George Karidis is the chief strategy officer for SoftLayer Technologies. He is responsible for managing and running the company’s Catalyst Program which supports leading incubators, accelerators and startups. The program provides promising startups with IT infrastructure (servers, storage, and networking) credits, executive mentoring, engineering resources as well as limited financial support.
Regardless of where you live, starting up a business and growing it through its early stages is difficult. As the chief strategy officer for SoftLayer, a global infrastructure as a service company, I’ve had the opportunity to mentor hundreds (if not thousands) of entrepreneurs and startups who were selected to join our Catalyst Startup Program, so I often find myself responding to questions about everything from business mechanics and corporate culture in Canada to conflict resolution and branding in Europe. Every startup faces unique trials and tribulations, but I’ve noticed that there is a universality to the challenge of keeping a new business alive through the first few years.
Recently, we continued the global expansion of Catalyst into Asia by signing up a few leading web-savvy companies like Stepcase, FilmSkout.com and InfiniteCloset.com, and the first conversations I’ve had with these small businesses are exactly the same as the conversations I have with every other small business I’ve ever mentored. Questions like, “How can we make sure our business is successful?” and “What should we know about taking investments in our business?” aren’t exclusive to a single region or type of business, so I thought I’d take a moment to share four of the biggest survival tips that I think every startup needs to know:
1. The pieces will make the whole successful. Look at your co-founders and early employees as the missing pieces of your business’s puzzle. Your founding team shapes who you are as a company, so your collective strengths need to be both diverse and compatible. As an individual founder, you cannot possibly manage all the different facets of running a business. If accounting is not your strength, bring in someone trustworthy to handle finances. If you’re less business-savvy than the rest, focus on the technical aspect of your product and hire someone else to handle business development.
Prior to your larger-scale recruiting efforts, make sure you and your team have an understanding of who you are as a company, and what your culture will be like. These will be top-of-mind questions for any person walking through the door for an interview.
2. Make sure your company name represents your business. This seems like a no-brainer, but does your business name represent what you actually do? In the cases of companies like Kleenex, Xerox and Google, their names have actually become representative of their entire industry. Be creative, use tangential thinking and make sure your business name is one that you’re proud of because it’s going to be on everything from letterhead to advertisements. It will be the cornerstone of branding for your company. Your company name should reflect your core offering and prevent barriers to entry for any potential customers. For example, a cloud computing company called “Couture” might not make sense to prospective customers without explanation. If an explanation isn’t readily available or takes too much time to give, the company name might mean the difference between success and failure.
3. From your first customer onwards, commit to doing good business. Put yourself in the position of a potential customer that you’re negotiating with and anticipate their needs. With the very first deal you ever make and every deal you make afterwards, you’ll need to find a middle ground where both you and your customer can walk away better off than where you started. Think about where you want to take your business, and don’t make unrealistic compromises that could hinder your long-term business goals just to get a customer win. At the same time, you want to make sure your customers are satisfied with their experience with you and your product. It’s a fine line to walk.
4. Walk into every investor meeting with your eyes open and ready for curveballs. The same rules in prepping for a school exam apply here: Study, do your research and anticipate the questions you will be asked. What have other companies similar to yours done to get funding? If you think your idea is a better approach to the industry norm, build your case and be ready to argue that point. You are the expert, so walk in to investor meetings locked and loaded with information. This preparation and confidence communicates that you are ready to make money for your investors.
I’ve found that those four simple tips are fundamental building blocks of startup success, and even with the quick-moving market conditions and time-sensitive nature of startups, they have proven to be universal. The quality of the people around you is critical, whether employees, partners, or investors. Your brand needs to be “sticky,” and unless you have the time and resources to build a brand with a name, logo and other identifiers that represent the company’s offering, you shouldn’t try to reinvent the wheel. Respect your long-term business and your customers. Approach meetings with potential investors as the biggest sales meetings of your life.
Brilliant ideas and luck can jump-start a business’s success, but the time-tested formula of hard work, proper planning, and a future-focused strategy are what really helps a business stand the test of time. If you have a startup and you want to learn more about SoftLayer, the Catalyst program, or just want some advice on what might help you take your business to the next level in your effort to take over the world, we’d love to hear from you.
— George Karidis (@gkdog)