I love start-up life. Before I even knew what a start-up was, I was creating them. For example at age eight, I fell in love with the concept of Three Dogs Bakery. I immediately found dog treat recipes, baked them, and sold them door-to-door. I lived in a rural area so as you could imagine, door-to-door meant about four homes with a dog per mile. The sales weren’t high, but my conversion rate was 100%. Not too shabby for an eight-year-old using an oven for the first time.
The passion to do what I loved and make money while doing it followed me into adulthood. Every job I ever took on became my own. I’d mold the position into one that would have much greater impact on the company. I loved having my hands in several pots and seeing my team’s hard work affect the bottom line.
I began working at a ‘real’ start-up in 2011. It was an HR tech company geared toward helping restaurants find and retain a more stable workforce. We had a long and winding road to success, eventually being named the preferred tool for some of the largest restaurant groups in the world. I moved on to a social media marketing agency, then to KinHR’s parent company We Are Mammoth. Now, I lead KinHR.
As I progressed in my career, I picked up a few insights I wish I had learned sooner. So, I’ve decided to share them here in hopes they’ll get into the hands of folks just starting out (or heck, perhaps help a few long-timers, too).
Be present and make yourself known in the industry.
No, this isn’t networking. Networking is the awful act of going somewhere with the sole intention of having a better chance to sell something after you leave. When you go to a networking event with people only focused on networking, you leave feeling unfulfilled. Why? No real connections were made in a room of hundreds of humans all trying to get a leg up. It’s not natural.
Being present means attending large and small events, speaking out about topics in your industry that you have a (well-informed) opinion on and mentoring those around you to become as passionate as you are about solving challenges your customers face. It’s attending relevant Twitter chats or responding to LinkedIn discussions in a way that doesn’t just further a sale. It’s about asking questions to those who have been in the game much longer (and also much shorter) than you to gain perspective and understanding. It’s about soaking in all you can from the people in the industry, whether or not it leads to a sale. It’s also about giving back that knowledge and your own ideas in a constructive way to those looking to learn more.
Choose wisely where you show up and when. Make sure it counts. When you work for a start-up you are already typically stuffing 2-3 weeks of work into one week. Start making real connections a priority when you venture out and you’ll see the effect on your psyche and your company almost immediately.
Know your priorities and their ‘why’s.’
The worst thing that could happen to a start-up is not knowing/sticking to its mission, its values and its priorities. There’s a very large graveyard full of companies who let outsiders dictate their product or service direction all the way to a place where it was no longer recognizable to its internal team.
Are your priorities truly laddering back to your mission? Mindless priorities that don’t help you achieve the overall goal should be scrapped ASAP. Priority setting, reimagining, scrapping and resetting should be done on a continual basis to make sure your eyes are set on the prize at all times.
Another tough lesson: a customer not being a right fit isn’t the end of the world. It stings to leave money on the table. It stings even worse to know you can’t help someone who has similar issues to what you’re trying to solve. But what makes it better is knowing you’ve stayed true to your product and to your mission and didn’t stray because you saw a few dollar signs elsewhere. It’s a bitter pill to swallow, but if your vision is well-informed and has a validated place in the market, you’re going to be just fine.
Take the time to just think.
We live in a society that is so pressured to constantly produce – whether or not the output is great. We’re so immune to it that we even have silly internet memes and videos about fake spreadsheets and documents up on our screen being typed away on as a boss walks by.
But what we often forget is the thought behind what we produce is so much more meaningful to the final product. It’s not the clicking of the keyboard or the multiple meetings that kick things off and keep them going down the right path. It’s how we think and develop our ideas truly create change and impact.
Thinking is work, too.
Craig Bryant, the founder of KinHR, is big on this. He takes time to think through things. That doesn’t mean being chained to a computer and writing down every thought. It’s having the freedom to walk away and allow your brain to engage and turn on in different environments. It’s similar to when you talk with someone, then hours later have the perfect one-liner for that conversation that is already over. You’re somewhere else now. The environment is different. So are your reactions. Imagine how creative our work could be if we allowed ourselves the liberty to not only think outside of the box, but get outside of it now and then, too.
When you are able to remove yourself from a constantly-producing, stressful environment, you’ll be amazed at what your brain comes up with.
Never be the smartest person in the room.
The worst thing you could possibly do is hire people who don’t leave you in a bit of awe occasionally. If you’re constantly correcting your team’s output and are worried that you have to oversee every detail then you aren’t running a start-up, you’re running a daycare.
When you put in the effort to curate a team that challenges you, you’re doing it right. Your team should not only be left to their own devices in the disciplines you hired them into, they should downright own it.
And you, as a leader, need to let them.
There’s a Steve Jobs quote I’m always reminded when asked for team engagement advice:
“It doesn’t make sense to hire smart people and tell them what to do; we hire smart people so they can tell us what to do.”
Understand there’s a picture much bigger than your product/service.
If you only look at your product or service as a tool, you’re missing the bigger picture (and more customers, more revenue, quicker returns…the list goes on and on). Your product is part of a movement. It’s your job to figure out what that movement is.
For KinHR, it’s a movement to make life better for employees at small businesses around the world. Our tool is a portion of that movement, but there’s so much more to it. There’s learning about the industry and tracking its evolution, talking to people to find out their pain points and exploring what could solve them (using technology or not). There’s putting out blogs like this one to share what we’ve learned so far, or writing about the ways our customers are reimagining our futures and how their story has inspired us (and hopefully will inspire you). All of these things add up to what KinHR stands for.
Find your movement, and let your tool be fluid enough to help your customers now and in the future.