9 things I have learned in the last 9 years of running a start up

It is now 9 years since I took the leap of faith at 24, to set up on my own, with another top biller from a large corporate recruitment firm. Now we have 5 offices globally, in London, Luxembourg, Amsterdam, Singapore and Hong Kong and employ over 25 highly qualified recruiters in our niche sector of Asset Management and Fund Services. One day I will tell you my story, (I can assure you, it is quite a story!) but for now, here’s my top tips.

1. Build a company in a way that will enable people to use their best skills, not their weaknesses.

It might be more difficult to build, but if you can create a structure where everyone who works at the company can play to their core strengths, your people will be more productive, your company will be more successful, and everyone, from your clients to your suppliers, will be happier too. Through relying on each other’s best strengths, you can build a fantastic team of spirited, engaged team players, sharing common goals and driving the business forwards with force that you can’t get as individuals.

2. Keep the customer at the centre of every decision

Sounds simple, but every decision on product, strategy, or team, has to have been thought about from a client perspective first. If it’s a choice between revenue and relationship, there’s no competition. Relationships always come first. And don’t expect your customers to tell you what they need, as Steve Jobs showed, it is your job to figure it out first. Stop copying your competition, unless you only want to be as good as they are.

3. Cheaper is not better

The only time when you should be offering cheaper services, is right at the start of your business venture or service line, when you need to build track record. That is a good investment. After that, a race to the bottom will lead you to ruin. Unless you are in a price-based product business, (like in ecommerce for example) clients almost always prefer to pay for quality, if they know you will deliver. This doesn’t mean that you charge high and deliver badly, it means that you should not erode your ability to invest in the kind of development that will keep your product market-leading, and build your future client-base.

4. Lead from the front

As a business leader you have to be prepared to do all the jobs, not just the good-looking ones. You have to be prepared to fill in all the gaps at different times and train people up to do all jobs in the business. Both when it does, and doesn’t, suit you. When I went to see a coach lately, she nearly fell off her chair. Normally you have one base and one top style personality, but she told me I had ‘phased’ 3 times already in my life, which means I have one base and 3 top styles. I have developed skills across 80% of the communication spectrum. (This doesn’t mean I get it right all of the time!) The last person she had seen phase more than once, was a female CEO at a large corporate, who phased twice. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Believe it.

5. Hire people for their talent, but for their heart too.

Being a small company will mean that you have to build around core staff members to get anything done. All companies naturally want to hire the brightest and best, but I’ve found that while strong profiles are fantastic at doing the work, you cannot get anywhere as a business, unless they are strong team players too. They crucially should want to build the business with you. In order to find them, find ways of communicating your values, hopes and dreams. The right people will find you.

6. Don’t aim for average

Build something that is market-leading, it is the only way to do it. Branson, one of my favourite entrepreneurs, consistently enters markets that are saturated. He consistently succeeds, by doing a better job of it than anyone else. Virgin Care, his new health services arm, (bet you didn’t know he had one!) has just beaten Kent NHS Trust to win a £18m per year deal to run health services in Kent hospitals for the next 7 years. Average wouldn’t cut it.

7. Find a niche and be the best at it

You won’t be able to compete with the big guys from day one. Accept that. You will start out working on the smaller projects, but if you commit yourself to only one sector, and deliver the hell out of it, then over time your size won’t matter because reputation within that niche will carry you forward. Soon enough the big corporates, the specialists at everything, won’t be able to compete with you anymore.

8. Learn to love feedback

In one of my most read blogs ‘Don’t let your ego break your back’ I explain how the power of feedback can help build, protect and save companies. But only if you are prepared to listen. Start seeing learning as empowering, failing as a route to winning, and love feedback for its opportunity to grow. Successful people accept more change than anyone else, so you must learn to love it. If you’re good at that, your team will be too, a prerequisite for them to grow and be equally amazing.

9. Most of us could start a company, what is really different, is keeping one running.

Do not underestimate the power, strength and determination that is required to be a successful entrepreneur. You might think the number of large companies is quite big, because you hear about the big ones all the time. Actually the number of companies that have reached 100+ staff members is just 1% of companies. There is a reason for that. Think carefully if being an entrepreneur is for you. You should not do this for the glory, simply because there will not be enough to sustain you. You will need to make many sacrifices along the way and accept many things that most people would, or could, not want to. If you like the idea, but you are not sure if you can make it work, start off from home and decide whether you really want the responsibility to set up your own company first. Successful entrepreneurs are people who can cope with an interminable number of setbacks, never losing hope. A good test would be if you can prepare and run in a few marathons. In order to be successful at running a company, you need to know you can keep on running. Good luck.

Posted by Rana Hein-Hartmann, EMEA Director

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