The Tech Issue
  • Illustrations by Mr Vincent Mahe

There's no time like the present to launch a start-up, with low setup costs and high demand for new businesses benefiting fledgling entrepreneurs. Plus you can dictate your own "office" hours and kiss goodbye to the daily commute. But you needn't take our word for it: Microsoft, Disney, IBM, General Electric and Apple were all founded during periods of global financial turmoil - and some of those guys have done OK.

Entrepreneurs are clearly buying into this logic: last year a record 502,068 start-ups were established in the UK, while in the US 476,000 new businesses were launched each month. There are also plenty of potential investment channels for fledgling entrepreneurs in search of investment capital, from big-brand schemes such as Microsoft's BizSpark to crowdfunding incubators such as Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Of course, turning your big idea into an even bigger success will require a significant amount of patience, planning and caffeine - not to mention outside help, which is why we've called on the expertise of five start-up gurus who've been there and done that.

1. Don't fixate on being first

Don't waste precious time trying to come up with a never-seen-before product, feature or service. It's not frowned upon to improve rather than invent. "Originality should take a back seat to relevance," explains Mr Steve McGrath, a veteran angel investor and partner at innovation consultancy Strategos (strategos.com). "From a strategy perspective, being first to market with an idea is by no means a guarantee of success. What is essential is identifying and validating an unmet need." Facebook didn't coin social networking and Dropbox wasn't the first to offer file hosting. These start-ups simply knew how to make their products more efficient - and a hell of a lot more appealing - than everyone else's.

2. Share your ideas

You don't need to be the CEO of LinkedIn Mr Jeff Weiner to know that networking is an essential asset for the first time entrepreneur, but this is as much about gaining valuable insights on your product as opening doors. "A lot of first-time entrepreneurs worry that if they share their idea, they're exposing themselves to having it stolen so they don't tell anyone about it," says Mr Jacob Gibson, founder of consumer money advisor NerdWallet (nerdwallet.com), "but unless you have an invention worth patenting, just focus on execution. By sharing your idea with others, you get the benefit of their advice, and validation for whether or not your idea is workable."

3. Build a team

Even the most intelligent, driven innovators need a dedicated team to help bring their idea to fruition, and the more inquisitive your colleagues the better. "The best advice I could give is to surround yourself with the smartest people you can find," Mr McGrath says. "Intel has an expression that describes how they operate. It's known as 'constructive confrontation' and it cuts across the whole hierarchy. Basically they're looking for people to really push each other around intellectually." The same goes for your start-up: the more you and your team can question your product, the closer you'll be to that billion-dollar valuation.

4. Get your product out there

Another common mistake is thinking your product needs to be perfected before you can bring it to market. In truth, the customer won't care too much about the sans serif typeface you've chosen for the packaging - they just want to know if it works for them. "You don't really know you've hit on a great idea until you see market feedback," says Mr Eric Kuhn, CEO of FoundersCard (founderscard.com), a global membership community of entrepreneurs and innovators. "Start off with a small test market and stay very close to customer response."

5. Choose your investors wisely

When approaching investors remember that capital is only one part of the equation. "It isn't like going to an ATM," explains Mr McGrath. "The relationship you're about to set up with an investor is essentially like dating: it's deeply intimate, so you want to know who you're dealing with." "Early on, it's as much about you as it is about your hare-brained business idea," adds Mr Greg Marsh, founder of high-end property rental service onefinestay (onefinestay.com), "so your personal credibility (that is, what people really say about you behind your back) is tremendously important. The best way that credibility is conveyed is through your network, and how far it's willing to go for you."

6. Get yourself heard

With so many marketing channels to choose from - from organic search to social media - you need to identify who your audience is and which platforms to engage them on. Although you could just meet up with them instead. "We found that holding open house events at our offices with users we engaged via online forums worked very well for us," reflects Mr Jason Trost, founder and CEO of sports betting exchange Smarkets (smarkets.com). "It doesn't cost much, and it's great to meet your target users face to face, talk about their experience with your product and gain feedback."

7. Learn fast

There's nothing wrong with making mistakes - the truth is you're going to make a lot of them along the way - just so long as you're able to learn from them quickly and adapt your model accordingly. "Always be learning," advises Mr Gibson. "This is one of our three core values: we hire based on an individual's ability to take smart risks, admit failures, and learn from them. As simple as this sounds, it's completely opposed to the way we're all raised in school and work, where mistakes are frowned upon and everyone is looking for the right answer, rather than redefining the question." Last but not least it pays to heed the words of Sir Ian Holm in the 1996 motion picture Big Night: "I am a businessman. I am anything I need to be at any time."