The entrepreneurial journey can be rewarding and vindicating, but it can also be scary, isolating and full of pitfalls.
Speaking at the Commonwealth Bank’s Pop Up Innovation Hub in Melbourne this week, four entrepreneurs and business advisers shared their stories of startup wins, fails, and pain points, and how through it all they managed to cultivate resilience and determination.
From corporate life to startups, health-foods to irritating investors, here’s what they’ve learned.
Marshall Hughes, founder and chief executive of Passel
Passel is less than a year old, but the Melbourne-based crowdsourced delivery platform has already scored a spot at a global Silicon Valley tech conference and secured $60,000 in angel investment from Gavan Stewart and Niels Van Hove.
Despite these early achievements, founder and chief executive Marshall Hughes told attendees at the Innovation Hub he routinely suffers setbacks and frustration on his entrepreneurial journey.
“The bullet we have to take is, ‘Oh, so you’re the Uber for couriers’,” Hughes said. It’s something the entrepreneur often hears from investors or potential customers — that is when he’s not getting compared to Melbourne-founded delivery management startup GetSwift, another pet peeve of his.
Hughes says it makes him “angry” to be associated with Uber’s problematic culture or incorrectly compared to startups with different offerings to his. There are also times, as a founder, you “have to take a hit”, he says, including when faced with “annoying” investors.
He says that there’s “no option when you’re on your own” and sometimes founders need to persevere despite frustrating investors, or derivative comparisons, and focus on building the best product they can.
“When you’re a founder you don’t have the opportunity to have an off day, there’s no safety net, no one else is going to do your job for you,” he says.
Kat Dunn, Ideapod chief operating officer and creator of the F-OFF forum
Kat Dunn started her career in working in the corporate sector as a lawyer and “thought my smarts would get me through everything”.
Soon after starting work in the startup ecosystem as chief operating officer of Ideapod and the creator of the F-OFF forum, however, Dunn learned that “no one is special” and it wasn’t smarts that led to success, but rather resilience and perseverance.
“One skill that’s critical in entrepreneurs is the ability to take bullets — you’re rushing in head first, guns blazing every day,” she says.
Dunn advises that having a growth mindset is “really important” for founders, who will inevitably be met with resistance on their startup journeys.
“As an entrepreneur you want to shift paradigms,and people don’t want to hear that,” she said.
“To me now, success is how many failures I can take without falling over.”
Richard Celm, Startupbootcamp program director
Richard Celm runs global startup accelerator Startupbootcamp. He told attendees at the Innovation Hub the key to establishing a successful startup is to have “perseverance, grit and determination.”
“The smartest people aren’t the best entrepreneurs,” he said, adding that “people are changing the metrics” around what success in entrepreneurship looks like on a continuing basis.
The key to getting a startup off the ground, Celm said, is validating the idea in the real world.
“One of the riskiest assumptions a startup can make is assuming that retailers will purchase your product,” Celm said.
Building a minimum value proposition, then finding customers willing to pay for the product and “constantly reiterating and improving” an offering before launching are all key things startups should be doing in their early stages, he said.
“The hardest bit is identifying what the pain point you’re solving is, then testing it cheaply,” Celm said of his experience working with Startupbootcamp teams.
While startups may be hesitant to put their idea out to the world and approach customers before having a product with the right intellectual property protections, Celm said talking to as many people as possible about your idea is crucial for validation.
“If I’m scared you can steal my idea then I don’t have a business,” he said.
Kate Weiss, founder and chief executive of Table of Plenty
Kate Weiss started Table of Plenty 11 years ago, but still encounters moments of stress and uncertainty in her business. Her company’s range of cereals, healthy snacks and spice blends are stocked in Woolworths and Coles, yet the entrepreneur knows to never take her foot off the pedal.
“That’s the nature of business -—there’s a constant challenge and problems to be solved,” Weiss said.
“Working with Coles and Woolies is like a reality TV show: you’re up for elimination every six months.”
Weiss recalled first getting her products stocked in the big supermarkets, and being originally given sales targets that her products were expected to meet.
Rather than realising that these targets had been purposefully set higher than expected and were “wishful thinking”, Weiss increased production, placed huge orders to meet this targeted demand, and then “ended up with a warehouse full of empty tins”.
“It almost ended us,” she said.
Weiss said that it was “grit and determination” that got her through those hard times, and this perseverance led to Weiss being named Telstra Business Owner of the Year in 2014.