As Cutler Group, the boutique tech PR firm I started out of college, just reached its third anniversary, I thought this would be a good time to look back at the formative years of the firm, and examine how we were able to navigate the challenging waters of the startup world. Although business has been fantastic lately, with over 300 percent growth since last year and a tremendous expansion in clientele and staff, things weren't always so smooth. We weathered many bumps in the road, changes in direction and what I'll call "learning experiences" before experiencing our exciting success of today.
Indeed, surviving as a new firm is far from guaranteed, no matter how good your product or service. Twenty-five percent of all startups fail in their first year, and that number jumps to 36 percent by the second year and 44 percent by the third. By following some of these tips from our experience, hopefully your business will not only survive, but flourish.
1. Execution over perfection
In the formative months of the company, we greatly valued execution over perfection. When it comes to starting a business, you have to jump into it and not necessarily wait for perfectly right conditions. When I first started Cutler Group, I had little more than $200 in my bank account, my computer and a printer. I could have waited, saved up more money, developed a greater circle of business contacts -- but I knew my business model and my ambition could not afford to be placated by a waiting period. I wanted to start executing right away.
More important than having your spreadsheets expertly labeled or your calendar annotated a year in advance is believing the little things will work themselves out -- and if you work hard, they will.
2. Be flexible
It's important to keep an open mind about what happens, and -- especially when first starting out -- seeing the direction your company takes you. In the beginning, the Cutler Group was not a public relations firm, nor was it involved in tech -- it was a marketing firm with clients ranging from health care practices to a retail stores and nonprofit organizations. While the clientele was varied, my work ethic remained focused and constant: I took every client seriously, and tried my hardest to get them the results they sought. It was this initial flexibility and open-mindedness that led me to my niche of Tech PR.
3. Discover your niche
Eventually I was referred to a tech startup by another client. After putting on a stellar campaign for this company, I became friends with the CEO, who was eager to refer me to other tech startups and help me grow my business. It was then that I realized what my niche would be -- bringing attention and credibility to tech startups with great ideas.
We decided to narrow our focus to public relations from business development and marketing, pivoting our business model. Most startups pivot; it's how they survive. You have to see where your company takes you -- but once you realize your niche, it's time to commit. Once you commit, don't be afraid to turn down opportunities that don't fit your niche and won't contribute to your synergy of referrals, contacts, etc. I've found that it's better to be known as a specialist with great expertise in your area than a generalist who can do many things moderately well.
4. Totally bootstrap
As mentioned above, I only had a couple hundred dollars to my name when I started my company -- and without outside capital, there was no choice but to bootstrap. Looking back, however, I wouldn't have done it any other way. Bootstrapping forces you to think critically about your expenses and examine what traditional overhead costs can be eliminated, or at least put off until absolutely necessary. Some examples of those costs include obtaining office space -- working remotely is easier than ever with technologies like Google Drive and Skype, so don't boost your ego by renting an office just because that's how you always imagined it.
5. Don't get bogged down in administrative tasks
This goes back to execution over perfection. The right accounting software and project management systems will prevent you from struggling over business minutiae and won't distract you from completing your primary objectives. Trying to make your business run as efficiently as humanly possible will not only drive you crazy, but it will distract you from the big picture strategy, which must always remain at the forefront.
6. Bring on good talent as soon as it's feasible
Which brings us to our final tip: bringing on good talent quickly. This was the last step in our primary development stage, and it signaled a new era for the company. Once I was able to stop doing most of the work myself -- from finding leads to putting on campaigns to organizing payroll -- I found that not only was I happier and more productive, but the company's bottom line soared. Hiring employees is an investment -- if you find the right people, they will bring untold dividends. Concentrate as much on how these people fit your company culture as you do on their skills and resume. If they are going to be with your startup from the ground-up, you'll want to enjoy working with them.
It would be impossible, of course, to follow this blueprint to the word. A myriad of extraneous variables can throw a wrench in the best laid plans, and often you'll have to stray from your founding principles. But as Cutler Group enters its third year, I know that execution, flexibility, strength in my convictions, bootstrapping, good infrastructure and an even better team is what brought me to this point. I suggest the same to you, because in my profession I've seen many other startups falter along the way. And as this country tries to climb out of a deep economic recession, we need all the new companies and jobs we can get. Good luck.