Before we started Sweav one year ago, we worked as management consultants. We spent a lot of time making sleek presentations, saying smart things in meetings and managing teams. Back then, we thought we knew a lot. Until we decided to hop on this start-up adventure. It turned out to be a very humbling experience
Despite many challenges we faced, we look back at a successful first year. We built a thriving community that now consists of more than 170 freelancers ánd we worked for some of the most high profile companies in the Netherlands.
Along those 365 days, we did a lot of things that worked very well as well as things that didn’t. Here are our five most important lessons.
Lesson 1: Avoid checklists
The excitement and freedom of running our own business was very appealing to us. Because we didn’t have our ‘grand business idea’ yet, we started searching for it the logical, ‘consultancy way’: we made lists of market segments that were large, profitable, on-trend and had huge growth potential.
We started working on some of those ideas… and stopped very quickly as well. Why? Because they seemed cool projects to work on in the beginning, but after a while, the excitement and novelty faded away. We realized that after setting up a new business, it’s business as usual. You will bump into problems, you will have setbacks, and things will not go according to plan.
In hindsight, moments like these were the perfect test for us. With all the other ideas, we quit when times got tough. When we started Sweav, the excitement about the idea and mission was bigger than the pain of the punches we took. Excitement is what counts, not the rationale of a checklist.
Lesson 2: You know a lot less than you think
As a consultant you might think you’re smarter than anyone else: you were one of the top performers at university, now work for a prestigious brand name firm and advise world leading firms on what to do at a very young age.
The past year has been a very humbling experience, as we found out the hard way that we personally suffered from an inflated ego as well. As it turns out, many of our initial business ‘hypotheses’ were plain wrong. On the other hand, many things that worked well were things we didn’t think of in advance at all. The secret to success was buried in the nitty gritty, and we had to get our hands dirty to find out what the secrets actually were.
For example, how much does a consultant know about what is the best sales approach, and what type of sales people to hire? Or which ‘tone of voice’ matches your brand identity best? That is not something you’re going to ‘solve’ with a matrix, a gant chart or an organogram.
We realized that overthinking was just our excuse not to start. Instead of (over)analyzing, just go do something and find out what works along the way.
Lesson 3: Solve your biggest problems yourself
As you realize how much you don’t know, it might be tempting to seek help from experts whenever you’re facing a challenge you’re not an expert on. We, for example, thought it would be a good idea to outsource our brand design and lead generation. That was a big mistake: the results were very disappointing.
We learned quickly that the only person who can find the best solution for major challenges in your business is you. Yes, you might feel like an imposter because you’ve never done it before, as making important decisions outside of your scope of competence is scary.
But the truth is: nobody is as invested in your business (idea) as you are. Nobody knows your goals, ambitions and values better than you do. Nobody will find a better solution to the problem(s) you're facing than you will. You are more resourceful than you think, so solve our biggest problems yourself.
Lesson 4: The beauty of bootstrapping
At the start of 2022 venture capital was hip and happening. If you wanted to be the real deal in the Amsterdam startup scene, you had to at least have €500k raised for your ‘pre-revenue soonicorn’ and a feature in Het Financieele Dagblad.
During our time as management consultants, we were involved in VC financing rounds a couple of times and so were able to see firsthand how it affects business dynamics and entrepreneurs. So we decided: we won't go down this road. The premise of dealing with ‘wie betaalt, bepaalt' situations, wasn't very appealing to us.
What was left for us was option 2: bootstrapping. Bootstrapping can be loosely translated to ‘doing a lot with a little’. One of the things we did was working with development and design agencies in emerging countries through gig work platforms Upwork and Fiverr. Maybe not the quality of a top Dutch agency, but a lót cheaper. We quickly learned that having little money is the best way to become more creative and find cheap but good solutions.
Lesson 5: Keep it warm
One of the challenges of building a network/platform business is to continuously balance demand and supply. In the summer of 2022 we got quite a lot of PR. This resulted in an inflow of new members which was much higher than expected. Pretty cool, of course, but also challenging: how are we going to make sure that we have enough clients and projects to be relevant for all members?
To scale up client acquisition quickly, we attempted cold outreach: approaching clients and companies we didn’t have an existing relationship with. We very quickly learned that this didn’t work for our type of business. Doing business in the high-end services industry is based on trust. To build trust, you need a personal connection and credibility.
By building our warm network of freelancers and clients quickly, the network effect started working its magic. Both happy clients and happy members were willing to introduce us to their network to help accelerate acquisition, which proved to be highly effective. Warm acquisition is the way to go.
We are very happy we moved from management consultants to startup founders. This journey we’re on is new, exciting and very challenging. It has forced us to learn a lot of new things as well as unlearn a lot of existing habits that didn’t serve us very well. We can’t wait to see what 2023 has in store for us.
To anyone who’s thinking about starting a startup, we’d say: go for it! We know startup life isn’t for everyone, but if you are very excited about a business idea, give it a try. At worst, you’ll make as many mistakes as we did. Good luck!