By Lomesh Shah, president and co-founder, NonProfitEasy
1. Find Opportunities By Questioning the Norm
Being an entrepreneur is not about looking for the next big thing—it’s about looking for opportunities that you believe can and should change the way things are currently done. Look for those holes in the fences, the system-wide timewasters, the places where things don’t scale—then gravitate to those points about which you have the most passion. Your inspiration will come from passion about the change you want to create.
Because market forces play a determining role, there are many great ideas in the world that are worthy, but will never be money makers. Similarly, not all money makers are worthy ideas, and those ‘fads’ will play themselves out over time. Some studies say there are approximately 140 million startups each year around the world, yet most of them fail—not because the idea wasn’t good, but because they failed to plan adequately.
My advice to entrepreneurs is to make sure you do your homework before committing to ‘changing the world.’
2. Test Your Ideas
Before officially starting NonProfitEasy, I spent a considerable amount of time with local nonprofits, working to understand the gaps between executive directors and program directors. Once I had a firm understanding of these gaps, their causes, and possible solutions, we started conceptualizing a new system.
First, we worked with designers to layout a dozen screens on how the system was going to look and work. With the help of a nonprofit consultant, we also researched additional local nonprofits to test the validity of the idea.
This is where I took a very different approach to getting NonProfitEasy off the ground. I asked each of the nonprofits that liked the idea to give me roughly three years of licensing fees upfront, and in return I gave them a lifetime license with the ability to have a seat at the table in the direction of how the system would operate. I restricted this to the first dozen nonprofits. Eventually, 13 of the 15 nonprofits I talked to committed.
Entrepreneurs cannot be afraid of testing their ideas and thinking differently. It is easy for people to like ideas—asking for commitment is where the rubber meets the road. We launched a Kickstarter campaign with local nonprofits that gave us the initial development funds we needed. With these committed nonprofits, we implemented the product in their organizations and to this day, we continue to get great feedback on how we can improve NonProfitEasy. Without their input, we would not have evolved the NonProfitEasy platform as rapidly as we did—it’s literally made us who we are.
3. Be Passionate—And Paranoid
Being an entrepreneur is a rush, but ‘top of the wave’ moments are fleeting and often far between. They can drive you, but they cannot be the only thing that drives you. Early on, these high points can be distracting because they make you lose focus.
Stay driven. Stay passionate. Stay paranoid, but don’t be fearful of the big players. I tell entrepreneurs that it is perfectly normal to live in a world of paranoia because it drives creativity and action. In today’s market, those who don’t stay in front are at the mercy of the competition. You are only one idea away from being wiped out. These thoughts are what keep me on my toes, balanced and grounded.
At the same time, it is essential to take bad news in stride. Remember that if this were easy, everyone would be doing it. There is a reason why entrepreneurship is a path less traveled. Motivation is directly proportionate to the passion one brings to the ‘idea.’ You still have the lows and the highs, but you’re better prepared to ride the waves and enjoy the ride.
4. Bootstrap As Long As You Can
Entrepreneurs often ask how long they should spend ‘in the garage.’ This entirely depends on what it is that you are working on. Time this decision in anticipation of scaling your business. It’s never easy, but entrepreneurs are natural optimists, so when the time comes to take the next logical step, do it and own that decision. My personal advice: Get your financial house in order first, then bootstrap it as long as you can and be prepared to occasionally spend ahead of revenues.
5. Find the Right Team
How do you find the right team? That’s the million dollar question. Find co-founders who can bring in complementary skill sets to your business. When it comes to choosing advisors, the ones you consider most should have gravitas in your company’s market. Hopefully, they have firsthand experience in your industry. Ideally, that experience will have been successful, but failed attempts can also offer useful insights.
As for the team, I like to look for people who are as equally passionate as I am. I look for people who don’t mind rolling up their sleeves and doing something outside their comfort level when necessary. Most importantly, I look for team members that are very good at the task I’m hiring them for. Some positions are trainable, and in this case, I look for raw skills and thoughts that I feel will make that person most successful.
I strongly advise looking at universities and vocational schools for interns. We started with two interns in part-time positions who now fill highly-important roles at the company.
6. Understand What Stage You’re At And What You’re Willing to Give Up
This vastly differs based on what it is that you are working on. There are certain markets whose ideas require massive upfront capital, such as those in the medical devices space, and their approach is vastly different than a software launch. You also have the past success variable. For those that have made money from investors in the past, the stage at which you are able to raise money is different than the ‘newbies.’
Consider the kind of investor you need. If it is just the money, you are going to raise it at a different stage of the game than if you need someone for the money and the rolodex. Understand where your company may fall and what you are willing to give up. Then, nail down the where and how you find investors. With the advent of crowdfunding and platforms like Kickstarter and MicroVentures, the approach to raising money has changed dramatically. Consumer product-focused companies are finding great success at Kickstarter and similar platforms, while other ideas are beginning to get traction on platforms like MicroVentures.
Get the idea beyond the concept stage and preferably to the traction stage before venturing out into the world of Angel investors and venture capitalists. Personal savings, friends, and families are a great way to get something started early on without giving up too much of the company or even more important—control.
It’s not about the money.
Being an entrepreneur can be the thrill of a lifetime, and those who are successful can earn a comfortable, if not lavish, living. But if you are going to do it for the money, it is not going to be worth it. If you commit to it because you are passionate about what that ‘idea’ means, then the money will follow.
Keep your eyes and your mind open. Stay focused. Stay smart. Enjoy the rush; enjoy the ride.
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Lomesh Shah combines his entrepreneurial passion with more than 20 years of international corporate experience and business management expertise for the operations and management of NonProfitEasy. A business futurist and strategist, he has been a strong advocate for using the power of technology for the transformation of the nonprofit sector. Lomesh has worked with small- to mid-size businesses, privately-held companies, and Fortune 500 corporations in various capacities—from sales and marketing to overseeing automation and reengineering of processes and operations.