The 9 Secrets to Creating a Successful Startup I Learned From My Toddler
Sometimes, when working to realize our dreams, we choose the more difficult path in life, and hopefully reap the benefits both financially and experientially, down the road. In the same year that my wife brought our first child into the world, I finally made the leap that I had been striving to make for years; from an employee of a large corporation to the owner of my own business, building my own company from scratch. Suddenly my wife and I were no longer living the life of DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids) but were now full time parents, each with the primary responsibility of raising a child: one darling daughter, and one consulting company in its infancy. And although the thought didn’t occur to us at the time, looking back over the past few years we have come to realize that there are an extraordinary number of similarities between raising a child and raising a startup company. There are extreme joys, difficult stresses, and huge lessons to be learned from both. In our case, if we didn’t learn a key lesson quickly enough with one baby, the other would be sure to give us a figurative smack in the face.
While the list of similarities goes on and on (both are your babies, both are in constant motion, both are continual challenges to your patience…) I have identified 9 key principles that make a startup successful that have been tested and proven by my 3 year old daughter:
1. You have to be clear about what you are attempting to communicate! My 3 year old takes everything literally, so we have to be clear and precise in our communication with her. Telling her “sure, you can play with your crayons” simply doesn’t cut it, at least if we don’t want to find crayon doodles covering her face, arms, clothes, chair, table, wall, floor – you get the picture. Instead, we have to be very specific with her, “sure, you can draw with your crayons on this piece of paper right here in front of you, and only on the paper!”
When I wrote a business plan for one of my first start ups years ago, everyone was my potential customer; every person was looking for a job and needed my services. One of the laws of marketing a new business is: if everyone is your customer, then no one is your customer. It is important to identify your niche and be as specific as possible when developing an idea or your potential customers will be lost because your benefit to them isn’t effectively communicated.
2. You have to be committed! I once heard someone say that having a child is like getting a tattoo on your face – you’d better be fully committed to it before you jump in with both feet. This has definitely proven to be true with my daughter and every start up I have worked on, with, or in. You can never really know how having a child will change your life until you’re in the throes of child rearing. When my daughter was an infant she was a very difficult baby, she was colicky and had to be rocked or bounced constantly. Three months after she was born, my wife had emergency back surgery and I started a new company, all during this same time period. When my daughter was up and crying every 2 hours around the clock, and then had to be bounced back to sleep for an hour, day and night, that took commitment. When my wife and I had been up all night with our daughter and I had to go to a networking event or a board meeting or make sales calls early the next day, that took commitment. When I had 15 proposals to clients, bills due, an infant at home, a wife recovering from surgery and no deals closed, it took commitment to not give up on building my dream. That’s why it’s crucial to start a business that you are passionate about. Otherwise you will have no energy to bolster your commitment to your outcomes when times get tough – and they will. That’s why 4 out of 5 small businesses fail within the first year and of the remaining 20% of businesses, 9 out of 10 fail within 5 years. That means that for every 100 small businesses that are started, 2 survive past 5 years.
3. You must love structure! Many people start their own businesses because they want to escape the structure of the 9-to-5 workday and corporate culture, but without structure there is chaos and no business can succeed in chaos.
I’ve mentioned that my three year old was a very difficult infant. She had to be constantly moving, rocking, bouncing or vibrating. As we struggled to find ways to keep her happy and growing, we developed a lot of routines. Morning routine: wake, breakfast, fun, nap. Evening routine: dinner, fun, bath, story, lullaby, bed. Those routines have given her the consistent structure she needed as a foundation to learn in a world where everything is new, changing and a little scary.
Most people running start up companies are moving from working as an employee into owning their own business with big dreams of freedom and big money but also with big fear. That big fear is exacerbated by the initial lack of stability and consistent income associated with the first 5-plus years of any start up. Having a clearly defined business structure can and will keep you grounded and on track.
4. You have to have a plan. My 3 year old can take you in a different direction every 5 minutes. One of the things I learned as a dad is that you have to have a plan if you want to get anything accomplished with a 3 year old around.
It’s certainly no different with your business. You have new found freedom; no boss telling you what to do, how to do it, or asking you how long your breaks were. This freedom can feel amazing, but without a plan you will find that your business will take you on a toboggan ride to nowhere. It’s like one of my favorite quotes by Yogi Berra “If you don’t know where you’re going, you’ll wind up someplace else”. It’s important to have a good business plan and to work backwards from your outcome all the way back to the beginning of your plan, so that you know when you are heading in the right direction and when you need to change course.
5. You can’t know everything. Before my daughter was born, my wife and I bought as many books as we could find on parenting, child development, relationships after a kid, you name it. We went on an information frenzy trying our best to be prepared for the upcoming changes. Then we had our baby after delivery complications we couldn’t control, my wife had unplanned back surgery 3 months later and I started a new business all in the same time period. Surprise!! There’s no book for handling that combination of experiences, not to mention our child wasn’t like the ones in the books.
Have you heard of “analysis paralysis”? Where you read and read and read and analyze and organize and never ever take action because you don’t think you know enough? The beauty of entrepreneurship is that the learnings are found in the mistakes, much like being a dad. You have to take action now, fail, get the learnings, adjust your plan, and take more action.
6. Attitude is everything!! My daughter is really good at letting me know if I have a bad attitude and she is willing to make my experience of that moment very difficult if I don’t change it. She is very creative in her ability to press my buttons, and I have to admit that, like it or not, she almost certainly got this talent from me. She’ll make loud noises, check your ears for bugs, poke your eyes, scream at the top of her lungs, mess with the computer, and if all else fails she’ll break out the big guns: “THE FULL-OUT FIT”. Trust me: you would rather get a stick in the eye or have your ears ripped off in exchange for a moment of grumpy silence. Just the joy of a 3 year old attitude check. Got it honey, I’m happy and positive, now can we please read a book or watch Sesame Street?
As an entrepreneur, when you have a bad attitude, whether from fear, depression, grumpiness, or anger, the actions you take in your business are different and your potential clients, customers and colleagues know it. The better you are at controlling your attitude, the better you are at controlling your outcomes.
7. You have to be a creative problem solver! When we decided to have a baby, we had agreed that it would be good for my wife to stay home with our child at least for the first few years and we had a pretty good plan in place. So we have our daughter, within a month I quit my job and jump with both feet into the business I’ve started, and 3 months later my wife loses the ability to walk and has to have emergency back surgery. Holy moley, right? There goes the plan! We had to get creative and I needed much more immediate results as my wife had already quit her job to stay at home.
When we were potty training my daughter we tried everything we could think of, we asked people what worked for them, we read books, and we talked to her pediatrician. We gave her candy if she went on the potty, nope not motivating. We gave her a time out if she went in her pants, nope that didn’t work. We tried stickers, toys, trips to the zoo. Nothing worked until one day she was sitting on the potty crying and I impulsively turned off the light. Ahhh – the welcome sound of silence and then “Daddy I can’t see! Where are you?” I got out a flashlight and we made shadows on the wall until she went potty!! Ahh haa – success!! Who would have known it was pooping in the dark that would work? That’s not in the book.
According to the Harvard Business Review, the most important personality trait in predicting success in the new economy is a personal ability to deal with, accept and even embrace change, to be not only flexible but resilient and lead change. Just when you think that you have your business model figured out, bam! The economy changes or technology changes, and you have to have the ability to get creative without fear and move forward.
8. Have a good support network! Raising a child really does take a village. It’s important to have mommy and daddy date time and adult time for the stay-at-home mom. We learned very quickly that without little breaks we weren’t going to make it out alive. Luckily we have a great support network. We have grandparents close by and an amazing godmother who’s one of my wife’s closest friends, and when the going gets rough they’re there to pick us up and give us a break, and I think I would attribute a lot of our success as parents and success in our marriage to the support of our friends and family.
Have you ever heard the saying “build a house, lose a spouse”? Building a business works the same way, only multiplied by a million. Try putting everything you have worked for on the line and in an all consuming effort, against all odds, make it work. You had better surround yourself with people that love and support you because it’s not if you will need them, it’s when, and it will make all the difference between failure and success. It takes a village to build a successful business and you will need support, mentorship and even a break every now and then.
9. Know when to ask for help! You can’t know it all, do it all or carry it all. I was raised with an aversion to asking for help because it meant you were weak. Being a father is both a humbling experience and a gift. When my daughter was 2 months old I caught my wife as she was falling in the bathroom, passing out from back pain. As I was running frantically downstairs to call 911, I had a moment where I realized I needed help. I couldn’t watch my daughter, build a business and help my wife up and down the stairs, in and out of bed all at the same time. I had to ask for help.
As an entrepreneur I am continually rising to the level of my own incompetence. I grow my business to the point where I’m not sure how to model out the next step, and then I call for help. Sometimes it’s a mentor, sometimes it’s a coach and sometimes it’s a consultant, but it has become very clear that when you reach those points in growth, if you don’t ask for help, your business will suffer. I highly recommend identifying and having a mentor, someone who has already successfully done what you are striving to do and also finding a business coach, someone who can ask you the hard questions and help you see things from a different perspective.