CHICAGO – Entrepreneurs say ‘No’ often. They also understand exactly how they will make money and are highly focused about how they spend their time, according to Todd Connor, founder and CEO of Bunker Labs.
Bunker Labs is an organisation that helps military veterans start and grow businesses. Founded in 2014, it is now operational in 12 different cities across the United States, assisting 170 entrepreneurs.
Speaking at the 2016 Sage Summit, one of the world’s largest gatherings of entrepreneurs and small business owners, in Chicago this week, Connor shared eight lessons from startups that have enjoyed success.
- Be agnostic about your business
“Love the problem, but don’t be attached to the solution,” says Connor, who relays a story of a business that went through four different iterations in trying to solve a very specific problem before it finally found traction. Be committed to the problem but understand that how you solve it will be influenced by external forces, he adds.
- Understand exactly how you will make money
“Entrepreneurs run the risk of advocating for the problems they will solve, but with no idea of how to make money and what their pricing model should be,” Connor explains.
- Live with your customers and not the start-up community
This effectively comes down to a detailed understanding of your customers’ specific pain points and how they would like them solved, which naturally requires spending time with them. “Too often entrepreneurs think the thing is to build a solution and go sell it, when really it’s about aligning around the problem,” Connor notes.
He recommends remaining highly specialised in the early stages of your business, designing a specific solution to a specific problem.
- Be your own megaphone
“You can’t be a megaphone without the substance of a business, but it’s very hard to get traction and get noticed if you don’t build a platform by which you champion what you are solving with your business,” Connor argues.
RideScout, which a Bunker Labs entrepreneur set up, is an app that brings together various modes of transport to find you the best route from point A to point B. Although it basically generated no revenue for the entrepreneur he nevertheless managed to sell it to Daimler at a “nice exit”, according to Connor.
The app has since been renamed moovel NA, after Daimler merged it with GlobeSherpa.
The entrepreneur concerned actually used the app to advocate for less dependence on foreign oil, campaigning to change the way people travel. As people bought into the problem he was trying to solve, his business rose with him.
- Be laser-focused on what ‘the big rock’ for the week is:
“Good entrepreneurs are highly calibrated as to how they spend their time and focused on what needs to get done,” says Connor. Living in the day-to-day can be equally difficult as living in the two-year vision, so Connor recommends “thinking on a weekly basis” about the one project you need to get done, whether that be a proposal, a new hire or a successful investor presentation.
- Say ‘No’ often
“If you’re open to every single partnership and company, I would argue that you haven’t thought hard enough about what you’re trying to do,” Connor maintains. “Be very focused on how you spend your time,” he reiterates.
The “race” is not necessarily about whether your business can be successful, but about how much time you have to make that happen, considering finite resources.
- Find ways to access social capital
“I’ve seen how hard it is for good people with good ideas to get connections to people with social capital,” Connor comments. The quintessential “upwardly mobile 25-year old Harvard drop-out”, who appears to get all the attention from angel investors, unsurprisingly excludes a lot of people.
“Find people who can connect you to someone you may not have a natural affinity to,” he adds.
Connor reckons entrepreneurs have a lot more latitude to start businesses now than ever before, particularly because large companies are becoming increasingly active with their sources of capital and investing in businesses that will disrupt their industries in years to come.
- Work really, really hard
“If it isn’t email at 6am and email at 10pm, I just don’t know how you’re going to get there. I wish it was about work/life balance, but you’ve got to crank at it,” Connor remarks. “If it’s about money or ego, you’re never going to get there; it’s too hard. The gift of entrepreneurship is the opportunity to impact lives and do work that matters.”
This journalist is a guest of Sage at the Sage Summit.
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