Building a company from scratch can be highly exciting and terrifying at the same time. The path of entrepreneurship is unique for everyone, and the journey from creation to success varies from individual to individual. However, based on all the entrepreneurial brand launches we’ve had at Blazar Capital (a Copenhagen based D2C brand incubator), and based on my own entrepreneurial journey with co-creating Blazar Capital a well as other brands, there are some determinants that I believe are of utmost importance in order to increase the probability of creating a successful business – regardless of whether you are a first time, second time or third time entrepreneur. This article does therefore serve to go through how to build a startup from scratch based on reallife entrepreneural learnings.
1 – Passion is everything
Being passionate about what you are doing determines whether you will succeed or not in your entrepreneurial endeavors. Period. For most, entrepreneurship is not a sprint, and it’s not ‘just’ a marathon – it is an extreme sport. This means that if you don’t have the necessary passion, drive and energy towards the project you’re pursuing, the probability of your energy dissolving and you burning out will just become larger the further you get into the project. There’s no such thing as an easy path to entrepreneurial success, and I’ve rarely met any entrepreneurs who haven’t faced major challenges and struggles along the way during some stages of their journey. This is where resilience, persistency, and relentlessness come into the picture – something which isn’t easy to uphold if a genuine passion for the project isn’t present. However, there must be a balance between your passion and the business opportunity you seek to capitalize on. Even if the passion is there, one must ask themselves whether entrepreneurship is the right thing to pursue in the first place, and whether the business idea itself is objectively justified by the business opportunity itself. If you don’t have the passion to dedicate everything to your project, then it might not be worth exploring much regarding how to build a startup in the first place.
2 – Focus on the team
When commencing your entrepreneurial journey, it is essential that you have the right team and partners around you. If you are looking to build a startup together with others, it is important that you carefully select the right partners from the beginning. There’s no doubt that it is always a good idea to find one or more co-founders who have a complementary skillset to yours, rather than co-founders who possess a similar or closely related skillset. You have to remember that building a business from scratch requires a lot of interdisciplinary workstreams to be pursued, and in most cases, you won’t have the skills and/or experience to do everything by yourself – especially not when the company starts to develop and grow in size. Hence, a team that complement each other’s knowledge, skills and experience is important. And don’t forget, although entrepreneurship can be emotional and challenging, it is also one of the most engaging and fun endeavors you can experience – so make sure that you have people around that you’ll have a great and memorable time with, both during and after working hours.
3 – Establish an execution culture
Continuous execution is paramount for building momentum in a startup – especially in the early phases of the journey. In order to build an effective and efficient organization from a cultural perspective, you must combine a continuous strong sense of urgency in the daily execution with a concurrent ability to prioritize adequately and give the important workstreams and decisions the right attention needed to derive the desired outcomes. Having a holistic overview of all activities in the business, while prioritizing and executing based on an ‘impact-first’ principle will make you operate more effective and efficiently. Perfection is, in my opinion, the true enemy of execution. So even though several workstreams and areas of focus need to be done in a ‘thought through manner’, where deep thinking and execution must go hand in hand, operating based on the 80/20 pareto principle is still of value in the early stages of a startup to ensure that the ball keeps rolling. Everything does not necessarily have to be 100% spot-on in a startup before you can execute the next important workstream or project.
4 – Understand your playing field
Believing that you have a good idea, while having a strong passion for that idea is as mentioned in point one of utmost importance; however, understanding the business opportunity itself is in my opinion of equal importance. Jumping into the life of entrepreneurship is a big step, so before taking the leap, make sure that you have conducted a comprehensive market analysis in relation to your idea, so you are sure that your idea and concept has a ‘reason to be’. If you are jumping into a market where there is little to no demand for your product or service, or where creating the marketing itself will be a highly comprehensive journey, then it might be healthy for you to take a step back to reflect and re-think the project you’re about to pursue. What might have been a good idea during a brainstorming session or a eureka moment during your sleep might not be that fruitful of an idea after all once you understand the opportunity more objectively and quantitatively.
In my opinion, it is ideal to ensure that your idea is organized around a product or service that operate in a large and growing market, where you can position yourself as a unique alternative to your competitors. You can get an understanding of your market by reading different industry and market reports online, talking to industry experts, or talking to some of your potential customers. Moreover, I believe that you have a strong advantage if your product or service solves a problem and has a high repeat purchase rate, regardless of which industry you operate in, and regardless of whether your idea is product or service-based.
5 – Establish a thought through business model
Make sure to establish a strong business model and strategy that you believe will create value for your customers based on your initial market analysis. Regardless of which type of company you are building, you must ensure that your business model is competitive and that you have a clear positioning relative to your competitors. Establishing a company has technically never been easer from a development point of view, but never been harder from a competitive point of view – so although you might have a smooth process in terms of going from nothing to something, and although you might have a clear plan of execution ready, the positioning and business model of your brand will be essential to gain a competitive advantage relative to other players in the industry.
6 – Create a clear sales and marketing strategy – and test
Establishing a comprehensive sales and marketing strategy helps you get a more clear picture of what it is you want to communicate to your potential customers and how you want to do it. It is always a good idea to test out many different marketing channels and sales strategies in the early stages of your business to understand where you get the highest return on your investments. Of course, the extent to which you can test different marketing strategies in the early phases of your journey depends on the capital that’s available in the business. Try different channels both online and offline, and pursue a data-driven approach to get an understanding of where the performance is the highest based on your core metrics that you define in advance of your tests.
Some channels that can be tested out as part of your marketing strategy could be search engine optimization, pay per click marketing, programmatic display marketing, social media marketing (organic and paid, referral marketing, e-mail marketing, affiliate marketing, influencer marketing and ambassadorships, public relations, offline marketing (based on an out of home approach), and the like.
7 – Find the right investor for both capital, network and knowledge
If your objective is to establish a business, where external capital will be a core lever for your prospective growth, then it is highly recommended to spend a significant time on finding the right investor – not just from a capital allocation point of view, but also from a knowledge and competencies point of view. Make sure that the investors that you involve in your business are able to support and advise in core aspects of your business, and always work towards not selling off equity too cheap throughout the journey – keeping in mind the right balance between when to commence the fundraising process and when capital will run out. Pushing the fundraising process to the very last minute to maximize the share value can also back-fire as you might end up against a wall when time is running out. The longer you can bootstrap the business, the more value you can create over time to raise capital from the ‘right’ investor.
If you raise too much capital too quickly, you risk giving up a large share of your company’s equity at a too early stage – which hence might reduce your control of the business. The lost control can potentially be to the point where you no longer feel it’s your business any longer. This will most likely impact your motivation negatively, thereby affecting the performance in a down spiraling trajectory. So in general: Avoid raising capital too early, at too low valuation and from investors who you don’t believe fit in the organizations. I’ve met many founders who made such mistakes in the past, and it can really tend to impact the motivation negatively, which is unhealthy in an entrepreneurial journey considering how hard and long such journey already is.
8 – Spend money as if you were one financing round earlier on your journey
Even though you might be raising a large amount of capital during some stages of your entrepreneurial journey, it is important not to burn more than what is necessary. It can be tempting – and easy – to simply start increasing your marketing spend, your branding budget, your product development budget, hiring more employees, etc. in order to see the topline grow on the short term. However, doing this on the basis of a large continuous burn is simply just not sustainable, and neither is it acknowledged to the same extent to what we saw in the years prior to the COVID-19 pandemic. Using capital based on the mindset that you are one round earlier that what might be the case in reality is therefore something that I highly recommend. So if you have raised a Series A, operate as if you had raised a seed round. If you have just raised a Series B, operate as if you had just raised a Series A. Deploy capital thoughtfully, in all avenues of the business.
9 – Drive your organization as if the time is running out
The time you have to drive and scale your organization is precious, which is why building a performance driven culture – in my opinion – is very valuable if you want to out-run your competitors. Developing a culture where people are working efficiently and almost are feeling as though “time is running out” can have a fruitful impact on the performance of the business. Of course, this is not meant in a way where people in the organization should feel as if they are under pressure – it is meant in a way where everyone in the organization run as fast as they can because they genuinely want to win the game. All value adding customer-facing initiatives which drive growth should always be deployed as quickly as possible after the employee(s) responsible for the change are comfortable with it being released – there’s no need to postpone such initiatives as it will just delay the launch of the next value-adding project. Of course, there will always be schedules in place, campaign plans to be followed, operational structures to considered, etc., but the mentality should always be that value-adding initiatives cannot get released too early.
10 – Build the right safety net before taking the entrepreneurial jump
This point is for the first time entrepreneurs. For the ones who are considering how to tackle there career from university and onwards. It’s a point that will not be applicable for all, but something which I personally found important: Build an academic and professional safety net before taking the entrepreneurial jump.
Of course, neither education nor experience is a prerequisite for becoming a highly successful entrepreneur. We all know about the university dropouts who anyhow became billionaires and changed the world in one way or another. However, I do believe that having an education and some professional experience gives you a strong advantage when jumping into the life of an entrepreneur. This is due to the following reasons:
- You will be better equipped to establish and grow a startup due to the knowledge you bring from your education and/or your previous professional experience (assuming your experience has been relevant in regards to your entrepreneurial endeavor);
- You will have more “ice in your stomach” as you will always have a safety net to fall back on in case your business fails (the worst case scenario suddenly isn’t that abad); and
- You will be a “safer” choice for investors, business partners, and the like to work with, increasing your chances of success a bit further compared to if your academic and professional backpack were to be empty (this is of course mostly valid
Moreover, I believe that the future of entrepreneurship to a large extent will become academic. Many of the highly demanded industries in which entrepreneurs are trying to build businesses are very complex – and hence require that you have a strong technical and professional background. That is regardless of whether you are building a business within E-commerce, DeepTech, FinTech, Analytics, MarTech, or the like. The academic experience will not necessarily have to come from universities – we see more and more talented individuals who’ve built their knowledge through available content on the internet, online courses, coaches, mentors and the like.