business

Advice for Founders

I recently hosted a Founder Friday for Women 2.0. You missed it? Well, you missed out! On meeting fabulous entrepreneurs and entrepreneurs-to-be.

I was honored to be able to speak about my journey and offer a few bits of advice. Here’s what I shared:

When I reflected on what I could offer from the lessons I’ve learned from working in venture capital, founding and running a company on my own and selling it, I came up with three items to consider.

1. The word entrepreneurship comes from the French and means “to undertake.” Which I think is a lovely definition. It’s also a term not necessarily owned by Silicon Valley’s interpretation. Still it gets thrown around a lot and I don’t think enough people stop to ponder it. If language makes up our thoughts and thoughts create our experience, then I believe it’s a word worth questioning. It’s important then to step back and ask yourself why. Why are you pursuing “entrepreneurship”?

Is it because you want to play the game? This game is incubators, accelerators, generators, VCS, funding, hackathons, hacking houses, etc. This is a game and that means it’s not always fair; it’s stacked – there is an in group, etc.

Is it because you want to build a business? This is about the money making opportunity. It’s about hustle and not necessarily the next great technology. Building a business is not about getting venture financing; it’s about finding customers and making money.

Or is it because you want permission to do something else? Something other than what you’re doing right now, even if you don’t know what that is?

Ask yourself why and then own the answer. Embrace it. Play the game or focus on the P&L or do a lot of experimentation. One is not better or worse than the other. But if you’re honest with yourself about what you’re in it for, you’ll make better decisions for yourself and won’t find yourself stuck or down a path that ultimately is not where you wanted to go

2. Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx, and one of the very few self-made female billionaires in the world has some great advice – don’t let your good ideas get killed too soon. She cautions sharing them. I agree, but don’t get too black and white about this. You have to be selective about how and with whom you share your ideas.

One thing I’ve noticed is that the whole “lean” methodology that is touted so much in the Valley right now is being taken too far. People feel pressure to put their babies out there and then see how consumers interact, etc. I think this is great if you’re testing an incremental idea, but when you’re testing a truly innovative idea, you can get your vision squashed harshly and needlessly.

I also see this with teams scrambling to put up profiles on Angel List before they’ve even launched products. They think go fast, get it out there, minimally viable product! But they forget that investors, regardless of what they may say, are fundamentally about financing. They want to see a return on their money. Which often means they’re pretty linear thinkers. They are less forgiving. You really only have one good chance to make an impression on them. I know there are a lot of articles written on the pivot, but when people are choosing whom to back, they’re looking for confidence and togetherness. It’s okay to not be ready. Don’t go out too soon.

3. Finally, you’ll be the most successful when you are true to yourself. You’ve heard that all before. But what does that mean? It means you stop yourself when you use the word “should”.  When you tell yourself “I should do this” or “I should do that” you aren’t in touch with what is authentically you. So how do you be true to you?

First, you need to invest in self-awareness. Self-awareness is the the ability to identify, express and manage your emotions. You do this by paying attention to your body. Often your body will be communicating something you haven’t let your conscience know about.

When you talk about a particular subject do your shoulders scrunch up around your ears? These are physical signs pointing you to how you’re really experiencing something.

Next, get in touch with your feelings. Not sure how you feel? Start by regularly asking yourself – how do I feel? 

Even if you can’t answer the question clearly, the very act of asking is an act of mindfulness. Asking will start to bring emotions to the forefront of your consciousness where it will be easier to identify them and then deal with them.

Then, check your thoughts. Once you’ve identified a thought, it’s important to question it. Is it true? Is it helping? Doing this will help you to detach yourself a bit from your thoughts and recognize that thoughts come and go.

There you have it. Some advice. Take it or leave it, but no matter what you do, I hope you enjoy the journey.

Succeeding in Business for Women

This advice really resonated with me.  From Amy Schulman, executive at Pfizer  

"Q. You touched on the point of confidence earlier. Can you elaborate?

A. For many guys, this is simpler because they’re not as over-invested in the question of “Do I belong?” Everything is not a test. If you’re not viewing interactions as a litmus test for whether you belong, you’re going to act better. On the other hand, if you’re looking all the time for that kind of validation, you’re either going to be self-conscious or insecure, and neither of those is a recipe for success. What you want is the kind of inherent confidence that leads to grace. You want to be around people who are having fun and enjoying what they’re doing"

Start-up Thinking

Start-ups often think they are inventing something new - kind of like teenagers. Latest case in point: new management styles and jargon. Encapsulated in "we do organization without organization" or "we have no managers" manifestos. They can be bowled over by a new way to run a meeting - anything with an acronym is especially compelling. Why? Because most start-up founders and many of their employees have never been around great management or frankly, a well run meeting.

You don't need jargon or need to adopt a whole new organizational paradigm to figure out meetings and eliminate their problems.

All you need to do is learn how to communicate effectively. Unfortunately, there isn't a fancy fun term or a program you can license for it. Worse, it requires a lot of self-awareness. Which requires hard, ongoing work.

Kind of makes boring meetings seem worth it.

Potential at Work

Why do women fail to realize their potential at work? Mandy O'Neill, assistant professor of management at the George Mason University School of Management, researched the question. "At least part of the answer to the riddle of why highly capable women don’t always realize their potential in the workforce, O’Neill concludes, is that people are more than their potential. What they value affects what they pursue, and values can change over time."

~ Stanford Graduate School of Business

 

Competition

Because a good idea should seem obvious, when you have one you'll tend to feel that you're late. Don't let that deter you. Worrying that you're late is one of the signs of a good idea. Ten minutes of searching the web will usually settle the question. Even if you find someone else working on the same thing, you're probably not too late. It's exceptionally rare for startups to be killed by competitors—so rare that you can almost discount the possibility. So unless you discover a competitor with the sort of lock-in that would prevent users from choosing you, don't discard the idea.

~ Paul Graham

Rejection

They're unmistakeable. Two young men in suits carrying what looks like a Bible. You can spot them blocks away. Mormon missionaries. I was walking home the other day and found myself walking toward two Mormon missionaries. I prepared mentally what I would say if they asked to stop and speak with me, but I didn't need to. The two young men passed right by me and made a beeline for the older gentleman shuffling behind me.

"I know you guys are Mormon and I don't want to talk to you," he shouted.

I looked back and saw the two young men struggle to react.

Rejection. It's the part of failure we don't talk about. Even though it's likely at the core of why we fear failure. We don't want to be rejected by our peers. It's social, it's primal, it's human.

Whatever you think of Mormons or missionaries, you have to respect the amount of rejection they endure. It made me think of the story Sara Blakely, the founder of Spanx and a self-made billionaire, tells. She spent her early career selling fax machines door-to-door. She encountered a lot of rejection and credits that experience for her Spanx success.

I definitely think there is something to it. When you are rejected in some way, you are forced to look at your situation with different eyes. When you are rejected over and over again, you end up spending time outside the herd, as part of the unpopular, the misunderstood. Outside of the commonplace can be scary and lonely, but it's also incredibly freeing. And really, only the free can innovate.

So are you getting negged on a regular basis? If not, you might not be taking enough chances. So how do you go out and experience rejection that's helpful? Here are my suggestions.

1. Volunteer with kids - they usually have no time for you and getting them to hear you requires getting real

2. Go on a mission of your own - try to develop a cause, start a company, get a book published - use the rejection to hone your message or idea

3. Try and raise money for a company, cause or university. Asking someone for money is one of the more difficult things to do and the resulting rejection teaches you that most things are not personal. And when it's not personal putting yourself out there doesn't threaten your ego quite so much.

How else are you taking chances?

Twice As Long

There's an old entrepreneurial saw that says your business will take twice as much money and time as you planned to get off the ground. But did you know there is a scientific basis for this? It's called Hofstadter's law: it always takes longer than you expect, even when taking into account Hofstadter's law. So is there any way around it? Yes. Plan in less detail. Just do it and roll with the punches.

Start-up Business Resources

Starting is difficult. Here's a list of business resources you may find helpful.  

Invoicing: freshbooks, excel

 

Payment: Paypal, Square

 

Accounting: quickbooks, xero, inDinero

 

Payroll: paychex, adp, intuit, workday

 

Expenses: expensify

 

Group collaboration: google docs

 

UX/design testing: usertesting

 

Web analytics: google analytics, crazy egg, kissmetrics

 

Mobile storage: box.net, dropbox

 

What else should I add to the list?

The Definition of Entrepreneurship

According to Harvard Business School professor Howard Stevenson in Breakthrough Entrepreneurship written by Jon Burgstone and Bill Murphy, Jr.  

"Entrepreneurship is the pursuit of opportunity without regard to resources currently controlled."

 

Said another way by Burgstone:

"Every time you want to make any important decision, there are two possible courses of action. You can look at the array of choices that present themselves, pick the best available option and try to make it fit. Or, you can do what the true entrepreneur does: Figure out the best conceivable option and then make it available."

 

Serial Entrepreneurship

Growing up I don't think anyone ever suspected I would be an entrepreneur. I certainly didn't. But one day the light bulb went off. I had an idea. And I just knew. Like romance novels detail the first meeting of a romantic partner. I've never experienced that feeling, but when the idea for Consorte hit me, I was smitten. Having an idea, I quickly learned, was the easy part. Making it happen, neh willing it to happen, was the truly difficult task.

And what they don't tell you about entrepreneurship, about corralling a bunch of people behind your vision, about battling misconceptions and skepticism, about hiring people and firing people, about pinching pennies and clawing for dollars, is what an emotional roller coaster it all is.

The ride never stops.

If it does, it's at the precipice, those scary interminable moments before you plummet, your stomach in your throat.

It's a wonder then that after getting off the ride (my first company was acquired last year) that I am getting back on.

What I've learned is entrepreneurship is life and life is entrepreneurship. In life, if you choose to engage in it, you will be forced to grow and scale back, bring people in and let people go, change markets and yes, even reevaluate your product. In the end, to stop creating, building, and growing would mean to stop living.

So when you think about it we're all serial entrepreneurs. Starting, stopping and starting all over again. Life and entrepreneurship require constant movement and reinvention. Looking back I now realize I was an entrepreneur all along - a serial entrepreneur. And maybe, now you will see, you are one, too. I hope you enjoy the ride.