What does it take to be successful as a top executive in a big company--or as an entrepreneur? Nicole Shariat Farb has been both. She was head of Emerging Private Companies at Goldman Sachs until two years ago, when she left to co-found the DIY and artisan gift site Darby Smart. The site now serves 4.000 designers and 7 million customers, and has deals in place with Urban Outfitters and the craft retail chain Michaels.

Farb learned a lot along the way in her journey from investment banker to company founder. Here are some of her most valuable lessons:

1. Focus on creating value, not getting it.

Even at Goldman Sachs, Farb says, she was constantly asking herself, "What can I bring to this company?" she recalls. It's an approach that's served her well and made her successful both as a banker and as an entrepreneur. And, she says, she's always received as much value as she created.

2. Don't follow the herd.

"If you do what everybody else does, you'll end up where everybody else is," Farb declares. "Always take risks."

It's always easier to do what's expected, she says, but stepping off the track you're on brings greater rewards. "At Goldman, my career trajectory was laid out before me," she says. "When I decided to start Darby Smart, everything opened up." 

3. Do the work.

"Be scrappy, be brave, dig in, and do the work," Farb advises. No one had gone after the $34 billion craft market with technology, she says, so she decided to go for it. "I hung out at craft fairs and talked to makers for many, many weekends," she says. "It was hard work but it paid off."

4. Time is your enemy.

In this fast-paced world, this is true for every executive, but it's especially true at a startup. "Things move so quickly and companies can emerge so fast that you have to move very quickly or someone might eat your lunch," Farb says. "It's critical that you are nimble." The challenge, she says, is to build thoughtfully and quickly at the same time.

5. You should always be planning your next hire.

"Even if you're not actively hiring this minute, pay attention to everyone you meet," Farb says. "At some point you might find a way to work together." This approach will help you stay ahead of the game in a highly competitive labor market, she says.

6. Make sure to build the culture you want.

Whatever you do, Farb says, don't leave your organization's culture to develop on its own. "If you don't build your culture, it gets built for you," Farb says. "Some days I am so busy that the last thing on my mind is culture. That's a HUGE mistake."

It can be a costly one in the current labor market. "You can hire the best people, but if you don't provide a good culture, they won't stay," Farb warns.

7. Stay focused.

Because a startup has limited resources and even more limited time in which to turn profitable, anything that dilutes you from your core mission can become a problem, even if customers like it and it's generating revenue. "At one point early in Darby we started focusing on building 3-D printing capabilities," Farb says. "People loved it but it wasn't our core. It turned out to be a distraction."

8. If it feels like work, do something else. 

Farb, the mother of twins, says she doesn't believe in work-life balance. "If it feels like work, you're probably in the wrong field," she says. "My work feels like it's part of my life because I love it so much. So it all flows together in a way that is natural."

9. Be where you are and focus on now.

Technology, Farb says, can take you out of the present moment--for instance when you're too busy taking a picture of something to post on social media to fully experience it while it's happening. 

"I love technology but it's a double-edged sword that can have you always looking five steps ahead of where you are," Farb says. "I'm working on also being present. Every experience is an opportunity."

Published on: Dec 1, 2015