I didn’t plan to be an entrepreneur. I’d just moved back to Los Angeles after spending two and a half years in San Francisco while attending Presidio Graduate School, an MBA program dedicated to a triple bottom line perspective (i.e., people + profit + planet), and was working for one of my dream companies as a consultant focused on social impact measurement. I’d received the offer letter the day I graduated, which I took as a sign that I was headed in the right direction. I enjoyed the work, but my thoughts kept drifting back to the business my team developed for our final project at Presidio—a Yelp for sustainability resources. I saw the problem all around me: people wasting time searching for the best information and resources related to social and environmental impact, and duplicating efforts because there was no central, open-access destination to share.
A starting point was needed, and it had to be crowdsourced because the space was too dynamic for any one person to keep track of. This belief continued to well up inside of me. I'd wake up at 5 a.m. excited by a fresh idea, I’d turn down social plans so I could work nights and weekends, and the chalkboard wall in my kitchen was starting to look like a scene fresh out of A Beautiful Mind. When the consulting job ended, the path forward was clear: I knew I had to follow my passion, and create a tech startup. In August, we released the beta version of Amp's platform.
The past year and a half has been an amazing ride filled with many lessons. If I could go back in time and give myself advice, here are 10 things I’d say:
1. Surround yourself with inspiring people—avoid naysayers.
People seek out the information that reinforces their decisions in life. When you commit to following your passion and taking a big risk it can feel threatening to those who have chosen a safer route. As you express your enthusiasm pay close attention to who’s trying to squash it, and remember that this most likely has nothing to do with you but is instead a projection of their own insecurities and fears. Be compassionate, but minimize time spent with these people – especially to start. Surround yourself with the ones who say, “Go for it!” and develop new friendships with other entrepreneurs. Go to events, ask them to coffee, learn how they’ve managed to stay inspired and solve problems. Doing this will permanently change your perspective on life, and alter your conception of what’s possible. I promise.
2. Ask questions—it’s the only way to learn.
You can’t worry about sounding stupid, and you most certainly shouldn’t try to figure everything out in isolation. Do your research. Know what you don’t know. Then find people who have the answers, and be direct with your questions. If you don’t know people who’ve had success doing what you’re trying to do, use your network and ask for intros. Time is of essence, and I’ve found this strategy to be the fastest way of getting from point A to point B. Schedule time to meet in-person or speak by phone—email isn’t good for exploratory learning. Don’t pretend like you understand things you don’t. Swallow your pride. People like to help, and you need to build your network of support. I can’t tell you how many “dumb” questions I continue to ask our developers. It’s a necessary requirement.
3. Find a solid teammate ASAP—two brains are better than one.
Right around the time I decided to launch a crowdfunding campaign as a way to assess demand and raise enough money to build the beta version of Amp’s platform, an email that was sent out to the Presidio community by a previous classmate caught my eye. What began as a casual correspondence soon revealed a shared passion for Amp’s solution. His thinking consistently impressed me, and his experience managing IT projects from within startups and large enterprise complimented my market research background. His even-keel style grounded my enthusiastic and extroverted personality. I offered him equity, a co-founder title, and I feel very grateful for how well we’ve worked together. It’s led to higher quality work, and taught me a lot about myself.
4. Nail your mission and vision.
Amp’s mission is to organize the best information and resources available within the ever-growing sustainability sector, and be the starting point for individuals interested in harnessing the power of business to drive social and environmental progress. Our vision is to become the largest peer-reviewed sustainability resource directory in the world, dramatically increasing efficiencies and reducing duplicated efforts at a time when solutions are desperately needed. How was that? Let us know—and feel free to share yours!
5. View all feedback as a compliment—time spent is a gift.
When an individual stops what they’re doing to think about your company, regardless of what their specific feedback is, take it as a compliment. NEVER be defensive. Instead, take in what people have to say and let it marinate. In certain instances a thoughtful response is totally appropriate, but most of the time you’ll want to avoid immediately taking up more of their time. Thank them, no matter what they said. You don’t have to ask them for advice again if you don’t want to. There is a noticeable difference between people who give constructive criticism in an effort to be helpful, and those who act like know-it-alls in an attempt to build their own self-esteem. Watch for that, and avoid going back to the latter.
6. Look for patterns in advice—then filter, prioritize, and take action.
Do you keep hearing the same criticism, confusion or suggestion from multiple people? Pay attention. Mark it down. Consider making a massive pivot if you have to. Talk it through with your partner, and the small circle of people from whom you regularly seek advice. What actions need to be taken and what would the implications be? What are the risks associated with NOT doing this? You must be able to articulate your thinking in the areas investors will likely poke holes. Don’t be taken by surprise, or avoid the difficult thinking required to sort these issues through. Maybe you can’t solve them right away—that’s okay, and is why prioritizing is so important.
7. Find the fun—in even the most menial tasks.
If I can’t get excited about what I’m doing, nobody else will. Knowing this doesn’t make it easy. Leading up to our beta release I spent weeks entering resources (i.e., links, media, documents). Hours and days passed—I felt like I was in some kind of data-entry time warp. But I streamed music to lift my mood, and picked up the phone when I thought I was going to lose it—laughing with friends always helps. Sometimes I’ll procrastinate until I can come from a place of enthusiasm. Revising pitch materials for the gazillionth time is like this for me. All of the sudden, I’ll wake up one day and want to get lost in PowerPoint slides. There’s an energetic thing at play, for sure. Invite the fun in, and it will eventually find you.
8. Build your personal brand—authenticity is key.
There are hugely varying opinions here, and I sought out a lot of advice because my online presence as a writer was growing alongside Amp—I was writing articles for Triple Pundit, GOOD and PandoDaily, and sharing my poetry via a blog called Intent. It felt wonderful to be following all of my passions, but I worried that I would confuse people or give the impression that I was less committed to Amp because I had other interests. I could see the common thread running through my pursuits, but would other people get it? I wasn’t sure. I created a personal site as a way to better manage my story (and Google-ability), but ultimately the growth has come from accepting my inability to control what other people think of me, committing to being true to myself, and accepting whatever happens as a result. Because if I don’t believe in myself, who else will? Put yourself out there in a way that feels authentic for you, and see what happens.
9. Stay in today—crazy shit happens you can’t predict.
I’m a big fan of founders creating a business plan, financial model, pitch deck and executive summary. While painful at times, doing this yourself—not outsourcing—forces you to know your business intimately. Having a detailed plan, however, cannot become an excuse for rigidity. Things never work out exactly as you planned (our developer sent me this, furthering this point, after I’d spent months hounding him for being behind schedule). Stay as present-time as possible. What happens today informs tomorrow, and you have to be open and flexible to keep moving down the right path. One of my advisors once told me, “The situation is less important than how you respond to it.” I’ve held onto that.
10. Celebrate the small wins—the next challenge is just around the corner.
Creating a business can be challenging which is why it’s so important to celebrate the small victories along the way. I was thrilled when Paul Hawken, one of the biggest names in the sustainability movement, replied to one of my emails. Finishing our pitch video, meeting our fundraising goal on Indiegogo, connecting with other entrepreneurs at Summit Outside, releasing the beta version of Amp’s platform—all are worthy of celebration. I am fully aware that in many ways our work has just begun—user engagement and marketplace transactions will be key to our success. But every once in awhile, if you are an entrepreneur, make sure to pause and acknowledge the road you’ve traveled. Many people quit before they make it to wherever you are. Right now.
Creative Commons image from Flickr user opensourceway