entrepreneurship. No matter how hard you work, there will be some (good and bad) luck in it. Yes, luck favors the prepared and it is not all about luck. But when it comes along, recognize it and take advantage of it. And when you have bad luck, don’t feel sorry for yourself. Embrace it and get back out there. There will be setbacks. The only question is: how will you respond? Will you sulk and think “why me?” or will you bounce back and find a way to persevere? And remember, luck goes both ways. So if something happens in your favor, be thankful and embrace it. And don’t pat your back too hard or you may bruise yourself.

The buck stops with you

This is your company. Mentors and investors are here to help, but ultimately it is your business. If you want or need something, don’t be afraid to ask your supporters for help. But remember, the buck stops with you.

Chuck Templeton is the founder of OpenTable. Templeton is currently the Chairman of Impact Engine, a startup accelerator helping for-profit businesses address societal and environmental problems.

Subscribe to Well Adjusted, our newsletter full of simple strategies to work smarter and live better, from the Fortune Well team. Sign up today.

Read More

Great ResignationClimate ChangeLeadershipInflationUkraine Invasion