Julia Haines’ article “The Ritual of Lean” recently got me thinking about how all the buzzwords, rituals and competition surrounding startups (or perceived competition among startups as a sector) contribute to a loss of the entrepreneurs’ initial intent as the company grows.
I was the CEO/co-founder of a startup, so I know from personal experience all the demands that come with growing a company. I also know that one of the hardest things I had to learn was what advice to take and to what advice to politely say “thanks, but no thanks” to. And here’s the funny part: In the early days wedidn’t know we were a startup. My co-founder and I were both from a small business background and operated our technology endeavors as such.
We built out a concept, launched it and got a lot of downloads in our first two weeks. It wasn’t even a fully realized product, but with a bit of inbound work (a concept I also didn’t know had a catch phrase at the time), we got the word out. A few weeks later we launched the first version of our product, building on the impressive amount of downloads we already had. We were making some money, it was fast moving and it was pretty fun.
As time went on, we started to become a little more self-aware. We realized we were a “technology startup,” and we really started to focus in on scaling. We also started to feel a pressure to solve a problem with our software, that in hindsight may have divided our focus from our original intent.
It was brilliantly simple. Then one day I woke up and it wasn’t anymore. We had taken on investment, we were getting more advice than we could handle and we started to become aware of our identity as a technology startup. I ran my company for almost five years before selling it and moving on to my next challenge, and now that I have had a bit of space to step away, I find myself wondering if we lost the pureness of intention that was driving us to some early success, and whether, in hindsight, there was any way to hold onto the innocence while still moving forward and growing.
- Fake it ‘til you make it, but know where you’re headed. One of the main reasons startups are particularly susceptible to buzzwords, jargon and losing the connection to their original purpose is that too often there isn’t a clear enough direction. There is faking it ’til you make it and putting on a brave face to raise the money and take care of your team. But think hard about where you want the company to go. There is going to be no shortage of advice and people telling you they can help you, and if you have a strong sense of your game plan (even if you haven’t figured out all the details yet) you will be able to be more picky about who you let into your world.
- Hold onto your intent. There will be a time when you will likely need to raise capital, and with that will come additions to boards and more opinions. It’s pretty easy to forget why you started the company when there are more cooks in the kitchen, all wanting their own special on the menu. But it is that pureness of intent that gives you the passion to get up every day and fight to win. Hold onto that.
- Understand that not all money is created equal. This is hard, because anyone who has tried to fundraise knows that it can be like squeezing blood from a stone. But to the extent that you can, hold out for the right investment partner and don’t be afraid to ask for help in this regard. The expression, “penny-wise and pound-foolish” comes to mind. You can’t do it all, and sometimes working with someone who can help you find the right suitor is a worthwhile endeavor.
- Believe in yourself. This is the best piece of advice I can give, so please pause and read it again. You’re going to get beat up — a lot. You’re going to feel like you’re alone. You’re going to wonder more than once, twice or even 30 or 40 times why you keep doing what you are doing. But you must always believe in yourself. You started this company, you are building something out of nothing and there aren’t a lot of people on this earth who can say that. You need to remind yourself that you have every reason to believe in yourself and that you deserve success. If you don’t believe it, there’s not an investor on the planet who will. So practice it and own it.
A version of this post originally appeared on the GVA Research blog, here.
Tammy Leigh Kahn is a technology entrepreneur in Boston, MA. Tammy writes frequently on social media, small business, technology and entrepreneurship and shares her knowledge and advice with thousands via radio, Web seminars and live presentations. Tammy is currently Sr. Manager of Market Development at Constant Contact.
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