My dream of starting my own business looked like a fog machine induced haze of controlling my own destiny, only working with people I like, changing the world, sharing brilliant ideas, growing and challenging myself, having more work/life balance and being way more fulfilled in life. As I roll into Year Two as founder of Growth Street Marketing, I thought about the reality of hanging a shingle and no longer working for the man and how that translates into day-to-day life running a start-up.
First off, there is no fog machine. The glamor of starting your own business is quickly doused by the harsh cold truth that you are a one-woman show. It’s a lot like when you are pregnant and someone tells you that having a baby is going to be the hardest thing, and you won’t sleep and it will change your life. You can’t understand it until you do it. Like having a baby, starting a company is one of the most rewarding, challenging, gut-wrenching, heart-breaking, skin thickening, passion-inducing, life-changing, make you a better person things you may ever do in your life. I highly recommend it but founders beware, it is not easy. There will be things about yourself that you will discover. There will be things you hate. There will be things that make you want to quit. There will be things that challenge your values and make you question yourself. But, keeping the demons at bay and reminding yourself WHY you did this will bring you back to reality. It also helps to remember the things you learned along the way. I hope this will help those of you thinking about hanging a shingle and taking the plunge to founderdom. I honestly wouldn’t change a thing.
1. Know what you’re good at.
Starting off, I thought I could do it all. The superwoman inside me says, “I can do it all!” but the reality is that I shouldn’t do it all because I’m not good at all of it. Being a founder often means you have to figure out how to get it done, or find people to help you make it happen. After a few misfires like pitching work that wasn’t in my wheelhouse or spending too much time trying to solve a client challenge or staying up too late figuring out how to custom code stuff on my website, I quickly realized that I have to stay true to what I am good at and what I can confidently deliver. I have a team of talented people who can help me, I outsource stuff I hate doing or am not good at or takes too much time and I try to focus on what I love and what drives the business. Everything else is just noise. I had to learn to recognize those things that take me away from what I am passionate about and find other people to help me.
2. Surround yourself with smart people.
Years ago at JP Morgan I worked for a master networker. She was the queen of LinkedIn before it was a must-have for any professional and she pushed me to build my network of people who could help me. At the time, I didn’t fully grasp the importance of what she was teaching me, but when I left big company world and joined the tumultuous start-up world, I realized my network was my biggest asset. I learned that my relationships with other people were worth more than I could put a price on. As I hung my shingle at Growth Street Marketing, it was a lonely place. But not for long. The power of my network helped me grow as a founder, as a business person, as a thinker, as someone who can make other business better. My network showed me the power of great minds and I continue to expand my network of talented people I work with every day. I never refuse a coffee or a phone call (okay, sometimes I do; see #4 below) and will always take an opportunity to connect with someone. It’s less about how they can help me and more about what I can learn from them and that translates into new ideas and usually how I can help them or how they can help me. Your network is your biggest asset. Spend time building relationships that matter.
3. Admit you don’t have all the answers.
No one likes a know-it-all. That rule applied in 5th grade, it applied when I wrote this blog post and it applies now and forever. If you enter founderdom as a know-it-all it will be a very lonely place. I’ve worked with lots of ridiculously smart people. Some who are know-it-alls, others who know enough that they couldn’t possibly know it all. It takes a lot of confidence to say you don’t know how to do something or you need help. My favorite clients are the ones that are willing to admit they need help. They are willing to trust me to help them – even if they have no clue what I am talking about sometimes. They know enough that trying to figure it out themselves will take too much time and energy and get them a whole lot of nowhere. They have mastered #1 and #2 and are open to learning. You may be super smart, aren’t we all? But, don’t be that obnoxious know-it-all. People don’t want to work for you or with you. You can’t build a vibrant, collaborate culture. You will be a smart, lonely know it all. So sad.
4. Learn to say no.
I’m terrible at saying no. I feel guilty, I over think it, I feel like I am letting people down. You get the drift. The challenge with not saying no is you sign yourself up for stuff you sometimes don’t really want to do. More importantly, you lack focus and that is a founder danger zone. I have worked in start-ups where we said yes to everything, thus getting nothing done. I recently got an intro to a new client from a friend from a large digital agency. He forwarded me the thread where he turned down a significant piece of business. I read his response to the potential client and thought, this is brilliant. His no was because he didn’t feel he had the right people to put on the account. Instead of scrambling and giving the client a sub-par team, he was super transparent and candid in his response to the potential client and it was yet another example of why saying no is important. I’ve learned to say no after the first intro call versus getting too far in and realizing I should have said no right up front. The funny thing about saying no is it’s a reminder that you have priorities, you must focus and that not everyone or everything matches up to those important things that will drive your business, your employees and your passion.
5. Dismiss the demons.
Haters gonna hate. Don’t let them get under your skin. There will be people who tell you it will never work. There will be people who will shake your confidence, try to sabotage your business or talk smack about you or what you’re doing. There will be people who don’t want you to succeed because you are a threat or because they just suck (usually both.) There will be times when you will believe these people – they become little demons that question your choices, your commitment, your ideas. They tell you to quit and give up and rattle your confidence in what you can do. These are the times where you need to turn to your network, they will talk you off the ledge. Remind yourself of your wins and what you’ve accomplished (I am awful at this but trying to get better.) Focus on the future and the positive stuff ahead. Don’t get bogged in something you messed up or something you could have done better. Sure, learn from your mistakes but don’t beat yourself up about them. And, most importantly, remember it’s a long play. Richard Branson says he doesn’t have a Plan B because that gives him an excuse not to succeed. Screw Plan B. Focus on Plan A and…don’t stop believing.