Good to remember as a startup founder – thunder gets attention but rain delivers results.
Good to remember as a startup founder – thunder gets attention but rain delivers results.
As the founder and CEO of a civic tech company, despite the innumerable benefits and positive changes I’ve experienced along the way, I’ve also found it more and more difficult to manage the demands made on my time.
I’m pretty sure I’m not alone – that there this is this moment in the journey of every entrepreneur – when you either make the conscious decision to continue the whirlwind pace of long hours, an intense schedule, poor diet and nonexistent exercise until the consequences hit in the form of total burnout, depression, or health issues – or you have an epiphany that your habits are not sustainable. You realize you’ve been sprinting in what you’ve discovered is a marathon.
I, for one, have hit upon this very epiphany and have no interest in sprinting – sometimes from one distraction to the next – in this marathon of entrepreneurship that I’ve come to love. After spending the last few weeks observing what was eating at my focus and my time, I’ve found three habits which are killing my productivity and sapping my energy.
Maybe this isn’t your experience, but in the attempt to stay on top of things, I became a slave to the little red dot on my email app. But, seriously, think back. Since you created your first email account, has there been a single email which was so urgently in need of a reply that it couldn’t wait until you finished working out, getting groceries, or spending a quiet dinner with your family? It’s so very easy to blur the line between an obligation to be responsive and the tendency to become a slave to the instant demands of others, that our email habits are often to blame for our constant distractions from the tasks which really do require our full attention.
For me, the days of being excited when I receive a text message are long gone. I dread when I see one pop up on my smart phone – almost as much as I used to dread the incessant poke on my hip accompanied by a litany of “Mom. Mom. Mom.” This slow change in culture has resulted in texting becoming an acceptable mode of communication between almost any connection and even between complete strangers hoping to set up a meeting or connect. I counted one day, and I received 70 text messages in the span of time it took to sit through a banquet. Only two of those qualified as urgent and in need of immediate attention. One was from my son telling me – at 10:30 at night – that he had forgotten his key to the house. The second was from my daughter telling me she could drive all the way across town to let her brother in so that I didn’t have to leave the event. It takes a lot of courage, but consider muting phone numbers on your smart phone that are from people who assume your are instantly accessible but who should really be sending you an email instead. Think of it this way: you actually have a responsibility to protect the integrity of your focus during working hours, even if it means being less instantly accessible to connections who want that kind of access. You’re never going to find time to focus – or to mentally rest – if you are constantly responding to texts coming in on your phone.
When I was first launching my business, I believed every coffee, luncheon, or meeting just might be that next big break, so I said yes to every invitation to meet. Funny enough, in the midst of all those coffee meetings, I actually ignored the first two phone calls from the person who actually ended up giving our company that big break. Looking back, there were some wonderful relationships which came out of those meetings, but there was also an awful lot of time spent in chit chat that did neither parties any good – not me and not the person I’d agreed to meet. I had nothing of value to offer them, and they were not the right connections for what I needed to grow my company. Don’t be afraid to say no. It doesn’t make you antisocial, a snob or too special or anything else you might fear. It means you value that person’s time whether they see it that way or not. I do still say yes from time to time, but it is only when the reason to meet and the expected value for both of us is apparent.
In our attempt to be better at our jobs, to be more accessible and more open to new opportunities which could be your next big break, you may actually be engaging in habits that are hindering you. It’s worth considering – and worth making changes to your habits if you want to cross the finish long in whatever marathon you’ve chosen to pursue.
Andre Moore knows what it is to watch a bright future disappear – not once, but twice. Being forced to reinvent himself after thinking he was on the right path to success has helped him learn that seizing the opportunity is worth it, whenever and however that chance comes.
His first devastating heartbreak came early in his life when several letters of intent from major colleges and a promising career in the NFL evaporated into nothing after he was injured during his junior year of high school. The eldest son of several siblings raised by a hard-working single mother, the young Alabama native metamorphosed overnight from a rising star to a young man with an uncertain future. As he watched one door close on his future, he chose to follow his heart and enlisted to serve his country while still in high school, first in the National Guard and then as a medic in the Army. But, once again, this calling was cut short when Andre suffered a debilitating injury the day before his unit shipped out. Devastated, he returned home and contemplated what to do with his life. At the invitation of childhood friends, he moved cross-country to make a new life for himself in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he quickly earned certification as a dental assistant before enrolling in the University of New Mexico.
My son, Jonathon, became friends with Andre when the two began studying together at the university’s library. Most weekends, Jonathon came home from Andre’s loaded with leftover ribs or chicken. After pilfering his leftovers one afternoon, I asked my son why Andre wasn’t selling his ribs. Despite eating them cold out of the fridge, his ribs tasted incredible. When Andre was invited to attend a Startup Weekend event, he and Jonathon jumped at the opportunity to flesh out the idea of launching a food truck. The team took second place and treated the entire audience to Andre’s ribs, converting many into a solid fan base.
When Andre recently discovered that one of my good friends, J. Kelly Hoey, was coming for a visit, he created his own opportunity by offering to help out by delivering his ribs for one of our meals. Kelly was flying out from her home in New York City to support our network for women entrepreneurs I’d launched in 2014 with my cofounder Jessica Eaves Mathews. We’d invited Kelly to be a part of our first Women’s Conference, Haute Highlights, as the final keynote speaker as well as serving as a judge that night at our benefit gala, Haute Night Out. Kelly had even volunteered to be the guest speaker to kick off the Teen ABQ Startup Weekend which my younger son was helping organize.
Andre found a way to not only be of help but do so in a way that also put him in the same room with someone with knowledge and connections he wanted to meet. On her last day in Albuquerque, Andre arrived at our door loaded with steaming hot ribs and wings – as well as a long list of questions. While Kelly dined on the meal he’d prepared, she shared advice and answered his questions.
We can learn a lot from Andre. I wonder how many times we let our own fear, laziness, pride, or insecurity get in our way. How often do we succumb to that inner whisper that it’s too scary, that others will discover our lack of knowledge, skill or talent or won’t want to help us – and so instead of acting, we let opportunities slip away simply because we can’t get over ourselves enough to seize the moment?
I recently attended an event designed to pair out-of-state investors with local entrepreneurs while riding a chair lift at the world-class ski resort in Taos, New Mexico. My husband and I made the drive to support our entrepreneurial community. An avid skier, my husband hit the slopes while I opted to hang out with the non-skiers. After chatting a bit with the group at the ski lodge, I found a quiet spot where I could work. At the end of my table sat a woman who was one of the founders pitching at the event. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw her twice start to stand up before sitting back down. Finally, with a deep breath, she got up and approached an out-of-town investor working nearby. She introduced herself and asked if he would be willing to answer some of her questions.
When she returned to her seat next to me, I smiled. “Way to go,” I said. “Way to take advantage of the opportunity.”
“I had to,” she replied. “These investors are only here today. Right now. This may never happen again, so it is now or never.”
She seized the moment despite the struggle it took to get beyond her own fear of approaching a complete stranger who, on the hierarchy of startups, might have seemed far above her. And because of her action, she left the event richer for the opportunity – including now having a new connection who would likely remember her when she was ready to seek funding for her startup in the future.
The next time you’re presented with an opportunity, don’t hesitate. No one else is going to pave the way for you to reach your dreams, and even when one dream slips away, there are still opportunities to reinvent yourself. Don’t be lackadaisical with your life, and don’t squander precious opportunities. Get over yourself to find courage to seize the opportunity. It is the surest path forward – no matter what you want in life.
How many of you remember your first school crush? I remember mine. I waited for the tiniest glimpse of him in the hall on our way to lunch, and at the end of the day, I hurried out front just in case he didn’t ride the bus and I might have a chance to see him on the steps talking with his friends. I wasn’t even supposed to leave out that door to get to my house, but the hope of seeing him – it was worth it. I scribbled his name on the inside of the back cover of my notebooks (never on the outside where someone might see). I spent hours on those name-designs, each more elaborate than the next. And then it happened, right there on the steps where I’d waited every day for weeks: he actually said hi. I froze. Somehow, it hadn’t occurred to me that he might actually notice me at some point, much less speak.
I’ve been thinking a lot about those name designs, because I’ve realized that we do the same thing as adults. We spend so much time arranging our dreams, talking about them, writing about them, reading books to get prepared, and taking classes to get ready to act on our dream. Sometimes our activities make us believe we’re moving in the right direction when, in reality, we’re just moving enough to not be disappointed in ourselves.
What’s the dream you roll around in your mind? What holds you back? The fear of discovering we’re not capable and of being crushed by failure … that fear is so powerful. It drives us to inaction or partaking in small, meaningless activities that protect us against the big risk.
Recently, I and my cofounder created a nonprofit fund which helps disadvantaged women launch and build businesses. In just fourteen days, we received over fifty applications – all from women with dreams – some still just an idea and others ready to grow to a new level. We studied each application with our board of directors, all women entrepreneurs themselves, and after a very difficult decision, we narrowed it down to eleven finalists – all chosen because they have viable ideas for businesses and leadership skills. In addition, each applicant is facing disadvantages that make it difficult to achieve success without additional assistance or training.
We met with our finalists last night, preparing them for the upcoming ninety-second pitch each will deliver on stage during our upcoming benefit gala. We had a raw, honest talk about the scary process of making a dream a reality. Some finalists expressed concern about whether they were biting off more than they could chew, while others share their fears over gaps in experience, education or connections. We talked a lot about the paralyzing effect that was the fruit of fear. And in the end, we left with the understanding that each of us, as we pursue our individual dreams and work to bringing our vision to reality – we feel alone in our fear and our journey, but it is a shared experience, one that all of us must go through to get to the other side.
I am so inspired by these women who are facing their biggest fears head-on, and doing so despite sometimes overwhelming circumstances and challenges, because the compelling desire to realize their dream, take control of their future and help better the circumstances of others is finally more powerful than the fear of failing. It is a privilege to share a small part of their journey and witness their support of each other. Succeed or fail, this collective choice to be all-in and move forward is their first decision that changes everything and makes everything possible.
If you’re holding back on your own dream, consider this:
If you give up now or never get started, who will bring your vision into the world?
It’s yours, and if you give up when things get difficult or before you even start, well, then maybe it isn’t really a dream or a big vision at all but just a nice idea. If you don’t believe it is just a nice idea, then don’t let yourself build on platitudes. Platitudes are the sands of purpose and wash away your fortitude when problems arise.
Build on conviction and passion driven by a vision bigger than yourself, because when you do, you’ll have the fuel needed to carry you through the difficulties that can and must come.
The world is never, ever changed by platitudes. It is also never changed by the person who is willing to settle for less than all-in. And here’s what I’m learning on my own journey. When we start with the purpose to give it everything we’ve got, even if we don’t end up where we hoped we might, we find ourselves in a very different, usually better place than the one where we started. A diet of might-have-been is bitter and much harder to swallow than the disappointment of having tried and not met the mark. There is honor in pursuing big ideas, and when they do work? Well, then we really can change the world.
You’ll never know if your vision will change the world unless you begin your journey. It’s worth it. You’re worth it. Go all in. Don’t look back. And wherever you land – you’ll be a better person for having the courage to take the journey, because self-respect is a direct result of making the hard choices, facing the difficult fears and going far beyond any comfort zone – no matter the outcome.
Note: You can meet these women, hear their pitches and help choose the audience favorite on February 21, 2015 at the Haute Night Out Gala. Tickets are available: http://www.hautenightout.eventbrite.com
If you are ready to launch your dream or get serious about building your business, you can find inspiration, insight and the tools you’ll need in the year ahead at the all day conference leading up to the Gala. You can find out more here: http://www.hautehighlights.eventbrite.com
To get involved with our mentoring program or support our efforts, visit our website: http://www.hautepreneurs.com
Fail towards success.
Here’s a thought. How about we just stop with all of the marshmallow mantras about how failure is good? Failure is not some ethereal goal, and it’s irresponsible to try to sell it as such. Failure means we got something wrong – sometimes a lot of things wrong. It means we lost, and if we’re talking startups and entrepreneurship, when founders fail, so does the team, the investors and customers. Failure is lack of success. Look it up.
I understand the motives behind the attempts to rebrand failure as a positive; the stakes are high. The Kauffman Foundation recently reported “… new firm entry rates are actually falling and young firms are closing at higher rates than before.” We definitely need to find ways to expand the pipeline, and it’s good there are programs and a growing culture promoting entrepreneurship and innovation. But we really shouldn’t be rebranding failure as a good thing as a reason to participate in anything, really.
But perhaps the real fallacy is that we often view certain experiences as failure when, really, they’re not. I see failure as the absence of any option to move forward. Failure is not the moment of initial disappointment, the first sign of rejection or the first time something doesn’t work out. Here are five things to consider:
While I’d known my husband long before we started dating, when he decided that he wanted a first date with me, he had no idea I’d recently made the decision I didn’t want to date anyone for a while. He and I were both attending a birthday party for a mutual friend. He spent the evening trying to get me to talk to him, and I spent the evening trying to avoid him. He didn’t make it easy. He was charming, funny, witty … and very persistent. When I rebuffed him, he acted like he didn’t notice. When I got up and walked into another room, he followed. When I sat down in the last chair, he found another and set it beside me. He saw rejection as a detour, a challenge, not as a roadblock. Needless to say, he got that first date, and we were married a year later. That was almost 27 years ago, and it would have never happened if he hadn’t viewed rejection as an opportunity to get to yes.
How hard do we try for something we want? If we lack tenacity, we could interpret a setback as failure and quit before we know if we could have been successful.
I well remember the time I was invited to pitch to an organization that seemed like a perfect fit. And while the pitch itself when very well, it came completely off the rails during Q&A when I was forced to spend all the allotted time addressing a clear bias held by one individual on the panel. Even before I walked out, I knew the answer was no. It felt awful.
Sometimes biases, bad attitudes or things outside of our control will make it impossible to win. When that happens, it is imperative to review the experience to learn everything we can about what went wrong. After that, our only job is to put it behind and move on. Don’t look back, don’t waste time on the what-ifs, just move forward. Realize the experience has left us better prepared and more seasoned for the next time.
If I’m completely honest, I’ll have to admit that I almost dread it when I discover I’ve been nominated for something. That may seem odd, especially when it means that someone out there believed I deserved it. But no one I know enjoys that horrible, sinking feeling of sitting in a crowded room as someone else’s name is announced as the winner. It’s not that we begrudge someone else the win, but that losing just feels awful. One thing to remember is that disappointment is an emotion that goes away. Instead, it helps focus on the fact that someone else believed in us and decide to believe a little more in ourselves.
Having doors close is a rite of passage as an entrepreneur. Not allowing it to derail us is what makes us tough enough to run a business and build something from nothing. And, sometimes, what begins as a lost opportunity results in new opportunities. When I applied – and wasn’t selected – for the Women Innovate Mobile (WIM) Accelerator, it felt like defeat. But that rejected application instead created the opportunity for a new connection and eventually led to a wonderful friendship with the founder of that accelerator, J. Kelly Hoey. We can see a door closing as defeat or as an opportunity to expand our network and move forward another way.
Failure always feels bad. And, really, it should. But when we get the courage to put ourselves out there, win or lose, we are better for it. We expand our own tolerance for fear and risk, and that is so important. We also learn that we can survive disappointment and end up more committed to finding a way to move forward. Fear of failure is paralyzing, but the determination to avoid failure is catalyzing. And that’s certainly more empowering than the marshmallow mantra that somehow failure is something we should do more often.
Everywhere you turn today, it seems there is an event, program or class teaching you how to become an entrepreneur. And everyone wants in on the action, from government agencies, nonprofits, foundations, incubators, and accelerators to new programs like the brief immersion experiences such as Startup Weekend. A wide variety of certificate programs, bootcamps and elective courses are also cropping up at both accredited institutions as well as community centers. Entrepreneurship is today’s cool kid on the block.
But, for me, the question is this: is it even possible to teach someone to become a successful entrepreneur in a classroom setting? I’m not convinced, especially in the case where the student has little or no on-the-job experience developing the leadership, business acumen, and marketing skills required to run a startup.
I’m not sure anyone has all of the answers, but why it is worth pursuing the answers is pretty clear. The U.S. Census Bureau reports that almost half of the U.S. Gross Domestic Product comes from small businesses, but according to the Brookings Institution, new startups have dropped by 28% over, roughly, the past thirty years. If small businesses are the backbone of the American economy but fewer are willing to join the ranks of small business owners, that trend must change if we are to prevent further havoc on the economy. Thus there has arisen this implicit imperative to somehow churn out individuals who are capable of launching a startup, possess the creativity to dream up innovative solutions – not to mention also having the right characteristics to scale those startups into thriving businesses which can employ others within the community.
As someone who is entering my sixth year as a founder of a civic tech startup and who has also lived for over two decades in the startup world as my spouse and his cofounders launched, grew and successfully exited tech companies, I have a hard time believing that the character traits needed to become a successful startup founder can be taught in a classroom. There is no way to simulate the roller coaster of emotions or to train someone to have the drive they’ll need to overcome obstacles threatening a startup’s success. And while I believe it is vital to seek out mentors and role models – sitting in a classroom with twenty other individuals while listening to a guest speaker, especially if that speaker doesn’t have an impressive history as a successful entrepreneur? I’m just not convinced that a parade of personalities can prepare a student for much of anything beyond adding a few new war stories to the mix and gaining new contacts for future networking.
It also concerns me that some of today’s very well-intentioned initiatives may be feeding the wrong ideas and even attracting the wrong demographic altogether. For startup groupies who go from event to event, it is so easy to gloss over the loneliness and isolation that often happens as founders focus on building their startup. Instead, those I’ll call the Partypreneurs thrive on the sense of belonging and excitement they feel events and mistake those emotions as an indication of success. Partypreneurs want the lifestyle without paying the dues. Entrepreneurship is far more about sacrifice and personal cost than any kind of hip lifestyle, glory or fun. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that building a startup isn’t exciting or fun. It is. But entrepreneurship is not a lifestyle; it is a calling that often requires deep sacrifice to build a better future not only for oneself but for those the startup serves.
I recently had an interesting conversation with Stacy Sacco, who currently serves as the Director of the Small Business Institute and Parker Center for Family Business as well as a lecturer for Entrepreneurial Studies at the University of New Mexico’s Anderson School of Management. He expressed concern that such a small segment of the university’s population were currently enrolled in the entrepreneurship program. “Our schools, several economic development agencies, etcetera, are creating an extensive infrastructure for start-ups, but only about 150 students out of over 28,000 students at UNM are enrolled in the entrepreneurial studies track.”
Despite my contention that the traits of a successful entrepreneur cannot be taught, I do believe there are a few things we can do to make entrepreneurship programs more useful and relevant to those currently enrolled and to attract higher attendance in the future.
Just as many other programs require internships and student-immersed, hands-on learning, it should also be a requirement for entrepreneurship programs. If a student is working at a local startup, the relevancy of the curriculum will immediately increase. And for startup founders, the opportunity to use the coursework within their own business will be seen as a bonus, not a burden. Because of the skill sets required to run a startup are so diverse, entrepreneurship programs must also deliver a curriculum with a broad knowledge base to attract the serious entrepreneurs or produce students properly equipped to launch a startup. As one student recently told me, “I have no plans to start a company, and I’m not sure I even want to work at a startup. I just took the entrepreneurship track because it looked like the easiest coursework.” We need to raise the bar not only of coursework offerings but in requiring hands-on experience if we are going avoid setting up founders for failure.
Most of the entrepreneurship programs I’ve seen that are attached to university curriculum seem to be imbedded as an optional component towards a business degree. Because entrepreneurs come from every field of study and background, entrepreneurship programs would likely enjoy higher enrollment if relevant elective options were available within other fields of study, such as engineering, science, or medicine. With the background knowledge acquired through entrepreneurial-focused electives, scientists, engineers and even those in the medical profession would be far better equipped to launch their own startup long after graduating from college.
While the more conventional higher education institutions might benefit by extending entrepreneurship electives to a broader sector of the student body, there are many individuals who have no intention of enrolling in a degreed program. Recently, some of our team met with leaders from the University of Phoenix and the Apollo Group to explore opportunities to foster a more inviting environment for underrepresented groups such as women and minorities within technology-based programs as well ways to present real-world, hands-on experiences within current course offerings. Because most current student loan programs and grants do not cover these more unconventional programs which are often much shorter in duration and more focused in content to serve specific needs within the entrepreneurial community, it is often difficult to find an affordable model to reach these more unconventional learners. It is a challenge our team has begun to explore because we have seen such a positive response to our platform among these very groups at our civic hacking events.
If entrepreneurs are to have the best chance for success, it is vital that any entrepreneurship program be tied into the rest of the community’s ecosystem so that there is a contiguous line of support from the classroom to the real world. When competing support entities become territorial and make it difficult for the founder to move in and out of segments of support as the need arises, it makes it far more difficult for the entrepreneur to engage in the wide variety of support and training that might be needed for success. When universities, alternative higher education private institutions, accelerators, incubators, investors and business centers all work together as a cohesive ecosystem, everyone comes out the winner.
While I am still not certain anyone can actually be taught the character traits required for entrepreneurship as an academic exercise, I do believe it is important to continue finding ways to empower more within the community to launch their own business. There is also much that can be done to make technology less intimidating, more accessible and affordable to those who are disenfranchised by the current options. There is much about entrepreneurship that cannot be taught, but we can focus on these opportunities to improve to better prepare entrepreneurs to be able to face the real work that will begin the day they launch their own company.
This post is also available on Huffington Post.
At a recent Startup Weekend, one of the attendees asked me what I thought were the most important traits for an entrepreneur to posses to be successful. I’ve thought about it some since, and while I don’t pretend to be an expert on whether any of these are true or not since I only know my own experience, these are the traits I think best prepared me for the life of an entrepreneur:
It never occurred to me as a kid that my parents owed me anything, and if I wanted something badly enough, it was my job to figure out how to make that happen. That mindset stayed with me when my husband and I were newlyweds. He was finishing up his electrical engineering degree while I worked at the public school. We couldn’t afford new storage containers, so I started thinking of ways to get some. Looking back on it now, it was rather an insane decision, but instead of asking for a few containers, I asked my grandma for help getting started selling Tupperware. Even after paying her back the money I’d borrowed for my starter kit, I still earned more money that year selling Tupperware than I did working at the school. And the containers I needed? I’m still using them after more than 25 years of marriage.
I honestly think one of the most important things I discovered over the years was the value of being scrappy. Learned helplessness and over-dependence on others have no place in the entrepreneurial mindset, and when I hear others say that something is too hard or that they deserve help, it sets off warning bells in my head. There is absolutely nothing wrong with asking for help or deciding that the physical, mental, financial or emotional cost of something isn’t worth the payoff, but to give up easily because there isn’t enough from within to draw from when things get difficult – that is never going to help an entrepreneur find success.
I think to a great extent, I’ve always felt like an outsider, even if it didn’t appear that way to others. For me, feeling like an outsider had nothing to do with being an introvert or extrovert. I simply never felt like I fit in, like I belonged. In school, I had a great many friends who I liked a lot. But when I was in a group, I never quite related or felt like I was like the rest of my peers. And as much as I liked most of my classmates, having to work on a group project was far worse punishment that anything else I could imagine. I despised group projects, mostly because I would have preferred to just finish the project on my own and then d0 something else with the rest of the time.
Even now as a grown woman with grown children, when a group of girlfriends are talking about their lives, it sometimes seems so foreign to me, and I end up feeling a bit bad that I can’t relate. I just can’t get into who said what to whom or who isn’t talking to someone else anymore. I can’t understand why any of that news should be any of my business or why I should want to know.
It’s actually been an unexpected benefit as an entrepreneur that even if I don’t feel like I fit anywhere else, I am quite comfortable in this space I’ve carved out in my corner of the world. Entrepreneurship is a lonely business, and if someone constantly needs the companionship of others, it’s going to be hard to spend the solitary hours focusing on the needs of the business rather than socializing. I love an event and a party as much as anyone else, but I’m just as happy being alone building on the vision that drives me day and night. As odd as it may seem, feeling like I don’t quite fit has made it easier to adjust to the life of building something that has never existed before.
My mom accuses me of causing her to back into a light pole one night in a parking lot because I just wouldn’t stop arguing, and I’m pretty sure she has plenty of reason to blame me. There’s a negative connotation to being argumentative, and I actually spent quite a while looking for a more palatable word to describe this trait. But being argumentative, when it is not contentious or rude, isn’t necessarily a bad trait.
All the time I was selling newspapers to my neighbors, persuading young parents to let me babysit and working retail at the local mall, I was refining my argumentative nature into a more gentle approach. I learned that no quite often meant maybe or help me get to yes. Sometimes it meant no, and that was ok, but if I dug deeper, it sometimes meant they had doubts or fears that just needed dispelled.
Entrepreneurship is probably the longest, most unrelenting series of rejections, disappointments, closed doors, and negative feedback anyone will ever experience in such a short amount of time. If a founder doesn’t believe a yes lies beyond the litany of no’s, they will never possess enough fortitude to take all of that negative feedback and rejection to turn it into fuel needed to push forward. The very trait that frustrated my mother – and probably every teacher and boss I ever had – has also turned out to be one of the most important traits I’ve used to move forward as an entrepreneur.
Being dogged is a bit different than simply being competitive or driven, and it’s been a trait that has helped me persevere through some of the worst moments I’ve known as an entrepreneur. Among the most difficult experiences I’ve faced has been having to show up for an investor meeting just a couple of hours after my mother, sister and brother and I held each other as we watched my father’s body being wheeled down the sidewalk of my parents’ home to the waiting hearse. That was a dark, dark day for me, when the responsibility that I carried on my shoulders was the heaviest I’ve known, because there were others depending on me to be strong enough to put my own grief aside and keep a meeting that mattered for the future of our company. It wasn’t that I wanted to win bad enough to put my company before my grief, and it wasn’t my drive to succeed that helped me get through that meeting. It was a dogged determination to keep my promises, to live up to the trust others had in me, that got me through it with the answers I needed to take back to our team.
While it is vital for entrepreneurs to possess a competitive drive, it is not enough on its own. Not to pick on Tonya Harding, but her behavior in pursuit of a gold medal so horrified me as a young girl that it imprinted on my psyche that no award, no win was ever worth harming others to get to the top. There are plenty of examples of getting to the top without losing our integrity, and remembering that it’s not only possible but better to win with our morals intact – especially when the temptation to get dirty to win is right in front of us – that is one of the most difficult challenges many entrepreneurs will face.
It isn’t just about having drive, either. We can be so driven that we lose the context of the rest of our lives. I eat, drink and sleep our company’s growth and needs, but I am also a daughter, a mother, a wife, a friend. And having that foundation keeps me human and grounded. Doggedness keeps our eyes where they’re supposed to be – not on our competition or some shiny new idea but firmly on our own goals. Being dogged means not quitting when others doubt your qualifications or the first five investors you pitch tell you no. It means not losing focus when self-doubts nibble at your confidence or begin to sway conviction of your vision. Doggedness, to me, is simply not giving up when giving up would be acceptable, because when you convinced others to quit secure jobs to join your efforts and found investors willing to back your vision with their own money, quitting just isn’t acceptable without having first tried absolutely everything to succeed.
One of my first jobs after getting married was working with a psychologist testing students with limited cognitive abilities. I remember one particularly sweet young man who, when asked what he wanted to do when he graduated, quickly said, “I want to be an astronaut and walk on the moon. But I’ll probably just do yard work.” My heart broke a little bit at his pragmatism, of understanding his dreams weren’t within reach but still worth holding on to.
I felt a little like that when I first expressed out loud to another person this idea that had been percolating for several weeks in my mind, a really big idea. I wondered if they would think I was a bit crazy, reaching well beyond what my dreams should be. And then I realized that it didn’t matter, because it was a little crazy to think about launching out into the unknown, to take incredible risk, all to pursue an idea that could change possibilities for others all over the world. When someone believes their idea has the power to affect the lives of people all over the globe, does that make them visionary or a wee bit crazy? I think it likely takes a little bit of crazy, at least in the world’s eyes, to walk away from security and a steady paycheck to set about building a concept into reality because of a belief that one day it can and should change the world as we know it.
For me, I cannot believe an entrepreneur’s success is determined by whether they were a straight-A student or struggled in school or whether they were popular enough to be on the homecoming court or got through childhood with two good friends. I’m not even sure it matters if someone went to an Ivy League university or skipped college altogether. At least from my experience, the true drivers of success are at the inner core of a person – their depth of character and integrity, resilience in the face of adversity and the unrelenting pursuit of a vision, especially if that includes just the right dose of crazy.