I’m hanging out at TechCrunch Disrupt today in NYC. I have to say, I’m so impressed by the quality of the event, and all of the speakers on the main stage so far today.
I listen to startup founders talk a lot these days. The more I listen, the more general themes about startup success and failure become evident.
A lot of people have a lot of different ideas about how best to build a startup. But one of the common threads I notice in every successful entrepreneur—including all of the ones I heard speak at Disrupt this morning—is this:
You have to be maniacally focused on building the best company you can possibly build.
It is very easy to get distracted as a founder and a startup team with shit that will not move the needle for your business: too much time on email, social media, “marketing” efforts, planning meetings, coffee meetings, etc.
What you suspect is true: you’re wasting a ton of time. Like, more than you think. If you’re the average person, your productivity level probably hovers around 40-60%. That means you have a lot more to give. Better ways to learn how to work. Better work to do.
If you want to build something great, don’t worry so much about getting press, your Klout score, tech news, or “keeping up” with everyone else. It’s a fruitless and, honestly, impossible effort.
I’m not saying you should be reckless about how you build your business. But, what I am suggesting is that you get maniacally focused on the most important thing, which is building a kick-ass business in the first place.
Focus on your business model. Focus on shipping and iterating on an initial product quickly. Focus on understanding what problem you want to solve, and how real potential customers are thinking through that problem.
When you focus maniacally on only the most important stuff, you’ll have plenty of time to get great work done. You will feel and be more productive than 85% of starters out there.
If you want to lead the kind of business that others will want to invest in, report about, and use…then you have to build that kind of business first.
Be patient. Work your ass off. Prepare for a very hard journey ahead.
If you do things the right way the first time around, it won’t be easy.
But it’ll be worth it.
There’s a popular quote that goes something like this:
"It doesn’t matter where you came from; it matters where you’re going."
I’m calling bullshit.
This original quote was likely intended to empower people to take control of their future and not suffer from victim mentality about their past or personal circumstances. But it’s not great advice because it suppresses a very important reality:
Where we came form is extremely important.
It impacts who we are, how we think, what we believe, how we interact with others, what we think is possible for ourselves, whether we view the world as good or bad, what we strive for. Our history—our upbringing—impacts everything we think and believe and do.
I’m not about getting stuck on the past. But I am about thoroughly understanding it.
I decided to take a trip home to NYC this past week. After a very long several months with lots of change and busyness in countless corners of my life, it felt like exactly what I needed. I came home partially to take several business meetings and cover a conference, but largely to reconnect with old friends and spend quality time with my mom.
The thing about the startup space—or any space, really—is that it’s easy to get caught up in thinking that whatever you’re working on is the most important thing in the world…that startup life matters more than relationship building or taking care of yourself—physically, emotionally, intellectually, and spiritually.
I started to feel a little caught up—something that I think happens to almost all of us when we’re working on something we’re really, really passionate about and committed to. But it was time to step away for a moment. It was time to take a deep breath and recalibrate my personal goals and my vision for helping to grow and support the startup community at large.
And coming home gave me the space to do that.
Here’s the thing:
It’s hard to know where you’re going when you lose sight of where you came from. Your past gives your future wisdom-filled direction.
When you know who you are and why you do what you do, you can better understand where you want to go, why you want to go there, and how you’re going to get there.
"Going home," whatever that means for you, is so important. It reminds you of who you are, what motivates you, what your purpose is. It reminds you of that little kid you were—the one who dreamed big, feared little, and enjoyed the simple things in life. It reminds you of what really matters: family, building great friendships and relationships, taking care of yourself, being present.
Often, when life starts to feel chaotic and you couldn’t imagine taking a few days off, that’s when you need to go home the most—to get back in touch with your roots, take a bunch of deep breaths, chill the heck out, and recalibrate your sense of what truly matters.
Entrepreneurship is a tough journey. You will have to do very hard and uncomfortable things in the process of building something spectacular.
But it is impossible to build anything spectacular when you aren’t taking spectacular care of yourself. It’s unsustainable, and more than that, ineffective.
Just trust me. I know because I’ve tried to cut every kind of corner with my own health and well-being.
And that’s the craziest part about it all: when you lose sight of where you came from, you lose sight of where you’re going.
So, go home. Reconnect. Remember who you are. Put it all in perspective.
Maybe, like me, that’s exactly what you need.
I’m out in SF this week, and went to a cocktail party with David Eagleman a few nights ago. He was talking about a lot of neuroscience stuff that went way over my head.
But something he did say that really caught my attention was this (paraphrasing):
"Our brains are really lazy. They will accept the easiest possible solution. You have a giant network of associations in your head. For instance, when I say "rabbit," you automatically think things like, "carrot, easter, cute, Jessica Rabbit, etc." Your brain doesn’t think about the thousands of other characteristics of a rabbit.
The same is true of our brains in business and life. When we have a problem, we come up with a set of answers based on the information and associations we already have in our head based on our personal learning and experiences. You have to dig deeper to find the unique solutions.”
I thought that was profound.
If you’ve taken any sort of biology, psychology or neuroscience class, you’re familiar with the basic premise of how our brains connect, process, and recall information.
But, when you’re actually in the thick of problem solving, this knowledge totally goes out the window most of the time.
We’ve also been trained from a young age to “trust the first answer we come up with.” How many times did you hear that from a teacher before a multiple choice test between elementary school and college? It’s engrained in our minds that our first answer is the right answer.
That might be true when you’ve studied a ton of information and you have some vague recollection of which answer in a set of multiple choices “feels” the best. But, that’s totally different than solving highly complex, unique problems that have an unlimited set of possible answers.
When it comes to creative problem solving, growth, innovation, etc. here’s what we need to remember:
The first answer is almost never the best answer.
It’s just the answer that’s most readily available to your brain given how it’s neurally connected.
If you want to come up with truly unique and innovative solutions:
- Sit with the problem longer.
- Spend 20 minutes “free journaling.” Write down whatever comes to mind for you—even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.
- Look outside of your industry or network to get advice from other people on how they’d approach solving the problem at hand.
- Study how successful people think through problems (not their results, but their thought frameworks)
- Chill out. Sometimes, giving yourself space provides all the clarity you need.
If you’re beating your head up against a wall to solve a problem, it’s probably because you are thinking too small about it.
If you’re willing to move past the first and easiest answer, you’ll probably come up with some of your best and most innovative ones.
There’s a lot of talk in the startup space these days about trying to find a “formula” for successfully launching a company. It started with the Lean Startup Movement (which is a fantastic book, not hatin’), but it’s turned into this crazy quest for some magic bullet.
It doesn’t work that way.
I haven’t launched multiple companies. I’ve never closed a round of funding by myself. I haven’t hired anyone and been personally responsible for making sure that person eats.
But I do have the great fortune of meeting with successful, brilliant starters every single day, and soaking up their stories of success, failure, hardship, and triumph.
I’m an editor, but what I’m really good at (and passionate about) is pattern identification. One of those patterns, though, isn’t a formula for building a successful company. No two entrepreneurs I’ve ever met have built their companies the exact same way.
That makes us all really uncomfortable. We want an easy answer. We want to know that if we just follow these 10 steps, we’ll have a profitable startup.
But as with anything truly amazing and worth doing in life (falling in love, traveling the world, etc.), there isn’t a formula. In fact, it often works out a lot better if you don’t try so damn hard to create one and just work/enjoy your ass off, and let serendipity handle the rest.
You end up happier, and the world has the space to work its magic on you and whatever you’re building.
If you’re out there building anything, please know that what will make it special is not something you’ll find in a manual or bestseller somewhere. It’s in you already.
Yes, you should learn from others successes and failures. Yes, you should look outside of your industry for ideas you can innovate into your own space. Yes, its useful to read well-written books and articles on building companies.
But don’t let all of those things stop you from the most important thing, which is that nothing beats your gut instinct about something you’re super passionate about and driven to make a reality for the rest of the world.
Stop looking for a formula.
Start listening to yourself more.
Just about everyone can spot a problem. But here’s the difference I’ve noticed between entrepreneurial thinkers and everybody else:
Everybody else will point at, talk about, and wallow in the problem.
Entrepreneurs will look at a problem and say, “I’m going to build something to fix that.”
We’re so caught up in categorizing entrepreneurs as people who close crazy rounds of funding, build huge teams, and grow a multi-million-dollar business. But those are all results. They are the results entrepreneurs achieve from thinking and behaving like dedicated problem solvers.
If you want to be an entrepreneurial thinker, it’s easy. It doesn’t require a ton of money or you building a formal company. All it requires is a willingness to actively seek out problems—and then come up with and build creative solutions for them.
If you want to build something truly great, you almost never need to reinvent the wheel. Startups that do are extremely rare.
The majority of great startups in our country were born out of necessity. The only think you need to do is find what’s truly necessary. What do people really need? The world’s next great solution lives in midst of the problems you find. Most of the time, those problems are ones that you yourself are experiencing.
So find a problem you have that you know other people have.
Then be the one who creates a solution for it.