Whenever you try something new, there’s always a learning curve. And when you’re launching a new business, that learning curve is incredibly steep. Whether it’s not knowing how to craft a pitch or exactly when to go to market, it can be hard as a first-time entrepreneur to find your footing.
So we asked veteran entrepreneurial advisors — Matthew Lombardi, the managing director at One Eleven, an innovation hub that helps tech startups scale and Gray Graffam, the director of The Hub, the University of Toronto Scarborough’s incubator — as well as Shelby Austin, CEO and co-founder of AI company Arteria AI, for advice. Here are the common pitfalls that rookies make — and, more importantly, how to sidestep them.
Trying to do everything yourself
Austin argues that the key component to any startup’s success is not the product or the technology, but the people you hire. It’s important to build up your team — not just yourself. “Strong teams are incredibly important,” she says. A common mistake that first-time founders make, Austin says, is focusing on your own vision and not looking to your team for input.
As a young entrepreneur at her first startup, ATD Legal Services Professional Corporation, Austin had put herself at the centre of her company, she says. “I think, with some maturity and learning, I realized that taking in the entire’s team’s input and holding my team up is so important. Building an amazing world-class team has been a critical part of our success.”
Endlessly tinkering with your concept
At The Hub, Graffam has helped more than 180 startups launch in a number of sectors. One pitfall he often sees is founders getting too comfortable with the development phase. The danger is that you can get stuck trying to perfect every detail and never launch. “You have a team, you’re enjoying the experience, you’re learning, you’re connecting with others,” he says. “But you have to get on the other side of the fence to where you’re getting revenue.”
To get out of that refining phase, Austin says you need trust your intuition and put faith in the idea. “Ultimately, if you’re the one who actually decided to go build the idea, there’s probably a pretty good reason why you’re there,” she says. At some point, you have to take a leap of faith and test your concept.
Sticking to the script
You can’t use the same pitch over and over again — you need to tailor your approach, says Lombardi. He has worked with dozens of entrepreneurs to develop their businesses post-seed and has found that early-stage entrepreneurs often have trouble articulating their vision to specific audiences. “There’s no one-size-fits-all way,” he says. As a founder, you’ll need to speak to investors, potential recruits, customers and the public — and each group is interested in different things. Understanding how to craft a pitch that’s perfect for each potential audience will lead to success. A pitch should address different audiences’ questions, their particular problems and how your proposed solutions will work for them.
Letting “no” stop you
It’s hard to not be discouraged when you hear “no.” In fact, you’re likely to get a lot of rejections before you start hearing “yes,” says Lombardi. But, rather than quitting, asking people for critical and constructive criticism will improve your idea in the long run.
“When you get a ‘no,’ ask for constructive feedback, ask what you can do better,” he says. “Lots of good people are willing to share their time and help you refine your idea.”
Not asking for help
The typical image of an entrepreneur, a lonely self-starter who does it all on their own, might not actually be the type of founder you want to emulate. While following your gut and standing your ground is important, being able to talk to others and gain insights from your fellow entrepreneurs is indispensable.
Austin suggests creating what she calls a “founder’s circle” — a group of other entrepreneurs at the same point in their careers as you are. It “does wonders for the heart,” she says, to be able to vent to, seek advice from and bounce ideas off of people who are also going through what you are.
Graffam notes that finding a mentor, someone who’s been where you are, is the key to avoiding major pitfalls. “You need people who can, through their own expertise as entrepreneurs and business professionals, lead you through what these early steps are going to entail.” he says.
Lombardi also recommends asking for help when you need it. “Reach out to people. Ask for introductions. Never be afraid to ask for help,” says Lombardi. “The Toronto startup community is an incredibly generous group of people, and people will help if you ask.”
Looking for support to build your business? Find connections with funders, mentors and advisors here.