Building a startup is a bit like building a relationship.
When something feels really difficult — you’re trying to make it work, but you just can’t — it’s a sign something is wrong.
In a relationship, this usually means the person isn’t right for you. In a startup, any number of things could be keeping you from success.
It’s tough, I know. It took our team almost two years to figure out product-market fit. We spent so much time testing, over and over again, but nothing was working.
Yet once the right fit falls into place, what you thought was hard suddenly becomes easy.
There are still bumps in the road, but as your momentum builds, you begin to see the light at the end of the tunnel — success.
Unfortunately, that never lasts for too long. In fact, as you grow, you have to continuously redefine success if you want to keep developing and scaling your business.
This is how to think about achievement as your startup grows:
An early-stage startup finds success when product-market fit happens.
Being successful in the early days of your startup is about customers and revenue. You’re always looking at the metrics, trying to improve results.
Once you find product-market fit, the gears start turning a little smoother. You understand profitability, you understand your business model, and you finally know who your customers are.
Until that point, you need a team that thrives on uncertainty and relishes the opportunity to try new things and iterate.
One of the things we tried in the early days of ThirdLove, one that’s continued all the way to this day, is our Try Before You Buy program. A woman can order a bra, and if she doesn’t like it, she can send it back within 30 days. It sounds great, but when we started this program, the company was 15 people. Total.
So, boxes of bras would come back to us, and we had to determine if they had been worn — and needed to be donated — or if they were being returned new and could be added back to our inventory.
It was all hands on deck.
Every person on the team (even engineering) helped sort the bras. Opening boxes, filling out forms, checking it on the computer — it was all done by hand. That’s obviously not scalable, but it’s the type of thing that has to happen when you’re figuring out the basics of your business.
In the early stages, success is completely uncertain and unpredictable.
You have to keep people motivated, even when they’re knee-deep in returned product. You need the mentality of, “We know we’re going to figure this out. We just have to keep working on it, taking baby steps, and making progress.”
There are ways to communicate that attitude to your team, like celebrating little victories in major ways.
I can still remember when we were featured in the magazine InStyle. It felt like a huge success — and for a 15-person startup, it was.
As your company grows, success shifts to connecting your brand strategy with your customers.
After finding product-market fit, you finally have time to focus on scaling.
As you do, success becomes more about larger, strategic initiatives. You begin to view success in terms of, “How do people talk about the company? What does the brand mean to them? What is our image?”
You can find these answers in many different ways. For instance, I was recently at an event where the bartender recognized ThirdLove from my name tag — and as it turned out, she’s a customer. I ended up spending 15 minutes talking to her about all the different bras she’d bought and how she felt about them.
To me, that’s success at a late-stage startup.
But being successful goes beyond your customers.
The way you motivate your team and inform them of your strategy also changes as you grow. Your job becomes more about making sure everyone is on the same page and aligned with the company’s goals.
Tactically, there are more company update meetings and weekly emails that need to go out. Functional leaders have to communicate with the entire company about what they’re working on and how daily tasks fit into larger goals.
The distribution of information becomes vastly more important as you scale.
Just remember, almost everything you’re doing today will likely change within one year. So you always have to adjust how you’re motivating your team and defining success.
Because you can’t simply set it, forget it, and achieve it.