I am a 28 year old start-up CEO. Last week I read an article titled “the 57 things I learned starting 3 tech companies.” While the list was brilliant, the human brain can only simultaneously hold seven independent thoughts. I am going to assume that two of your seven sockets are already filled with (1) your own great start-up idea, and (2) love and lust or some combination of the two, and I will distill my lessons learned down to five ideas.
Lesson #1 – Do something you are passionate about.
Really. This is so important. My company, Ethical Ocean, is an online social marketplace which brings together the ideas, people and companies needed to drive a new era in ethical consumerism. Think of us as the “Ethical Amazon.com.” I have been obsessed with sustainability for most of my conscious life. And guess what? My team of seven is equally as crazy about positive social change as I am. If you’re going to succeed with your new venture, you will need to live, eat and breathe it for the next five years. If it is something you are not genuinely passionate about, you will puke and you will fail.
Lesson #2 – Recruit your friends and colleagues.
My company started with two founders. Then we become three. Then five. Now seven. And guess what? None of us are being paid. We each put in between 15 and 50 hrs each week. Getting people behind your idea is important. As a CEO, you need to be a resource magnet. You need to be able to attract talent, money and ideas and the best place to start is your friends. If you cannot convince them to contribute your idea, you either do not have a very good idea, or you do not have enough friends. From your friends, pick the ones who are hard working, skilled, ambitious and with whom you love to spend time.
Lesson #3 – Get up Sunday Morning.
If your idea is not exciting enough to get you out of bed on Sunday morning, you did not pay attention to lesson #1. If you’re up Sunday morning, with nobody working with you, you’ve botched lesson #2. The Ethical Ocean team meets every Sunday from 10AM to 7PM in random coffee shops to crank on our project. It is amazing how much you can get done on Sunday before the rest of the world has recovered from their Saturday night hangovers.
Lesson #4 – Put your Money where your mouth is.
When we started Ethical Ocean, I had $40k in student debt. Yet, somehow I convinced my bank to extend my line of credit and I put $20k into the business. Better yet, my equally as impoverished team invested another $40k from their savings, credit cards, and day job salaries. Before this, we worked for a long time building the company without any money – these days were lax. The day we decided to write cheques was the day that things really started moving. Not to mention that investors will not even look at you if you do not have “skin in the game”.
Lesson #5 – F the Rules.
Ethical Ocean is doing it. We have hired our first full-time employee, we have recruited 160 great ethical vendors selling 1,700 products. We’ve recruited the CFO of Google to join our advisory board. Finally, revenue is starting to trickle in! Last week we received a term sheet for a 200k investment.
All this said, you would not believe how many people discouraged us from starting this company. “It’ll never work” or “you’re not going to quit your day job are you?” We are an unconventional company. We have 7 founders. We are all working part-time. We are totally democratic in our decision-making. We had a team sleep-over before our beta launch day (ghost stories included). If you’re going to succeed as CEO, you need to sponge up other people’s advice as much as you can, but you must NEVER get stuck in convention. Stay committed to your idea; be creative and resourceful. Do whatever strange things you need to do to make it work – even if it is against the norm.
Working on Ethical Ocean has been one of the most rewarding and enjoyable experiences of my life – and it is only just beginning. Here is the formula: find an idea you are passionate about, build a great team around you, get up and work Sunday morning, and put your money where your mouth is. While you’re at it, F the rules.
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