The first year is always the hardest.
The first year of trying to get back into shape. The first year of learning a language. The first year of learning a new skill.
For us, it was the first year of launching our company. While this wasn’t my first time starting a new business, I’ve learned that it doesn’t get any easier.
You make same sacrifices of time away from loved ones, face internal doubts at 3 am in the morning, and you burn the midnight oil with faith that what you’re building will make an impact on the world.
And it should be this hard. Because the rewards of building a startup are boundless. Every day we get to hear from real people on the other side of the world who love using our product, work to build a vision that serves a purpose and learn more in 12 months than we would have in five years.
It’s a never-ending rollercoaster that brings with it ecstasy, pain, and fulfillment—often simultaneously. This is why we do our best bring you behind the curtains of our business to show you what it’s really like, and share the hard lessons we’ve learned.
Here are 12 startup lessons that we’ve learned in our first 12 months.
1. Question the status quo
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “What if I did the opposite for X period of time?” This question positions you to accomplish two things: 1) ask if the traditional way of doing something is actually the best way, or if it’s because it’s always been done that way. 2) “X period of time” gives you an out. It allows you to test your theory without committing long-term.
When we first started, we had no idea that lessons (especially language lessons) could be innovated into a new model. If we didn’t question the status quo, we wouldn’t be here today.
2. Let the small things slide
Things will go wrong when you’re running a startup. Let me rephrase, almost everything will go wrong. But as long as you’re standing on two feet, the sun will rise again, and you’ll figure it out. In a world where your job is to put out fire after fire, you’ve got to learn to let the small ones go so you can focus on the big ones.
3. Don’t try to be the popular kid on the block
Growing up, all any of us wanted was to be the popular kid on the block. The boy or girl that would make friends and be liked by everyone. We’ve learned that the opposite applies in business, at least ours.
When we started, we had to decide how we wanted to position ourselves in the market. From a pricing perspective, we knew that current market offerings were extremely expensive and over-priced, making it difficult for people to learn a language. The alternative options were cheap tools that didn’t provide quality value nor results to the end user.
We wanted to be a high-quality brand, without the heavy costs associated with it. By making this decision, we chose to isolate ourselves from those who wanted a free or cheap solution, and those that want to pay thousands of dollars for a fully immersive learning environment.
Both are viable learning solutions, it’s just not who we are.
4. No one cares what you’re selling
This is worth repeating. No one cares what you’re selling, other than your loving mother of course. What everyone else in the world cares about is their own problems and how you can solve it for them.
We made the mistake early on pitching the solution of what we were bringing to the market but no one listened. Then we shared why we started our company. The beginnings of our journey, the purpose behind it, and the ineffectiveness of current solutions is what got people inspired and fired up about what we had to offer. Even today, we rarely talk about what we’re selling, but why we’re doing this.
5. Complexity is the killer of businesses and peace
Most things in our life and business are more complex than they need to be. There are layers and layers of complexity that we ourselves add because it’s natural to assume that problems come with complex solutions.
More often than not, we’ve learned that this isn’t true. If you force yourself to take a step back and see the bigger picture, the simplest solutions are usually the best solutions.
6. Put yourself out of a job
When you’ve put your heart and soul into something, it’s easy to be caught up in doing everything yourself. This is what Michael E. Gerber, author of E-Myth, famously calls working in your business when you should be working on your business.
I still struggle with this sometimes, but scaling a business requires bringing in smarter and more competent people than you, and letting them execute. In other words, you’re always trying to put yourself out of a job.
7. How do I protect the downside?
This is my favorite lesson from Richard Branson. As wild and adventurous as he seems, his most popular advice to entrepreneurs is to always protect the downside. An example is when Branson started Virgin Airlines, he structured a deal with Boeing so that if the business doesn’t work out, he had the option to return all of the planes. This type of deal was unheard of in those days, and his total risk of capital was a few thousand dollars instead of millions.
The question isn’t meant to prevent you from taking blind risks, but to help you take calculated risks. The first one can put you out of business, while the latter may change your business forever.
8. Stay in your lane
When Oprah was at the height of her career with her hit TV show, she would constantly remind her team to ‘run their own race’, instead of focusing on what the competition was doing. When you’re in a horse race and you’re always looking back to the riders in the back, you’ll fall behind via distraction, or give up if you’re already behind.
Our team is always reminded to stay in our own lane by keeping our focus on the customers, not the competition. The rest will come together.
9. Let them fall on the grass (including you)
Onboarding and training new team members is something we’ve been working on optimizing. We’re nowhere near perfect, but we’ve learned that letting them fall gently on the grass is often better than being bogged down to micromanagement.
Falling on the grass means making small mistakes that are quickly reversible with little impact to the company or customers. By leaving space for small mistakes, we have a more independent and empowered team that can take responsibility for their own work.
10. Think subtraction, not addition
Adding more money, more resources, more features to a problem is rarely the solution. Money and resources are not exactly abundant when you’re starting a company, but creativity and simplicity is.
Doing less with more is a skill you’re forced to develop, and we’ve even made it as one of our core values.
Another example is, instead of having a To-Do List that never ends, it’s just as useful to have a Not To-Do List.
11. Focus only on what you can control
It’s as easy to get caught up in what you can change as what you can’t change. The problem with the latter is: you have zero control over it. Bad things will always happen to us that are beyond our control, and getting frustrated or holding grudges is not going to make it disappear.
“The chief task in life is simply this: to identify and separate matters so that I can say clearly to myself which are externals not under my control, and which have to do with the choices I actually control.” -Epictetus
This is why we choose to spend less time on external factors, like what our competitors are doing (see Lesson #8), and more on internal factors, like how we can make satisfy our customers better.
12. It doesn’t get easier
It’ll get easier when…
“We get to $X revenue…”
“We add X people to the team…”
“We’ve been in business for over 5 years…”
Having spoken to many high-performing entrepreneurs and investors who have built 9 to 10 figure businesses, it doesn’t get easier.
Adding X people means taking responsibility for managing X people.
Being in business for 5-10 years means dealing with more competition, navigating through economic turmoils, and constantly innovating the business.
And adding $X revenue is just going to magnify the challenges mentioned above.
It doesn’t get easier. And that’s OK.
What matters is that we’re prepared for the difficult, and rewarding journey ahead of us. And to always play the long game.