Why it's more important than ever to remember what it means to be a startup

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Running a “startup” is so hot right now. The term has become a buzzword associated with visions of cash, fame, freedom and unrivaled success. When people think startup, they see flashy offices with the latest technology, crammed with colourful beanbags and craft beer on tap, but this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Rob Hango-Zada. Photo: Supplied

Australian founders can’t lose sight of what it means to be a startup (no doubt inspired by Silicon Valley). There’s a misconception that to be successful you need huge budgets and the coolest office on the block.

When building a startup, you can’t expect to go from idea to Google in a week. Having a slippery slide in your office won’t make you the next Eventbrite. Perks need to be earned and even then, it’s important to think about how they’re actually going to contribute to your business and its growth.

Whilst capital is relatively easier to come by these days, founders need discipline and focus when it comes to spending it. If you can’t be responsible with money, you probably shouldn’t be running a business.

If Australia is serious about building a strong startup ecosystem, we need to stop sugar-coating and glamourising startups because all we’re doing is setting unrealistic expectations. Instead of romanticising the concept of the “ideas boom”, we need to strip back the layers, get back to basics and teach Aussies how to build sticky, scalable, and profitable businesses.

There seems to be a lot of talk about innovation in Australia, but this talk over-promises and under-delivers.

Startups are still being overlooked in the Federal Budget, our means of hiring much-needed international talent are becoming more restricted. Rather than pay $1800 to hire an Australian (under the new structure), frivolous, inexperienced founders will likely spend that money on nerf guns and standing desks, use the new tax break to cover the cost and then hire a cheaper developer in the Philippines.

It’s now more important than ever to take off the rose-coloured glasses and peel back the gloss on what it means to be a startup. In my experience over the last three years of taking Shippit from idea to business with my co-founder, Will, it boils down to three fundamental points:

1. Embrace the hustle mindset and adversity

If you look at almost every successful startup founder, there is a common thread: they’re all skilled at hustling. They chase every opportunity, validate the good ideas and kill the bad ones quickly, turning obstacles into advantages. More often than not, startups have a lot of time but no money, so a good founder quickly learns how to make resources work smarter.

This isn’t just important in making your dollars work harder, it allows you to demonstrate to potential investors that you won’t waste their money as you grow.

It’s cliched, but the lean startup model is something more founders need to follow.

At Shippit, keeping the purse strings tight allowed us to get on our feet and focus on growing the business. We didn’t splurge on decking out our office with the latest and greatest furniture; instead we turned to the ever-faithful Gumtree and made sure everything we put our money into was multi-functional. Our ping-pong table wasn’t just a reckless spend, it doubled as our boardroom table during our most challenging growth phase (work hard, play hard isn’t just a phrase around here).

2. Don’t kick the cashew

Culture is critical to scaling a business, so setting the right tone from the outset is a killer advantage. Identify what your values are and stick to them. Most importantly, practice accountability. It’s easy to pass the buck when you’re starting up and things don’t go according to plan, but we need to break down stigma around failure and claim responsibility for our actions, both positive and negative.

Dropbox might have the value “Cupcake” (which means behave in a way that is worthy of receiving a cupcake) but our dogma at Shippit is ‘Don’t Kick the Cashew’.

The value was conceived after one of our first team members spotted a cashew on the floor, didn’t pick it up, and it eventually got smooshed into the carpet.

‘Don’t Kick the Cashew’ is about owning what you do, being proactive and demonstrating strong initiative when it comes to having your team’s back. You’re never too important to pick up a cashew. It forms the backbone of our culture and I believe the same concept should apply to any personal and professional venture.

3. Meaning over money

If you’re not working for passion or a purpose, being a founder isn’t the right job for you. Simon Sinek famously said, “People don’t buy what you do; they buy why you do it”. He couldn’t be more right. Meaning and vision should underpin your work and allow you to create a product that achieves its purpose without the unnecessary bells and whistles.

Too many people see startups as a modern get-rich-quick scheme and this false belief is detrimental to the industry.

Being an entrepreneur is all about addressing a universal problem you’re passionate about solving. Founders need to be committed to the long haul because it’s a bumpy ride.

It’s no secret Australia has a big problem with tall-poppy syndrome; shooting down your success or nay-saying your startup ideas. Further down the road, others will imitate what you’re doing and try to cut you out of the market, if your heart’s not fully in it, they will succeed.

Rob Hango-Zada is the co-founder and joint-CEO of Shippit.com, Australia’s fastest growing shipping platform.

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