How To Save Your Startup – One Toilet Paper Roll At A Time

Two years ago I started a business called Connect Hub. It’s a coworking and event venue, functioning as a business accelerator for freelancers and entrepreneurs. If you read my blog constantly, you already know abut it, but if you’re here for the first time, you can learn more about it here.

From Zero To Franchise

The business may have started 2 years ago, but the whole story started in a Starbucks, 4 years ago. At that time I was a “digital nomad”, working from coffee shops and providing value through various digital channels (the most important being this very blog).

I confess in all honesty that I didn’t see this coming. I mean, I didn’t see it from the beginning as a business. It was just a weekly free networking event in a coffeeshop and nothing more. By the way, if you want to know the full story of the event, you can find it in the last chapter of my book “Being A Digital Nomad”.

In the first two years, all I did was showing up each Thursday, hosting the Open Connect event and doing the follow up. In two years, the community behind the event grew to more than 3500 people. That was the time I was approached by an angel investor, who showed me the potential behind it.

He brought with him another investor, they put the money together (enough to get us started, not more) and I started to put in the work. And boy, it was a lot of work.

At the moment of writing this article, Connect Hub is preparing to open its first franchise, which is in a location twice as big than the current one.

This is, in just a few phrases (encompassing 4 years of my life), the story of Connect Hub.

Why Do You Need To Learn How To Save Your Startup

I’m gonna be very short here: because you have nu fucking guarantee.

Sorry for the harsh language, but that’s the truth. You have no guarantee that your startup will survive, despite the fact that you have an angel investor backing you (or two, or three), despite the fact that you already built the community, despite the fact that the market is growing, despite everything.

Nobody can guarantee your startup will survive.

That’s why you need to learn how to save your startup.

Now, let me tell you a story.

During the first few months of the hub, there was a lot of chaos. There were strategy differences between me and the angel investors, there were hickups in the team with which I started, soon there were cashflow situations (like I told you, the money was just enough to get the business started and then we had to cover our expenses from the second month of operations, which was basically impossible).

Imagine me, in the midst of this chaos, trying to balance every problem with a reasonable solution, despite the fact that, well, I didn’t have any experience with an offline business. And a hub is, by definition, an offline business, you need people in your location to consume your services. I confess I was a bit confused too, for a few good months.

And in all this chaos, there was only one thing that had some predictability: toilet paper.


Toilet paper.

We may have had shortages in other areas, like chairs, for instance, and people would stay on the beanbags, but we couldn’t afford to have toilet paper shortages. You could actually see this on people’s faces. They could forgive us for not having air conditioning all the time, for not having the website updated with the latest offers, but they couldn’t forgive us if we didn’t have enough toilet paper.

So, one of the most predictable activities as a fresh manager of the hub was to buy toilet paper. I did this so often, so conscious and with such satisfaction that, just a few months after we opened the hub I started to introduce myself as being “the chief janitor of Connect Hub”. People often laughed about it, but I knew, deep down, that was also true.

And at some moment during that time, this toilet paper situation taught me, in a very strange way, how to save my startup.

Two Words: Waste Management

We’re all functioning like this: in order to perform, we generate waste. There’s no other way. Our bodies are creating waste all the time. We ate, we digest, then a significant part of the food is transformed in waste. Waste which have to get rid of.

That’s what a startup does too: when it functions, it generates waste. Only this waste is very, very different. With poop, it’s easy: it smells. Well, the waste generated by a startup doesn’t always smell. Yet still, we have to identify it and get rid of it.

Basically ,we’re talking here about missed opportunities, unsatisfied clients, pricing mistakes, operations mistakes, and so on and so forth. All of these are waste. They are the direct result of our startup functioning, but they’re not useful anymore.

Of course, you can also look at them as being mistakes, or lessons and try to learn from it. That’s legitimate too. But from a deeper perspective, this is just waste.

The whole idea is to acknowledge that and to use toilet paper to clean it up. And how you clean up?

Well, when you did something “wrong” (or, in our terms, when you created some “shit”) try to detach yourself up as soon as possible and with the least amount of pain. All of this while still being responsible. That’s it.

In terms of business that means moving forward as fast as possible, in the most healthy way. Every time you screw up, imagine yourself on top of the throne. Instead of generating a good product or service for your clients, you generated a lot of shit. That’s it. You can’t take it back. It’s already out. So, what do you do?

You use toilet paper. You clean yourself up.

The metaphor is much more complex than you think and it can be embodied in many types of actions.

It may involve repositioning yourself, for instance, if one of your strategies doesn’t work. That’s cleaning up also. I did this in the first year of the hub, when I implemented a very aggressive “discount” strategy. That attracted a steady number of clients, but in time I realized that they weren’t necessarily the right type of clients. In the end, I had to admit that that strategy was a waste. So I let it go. The current hub strategy is “full price or free” and it’s working wonders. So far.

Using “toilet paper” may involve getting rid of some toxic clients (clients who are abusing your services, most of the time). That’s another form of cleaning up. Learning to say “no” is fundamental here. Especially in the first stages of your business you simply can’t satisfy everybody.

It may also involve acknowledging the fact that some of your partners are not reliable anymore. That’s it. Happens. Clean up and move over.

But the most important lesson I’ve learned from this analogy is that these “mistakes”, these “boo-boos”, are inevitable.

There’s no such thing like the perfect human body, or the perfect company. Both are bound to generate shit.

But a properly functioning human being, as well as a properly functioning company (or startup) cleanse itself constantly.

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