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5 Things to Avoid in Your First Year as a Founder

A few days ago LinkedIn reminded me that it's been a year since I left my corporate job to become a full time co-founder and CEO at Vervoe. 365 days of uncertainty, hard work, excitement and personal growth on the startup rollercoaster. 

I don't spend much time looking back and reflecting. I focus on what I need to do to make our company successful. But as the warm messages started flooding in I couldn't help but look back on how much I've learned, and what I might have done differently.

Mistakes are inevitable. How we respond to them is what matters, and sometimes the way, and speed, in which we respond can determine a company's fate. I wanted to share some of the mistakes I made in my first year because I benefited so much from the advice of others. The never-ending cycle of founder-to-founder help is what makes our world so special, and if even one other founder finds this useful then it was more than worth it. 

The good news is that all these things are in your control, as they were in mine. 

#1 - Falling into the Negativity Trap 

The first year is hard and full of uncertainty. You'll be surrounded by naysayers. From raising capital to getting your first customers, everything can be an uphill battle. Every once in a while you'll doubt your probability of success, and you may even doubt yourself. It's almost inevitable.

This happened to me for a short period, and I wasn't even aware of it. I was seeing things through a negative prism. The facts hadn't changed, only my attitude. Once I realized what was happening, I began taking steps to snap out of it.  

There is simply no upside in drowning in doubt and focusing on the negatives. It achieves nothing. Instead, be optimistic and remember why you started your venture. Focus on your mission because that's your north star. Wake up every morning and tell yourself you're going to create new opportunities.

I'm not saying everything should be seen through rose-colored glasses, not at all. Scepticism is vitally important as a founder. Continue to question your assumptions. Just don't get down when you realize they were wrong, or when things don't work out as planned. Take the hit, learn from it and move on.

Be positive, smile and enjoy the journey. Even the hard knocks.

#2 - Getting Sentimental

Along the journey, you'll discover that you invested in the wrong things. Sometimes even in the wrong people. You made the best decisions, or educated guesses, at the time. But the market has since hit you between the eyes with the truth. You guessed wrong. 

It's hard to change course, especially when the path you chose made so much sense at the time. It's even harder when relationships are at stake. But if something isn't working, you need to be ruthless and make the necessary changes. 

In the very early days I found it difficult to make changes. It's partly due to my loyal nature. But I quickly realized that time is one the most important resources at a founder's disposal. Spending it foolishly can be catastrophic. When it's time to make a chance, it can't come soon enough. Moreover, if there is doubt, it usually means there is no doubt.

#3 - Not Asking for Help

There is no place for pride in the startup journey. Even with the best help in the world, the odds are stacked against you. Knowing when to ask for help is a skill in itself. As founders, it's our job to know what we're lacking and source the necessary ingredients from elsewhere. It can be as small as asking a question, as as big as appointing and advisor or consultant.

As CEO, I had to learn that it's not my job to know everything, or do everything myself. It's my job to put the best team together, and it's my duty to educate myself. Both those things can only be done by working with others. Entrepreneurship is a team sport.

#4 - Not Being Impactful

I reached a point where I was spending too much time on non-core activities. The administrative burden grew and grew, and before long I was spending hours on internal tasks every day. This took me away from the market and prevented me doing high-impact activities. In short, I wasn't helping my company as much as I could.

I listed the areas in which I felt I could be most impactful - driving strategy, evangelising, building and mentoring our team and managing our capital. Then I set out to delegate our outsource everything else. Everything. Failure to do that would have resulted in poor management and poor resource allocation. Founder time should be seen as a scarce and valuable resource, and it should be used wisely.

#5 - Micromanaging

Founders are used to doing everything. That's what it's like in the beginning. When the team grows it's often hard to let go. The excuses are enervating and never-ending. "Nobody can do it as well as I can" was my mantra. But if you hold onto everything, you won't ever be able to scale.  

There comes a time when a founder needs to shift from doing to mentoring. In practice, this means giving people direction and feedback, not doing their job for them. It also means understanding, and accepting, that things won't be done in exactly the way you used to do them yourself. It's a challenge at first, but when you finally do let go you'll feel great. Your team won't let you down, and you'll have more freedom.

Be Yourself, Learn from Others

Perhaps the hardest part about being a founder is the need to constantly reinvent yourself. Good founders adapt when things change. Sometimes it's the market that changes, sometimes it's your company and sometimes it's your mindset. The most important thing is to recognize that change is required, and act. That's the skill want to get really good at.