Man Asking Questions, Mistakes and Business Lessons

A little over 19 years ago, my two business partners and I set off on the entrepreneurial journey that became Sunwapta Solutions. Over the years, we’ve had some successes, made some (costly) mistakes, and sometimes learned a few things.

People typically don’t learn much from easy success, aside from a false sense of security and overconfidence. Nor do they believe they will make the same mistakes you did – until they do.

I can’t prevent you from making any mistakes. Nor should I.

You need to forge your unique path.

I can share some of the lessons I’ve learned so you can start from a more informed point and go forth to make your own mistakes on your path to success.

19 Powerful (and Expensive) Lessons

  1. Working with partners you can trust, is way easier than going it alone.
  2. Choose partners (and founding teams) based on diversity of talents and focus – you don’t want to be tripping over each other for 19 plus years.
  3. We all say we want to employ great people. Define what great people look like for your business. This exercise is more complicated than you think. Only hire great people.
  4. The founders’ beliefs and personalities will become your accidental default culture. Creating a culture on auto-pilot is a bad idea. Think about what will best serve your customers and business as you grow. Define your company culture early and intentionally, then only hire great people who fit with that culture.
  5. People with integrity and drive can often learn the required skills. You can’t teach the first two qualities in a way that makes business sense – you’ll have enough other challenges.
  6. Create momentum. Know where you are heading and leave many of the nitty-gritty details to later. Move now. When you lose momentum, you risk going backwards, which takes a lot more energy to restart.
  7. Fail forwards. Or backwards. Don’t get caught up in the terminology. You’ll learn more by doing and making mistakes than by planning for every contingency upfront. You’ll also know more when it is time to execute that portion of the plan. Probably.
  8. Your planning will be wrong. That’s okay. Plan anyways. It makes you think, and you can see your impending mistakes while they remain small.
  9. Mistakes are rarely fun except in hindsight. You’ll make them anyway. Likely some big ones. Fear will trick you into believing the status quo is safe. Pause, regroup, learn, adjust the plan, and keep moving.
  10. Learn from others where you can. Read. Observe. Ask for help. Plenty of people have gone through something similar. Apply the useful parts of what you learn so that it sticks.
  11. Like snowflakes, your business (and the people in it) will be different from every other company out there. What works for someone else might not work for you and vice versa. Adapt rather than blindly adopt.
  12. Businesses also have a lot in common – borrow ideas from your competitors and even better, steal ideas from other industries.
  13. Don’t literally steal. Have ethics and integrity in everything you do. These values seem obvious, but you’ll see others breaking this rule. You might find it tempting to follow suit, especially when times are tough. Once your reputation is gone, running a business gets a lot harder.
  14. Times will be tough at some point. Keep moving. Don’t take it personally. You are not your business.
  15. Take care of yourself and each other. Make sure your business can survive personal challenges. Life is messy. When it gets ugly, the mess spreads.
  16. Don’t beat yourself up over mistakes – big or small. Learn. Move on, and don’t make them again. Find a support network.
  17. Celebrate your little wins as much as the big ones. They are all fleeting. Only a continuous journey is guaranteed.
  18. Eat your own. Become your biggest competitor by continuing to improve and innovate. Or someone else will.
  19. Learn how to sell. Do it right. Create value, help people navigate the buying decision, and be a trusted guide.  Build great stuff and provide exceptional service. If you don’t figure out how to make sales, you won’t survive.  Pretending you aren’t in sales won’t solve this basic equation either. If you can’t get your product or service into the hands of people willing to pay for it, all the best intentions won’t matter.

Bonus Lesson for Year 20

Marketing, sales, and customer/client relationships are all part of the same more extensive system. Break one, and you will eventually suffer in the others. People and systems help keep it all running smoothly. Bake it into your culture and business strategy.