Five important things I learnt starting a small business
It's three years since I left my job, started my company and set out to reinvent the backpack for safe travel called RiutBag. Why did I do it? Because backpacks are the wrong way round. The person behind you can get into your backpack more easily than you can. That's not ideal if you commute in a busy city every day with important devices and valuables with you.
I am a one-person startup who had no experience in this industry. With the help of the crowd online, I prototyped the RiutBag, created and successfully funded two Kickstarter campaigns and I'm now working on my 8th production run with RiutBags bringing safe travel to people all over the world. Every Friday, I look at the questions I've received from other people starting up and I share the things I've learnt. There are so many people out there with good ideas, they just have to make them happen.
I could pretend it's all easy, but what you really need to know before, or as, you start is what is challenging. So here are some of the most important things I've learnt so far:
1) Every detail is your decision
Going from being a consumer to a company for consumers is a big jump. As a consumer, the choice is limited to a few things other people have made. As a designer, you are only limited by what is physically and financially possible. The range of design decisions you have to make to narrow down *everything possible* to your one design is overwhelming at first and then you begin to function on the correct level, understanding every decision made and how it impacts the whole.
Every angle, every material - including the thread colour and material - needs to be considered and chosen on a RiutBag. My tip is this: have good reasons for every decision you take and don't say "oh, it doesn't matter". This way, if something goes wrong you can understand why it went wrong, you can update your thinking and make a better decision next time.
2) Be ready to learn every day
I knew my first startup years would involve a steep learning curve. In fact, I forgot there would ever be another time after that! However, coming into your second year, you might begin to think: I know what I'm doing! Perhaps you do. But that's the moment when it's time to start challenging yourself again.
Experience is great but feeling comfortable because things are getting easy isn't the right place to be, in my view. Think long term and think big, weird and wonderful for your customers and the future. Here's a snippet of a great interview with David Bowie talking about putting yourself in a position where you can make exciting things.
3) Your suppliers will make mistakes
Having high expectations of your suppliers is good. Expecting perfection will lead to disappointment for you and your customers. You'll learn this yourself as problems arise for the first time. When you're working with suppliers, learn to talk about which problems are likely to arise and agree how you're going to handle them when they happen.
In your first meeting with a new supplier, a simple sentence like this can help: "We know that it's possible that things will go wrong. It's important that we can handle those things well together. Let's discuss." If you can create a space to communicate problems early and well when things go wrong, it might help you to build an extra week into your freight shipping time for example. The definition of "perfection" with your suppliers might just be planning ahead and good communication.
4) If your idea is good, someone will copy it
I knew when I started out that the RiutBag is a simple idea that makes a positive impact on travellers' lives. Many people warned me off starting because it was so likely that someone would copy it. Here's my view: nothing in the world would ever happen if people failed to make new things because they might be copied.
If your idea is patentable (in the strict UK sense) and you have the money for it, go for it. Otherwise, you'll be able to register for the weaker design protection. This stops people copying the exact way in which you have designed your product but doesn't protect function.
In reality, unless you've got a lot of cash and a good legal team, your real tools for fighting copying is to roll up your sleeves and design something even better. Keep moving, make small production runs and keep improving your designs. Listen to customer feedback, respond quickly and make changes. You could go the litigious route and spend the rest of your life in court whilst your product remains stationary. Or, you could choose to compete, forget the legal stuff and have fun building the best version of the thing you create every production run. After 10 years of each option -the legal route or the competition - which do you think will have been a more awesome use of your time? And which option do you think your customers would prefer?
5) Starting up is different from building a company
Looking back, I think I spent the first 2 years starting up. I had no income, no timeline, I was just hungry and willing to do anything to make it work the hard way. I did nothing but think about making RiutBags and how to reach breakeven. That was startup mode: short term, sprinting, out of breath, everything was the first time and I was learning how to answer every question.
Suddenly, I was there. I'd reached breakeven and it was time to build a company that could stand on its own two feet and repeatedly keep making new things, keep creating better things and tell more people that the RiutBag exists. This requires a completely different set of rules. Building a company requires you to balance short and - the new rather exciting - medium term. Think about the structure of the year, look back at past data! Understand what you got wrong and what you do well, change the bad and enhance the good. It's a different ball game. You'll work out when it's time to switch from one to the other.
My favourite analogy for starting up and then running a business
There's no other analogy I've found that fits more closely than this. Starting your own business is like jumping off a cliff and building an functioning plane on the way down.
The analogy works because:
1) You start with no knowledge and you're forced to pick it up very quickly.
2) Your life and future is in your hands, so you have to make it work.
3) Time is rushing by and every second counts before you've got your company/plane working.
4) At the last moment, just as you manage to swoop up and avoid crashing into the rocks below, you will have done something you thought almost impossible previously.
5) This is the most important one, you're now flying. That's good. But you've got to keep this thing flying. You need to refuel, change parts and avoid crashing into things, all whilst flying it yourself of course :)