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Start-up Advice

6 Costly Mistakes People Make When Starting a Business

Here are six pitfalls to look out for, along with expert advice on how to avoid them.

Lorie A. Parch

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Like every start-up entrepreneur, Rodney Nelson needed a great website. Woolly Pocket, the company he was building with his brother, Miguel, aimed to sell its cleverly designed, eco-friendly wall planters online. But there were problems.

“Our first site didn’t follow the standard design protocol of a good website,” remembers business management consultant, Nelson. “It was difficult to navigate; customers had to scroll all the way to the bottom of the homepage and then to the next page to find ‘buy it now.'”

The brothers moved on to another developer, but their second e-commerce site didn’t work well either, and they found it hard to get the tech team to respond quickly. “The initial rate was affordable, but we had to redo it maybe six months later,” Nelson says.

“The second time it cost double; we were happier with it, but we weren’t ecstatic. Then we went to another company about a year later. We did three websites in one year. In the end, we’d done four websites in one and a half years before we got one that worked.”

It might not be your website that ends up costing you dearly, but something will – it’s the Murphy’s Law of start-ups. There are a seemingly endless number of ways to spend money, and it’s impossible to be wise about all of them. But a few common costly mistakes can sink a bootstrapped business.

Related: 9 Answers You Need About Yourself Before Starting Your Own Business

Here are six pitfalls to look out for, along with expert advice on how to avoid them.

Expensive mistake 1: The wrong team

Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship and author of Disciplined Entrepreneurship, says choosing the wrong team is the single costliest error entrepreneurs make, resulting in not only lost income and time but depleted morale.

“Choosing who to hire and work with in a start-up is like playing sports at school; you can pick your friends and play for them, but if you want to be good and continue to be on the field, you have to carefully pick your team,” he explains.

It’s crucial to choose people with varying skill sets. However, Aulet says, “much like a great sports team, they must also share some common values and the ability to trust each other in tough situations. That’s why past experience working with your co-founders and early employees in stressful times is much more important than being friends.”

Expensive mistake 2: Bad pricing

sarah-shaw-entreprenette

“My single biggest mistake with my first business – a handbag company – was in pricing,” says Sarah Shaw, CEO of consulting firm, Entreprenette.

Hers is a common misstep for product manufacturers.

“I didn’t understand that with any kind of clothing or accessories, you have to calculate the square footage of fabric, including the wasted fabric,” Shaw explains. Without an accurate understanding of her costs, she couldn’t price her products correctly.

“I thought you sort of doubled everything, but that’s not correct,” she says. “It’s a 2.5-times mark-up from cost to wholesale, which covers marketing, the showroom fee, all your expenses.”

By the end of her first two years in business, Shaw had put in more than $100,000 of her own money. Thanks to perseverance and media buzz (celebrities loved her bags), she ended up with $1 million in annual revenue and attracted investors, but she couldn’t recover from the downturn after 9/11 and closed the business in 2002.

Related: 5 Books To Read Before Starting Your Business

Expensive mistake 3: Waiting for perfect when good will do

When you’ve got a killer idea, it’s natural to want to introduce it to the world in a fully formed state. But it doesn’t take a chartered accountant to figure out that the longer you take to launch, the longer you go without money coming in.

“This is a common mistake, especially for tech people,” says Drew Williams, co-author of Feed the Startup Beast. “Many want to build an app and won’t let it go until it’s perfect, but then you take too long and spend too much.” Specifically, this error will likely leave you with no “runway” – the cash you’ll need to sustain you as you’re trying to get your product off the ground once it’s ready, but before you have customers.

“You need to come up with the simplest, basic version of your product that gets the idea across and try to find someone you can sell it to,” Williams says.

“Find one or two clients who are willing to do a pilot where you build, test and iterate it. Inevitably, your product will be different than what you expect, and then you build it. If you get a real, live client, you create a better product in a very cost-effective way.”

Expensive mistake 4: Not understanding technology

mary-juetten

Mary Juetten was no Luddite when she launched Traklight, a software company that helps individuals and businesses identify and protect intellectual property, but she didn’t know everything. “I understood how to lay out what our software would do… but I didn’t know anything about coding software or web development,” says chartered accountant, Juetten.

She relied on a co-founder with that expertise, but when that relationship ended, she floundered.

“This is where I made my biggest mistake: I looked for the best deal, and I didn’t educate myself about different programming languages or bring someone else into the mix.”

The team she hired to create Traklight’s software told her that it “couldn’t” be built in one programming language and “had” to be built in another. “If someone designing my website came up to me and said, ‘You should use this colour instead of that colour,’ I’d be asking 17 questions about why,” Juetten says. “But I never asked why about this, because it was technology.”

Related: 10 SA Entrepreneurs On What They Wish They’d Known Before Starting Their Businesses

The four-month window for software development turned into eight months, then nine more. “With technology, it’s all about time to market,” she says. “So entrepreneurs who are not technical should educate themselves.”

Eventually Juetten took a “tech speak for entrepreneurs” class. She suggests other start-up founders who need more expertise find similar instruction at Codecademy or General Assembly.

Expensive mistake 5: Skimping on lawyers

Tobin Booth, CEO of Blue Oak Energy, an engineering and construction firm for solar photovoltaic power systems regrets  skimping on legal fees in his company’s infancy.

“If I could do some of the early stuff over, it would have been to pay a few thousand to have a lawyer write up a proper contract,” he says. “I didn’t have the right attorney who really understood my business.”

A few early customers simply didn’t pay up, so Booth tried to move matters to a collections agency. “I found out that there were some clauses [in the contract] that didn’t allow me to collect on legal fees,” says Booth.

Shaw, meanwhile, unknowingly signed a contract that gave her handbag company the trademark to her name, so when investors came in, her name belonged to them. “I can’t use my own name in business again,” she says. “I wish I had hired an lawyer to watch out for me.”

Expensive mistake 6: Being cheap about marketing

“People think, everyone else has to market their product or service, but I don’t because this is so good,” says author Williams. The related myth is that you can rely on social media to build virality and attract customers for free.

“Social media is not free,” he says. “To do it properly takes unbelievable amounts of time, and it’ll typically take six months to a year before you’ve got even slight momentum – it’s not fast.”

If you’re not sure how much money to budget for marketing, Williams suggests aiming for 10% to 20% of your targeted gross revenue. “As you become a more established business, that drops to 5% to 10% of gross revenue, and for the largest businesses it’s typically 5% or a bit less,” he says.

After launching Traklight, Juetten found that her website wasn’t indexed properly for search engines. “No one was finding us,” she recalls. So she decided to invest in an inbound marketing program. “That initial payment is scary for a small company, but we don’t have to pay developers to make changes to our site, and they do e-mail marketing and CRM,” she explains. So far it’s working: In April 2013 the Traklight site recorded just 100 visits per month; by the end of the year it was getting 2,800.

How much does Juetten estimate she lost early on between the missteps in software development and inbound marketing? “As far as money thrown away – actual cheques written for useless things – that would be in the tens of thousands,” she admits. “As far as lost time [and] products not developed on time, it’s in the hundreds of thousands. We would be much further ahead now.”

In the end, the best way to avoid costly mistakes is obvious: Save and spend wisely. “Keep spending really, really tight,” Williams advises. “Leverage everything you can and give yourself as long a runway as possible. You’re going to need it.”

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Start-up Advice

Put On Your Wellies: It’s Time To Wade Into Risk

Entrepreneurs aren’t all leaping into the unknown like lemmings off a cliff, but they do need to consider it…

Chris Ogden

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You’ve had a great idea. You’ve looked into its development. You’ve recognised that it has potential beyond just what Auntie Mabel and Mike From The Grocer think. And you’ve clearly nailed a pain point that can make money. Now it is time to take the risk of running with it.

Every big idea comes with risk. You can’t step out into the world of entrepreneurial thinking and business development without it. Your idea may fail. It will also be time consuming, demanding, hungry for money, and hard work. It is unrealistic to expect that your project will leap out into the world and be an unmitigated success.

It is also unrealistic to assume that it isn’t worth taking this risk.

There are steps that you can follow to ensure that your risk is managed so you aren’t blindly leaping off that cliff…

Step 01: Do your research

No, canvassing your neighbours, friends and family is not doing research. You need to know that your idea will appeal to a broad market and that it will have significant legs. This may sound like daft advice, but you would be surprised how many people think an idea will take off just because Susan in Accounting said so.

Step 02: Understand the costs

Projects are hungry for money and investment. Realistically work out your budgets and how much it will cost to take your project off the ground and then stick to it.

A calculated risk is a far better bet than one that shoots from the hip and hopes for the best. You can also use this as an opportunity to draw a clear line under where you will stop investing and end the project. If it keeps eating money and isn’t getting anywhere with results you need to be able to walk away.

Step 03: Know when to walk away

As mentioned before, this can be defined by a line you’ve drawn in the proverbial sand (and budget) but no matter where you draw this line, you have to stick to it. Often, when time, money and energy have been poured into a project it can be incredibly hard to walk away.

You think ‘but I have put so much into this, just one more’ and then it gets to a point where the ‘just one more’ has taken you so far down the line that walking away feels impossible. Leave. Learn the lessons. Apply them to your next project.

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Start-up Advice

Mind The Gap

The entrepreneur’s guide to finding the gaps and building the right solutions.

Chris Ogden

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Innovation may very well be the key to business success but finding the gap into which your innovative thinking can fit is often a lot harder than people realise. Some may be struck by inspiration in the shower, others by that moment of blinding insight in a meeting, however, for most people finding that big idea isn’t that simple. They want to be an entrepreneur and start their own high-growth business, but they need some ideas on how to find that big idea.

Here are five…

1. Network

It sounds trite but networking is actually an excellent way of picking up on patterns and trends in conversation and business problems. The trick is to note them down and pay attention. Soon, you will find patterns emerging and ideas forming.

2. Look for pain

Just as networking can reveal trends in the market, so can spending time reading. The latter will also help you find common business pain points. These are the touchpoints that frustrate people, annoy business owners, affect productivity, or impact employee engagement.

Be the Panado that fixes these pains.

3. Luck

luck

This is probably the most annoying of the ideas, but it is unfortunately (or fortunately) very true. Luck does play a role in helping you capture that big idea. However, luck isn’t just standing around and random people offering you opportunities. Luck is found at networking events, it is found in research and it is found in conversations with other entrepreneurs.

4. Luck needs courage

You may have found the big idea through your network, a pain point or pure blind luck, but if you don’t have the courage to take it and run with it, you will lose it to someone else.

Being bold in business is highly underrated because most people assume that everyone is bold and prepared to take big leaps into the unknown. However, not all brilliant entrepreneurs were ready to throw their family funds to the wind and leap into an idea – they were courageous enough to figure out a way of harnessing their ideas realistically.

5. Pay attention

This is probably one of the most vital ways of finding a gap in the market. Often, people are so busy that they don’t really pay attention to that niggling issue that always bothers them on a commute, or in a mall, or at a meeting. This niggling issue could very well be the next big business opportunity. Pay attention to it and find out if that issue can be solved with your innovative thinking.

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Start-up Advice

5 Things To Know About Your “Toddler” Business

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind.

Catherine Black

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Ah, toddlers. Those irresistible bundles of joy bring a huge amount of energy, curiosity and fun to any family – but there’s also frustration and worry that comes with their unpredictability, as they grow and start to become more independent. If you own a business and it’s successfully past its “infancy” of the first year or so, it’s likely it will also go through a toddler stage of its lifecycle.

Pete Hammond, founder of luxury safari company SafariScapes, agrees with this. “Our business is now three and a half years old, and we’ve found that we’re not yet big enough to justify employing a large team of people to handle the day-to-day admin tasks, yet we still need to grow the business as well,” he says. “As a result, our main challenge is finding the time to step back and see the bigger picture. Kind of like when you are raising a busy toddler and you spend most of your time running after them!”

As you navigate this new toddler phase of your business, here are five things to bear in mind:

1. This too shall pass

Everything in life is temporary – and that goes for both the good and the bad. It’s as helpful to remember this when you’re facing the might of a toddler temper tantrum, as it is when you’re facing throws of uncertainty in your business. If your new(ish) venture is going through a rough patch in its first few years, it can be easy to think about giving up – but don’t. As long as you have an overall big idea that you believe can add value to your customers, keep pushing through the rough parts until you come out the other side.

2. Appreciate what this phase brings

The toddler years mean that the initial newborn joy is officially behind you. But these small humans also bring their own kinds of joy, as you watch them learn new skills, say funny things, and give affection back to you. While your two-year-old business may not hold the same exhilaration for you as it did during those first few months, there are now different things to appreciate about it: Maybe you’re expanding your product range, or employing new people who can take the workload off you.

3. Establish boundaries

Toddlers thrive on boundary and routine – and your toddler business will too. As it grows into a new phase, try and establish limits in terms of the type of clients you want to work with and the type of work you’ll do. It’s also a good idea to make a decision about the hours you’ll work and when you’ll switch off, which will help you establish a good work-life balance.

4. Take a break

Every parent with a toddler needs a break every now and then, even if that means a walk around the block (on your own!), a dinner out with friends, or even a few days away. The same is true for a demanding small business: every so often, remember to take time out to rest properly, where you switch off your laptop and completely unplug. You’ll return much more inspired and resilient to deal with the everyday uncertainty that it brings.

5. Give it space to make mistakes

While the unpredictability of a young business can be stressful and tiring, it’s also a time for trying new things without the risk of huge consequences if they don’t quite work. After all, it’s much simpler to change your USP if you’re a small business employing a few people, rather than a big company where 50 people are relying on you for their salary, or where you’ve received a huge amount of investment capital. While you may fail in some of the things you try with your business (in fact, this is almost guaranteed), see it as a toddler that’s resilient enough to pick itself up, dust its knees and keep moving forward.

During this phase of business growth it’s also essential to have the right type of medical aid cover. There are medical schemes such as Fedhealth which has a number of medical aid options and value-added benefits to ensure that your health and wellness is taken care of too. After all, the healthier you and your staff are, the more productive your business will be – during the toddler (business) stage and beyond.

While this phase can be frustrating, it’s a sign that your business is growing and adapting, rather than remaining in its infancy, and that can only be a good thing! So embrace the difficulties, learn from them, and watch as your business strides forward confidently into the next exciting phase.

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