8 entrepreneurs reveal the 1 critical skill they focused on to grow their business

For many entrepreneurs, focusing on 1 critical skill will lead to success in the early stages of their business. For new entrepreneurs, finding that skill and focusing on it could mean the difference between success and failure. In this post, we hear from 8 different entrepreneurs and learn about their “1 critical skill.” I asked them the following questions:

  • What was the 1 skill or activity you focused on that made your startup(s) successful?
  • How did you know this was where you needed to focus?
  • Did you need to sacrifice in other areas of your business to focus on your 1 skill?

What surprised me is that for most of them, focusing on this skill did not make them feel like they were sacrificing in other areas of their business. If you are focusing on the right thing, you won’t be sacrificing; you’ll be growing.

Hiten Shah: Cofounder – KISSMetrics

Hiten-Shah-Web

“The ability to teach others new things has been a huge multiplier for us.” – Click to tweet

1 big thing I’ve always valued is the ability to educate and teach people new things. With my last 2 startups we have used education to help with marketing, sales, customer support, and basically all areas of the business. We’d even have internal folks, such as our CTO, create videos to explain somewhat complicated concepts of how our backend infrastructure worked.

Our businesses have typically served any level of marketer, so we wanted to make sure we were able to teach them the most basic skills all the way to very advanced concepts. We also knew that content marketing was going to be a big part of our strategy considering that marketers are always eager to learn new things to help them do their jobs.

There are always things that you don’t end up doing because you focus. Our goal is to find things that are multipliers in our business where 1 skill can be useful in many different areas of the business. The ability to teach others new things has been a huge multiplier for us.

Tim Conley: Founder – TimConley.co

Tim-Conley-Web

“Focus on sales. You can’t have a business unless someone buys something from you” – Click to tweet

The skill I focused on was how to sell.

I had a startup that didn’t get any customers, so I figured I should learn to sell since you can’t have a business unless someone buys something from you.

I don’t think sacrifice is the right word. Some things get a higher priority, but you can’t sell something that doesn’t ever exist, nor can you sell something you can’t deliver and still have a business.

A business is an amalgamation of many systems. If you don’t have these systems your business will soon collapse or never get going. You might have to emphasize specific systems at different points in your growth, but they all need to be built and maintained for the whole to work properly.

Related: 14 surprising morning routines of entrepreneurs and creatives

Jimmy Hayes: Cofounder – Minaal

Jimmy-Hayes-Web

“I focused on surrounding myself with people way smarter and more experienced than I was” – Click to tweet

The main ‘activity’ I focused on was surrounding myself with people way smarter and more experienced than I was and asking just the right amount of questions. Enough questions to assemble the knowledge required to build something, but not so many that I realised how completely ridiculous the project was. Without the generosity and patience of those people, I’d still be driving an ice cream truck (true story).

It might’ve been when my co-founder Doug and I decided to start a physical product company with no industrial or product design background, or when we flew to Asia and started door-knocking bemused manufacturing facilities, or during a boardroom meeting in the pre-production phase, when I was “subtly” googling the questions they were throwing from the other side of the table. Short answer, it was clear from the very beginning that what we were taking on was beyond our immediate skill sets – that’s a major part of what made it so exciting.

Surrounding myself with the right people never felt like a sacrifice – like I said, without the help of others we wouldn’t be where we are now. And when I sit here and try to imagine what would’ve happened if we’d tried to do it completely alone… well, that jingle of the ice cream truck starts ringing in my ears all over again. Flashbacks are hell, man.

Related: 13 startup founders share what keeps them awake at night

John Mcintyre: Founder – The McMethod

John-McIntyre-Web

“I knew that if I could sell successfully, in person or online, I’d always have a source of income.” – Click to tweet

Copywriting (ultimately just part of the general skill of sales and marketing).

A new business lives or dies based on its ability to get customers. I knew that if I could sell successfully, in person or online, I’d always have a source of income. If I honed my mastery of sales and marketing, whether practicing copywriting, developing systems for understanding a target market, or practicing sales call strategies, I’d build a solid foundation on which to further accelerate my career and business.

I also knew that sales and marketing isn’t niche specific. If you get good at sales and marketing, you can apply everything you know in any market – supplements, software, banking, gardening, publishing, and anything else. The applications are endless. And that meant that the skills I was developing would be useful in the years and decades to come, in as many different businesses as I tried to build.

Finally, I knew that most people aren’t willing to invest the time and effort to become true masters of anything, including sales and marketing. That meant that if I was willing to wake up early and write sales copy or do back-to-back calls with prospects or painstakingly review market research, and so step-by-step get better and better at marketing, I would gain a huge advantage over my competitors.

I never felt like I was sacrificing in other areas to build these skills.

A word of warning though:

I’ve sometimes made the mistake of overstating the importance of sales and marketing to the detriment of product quality. At the end of the day, you have to solve a real problem for your customers. You can’t sell hot air (well… you can, but you won’t be in business for long). Get good at sales and marketing, but don’t forget to build a product that genuinely helps people.

Garrett Moon: Founder – CoSchedule

Garrett-Moon-Web

“The one who succeeds is whoever does the best job of marketing and selling themselves.” – Click to tweet

I focused on sales and marketing. Very often, new entrepreneurs look to the product and problem they are solving before putting together the business side of things. Early on, we worked on learning as much as we could about the customers that we would be selling to through surveys and 1-on-1 interviews. This helped us reach them quickly with our marketing – even before we launched. It also helped us build a great product that our customers actually wanted!

I was involved in a previous startup that ultimately failed because we missed this step. We thought that we could build a successful product by simply creating something that was slightly better than what our competitors made. This was a rookie mistake. Often times, the one who succeeds is the one who does the best job of marketing and selling themselves. It can beat product, although I still recommend offering the best product that you can muster.

I don’t think I sacrificed by focusing on sales and marketing. Ultimately, this focus helped us build a better product. It also helped us launch with something that we could sell. We’ve always had a paywall at CoSchedule, and as an entrepreneur, I am proud of that. It’s good business.

Dan Norris: Cofounder – WP Curve

Dan-Norris-Web

“I focused on content marketing. I enjoyed it and it was getting traction so I kept at it.” – Click to tweet

I would say ‘Content Marketing’. I wrote around 150 posts for Informly, most of which we moved across to WP Curve. That gave us a good boost when we got started, and I continued creating that content as the business grew.

There was definitely a long time before any reward, so there were times I wasn’t 100% confident I was doing the right thing. But I enjoyed doing it, and I knew it was getting traction so I kept at it.

I’m not sure if I sacrificed other areas, perhaps advertising. I don’t know a lot about it and I’ve never really been able to make it work.

Brennen Byrne: Founder – Clef

BrennenByrne-web

“It’s impossible to know it all, but there’s people around who know more and can help.” – Click to tweet

Listening. Every day, I encounter brand new challenges in fields that I haven’t ever worked in or even considered. In a startup, everyone has to be involved in everything — marketing, sales, product… It’s impossible to know it all, but there are people around who know more than you and are willing to help. Listening to them and not getting caught up in my own ideas has been really critical to our success.

I know I needed to focus on listening because I very quickly realized how out of depth I was on certain questions. I could fake some things, but when it came to fundraising or hiring or some of the other really delicate areas, I was in so far over my head that it was obvious I needed help and guidance. After that, it was easy to see that I could use that same help anywhere that I could find it.

I think there’s a balance between confidence and humility that every entrepreneur has to strike and there are definitely tradeoffs between the 2. Seeming unsure or insecure can make it really hard to lead effectively, so this can definitely be taken too far. The tricky part about focusing on listening is that it can’t slow you down or make you doubt yourself.

Scott Paul: Founder – ArmorActive

Scott-Paul-web

“Your business should have your blood and sweat in it. People can feel it when they work with you” – Click to tweet

I focused on a vision of what I wanted the customer experience to look like. I look back and realize that my time is best spent if I stay extremely focused on how people will interact with my product.

Before you can ship anything, you have to focus on creating the product, so I didn’t have to think hard about it. Once it’s made, you get to do lots of customer interviews and watch sales and marketing to dictate the next focus.

I had to sacrifice my desire to do other pet projects and also sacrifice ego. You don’t get to network and be cool and vacation or be CEO when you are starting something. You are the minion of your own company and you have to do everything that larger companies would have interns or new hires doing.

You know you’re doing something right when you are so in the weeds, you are the one answering every email, making every marketing message. This will be represented in a product or service that you understand completely. Your business will have your blood and sweat in it. People can feel the authenticity and the passion when they work with you and they appreciate it.

Conclusion

These founders all have very different business models, such as SaaS, physical goods and consulting. But there is an interesting trend in how similar these stories are to each other. It seems to boil down to one of three things: surrounding yourself with the right people, creating something great and selling it. It’s worth taking the time to see what 1 thing you could focus on.

As you can see from each of these stories, when you’re focused on the right aspects of your business and cut out the rest it does not feel like a sacrifice. It feels like growth.

For further reading I recommend checking out “The ONE Thing” by Gary Keller. It goes deeper into the power of simplicity and focus when creating a business, or doing anything great.

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About

Kyle is the founder of Conversion Cake . He is the author of "The College Entrepreneur" A book for students who want to break into entrepreneurship. Follow him @kylethegray

12 responses to “8 entrepreneurs reveal the 1 critical skill they focused on to grow their business”

  1. Valerie Coulton says:

    Some of these are interesting; why are they all guys?

  2. LisaLaMagna says:

    The Eight Dudes Post. It must be so very hard to find women entrepreneurs. Or maybe they didn’t focus. Oh I see, Utah. That explains everything.

  3. Valerie Coulton says:

    Ah! Thanks Lisa. 😉

  4. LisaLaMagna says:

    You’re welcome. I’ve heard there’s a pipeline problem, not enough women trying to start businesses.

  5. Kyle Gray says:

    Hi Valerie – thanks for your comment. We reached out to a few female founders for this post, but we did not hear back from them. Here’s a some content focused on women entrepreneurs like Adora Cheung – http://wpcurve.com/homejoy-adora-cheung/ and this post on Nikki Durkin – http://wpcurve.com/y-combinator/

  6. Kyle Gray says:

    Hey Lisa, thanks for your comment, we asked a few female entrepreneurs to contribute on this post, but we didn’t hear back from them. We’re always looking for new people to feature in our content. Do you have any suggestions for people we can include in the next post?

  7. Valerie Coulton says:

    Thanks so much, Kyle!

  8. RC says:

    Calm down. You don’t see me complaining there aren’t enough black people. Sheesh.

  9. Brandon says:

    I am all for equality and helping/featuring all entrepreneurs but simply questioning every all dude posts is ridiculous. It could have been any reason – bad quality of responses, repetitive answers, delayed replies.Today its about not featuring any women entrepreneurs, tomorrow it could be “oh 8 entrepreneurs and all straight. No love for LGBT!” I mean where does this diversity BS stops.

    If you are so keen, you are free to post on your blog and share it here “8 women entrepreneurs reveal the 1 critical skill they focused on to grow their business”. This is a business blog of Wp curve who have already done an awesome job for the entrepreneur and startup community by sharing the knowledge and insights for free.

  10. Valerie Coulton says:

    Oh, this “diversity BS”!

  11. Brandon says:

    Diversity on its own is fine. But the enforced one is BS! Anyways, don’t want to divert the focus of this post so more power to you 🙂

  12. Good points ladies. Glad Kyle and the team at WP Curve reached out to Women Entrepreneurs. Maybe next time they’ll be in an article. The entrepreneurs in this article did share great insight for everyone though, and I appreciate the time they took to contribute. The conclusion was spot on. Get the right people. Marketing, sales and the product you sell matter. Too many businesses have a “if you build it they will come” mentality.

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