Competition is not your enemy

Trying to one-up or play catch-up with the competition instead of focusing on the unique value of your own product will invariably result in losing to the competition. 
 

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Advice for Women Entrepeneurs

Since founding APPCityLife six years ago, I’ve often vacillated between guilt and gratitude – guilt over not being a stay-at-home mom anymore and gratitude for the many opportunities for growth. I’ve made peace (mostly) with the trade-offs, knowing that there is no real balance in life for anyone. Whatever we choose as our path in life, we lose out on something else – and if we spend our time regretting what couldn’t happen, we completely miss the value of what is right in front of us.

I think accepting this truth is such a big challenge for women who feel a deep sense of responsibility to their family but who also want to launch their own business or grow it to the next level. The guilt of what we can no longer give to our family can become a burden that prevents the very success we’re seeking. But a far more insidious barrier to success comes when we give ourselves permission to use obligations to family as an escape hatch when things get scary or hard.

If I had one piece of advice to give to other women entrepreneurs, it would be this: Don’t ever devalue your role as a mother, daughter, or anything else, by using it as the scapegoat for your lack of performance as an entrepreneur.

 

I recently attended a meeting where a brilliant young woman entrepreneur was called out for her lack of preparation. The accusations were pointed, public and, frankly, over the top. I learned afterwards from several in attendance that the lack of preparation on her part (as well as several others who weren’t so publicly challenged) had far more to do with miscommunication of expectations from the person who had gotten angry with her. And had she spoken directly to that failure to clearly set goals and expectations, she would have established herself as the leader that I know she is. But when she chose to use family obligations as an escape hatch to avoid the heat instead of taking it on directly, she devalued her role as a mother and her credibility as a leader. She’s a tough, driven entrepreneur, and I have no doubt that her experience in that meeting will help her make the more difficult decision the next time she faces a similar challenge.

Another friend of mine recently expressed how guilty she felt every time she had to tell her children no when they asked to do something when she was working on her business. But here’s the thing – unless our children are newborns, they don’t need our constant attention and time. In fact, it can stifle their ability to develop a sense of independence and self-reliance. And if a woman is going to take the step of becoming an entrepreneur and sacrifice some of her time with family to build a business, she owes it to herself and her family to take it seriously enough to make it worth the sacrifice. When we play at entrepreneurship, we not only severely reduce our chances of success, we cheat ourselves and our family out of our time without anything to show for the sacrifice. When we make the more difficult decision to believe that what we are building is important and deserves our full effort, we can feel better about the time we spend on our business – and about the time we dedicate to our family.

It is so tempting to tap into that calling of “family obligations” as our escape hatch. After all, who is going to call us out for doing such a noble thing as sacrificing the time we need to spend on our company to fulfill some family obligation? It’s easy to use as our excuse to step back from the edge of growth right before a breakthrough.

When we don’t hide behind our personal obligations and actually face our fears, the growth that happens is exhilarating. And whether we succeed or fail, we learn something about ourselves – that we can make decisions as a leader and still be okay with our relationships with those around us. In fact, those varying parts of our lives can co-exist far easier when we know we aren’t using one as an excuse to avoid the other. Entrepreneurship for women isn’t an either/or proposition. It’s about finding what works and being honest with ourselves about the journey so that we can embrace the changes and the growth along the way.

The Trait That Ruins Entrepreneurs

file4911265967621I don’t believe there is one single trait that, absent all others, can deliver success for entrepreneurs. It’s really a unique blend of traits and talents within each individual – as well as many outside factors – all converging at the right time in the right way. If it were as simple as a specific trait, then those individuals possessing that trait would be successful every time – and that is certainly not the case. Many a successful entrepreneur has gone on to live through colossal failures. And while there are just as many reasons for a startup’s failure as for its success, I do believe that there is one trait that, if given room to grow, will ruin an entrepreneur. When an entrepreneur stops being willing to be coached, their days are numbered – and understanding the underlying root of this resistance is vital, because the solution often depends on what is causing us to shut out the advice of others.

There was a phase early in my own journey as the founder of a startup that I was far too resistant to the feedback and ideas of those around me, and for me, it was my inexperience that was getting in my way. I had clarity on our ‘big idea’ and knew it was my job to protect our focus so that we, as a company, didn’t end up chasing every shiny thing and every dollar that looked like a possibility. But in my very worthy goal to protect my team from being pulled to and fro by contrary paths and indecision, I become implacable. Thankfully, I had the good fortune to survive those growing pains without losing momentum, and I’m grateful that the experience helped me become much more willing to hear the cautionary words of others and to entertain opposing views. I’ve learned that while it’s right to protect the goals and vision of a company, a founder must also be open to advice and correction from others and synthesize that feedback into a more refined path forward.

Entrepreneurs can also become uncoachable simply because we are so afraid of taking the step we’re being prodded to take. We can easily confuse fear with intuition and believe that our inaction is actually being wise. Intuition tells us the truth when we are missing warning signs that something is not right, but fear is a liar and operates from our weaker selves. As entrepreneurs, fear is often the thing we experience right before a breakthrough. When we start rejecting advice that is pushing us past our comfort zone, we become paralyzed by inaction and ruin our chances for success.

But when being uncoachable is driven by hubris, that is really the most destructive reason of all. Hubris is defined as excessive pride or self confidence. Hubris turns almost any trait’s value into a detriment. It changes confidence into cockiness, single-mindedness into disdain. When that happens, the very traits that initially resulted in early progress become the very traits that lead to failure. It is the difference between someone forging ahead into the unknown and choosing the road less traveled and the individual who drives over a cliff, despite the multitude of warnings and cautions along the way.

While an entrepreneur absolutely must possess thick skin and the ability to filter through doubts, fears and bad advice, there better be an understanding that in the midst of the cacophony of feedback, there may be invaluable insights and guidance that could make the difference between failure and success. When we are coachable and receptive, we increase our chances of success.

Perhaps a good test is this: if you think everyone around you is an idiot, and everyone who shares advice with you is a fool who just doesn’t get it – especially if your own vision isn’t leading to your expected outcomes – then maybe it’s time to serve yourself a slice of humble pie and realize that they may not be as much of an idiot as you thought. You may well be in that same category yourself for summarily rejecting all feedback as beneath you. You have to want success more than you want to be right, and when that is your goal, you’ll find the humility and grace to accept difficult advice and hard truths that can help you succeed. I know from experience that hearing difficult advice that goes against what we want to be believe is painful and difficult, but I’ve also seen the results of it and know that without finding a way to be coachable, there is no way to get where we want to be.

Why a Childhood Scolding Turned Out to be Such Good Advice

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I was recently asked to contribute the essay below as part of a series for HuffPost Icon Next, entitled ‘The Best Piece of Advice I’ve Ever Received For Achieving My Career Goals.’ You can read the essay here.

Wouldn’t it be nice when something significant was about to be said, if a bright sign would appear alerting us to this fact? As close as I’ve ever come to this actually happening was in college. In the middle of a mind-numbingly boring lecture, my professor would change the cadence and volume of his voice and announce, “Now write this down. It will be on the exam.” I would scribble whatever came out of his mouth next and then wander back in my mind to some place more exciting than my current surroundings. Thanks to his early-warning system, I managed to pass the class with a B despite retaining very little of the content he shared in class.

When I was recently asked what the most important advice was that I’d ever received, I was hard pressed to come up with a single answer. How does one start with a question like that? Nary a day goes by without some form of advice being shared, so how does one choose that one thing that rises above all the rest as being the most pivotal, valuable words of wisdom?

It’s likely a lot easier to recall the worst advice – especially when there are scars to remind us of our foolhardy decisions. Most of my Worst-of-All-Time Hall-of-Famers begin with phrases like They won’t be mad; you should do it or It won’t hurt. Really. Nothing good ever happened when I opted to believe advice that began with that kind of logic.

And some advice, as inane and obvious as it sounds, pays off every single time. For example, the advice to use my manners – that’s been pretty useful. Seriously. It has resulted in many a positive result and has helped me inspire colleagues to try a proposed course of action which places them far outside their comfort zone. When I was told that please and thank you are magic words, it was good advice. They hold incredible power to change the attitudes, minds, opinions, and decisions of those around us.

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But when I consider what it is that I come back to time and again when I am in the midst of a struggle, whether it is in my personal or professional life, it would have to be the words of my great-grandmother, Zelma Carder. She was a larger-than-life figure of my childhood who walked straight out of a Zane Grey Western novel and into my life. She’d lived this incredibly difficult but exciting life. She homesteaded in the barren, windswept prairies of northern New Mexico in the 1800’s, survived the Dust Bowl years despite losing almost everything she owned except for a grand piano (which now sits in our living room). She traveled in a Conestoga wagon (with her grand piano in tow) to live as a migrant worker, picking cotton alongside her husband and children to survive the desperate years after the Great Depression. She learned to carry the heartbreak of burying several of her family, including her own child, during a flu epidemic in the early 1900’s. She crocheted rugs out of bread bags and turned butter tubs into the most wonderful doll beds filled with satin beds hand stitched from old night gowns and covered with colorful crocheted skirts. She was a true pioneer of sustainability, the ultimate conservationist. The stories she told me were the things of grand novels, and she was, by far, the strongest, bravest, fiercest, most stubborn woman I’ve ever known.

While visiting her when I was maybe six or seven years old, she scolded me for crying after losing a game to her. I had no idea at the time that her words would ring in my ears every time I faced a situation where I felt I was being treated unfairly or had an uphill battle to reach my goal. As I sat in my chair across from her, trying to swallow my tears, she said, “No one in this life is going to feel sorry for you. If you sit there feeling sorry for yourself, you just decided to give up on yourself. And then you’re the loser, not because of anyone else, but because of yourself. If you’re going to play, do it because you love the game. And then when you win, you can celebrate, but even when you lose, you’ll still be the winner because you got to play the game you love.”

Especially now as I serve as CEO of a startup, her words spur me to grow, be courageous and focus on the vision of the future I know is possible. While our team deploys and refines our technology that is impacting the lives of others and has the potential of impacting lives across the globe, I know I’m in this game because I love it. But on the hard days, when everything goes wrong, my great-grandmother’s words remind me that it’s up to me to dig deep, toughen up and find the courage to brush off the disappointment and push forward to the next pinnacle where the view of the future is clearly visible once again.

Why I Participated in Bizwomen Mentoring Monday

I can’t remember exactly when it started, but at some point this last year, I started receiving emails from complete strangers who hoped that somehow a few moments of my time might help them with the next step towards their own dreams and goals. At first, I replied to every single email that arrived, but it didn’t take long to no longer had the bandwidth to answer every question or to volunteer my time for every invitation.

I was in the midst of determining what to turn down and what to say yes to when I attended this year’s Women Entrepreneurs Festival. I posed the question to a group of women entrepreneurs, and Debra Sterling, the founder of GoldieBlox, offered up some advice that helped me gain clarity. “That is the question,” she said. “What I do is come up with strategic goals for the company. Then every month I come up with what are my goals towards those greater goals and use that as a filter. So when any opportunity comes in, if it is not hitting those goals that I decided on, I’m going to tuck it away.”

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I’ve used that principal to make several decisions since that conference, and it’s worked well for me. And when I was asked if I would be willing to serve as a mentor for the upcoming Mentoring Monday, a national initiative spearheaded by Bizwomen, I again used this filter to decide. The event pairs women business leaders with women in their own community through speed-dating style sessions, and this year’s event was expected to encompass over 10,000 participants at 40 locations throughout the U.S. Because the local event in my city would host 150 attendees, I saw it as an opportunity to spend a morning sharing whatever insight might be useful with anyone who wanted to talk with me. I will admit I was a bit skeptical that anything of real value could come out of 7-minute conversations that were started and ended by the ringing of a cowbell, but I was willing to try.

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What actually happened – at least for me – was profound. When the speed mentoring session kicked off, a woman who was maybe in her forties hurried up and sat down across from me. She wasted no time getting to her point. “Here is where I am,” she said. “I’m good at my job and like it, but I’ve been at it for a long time now. I have this thing I think I really want to do, but I don’t know how to get started or whether I should give up my current security to try to pursue it.” I was expecting softball questions and, instead, ended up with someone facing a life-changing crossroads. For the next six and a half minutes we talked about life’s scary decisions – weighing worst case scenarios against the payoff, how to explore new possibilities without destroying what was currently working. We discussed the need to gain enough reference points to understand if something was a passing interest or a burning passion as well as the option of taking baby steps – and the struggle of knowing when to go all-in and risk our security for the chance to do something that really matters. I have no idea if our talk helped or not, but it certainly inspired me to see someone seriously weighing the cost of pursuing her dream.

The procession over the next hour included women of all ages from college students to retirees, all with unique issues and perspectives. Some wanted advice or access to insights based on my own journey. One woman waited in line for her turn because she thought the event would be the perfect time to sell her product to me.  I spent the remainder of her seven minutes talking about strategic sales and customer validation. I’m pretty sure my response wasn’t what she wanted, but I’m really hoping she was listening.

I found as I walked back to my car to make my next appointment, that I was energized and inspired by the dreams and goals of the women who had spent their morning talking to me. It’s a good thing to remember when our lives get so incredibly busy in the midst of growing our own companies – that while it becomes vital to protect our time to reserve the  necessary bandwidth needed for priorities, it is also important to carve out time to give back. Even when we give, we still get. For me, that takeaway was well worth my time.

 

Sharing Life from the Passenger Seat

I love running errands with my kids.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t even slightly enjoy running errands, but when my kids are along for the ride, it makes for some wonderful time together. I think I’ve found out more about what was going on in their lives while driving to Target than any other way.

So it shouldn’t have taken me by surprise while returning an item yesterday that my nearly-grown son told me, “Mom, I almost bought some lady’s eggs the other day.”

He told me then about being at work bagging a woman’s groceries only to have to wait as she struggled to decide what to put back when she didn’t have enough money to pay for everything. She sorted through the food, selecting items to return. And when keeping the eggs still pushed her over her limit, my son spoke up and offered to pay for her eggs.

I asked him why. “Well, what do eggs cost? Three, four dollars? For me, that was just my spending money. But I kept thinking that for her it could be the difference of having healthy protein for a week or two, so I wanted to help out.”

At that moment, I couldn’t have been prouder of my son if he’d told me he’d earned a full ride to some elite college. As much as I ride my kids about getting good grades and being responsible, I have to say that as a mother, I care so much more about what kind of heart they have – how they treat others, if they feel remorse when they’ve wronged someone else, or if they’re moved with compassion by someone else’s difficulties.

And the thought that my son would sacrifice part of his small paycheck to help someone else made my heart soar.

I truly feel privileged to be along for the ride when my kids start sharing life from the passenger seat one errand at a time.