The startup I founded is 1 year old today and that’s led me to reflect on the educational and personal growth I’ve made in that period. You learn more in your first year as a startup founder than at any other period in your life and here are the ten lessons I’ve found about myself and life in general.
My ability to handle stress is high
I excel when other people struggle with stressful work. The simplest thing that has enabled me to do this is a change in perspective of how I viewed these situations. Stress is good. I have an inhuman ability to cope with large volumes of information that overwhelm other people while drawing conclusions which aren’t immediately obvious. This allows me to make fast and accurate decisions which waste precious little time. Working in a startup is the most stressful situation you will ever willingly enter into. Every day feels like you are simultaneously on top of the world and getting punched in the face repeatedly. You’ll feel alone, isolated, stressed and upset, even when everything is going exactly as it should. Everything will be going horrifically yet a single moment can change the entire fate of your startup. You need to be able to face these things in the face and assess the right choices and decisions without recognizing the default state of every startup is death. It’s not for the faint of heart.
My ability to handle frustration is low
Frustration, on the other hand, is not something I accept or deal with readily. That may be something taking slightly longer than it should, an external partner not delivering what they promised, or my own inability to deliver the things the business needs at a specific time. The best thing I did this year was to recognize this fault in myself and attempt to remedy it as quickly as possible. Winners and losers both have the same goals. Think about that for a second. Winners simply develop the ability to improve relentlessly. That is where my focus has been in trying to deal with this. My ability to handle frustration has increased through deliberate practice. I still have a long way to go.
Focus is a superpower
The ability to set aside distraction and get shit done is the difference between good and great. Can you sit down and get something done where others can’t avoid the seductive allure of the instantaneous gratification. Some days you will have it, other days you won’t. The key is to relentlessly maintain momentum. Even on your bad days, you need to make improvements. Improve 1%, learn something, send that email, make that call. Even if it’s small, a step forward ensures you continue to move in the right direction. Standing still lets others catch you. One mechanism I’ve used is to employ high technology. I begin something and only stop that task when a cup has been filled with a certain number of paperclips. That might be to send 50 emails in one day, write 50 paragraphs of a blog post or something else. Better yet you need to be like John Wick.
Doing less lets you do more, far quicker
We are all taught growing up that multi-tasking is smart. Here’s the thing, it stops you doing your best work in every single thing that you are distracted by the other. Working on strategy and answering emails intermittently? Creating a presentation and answering the phone? Distractions are the enemy. Partition your life. Batch answer emails twice a day. You wouldn’t email the fire department to come and put out a fire. If something is critical that person will call. Put your phone on airplane mode. This is the simplest thing that made the biggest difference in my life. There is a difference between being busy and being productive. The world has confused the latter with the former. Be efficient, you’re time as a founder is the most valuable resource in the world.
Say no more often than you should
Turn opportunities down even when you think you should say yes. It’s easy to stand up on a stage and present an idea, but could your time be better spent on pushing code, delivering a product or delighting your customers. That is the question I ask myself every single time I am faced with a choice. What is the opportunity cost of choosing to do this? What could I be spending my time on? Everyone takes that meeting which turns out to be a waste of time. Factor in the travel time to get there and back. You need to be ruthless with your schedule. If you have a regular meeting which is no longer giving you value eradicate it. If you have habits which are harming your productivity, destroy them. Give yourself the chance to succeed, so many people defeat themselves.
Writing is a force multiplier
Every good thing that’s happened to me in the last 5 years came from something I wrote. I’ve met and connected with people I could never have dreamed of if I wasn’t brave enough to share my unfiltered thoughts online. It led me to get investment from the founder of a unicorn. I had conversations with some of the most influential investors in the world. I even spoke to the creator of the Lion King. Writing online allows you to reach a bigger audience than at any other point in human history. If you can write with clarity in a way that connects with and affects people you can do things that exceed your boldest visions and biggest dreams. I started out as a terrible writer. Every blog post I write lets me improve my voice and style. I still may not be very good but I have come to a hell of a distance since I began. It’s as simple as starting. Write something once a month, once a week or once a day. It doesn’t matter but you just have to do it. To become a writer all you have to do is write.
Help without expecting anything in return
The people who can help you most are invariably the people you can give equitable valuable in return. The same is true up as well as down. If someone asks for advice on how you achieved what you have because they want to replicate that tell them. How can you expect that same from people who can give you similar advice who are exponentially further ahead than your are currently. These things have a way of coming back around. The most generous people I’ve ever met are the luckiest people. Rewards and good fortune just seem to find them. Naively, most people assume that is just luck. With knowledge and hindsight you realise it comes from a selflessness that puts them in situations few people would ever have the chance to experience.
Deliver what you promise every single time
This sounds simple and it is if you are willing and capable of being that consistent. Think about your own life, how many times have people promised you things and not delivered? Almost everyone. If you can deliver exactly what you promise every single time you will do good things. If you can deliver what you promise every single time and occasionally exceed it you can do great. Exceed those promises every single time and you can change the world. Literally.
Your customers are all that matter
This is something which most people take as fact without appreciating. Of course, the customers is all that matters, but are you actually listening to them and when they talk do you ask questions which uncovers valuable information. In short, you need to raise between the lines. Often customers will tell you exactly what they want and needs, unfortunately, it is far less likely to be in the words they use. That’s not just during discovery and research or when things are going well. You learn far more about your company in bad times that good, and you earn your customers respect when something has gone wrong. Those are the times you must be most visible and connect with your customers. It has to be the leader who stands up and faces the music not just from the customer but with them. You are a partner not just in their successes. If it is something you can put right do it immediately. If it’s something you need to improve liaise with that customer frequently to update them on progress. The final part is the follow-up. The greatest businesses forge relationships with real people which last a lifetime. Seek to build them in good times and bad. Customers discover who they can rely on during a crisis.
Momentum is contagious
The most important startup advice I ’ve ever received is: find a way to continue making progress on your most frustrating days. If you can take 1 step forward during the days where everything seems to be going against you, you have the opportunity to become unstoppable. In my experience that is the difference between good and great. The good do enough and excel on the days where conditions are perfect. The great bend the bad days to their will and find a way to profit when frustration and stress are closing in. The contagiousness of momentum is not just specific to you. It is transferred to your team and partners as well. Like a tsunami, nothing can stand in the way of momentous progress.