Lessons learned this year as a solo founder (x-post r/startups)

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Solo Founder

Take a look at this post from Reddit which shares the experience of a Solo Founder…

… The link to Reddit is at the end of the article…

I first posted this in r/Startups but felt like it could be of help to some other wantrepreneurs/starting entrepreneurs as well.

Most of the things I have learned in the past 3-4 years have come from others sharing their knowledge, so I’d like to see this as a small way of giving back. It is mainly focused at starting entrepreneurs or want-to-be-starting entrepreneurs, but others might get something out of it as well.

These are some of the lessons I have learned as a solo founder so far. Honestly, it has been a heck of a ride and I can’t wait to see what will happen in 2016. By most definitions, I don’t run an insane business, but the growth in customers is great and the monthly (recurring) revenue is growing month after month.

Starting a startup or business is one thing, but doing it solo is a whole other thing. It’s covering every single aspect that you have to cover for your business. Developing your product, marketing it, collecting leads, sending cold emails, calling potential clients, thinking about finding employees, doing taxes, closing deals, administration, and a whole lot more. You can hire employees at some point, but at the start 100% of the work is yours.

Use your close network

But being a solo founder doesn’t mean you have to do it all by yourself. There are a lot of people around you that are willing to help. Some want to help and want to get paid in return, others don’t need to get paid at all. Family and friends will offer their help. Family will usually do it for free, friends are willing to work for a small payment. Look around at the people you know, and just tell them what you are doing. Don’t expect everybody to be extremely excited, but some will find the idea good enough to offer their help.

Develop your product without your own limiting thoughts

It’s a huge struggle to cover every aspect of your business. It starts out with developing a product people actually want. And there are only limited ways to find out what that product looks like. A product may look great in your eyes, but you’re not your own customer; you’re just you.

Go out and talk to customers. Go to some Meetups and just talk to people. Ask how they’re solving the problem you want to fix right now. Then ask them for anything that they struggle with. In my market a lot of companies hire a freelancer to do what I offer but struggle giving the right instructions and information. Or they hire a new employee and pay twice as much as they would with my product. So I developed my product in a way that solves this pain. And the product is never done; it is constantly in development to create a better version.

Should you find a co-founder?

You are constantly on the watch for potential co-founders, but at the same time nobody seems right. And that’s a huge problem that is caused by the fact that you actually don’t know what you are looking for. You’re looking for a co-founder that is almost a twin of you, because you yourself know what it takes. But it’s important to get out of that box.

Once you realize you actually have to look for someone with almost entirely different qualifications it gets a lot easier. Don’t find someone that already understands every aspect of your product and market. Find someone that helps you think outside of the box – because you are most-likely stuck in your own box.

Working at a coworking space

A co-working space is a great location to find potential clients and get help with growing your business. I hired a desk at a local startup co-working space and signed a deal the first week and had another 2 potential deals lined up. After a few months at this co-working space a student with sales experience came in. This student has had a huge influence on my sales skills, the way I did my proposition and the amount of deals I sign. With every single deal I sign today I still thank him – if I didn’t meet him I wouldn’t have signed 90% of the deals I sign today.

If you don’t grow, your business won’t grow either

Getting out of your comfort zone is one of the hardest parts as a solo founder. If you have multiple founders you can just tell each other to “shut the fuck up and fucking do it already”. But as a solo founder you have to tell yourself that every. single. day. From the moment you get out of bed till you go into bed exhausted at night: you just have to shut the fuck up and fucking do it already. Because if you don’t, your business will never grow.

Set your goals and stick to them

Dreaming about what your business can be one day is a very important aspect. Sure, the future changes every day. And it’s never going to be the way you want it to be. But it’s important to set a goal for yourself. You don’t have to remind yourself every single day; it gets boring at one point. But it is important to just take your time once every 2 weeks or once a month and see if you are still on track with your ultimate goal.

Just take a goal that seems plausible and actually excites you. Money can be a goal, having 20 employees can be a goal, growing internationally can be a goal, X amount of customers can be a goal. Just take a goal and stick to it. It’s never going to be as fast as you want it to be. Sure, it would be great to be a millionaire in a year. But the truth is: you won’t be a millionaire in a year. You won’t have 20 employees in a year, or 10000 customers. But that doesn’t mean you can’t work your ass off to get as close to that goal as possible.

Celebrate your wins

Celebrating your wins is important as well. Yeah it’s easy to feel bad the whole time because you didn’t hit your target this month. But if you hit 80% of the target you mostly succeeded. Occasionally take the time to celebrate a good month. Spend some money on yourself, buy some new clothes, grab drinks with friends, do something you’ve wanted to do in a long time. Because next month you will hit that target, and you can fully reward yourself.

If you develop yourself, you develop your business

As a single founder your business will be as good as you are. If you snooze that alarm 20 times than you are wasting your own business hours. Self-development is the only way to develop your business. Read, and never stop reading. Don’t just read the gems that everybody keeps talking about. Once in awhile just pick up a book that isn’t necessarily 100% related to where you are now. You will always get something out of it; maybe not today but something might click in a year from now. A lot of knowledge is just stored in our brain, but when we get into a situation that’s relevant to that knowledge your brain will connect it and you will greatly learn from it.

Create a lifestyle that suits you

You’ll read everywhere that you need to get a healthy lifestyle. I don’t think you have to stick to this 100%. Just find a lifestyle that you like and can stick to for a long time – and actually helps you be productive. Yes, alcohol don’t fit in a healthy lifestyle, but if I don’t get to relax with a drink with friends every now and then I know I will just get bored with life.

Breaks are not a waste of time – they are necessary

Breaks are the sole reason you will never get stressed too much. I remember these weeks during the first few months of my company where I would work 80-100 hours, worked every single day of the week. Then one Sunday I wanted to take a break, and I didn’t even know what to do.

It felt like I dropped off the world and just forgot how to have fun. I called up my dad and we ended up going to the lake: and all I could talk or think about was business. I couldn’t let go off it at all. This seems like a great thing, but I felt like an addict that needed his drug (work) every single moment of the day. I felt more stressed than I ever felt, looked like I didn’t sleep for days and had zero interest in anything else but work.

Develop non-business related skills

You can never skip a day developing yourself. You don’t always have to develop skills that are related to your business – I actually recommend not to. Find stuff you can do on the side. For me, it’s lifting with a friend 3 times a week and taking my Sundays to study biology and history. Find stuff that motivates you during the days you don’t work.

Get rid of distractions

Develop a non distractive environment for yourself too. Earlier I was talking about the co-working space. This seems like a great place, but it can be distractive at times too. People will walk up to you with questions. The guy across from you will talk to you once in awhile. Don’t expect to be productive 100% of the time. But know that coworking spaces have a lot more advantages than disadvantages.

Find a workday routine that works for you

You should also find the perfect way to work productively. For me it was plugging my earphones in and just listen to Spotify for hours on end. Compile a playlist with your favorite music or just select a playlist on Spotify. For a long time I listened to my own playlist that consisted of 8 albums I really liked listening to.

Eventually I started listening to the Lounge playlist on Spotify, it has a nice beat that just let’s me work productively. I am listening to it while I am typing this as well, it helps to keep my focus and to type at a relatively quick speed. Just find some good music and focus on stuff you have to do.

You have to cover everything – 100% of the work

Being a solo founder means you have to cover every little aspect of your business. And it’s a shit ton of work. Here’s a list of things that I did this morning: Find new ways to find new leads, look for these leads, compile a list of leads, find e-mail addresses of their CEOs, craft a good cold e-mail, schedule e-mails, wait for replies, counter sales objections by e-mail, call if it seems like the right time, counter sales objections on the phone, follow up with the right info, follow up if no response, sign pilots or deals, do after sales customer care, work for clients, find the right freelancer for the job, e-mail the freelancer with info, instruct the freelancer, call the freelancer, send more instructions, conference call with the freelancer and client, wait for freelancer to deliver, check if the product is good to send to the client, get feedback from the client, instruct the freelancer, wait for the freelancer, check the product again, send to the client, make sure the client is happy with the result, call the client, send the invoice, upsell to the client.

And that’s just prospecting, lead generation, sales and delivery. And you are constantly looking for ways to make this easier, quicker and less stressful – which you definitely should!

During the day you are constantly wondering if you need to find a co-founder, but that will take a lot of time. So maybe it’s better to hire an intern? But that takes a lot of time too. So I should just get someone to work in-house, but it’s expensive and takes time. There’s a million questions going through your head constantly.

Find others to help you – they’re happy to

But do know that out of the 100 things you do during the day there have been others that have done the same. And people are very willing to give advice to you. The startup community is a fantastic community to work in. Other founders are always happy to help, and to do a quick phone call if you need advice. Sometimes they even invite you for coffee at their office to meet them.

I’m a relatively young founder, and a lot of older founders just want to help you. Because when they were your age they also had mentors. And whatever they say or however they help you: always follow up on them. Tell them how it’s going, send them a thank you note, send them a card for Christmas. They’ve taken their time to help you succeed. Sure, not every founder will give you the insights you want at that time, but in the end every successful founder will say something that might click years later.

Just hit them up on Linkedin, send a request and ask if they are willing to help a new founder with some advice. 20% of them will happily take their time. That’s 10-15 minutes of highly valuable time for them, when they’re not working their asses off growing their business. And they are willing to spend it with YOU. Be grateful for that.

Your business has to make money

Get to profitability as soon as you can too. Sure it’s easy to just dump a ton of money (note: your own money!) into your business. But your money is likely limited. Find ways to earn money with your product. If it means you have to change your product then so be it. You’re not working your ass off to find the perfect solution for people, you’re working your ass off to be able to survive right now, and to help future employees survive.

Make money, because it keeps your company alive. Yeah Facebook and Twitter never made a shit ton of money at the beginning. But you’re likely not building the next Facebook or Twitter. Making money is important, so try to make money from the first deal you sign. It doesn’t have to be a huge profit right away, you just need to find out if you can actually make money with your product and if the demand is big enough to build a solid business out of it.

Should I get an investment?

Finding investment will be a struggle too. I haven’t gotten an investment, but I am constantly thinking whether I should or not. Yes, the business is profitable. But it could be so much more profitable. You would have to give up a part of the business, and you’re not the sole owner anymore. There are other people that will influence the way your company runs. And they can just shut down if you’re not profitable enough. Try to get solid ground yourself first, and then look for an investment.

And don’t just take any investment you can. Think about who is investing in you. Sure it’s great to have 100K from an investor to grow; but if that investor is not even closely related to your market all you have is a bag of money.

Find investors that are well known in your market. Not only will they be more likely to invest (they know the market, so they know what’s likely to succeed), but they will critique your idea if it sucks – and you can use this to create a better product. Plus if they finally do invest in you they will have the knowledge, network and money to help you to keep growing.

Tools will help be more productive

Find the right tools to make your work easier, but make sure to do everything manually first. It’s easy to look for the quickest solution, but you will only know what you really need if you do it manually first. Right now I use 8-10 different tools for lead generation and cold emailing, and another 7 for things related to my product. Some of the tools I use:

  • Yesware for e-mail templates and tracking (Switching to Toutapp soon though due to Yesware yearly billing)
  • Streak (CRM for Gmail)
  • Find that Lead (Find email addresses with just their first and last name and domain)
  • Google’s Business Apps
  • Kimono Labs (Scrape specific info from web pages)

Make sure to look for alternatives for your tools every now and then. There are a ton of new alternatives coming out every month. Just check out Product Hunt every once in awhile and see if they have new tools for email tracking, new CRMs and more. Tools will significantly increase your productivity and will also help keep track of your work. Yesware helps me keep track of the open rate/response rate of different e-mail subjects. It’s a great tool to split-test your cold emailing.

Don’t stick to your current way of working

Always work on new ways to do your acquisition, marketing and other things. The first 4 months I highly focused on content marketing (without content promotion). This was before I heard about the 20-80 rule of content marketing: spend 20% of your time on the post and 80% on promoting it. I spent over 600 hours writing 100+ blog posts, yet I didn’t see much traffic from it.

Because I focused on SEO in those articles I saw my traffic increase, but I could’ve gotten a lot more if I followed the 20-80 rule. Instead of content marketing I just focus on cold emailing now, as content marketing is something that will pay out later. Sure, it’s really cheap, but so is cold emailing. Re Strategize every now and then and find what works best.

Always keep learning – find interesting sources to read

Find some good blogs to read. You don’t have to follow every single article they publish, but when you search Google for specific information you will see a lot of the same sites pop up in that niche. When I started out in sales I found Steli Efti’s blog a bunch of times. Some of his posts focus mainly on cold emails.

I’m a huge fan of Steli Efti and his way of teaching. If you want some more motivation for sales make sure to check out Close.io’s blog and his daily motivational video’s (60 seconds a day). Don’t forget to check out his YouTube video of his talk at the Pioneers Festival. You will definitely get something out of it.

Steli has helped growing my business significantly. I email him once a month thanking him for being so open about his knowledge and thank him for the impact he has had on the monthly revenue. I can honestly say I wouldn’t be where I am today without people like Steli who share their knowledge for free.

Some of the other blogs/sites/places that have helped me:

You’re going to need to do sales – even if you suck at it

If you’re like me then sales can be a huge hassle (I didn’t have a lot of experience before). Get out of your comfort zone and just start calling people. At first it simply sucks. You might not even know what to say. This is where cold e-mailing helps. You send a bunch of emails asking a question specific to the problem you are solving. Make it a short e-mail, nobody’s going to read your 500 word cold email. Make it 2 sentences. Just write everything down and work it down to 2 sentences. It’s possible, just don’t pitch your product.

Let’s say you’re trying to sell Slack: send an email to the CEO asking what they are currently using for their communication. Just send 100s of emails (about 50-100 a day) and just watch the answers flow in. When they email you what they’re using, just pick up the phone and call them. Ask them some follow-up questions about their experience and just listen to what they’re saying. Everything they say is an argument for you to create the solution in their case.

Example: “We’re currently using a bunch of tools: e-mail, WhatsApp, some employees even use Facebook Messenger to talk to each other”. Follow-up with a question about how they keep an overview of it all. Changes are they aren’t, as they use too many tools. Then start your proposition: “We created a tool that has the perfect overview for your team. Employees can send private messages, but you can also create channels for certain projects.”

An email signature will increase your conversion rate when cold emailing

I have an e-mail signature with a small picture of my face, my phone number, and a link to my website. I created the signature with WiseStamp and it’s automatically added to any e-mail I send. When I send a cold email the biggest USP of my product is always clear in sight. Use something like “Slack – we make internal communication easier”. Most people will click on it and go to your landing page. If you use a short e-mail like I do (2 sentences) everybody will see that signature. Because there’s a picture added it looks a lot more trustworthy (although some people will block images from their e-mail client).

Don’t sell your product, sell the solution

Cold e-mailing/calling isn’t about selling at first. You don’t know how to sell your product until you know what the pain points are in your potential customers business/life. You can only create a clear proposition if you know what they’re doing right now. Plus they’re much more open to a product when you describe it as a perfect solution.

It’ll be more satisfying than anything else

Being a solo founder is a lot of work, but it’s a lot of fun too. Sure, the stress can wear you out. It can be a drag going into work every day, to send those e-mails, to make those calls. But if you’re not doing it then nothing will happen. If you want to create a successful business you have to get out of your seat and just work hard.

It’ll be a struggle to create a new product, platform or service, and then growing it into a big business. But if it was easy somebody else would’ve done it already. You’re not in this game to have an easy life; you’re in it to work hard, to work your ass off every single day for minimal payment at first, so you can create a great company that you can be proud of for 5, 10 or 20 years, or even the rest of your life.

Thanks r/Startups!

Would love to hear about the experiences of other solo founders and others. R/Startups has been a great resource of information for me in the last few months, so let me know if you got anything out of this.

Read more: www.reddit.com

You might want to also take a look at this article on making money online through starting an internet business