The founders of Birchbox, MM.LaFleur and Thoughtful Human know a thing or two about the growing pains of scaling a startup business.

Beauty subscription service Birchbox, now with shops in 12 Walgreens stores, has faced funding hurdles along the way; women’s workwear brand MM.LaFleur endured two years of stagnant sales before hitting on a viable e-commerce model; while it was only after wading through “entrepreneurial boot camp” and in-person cold calls that ‘Ali O’Grady broke into Whole Foods and then with her Thoughtful Human greeting card line.

Here, Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp, Sara LaFleur, CEO of MM.LaFleur and O’Grady share actionable advice for entrepreneurs and businesses starting out, from why market insights trump PowerPoint presentations to the benefits of keeping your nascent ideas under wraps.

 Katia Beauchamp, founder, birchbox, headshot
Katia Beauchamp, CEO, Birchbox — Birchbox

Birchbox CEO Katia Beauchamp: Know thy market

Start. Spend less time perfecting excel spreadsheets and PowerPoints, and more time getting into the market with some fraction of your vision. It's a great lesson to remember that it's the insight that drove to a solution; and getting to market is about developing a deeper understanding of that insight. You will never be done understanding the needs of the customer — the context is always changing, so their needs are always evolving.

 Sarah Lafleur Headshot
Sarah LaFleur, CEO, MM.LaFleur — MM.LaFleur

MM.LaFleur CEO Sara LaFleur: Recognize that ‘it takes longer than you think’

Starting a business takes much longer than you think. I have interns and MBA students thinking of starting a company and working on it during summer holidays. Then they might say, ‘It’s not working out, so I’m interviewing for a banking job in the fall.’ You can’t get anything done in three months. Our short attention spans want things immediately. It takes time and nurturing. Give yourself at least a couple of years before making any sort of decision to keep doing it or call it a day.

Also, get a side hustle! When I left my private equity job to start MM.LaFleur and my paycheck stopped coming in, I was terrified. So I started tutoring students for the SATs at night, which covered my expenses and allowed me to spend my daytime hours working on the business. Having a modest income stream meant I could build MM.LaFleur at my own pace.

 ali o'grady, thoughtful human, founder
Ali O'Grady, CEO, Thoughtful Human — Thoughtful Human

Thoughtful Human Founder Ali O’Grady: Negotiate, trust and protect

Everything is negotiable. This was such an epiphany to me as a young brand and female entrepreneur. I felt like I had very little room to push back, especially with big corporations; but everything is negotiable, and partners can be surprisingly flexible — especially if they believe in you, your mission, and your practices.

Trust your gut — if it feels off, it's probably off! I have had so many moments in this process where I thought, ‘Hmm, that doesn't sound quite right,’ or, ‘I'm not fully sure I understand that, but I will defer to the experts.’ In my haste, I've smiled and nodded through some of those moments that have had big consequences. Treat that gut feeling as the important trigger it is — to pause, ask, dig, learn.

Ideas are fragile — protect them! I think it's really important to allow your vision the space to develop and evolve — to create something that's really your own before you open it up to outside influence, opinions, etc. I didn't tell anyone the name or nature of the company I was launching until the day it launched at my brand reveal party. There's also a lot to be said about just walking the walk. So many people will naysay ideas and understandably so — many of them never come to fruition. So, talk less and walk more — let them criticize your empire when you're done building it.

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