Over the past 20 years, I have started and grown dozens of startups. I have even had the "luck" of exiting a few, if you want to spit in my face and call it luck. Over the past 3 years, I have mentored hundreds of startups through Seed Sumo and thought I might be able to give you some guidance as you sit down this week making your plans for 2016.
1. Be more of a scientist, and less of a visionary
Success in business isn't about casting vision for this new amazing idea for a product or service that the world has never seen. It comes down to execution of ideas that work, and that means going through a ton of ideas that don't work until you can find the ones that do. You don't have to be perfect, but you do have to adopt a scientific approach if you want to discover the answers. Be more like a scientist...create a hypothesis, test it, then iterate and learn from the results. You never know what marketing strategy or article headline or feature will be viral to your customers, so go discover what works instead of assuming that you already know. Many entrepreneurs make the mistake of trying to get it right the 1st time. Remember Thomas Edison and the light bulb. Sometimes you get it right because you spent the time to find the 10,000 ways of getting it wrong.
2. Read a Book a Month
Knowledge is power and successful leaders and CEOs are always learning new things. The average successful CEO reads 25 books per year. Get audible on your smart phone and listen to books as you workout, drive, or go through your day. Exposure to new ideas will constantly expand your mind and give you new ways of attacking the challenges of business. Here's my list of some of the best books that I recommend to people at all stages of business and life.
3. Get a clue
Ask for feedback more from people about things that you don't know. Many early stage entrepreneurs make the mistake of assuming that they have it all together and are going the right direction. While this may be true in some areas, it is likely that you need some feedback. Ask people for feedback in areas you can improve. Be specific and go to people who don't love you as much as your mom does and are likely to hurt your feeling if necessary to help you. Ask: ""What are some of my weaknesses I should be working on?"" or ""What are some areas that I need to work on to be a better leader?"" or ""What's something that I need to hear that most people are probably afraid to tell me?"". If they really love you, remember Proverbs 27: Verses 5 and 6 - ""Better is open rebuke than hidden love. Wounds from a friend can be trusted but an enemy multiplies kisses."
4. Be less defensive
I find that many entrepreneurs are difficult to work with because they are not open to feedback and are quick to dismiss ideas from others about areas we need to improve, change, or grow. Sure, you may be right that the thing needs to be red, or the button needs to go here, or that killer feature defines your brand... but what if you aren't? When you are defensive, it sends a signal to others that you can't be worked with. You shut down their willingness to give you free advice that might actually be helpful. While everyone isn't good at giving advice, you still need to drop your guard and be willing to search for the truth in what they are saying. Many investors will not invest in a founder if they find them to be defensive. The opposite of this is being open-minded. Elon Musk has been quoted several times on the number one reason he think he has been so successful is he actively seeks feedback from people. He thinks it's crazy that more people don't do this.
5. Get out of the building
You can't build everything from behind the keyboard. Successful businesses are in tune with the market, and the market is made up of customers, which are people, which are not behind your keyboard. They are out there in the real world, doing stuff, not thinking about your product or company. Go find them, talk with them, see what they do, how they buy, and get connected with the subtitles and nuances of what you will need to do to be successful. Also your future employees and vendors are out there... go meet them and get out of the office. Not everything can be solved with a different twist on a social media campaign.
6. Love thy competition
See my blog article on pitching your competition. If you take time to get to know your competition, and do it with an open mind, you might find that they have cool ideas or features that you weren't going to include. You may also find that your competition is actually a potential partner for growth, but seeing them in a competitive light prevented you from seeing that potential. Instagram initially used Facebook as a launching pad instead of trying to ""rebuild the railroad."" and then later created their own network.
7. Go AFK more
For the non-nerds AFK means "Away From Keyboard". Leading a company will inevitably mean leading people. You need to understand people in order to lead them. Getting out from behind your computer may be the biggest thing you can do to improve. Read books on leadership, get some feedback on how to motivate and connect with people better. People matter, remember the quote: "A leader with no followers is just going for a walk."
8. Dig your well before you are thirsty
John Maxwell says in "the 21 irrefutable laws of leadership" in his rule of significance that "one is too small of a number to accomplish anything great." Get out there and start building your network. Dig your well before you are thirsty. Start connecting, networking, and building up a list of trusted individuals that you can count on to help you navigate through building your business. Go to meetup events, conferences, and other activities. If you take a friend, founder or co-worker with you, that's fine, but make time to sit at another table, talk with people you don't know, and make new connections as well. This will be outside most people's comfort zone, but after all, that's where the growth happens.
9. Break your addiction to Email
Email is one of the biggest distracting things in our lives. I've heard it said "Email is everyone else's ToDo list." At Seed Sumo, we make it a point that all of the partners and associates only check email twice a day. Once after their critical task for the day is complete (usually around 10am), and again between 3-6pm. Email kills production and those constant brain farts all day make it impossible to get anything real done. Some of the most productive people in the world only check email once per week (a la Tim Ferris). Tony Hsieh (Zappos Founder) known for the "Yesterbox" theory, which is the concept of only checking email from "yesterday." For a detailed 10-step guide on this technique go here.
10. Fill in the blank
This one is for you to pick. What's that one other thing that you need to do this year take you to the next level? Take the time today to do some soul searching and find the one other thing you need to start or stop doing in 2016. Maybe it's to get in shape, go to bed earlier and get more rest, or to patch up an old relationship. Make time to improve yourself, and you will see your business improve with you.