Being an entrepreneur, starting a company or three, executing an exciting vision that will bring something new into the world—all of these involve risk, and, inevitably, course corrections.
Talk with a variety of software and hardware entrepreneurs, product designers, and other startup founders, and the collective wisdom becomes clear: While there are definitely mistakes that business owners big and small want to avoid, there are also a healthy handful of true aha moments.
Coming from startup founders, here are five of the biggest business epiphanies that have proved productive and helped transform them and their businesses into even stronger contenders in the marketplace.
1. Pivot—Hard—to Something Completely Different. Grace Kraaijvanger was a professional dancer for most of her life before starting The Hivery, a collaborative co-working lab for women. After a decade of ignoring the urge to found a company because it wasn’t a logical next step for a ballerina, she took the plunge.
“The problem with finding your passion at a young age is that it can be difficult to transition out of it,” Kraaijvanger cautions, “but as I built The Hivery, I realized I could take my passion for dance—that creativity, discipline, and devotion to hard work—and put it into something else. Dance is about putting yourself out there unapologetically and not holding back. I bring that into my business.”
“People have a limited view of what expertise and experience means, but you take all of your strengths and everything you’ve learned with you into your next endeavor,” she continues. “You don’t leave it behind. Translate those skills and use them in everything you do moving forward.”
2. Disregard Roadblocks (or, Ignore the Naysayers—and Your Fear). Startups promote change and disruption—resistance is to be expected, especially if you’re perceived to be an outsider or know not from which you speak. Kraaijvanger ran into that repeatedly.
“So many people asked, ‘Are you sure you have the expertise to do this? Does the world really need this?’ It made me wonder, what do people have to gain from putting those roadblocks in front of you? Nothing! So I talked to anyone and everyone, listened as much as I talked, and got to know my market really well.”
The fear of starting a business is like an audition—facing down the internal and external voices that tell you you’re not good enough. “But if you’re passionate,” Kraaijvanger says, “the lesson is to go ahead and do it anyway.”
3. Find an Unlikely Mentor. Don’t assume wisdom can come from only one place, or that there’s only one kind of expert. A solid mentor provides support and a kind of structured accountability—but he or she needn’t have founded a similar venture to yours.
“I could hear the voice in my head—be logical, find someone who’s started something similar,” Kraaijvanger says. Her mentor, also a former dancer, understood her creativity and discipline, and helped draw parallels between her previous experience and her new venture. “She helped me see that I could start a business with what I already knew.”
4. Leave Money on the Table. Nenad Amodaj is a software engineer, entrepreneur, and founder of Go2Scope, a product and platform that combines robotics and microscopic imaging. He knows that when you accept VC funding, there’s a tradeoff: You lose some control of your vision. For him, walking away from that was worth it.
“It’s hard to find two people who have the exact same vision,” he says. “The differences between your vision and an outside party can be subtle and hard to detect, but they’ll eventually come out. I went down that path and wasn’t happy, so I decided to go my own way.”
Leaving money on the table can feel counterintuitive but can also result in its own rewards. “People will tell you that achieving your vision means compromising, but that doesn’t have to be true,” Amodaj says. “Whenever I make a compromise on something I care about, it’s a mistake.”
5. Go It Alone. There’s safety in numbers, right? But in any shared venture, even a lean startup, the company has its own vision to conform to. If you have a laser-beam focus on your own ideas and vision, going solo might be just the thing.
“It can be hard to be an atypical entrepreneur—one who works on his or her own,” Amodaj says. “It takes longer, and you have to get creative using your own resources or hunting for grants.” But he goes on to point out the benefits of doing so. “I get solicitations from VCs asking for executive summaries all the time. I went down that path and wasn’t happy, so I resist. Now, I can just build prototypes and explore at my own pace.”
The bottom line to keep in mind is this: Never forget that all advice—even the advice in this article—is doled out from a particular perspective. “You might find yourself taking advice dispensed by others without any regard for your own personality or vision,” Amodaj says. “You could call some of my choices mistakes from a certain standpoint. But if my objective is to be happy, then I haven’t made mistakes.”