“Even if your ambitions are huge, start slow, start small, build gradually, build smart.” So wrote mega-successful entrepreneur Gary Vaynerchuk in his book Crush It!: Why Now Is the Time to Cash In on Your Passion. The research bears out Gary Vee’s idea. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, 50% of small businesses fail within the first five years, and only 30% of startups will live to celebrate their first decade. Those numbers can discourage a new business owner from even trying.
So if you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started on your business journey, it’s time to get real, get serious, and realize you are playing the long game. If what you have is a side hustle and you plan to keep it that way, that’s cool. You can take a break or shut it down any time you need to.
If you are planning on running your own business for a couple of years, getting some new experience, and then transitioning back into your corporate cubicle, that’s cool, too. But if you are building a business because you have a passion for your craft, you get an adrenaline surge from making hard choices, and you’d rather die than do anything else, then start to develop patience. You’ll need it if you’re going to thrive as a business owner.
Building a business is a 7-10 year journey. When you start a business, you don’t reach your goal right away, unless your goal is so small it’s not worth calling a goal. Instead, you launch your shaky craft of a company out into the big blue waters of the free market and then paddle like a crazy person until you make it. Then, as soon as you can, you build something on your raft to make it a little bigger. And you keep doing that until you’ve built yourself an ocean liner or else sank beneath the tide — whichever comes first.
Why does it take so long to succeed in entrepreneurship? And how can you tip the odds in your favor?
Recognize that most overnight successes aren’t.
Jeff Bezos is the entrepreneur who started Amazon as an online used book retailer and eventually became the richest man in the world. He said, “All ‘overnight’ successes take 10 years.” In other words, the business owner has either been starting other businesses with little or no success and/or has been running the current business for the last decade or more before that business became successful. It took a decade for things to “click.”
Why does success take so long?
First, if success was easy, everyone would do it. More fundamentally, though, great success is mostly the accumulation of small successes over time. Work hard, launch the idea, get feedback, iterate, and try again. If you do that often enough and intelligently enough, you will succeed. Otherwise, you probably won’t and you should go start something new before you run out of capital. Hard work over time is the only way to success.
As soon as you recognize that no ship is going to sail into port bearing great wealth intended for your company, no angel investor will recognize your genius and put you over the top, and no big order is on its way to save your bacon at the last minute, then you can knuckle down and do the hard work that comes with building a business.
No, it’s not easy. That’s why everybody’s not doing it. But YOU are doing it. You have a vision. You set a goal. So keep digging in and working hard on your business, and eventually, you’ll be an “overnight” success, too.
Tip the odds in your favor.
Don’t start a business that’s doomed from the beginning. Some businesses just aren’t likely to make it and others are. How can you tip the odds of success in your favor?
Pick the right industry.
Know the reasons most small business fail. Avoid those.
Recognize the factors that contribute to entrepreneurial success. Adopt those.
Learn the stages of new business growth.
Businesses are like babies. They grow at predictable rates and stages. You can’t rush these growth stages. Neither can you slow them down. And just as new parents shouldn’t assume their toddler is headed for Harvard because he said a full sentence two whole months before the neighbor’s kid did, so you shouldn’t assume that early gains signal long-term success. Wait before you brag.
Also, if you are not willing to commit to your business for the next 7-10 years, find something else to do. Maybe side hustle your idea, keep it a hobby, or just focus on your job and family. The first 12-24 months in any business usually get spent finding product/market fit, and the following 12-24 months get eaten up with your new company achieving initial traction.
Many businesses take 2-3 years just to achieve a profit, and you can easily spend the first 2-5 years building a business that barely pays you a salary. When that happens, don’t get discouraged. Just remember that if your business has the potential to be really big one day, then it’s one of those types of businesses that usually take a LONG time to get moving. After all, a little Cessna 120 needs just 300 feet of runaway, but an 850-seat Airbus A-380 needs 9,515 feet before it can get airborne. You might need a long runway, too.
Enjoy the journey.
Entrepreneurship takes a lot of hard work, hustle, and grind. It can mean late nights, early mornings, and nail-biter months of looking at the budget and wondering how you’ll make it. But entrepreneurship can be a lot of fun, too.
Now that you know how long it’s going to take to build a business, just enjoy the journey. You only get to experience the first year of a business once, but you can feel the excitement and remember the crazy stories of your business’ first 12 months for the rest of your life. If you have a partner, know that a couple of years from now, you might be sipping coffee together and laughing over your first flailing efforts. Don’t let impossible expectations that you alone have set for your business overshadow your pleasure in running it. You probably aren’t going to make a million bucks your first year, anyway, and you need to get over it.
Learn to celebrate the small successes. (By the way, your family and friends will appreciate it if you take this advice to heart. You’ll be a much better partner, parent, child, and friend if you keep your wits about you.)
You never really arrive. So keep going.
Getting a business to its 10th birthday is only the beginning, the first milestone in your business journey. At this stage, you probably work with some employees, enjoy predictable revenue, and see year-over-year growth. Your primary goal has shifted from building a successful business to growing a successful company and ultimately refocused again on staying in business.
Remember, though, there is no finite goal when it comes to entrepreneurship. We are all playing is an infinite game with no finish line, and the only objective of this game is to keep playing the game. If your first business fails, learn from it and go start another one. If your first business succeeds, sell it, and start something new. The pleasure is in the journey, not the arrival. Be patient. You’ll get there.
We’re rooting for you from the sidelines, not the finish line.
Now, go build your business.
Check out all of the articles in the ‘How to Survive the First Year of Your Business’ series: