Software and web people approach a lot of things in life as though it were a unit test in one of their applications: with a pass or fail. After almost six years of running a business, though, the only absolute that I’ve found is, well, there is no such thing as a 1 or a 0 in business. There’s a whole lot in between though. And, that’s the most exhilarating part of building a shop in my opinion.
So, when I’m interviewing someone for a job or trying to give some half-coherent advice to would-be business owners, I spend a lot of time talking about the crucial role which ambiguity plays on a small team. Like it or not, ambiguity is core to your business’ character, and it’s how each individual deals with it that will make or break your team’s ability to perform as a unit.
Here are a few other seemingly unattractive truths and nuggets of advice about building a business from the dusty floor on up.
So, should you start a business? Heck, maybe. Just remember: you better look good in grey.
No one cares about your business.
No one gives a hoo-diddle-fiddle about you or your business until someone gives a hoo-diddle-fiddle about your business. Baste yourself in this anonymity. It is the blank canvas you may never have again once you pull in your first clients and customers. This is your company, in utero, so enjoy the quiet opportunity that it is.
Everyone is a human hat stand
Someone smarter than me wrote: “Before you hire for a job, do it yourself.” This is more than a lesson in frugality. It’s a principle of being accountable to your business down the line when there’s a few folks working with you. So, however tacky and unpalatable doing everything sounds to you, be it buying coffee or doing your own accounting, you’ll be a more insightful, empathetic person because of it. You’ll also make better hires.
Be fine with OK. Then iterate.
Every product and service that I love is imperfect. So, do some research, a bit of sketching, and some estimating, but then get to work. The slow, incessant plod of big corporations planning, scoping, socializing, and so on is not professional. I repeat: it is not professional. It’s herd mentality, and you don’t have time for it.
Professionals sketch, execute, fail, grovel, and improve. With class and humility.
Consulting and the art of the change request
In the same vein, no matter how much your clients want to know the cost of something before you build it, they rarely will. So, call a spade a spade and accept change as another one of your constants and get to work. Also, make sure your work agreements and client relationships are founded on the principle that change exists for a reason: we’re human.
Hiring? Forget the aptitude tests. Go for dinner and be weird.
I want to be honest with you, working here will probably be strange. You will likely have to ask where the toilet paper is. You will have to be a project manager because the project manager is really busy. Oh, and this is how I dance when I’m drinking. At 2 pm in the afternoon. Your technical prowess is really important, don’t get me wrong. But what I really like about you is that, well, you’re not a dick and I don’t think anyone will have a problem sitting in a room with you for 9 hours a day. Oh, did I mention we all work in a room together? By the way, how does Node.js work?
Be a 1 or a 0. But don’t let an investor choose which.
You’ll know soon enough whether your business is a 1 or a 0 if you sell your services and products to real people. So, unless you need manufacturing scale or a huge astral starship of a dedicated data center, don’t sell your company to investors. Sell your services and products.
Selling yourself to thousands of people as opposed to a few money managers gives you more real data to use when determining whether you’re doing a good job or not. It feels better hearing praise or critique from the public too. It’s mostly unsolicited, indirect feedback and there’s no incentive for the user to shower you with praise or chide you with strange marketing jargon. It’s purely because you suck or you’re doing a good job.
Made in the USA? Nah, made in the heart.
Be in business because you’ve got a heart. Even if you fail, you’ll be a better person for it. We’ve got a poster hanging in our office which reads “Do good work and be nice to people.” If you’re sincere and know that there’s no such thing as a straight line, your customers and clients will feel it and be more thankful that you’re alive. Heck, they’ll even pay you for your service.
Read a book. It’s called 12: The Elements of Great Managing.
This is the only book I’ve ever put to use time and time again. It’s been a way-finder for me at times and a lighthouse at other times. Another book, which gets an honorable mention is called “Small Giants“. Both are insightful and inspirational. Buy them. Or borrow them. Or steal them. Whatever you do, read them.