Four Mantras for Entrepreneurs
The following post is from Adam Martel M’17 and Richard Palmer M’16, co-founders of Gravyty, a spring 2016 hatchery business.
Four thoughts for the wary, ambitious, overworked, underpaid, overextended, underappreciated, overwhelmed, brilliant entrepreneur; no matter where you may be on your entrepreneurial adventure
Starting a business is hard, really hard. You lose friends, see your family less, spend money you don’t have and face rejection daily (maybe hourly if you’re pitching enough). All with the expectation that you’ll get up the next morning, rested, refreshed and ready to tell anyone who will listen why your solution is going to change the world. The journey that we call entrepreneurship is amazingly tough and yet we love it unconditionally.
At Gravyty, we approach our entrepreneurial adventure the same way we would approach climbing a mountain. Even on our worst days, when it’s cold and dark and we feel outmatched and hopeless, we know that the process is truly the reward. If we’re lucky enough to someday summit the entrepreneurial peak, the only outcomes that we expect are a quick view from the top and the ability to start a conversation about our next journey on our descent. Without having recognized that the process is the destination before we started Gravyty, our journey would surely be impossible.
Below are four mantras that have kept us inspired and moving forward through wonderful and difficult times. We humbly hope that what we’ve learned might help you as you continue along your long, wonderful, arduous, and life-changing entrepreneurial climb.
1. TREAT YOUR STARTUP LIKE YOU WOULD DRIVE A CAR AT NIGHT
In Anne Lammot’s book about creative writing, Bird by Bird, she says the following:
“E.L. Doctorow once said that ‘Writing a novel is like driving a car at night. You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.’ You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way. You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you. This is right up there with the best advice on writing, or life, I have ever heard.”
We think this is the most beautiful and accurate analogy for how venture creation entrepreneurs should run their early-stage companies. At Gravyty, we remind ourselves daily that as long as we’re moving forward, the things we’re doing today will soon become things that we’ve done in the past and the things we’ve done in the past will soon become distant memories that we might forget to remember in the future.
This type of momentum-based process isn’t so much about how far we drive in a day, but rather that we just keep driving, staying on the road that we’ve chosen, taking strategic detours when needed and using our headlights at night so we don’t crash along the way. We’ve certainly made mistakes on our journey but, to date, none of these fender benders have been fatal and we’re happy our headlights still work!
Climbing Tip: When you’re climbing your mountain, don’t look too far up or too far down, just look a few steps ahead.
2. BE INTERESTING
As entrepreneurs, we’re all egocentric to some extent. Not out of maliciousness, but really out of the need to have a deep and loyal singular focus on making our company successful. Being able to network is the most important general skill that any entrepreneur can have and we learned early on that most of the people we really needed to network with weren’t as interested in our business as we were (surprise, surprise).
What amazed us was that these “important” people with lots of money and power wanted to learn more about us as individuals and asked questions about our lives, our interests, our families, our passions and our journey so far. Unfortunately, when we began our journey, our formulaic networking strategies didn’t leave much time for real human interaction because these people were “obviously too important and too busy” for that type of chat. We were completely and utterly wrong.
We’ve become acutely aware of the fact that we don’t know what we don’t know. So, instead of targeting people at events to talk with, we’ve found a better approach to networking is to be genuine, kind, honest and, most importantly, interesting. No one wants to be on a long and hard journey with an egocentric and maybe worse, boring, jerk. Being interesting doesn’t mean that you need to lead off the conversation with the story about how you climbed Mt. Everest by yourself with no ropes and no guides, during a blizzard. It can be that you have a beautiful family at home or that you’ve worked in an industry that is relevant to the person you’re talking with. It could be that you might just have common interests. Or, it could be that you ask a question and let the other person talk about themselves without your question leading to your pitch (this one works really well).
Once we figured this out, we found that the best way to be interesting to people is to do interesting things in normal environments and have the ability to tell wonderful stories about these experiences. Rich loves to rock climb, Adam is a photographer. Rich is a wine enthusiast, Adam rides motorcycles. Believe it or not, a lot of investors have kids they love and a lot of customers have amazing, adventurous stories that, if asked, they’re excited to share. The real challenge is asking the right questions and having the fortitude and sincerity to actually listen to their answers.
To take this two steps further, we’ve found that it’s best to follow a 70-30 listening-to-talking ratio. And, if you can stop thinking about the next thing that you’re going to say when someone else is talking, you might learn something from these amazing people, something that you never knew you didn’t know!
Climbing Tip: Climbing any mountain is a hard enough task. It only makes sense to be kind and sincere to everyone you meet on your journey. Seek out ways to build entrepreneurial karma.
3. WATCH OUT, SHINY OBJECT APPROACHING
Shiny objects are ideas that seem much better than the idea you’re currently working on. They can be closely related to your business (maybe a pivot in product or strategy) or they can be completely separate from your work, maybe even a new company. Shiny objects are usually a reaction to something and are easy to make a compelling case for, are somewhat attainable, but don’t quite fit in to the route that you’ve decided to follow. They have the ability to throw you off your course, make you lose your way and they are very, very dangerous. In The Four Hour Work Week, Tim Ferris says, “The opposite of love is indifference, and the opposite of happiness is boredom.” We’ve become keenly aware of these ideas that we call shiny objects, which seem to creep up on us when we get frustrated, concerned, anxious, scared or, worst of all, bored.
Sometimes shiny objects are worth exploring but we’ve found that a lot of times shiny objects are really a symptom of a deeper problem. We’ve learned that the best way to deal with shiny objects is to sit on them for a while and not make quick decisions. If after an appropriate amount of time has passed and the shiny object is still at the forefront of your thoughts and conversations, it might be worth running a small, cheap test to see if it would solve the underlying problem which will make the symptom go away. If, however the shiny object hasn’t come up again and it now seems like it might not be as good of an idea as it once was, you just saved yourselves time, money and effort (all of which you’ll surely need to solve the underlying problem which is still there).
The difficult part is getting to the underlying problems which are usually deeply routed in fear, lack of communication or ego. Instead of addressing symptoms, we suggest using shiny objects to identify the symptoms of underlying problems and try to address the underlying problem as soon as possible.
Climbing tip: Be sure that when you see an “easier path” along your journey that you hadn’t originally chosen to take when you were planning, you give that path some serious thought before changing course. It might be a shiny object and thus just a symptom of a deeper problem.
4. RIDE A FLAT ROLLERCOASTER
One of the most defining and ubiquitous challenges that we’ve faced throughout our journey of building our initial products, acquiring customers and raising money has been managing our emotional peaks and valleys. We’ve had high highs and low, low, low, lows and we realized pretty quickly that it took a lot of extra time to recover from a high-high or a low-low. What we decided early on was that, regardless of what happens, good or bad, we have to stay as objective as possible and support each other as we try to keep our reactive emotions out of our daily work.
This hasn’t been easy. We remind each other almost every day that we need to ride a flat rollercoaster and no matter what happens, what’s most important is that we keep moving forward as quickly as possible while not letting the highs excite us too much and not allowing the lows to slow us down as we take our next step.
Climbing tip: John Wooden said, “be quick, but don’t hurry.” Regardless of any successes or setbacks you may encounter, you still need to either take a step up or a step down. You can’t stay where you are because not moving forward is essentially a choice to eventually move backwards and moving backwards on your journey most likely means failure.
We wish you the very best as you continue your adventure through entrepreneurship. One last thought; when you reach the summit and it’s sunny, you’re successful and happy and you have everything you thought you wanted, be sure to thank the people who helped get you there. You might have been the one who made the climb, but your family, friends, peers, professors and even your competition most likely played a pivotal role in your success. A thank-you goes a long way and might build up some good karma as you plan your next ascent.