Six lessons learnt the hard way from successful startup leaders

In the world of building startups, founders can find themselves out on a playground that can be both scary and exhilarating.

With tough market conditions, new and large competitors, unexpected obstacles, issues with cashflow and the challenge of keeping your team on side, it can help to know how other startups make it work.

StartupSmart spoke to Vinomofo co-founder Andre Eikmeier, ntegrity founder Richenda Vermeulen and Local Agent Finder chief executive Matt McCann to find out.

Here are six big lessons from their experiences.

1. Money has little significance when it comes to motivation

While many sales teams have a commission structure, Eikmeier says Vinomofo wanted its team to be motivated by caring for customers.

“We didn’t want them to be driven to sell wine to get a commission,” he says.

“So we dropped commissions … it has been a phenomenal learning.”

Eikmeier says focusing instead on building a culture where people feel they’re trying “to do something special” has built trust and happiness across the team, while also helping retain the right people for the company.

“We doubled conversion rates in sales,” he says.

But like most things at Vinomofo, he notes, this was learnt this through trial and error and the business did initially try motivating their sales team with financial incentives.

“You have to be open to tweaking and customising solutions,” he says.

2. Learn on the go and keep a sharp eye on where you can improve

Before launching ntegrity, Vermeulen had virtually no entrepreneurial experience.

“I didn’t know how to read a P&L [profit and loss statement], I just knew how to do really good digital marketing,” she says.

After quickly recognising her strengths and weaknesses, Vermeulen says she made an extra effort to fill in the gaps so she could not only grow her venture, but defeat the many challenges she ran into.

“You have to be comfortable with trying new things,” she says.

“And know where I should best use my time and where I shouldn’t.”

3. Listen to your customers and your data

McCann says for a startup to keep improving, it’s critical to have a good handle on what your network of stakeholders want from you, including your suppliers and customers.

“[Ensure] what you’re seeing in the data is giving you confidence to take that next step,” he says.

“It’s really just continuing to test new things and try new and different approaches—that part is where you start to unearth the nuggets of gold.

“You do that by testing in smaller environments and looking very hard at how you scale.

“Watch that scale to make sure it’s as efficient [as possible] and to make sure you’re getting a return on investment.”

4. Confront hidden inhibitions and fears

With a strong sense of self-understanding, Vermeulen says entrepreneurs can grow strong, take bigger risks and have the hard conversations needed to break unimaginable new ground with their ventures.

Read more: How turning shame into pride helped this entrepreneur hit $1 million in turnover

But doing this requires taking a deeper look inside you as a person, and the fears and insecurities that may be holding you back.

“The person who I was five years ago is not the person I am now and that’s a good thing,” she says.

“One of the best things about being an entrepreneur is you’re not stale.”

Through the course of growing ntegrity, Vermeulen says she has hit some frightening walls but developing “healthy habits”, working with a business coach and undertaking counselling has allowed her to thrive outside her comfort zone.

“It’s having an ability to endure beyond what I thought was possible,” she says.

5. Work with a business coach or mentor

Having navigated her way through those key business tasks of learning to hire the right people, building culture, doing taxes and going on parental leave, Vermeulen says she couldn’t have survived without the support of her formal business coach who always made her reflect on her headspace when making critical decisions.

Knowing the factors that are influencing particular thoughts and feelings, she says, can help identify which are invalid and causing unnecessary stress.

“That was important for my mental health,” she says.

“These are actually hugely emotional [challenges], to know whether you’re going to be audited is stressful, [or] hiring the right people when you’re on parental leave.

“Having a mentor that could talk about both the practical but also the emotional was important. He knew me well enough to know when I was taking care of myself and when I wasn’t.

“There are some things I can’t talk to my mentor and coach about that are very personal and that’s when I go see a counsellor.”

6. Share your learnings with others

Vermeulen says being upfront and honest about your journey with others can help you and everyone around you grow together.

“Personal stories are really powerful,” she says.

“The environment we should create is through truth and actual practical examples, versus talking about things theoretically.

“Trust in something that’s intangible and have faith that things are going to get better.”

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