5 Lessons Learned From 5 Years as an Entrepreneur

2016-05-10-1462914114-1195804-MichaelSaffitz.pngBy Michael Saffitz

In March of this year, the company I co-founded in 2011 turned five. My co-founders and I started Apptentive because mobile apps are a historically difficult place to reach out to customers in a genuine and personalized way, so we built a tool that allows companies to do just that -- at scale. For a company that focuses on facilitating the creation of real relationships, success starts from the inside out.

Anyone that has ever started a company understands the extreme ups and downs, the trials and tribulations, and the intense pride you feel from your team's achievements. You also learn many lessons along the way. I took our fifth birthday as an opportunity to reflect on what being a co-founder has taught me, and am sharing what I learned in the hope that you can find something to help you with your own entrepreneurial journey.

Cultivate Customer Love

Without customers, you don't have a business. If you're not cultivating customer love, you're more susceptible to losing to your competition. The benefits of earning your customers' love extends beyond loyalty. If they love you, they'll invest time in providing real feedback that will help you create and prioritize your product roadmap. Strong customer relationships are invaluable to startups that are always trying to make their product better.

Don't forget to show your customers that you love them, too. We've done this by embracing Valentine's Day as our holiday (Apptentive's logo is a heart). Every year, we send our customers "Boxes of Love" full of candy to let them know that we truly appreciate them. It's cheesy, but our customers enjoy receiving them. Acts of love don't have to be elaborate or expensive -- anything that puts a smile on your customer's face counts.

Build a Great Culture

Building a startup is hard, and there will be difficult days that test both you and your team. The stronger your culture is, the more resilient you will be to these challenges. One of the single most important things for any startup is to be purposeful in building is culture. At Apptentive, we knew from our early days that we wanted to focus on building a culture of collaboration, friendship, relentless customer focus, honesty, introspection, continual improvement, hard work, action and delivery.

Ultimately, there are numerous factors that will determine a company's success, but of those that you as a founder control, establishing and maintaining the right culture may very well be the most important.

Stay Focused

At some level, the need for individualism is inherent for startups. If what you're trying to build was obvious, someone would have done it already -- which is why founders face headwinds early on. In the early days of Apptentive, we received a lot of apprehension about facilitating customer conversations because many people were skeptical that companies wouldn't have the resources to properly handle the volume. Regardless of what anyone else thought, we knew we were building a tool that would help companies, and decided not to pay attention to the naysayers.

In other words, stay focused on what makes your company unique while balancing pragmatism with bullheadedness.

Improve a Little Each Day

It's important to remain conscious of the fact that little daily improvements can account for quite a difference in the long run. The ability to learn from your mistakes is necessary for life, but is do-or-die for startups. Use what you learn to figure out how you can take small steps towards improvement each day.

Sweat the (Right) Small Stuff

Everything you're doing is setting a precedent for the future. Identify what's most important, and take the time to get it right when you're a small, more agile company so that it doesn't come back to haunt you when you're bigger.

From the start, we put a lot of time and effort into the design of Apptentive's product and brand. Being polished in these areas was something that mattered to us, and we figured it might affect us in the future, so we started working with a designer earlier than most startups. Try to anticipate how something will affect your team in the future in order to determine if it's the right thing to "sweat" over.

Everything I've learned in the past five years of being an entrepreneur has not only helped Apptentive to grow as a company, but has helped me to grow as an individual. No matter which industry your company is in, applying the lessons above can have a positive impact on you and your organization.

Mike Saffitz is the CTO of Apptentive, the easiest way for companies with a mobile app to listen to, engage with, and retain their mobile customers. The Google Ventures backed company works with major app publishers and enables millions of customer conversations. Prior to Apptentive Mike worked at Microsoft as the Program Manager for the Windows Phone Developer Experience. When he's not building Apptentive, you can find Mike skiing, reading, and on Twitter @msaffitz