10 rules for starting a business, according to start-up founders

We asked the founders of 17 start-ups to share their most valuable advice for other self-starters. This is what we learned.

1. Focus your idea

First things first: decide what it is you are going to do.

“Look around,” said Legitify co-founder and CEO Aida Lutaj. “What is a problem you would like to solve? What is a process you would like to improve? What is a change you want to make happen in the future? Focus on that and go after it.”

Strikepay co-founder and CEO Oli Cavanagh recommended founders “focus on finding a real problem”.

“Get started, iterate quickly and work with great people,” he added. Which brings us to the next tip.

2. Find the right people

“Pick your team carefully: people you can trust and who have complementary skills,” said Liltoda founder and CEO Prof Deirdre Murray.

Tracworx co-founder Fionn Barron said you should “surround yourself with a team that shares your values and vision”.

As well as building a strong core team, you should “identify your desired advisers early”, according to Nua Surgical co-founder Barry McCann. “It gives you credibility, but most importantly it provides a support structure for the tough journey ahead.”

Murray also recommended you should “make sure your partners are happy and know what their roles will be”.

And Lutaj added that founders should “beware of the culture you are building”.

3. Do your research

“When starting out, you need to learn as much as you can about your industry and become an expert in your field,” said Barron.

Volograms CEO and co-founder Rafael Pagés had some advice on how to tackle this: “Invest some time researching the market and understanding who you will be selling your products or services to. This will save you a lot of time in the future, and will help you navigate the product-market-fit journey better.”

4. Get some feedback

This is the golden rule repeated over and over by start-up founders. “Listen to, and act on, feedback,” as Strikepay’s Cavanagh succinctly put it.

“Get feedback on your idea as soon as possible,” said Refurbed CEO and co-founder Peter Windischhofer. “It is the fastest and the only way to build a product that many people will like.”

Sustainability-focused start-up Vyra learned this the hard way. “At the start of our journey, we were preoccupied with developing our idea and building our product without speaking to those we intended to use it,” said co-founder Luke Fagan.

“It can be incredibly easy to fall into the trap of thinking your first idea is what the world needs, but how can you be sure without speaking to the world?”

Tracworx found the best way to go about this is “show, don’t tell”.

“We like to show how our technology works and the impact it has. Seeing is believing!” said COO Barron.

This doesn’t have to cost anything more than time, according to John Hannon, a former Stripe engineer who now leads his own company, SalesTier (formerly Gain Grain).

“If, for instance, you want to create a service that presents data in a cool way via dashboards and widgets, then stick the data in a Google Sheet, generate some graphs and put it in a slide deck before writing a line of code,” he said.

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“This can be sent to prospects for early feedback before you go down a rabbit hole of creating feature after feature without customer validation.”

Dataships co-founder and CEO Michael Storan agreed. “You can achieve a huge amount nowadays without loads of resources. It’s all about getting those first customers and figuring it out as you go. Don’t let perfect be the enemy of good!”

You must also be ready to pivot based on what you learn at this crucial stage.

“Identify your unique selling point and be open to opportunities,” said Liltoda lead Murray. “Your product may have an application that you have not even thought of yet.”

5. Start on the right foot

Murray also recommended founders “get the legal stuff sorted out properly” early on.

“You need good legal advice to get everything safely in place from the start,” she said.

When profiled for SiliconRepublic’s Start-up of the Week series, Murray explained how she secured support for her University College Cork spin-out, which is developing apps for children, from a local firm.

6. Talk to your community

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help,” said Nua Surgical CEO McCann. “Too many founders are extra secretive about their idea in fear that it will be stolen. However, unless you open up (to the right people), you will never overcome the major hurdles in your path.”

Novus Diagnostics co-founder Dr Elaine Spain said her start-up “benefitted enormously from the support and advice of other entrepreneurs, investors, vendors, and many, many more” in its early days.

“There is incredible willingness to help right across the start-up community here in Ireland. The best advice we can give other self-starters is to get out and connect with the community – you’ll find a huge network ready and willing to help you get things off the ground.”

The start-up community is a vital guide for those founders taking their first steps. “You can try and plan for the road ahead, but it is fraught with uncertainty,” said PlantQuest CEO Ger Carton.

Carton warned that some books and podcasts tend to focus on the “good news” and not the full story. “Get out and talk to other founders and get the ‘warts and all’ experience and be fully informed about what is involved in getting a start-up off the ground,” he advised. “The start-up community is filled with amazing organisations and mentors who are more than happy to point you in the right direction and share their journey with you.”

And Vyra product lead Fagan finds the conversation flows both ways. “We’ve found that no matter where you are on your journey, there’s always someone else ahead and behind of the stage at which your business is at. It’s a great feeling to be able to both get and give advice,” he said.

“Don’t be afraid to get out of the lab and speak to people about what you’re trying to do at all stages of your development,” he said. “It also enables you develop relationships and build your network from the start.”

7. Be brave

Facing your fears is a theme in our advice from founders.

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“Go for it! What’s the worst that can happen?” encouraged Trustap CEO and founder Conor Lyden, who got his start as an entrepreneur while still in college.

“If it doesn’t work out, at the very least your CV will be stronger for the experience and the learnings will stand to you. Best case scenario, you won’t look back,” he said.

Pushing ahead with confidence requires a positive mindset, according to Alan Barry, CEO and co-founder University College Dublin research spin-out PlasmaBound.

“All the mumbo-jumbo about positivity and taking an upside position is true. This can be difficult for engineers and scientists who are often all too aware of the plethora of pitfalls and risk-points the start-up needs to transition. It’s critical to see your start-up as a huge opportunity you must be grateful to have the chance to go for,” said Barry.

“Similar to sports psychology, fearing failure is one of the quickest ways to achieve it. The best way around this is to have a broader view. Ensure you have other outlets and interests, so it’s not an eggs-in-basket situation. And yes, train yourself to believe in the possible.”

Heed the advice of Tympany Medical CEO and co-founder Dr Liz McGloughlin, who said: “Keep going and take all feedback on the chin. Digging deep is an essential and always thinking of the glass as half full helps too.”

8. Have patience

“Things always take longer than you anticipate,” said Stimul.ai co-founder Naomh McElhatton. “Stay calm, focused and keep going.”

Even in the fast-paced and rapidly growing sci-tech industries, “starting a business takes time,” said Zipp Mobility founder and CEO Charlie Gleeson.

“It took us 625 days between putting together our business plan, researching the market to come up with solutions and a strategy to the industry’s problems, and eventually making our first £1 in revenue,” he revealed.

9. Think big

Gleeson also advises budding Irish entrepreneurs to “think bigger than Ireland”.

“While the market provides an excellent testing ground for new technologies, products and services, companies looking to really scale must look beyond our shores into the UK, Europe and beyond,” he said.

10. Be honest with yourself

Finally, going back to Lutaj, she said founders need to take a reality check before they venture forth.

“Be honest with yourself about personal sacrifices you have to make including financial runway, time needed to be dedicated to building something from the ground up, and support networks – do you have one?” she said.

Ask yourself: Is this going to be a rewarding experience?

For many, it is.

“It is one of the most enjoyable things I have ever done in my life,” said PlantQuest co-founder Carton.

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