Starting a business: the truths

By Derry Holt 3 years ago . 12 minute read

Many things change during the ‘entrepreneurial journey’ that all aspiring business owners walk. People, products and places can all change in an instant, but one thing is constant – the experience you take away from it.

18 months ago I left university with a dream: to change the perception of ‘freemium’ video games. For those unfamiliar with the term, freemium games are free to play/download but provide the option (often heavily encouraged!) to pay to gain an advantage over other players.

Developing the idea

My co-founder and I embarked on our journey but quickly came to a crossroad: we’d been describing our company, Stormburst Studios, as a “software developer specialising in mobile games and gamified technologies”. One of our mentors rightly pulled us up on this and asked us ‘well, which of these are you?’. We didn’t have a solid answer – I’d been toying with the concept of gamification for a few months and would be reluctant to let go. After all, like most aspiring entrepreneurs, we thought we had ideas that could change the world! But we understood that a decision had to be made.

Away we went to craft new ideas and decide what it was we really wanted to achieve. To cut a long story short, two weeks later we began developing OneUp Sales, a gamified performance management platform for sales teams. The platform makes use of our experience building delightful, easy-to-play video games to change the perception of enterprise software, which has a historical reputation for being slow, ugly and generally a nightmare to use.

Our success

Hopping back in the time machine to travel to today, we’ve recently closed out a £150,000 investment round, hired 4 members of staff and began sourcing clients in multiple sectors. We’ve moved office, rebranded our product and began forming the business we always dreamed of.

There’s a problem with what I just did – I shared our success. Some might take it as inspiration, others may be a little envious. But what I didn’t do, and what I’m about to do, is share the ugly side of startups that many entrepreneurs prefer not to talk about.

You’ll have to do things you hate

No matter what anyone tells you, sales are the true measure of success in a business. No sales means no money which means no business. I’m a chatty chap, but the thought of having to pick up the phone and start cold-calling people terrifies me. But it was something we had to do early on to validate that sales leaders would want to buy our product.

Do you see yourself as a salesman? You best do, because you’re the best salesman your company will ever have! You created the idea – it’s your baby, it’s your passion and no one is as invested in it as you are. Whether you’re hiring staff, pitching to investors or selling to clients, you need to be able to convey why what you’re doing is worth caring about.

This doesn’t mean it will look pretty. For two weeks my co-founder and I hit the phones. We wrote cold-call scripts, prepared email templates, got flustered more times than I could count, and generally made a bit of a mess. Every single day I questioned why I was doing what I was doing – why should I have to be the sales guy? Why couldn’t I sit and code? Everything would be much easier for me then. But if both of us took that stance we’d end up getting nowhere and so I became a cold caller.

There are parts you’ll love and parts you’ll hate (not always in equal measure!). Just be prepared to do things you never thought of – or to quote our old accelerator programme, ‘get comfortable being uncomfortable’.

People will try to take what they can

A lesson we learnt early on is that sharks circle where fish gather. In this case, your business is the fish. What’s even worse is that sometimes these sharks don’t look like sharks at all – they dress up as mentors, investors and people who ‘just want to help’.

I can’t even begin to list the number of people who wanted to make a quick buck or wanted a piece of the pie before it had even been put in the oven: lawyers offering to help set our business up, advisors employing fear tactics to get us to buy their services, mentors offering a few hours a month for a chunk of shares and plenty more. I’m painting these types of people in a bad light – they aren’t all bad, you just need to get good at spotting the bad ones very quick.

How? No magic formula here – common sense. Ask yourself: does it make sense logically? Can you do it yourself? Is it essential to your business right now? With the exception of your legal requirements to HMRC, nothing is truly make-or-break for your business – take every offer with a pinch of salt.

A good way to avoid these pitfalls is to join an accelerator programme. They could provide approved mentors and partners that will give you honest advice. Regardless, be wary – the occasional shark can slip by their filters. We spent 18 months on the Entrepreneurial Spark programme and I wholeheartedly recommend them.

You’ll question yourself daily

Did I word that email correctly? How did I stutter during that pitch? Why didn’t I speak to that person at the conference?

There’s a near-limitless number of self-doubting questions you can ask yourself on a daily basis; it’s not a bad thing. We all strive to be the best businesspeople we can and even the smallest mistakes can knock our confidence. But there are two ways you can look at these questions. One is through a lens of pessimism – negativity, self-doubt and a fear of acting. The other is optimism – self-improvement, desire to change and the courage to act. Which is going to move your business forward?

If you like, be methodical about your self-questioning. What happened/didn’t happen? Why was that the case? What can I change next time? Be realistic – baby steps are better than no steps at all.

Best of all – you’ll regret nothing

I picked this headline because it sounded powerful but I’ll confess – I may have lied a bit.

Everyone will have regrets. Whether it’s the people they surrounded themselves with or the actions they took, there’s always something that people beat themselves up about from time to time. What’s important is your understanding of how those decisions shaped you into the person you are today.

I frequently tell people ‘if my business failed tomorrow, I would have no regrets’. And it’s true. I’ve learnt more in 18 months than I ever bargained for and I’ve had some truly incredible experiences: travelling to Dublin for a pitching competition, suiting up for a black-tie pitch at a dinner to 500 people and closing out a £150,000 investment round are amongst things I don’t think I’ll ever forget. Not that I’d want to!

Take every day in your stride and keep reflecting on where you started and where you are now. The mountain looks a lot better from the top; what are you waiting for?

About Derry Holt

Managing Director, Stormburst Studios

Programmer turned entrepreneur - and what a roller coaster ride it's been!