The Struggles Of A Startup: 5 Valuable Lessons To Learn From A Mentor

by Zion Kim

I started my first company with my business partner during our sophomore year of college. The company made custom apparel for fraternities and sororities.

There was no real reason that justified why we were the right people to start this company together. We had never worked together before, started a company or even knew how a custom apparel shop functioned.

Neither of us had relevant experience or the complementary skills that all successful startup founders share. We just did it because we had an opportunity, and it sounded like a good idea at the time.

We had problems in every single aspect of our business.

Though we somehow managed to generate enough revenue to keep ourselves afloat, how we got there was a miracle.

The problems kept stacking up, but we were only focused on what was urgent at the time and within our means to realistically address. In a startup, there are times when urgency forces you to put a Band-Aid on the problem, not actually solve it. For us, this was an everyday experience, and we were running out of Band-Aids.

Everything was patched together and labeled as “good enough” or “we’ll fix that later.”

When I wanted to look for help, I didn’t even know what questions to ask, let alone where to ask them. Although we had absolutely no idea what we were doing, we hired our first part-timer, negotiated free rent on a shared storefront and even started making some profit on day one.

We were making money, what could possibly go wrong?

Every new customer is good for a startup, right? We thought so at the time, but every additional customer actually ended up hurting us in the long run. Due to the custom nature of our products, increasing product orders exponentially added to the complexity of managing our business.

One of our biggest problems was that we were brilliantly handling hundreds of individual custom orders using paper order forms. In every other store, this problem is solved using computers with custom forms and databases, neither of which we had. We were on a start-up budget.

I learned to appreciate the value of mentorship through my struggles.

After struggling though the business for a year without any mentorship, I finally discovered help when I met a few older entrepreneurs starting a business nearby. They taught me a number of things that helped me clean up my business and allowed me to prioritize my efforts.

1. Focus on your own goals.

I needed someone to tell me I was spending my time in all the wrong places. I needed someone to tell me I was in the wrong business altogether, because it did not align with my life goals, my strengths or my passions.

2. Save your time.

I wasted an inconceivable amount of time doing the right things the wrong way, and I spent a lot of time worrying about things that shouldn’t have mattered and things that didn’t help our business succeed.

3. Get constant feedback.

When you’re on your own, it’s hard to keep yourself in check. You need a sounding board, someone to bring you back to Earth and give you a healthy dose of reality, no matter how much you think you might have it under control. Everyone knows something you don’t; listen to everyone because they might just share a perspective you never thought of.

4. Grow your network.

You’ve heard it before: It’s all about who you know and who knows you. I didn’t think anyone ever wanted to help me; I thought the idea of a college student networking with an older professional didn’t seem realistic.

I learned the value of networking through my mentors, as mentors can open up their networks to you. Getting introduced to people could lead to sales or valuable connections within the industry. Even if a person doesn’t seem useful, he or she might know or meet someone who can help you.

5. Have more than one mentor.

There is nothing more valuable than experiential knowledge; being able to tap into years of mistakes and victories can be extremely beneficial to your growth. Why not multiply those benefits by having a few people guiding you in life? Even if your mentors aren’t in the same industry, they can still provide insight about life and career choices.

Remember, mentors are people, too. You always have to take their agenda into consideration and use their advice to guide you, not dictate your every move.

Mentors can and should be as diverse as the characteristics you want to cultivate. Make sure you have many mentors to help introduce perspective.

Who are the mentors in your life? Or have you yet to seek one out?

Photo via The Pursuit Of Happyness