During election season, Americans hear a lot from campaigning politicians about their commitment to helping entrepreneurs thrive in troubled economic times. Such promises sound convincing from a podium, but in the real world, reality holds sway more than promises do. More often than not, entrepreneurs find themselves more-or-less on their own.

The industrious entrepreneurial spirit has given rise to the startup sub-culture, where owners and employees alike live austerely, putting the bulk of their money and time into growing their business. It can be a desperate, scrabbling lifestyle, where even committed investors pledge their cash in very small amounts throughout the long years of growth. Even so, startups are changing the world. Here’s how they’re doing it.

Anticipating Customers’ Needs

Internet radio service Pandora is one of the best-known and most successful startups in recent memory. Offering personalized radio stations based on the musical tastes of its users, Pandora was one of the first services of its kind. Now, streaming Internet radio is everywhere we look.

The lessons learned from Pandora remind us that startups need to know how to anticipate changing trends and industries. Pandora was ahead of the streaming music curve in a lot of ways, and it has paid off: in late 2013, the company achieved its highest-ever stock price since its IPO in June of 2011.

Embracing Changing Technologies

While plenty of companies, and indeed, plenty of startups, have found success in targeting a single digital platform for the release of their product (iPad, desktop PC, Android, etc.), one of the keys to success may be a commitment to remaining device-agnostic. This lesson has been driven home by another startup, MapMyFitness. The product makes use of GPS technology to help users record their workout data.

The company was acquired by Under Armor in 2013, indicating that its day had come at last. Along the way, certain key decisions played into the success of the startup, including the choice to remain compatible with some 200 mobile devices. MapMyFitness, unlike many other smaller companies, did what it could to appeal to as many different types of customers; its more than 13 million users underscore that fact.

Playing the Long Game

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from these and other startups is success doesn’t happen overnight in any but the most unusual circumstances. It took MapMyFitness about eight years to polish its products enough that Under Armor took interest at last. There were 10 years between Pandora’s founding and its IPO filing. Clearly, startups are long-term propositions. Jim Collins gave a great flywheel analogy for this long-term process in his book Good to Great. A flywheel is a heavy-disk device that takes a long time to generate momentum but once it does it can maintain that constant speed easily.

Business owners embracing startup culture need to prepare themselves for long hours and little pay. It’s going to be a labor of love, and for many entrepreneurs, the pressures regrettably prove to be too much.

Even so, we’re surrounded by successful startups, like the company I work for, that have not only proven that success can be achieved, but have also paved the way for change in how we think about how to run a business.