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Reaching year four as a startup is an achievement worth celebrating. For a few seconds, while it feels wonderful to have reached the milestone and still be in business and at least partially standing, the journey is far from over, and the challenges continue to evolve.

I’ve learned valuable lessons, faced numerous hurdles, and made significant progress by some measures. But my thoughts have turned to what I should focus on in year four. Should I aim to raise more money for fast growth, or is my limited time better spent rethinking strategy and team dynamics? Here is how I am approaching year 4.

Related: Practical Solutions to the Top 5 Challenges for Founders in 2023

1. Reflect

Before diving into the future, I feel that reflecting on the journey is essential. Like most startup leaders, I rarely take the time to dig into specific accomplishments and setbacks for deeper meaning. There is true value in pausing to examine and, ideally, documenting things we have learned. What have been your most successful strategies? Why did those things work? For the strategies and initiatives that failed, how flawed were they? Did I follow them long enough or too long? What was the impact of both success and failure on the business and team?

We all know that a clear understanding of the past will help you make informed decisions for the future. It is critical to make the time and space to do this soul-searching. I suggest going along with the team to gather prospective insights and collectively set the direction for the next phase.

Related: The Art of Navigating ‘No’ — When to Persist, Pivot or Give Up and Pack it In

2. Raising capital

One of the primary questions that every entrepreneur faces is whether or not to raise funds. It’s a complicated question, especially for women. Injecting more capital can fuel rapid growth, but it’s not always the best choice. Here are the factors I am thinking about while making this decision:

  • What are our strategic goals? Are we looking to expand rapidly, enter new markets, or develop new products? Do we have a solid plan to spend the funds once we raise them? Proof that the invested dollars can be used to deliver on our projections. This is not simply a question to answer for investors or would-be investors; it is critical to ask yourself and your team. The implications of outside capital go far beyond having money.
  • What is our current growth rate? Does our current growth rate justify the need for more capital? If the current trajectory is steady and sustainable, when do I really need funding?
  • Burn rate: I have spent time calculating our current monthly and quarterly spending to develop a burn rate. It has fluctuated over the past few years, and we are not yet at the point where we are generating enough revenue to cover the cost of sustaining the business. I have looked deeply into how we work and adjusted to manage our burn rate and extend our runway until we raise capital.
  • Investor relationships: This has been tricky. Entering a relationship with an investor is a long-term commitment, and I have learned to think long and hard about who I want to be involved in my business for the long haul. When taking funds from a group or an individual investor, I should have talked to other entrepreneurs to understand their experience. I wanted funding and people that would add value to our business, and I have realized that not all money is equal. Some of our initial investors were inexperienced and had a different view of the business direction. This has been costly in time, energy and focus. These are all things that I don’t have time to spare when focusing on growing my business. Lesson learned.

3. Assess your team

As we grow, pivot and refine our product offering, the team’s skills and experience need to evolve. This makes perfect logical sense. However, the founding team of a startup holds a special place for every founder. Four years in the startup world is a lifetime and has been full of adjustments in our product offering and refinement to our marketing strategy and business model. In some cases, team members have adapted; in others, they have not. Here are some of the things I considered when looking deeply into my team members and our readiness to move forward in year four and beyond:

  • Team Skill Sets: I have identified the core competencies required to deliver on the strategic goals included in our growth plan. I have looked closely into the skills we need to achieve our targets and overlayed those with the skills of the current team members to create a gap analysis.
  • Hiring Strategy: Once I determined that I needed to bring in additional skills, I developed a plan to see what talent was out there. I started by developing precise and detailed job descriptions. Then, I posted them on social media job sites and spread the word among my professional and personal community. I talked with prospective candidates about what they were looking for and our direction and goals. There is fantastic talent around, and now, with traction and experience, I feel confident in attracting the talent and skills for the next phase of our growth.
  • Culture: I have asked, are we practicing the company culture we set out to develop? Maintaining a positive and cohesive culture is increasingly important to pay attention to as we grow and pivot.

Related: Make Better Hires by Getting the Right Assessment Tests for Your Company

4. Customer feedback and product iteration

We now have a solid customer base and continuously receive valuable product feedback. Leveraging this feedback to refine our product offerings is the most important thing we can do to grow. Asking for feedback can be hard, and it is difficult to hear the answers at times, but continuously iterating based on customer needs and market trends is the only way to

  • Customer-Centric Approach: Staying committed to a customer-centric approach is a must. Regularly engaging with our customers to gather insights, identify pain points, and uncover opportunities for improvement is a practice we have implemented and will continue.
  • Product Roadmap: Developing a clear product roadmap for the technical aspects of our product and our customer offering that aligns with our long-term vision is more important now than in the early stages of the business. We have input and lessons learned to build on to prioritize features and enhancements that provide the most value to our customers.

5. Scalability and operational efficiency

Achieving scalability and operational efficiency is vital for sustained growth. I am continually looking for ways to streamline processes, reduce costs and increase productivity:

  • Technology Stack: Ensuring that our technology infrastructure can support increased demand. Budgeting for investments in scalable solutions that can grow with our business.
  • Automation: Identifying areas where automation can improve efficiency across the business. Outsourcing routine tasks, leveraging AI and analytics to improve support, marketing, or backend operations.
  • Talent Development: Understanding the skills gap noted above and investing in training and development programs to upskill some existing team members and empower them to take on more significant roles.

Year four of a startup is a critical juncture. We are celebrating making it this far while carefully balancing growth ambitions with the realities of our business. Seeking additional funding and expanding the team’s skill sets can accelerate growth. Doing so strategically is essential, maintaining a strong focus on our customers and product quality.

Success in the startup world combines innovation, adaptability, and perseverance. Reflecting on our journey, evaluating our funding needs, and nurturing your team and customer relationships set us up for sustained success beyond its fourth year.

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