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It's Lonely at the Top ... Guidance for the Early Stage CEO

So you proved your concept. You have some actual customers, driving real revenue and maybe even have an employee or two. Have enough funding to last a little while, but some nagging doubts. You've never done this before. In fact, you've never really run a business. And now here you are, all alone, trying to figure out how to take that concept, those few customers, that couple of employees and create a sustaining, scalable business. Yikes!

Now is when you really become an entrepreneur! When customers and employees are depending on the decisions you make. It's a scary time. B-school didn't prepare for this. All those case studies never mentioned midnight calls from your website developer whose system crashed and won't be able to roll out the new website that your already-implemented email campaign is counting on. Or when one of your key employees (at this point they're all key) decides that she really doesn't like "life on the fault line," and is taking a more secure job back in a big company. Trust me, we've all faced it. But you don't have to face it alone... or without guidance. So let Yoda help.

First things first. Get an advisor or mentor, somebody you can bounce ideas off of, or to whom you can bring problems to help you solve. In fact, if you can, set up an advisory board of three or four folks, who you respect, who've been to the same dance you're at right now. Entrepreneurs, small business owners, call them what you will. Folks who've had to make payrolls. Who've faced the midnight calls. The employee desertions. The collection problems. The IRS. But if you can only find one, make sure it's one who you trust, because if you trust he/she, you will listen to them. And that is the most critical part of having advisors.

Second, be totally market and customer-focused. If you have existing customers, smother them with service. Create their undying loyalty. They will be your best salespeople. Know your competition as well as you know your own company and product (and if you tell me you have none, I'll tell you ain't paying attention). You will learn what's made them successful and what you need to do to beat them in the marketplace. Go to industry trade shows (notice I didn't say exhibit - waste of time and money for the small company). Carry "your booth" in your backpack. Meet prospects, listen to the "rhythm" of the marketplace. Review competitors, especially the newer ones. You'll learn the most from other hungry folks like you.

Third, find partners. Many entrepreneurs believe that raising capital is the key to early business success. I say partially true. You raise capital to acquire resources (people, technology, real estate, etc.) that helps you grow. Well, why not just partner with folks who have those resources already rolling and take out the middleman (capital). Partners can help you build your product through a technology licensing deal; sell your product through a sales distribution relationship or even support your product through a help desk relationship. In the early going, it helps avoid the staffing, training, growing phase and moves right into the actual executing.

Fourth, create a business plan. Not some masterpiece worthy of a Pulitzer, but a "battle plan" for attacking your market, beating your competition and winning new customers and growing your business. It can be a ten page set of objectives and strategies; a three page outline of key tasks or a big white board assembly of customer, product and support initiatives. Key thing is that it totally describe how you operate on a day-to-day basis. What's important to do and track. Nothing more, nothing less.

Lastly, have an outlet. Whether it's family, running or just sitting on the beach. Have a place, hopefully with people you love, where you can decompress and re-charge. You can't run even the best sports car non-stop for long periods without servicing or you'll have serious problems. Same thing with your life. Your business should only be a part of your life, albeit a major one, but you'll be a better owner and a better person if you are able to let it go of it, periodically.

Welcome to our fraternity, new entrepreneur. Sure, it's lonely at the top... but it doesn't have to be. Reach out. Help is on the way!

Master Yoda knows these things. His job it is. May success be with you!


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