Ten lessons from a start-up entrepreneur (final)

By 15th December 2014English


Eight years after having graduated at Vlerick Business School, I was asked to share my thoughts and experiences with the students. It took me eight hours to write down the ten ‘lessons learned’ along the way. It will take you three times eight minutes or so to read. Here is the final, third part: lessons 8 to 10.

8. Think big – spend small
Think big, for sure. We were very, very, very small when we signed up Schiphol Airport as our first customer and Scania as our fifth or so. We were very, very, very small when institutions such as Bloomberg or World Economic Forum awarded us. We wanted to conquer the world (to make a difference) and were not afraid to think big. At the same time, we were very, very, very conservative in terms of spending. I waited quite long before hiring extra employees – most probably too long. You can only spend what you have and in our case, that was not much. Yet that should never, ever prevent you from aiming big. Be naïve enough to take that leap of faith, and smart enough to learn fast along the way.

9. Misery vs. dream (get some sleep)
Like most things in life, you can look at things from different angles.
One way to look at start-up entrepreneurship is: going from one misery to the next and trying to manage in between. You have to solve many problems. You have to overcome all kind of obstacles. It always goes slower than you want and it always costs more than you want. Well, that’s life. Just cope with it.
Many of my classmates chose for a job in consultancy, investment banks, conglomerates. They were sure of their salary and a clear view on their career path for the years to come. They work 60 to 80 hours per week and have 3 to 6 weeks holiday per year. In a start-up, you work 24/7 and you don’t know how to spell ‘holiday’. If you don’t work, your company suffers. There is no such thing as work/life balance.
And yet, it is the best job in the world. Because the other way to look at it, and which is just as true: you live your dream. You get to create your own company, work with great people, for great customers, on great projects. You are your own boss. Your personal values are what defines the company.
Indeed, you can look at your situation from different perspectives and all of them are equally true. Whether you see it as a nightmare or a dream, just make sure you don’t forget to sleep. It is a long road, a tough one too, and you need to stay focused yet relaxed. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

10. Sales. Fixes. Everything.
Never forget… when all things go wrong, when your Board is driving you mad, when your back office is lagging behind, when media is reporting bad stories, when you can’t sleep – can’t breathe – can’t stop thinking anymore… always remember this: sales fixes everything.
It really does. Your investors shut up, your cash position improves, your team can smile again, you’ll find the tools and the resources to fix other problems. Having sales means you exist. So stop reading – go out there and sell. Spread the word and spread your passion. And smile!

by Maarten Michielssens
Founder and CEO