Startup Founders: Hold Onto Your Innocence

Recently an article was published about the Ritual of Lean.  This got me thinking about how startups, on their journey from idea to funding to hopefully scale, how the all buzzwords, rituals, and competition (or perceived competition among startups as a sector) all contribute to the loss of innocence for any startup.

I was the CEO / Co-founder of a startup, so I know from personal experience all the demands that come with growing a company. I also know that one of the hardest things I had to learn was what advice to take, and to what advice to politely say “thanks, but no thanks.”

I don’t often think back to the very early days of launching my company, probably because they were fairly challenging days, being 8 months pregnant, and then being a first time mother figuring all of that out while we launched our beta version of the software (literally to the day — we launched the day I gave birth. Is that great timing or what?).  But, when I force myself to think about it, there’s something very pure and innocent about what we were doing.  We weren’t bogged down by anything “cool.”  We weren’t trying to keep up with the Joneses.

And here’s the kind of funny part… We didn’t know we were a startup. (My co-founder and I were both from a small business background and operated our technology endeavors as such).

So, we built out a concept, we launched it, and we got a bunch of downloads in our first 2 weeks. It wasn’t even a fully realized product, but with a bit of inbound work (a concept I also didn’t know had a catch phrase at the time), we got the word out and we got downloads. Fast forward a few weeks, because yes, we were moving at lightning speed, and we launch V1 of our product, building on the impressive amount of downloads we had.  We were making some money, it was fast moving, and it was pretty fun.

Becoming Self-Aware

Then, as time went on, we started to become a little more self-aware.  We realized we were a “technology startup,” and we really started to focus in on how we scale (which is clearly not a bad thing). But, we also started to feel a pressure that, in hindsight may have divided our focus from our original intent, which was to solve a problem with our software.

It was brilliantly simple, we were growing, we were solving a problem…. and then one day I woke up and it just wasn’t simple anymore.  We had taken on investment, there was no shortage of advice, articles to read, etc, and we started to get more awareness of our identity as a “technology startup.”

I ran my company for almost 5 years before selling it and moving on to my next challenge, and now that I have had a bit of space to step away, I find myself wondering if we lost the pureness of intention that was driving us to some early success, and whether, in hindsight, there was any way to hold onto the innocence while still moving forward and growing.

I keep coming back to 4 key themes, which I would like to share with you now. If you are a Founder / CEO in early stages trying to figure out your next move, I truly hope this helps. And if it doesn’t, that’s ok – remember what I said about learning to only take the advice that works for you?

1) Fake it ‘til you make it, but know where you’re going

One of the main reasons startups are particularly susceptible to buzzwords, jargon, and losing the connection to their original purpose is that too often there isn’t a clear enough direction.  There’s faking it til you make it and putting on a brave face to raise the money and take care of your team, but think very hard about where you want the company to go. There is going to be no shortage of advice and people telling you they can help you with this that and the other, and if you have a strong sense of your game plan (even if you haven’t figured out all the details of it yet) you will be able to be more picky about who you let into your world…

2) Hold onto your innocence

There will be a time when you will likely need to raise capital, and with that will come additions to boards and more opinions.  It’s pretty easy to forget why you started the company to begin with when there are more cooks in the kitchen, all wanting their own special on the menu. But it is that pureness of intent that gives you the passion to get up every day and fight to win; hold onto that.

3) Not all money is created equal

This is hard, because anyone who has tried to fund-raise knows that it can be like squeezing blood from a stone, but to the extent that you can, hold out for the right investment partner, and don’t be afraid to ask for help in this regard.  The expression penny-wise and pound-foolish comes to mind — you can’t do it all, and sometimes working with someone who can help you find the right suitor is a worthwhile endeavor.

4) Believe in yourself, you deserve it

This is the best piece of advice I can give, so please pause, and read it again. You’re going to get beat up… a lot.  You’re going to feel like you you’re alone.  You’re going to wonder more than once, twice or even 30 or 40 times why you keep doing what you are doing.  But you must always believe in yourself. You started this company, you are building something out of nothing, and there’s not a whole lot of people on this earth who can say that.  You need to remind yourself that you have every reason to believe in yourself, and that you deserve success. If you don’t believe it there’s not an investor on the planet who will, and neither will your team, so practice it, and own it.

Tammy Leigh Kahn is a technology entrepreneur in Boston, MA. Tammy writes frequently on social media, small business, technology and entrepreneurship and shares her knowledge and advice with thousands via radio, Web seminars and live presentations. Read her column on the Huffington Post and connect with her on Twitter @TammyLKahn and Linkedin.

Image Credit: Hartwig HKD