Entrepreneurs may come up with a winning startup idea overnight, but putting it into action takes much more time and plenty of mistakes. Each misstep can be a learning opportunity as long as it isn't your nascent company's downfall. Here are six things you can do in the pre-launch phase to make sure your startup actually sees the light of day and winds up succeeding.
There are thousands of great startup ideas out there, but not every entrepreneur has the confidence to put them into action, and some of them get shot down by naysayers. There's no startup founder who doesn't encounter self-doubt or skeptics, but if you can overcome these obstacles, you’re on the right path.
Don’t waste time. Disregard unconstructive criticism, and stay focused on your idea. One way to do that is to be meticulous about planning: Put together a strategic roadmap for your first steps, and outline all the possible situations where things might go wrong. You won't anticipate all of them, but it's an important exercise in those early days.
When starting my travel company, Wakanow.com, I spent hours scrutinizing every single aspect of my business plan, from how I’d pitch airlines to the features I needed to look for in a marketing agency. You can't expect everything to go to plan, but a plan can help you know what to expect.
It goes without saying that you'll need to thoroughly research the market sector you're trying to enter. But don't just look for your competitors' blind spots—figure out what's working for them, too. Once you do, you can begin thinking of ways to improve on what's already working for customers in that space, even if the idea originally came from a competitor. Sometimes real disruption is just about doing things better, not dramatically differently.
In my own research, I discovered that local competition for my startup was almost nonexistent. There were hundreds of other online travel sites around the world (Travelocity, Orbit, Expedia, et al) but few specializing in Africa. I studied the way these companies work, then determined which approaches I wanted to replicate and which ones I'd improve upon in order to target my own company's segment of the market.
Make sure your ideas are clear—then make sure again. Muddled thoughts lead to muddled business plans, and that lack of clarity can be a huge stumbling block. There are already plenty of unknowns to navigate in the pre-launch period, so you'll want to do everything you can to minimize them. Simplify your central business idea to its core components, then build upon it so that every feature serves that main mission.
What works for me is mapping all this out in pen and paper, or by typing out some notes. It's almost like a reverse-brainstorm: Sit down and simplify your idea, and only then start to build a logistical foundation around it. For example, if my business were to spread to Tanzania, I'd start answering the "what," "why," and "how," of meeting that challenge: What would be the attractions there that would make it a priority over expanding to other countries? Why would people not choose another travel company? How would mine solve all the basics of traveling in Tanzania, from the visa process to vaccinations?
Seek advice from other successful entrepreneurs. Through networking, I’ve built relationships with friends and mentors who've overcome some of the same startup challenges I've faced. Whenever I had a question, I had someone reliable to reach out to. You should also spend your pre-launch phase brushing up on the art of entrepreneurship itself. Before launching my company in 2008, I spent a lot of my downtime reading business books and magazines, tuning into business news, and talking to people. Even if you only gain a little insight and it still feels pretty abstract until you actually dive in, that's still knowledge you didn’t have before.
Funding is usually minimal in the early stages of startups, so hiring full-time staffers is nearly impossible—it’s hard to get dedicated talent without offering a salary you can’t afford. Save that for later, and outsource the work as you take off. This is also a great way to find talent as your business grows. I’ve brought some employees on full-time—including one of my web developers—who began working for me on a freelance basis.
Don’t focus on turning a fast profit, because chances are that you won't. This actually goes hand in hand with the importance of clarifying your ideas: How can you possibly make sound decisions when all your energy is tied up in the financials? Of course, that doesn't mean throwing those considerations to the wind. It just means that the stages before you launch should be devoted first and foremost to developing a sound business model and following it with a strategic plan for growth. Once you get those things right, the money will be there.
As entrepreneurs, we all make mistakes, but it's those who learn from them that ultimately make it. You need to do that right from the get-go, otherwise your startup may not have a chance to launch at all.
Obinna Ekezie is the cofounder and CEO of Wakanow.com, the leading full-service, online travel company in Africa. He is a member of the Young Entrepreneur Council (YEC), an invite-only organization comprised of the world's most promising young entrepreneurs.