As a bootstrap entrepreneur I’ve taken businesses from one-person basement startups to established companies. Along the way I sometimes felt that I should do things more like “bigger companies” do, but I always resisted adding those structures and formalities until I saw a clear need for them. I’m mostly glad I waited. Here are some things I’ve learned:
Startups are different than established businesses. I believe the highest priority of a startup is to find a business model that is scalable. Test the market with the lowest overhead and the most flexible structures possible.
Newer and smaller organizations have an advantage when it comes to innovation. They have less to lose, they can change quickly and cheaply, and they have to brainstorm a lot because they don’t have a standard answer to most questions yet. Use that advantage.
Most entrepreneurs hate bureaucracy, and that’s ok early on.
It hurts my entrepreneur heart to say it, but… There are valid reasons that “normal” businesses have things like written procedures, HR departments, meetings, and middle management. I didn’t need any of those on day one, but I need all of them now. These normal structures are solutions to problems that arise as an organization grows. I’ve found that waiting until we have the problems to implement the solutions has worked out well for us.
Even with size, bureaucracy is worth resisting. Insist that it adds value and is implement with efficiency and common sense.
I think as a leader of any size organization you are better off to think creatively and dare to be different, than to feel obligated to imitate normal and/or bigger organizations.
The wisdom is in knowing when to follow a best practice, when to innovate your own solution, and when to do without entirely.
Maybe we have a tendency to dream of epic goals like saving the world, curing cancer, or reforming our political system. Goals like that have the grand exhilaration of big ambition without the scary responsibilities of actual success or meaningful failure. Those goals make it hard for anyone to challenge us with “Why don’t you go do that tomorrow.” or criticize us with “How come you didn’t get that done?”
I think such grand and vague goals are really just pleasant fantasies. I think we can more difference with gritty real-life goals that can be started today, and might succeed or fail this week or this year.
I hope you dream big and stretch beyond what you think you can do. To get there from here, set goals that are specific enough and possible enough that you can create real accountability to them.
Part of pacing growth is reflecting on your progress. Turn around and look back at where you were a year ago. I bet you have made all kinds of progress in the last year, and you might not be giving yourself enough credit for it.
What have you learned in the last year? What you have started? What have you increased? What have you risked that failed (this is a good thing)? What has changed in your personal character and worldview? Fill in the blank with your own changes.
A lot of change is hard fought inches, forward, then back, then forward a little more. Turn around and realize how much that added up to in the last year. Since you did all that this year, imagine what you can do next year. Big things are possible. Please go do them.
I write a lot about facing change and being ambitious about growth. There’s another side of the coin that’s equally important, one my business coach has been teaching me about. We are all human. We have limits. We get overwhelmed. We might even get burned out.
Growth in the real world, whether organizational or personal, is not a straight line shooting for the top of the chart. In comes in steps. There are times to push hard and feel the stretch, and there are times to take a breath, consolidate gains, and rest.
A good coach pushes her athletes beyond what they think can do, and also knows when to reduce the challenge before it becomes overwhelming and counterproductive.
There’s not one pace for everyone, but nobody can sustain pedal-to-the-metal for long. If you are the pedal-to-the-metal type, absolutely give yourself permission to stop and take a breath once in a while. It’s a long race.
I gave Nathan, my 10-year-old son an educational robot rover for Christmas. It comes assembled, but the “brain” must be written from scratch. Simple tasks like “left motor forward direction, left motor on” can be put together to form more complex actions. This particular rover has the ability to sense an object in front of it using infrared sensors. That makes it possible to write programs to avoid running into things.
After a day of programming here’s our attempt at a semi-intelligent maze-navigation program.
Here are some random observations from a day spent in this rather unusual way. I think they pertain to more than robotic toys.
1. Nothing much works on the first try, but watching the first try immediately inspires ideas for a better second try. Make the first try soon so you can improve quickly.
2. After the 100th round of try and improve, unforeseen ideas for improvements keep coming. Incremental improvement can take you a long way from where you started.
3. The cost of learning almost anything is incredibly low. ($100 for the kit, a laptop I already had, and tons of free information online.)
4. The world is small – competition and opportunity are now global. The manufacturer shipped this to me from China for $14 and it only took a few days.
5. This robot kit depends on a bunch of free open-source software to make it work. It costs zero to give away another copy of something digital, and that turns the economics of sharing upside down.
6. (This one from my son.) “Science projects are awesome.” I agree.