How to Survive Your First Year As An Entrepreneur

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Editor’s noteJames Altucher is an investor, programmer, author, and entrepreneur. He is Managing Director of Formula Capital and has written 6 books on investing. His latest book is I Was Blind But Now I See. You can follow him@jaltucher.

I loved talking to the skankiest prostitutes at three in the morning with a camera crew around me, fires burning in the street, sad, abused people clinging to scraps of life for their pleasures, bailed out prisoners and the drug dealers waiting for them to be released, homeless addicts with nowhere to go and they only weren’t freaks if you saw them at three in the morning .

In short,  I loved my job.

Entrepreneurship ruined it. I’m not like how Mark Zuckerberg describes himself: “a builder”. My guess is, I’m not like most of the smart people who read this blog who go out there and build things to improve the lives of others. And yet, I kept doing it to myself over and over again. Once you enter the world of “eat what you kill” you can’t go back to being spoon-fed by the pencil factory anymore. Sadly. I write about my first job here (and the prostitutes).

I had a regular job at HBO. My title: Junior Programmer Analyst in the IT department. I told HBO, “you do original TV programming so why not do original web programming.” And magically, from 1996-98, they let me do whatever I wanted to do at three in the morning and then put it on their website.  My original job was to do some Unix/ Oracle thing that I was totally unqualified for and didn’t know how to do. So I figured out a more fun idea for myself and persuaded them to let me do it.

(Rockefeller. The opposite of me)

Someone in the marketing department at HBO told me, “You CAN’T DO THAT.” But, as the readers of this blog already know, that’s the call to action to anyone who is going to do anything. For John D. Rockefeller it was to roll up all the oil companies in America. Nobody thought he could do it. For Andrew Carnegie, it was to buy all of the steel companies in America. For Larry Page, it was to build the 100th search engine without any ideas about a business model. They became billionaires. For James Altucher, it was to interview all of the prostitutes at three in the morning in NYC for almost no money. We each have the built-in predilections given to us by genes, upbringing, and whatever black magic you call god.

Then other entertainment companies started asking me to do the same thing for them. “Can you make our web presence entertaining and fun?” We want fun, they all said. So I jumped ship. Entered the world of the wild. Suddenly I was an “entrepreneur”. I didn’t even know what that meant. I got to the office. I had nobody to call. And nobody would return my calls anymore. I was no longer at HBO.  I would cry every day. I wasn’t a natural businessman. But I tried to learn from the 5,000 or so mistakes I made that first year.

All I’m saying is, thank god you first-timers have me to now tell you exactly what you should do in your first year of being an entrepreneur. Do everything I say below or you’ll probably fail. I’m dead serious.

–          Don’t hire anyone. Only hire people when you are absolutely desperate for more hands. And then start with freelancers. So you can fire them right away. When people raise money from VCs I notice the first thing  they do is hire people. After my first company, which was profitable from day one and never raised a dollar,  I started a second company where I raised $30 million from VCs and then hired $30 million worth of people, was fired as CEO and from the board, they then raised another $50 million or so and sold a year or so ago for about $1.

–          Keep the cash. If VCs put money in your business then no matter what they say, keep cash in the bank. Don’t act like a big company all of a sudden. Do you really need your lawyer at $400 an hour to take notes at a board meeting? Do you really need a board meeting? You don’t need a secretary until you have at least five, paying, profitable customers, if ever. You don’t need a head of sales or marketing your first year. You are the head of sales and marketing. You don’t need any VPs. You’re all VPs. You just started!

–          Get a customer. In order, here is the easiest cash you can get for your business: Customers, borrow against receivables, borrow against your house, friends and family, angels, venture capitalists, the public. Note that the VCs are near the end. Maybe you never need them. Why does everyone chase big-time VCs all the time? Do you really need $10 million in the bank. You just started! I shoud’ve made this point number one. Don’t even start your business unless you have a customer.

–          Get a customer, part II. Give equity if you have to. Sell your first baby (or take mine). Do whatever it takes to get one paying customer. If you are a content site: get a sponsor. If you are a product or a service, get a customer. If you can’t get a customer then that means you have a shitty product or you’re not passionate enough about it. Go back to the drawing board. Take an extra $5,000 and make some new features. Note: I said “$5,000”. Not “$10 million”.

–          Get a customer, part III – I mentioned this last week. Say “yes” to everything. EVERYTHING. If they need surgery performed on them, you’ll do it. If they need a database updated and your company makes tennis balls then say, “no problem, I have a guy for that. He was the database expert of Bangalore. And now he makes tennis balls for us. I’ll send him over Saturday morning to fix your database. And he’ll bring some pastries.”

–          Corollary to the above: get the potential customer to say “yes”. Even if you have to do stuff for free. Just get them to yes. They can’t say no, for instance, if you say, “we can blow up your enemy for free.”

–          Over-promise and over deliver for every customer. But only the first time. Don’t kill yourself for everyone all the time. You need sleep!

–          If a client says, “I’d rather have this conversation in our offices,” then listen to me: DO NOT EVER go to their office. Don’t go there ever again.

–          Most important: Stay Lucky.  If you don’t stay healthy: physically, emotionally, mentally, spiritually, in your first year, its a guaranteed failure. I’m an expert on failure. Not having the four legs mentioned above means the chair you are sitting on is going to break and you are going to fall.

–          If someone says, “I’m taking a big chance by hiring you”, get paid as quickly as possible. Get paid up front. You’re never going to do business with that person again. If his version of “chance” was hiring you then that’s it. He’s back to the pencil factory for his next vendor (no insult to pencil factory workers.)

–          Every Friday, pay for a masseuse to come in for all of your employees. This assumes you have an office. Ideally, you have no office. But if you do, and employees are there, then get a masseuse. Make: “thank god it’s Friday” mean to your employees: “I’m so glad I’m going into the office today.” I had 50 or so employees at my first business when we got sold. Massages for everyone except me on Fridays (I don’t like anyone to touch me).

–          I’m horrible at followup. But you have to do it. If you have a potential client, move it from the phone to the meeting, to dinner as quickly as possible. Dinner seals the deal. Pick up the tab. Ask about their love lives. If they are lonely, hook them up with your best single friend of the appropriate gender and sexual preference.

–          Once they are a client, make them a partner. There’s three ways to do that:

  • Always hold out the bait that they can eventually make the jump from their crappy job at the pencil factory to the cool VP of Marketing position eventually opening up at your company (no offense to pencil factories).
  • Ask for advice. Ask them what else do they need that you can help them with, for free if you have to (over promise and over deliver the first time).
  • Ask them if they know anyone else who might need your services.

The best new customers are your old customers. The second best new customers are your old customers’ friends.

–          In all of your spare time, do favors for your clients. Hire their mentally-challenged nephews. Contribute to their charities. Volunteer where they volunteer. Give double everyone else when they run in one of those stupid marathons for cancer. I say “stupid” because why can’t the cancer thing just ask for the money without forcing people to run for 26 miles. Your entire free moments of the first year of being an entrepreneur should be spent thinking of favors to do for your clients. Use the techniques of “Super connecting” to build up your clients’ networks. The bigger their networks, the more valuable yours becomes. Don’t horde your network or your favors.

–          Fire immediately any employee with a negative attitude. Employees start to smoke in the stairwell and talk about you. So negative attitudes spread like a cancer. The only way to get rid of advanced cancer is radical chemotherapy to burn off the bad cells. Fire all negative employees immediately. No second chances. You won’t regret it. This doesn’t mean keep only yes-men. But the no-people have to work  with you, not against you. If they start grumbling in anger, then they are fired.

–          If someone wants to be your head of sales, only hire them if they are immediately bringing in enough revenues and profits to cover their salary. Everyone else is a waste of time.

  • Corollary: if someone makes an intro for you and it doesn’t work out (i.e. no customer results out of it) then never listen to them again. They gave their best shot and it didn’t work. So their second best shot won’t work either. And once you are on their third best shot then you’re probably an idiot.

–          Reseller agreements are for suckers. Companies have a hard enough time selling their own products. Nobody really gives a shit about your products or services. Maybe in year two. But in year one, if someone wants to resell you then say, “sure, give me some phone numbers to call right now.” Then refer to the corollary above.

–          Steal your competitors’ customers from them. Remember, they over-promised and over-delivered the first time. Then they began to disappoint (or perform like everyone else). Call up the decision maker and offer to do a little project for a little bit of money and totally over-deliver. You’ll be first on the speed dial when your competitor eventually disappoints. Which they will. Nobody can make the best purple tennis ball forever. Remember the easiest new customer is…err… your old customers! And then their friends. And then…your competitors’ customers.

–          Finally, don’t make any of these nine mistakes. By the way, I plagiarized the post that link goes to. But you’ll never find where I plagiarized it from. Just don’t make those nine mistakes in your first year or you will fail. Free PDF of my latest book if you can guess where I take the 9 mistakes from.

Then, on the first day of your second year, if you follow the above, you’ll have customers, cash flows, a network of contacts, new friends who will kill for you, and your entire personality will be different. For the worse. So go back, try to repeat all of the above, and stay healthy. In order to stay sane while you get rich. By the way, you still might fail on that first business. But now it’s too late for you. You’re never going back to the pencil factory. You’re an animal, you hunt in the wild, you dig your sharp teeth into flesh and enjoy it, and at the top of the mountain you roar like a lion and everyone cowers in fear.

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