startups

The Most Valuable Startup Resource

 

As an entrepreneur, what’s your most valuable resource?

Your colleagues? Your network? Ideas? Money? Time?

All crucial, but this one tops the list:

Your pool of mental energy. 

Just like the physical energy required to run a marathon, you need a big ol’ pool of mental energy for the psychological demands of building a business. It’s common sense but often de-prioritized amidst the startup whirlwind. It’s a prerequisite. It’s what makes everything possible.

When your pool is full you can take on the world. When it’s drained maybe you can go through the motions but your company needs way more than that. And if it’s drained too much of the time, there’s the ever-present risk of depression and complete burnout.

Things that can fill your pool: positivity, a healthy lifestyle, helping others, amazing friends and coworkers, getting awesome results by focusing on key tasks.

Things that drain your pool: negative thoughts like resenting your competition, taking poor care of yourself, engaging in flame wars, team drama. Really anything that detracts from the laser focus on your mission.

Be aware of your pool and guard it closely. Don’t let yourself or others drain it. If you treat it like the precious resource it is, amazing things can happen!

What Does a Mission Look Like?

A couple days ago Micah Baldwin was kind enough to pay us a visit in KC at the Sprint Accelerator powered by Techstars. It was awesome. He covered lots of topics, and one was the importance of being on a mission. To succeed as a founder you must have the passion, the drive, a mission because startups are so fucking hard you’re gonna need every ounce of conviction to get through the tough times. And I agree 100%.

It got me thinking: what should “being on a mission” look like? Working 16 hours a day, seven days a week? To me that’s obsession, mission’s vampire cousin that sucks the life from you and your loved ones. How about a 40-hour work week, spending every night and weekend with friends and the fam? Nice thought, but it instantly puts you behind your competitors who are busting their asses every day to win.

Brad Feld also spoke to our startups about some of the same things. His main topic was work-life, and he was very careful not to call it “work-life balance”. I’ve seen some founders put illogical limits on their hours – like no more than 50/week – because they see “work-life balance” everywhere. There’s no perfect work-life balance in a startup. The reason why both Brad and Micah came up with certain strategies – doing one thing for yourself each day; giving yourself some time first thing in the morning – is because they know from experience startup life is a shit-ton of work. And you should want to put in the time. But if you completely ignore yourself or loved ones you’ll eventually implode.

(Aside: the main reason I love listening to Brad and Micah is their 100% honesty. No bullshit, no ulterior motives. Pure awesome.)

So it makes sense that if you’re hell-bent on startup success, 40-50 hours a week isn’t gonna cut it and 100 will likely destroy you. Somewhere in between, find the maximum possible workload that lets you maintain your health and relationships. If you can do this – great! You only have 1,000 other things you need to get right.

Now get back to your mission!

Sh*t Will Happen. Guaranteed.

image

In our personal lives, we know shit happens. Unexpected events occur from time to time. Great, painful, weird, horrifying. Life has a way of sucker punching that smug grin right off our collective face.

But many founders aren’t prepared for how often this happens at startups. “We have ample funding, a great team, and a killer product strategy – what could possibly go wrong?”

Everything. No seriously. Everything. Except for those of you that are really smart, have an ivy league MBA and an awesome business plan with a detailed section on risk.

Just kidding, you’re screwed too.

Here’s the thing about risks: they’re inherently unknown, possible future hazards we may or may not encounter. Stop fixating on your business plan. Odds are Chaos Theory will describe the path of your business much better than any plan. And as Brad Feld wrote, business plans are an historical artifact. It’s about to get real.

Examples? Anything you can think of. Critical bugs in version 1.0, then again in 1.01, and 1.1. Your market changes. Your lead developer flees the country. You get sued. Manufacturing costs triple. You get hacked. You get sued again. And that could be just the first six months.

Fortunately founders are becoming increasingly transparent about these realities. Ben Milne of Dwolla wrote a really nice lessons learned post. Nait Jones of Aglocal described what he learned during his rookie year as CEO. These are smart, driven entrepreneurs with talented teams and top tier funding. Yet their humbling experiences are the rule, not the exception.

Diana Kander from the Kauffman Foundation gave a funny and smart speech at Big Omaha about the similarities between having a baby and launching a startup (she was six months pregnant at the time). While her main point was to caution against rushing from idea phase right into execution, the subtext included a great parallel between babies and startups: you’ll never be fully prepared for them because you have no idea what’s gonna happen. As a parent and past founder, I say hell yeah.

Just know that unforeseen shit will happen to your business, and it won’t be pretty. Your startup will not be Neil Patrick Harris giving himself a high five. It’ll be Alan Garner getting sucker punched by Mike Tyson. Over and over. Hopefully you won’t be wearing a smug grin when it happens.

Fearing Failure: Go Big or Go Home

image

Fear of failure is a popular theme for today’s entrepreneurs. There are powerful stories of entrepreneurs failing at their businesses, and how they respond. Some go on to achieve great things; others let it define them with tragic results.

What could be worse than failing at your business?

Failing at your business is horrible so I’m not diminishing it when I say there’s a much larger failure to fear: Big Failure. What is it? Imagine getting to the end of your professional life and feeling like your career failed. Not once. Not twice. But for your whole life. Big regrets. Big. Failure.

Damn. Heavy.

(And I don’t agree that all true entrepreneurs successfully start and run businesses. People are more complex than that. A topic for another post.)

Fear of failing at your business can make your business fail.

My father went through this. On a personal level he was very successful. In business his fear of failing at individual ventures kept him at a corporate career he hated. For decades he stifled his entrepreneurial instincts. We never talked about it. But it was obvious that, ironically, his fear of smaller failures resulted in feeling like his entire professional life was a failure. I think it was his only real regret.

Entrepreneurs are naturally consumed by the immediate future. They’re not thinking about how they’ll feel in 40 years. They need to win now and are often terrified of failing. But that fear can create failure by paralyzing them. They hesitate while their bolder competitors seize opportunities.

Big Failure kicks other failures’ asses.

Having no fear is great. But if you’re gonna fear failure, harness the fear of Big Failure. Use it to mitigate the fear of individual business failures. The goal should be a successful career and a career is more than one company. Think massive, be bold, and follow your instincts. Your older self will thank you for it.

A.B.H. (Always Be Hustling)


Remember the first time you ever hustled? Maybe it was delivering newspapers at 4 am, a lemonade stand, or reselling action figures to your friends.

I was a late bloomer. My first real hustle happened when I was 18. A storm had knocked down a tree behind a building I walked by every day. It was big – at least 75 feet long. I called the property manager and negotiated a deal: I’d remove the tree for $275 if he provided a helper. Done. He didn’t know I was 18, had never done anything like that before, had never used a chainsaw, or had no idea where the cut-up trunk and branches would go. I just needed the money. Time to wing it!

So on the agreed upon day, I got up early, grabbed my step-dad’s old crappy chainsaw from the garage, walked down there and went for it. The helper assisted in bundling the wood and tossing it in the trunk of my old car.

Each time the trunk filled up, I would drive up the street and tote the bundles down to my family’s back yard. It wasn’t some suburban grassy back yard. It was asphalt with a dirt drop-off that sloped down about 25 feet to an old fence. I flung most of the bundles down that slope. I’d apologize for them later.

It took 10 hours but when it was done and I had a $275 check in my blistered, non-severed hand there was this feeling of accomplishment that was totally new. I had generated something valuable from just an idea, a little creativity, and hard work. It opened up a whole new world.

That feeling from my first hustle is still fresh and continues to drive my entrepreneurial spirit to this day. When I’m uninspired, I think about the tree, the chainsaw, and even the angry look on my step-dad’s face after he looked in the back yard.

Anyone else out there wanna share the story of your first hustle?

Rockstar or One-Hit Wonder?

The term “rockstar” gets thrown around a lot in the startup world. It’s supposed to mean someone who’s awesome at what they do, perhaps in the 98th percentile compared to their peers. Some startups will issue a press release touting their latest hire as “a rockstar in the {insert expertise here} world.”

But it seems many are lumped into this category without having much to show for it. Did someone have a cool title at a hot startup for a year, then left before achieving anything significant? What about a “star” developer who can’t show you any examples of what he’s built?

I’ve worked for companies of all sizes. My own personal experience: I’ve seen more rockstars at Fortune 500s than at startups. The real stars don’t achieve excellent results just once; excellence is who they are. Give them any project and they’ll not only crush it, they’ll crush it in a way that makes others want to work with them and makes their bosses look really smart. Their results are awesome and real.

So if the term must be used, let’s at least reserve it for those who earned it. Otherwise your latest rockstar hire may turn out to be a one-hit wonder.

Passion vs. The Emotional Rollercoaster

image

Founders need to be passionate about their business. But as a startup grows it can be difficult for entrepreneurs to separate passion from unhealthy emotional reactions. They’ve probably poured their heart and soul (and maybe money) into the venture. It’s their baby, and it’s personal. But if they take every up and down personally, they’ve bought a ticket on the emotional rollercoaster. And the results are going to make everyone nauseous.

I’ve witnessed the amusement park founder in action. On good days (e.g. glowing media coverage) he thought his team was invincible. On bad days (running out of money) he would scream in an employee’s face in front of everyone, ranting about their incompetence. Emotionally ill equipped, eventually he refused to give up control and the company went under.

It may require strategies to emotionally invest in longer term goals instead of daily wins and losses. But if leaders can keep the passion burning and stay off that rollercoaster, everyone can enjoy the ride.

How Startup Life Prepared Me for Fatherhood

image

I had joined five startups before my son was born. I was lured to the startup world by the excitement of working with passionate teams and building cool products. Little did I know those crazy times would prepare me for fatherhood.

1) Winging It

In startups you have to make decisions – sometimes big ones – without much supporting data or precedent. Nothing is truer of newborns. You can read all the baby books on Amazon, but there will be daily stuff you’ll just have to figure out on your own. It gets less terrifying.

2) Prepared for Anything

Missing payroll. Jaundice. Your first trade show. Pneumonia at 4 months. Winning your first big customer. Projectile diarrhea (the baby I mean). Big customer threatens to bolt. Spontaneous crying (me). Just another day.

3) Humility

You don’t find Humility – it finds you. You’re feeling cocky, then BOOM – your lead investor pulls out at the last minute. Your top engineer abruptly quits. You didn’t know it was possible to be bad at burping a baby. Your new son gleefully pees on you – never your wife – when you change him. Hello Humility.

4) Real Sleep Deprivation

There’s something cool and sad about discovering different levels of sleep deprivation. I learned to function on what I call Grade I sleep deprivation at a few startups – 80 hour weeks, some all nighters. It helped prepare for those weeks of nighttime teething and 5-per-night feeding sessions. Some bad stretches led to Grade II, when I sat at my keyboard trying to compose an email and my fingers wouldn’t type any of the right letters. Not one. If you’re Grade II, just go home and sleep.

 

So if you really want to prepare for parenthood, don’t get a dog, join a startup.

The Perks of Being an Obsessive

image

Einstein once said “It’s not that I’m so smart, it’s just that I stay with problems longer.” He was ridiculously humble, and knew first-hand the benefits of being an Obsessive.

An Obsessive is defined as someone whose thoughts or feelings are dominated by a persistent idea, image, desire, etc. In other words, it’s part of who they are. While some people may feel obsessed with an idea from time to time, Obsessives always have a need to fixate on something. This is especially true of serial entrepreneurs. When they say they have a “mission”, it’s a socially acceptable way of saying they’re obsessed. It’s second nature, an integral part of their personality and business approach.

Lots of people preach about work-life balance, but this is a fallacy in the startup world. Yes, ignoring your personal life is bad. Take heed when your partner asks you to be less obsessive about personal stuff. But if your thoughts aren’t dominated by how your venture will win, it probably won’t.

All sucessful serial entrepreneurs aren’t Einsteins but they are all obsessive. Being an Obsessive often gets a bad rap, but don’t stifle it – embrace it for your business. Stay with problems longer than your competition. And when you succeed, be humble like Albert.

Startup Leaders: Watch the Mood and the ‘Tude

No one is naturally happy and smiling all the time. As a startup leader, the pressure will sometimes make you anxious, frustrated, or just burnt. When it happens, it’s usually obvious to your co-workers. And it’s okay.

Don’t try to be the perfect leader all the time. You’re human. Let yourself be in a crappy mood.

Employees can empathize with your low points. They see you battling stress while leading your company. But if you’re like this all the time, it raises red flags. And it should.

If you’re in a bad mood most of the time, you shouldn’t be leading a startup right now.

Many big company leaders seem to have permanent scowls on their faces, like they want everyone to know how hard and stressful it is to be a CEO. They can get away with that in a big company environment.

Startups are different. The offices are often cozy and employees see you a lot. Believe me, they’re watching. They need you to be accessible and engaged.

Employees take cues from you. Chronic negativity will drag them down.

Bad moods happen, but they should be the exception. Don’t get wrapped up in your stresses. Negativity is contagious, and a big part of your job is to foster enthusiasm and motivation. Use strategies to regain perspective. Then get back to being the leader your company needs.