Start-up entrepreneurs offer advice on starting a business

Last night I offered business mentoring through PwC’s School for Social Entrepreneurs and it reminded me of some of the characters I met in San Francisco’s Bay Area. 

We take for granted the challenges facing these entrepreneurs; their barriers are more complex than one expects. Yesterday’s 90 minute mentoring session is great for brainstorming solutions, but only highlights how much resilience it takes to keep a business afloat. 

At one start-up event in San Francisco, I met Gabriel Ortiz, Founder of Nimblestack. He lives the life of jet setter, travelling from continent to continent with his dog. But his advice on founding a business was, quite simply, not to.  And perhaps this is a sobering perspective to offer, but Gabriel was realistic about the sacrifice that such an endeavour entails. It’s not as glamorous and financially rewarding as Richard Branson portrays. Yes, there are the lucky ones. For most, entrepreneurship is a long, hard slog and the rewards do not come to fruition for years, if at all. It seems to have worked out for Gabriel, and he clearly enjoys it. But he has a point in cautioning against it. 

There is also the commitment that you must make. I met another start-up founder who has a growing and talented body of staff, but keeps delegation to a minimum and has a pulse on everything that goes on in his organisation. Although prominent leaders advocate for delegation and empowerment of staff, micro-management is a common symptom for the leaders in young start-ups. It may be put down to leadership style, but many entrepreneurs see micro-management as a necessary evil for success. 

Another common problem for entrepreneurs is scaling up their business. They have a great idea, and a great business model that is bringing in a good revenue. But how do they boost that to ‘unicorn’ levels? One clean-tech founder is facing precisely this issue. Having identified a way to convert CO2 into commodities, the question she is now faced with is whether the technology can be expanded to put their start up on an exponential growth curve, and meet demand on a grander scale. 

My trip to San Jose has given me a new respect for Steve Jobs’ ‘crazy ones’, and I admire anyone with the guts to join their ranks.