- 1. It’s Okay to Start Small
- 2. Set Personal Goals, Not Just Business Goals
- 3. It Takes a Long Time to Build a Business
- 4. Riches Are in the Niches
- 5. Listen to Your Customers
- 6. Storytelling Sets You Apart
- 7. If You Build It, They Won’t Come (Without Sales And Marketing)
- 8. Hire People Smarter Than You (as Quickly as Possible)
- 9. Culture Matters More Than You Think
- 10. Get Your Business Ready to Sell
- Bonus Lesson: Stay Positive
- Set Yourself Up For Success
If you’re considering starting a SaaS company, you’re in for a wild ride. Building a successful business is no small feat, but it can be incredibly rewarding. To help you along the way, I’ve interviewed Acquire.com’s founder and CEO, Andrew Gazdecki.
Starting at the age of 17, Andrew has founded over ten companies. He turned four of those startups into serious businesses (spoiler alert: Acquire.com is his latest successful venture that helps startups get acquired). From a mobile app builder to a crypto trading platform, each startup taught him something new, and he’s graciously shared his wisdom with me.
In this article, we’ll dive into the lessons Andrew learned along his entrepreneurial journey, including the challenges he faced, the mistakes he made, and the strategies he used to succeed. Whether you’re a first-time founder or a seasoned entrepreneur, these 10 lessons will help you succeed with your next endeavor. So get ready to learn from one of the best!
1. It’s Okay to Start Small
Starting a business can be daunting, but it’s important to remember that it’s okay to start small. Your first venture needn’t be a grand slam. Starting with anything is better than not starting at all. Even if you know it won’t be a huge success, putting something out there can teach you a lot about the industry and how to run a business. No matter how small the project is, you’ll learn from it.
Andrew advises, “Before trying to build a billion-dollar startup, focus on bootstrapping one to a million in revenue first. You’ll learn so much with less pressure, and you can fail without burning yourself out. Otherwise, it’s like trying to climb Mount Everest without going on a single hike first. The reality is that you’ll probably fail several times before you’re able to climb the tallest peak.
“I knew that my first serious business, Phone Freelancer, wouldn’t be a huge company, but it taught me a lot about the mobile industry right when the iPhone came out. I could position myself to capitalize on that industry with my next business, Bizness Apps.”
If you do fail, use that knowledge to jumpstart the next opportunity that comes your way. It’s all about learning and gaining experience, not becoming a billionaire with your first venture. Keep an open mind. No opportunity is too small, and your future self will thank you for it.
2. Set Personal Goals, Not Just Business Goals
Being an entrepreneur isn’t just about finding the right idea and executing it, it’s also about understanding what you want to get out of your business. Establishing personal goals provides a foundation for your company strategy. Whether big or small, these goals will help you work toward living the life you desire and influence how you plan, start, and operate your business.
“I started my first business, Phone Freelancer, because I didn’t want a regular job. I wanted to be my own boss. I wanted to create wealth for my family. I wanted to become a millionaire. People think entrepreneurship is glamorous, but for me, it was more of a survival mechanism. Everything I did was with those personal goals in mind,” Andrew says.
“Sure, it would’ve been great to build a billion-dollar enterprise, but I wasn’t trying to take over the world or completely disrupt an industry. I knew what I wanted out of my business, and I focused on increasing the probability of that outcome coming true.”
Steps to Help You Set Your Personal Goals
- Reflect on your values and priorities: Think about what matters to you. What do you value most? Freedom, money, career development? Understanding your values and priorities will help you set meaningful personal goals.
- Define your vision: Think about what you want to achieve in the long term. What does your ideal life look like? What kind of lifestyle do you want to lead? This will help you outline a vision for your personal life that you can work towards.
- Set specific and measurable goals: Once you have a vision, it’s time to set specific and measurable goals that align with that vision. For example, if you want to own a house in five years, one specific and measurable personal goal could be to save a certain amount of income from your business each month.
- Prioritize your goals: Prioritize your goals so that you can focus on the most important ones first.
- Make a plan: Once you have your goals prioritized, plan how you’ll achieve them. Think about what steps to take and create a timeline for achieving each goal.
- Review and adjust: Review your goals regularly to see how you’re progressing and adjust as needed. If you’re not progressing towards a particular goal, it may be time to reevaluate and make changes to your plan.
Remember that personal goals are just as important as business goals when starting a company. By setting clear and meaningful personal goals, you’ll stay motivated to create a business that helps you achieve the lifestyle you want.
3. It Takes a Long Time to Build a Business
In all the excitement of starting a new venture, we often forget this simple lesson: It can take a long time to build a successful business. On average, it takes startups three to four years to be profitable. In the first years of business, startups use their earnings for expenses, debts, and reinvestment. Most small businesses only become successful after seven to ten years.
Andrew says, “A lot of people give up too early. Sometimes it can take two years just to get your first customer. Case in point, it took me eight years to grow Bizness Apps to an eight-figure business and then be able to sell it. And my business before that, Phone Freelancer, was the precursor to Bizness Apps. So, overall, I spent a decade focused on making it in the mobile app industry. As a rule of thumb, if you don’t feel like you can commit five years to your business, I don’t recommend starting it.”
Building a startup is an iterative learning process and founders who succeed are committed to continuous learning. You’ll hit many roadblocks when starting a business, but the key to success is to just keep going.
4. Riches Are in the Niches
Although it may seem counterintuitive, focusing on a specific market can be a highly effective business strategy. While your instinct may be to cast a wide net and sell to as many people as possible, narrowing your focus can ultimately result in a larger, more devoted customer base. That’s where Pat Flynn’s philosophy, “The riches are in the niches,” comes from.
Bizness Apps was an extremely successful startup, but one thing Andrew wishes he learned earlier was to niche down. “We built mobile apps for so many different verticals, including restaurants, salons, real estate, schools, and so on. We were never the best at any vertical but could service almost everyone. If I could go back in time, I would pick the most promising vertical and go all in on that. Growth would’ve been slower, but in the long term, I think we would’ve built a bigger business,” he says.
“The truth is you can’t be everything to everybody. If you try to do that, you’ll end up being nothing to nobody. By going after a niche, you have a bigger chance of finding business success. So be very specific about your target customer and the problem you’re solving. The more specific, the better.”
For example, if you want to sell your product to the restaurant industry, maybe focus on food trucks. If possible, solve one problem that food truck owners experience. Learn everything about that niche and then build a product that provides real value to that target audience.
That’s not to say that you need to limit yourself. Once you dominate one niche, you can expand your business by finding another profitable and highly-targeted niche and dominate that one too.
5. Listen to Your Customers
Here’s what happens most of the time: a founder builds a product and then figures out how to bring it to market and acquire customers. But it should really be the other way around. You should start by figuring out who your potential customer is and what they need – and then build a product based on those findings. The number one reason why startups fail is misreading market demand (this is found in 42 percent of cases).
“Once you have a business idea, start talking to people. Returning to the food truck example, talk to those food truck owners. Ask them about their day-to-day struggles and what solutions would make their lives easier. Understand their problems as deeply as possible, as if you were one of them. Then build your product with them,” Andrew says.
“Once you have an MVP, you can onboard those food truck owners for free as your pilot customers. Listen to what they say and use that feedback to improve your SaaS product. Generally, I recommend that eighty percent of your product roadmap for the first couple of years is based on customer requests and input.”
Your customers are the lifeblood of your business, and without them, your business won’t survive. It’s crucial to understand their needs, wants, and pain points, and use that information to create a SaaS product that meets those needs. Listening to your customers also helps you build a loyal customer base, as they’ll feel heard and valued.
6. Storytelling Sets You Apart
Today’s market is noisy – more so than when Andrew first started his businesses. Companies try to stand out in many ways (think bold ads, celebrity endorsements, and flashy websites), but the best way to penetrate the clutter is with storytelling. While competitors can copy your products and services, they can’t copy your brand and the narrative upon which it is built.
People connect with stories. By humanizing your brand, you can help potential customers relate to you and build an emotional relationship with your company. Andrew explains, “You need to have a story tied to your company, as it’s the only way you can get people excited about what you’re doing and make a lasting impression in an overcrowded market.”
Telling your brand story isn’t about describing what your product does, it’s about creating a compelling narrative that communicates your company’s mission, values, and purpose. Your story needs to be authentic and emotionally engaging, so that it excites customers, gets them rooting for you, and turns them into evangelists.
Andrew says, “With Bizness Apps, our story was that we championed small businesses, helping them compete against the big companies that could afford expensive custom mobile apps. The little guy could finally stand up to its bigger rivals and offer the same things to customers, such as mobile ordering, mobile loyalty programs, and push notifications. Our drag-and-drop mobile app builder probably wasn’t the best in the market, but we told the best story.”
If you’re looking to write your company narrative, Andrew has created a framework that helps you tell the right story.
7. If You Build It, They Won’t Come (Without Sales And Marketing)
Tech companies are often founded by people who don’t know much about marketing and sales. But the truth is that even if you build the best product in the whole world, customers won’t randomly find your business and start paying for things.
You need to understand marketing and sales – even if you plan to hire an expert when your budget allows it. You’ll build a huge part of your business strategy on this knowledge, so you need to know what you’re doing (at least in broad strokes). Why? One of the top startup mistakes founders make is failing to execute sales and marketing correctly.
Startup founders tend to think about their product first and marketing and sales later. But you should think about how to sell and market your product before developing it. Answer these fundamental questions: What is your product’s purpose? What is your promise to customers? What are your differentiators? What is your communication strategy? What is your visual identity? What is your brand story?
Your brand, and how you bring it to market, is just as important as your product. If you’re missing these crucial building blocks, take the time to teach yourself. Here are some of Andrew’s favorite books that he recommends to brush up on your sales and marketing skills:
Recommended Sales Books
- To Sell is Human
- Sales Acceleration Formula
- Predictable Revenue
- Challenger Sale
- Sell the Way You Buy
Recommended Marketing Books
- Play Bigger
- Obviously Awesome
- Tuned In
- Made to Stick
- One-Page Marketing Plan
8. Hire People Smarter Than You (as Quickly as Possible)
Hire people smarter than you as quickly as possible. As we’ve discussed above, if you’re a technical founder, you probably don’t have the necessary marketing, sales, and operational skills. And if you’re a non-technical founder, you’ll need someone to develop the product and lead an engineering team going forward.
There’s no shame in admitting you can’t do it all! Nail down where you need help the most, and don’t wait too long to fill these important roles within your business. According to SaaStr founder, Jason Lemkin, “The biggest difference between most first-time founders and most second-time founders is how long they try to do it all themselves.” Repeat founders have learned to hire key employees early on – for the sake of their company (and their sanity).
Andrew takes it further by saying, “Your job as a startup founder or CEO is to make yourself the most useless person in the company. You need to assemble a team that can do everything way better than you ever could. Many entrepreneurs struggle to delegate and trust parts of their business to others. But as a CEO, your focus and concentration should be on high-level priorities, because time is your most valuable asset.”
Hire individuals with expertise, experience, and skills that complement your own and can bring a fresh perspective to the table. By employing people smarter than you as quickly as possible, you’ll be able to solve complex problems and overcome challenges as a company.
However, it is important to note that this doesn’t simply mean hiring the smartest people. Your employees also need to be the right cultural fit for your company – more on that in the next section.
9. Culture Matters More Than You Think
With the global pandemic slowly taking a back seat, many companies are asking employees to return to the office “for the culture.” But what is company culture? It’s not just free snacks and kitchen breaks. A healthy company culture supports employees to do their best.
Company culture is more important than ever: 94 percent of entrepreneurs and 88 percent of job seekers say that a healthy culture at work is vital for success. The right culture can increase the level of purpose employees find in their work and positively impact their well-being. Instead of just hiring the smartest people for your startup, focus on building a team that trusts each other, communicates frequently, and helps each other perform their job as best as possible.
Andrew says, “The culture is what gets you through the crazy journey of building and growing a startup. With a tight-knit team, it’s easier to get through the hard times and it makes celebrating the good times so much more rewarding. As a founder, it’s your job to set the tone of your company’s culture. Take care of the people you employ by letting them have a voice and making them feel secure. With Bizness Apps, I always said our culture was hardworking, fun, and a little weird. With Acquire.com, I’ve focused on building that same type of strong culture.”
Writer’s note: As a former Bizness Apps employee, I can attest that it was one of the best work experiences I’ve had in my career. Some of my closest friends today are people I met while working at Bizness Apps.
Just as a good brand story can transform customers into evangelists, a good culture can turn employees into advocates. With a strong company culture, your team works for more than a paycheck: Each member feels like what they do matters and wants the company to succeed.
10. Get Your Business Ready to Sell
When you first start a SaaS business, you might not be thinking about selling it down the line. But the unfortunate truth is that most startups either get sold or die. This might seem harsh, but often businesses either get acquired or run out of money in the end.
You don’t need to look for buyers from day one, and there are other paths to success, but keep it in the back of your mind. As you’re building your business, prepare for a potential exit in the future so that if or when the time comes, you’re ready for it.
Andrew started thinking about his exit the moment he started Bizness Apps. How did that translate into actions? Bootstrapping. “I knew that bootstrapping my company would allow me to sell it at any price I wished in the future. As soon as you touch venture capital, you’re committing to climbing a much higher mountain and having to sell your company at a much higher price – making it less likely to happen. That’s because the larger the asset you build, the smaller the buyer pool,” he says.
“I didn’t need investors for Bizness Apps, so there was no point in raising the stakes. By not raising funding, I was able to sell Bizness Apps at a price that was life-changing for me, even if it would never end up in the Wall Street Journal.”
Alongside bootstrapping the business, Andrew also stayed in touch with potential buyers, checking in with them as you would with investors. Every quarter, he updated buyers with a simple email summarizing Bizness Apps’ growth. It was a way to build relationships in anticipation of the day when Andrew would be ready to sell his SaaS business.
Bonus Lesson: Stay Positive
“To succeed, every startup needs an outrageously optimistic person. This role is ideal for the founder, because if you don’t believe in your business, who else will?” Andrew says. It’s a talent to stay positive even during hard times (and there will be hard times if you’re starting a company), but it’s the only way to get through the rollercoaster of entrepreneurship.
“It’s super stressful to run a business and you might feel like giving up, but that’s all part of the process. There’s no other way to build a business. So don’t take yourself too seriously and have fun with it. You make better decisions when you’re having fun and when you’re passionate about your company. Stay positive!”
Set Yourself Up For Success
Taking all the above lessons into account, how would Andrew approach starting a new business today? He says, “Before building anything, I would go out and talk to people. Get inside my target audience’s head and understand their day-to-day challenges as deeply as possible. Then I would set up an agency for those niche customers, offering services tailored to their problems.
“Eventually, I’d come across a pattern, a problem that customers keep asking me to fix. If I find that the same type of person at the same type of business has the same problem over and over again, that’s where my business opportunity lies. Only then would I start building software to automate and streamline the solution to deliver that same service at scale. From there, I would switch over to a SaaS business model to be able to help thousands of customers per month, instead of just a couple.”
Feeling inspired? Now it’s time to apply this advice to your next startup. And if you want to learn even more lessons from a successful serial entrepreneur and CEO, check out Andrew’s book Getting Acquired: How I Built and Sold My SaaS Startup.