By Erica Zidel (Founder & CEO, SittingAround)
Last week, I had the honor and privilege of being recognized by the White House in their Champions of Change series for the work I am doing to promote babysitting cooperatives and make it easier for families to find high-quality childcare.

I spent the day in DC touring the White House, meeting with other young CEOs, and being interviewed on camera for the White House blog. (Pro tip: if ever you’re invited to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, do not make that the day you decide to break-in your too-small, non-breathable patent leather heels. Take it from the woman who lacked this foresight.)

The best part of my visit, however, was participating in a panel discussion before an auditorium of students and aspiring entrepreneurs. They had some great questions, including “Tell us about a time you really failed” and “What are you doing to promote corporate social responsibility?” The discussion was 90 minutes and, with eleven panelists, it went pretty quick. I was left wishing for more time to share lessons I have learned from my experience as a startup CEO. Since the White House keeps to a pretty tight schedule, I didn’t get my wish; however, it did encourage me to share them here with Women 2.0.

  1. Your Gut Will Fail You. Listen to the Data. One of the biggest mistakes I see new startups make is thinking they know what their customers want based simply on intuition alone. Your intuition is great and it may lead you in the right direction, but when it comes down to it, your intuition is only as good as can be supported by data. We thought our customers would be most excited that babysitting coops save money -– so much so that we led with that value messaging for a month. It was not until we did controlled testing that we discovered saving money was NOT the most compelling value for customers; it was actually the convenience and ease of scheduling sitters that coops provide which mattered most. Without the data, we would have continued communicating in a way that didn’t resonate with our core customers.
  2. The More Different Your Co-Founder, the Better. It’s tempting to start a company with your closest friends and those you have the most in common with. But while similar people make good friends, they don’t necessarily make good co-founders. Successful startups need founders
    who are good at: product development, sales, marketing, engineering, operations, financials, etc. It’s unlikely you possess all these skills in sufficient depth. Maybe you’re great at marketing and sales? Find a co-founder who excels in product development and engineering. Or find two, if necessary. The point is that you should take an honest assessment of your own strengths and weaknesses, and make sure you build out your leadership team to fill in the gaps. This brings me to my next point…
  3. People Invest in People. I don’t care if your company is the next Facebook, if your leadership team sucks, you probably won’t raise a dime. Even with a fantastic idea, it’s possible you will change your business model a little in the early stages. And it’s probable that you will change your business model a lot. That’s why your team matters even more than your actual idea. Investors want to know that you have a team who can make the company a success, regardless of what that company winds up being. A friend recently told me that he starts all his presentations with a slide on the founders and I think it’s a great approach. Acknowledge the importance of your founding team and introduce them right off the bat.
  4. Mentors Are an Asset. Don’t reinvent the wheel. Learn from the mistakes and successes of
    seasoned entrepreneurs and business owners. Most people love to share the lessons they’ve learned and do their part to help other startups succeed. Take advantage of that and seek out mentors in your industry. This is not to say take advantage of them. Mentorship can and should be a mutually beneficial relationship. By serving as a mentor, they have social validation that they are someone to whom others look to for advice. It’s a stamp of success. And by serving as a mentee, you get the benefit of years of experience on your side. Be bold – seek out those mentors you really want and go after them. The worst they can say is no.
  5. Aim to Fail if You Want to Succeed. Your company is young; there is no better time to take risks than today. Be creative, experiment, do unexpected and disruptive things in your industry. When we first launched SittingAround, one of our explicit goals was “fail fast.” We felt strongly that if we didn’t fail initially, we weren’t being innovative enough. We’re firm believers that small failures lead to big successes and it’s only through (intelligent) risk-taking that you can achieve your idea’s true potential. After all, playing it safe is the quickest path to mediocrity.

Editor’s note: Got a question for our guest blogger? Leave a message in the comments below.
About the guest blogger: Erica Zidel is the Founder and CEO of SittingAround, a company that is revolutionizing the way families find and coordinate childcare and a 2011 MassChallenge Finalist. Erica is an advocate for female entrepreneurship and has been honored by the White House as a ‘Champion of Change’ for her work. A born communicator, Erica is passionate about finding and sharing ways to make life easier. Prior to SittingAround, she worked as a management consultant advising Fortune 500 companies. Erica holds a B.A. in English from Harvard College.