7 Tips Every Entrepreneur Needs to Get Ahead
Whether you’re considering a career change or have already ventured into entrepreneurship, the startup world can be a both exciting and perilous landscape. Starting your own business is not a path for the risk-averse, which is why expertise from the front lines is invaluable. This weekend, we attended Los Angeles’s Create & Cultivate conference, where we heard from a string of successful small-business owners. From Parachute Home founder and CEO Ariel Kaye to Alfred Coffee owner Josh Zad, these founders and innovators have us completely inspired. Our favorite takeaway from the multiple panels at the event was the career-driven advice on turning passions into profits and making it on your own. Here’s what every new business owner needs to know.
“One of the most important questions to ask is What problem are you solving?” says Ariel Kaye, founder and CEO of Venice, California–based textile company Parachute Home. If you’re offering a solution to a problem that is not unique, how are you doing it differently? “We are a commodity product,” says Kaye of the environmentally friendly linens line. “I looked around at my friends and my own experience and realized there was no brand loyalty when it came to bedding. No brand had asked me how I was sleeping at night. Parachute is about enhancement and education as well as providing a service. How can you tell a story to connect to people?”
“The most important thing to go into fundraising with is data. Know your numbers,” says Kaye. Scope out the competition, and know where the gaps in the market lie. Susan Tynan, founder and CEO of full-service online custom framing company Framebridge, cites patience as a key virtue in the process.
Raising money takes time. Anyone who tells you otherwise is spinning the story. “It’s not a smooth process to raise money. It takes everyone a while,” says Tynan. “Look for investors who like your type of business. Know the numbers of your industry, and have a strategy around how to make money today. Why is it a big idea? Emphasize how large the opportunity can be, and convey the full scale,” says Tynan.
Kaye adds, “You want to raise money at a point of strength. Investors can smell weakness. If you say, ‘This is a $26 billion category. We are crushing it, and we need your money to crush it even more’—that’s incentivizing.”
Getting a new business off the ground can be a tireless and lonely endeavor. “Founder depression is real,” says Ivka Adam, co-founder and CEO of 3-D printing and fine jewelry retailer Iconery. Adam moved back in with her parents to save money while getting her new business off the ground. It was after Iconery joined an accelerator program (the fast-track business model designed to help startups achieve quicker growth) that she landed a sense of community and a valuable support system.
Parachute was also part of an accelerator program, and Kaye agrees with Adam’s affinity for the model: “The great thing about an accelerator is you’re in a community with people grinding. You don’t feel like an island of one.” Surround yourself with fellow entrepreneurs, and get personal with other small-business owners in your community. Lean into the power of group problem-solving, and seek out individuals who can empathize and workshop.
Co-founder of Pressed Juicery Carly de Castro notes the importance of blind faith when it comes to turning any passion project (for her, fresh-pressed juice and cleanses) into a thriving business. “When we started Pressed, I thought, How hard could it be? Turns out it was really hard. I still think it’s a good idea to go into things blindly,” she says. “It’s also a good lesson to be spending your own money. You’ll be focused on how far your dollar can stretch. If we had taken money too soon from investors we may have overhired.”
Kaye adds, “No matter what you have done before, there will always be surprises. There’s no playbook.” Be adaptable, fearless, and strategic. It takes experimentation to innovate, so carve your own path.
“We had a strong strategy from day one, and we stuck to it,” says Zad of Alfred Coffee. “We didn’t change things up for lack of engagement.” Building a following and establishing trust with a loyal consumer base will take time.
Gabby Etrog Cohen, senior vice president of PR and brand strategy at SoulCycle, stresses the importance of having a distinctive and confident point of view. Knowing exactly who you are as a company will beget clearly defined boundaries for key decisions. By the same hand, Cohen states that survival is dependent on the ability to make critical changes if something truly isn’t working.
“We often say the business changes every 90 days,” says Cohen. “Our key word is pivot. We say no a thousand times to every yes. If it’s not right to the brand, it’s a no. It’s about knowing when to say no.”
“No one should be mediocre who works with you,” says Cohen. “I love the expression by Jim Collins: ‘If you have the right people on your bus, you’re going in the right direction.’ If you have the wrong people on the bus, nothing else matters. You may be heading in the right direction, but you won’t achieve greatness.” Be ruthless with your hiring strategy.
“You need people who know how to do this, who have watched boats burn,” says Kaye, who (clearly) sees failure as a résumé pro. “There is such a thing as too much money and growing too fast. The only people I want to talk to are people who have worked at places that have failed. You learn problem-solving from mistakes, more so than from blissful success.”
“I knew I needed the expertise, so I had an expensive team out of the gate. We scaled so much faster,” adds Adams, emphasizing that getting the right team on deck is sometimes more important than saving money upfront.
Zad agrees: “Do not skimp money on talent. Don’t lose out. It can be disastrous to the business. If you find the right team, pay them. It’s critical if you come across someone great to keep them.” Assess your personal strengths and weaknesses, and rely on key hires to fill in the gaps. “The path for me was not in the expertise of the coffee; it was in the experience itself,” says Zad. “I brought on the coffee people and focused entirely on what I like to do.”
Get a foothold on your position within the community—not just in the digital sense. “We’re not a brand that will grow through banner ads. It’s about telling our story,” says Kaye of Parachute’s influencer-based strategy. “There is a new shopper that doesn’t need to buy things from a brand they can’t connect to. Connection is everything. We are more than just sheets. We’re a lifestyle.”
Cohen agrees, citing SoulCycle’s person-to-person network as the defining aspect of its success. “Our business remains primarily driven by word of mouth and person-to-person referrals. We’re selling an experience that will never read in a two-dimensional ad. Digital is no doubt the future, but there is so much merit to real relationships.”
Both Kaye and Zad emphasized the value of collaborative partnerships with bigger, more established names to their brands’ success. “Partnerships are all about how are we adding value for our customer,” says Cohen. “The right collaboration will put your brand in front of people who may not know about you otherwise.”
Build your influencer network. Earned media and word of mouth are crucial assets. “Partnerships were huge for us from the beginning,” says Zad. Alfred Coffee boasts a laundry list of local talent, from L.A.-based Compartes Chocolatier to Kelly Wearstler. “One of our first partnerships we had was carrying pastries from a local Brentwood bakery. Initially our apparel was provided by Rag & Bone. We capitalized on other brands that people knew. Once we started to grow, we had a name of our own.”
Have a startup? We want to know about your business, so introduce yourself and your passion project.