Recently, I was invited to be a keynote speaker at the launch of the Toronto chapter of a Vancouver based organization known as the Forum for Women Entrepreneurs.
I have been an entrepreneur for 11 years now and my audience on this particular night was full of like-minded women, many in the early stages of growing their startup. It made me think of all the things I wished I had known when I started Homestars, because as an entrepreneur there is no job description or road map given to you. So I condensed my learnings into five lessons applicable to anyone starting a new business. Here is an excerpt from that evening:
Lesson #1 is VISION
From the start, ideally your company is something that inspires you and differentiates you in the marketplace. It’s your responsibility as the leader of the company to not only set the vision, but to communicate it to your team often — even if you feel you are sounding like a broken record. Remember, it’s your vision that brought talented people on board to work with you, and it will keep them with you through thick and thin. ALWAYS keep it top of mind and never lose sight of your vision.
Lesson #2 is PEOPLE
Building your team is the second lesson, yet the most difficult part of building your company — I can tell you from experience. Getting the right people on your team who will inspire and support you is the hardest and most important role of a CEO. On top of that, it’s never ending as your team changes and grows. Building a healthy culture is also important. I still interview every single new candidate before they are hired, even though we are now an 80-person company, because I think cultural fit is critical. I want to keep a connected and familiar environment so everyone knows they play an important role in reaching our vision.
Lesson #3 is CASH FLOW
This is the hardest lesson, after people. Although we had revenue from day one, HomeStars constantly needed a lot of cash to grow. I nearly ran out of money in 2008, and again in 2013, and lived on the edge in between to meet our monthly payroll. One of the best things I did for my business as we grew to over $4-million in sales was to hire a very experienced part-time CFO, who was immersed in the SaaS (software as a service) space. This person was expensive however paid for themselves as they buttoned down our reporting, and provided tough but sound strategic recommendations to free up cash flow. As CEO, you need to keep a close eye on cash flow, especially in the early days. You need to add buffers, as there will always be unexpected expenses.
Lesson #4 is LEARNING
As you grow there are always new things to learn. I read business books, blogs, and attend conferences whenever I can. I ask my team to do the same thing. One of my most profound lessons learned was that as CEO, you don’t have to solve all the problems, but you need to be able to identify them and prioritize the 1–2 key issues you want tackle. Create a small team of 2–3 people to own the problem and come up with solutions. You may be on this team too, but everyone has an equal voice. Make that a focus of your weekly update meetings and your issue will soon get broken down and hopefully resolved.
Lesson #5 is SELF CARE
This last lesson is often overlooked, but is equally important. I know it sounds obvious but the “wear and tear” of working 7 days a week (you’re always thinking about your business) can take its toll. I definitely needed to delegate things as we started to grow, and I also needed to pace myself. For example, I got a dog (against my husband’s wishes) which forced me to take two walks a day when I was working remotely. I exercise regularly and I started yoga three years ago. It’s also important to just take a day for yourself when you’re feeling burnt out. It will go a long way.
When building a business, there will always be obstacles, both personal and professional, that might make you want to throw in the towel along what is an undeniably tough journey. Having a strong support network of family, friends and trusted advisors will help you get through the difficult times, so you can focus on the positive and continue to nurture your business. It can be a very long and difficult journey, but with tremendous rewards.
I hope these five lessons will help you on your journey as founder, so you can create both a healthy culture and thriving business. And enjoy the journey as you see new destinations ahead.