I've always been jealous of people with hobbies. I aspire to have one, but my overly-linear "does it move the ball forward?" filter for life has held me back from an all consuming passion for baseball cards, stamps or old daggers (seriously--Angelina Jolie collects them).

So I was out of my league when I went to a hobby store a few years back on the hunt for a doll house. My daughter was obsessed with doll houses and wanted a "real one" to be her big Christmas gift.

In a split second decision that would haunt me for the next year, I decided to go with the kit instead of the pre-built house as a "fun project to work on together."

If you haven't been through this before, a doll house "kit" is something only the guy from A Beautiful Mind could love: a giant box overflowing with thousands of tiny, unidentifiable, easily misplaced pieces of wood, all of which need to be organized, inventoried, sanded, painted (in a specific order), trimmed and varnished, all before you assemble anything.

Sundays over the next year became a mess of paint, glue, obsession, frustration, and trips to the hobby store, where the kind and crafty older women looked at me like a 5-year old who planned to build a car.

The project quickly took over our master bedroom, which clearly didn't thrill my wife. Then six months in, my daughter received the new American Girl catalog, and doll houses were off the list. My younger daughter feigned interest, but didn't care much about things that didn't require running, throwing balls or doing flips.

Frankly, no one else wanted this giant, sprawling, glue-stinking venture in our house. But I got maniacal about this Cranberry Cove cottage, and it became my own battle to finish it.

Fourteen months later, I won that battle. And it looked halfway decent.

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More importantly, it got me geared up for another startup in some unexpected ways.

  1. Take it step by step: I'm a big-picture guy. Mostly that's good, but it's easy to get overwhelmed because you're constantly seeing how much work needs to be done. Dollhouses are a perfect opportunity to condition yourself to take big projects one (diabolically small) piece at a time.
  2. Identify with creators: I work with people who are the software equivalent of brilliant artists, and who seek perfection in what they do. As a "just get it done" guy, it's easy to write off that artistry as progress-impeding waste. But fully stepping into creator shoes reminded me why attention to detail is important to have as a voice at the table for important company decisions. It's the line between pure-efficiency and greatness.
  3. Make it yours. It's easy to feel pressured into doing work from the outside (board, customers, anxious 8-year olds) and it's equally easy to be bitter about it. If instead we find ways to make the project our own creation, we control the narrative and feel empowered and motivated. If you jump in with both feet, the obsession will find you.
  4. Make it special: I didn't have to add full lighting to the dollhouse, but it added a level of magic that my daughter didn't expect (it almost rekindled her love of doll houses for 30 seconds). The same is true for our customers--we aren't required to add unexpected personality and life to their experience, but the payoff is huge.
  5. Keep it moving: Perfectionism is good, but has its limits. I could have redone that roof a hundred times, but a quick "looks amazing" comment from my daughter made me realize I was gilding the lily. Effectively moving from the big picture to the details is the best way to handle it.

The house never got much use--it went directly into a closet--but we still have it, and I'll often go have a moment with it, just to ponder what on earth I was thinking.

My daughter still has no interest in doll houses (unless Taylor Swift happens to be hiding in it), but she keeps it around. I think it's because, for her, that house is a symbol of love and the lengths someone will go to for the sake of another's experience. And honestly, what better metaphor is there for a great business than that.

If you end up with a living room full of old daggers though, you're on your own.