Most people I meet professionally are surprised to learn that 20 years ago I was in graduate school planning to become an English professor. Instead, I now have played a part in successfully launching seven technology and finance businesses over the past 20 years.
While I diverted from my original path, one of the common threads throughout my career has been embracing interesting opportunities and pursuing compelling work with people I respect.
I’ve invested significant time in learning about the finance side of business to gain a complete picture of what makes a venture successful. Throughout my career, I’ve always taken the lessons I’ve learned, both positive and negative, to my next role. From my first foray into the dotcom boom of the 90s until today, I’ve learned a lot about what to do when running a business – and equally what not to do.
Do keep an open mind. Since I haven’t followed a clear “path” throughout my career, it’s been important to stay open to the right opportunities that have come my way. If you have a passion for learning something new, you’ll never be disappointed.
It’s crucial to be able to make adjustments even after your business is underway. While we haven’t strayed from our core offering since founding Kabbage six years ago, it’s been important for us to acknowledge macroeconomic shifts or changes in outside forces and quickly adjust the business. Being flexible can make the difference between growing and stagnating.
Do find a strong partner and support system. Having a partner who brings different strengths to the table has been critical at Kabbage. Rob Frohwein, my co-founder and our CEO, and I approach opportunities and issues from different directions, and those distinct perspectives are paramount to our success. Find mentors and others in your industries to help you brainstorm and vet your ideas.
Do perfect your pitch. When networking or talking to investors, you must articulate your business idea quickly, clearly and concisely. Research the competitive landscape and market opportunities and understand the ins and outs of the financing you need.
Do invest where it matters. Experiencing the tech bubble of the 2000s first-hand made a deep impression. I saw so many companies spend a fortune on things that didn’t drive revenue or growth, such as office space, décor or extravagant parties; the memory of that wastefulness is still vivid in my mind. I’ve learned to invest where it will have the most impact: something that benefits customers, employees or investors.
Do make time for networking. Identify industry events, professional organizations and conferences that can acquaint you with those who can further your business. You never know where you might meet your next mentor, investor, employee or customer. If networking isn’t your forte, find a strong partner or ally who can help represent your business.
Do plan ahead. One of the most complex challenges of running a business is determining how to grow in a smart way – scaling at the appropriate rate, managing and growing people and deciding when to promote from within versus hiring externally. Success depends on looking into the future and gauging what you’ll need months and years down the road, not just what will meet your immediate needs.
Don’t act hastily. My time at Kabbage has taught me that the truth is always in the middle. Regardless of the issue, nothing is ever as extreme as anyone thinks it is, for better or worse. It’s important to take a breath, ask the right questions and get the full story before taking action. As a reactive person, it can be hard for me not to dive in and try to fix something right away. Taking the time to understand a situation completely is hard to do, but it’s always the most effective.
Don’t be intimidated. It’s wrong always to assume that potential investors are more intelligent than you are simply because they are sitting on the other side of the table. Focus on being prepared, getting them excited about your business and presenting facts to support your claims.
Don’t take no for an answer. Inevitably, you will hear “no” when running your own business. Don’t stop there – ask the person who says no to recommend whom you should approach next. If you believe in your business idea and your dream, keep networking and promoting your business.
Kathryn Petralia is a co-founder and chief operating officer of Kabbage, which pioneered the first online financial services data and technology platform to provide fully automated small business loans. She has spent the past 20 years working with startups and established companies focused on credit, payments, technology and e-commerce.
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