When you think about the most successful entrepreneurs, you think about the genius ideas they came up with, the innovative products and services they launched, and how they changed the world a little with their confidence and drive.
What you probably don’t think about is who they were before they were a household name. Before Richard Branson became the massive name he is today, he was a 16-year-old high school dropout who started a small magazine for students. He probably didn’t feel “ready” when he started it, but shortly after, Branson opened a recording studio, then launched a record label, and 400 other companies would follow from airlines to mobile phones. If Branson had waited until he felt ready, he probably wouldn’t be where he is today.
That’s the thing about successful people. They know that they need to start before they’re ready.
For Michelle Zatlyn, cofounder of web performance and security company CloudFlare, feeling “not ready” lasted a long time. She tells Fast Company she only started to feel that founding the company was “the right choice” in the last two-and-a-half years–nearly three years after she was asked to join the company by cofounder Matthew Prince while the two were studying at Harvard Business School.
“It takes a long time to feel ready,” she says “Everyone thinks it’s an overnight thing, but when you start out, it’s really hard.” In 2009, Zatlyn was graduating business school with a job offer from LinkedIn. Prior to getting her MBA, she had worked with Google and Toshiba. She was used to working for big corporations and when Zatlyn saw her classmates being offered attractive salaries, signing bonuses, and full relocation packages, she second guessed her decision a few times.
“Of course you feel like, ‘Wow, is this the right decision?’ she says. “I moved by packing up my things into a U-Haul and [Prince] and his brother drove the U-Haul across the country. It was not glamorous.”
“All I thought about was, ‘let’s keep making progress.’ I told myself, at the end of three months, if I wasn’t making progress, then I could think about what I would want to do next.”
In 2010, the company launched and two years later, CloudFlare was named Most Innovative Technology company by the Wall Street Journal and a Technology Pioneer by the World Economic Forum. Today, the company has 110 employees and protects around two million web properties.
No matter how unprepared they might have felt, Zatlyn and her cofounders felt strongly enough about their idea that they went for months without paying themselves a salary. If you ask some of the most successful entrepreneurs about great sacrifice, a regular paycheck is something that often goes first in hopes of seeing your idea come to life.
1. If The Opportunity Is Big Enough.
To rationalize why she was leaving the stability a LinkedIn job offer would provide, Zatlyn tells Fast Company she dutifully researched the market she was getting into.
“If you’re solving a problem that only five people have, then why would you dedicate all your time to solving it?” she says. Without a big market, your success is limited. CloudFlare, which works to make websites faster and more secure, is in high demand because everyone wants their website protected from “the bad guys.”
2. If The Idea Is Meaningful Enough
If you’re going to sacrifice everything and risk failing, it better be for an idea you’re proud of, says Zatlyn. “It might not be your favorite thing to do in your spare time, but you have to be proud enough to get up every day and night for it,” she says.
3. Your Target Audience
Instead of worrying about whether or not you’re ready to start, Patrick Brandon, cofounder of wearable smart device Olive, advises entrepreneurs to seek out their target users and listen to them. What do they think about your product? Your design? What does your target audience want out of a product or service like the one you’re offering?
In order to get this kind of feedback, however, you have to start before you’re ready.
“At some point, you’ll just have to put yourself out there and test it and get feedback,” says Olive’s other co-founder Hardy Simes. “Your idea is never going to be 100% ready to go. If you spend so much time on an idea or you wait until you have a perfect product, it might be too late.”
When you’re too scared to take action, you should remember that “there’s no good time to do a startup,” says Hiro Ellis, Olive’s third cofounder. He should know about bad timing. Ellis recently got married, and is now in debt. He also hasn’t had an income since deciding to work on Olive full-time last year. His cofounders, Simes and Brandon, are also working around the clock without the security of a paycheck.
What does keep the founders going is that they believe the market is lacking a stress management device like Olive. Sure, wearables are exploding all over the tech world right now, but Olive’s cofounders say their product is different because it’ll act more like a coach, guiding users to make small changes to better manage their stress in the long haul. Over time, Olive will have an idea of what patterns or daily activities lead its users to feel stressed or happy.
Olive launched its Indiegogo fundraising campaign on September 30 and has already raised more than 80% of its $100,000 goal.
Similar to Ellis’s thinking, Yasmin Belo-Osagie also lives life with the mantra that “there is no time where you’ll feel fully ready.” Belo-Osagie started non-profit organization She Leads Africa, which curates events to provide tools for female entrepreneurs, with cofounder Afua Osei after they met at McKinsey & Company’s Lagos, Nigeria office where they both worked at the time.
The company launched last month with a pitch contest for female-entrepreneurs in Africa, but just three weeks before the event, Belo-Osagie admits that they had only sold one ticket despite booking a room for 250 people.
“I was so nervous. I was terrified,” she says. “We were scared, but once you set the date, you can’t be overwhelmed.” In the end, She Leads Africa filled up their seats and was able to wrangle sponsorships from Google and Forbes, giving away more than $55,000 in cash prizes, among other much-needed resources, to women entrepreneurs. What kept them going, says Belo-Osagie, was that they set a launch date from the beginning.
“One of the problems when you don’t have a set date is that you allow yourself to talk, talk, and talk, plan, plan, and plan,” she explains. “There’s always more planning to be done. When you set a date, it forces your team to do it. What this does is people focus on the essentials and everything else that doesn’t matter will eventually fall into place.”
“Being an entrepreneur is not about your ability to plan, but your ability to react and solve problems,” she says.
It would be amazing if we could all start everything in life when we are utterly and completely ready. We would introduce our ideas to the market when they’re “perfect.” We would start companies when our bank accounts are “full” and ready for setbacks. We would plan and strategize until we’ve tackled every aspect of our business.
But in reality, if you wait until you feel ready, your opportunity has already passed. The difference between those who start before they’re ready and those who wait is that the former knows you won’t know what you can do until you do it.