From the moment you open the doors to your new business, you’re racing against the clock.
You’ve probably already spent a considerable amount of startup capital on rent for your store or office as well as payroll costs for your launch staff, and every day is a new battle to attract customers, manage your burn-rate, and point your business in the direction of profit.
It can be exhausting, honestly. And not everybody makes it.
Although half of businesses survive their first five years, 20% of startups go belly-up in year one. Often, those failures are simply a matter of underestimating the massive and unpredictable expenses of starting a business from scratch, and how long it generally takes to break even.
One added financial challenge is that it’s very difficult to secure business financing as a startup. Typically your business will need to be operating for at least six months to secure funding from an alternative lender, or a full two years before a bank will lend to you.
So how do you survive in the meantime? We asked eight business founders for their best tips on how to remain on stable financial footing, attract your first customers, and maintain your sanity during your first six months as a business owner.
1) Before you go all in, do your research
They’re the two most important words to a budding entrepreneur: market validation. That means doing sufficient research in advance to determine if there’s a viable customer base for what you’re offering, and learning what those customers actually want.
“You might have a great business idea, but if no one else is interested then you’ve got a hobby,” says Erica Peterson, Founder of Moms Can & Co. “You can find potential customers before you build your business by joining Facebook groups where they might hang out, going to meetups, and seeing if anyone will sign up for your newsletter or email updates to learn when you launch.”
“Be certain that your product or service is something people don’t just like the idea of, but will actually spend money on,” adds Stephanie Bacak, a Certified Financial Planner who specializes in financial planning for parents. “Survey respondents lie to be kind, and trusting words over wallets will sink you.”
2) Hire cheaply and fire quickly
“Hiring is the main reason of cash burnout for newer businesses,” says Jitesh Keswani, CEO of e-Intelligence. “To keep your cash flow at a healthy level, pay employees with a balanced combination of money and equity, which will allow you to extend your runway. And always remember the golden rule: Only hire to cover the need.”
Keswani also advises leaning on supportive family members as a source of cheap labor as well as honest feedback: “Give your family members simple tasks like spreading the word in public, or handling your bookkeeping. Welcome their objectivity, which you may lack in your euphoria.”
Speaking of hiring, it’s important to understand that your launch team won’t necessarily be your forever team, and you can’t be afraid to shed dead weight when you’re trying to get off the ground. “The hardest lesson I learned when I started my company is not getting rid of weak people earlier,” says Paige Arnof-Fenn, Founder & CEO of Mavens & Moguls. “I spent more time managing them than finding new customers. I knew in my gut they were not up to snuff but out of loyalty to them I let them hang around much longer than they should have.”
“As soon as I let them go, the culture got stronger and the bar was higher,” Arnof-Fenn continues. “‘A-team’ people like to be surrounded by other stars. It’s true that you should hire slowly and fire quickly. I didn’t make that mistake again.”
3) DIY your marketing and branding efforts
Over-spending on marketing is a common fatal error for startups. Of course you need to find paying customers as quickly as possible when you’re just starting out, but it’s more important to remain disciplined with your cash reserves and keep your burn rate low. For that reason, the more free sources of marketing you can rely on, the better.
“During the initial phase of your business, pay-per-click ads may look tempting, as they have the potential to generate leads and direct customers to your front door,” Keswani says. “However, unless you have a big dedicated marketing budget, avoid paid ads. Instead, start slowly by building a content marketing strategy. The best thing about content is that it positions you as an expert in your niche, it’s free, and it sells. Start by writing blog posts, then create images, videos, and infographics as well if you can do so with free resources.”
If you conduct business at your storefront, make sure that your local SEO is flawless. By optimizing your listings in relevant business directories, you can greatly increase foot traffic and inbound calls without investing a lot of time or money.
You should also understand the difference between “need to have” and “nice to have” when it comes to branding. Yes, your business needs to have a website. No, your business doesn’t need to have customized stationary.
“Until your business is financially sustainable, only put your budget into things that will help fill your pipeline with customers,” Arnof-Fenn says. “I created online stationery for proposals and invoices, ordered my cards online, and made downloadable materials as leave-behinds for people looking for more information. I know other business owners who spent thousands of dollars on things like fancy brochures, letterhead, and business cards, and found it was a waste of money.
“You need to look professional and have a website to be taken seriously, but embossed paper with watermarks and heavy card stock is not going to accelerate your sales cycle,” Arnof-Fenn continues. “Find your first customers quickly, and use them to get testimonials and referrals. There is plenty of time later to dress things up!”
4) Look beyond lenders
Time-in-business requirements for lenders tend to be non-negotiable. Even if you have a rock-solid business plan and a fast-growing customer base, securing business financing just won’t be an option until you’ve hit the six-month mark. So where else can you find capital to sustain your operations?
“Outside the traditional banking system, a startup can secure capital by using unconventional methods like barter, community capital, and through online platforms like Kickstarter,” says Emmanuel Eliason, a Certified Financial Educator® and President & CEO of the Eliason Consulting Group.
“Another unique source of funds is the owner’s cash-value life insurance policies, if the owner has enough equity in his or her policies,” Eliason continued. “Life insurance companies may offer loans against the cash values of a life insurance policy without it becoming a modified endowment contract. JCPenney and Walt Disney are known to have accessed their life insurance policies to keep their businesses afloat during hard times.”
You may also consider equity financing, in which you sell a percentage of your business to an investor in exchange for a significant injection of capital. (If you’ve ever watched Shark Tank, you know exactly what we’re talking about.) But in a perfect world, you should have a plan in place to survive your first six months without the need for additional outside capital. And that generally means spending like a pauper.
Or, as Stephanie Bacak puts it, “Hold onto money as though you won’t earn a dime for a year.”
5) Build your network
Even if networking doesn’t come naturally to you, it’s critically important to get out in the world and meet as many new people as possible who could become business partners, advocates, or loyal customers down the road.
“It helps if you think of networking as a way to give before you get,” Arnof-Fenn says. “Once you make a good contact, follow up with a note and offer to buy them a cup of coffee, send them a link to an article or white paper related to your conversation, or just offer to make an introduction to someone who they might find interesting. Don’t think of it as selling, just start listening and finding ways to be helpful.”
When it comes to attending conferences and networking events, Arnof-Fenn suggests starting small—and bringing backup.
“Those big events in large hotel ballrooms can be overwhelming for seasoned networkers, too,” she explains. “Attending small roundtable events or group lunches can be very effective ways to network. Focus on making a few good contacts at each event you attend, rather than leaving with lots of business cards from people you barely spoke with. Plus, you can always go with a friend or colleague and work the room together, which makes it much more comfortable and fun.”
Finally, make a concerted effort to meet other business owners and entrepreneurs who can relate to what you’re going through and offer actionable advice. “You’ll have many ups and downs as a business owner, sometimes all in one day,” says Erica Peterson. “You’re going to need emotional support and no one quite gets it like another startup founder.”
6) Make yourself a priority
The long hours and constant stress of getting a new business off the ground can wreak havoc on your health, both mental and physical. Prioritizing your business over yourself isn’t sustainable. In order to stay effective as the leader of your business, you need to set rules to protect yourself.
“Work like crazy but take one day off a week,” advises John Crossman, CEO of Crossman & Company. “When I started my company, I worked totally insane hours Monday through Saturday, but always took Sunday completely off and didn’t do any work.”
You should also resist the urge to do everything yourself. “As soon as you can, hire someone who can take things off of your list,” Crossman says. “As you learn to delegate, your world will improve.”
With your growing business taking up such a large chunk of your attention and mental capacity, it takes real effort to keep your personal life from suffering. The solution is to schedule every personal obligation like it’s any other important business meeting. “Make sure to not just fill your calendar with important work reminders but also list things like doctor’s appointments and family events so that nothing falls through the cracks,” says Nate Masterson, CEO of Maple Holistics.
“The key to surviving your first six months in business is to strike the right balance between staying productive and allowing yourself the time to recharge and reflect,” says Dr. Toni Haley, a physician and the CEO and founder of Lifestyle Coaching with Dr. Toni. “Working more hours does not necessarily yield greater productivity. In fact, many times it can have the exact opposite effect.”
“You need to allow yourself the time to bond with your spouse, play with your kids, and simply be by yourself,” Dr. Toni continues. “High achievers sometimes have trouble believing that they can both enjoy downtime and work hard. In fact, giving yourself the chance to breathe is part of working hard and responsibly. By planning some downtime into your schedule, you give yourself something to look forward to. And when you always have something to strive toward—rather than constantly feeling a sense of dread—you’ll be much less susceptible to burnout.”
This guest post was written by Ben Goldstein of Credibly.