Breaking ground on your start-up can be the most exhilarating and nerve-racking experience of your career. The truth was, I was confident but scared shitless.
I liken the feeling to my sophomore college football season as a backup, when our all-Ivy receiver tweaked his hamstring in the second quarter of the championship game, and suddenly I found myself on the field, team driving on a crucial 3rd and 6 just out of field goal range.
As the ink on my business plan for SKYLABS dried, my own fear was less about whether I had the requisite skills but whether I had the intestinal fortitude for the job. Was I ready to carry the burden of expectations I had imposed on myself? Was my vision compelling? Would people follow me? What to I do if I fail?
For an entrepreneur, the only way to reconcile excitement and fear is to get in the game.
In a quest for peak performance, I've made a point to seek out and listen to entrepreneurs who've taken the plunge before me--my father, a few close friends, and my business partners, to name a few. All considered, I've realized that one North Star has guided them: The sooner you realize that uncertainty is normal and that you only control a certain percentage of the outcomes in your business, the sooner you can get on with your job, which is to lead.
In the first year of running a startup, you're likely to face constant challenges: getting customers when you lack credentials, and then delivering on their expectations; driving revenue as your expenses increase and your investors are pressuring you; playing hurry-up-and-wait with new business prospects, who need you less than you need them.
The key is to take the hits and embrace the obstacles, no matter how uncomfortable. Indeed, when you truly own your discomfort, it disappears.
Here are a few things to consider when navigating those first 12 months to set up your business for a success that will endure.
1. Know Yourself and Find Your A-Team
As a new entrepreneur, I realized a good part of my value would be in bringing the right people together--not only to bring in the right skills but to build a team that would encourage complementary thinking, critical reinforcement and provide necessary sounding boards and motivation.
At SKYLABS that meant first finding my business partner Adam, who brought startup experience and a unique blend of strategic and operational ability to the table. It just so happened that Adam's long-time high school pal was one of the leading car designers in the world. He became our chief of design, and attracted in turn a former colleague who had been head of innovation at Motorola/Google, giving us a chief of product steeped in physical product design and technology integration. Another of Adam's former colleagues happens to run a successful tech shop a few blocks over from our office; he is now our chief technology officer, helping shore up our dev and engineering chops. With this team in place, suddenly our startup had the combined experience to have serious conversations with the Fortune 500.
Behind any great team is a strong culture. Culture has to emanate from the founders, and even when it was just Adam and I sitting in the room, SKYLABS became authentically us. Why start something if you can't go to work every day (physically or virtually) and feel something, ignite something, inspire and be inspired? We're entrepreneurs. We simply don't know any other way. And our team embodies that spirit. With the right team in place, we not only had a more dynamic foundation, I could stay in my lane--ultimately responsible for growing the business and keeping the team aligned towards a shared vision.
2. Don't Be Afraid of Being Shameless
Running a startup calls for some shamelessness. You need to balance faking it till you make it with being honest, authentic and true to your vision. Some people are allergic to namedropping. Yes, you have to be artful, but you need to be bold and project confidence.
In the first six months, the SKYLABS story (and what we did) was in a constant state of refinement. In our early days, we referred to ourselves as a Marketing & Innovation Lab. As I listened more closely, I could tell that using "marketing" in our description was confusing people. It was a pillar of the business (and an area in which we had deep experience), but it was not the business we were in. We ended up tucking it under the innovation umbrella and positioning evolved:
We focus on the alchemy that simultaneously creates new value for consumers and businesses by developing transformative and disruptive concepts, products and solutions.
That statement is actually a story, one that took root in our past experience and vision as co-founders, and that we then built one piece at a time--in rounding out our executive team; in bringing on strategic partners within design and technology to give us scale; in using the wide-ranging conversations we were having among us to excite our prospects. After half a year of smaller assignments, we landed in the right place at the right time. A Fortune 50 company was under pressure to evaluate a new market, and one of the older innovation consultancies was moving too slowly for its liking. We were hungry, and all it took was landing that client, and then the case studies became real.
And you keep refining and building.
3. Be Both a Sprinter and a Marathoner
Typically, people are one or the other. While I like sports analogies, and they are constantly used in business, they can only tell part of the story. The startup game is a marathon and a sprint at the same time. There are not four quarters. There is every day, all day. Before, I was always long on fast-twitch muscles. Now I needed to build endurance.
In order to deal with intense periods of activity and stay focused on tomorrow, you can be more energetic and balanced if you can do a few things.
Sometimes you have to go fast. So harness what drives you. For me, its a balance between intrinsic and external motivation. In large part I'm driven by our mission and our vision. But I also use the near misses with prospects--the people who didn't believe we were on the right track--to fuel me. Doing so will turn your team and your customers into believers, and will help you endure the struggles of the first year in business (and sleep at night, too).
But it's just as important to know how to shut it down. You will become passionate and obsessive about your business and making it a success. You will find yourself thinking about your business all of the time. That ability can be incredibly helpful because you are likely to be working harder and for longer hours than you were ever willing to before. And it doesn't always feel like work.
Yet that way of being can have its downside. I quickly realized that my job was to work not as much as possible but as efficiently as possible. For me that meant working from home to get quiet, sometimes carving out two hours in the middle of the day for the gym, meditating each day, and moving from a skyscraper in Manhattan to a more peaceful part of Brooklyn. I took steps toward balancing my lifestyle, and consequently those 11:00 pm nights at the office (or wherever I happened to be) became much more fruitful.
The highs and lows you experience as a founder are unavoidable. Unforeseen outcomes become the norm. Emotions are visceral and uncut. The greatest strength of character you can show as an entrepreneur is to look at what's uncomfortable, smile in the face of it, and get back to your day job.
That's why you're here.