My entrepreneurial journey is now a decade old.
What started as an undergraduate business plan competition became a path I never could have expected. Although I originally studied accounting, entrepreneurship taught me that creating the rules is a lot more interesting than following them.
Here are the most important lessons I have learned.
1. Be Vulnerable
When was the last time you had your heart broken?
I mean, really broken. When you lost something that was so fundamental to who you are that it still makes you sick to your stomach. Your chest still tightens up. Even the hair on your arms stands up.
It could have been a loved one, a friend, or a relationship.
Since we never prepare to lose that relationship, we put everything we have into it. We let our walls down. We let people in. We open our soul to be consumed. And at the time it feels amazing. Before the pain, there is joy. There are unforgettable adventures, laughs, and nights we’ll never forget.
Building a company is no different. To create, you have to be incredibly vulnerable. You’re forced to put yourself out there, sharing what you believe within a society where the norm isn’t to create. Instead, the norm is to get a job, to have security, and to be predictable.
But you can’t change the world by following the norm. To be a great entrepreneur you have no choice but to put yourself out there. It’s a terrifying realization.
What happens if it fails? What happens if people don’t like your idea? And what happens if people reject what you believe in?
If you remember all the times when your heart has been broken, would you have done anything differently?
I know I would have.
I may not have committed more time, but I would have valued it. I would have been present. I would have been more thoughtful about the time I spent and the quality of the experiences I shared. I would have asked the questions I was too afraid to ask and expressed the feelings I was too nervous to admit.
Most importantly I would have been more vulnerable, not less.
Many people think that to be successful as an entrepreneur you have to be tenacious. It’s true. Success has a lot to do with not giving up.
But being tenacious doesn’t mean you have to be selfish.
At first there are only a few people on your team, which means that everyone involved is doing a large amount of work. And early success is often tied to just how much this small group can get done.
But, if you are successful, the company grows. And as it does you feel this incredible amount pressure to do more of what you were already doing. You pull the train with everyone on board, and you continue to work more and more hours. Life as an entrepreneur becomes stressful.
Along with the work, you realize that as the founder you are the face of the company. You are the leadership force behind it. You are the reason people joined the team. And your temperament is the nonverbal gauge for how well the company is doing.
This expectation can take an incredible toll on your personal state. But guess what? It’s not about you.
The minute you ask someone to join you on this journey, it’s about them. Whether it’s an employee, a customer, a partner, or an investor, it’s about making them successful. Your job is to enable them to maximize their involvement with your company.
The only way to do this is to empathize. Being successful requires that you listen, and that you understand their needs and put them first.
As soon as you learn to do this, an incredible amount of pressure is lifted off your shoulders. Because instead of doing everything yourself, you begin helping others to learn how to do things too.
3. Self Reflection
As an entrepreneur, you never know the answer.
It’s like solving an ever-evolving Rubik’s cube in which the rules and circumstances constantly change. It’s a battle to align the colored squares in the short term without misguiding the company over the long term.
To do this, you end up making a series of decisions that you won’t even know are right until you make another series of decisions that hopefully shed some light on your original choice.
The only way to get better at this is to accept you don’t know the answer. Once you become comfortable with uncertainty you begin looking at your business from an entirely new perspective.
You stop expecting and starting learning. You stop guaranteeing and starting making the best choice based on the information you have at hand. You stop pointing fingers and starting solving problems.
Even more importantly, you realize that to be successful in an environment where they only thing you can expect is the unexpected, you have to constantly re-evaluate.
Being a great entrepreneur is like any craft: It takes time. It takes a lot of mistakes and a lot of luck. And being self reflective is the only way to learn from all of those mistakes.