I was holding the plunger. To unclog the toilet. How did it get to this point? I had gone to Harvard Business School for god's sake. This was the story I was telling a roomful of aspiring entrepreneurs and tech founders at a conference recently. The moderator asked me: "What is the most important thing you do on any given day at your startup?" I was the last on the panel to respond so I had time to really reflect on the question and on the early days of my company, Work Market.
If I had to respond quickly I am sure I would have said something similar to my fellow panelist: recruiting the team, raising money, talking to customers, working on the product. But with time to reflect, I knew what my answer was: "Plunge the toilet."
Yes, the crowd laughed and the moderator asked for some clarification.
As you'd expect, in the early days of most startups, the concept of support staff is non-existent. You, and everyone around you, must have that roll-up-your sleeves mentality. About everything. And as a Founder, it stops with you. Whether you fix it, or find someone else who will, what matters is you make sure it gets done. That holds true for toilets, and countless other decisions each and every day.
I didn't expect that when I started Work Market, along with these other 3 lessons:
Experience Is The Best Teacher
Do you need an MBA to start a business? That's a topic that's hotly debated. But in my case, during my days at Harvard, I was fortunate to take several classes on entrepreneurship. Did it help? In hindsight, not as much as I thought.
Many business schools try to teach their students how to be entrepreneurs.We were fortunate enough to have many classes on entrepreneurship at my alma mater, Harvard Business School. However, even with their regarded case study construct, it lacked the real exposure to what early days at startup are like. Sure, they can teach management, frameworks for analysis, and pattern recognition through examples/stories, but they will always fall short.
The reality is that business schools just don't (and can't) prepare you for the real grind of startups. And it's not like you can ease into it either--the early stages are the hardest. A young startup needs to undergo rapid changes due to unpredictable growth--whether or not your staff is growing with it. Teaching someone how to truly be an entrepreneur goes beyond the scope of any curriculum.
Heart Beats Hard Skills
Do you have the heart to build a startup? The first step is asking this question, because building a new company takes guts. Leadership in your startup is about your vision and passion, not systems and processes. Resource allocation, marketing, and other disciplines are not applicable here. You have to be scrappy, and you'll spend far more time leveraging soft skills, such as being patient, managing change, connecting with people, and making tough decisions, than doing the accounting.
It's easy to outsource for finance, legal, or marketing. It's hard to find another entrepreneur with the same heart.
Find Who You Are As A Failure
Business school is supposed to teach you how to succeed, or how not to fail. But failure is a natural part of the path to entrepreneurship. Whether it's a failure in your team, your processes, or the startup idea, it will be essential for an entrepreneur to know how to negotiate failure if it happens.
Failing doesn't make you a failure. Everyone has ideas but few launch businesses, so those who do are success stories in their own right. Learning what doesn't work is just as valuable as learning what does. Failing is part of success. Just do it fast, and don't make the same mistake twice.
No amount of school can prepare you for the fallout of a failed partnership or being crushed by rapid growth. You go to school to discover who you want to be. Being an entrepreneur will tell you who you are,and is sure to teach you important lessons no book will ever prepare you for.