Starting a business or a startup has always been a dream of mine. So as a young entrepreneur, I thought that I had most things figured out. But the truth was I hadn’t. This may sound a little controversial, but the idea for Hipster Inc. came by accident.
The year was 2016, and Bok (the Co-Founder of Hipster Inc.) and I, computer science graduates, started some product companies, including a book barter company called Barterli, where people could exchange books to promote reading.
We pitched this idea to StartupX, and it took off pretty well. Even the National Library Board partnered with us to propel our idea forward. We partnered with some developers to bring our idea to life, and the other incubator companies started to notice that we could quickly launch products and re-iterate versions, so the cohort startups in the incubator we were a part of started to reach out to us for help.
Coming from a programming background and having some entrepreneurial senses, we offered to help. Mainly, we were curious how we could bring their ideas to life and enhance them so their products take off.
So we started helping them part-time for two hours a day. This led to more startups wanting us to help them. What began as a part-time hobby became a full-time business. Bok and I employed more developers, and just like that, Hipster Inc., a humble software development company, was birthed.
Today, the company undertakes projects across various industries like edutech, finance, productivity, travel, F&B for subscription models and even blockchain. The team is now 60 men and women strong. Our USP is that we are developers who know how to put ourselves in the founders’ shoes through our startup ventures.
This comes from working with a few dozen startups and directly working with their founders. Observing their thought process and how they solve problems give us good insight. As Sam Levenson puts it, “You must learn from the mistakes of others. You can’t possibly live long enough to make them all yourself.”
Advice to budding entrepreneur: Elements you need to get started
Find an SEO-worthy business name
Now that you have your winning idea choose a name for your business that is unique and relevant. Down the inevitable road, this will help you in SEO and marketing. Shakespeare once said, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet”. Unfortunately, this isn’t true of SEO.
Find a Co-founder that can complement you
Statistics state that about 80 per cent of partnerships fail within the first year. When choosing a business partner, it is important to exercise caution and be selective. Find someone you can trust. After that is established, the right partner is also someone who will complement you and that has strengths that vary from yours.
In the case of Bok and myself, Bok takes care of business development and finance, and I take care of the technical aspects and operations.
Do your market research and competitor analysis
Sometimes, what you want to create exists already in the target market or somewhere else. Learn about existing solutions, and don’t re-invent the wheel if someone is already doing it unless you can do a lot better. Also, talk to users about their pain points and see what they say about your product before you create anything.
Don’t be disheartened by no’s
When you first start, you will get a lot of no’s everywhere you go. The nos with explanations are very important to hear and introspect. No’s, are also a good sign that you are innovating. Take failures with curiosity and change your course of action without getting disheartened.
Network with like-minded people
This will get you ahead more than any marketing. Give before you get. When we started, we did much pro-bono work for the right client. This allowed some good association with companies no one had ever heard of before.
Partner with as many companies as you can to help them do better. Of course, this also means establishing a brand for yourself and marketing yourself.
Read good books, and watch good videos on every topic related to your startup, sales, marketing, scaling, and product development. Look to people who have pulled a business off successfully to guide you, so you don’t need to re-invent the wheel. Well researched market and products from competitors or someone who did it well before saves time and money for you.
Bootstrap as long as you can
A significant investment isn’t needed to start anything. Work with what you have. There are a million free tools out there at your disposal. Being liquid is important and even more so as the company matures.
On work-life balance
Be prepared to work double the hours. Being an entrepreneur means also doubling up as a manager and supporting HR, the marketing and sales teams.
Entrepreneurs need to be willing to work approximately 60-80 hours a week. Ironically, the push to be an entrepreneur was to avoid working a 40-hour week some.
How to grow your business: How to grow, best practices, what to invest in
Product quality: Real meaning of MVP
Never ignore the quality of the product. Focus on the MVP or Minimum Viable Product, a product of minimum features with top-notch quality rather than an inferior quality product with a myriad of features.
When considering the development of a product, consider how it will impact the customer, and do your research. Before a product is ready for launch, start marketing it. Value and prioritise design and branding. Many startups ignore these aspects.
It can’t be denied that, to some extent, people with good looks get an advantage in life. Good handwriting has its benefits in school. The same is true for a product with a good design.
Be realistic by taking calculated risks
Take risks but the calculated ones. Consider how much money will you lose if a risky venture fails. In our early days, we made the mistake of too aggressively expanding into too many new markets.
That didn’t work out. In Asian culture, making mistakes and failures are not encouraged, but there is immeasurable value in trying things early, failing faster and learning from this process.
Appreciate early clients and serve them well
Learn to love and appreciate your early customers. They may not pay a lot of money but also realise they sacrifice opportunity costs by trusting you with their opportunity. Treat them well, they are going to be testimonials for future customers to come.
Be a true leader to your team
As the captain of a ship, people look to you to be their leader, to impart vision and direction. Employees who join startups do so because they believe in the leader’s vision and think that they are working towards something concrete. They partner with you and, in some cases, sacrifice through pay cuts because they know as the company accelerates, so will they because of the contributions they are willing to make.
In a startup, vision and culture is everything. People skills are more important than any tech skills. Empathy and a high emotional quotient will get you ahead. Always be clear with your team members and promise only what you can deliver.
Value and appreciate your employees, especially those who have been with you for some time. Be humble. Kindness goes a long way. Be realistic when planning future milestones. Focus on creating values and building a great culture.
Hire the right talent
Never hire solely for skills. Hire for personality and attitude. In one way or another, people learn skills if they need to do something, but changing a person’s attitude and mindset is hard. Encouragement and motivation won’t work in the longer term.
People who make great employees are hard-working, always learning, and proactive. During an interview, notice what they do, not what they say. Give them a small task to do to test their sincerity.
Be cognisant of your team’s progress and celebrate that. By being aware of their little milestones, you can ensure that their direction is aligned with your company’s vision.
Active involvement creates a sense of team and allows you to learn from external projects and other businesses’ challenges. While founders should focus on the big picture and vision, they can’t afford to avoid the details.
Customer experience over product superiority
Humans are emotional creatures, and your customers will remember their experience far longer than the feature list and technology you provide. Therefore, ensure you give your client’s the best possible experience from start to finish.
In approaching any new venture or opportunity, and in all your dealings, always try to solve problems. Be patient when starting, and remember it’s a slow and tough climb to the top. At the same time, have a sense of urgency when approaching tasks and launches.
Businesses that seem to have it all together are a product of all the hard work poured into them. The answer to what it takes to do X is whatever it takes. Always challenge the status quo. There is so much still to learn, so we should never stop learning, growing, or evolving.