Startups in a nutshell: Nik started online wine merchant Red Squirrel Wine in October 2012 and has been running it out of Workspace since November 2013. He tells us about the importance of taking the occasional step back.
I don't particularly want to get run over by a bus. But if I did, I'm confident Red Squirrel Wine wouldn't go with me.
You put so much effort, love, sweat and tears into giving life to this runt of an enterprise, that one of the hardest things about building it up is letting it go.
'Eventually the business can't be you, and you can't be the business.' I was given this important piece of advice about six to eight months after setting up Red Squirrel Wine. I was still working the majority of my time elsewhere, and the 'company' (what there was of it) was almost entirely reliant on me and the limited effort I could put into it.
If I'd had that untimely rendezvous with the 391 back then, there would have been no Red Squirrel Wine. Here are a few tips to make sure your startup outlives the proverbial bus.
1. Hire well
Those first two or three employees are critical. Not only must they be able to do the job in its most basic sense, but they must have a founder's mentality. Let's face it, if this all goes anywhere, it'll be as much because of them as you. Invest the time to find the right people. I went through three and sometimes four rounds with candidates to find the right one. It adds immeasurably to your workload, but it's worth it.
2. Make yourself an employee
There are lots of ways you can structure a business. I went for a limited company with a board of non-executive directors, each bringing something different and valuable to the table. And while I sit on the board, for all intents and purposes I'm an employee like anyone else. This doesn't mean much in practice, but it makes a crucial psychological difference to how I work: I'm working for the company, the board and shareholders. Most entrepreneurs will say that 'being my own boss' is one of the biggest incentives for starting a business. On a day to day basis it is. But you need to work for someone other than yourself. It keeps you focused, keeps you honest, and keeps the company in the bigger picture. Remember, you're not the company, and the company isn't you.
3. Give away your knowledge
Have in place a proper knowledge management from the start. Red Squirrel Wine began on the back of what and who I knew. New employees, if they are to succeed, need access to that; likewise, hopefully they bring similarly useful connections. Your contacts list, your LinkedIn connections, whatever information it is, unless it really is private and sensitive, make it available to everyone. Sign up to Google's business apps, get everyone synced across file storage, calendars, address books and so forth. Don't hoard information, share it.
4. Keep tidy books
Whether you're doing it or you're paying a bookkeeper/accountant, make sure all your finances are up to date, in good order and easily accessible. For small businesses, particularly service businesses, a straightforward, affordable bit of cloud-based software such as KashFlow can make a huge difference. As Red Squirrel Wine grew, we moved our books and general business management to Brightpearl, which is a more complex (and much more expensive) bit of kit better suited to retailers. There are several others out there. Make sure it's all in one place, produces legible management reports quickly, and again, make sure everyone who needs to can readily access it.
5. Take a holiday
Deep breath. Yes, a holiday. The earlier the better. As soon as you can afford to, step away and leave the new team to it. Trust them! I was fortunate that we began hiring in November 2013, had a busy Christmas, then as is the cyclical way of the wine trade, a quiet January. So even if it was just for a few days, I took a holiday. Turned off the phone. Checked emails very sporadically. And just let them get on with it. The world didn't end. Red Squirrel Wine was still there when I got back.
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