One of the first and most important secrets to success is MAKING CONNECTIONS. No one teaches you this in school, but networking is critical because success can come from just one connection that believes in you, invests in you, or buys your product.
I don’t enjoy traditional networking meetings where you have to approach complete strangers that you may have nothing in common with – networking like this make me nervous, hot, and sweaty! For me, a more natural and comfortable approach is to volunteer at events or leverage existing contacts. For example, when I started to raise venture capital for AboutOne four years ago, Alan Kraus (Ben Franklin Technology Partners) knew that as a first-time entrepreneur, I’d need support and guidance. To help smooth the way, he recommended me for an Alliance of Women Entrepreneurs (AWE) fellowship.
AWE is the mid-Atlantic region’s largest organization dedicated to supporting high growth businesses founded or led by women. Susan Evatt was assigned to be my lead mentor and Jill Magerman was assigned as my life coach. These two women introduced me to the world of fundraising while also giving me the invaluable advice and support I needed to keep moving AboutOne forward.
Through its educational and networking programs, AWE fosters RELATIONSHIPS to cultivate women entrepreneurs. One such program is their Members Mentoring Members (M3) event that connects emerging entrepreneurs with AWE members whose capabilities and experiences have proven results. AWE invited me to take part as the keynote speaker, so I decided to talk about my 8 Secrets to Success and lessons learned on each topic. You just read about my first secret: making connections and relationships.
Secret #2: PASSION – When you have a business idea, you need to have a PASSION for it. The best ideas are ones that solve a problem you’ve personally experienced.
Secret #3: RESEARCH – You must research both your idea and your business model. I like the Steve Blank and Eric Reis Lean Startup approach to business modeling. In my experience, Cash is King, so I recommend holding off on spending money or building anything until you have thoroughly researched your market and validated your business model. I spent a year personally interviewing people and sending out surveys, in many cases focusing on why they would NOT use my products. You must meet your customers, ask them questions, listen to their answers, and work out how to solve their problems.
Use this research to validate the nine building blocks of your business model:
- Customer Segments
- Value Propositions
- Customer Relationships
- Revenue Streams
- Key Resources
- Key Activities
- Key Partnerships
- Cost Structure
Secret #4: HARD WORK – It’s hard work to turn a concept into a real product that you take to market – and by hard work, I mean 24/7 for years and years. Prepare for this by incorporating some daily routines that will help you balance that long and often emotional rollercoaster.
Secret #5: FOCUS – Being an entrepreneur is often overwhelming. I deal with this by reminding myself that you can’t eat an elephant in one bite. Instead, I list everything that needs to be done, then I FOCUS first and only on the critical path items. For example, the tasks that will best generate revenue or remove an obstacle that is blocking others on my team from generating revenue.
Secret #6: MOTIVATION – You need to learn and understand what motivates people. It’s not always about money. For example, we implemented a Comeback Mom returnship program to attract talent at a time when we didn’t have the cash to pay for it. We found people who were motivated more by their desire to get valuable experience than their desire for a big paycheck.
Secret #7: PIVOTING AND PERSISTENCE – As I stated earlier, I am a big fan of the Lean Startup approach. Steve Blank defines “pivoting” as changing the path you’re taking to achieve your vision; your vision remains constant while you experiment to find the best path. As you validate the nine building blocks of your business model, you may find that you need to change direction on some of them to achieve your vision. This is a pivot. To be clear, a pivot is NOT completely changing your idea or the problem you’re trying to solve.
During my research, I spent a lot of time studying billion dollar companies. Not long ago, Cowboy Ventures did an analysis of what they called the Unicorn Club – companies valued at over $1B. These ‘Unicorns’ were working on their original product vision. While there had been changes to business model hypotheses, it was fundamentally the same vision; the “big pivot” is an outlier. This brings me to Persistence, the second half of secret #7.
As an entrepreneur, you will have many failures, but you cannot let them stop you. You must have the strength and courage to push through them. You must be able to find the positives in criticism and critical people. You must be able to sell your vision to investors or corporations, and you have to be able to handle the pressure and inevitable rejections. You must constantly review your business model blocks to confirm that your assumptions are correct. If they are, you will be able to get your next customer, employee, or new investor, and if you can do any of these things, you keep going.
When I first got started, my mentor Amanda Steinberg (founder of Daily Worth) warned me that “bad things will happen.” She also shared her two hour rule: give yourself two hours to be mad, be sad, yell, cry and otherwise wallow…then, move on. I’ve relied on that good advice many times over the years.
Secret #8: YOU – The last secret to success is you. To be successful, you must push yourself through all the worries and self-doubts. A few years ago, I was on a panel with Arianna Huffington. Her advice was to evict the obnoxious roommate in your head because this is the voice that will keep you from achieving your life’s dreams. I couldn’t agree more. The fear of failure nearly stopped me from founding my own company.
Don’t let your biggest failure in life be that you didn’t aim high enough. Once you push through your self-doubts, you’ll be amazed by what you can achieve.