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Adii Pienaar

Now working on Receiptful. Co-Founder & ex-CEO of WooThemes. Author of Brandiing. New Dad. Ex-Rockstar.

Winning In The Early Days

Ask any startup founder and they'll tell you that the early days (of a startup) are probably some of the hardest you will endure. These words will make up a big part of your vocabulary as an early-stage startup founder:

No traction.

No revenue.

Only a few users.

Running out of cash.

Fuck, this is hard.

I'll make it even worse for you. Imagine just how hard you think your startup will be. Now times that by at least 10. Now you have an idea.

I'm not even exaggerating on this. Even after I had built a massively, successful business before, I found the second time to be infinitely harder.

The early days of any, new startup will suck.

Last week - as part of my detox - I spent some time trying to figure out exactly what I did in the early days of WooThemes that helped me to generate the momentum to build a business.

How did I do this? Well, I read loads of very old (6+ years) e-mails to get an idea of the following at that time: my thoughts, ideas, actions and strategies.

To say that I was (pleasantly) surprised by the result (and how much of a different entrepreneur I was back then) would be an understatement. But here's what I learnt about myself, how I coped and how I created traction in the very early days:

1. Build Your Own Launch Platform

I launched my very first, WordPress theme from my blog. At the time I was publishing all kinds of articles about WordPress, design (eek), business (the little bit I knew about at the time) and my personal life (eek again). Loads of people loved it though and my blog had a tremendous following. The end result of all of this was $2000 in revenue in the first week after the release of that first theme.

Why? I had already built an audience and my own launch platform. I didn't need to beg, borrow or steal publicity elsewhere; I just needed to give (some of) the people within my existing audience something they wanted.

Heck, I even tried to take it a step further with my idea to launch a community / news site called "WP Magazine". Totally unfocused (and not what I'd recommend doing now), but it shows you my thinking back then: build an audience.

Any rocket needs a platform from which it can launch. My writing and blog was that platform for me. So figure out how you can build a launch platform (where you can exact the vast majority of the control) even before you even think of launching a product / business.

2. Learn To Cold Call

I was cold calling like a Master Samurai. Or to be more exact, cold e-mailing.

Today I absolutely despise a telephone (I try avoid it) and I'd never cold call someone. I'm also much more diplomatic when it comes to e-mailing people that I don't know. Especially when I'm asking them for a favour.

But back in 2007, I had a complete disregard for any kind of etiquette and I cold e-mailed everyone that I could think of that could possibly help me out.

If you had a review site, I e-mailed you a copy of my theme and asked for a review. If you were a blogger, you'd get an e-mail (with a copy of the theme) requesting that you write about me or my product. Or if you had a complimentary product / business, you'd get an e-mail from me about the advertising spaces on my website (I'll take your money for that and reinvest it in marketing my own product).

I tried everything. And it worked. Out of every 10 e-mails I sent, I got at least one positive response. And depending on the significance of that response, I could generate between 1 and 10 product sales.

When you're in the trenches fighting for attention and battling to make that first sale, you just have to keep on hammering away at doors.

There's nothing elegant, scaleable or even realistic about cold calling. But it works. (Tweet this!)

3. DIY Everything

You don't even have enough money to pay yourself at this point, which means paying someone else to do something for you is out of the question.

This is a good thing.

I learnt so much about every aspect of my business, because I literally had to take care of everything: from admin and finances to design, development and technical support.

I'm not even good at all of those things. But I did them nonetheless.

It's about constraints breeding creativity. If you can't do something, you figure out another way of solving the problem. This forces you to be creative and think out of the box.

It also forces you to save money.

4. Make Money (Elsewhere)

Maybe it was down to my youthful ignorance, but I was spending a shitload of my time actually working back then.

Before, during and after the release of my first product, I actually continued to do freelance / consulting work (all WordPress-focused). This continued for well over a year after that initial release.

Whilst this was obviously a major drain on my time and mental energy, it had one big advantage: money.

I got lucky in how quickly my product generated revenues. The fact that I had DIY'ed everything meant that revenues:profits were mostly 1:1. And on a student budget, that looked great.

If that scenario doesn't apply to you today, then do consider sticking with your day-job or doing some consulting to keep a steady stream of cash coming in. This helps ease the pain and pressure of working on something where the rewards aren't immediately significant.

It also gives you an extended runway to figure things out during your most uncertain (pre-product-market-fit) times.

Money doesn't solve all problems, but it definitely numbs some of the pain associated with those problems. (Tweet this!)

I obviously hope that these 4 tips / tricks helps you in your early days as an entrepreneur. But beyond the very literal meaning of these words, I hope that you were reading between the lines too. If you were, then you should've read this:

Everyone and everything has a beginning. Most of the times the beginning is small, humble, hacky and mostly shitty. (Tweet this!)

But it's a beginning nonetheless.

I wasn't always an experienced or successful entrepreneur; it took me years of blood, sweat and tears to become a somewhat experienced and successful entrepreneur.

During those early days, I had a reckless abandon about the way I approached and accomplished things. Importantly I made mistakes and I was willing to learn. If you gave me the same advice I have given you above, then I would've probably smirked about it.

The early days are hard however and it's actually the kind of awesome experience that you never want again. Until you do of course.

I hope the tips and tricks above though helps you to navigate (and see out) the early days. If you survive those, you can likely survive most challenges.

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