The reasons why startups and businesses fail have been written about exhaustively. But what about what makes them succeed?
The media makes us firmly believe that the main ingredient of a successful startup has to do with its product or industry, namely that in order to get an idea off the ground and into the skies of success, it must be completely new and groundbreaking. Well, it turns out that that’s not exactly true.Building a successful business does not require you to reinvent the wheel. In most cases, it’s about coming up with innovative ways to make that wheel turn more smoothly than ever before.
So, what are the real ingredients to startup success? Using a recent Q&A with Tommy John CEO Tom Patterson, who won the 2017 Entrepreneur of the Year Award for disrupting an unlikely industry with their Kevin Hart-approved, problem-solving line of men’s underwear, I have curated for you the most pivotal steps to startup success.
1. Ignore The No
There will always be a laundry list of reasons why it doesn’t make sense to go for it, why you will likely fail, and why you just simply shouldn’t quit your day job. Business and marketing specialists have drilled “top million reasons why you’ll fail” lists into their readers’ heads.
The key? If it’s something you’re passionate about and you know you can make it better, “take that first step forward and just do it,” says Patterson. “I had no background or connections in clothing design nor manufacturing, and to this day I believe that was my greatest asset.”
How could that be? Well, not having a background in something means that you’re less likely to conform to industry standards. It prompts you to find new, more efficient ways to get things done, to ask new questions that help to challenge processes that are followed on autopilot. Essentially, your freshness means you don’t have the tunnel vision of those inundated in the trenches.
“There will always be a million reasons not to get started. Ignore them,” encourages Patterson. If like Patterson you don’t want to be the “coulda, shoulda, woulda guy who wakes up one day and wonders ‘what if,’” then you need to take the leap.
2. Find Your Voice
As previously discussed, it’s more likely than not that the space you want to enter is a very crowded space with bold heritage and up-and-coming brands alike. For Patterson, the case was no different with men’s underwear. In order to get noticed in a crowded space, you have to inhabit a unique and compelling brand voice. “It’s incredibly important to have a unique brand voice,” Patterson agrees.
But how? One effective way is to listen to what’s already out there and identify where those voices are lacking. For example, Patterson found other brands in the underwear space to be unapproachable and non-relatable, which encouraged him to go in the opposite direction with Tommy John, who is now known for their relatability and humor. “We say it like it is and talk about real life struggles guys have with their underwear.”
3. Satisfy Unmet Needs
You’ll hear marketing and business blogs alike preach about brand authenticity and credibility, because it’s no secret that consumers desire credibility from brands. But what builds that crucial characteristic? According to Patterson, it’s “creating a product that solves an unmet need. That’s really what we do at the end of the day.” Make a product or service that solves a problem or fills a need in a market and get people to try it, and make sure what you sell lives up to your claims. Initial feedback will clue you in on how close to hitting the mark you are.
But solving problems and identifying needs are of course easier said than done. A first step towards finding this ingredient is to get personal. What problems do you yourself encounter on a daily basis? What would make your daily life better? All of Tommy John’s products, for example, originate from problems Patterson personally had with his clothing.
4. Make A Commitment
Once you have a product or service, branding, and a business plan, successfully coming to market is where the real work begins. According to Patterson, coming to market successfully requires “commitment and resilience. [They] will be your most important assets.” There’s no room for commitment-phobes in business.
But commitment to what exactly? In the case of Tommy John, they clearly claim to be committed to solving problems men face with their apparel, using humor and relatability to tell their story. So there are two ways: commitment to the product philosophy and commitment to the brand voice and story.
There’s also commitment and resilience in terms of simply charging ahead in the business world. You need to have a stick-with-it attitude, an unshakeable work ethic, and be willing to do whatever it takes to secure that meeting or hit your goal, knowing that in the end it will be worth it.
5. Educate & Relate To Your Audience
Consumer-first business mantras and attitudes work for a reason. Your success, at the end of the day, lies in the hands of your audience and the people you convince to buy into you. Without them, you have nothing.
You can put your customers first in a few ways. One, learn how to talk to them. This goes back to finding your brand voice, which hinges on who you plan on talking to. How do they relate to others best? What kind of relationship do they crave and remain loyal to? Tapping into these answers will show you the best ways of communicating with your target audience.
As you grow, don’t neglect them. Engage with them and listen to them. Deliver educational content they ask for on a consistent basis that they can rely on. Let them know you’ve thought about them from the product development stage through to the sales process.
Essentially, you must think about them every step of the way, and their needs must be put before yours and centered around every business decision you make.
6. Follow Your Gut
Studies show that 50% of new businesses fail to last longer than five years. The key to achieving longevity in a competitive market, according to Patterson, is “slow and steady growth and following your gut. Your gut never lies.” Early on, Patterson made the gut-based decision not to rely on VC funding because he wanted Tommy John to grow at its own pace and maintain control of the business. “Large funding rounds can’t secure longevity in the business,” he says.
Instead, entrepreneurs should focus on perfecting the product and understanding the customer. There are many things that will pop up ready to distract you, but it’s essential to maintain focus on those two guiding lights: product and people.
7. Focus On Quality
One of the great challenges of startups is growth — maintaining that consumer appeal while also working toward appealing to a wider consumer base. The answer? Producing a quality product or service. “From inception, [quality] has been our primary focus,” says Patterson. “As we grow, we are manically focused on maintaining the same level of quality in every product we produce.”
Do this and make that product or service accessible to the masses, and you’re on the right path. There are many things beyond your control, but the quality of your product or service isn’t one of those things.
But what is quality? Essentially, this goes back to putting your customers first. Quality means satisfying what they’re asking for. Listen and learn about what they are and are not looking for, and deliver accordingly.
8. Stay True To Your Vision
Every brand needs to have an established and authentic vision. The largest challenge for a startup is, Patterson argues, “stay[ing] true to your vision despite the consistent pressure otherwise.” With growth often comes more and more opportunities — opportunities to add products, acquisitions, partnerships, funding, expansion into other categories, etc. You’ll be pulled in a million and one different directions, but it’s essential to act as the gatekeeper and always remain incredibly selective in what makes sustainable sense for your business in the long run.
As opportunities arise, perform the aforementioned gut-check and ask yourself if you think it will dominate the brand you’ve spent years cultivating, or if you think it will instead help you grow in a way that’s authentic to your vision. If it’s an opportunity for a partnership, for example, consider the source and make sure you believe that they have a true understanding and genuine love for your product and brand.