I have come to realize that the key differentiator between a successful startup and an unsuccessful one is mindset. Which isn’t to say all entrepreneurs must think exactly alike (we would end up with unoriginal and boring startups if they did!) but that certain key aspects of mindset are found in all those who go on to entrepreneurial success.
But, how do you know if you’ve got the right mindset? And how do you cultivate it if you don’t?
The following questions will guide you.
True or False: Being smart means having all the answers?
As you may have guessed, this is false. It may not be as easy to live by as it is to admit, in part because of the way intelligence is often equated with knowing all the “right” answers in school. Being smart as far as business is concerned also means being adaptable, resourceful, and knowing when and where to ask for advice or help. You alone can never have all the answers, plus inherent talent can sometimes even cause you to keep from listening to other perspectives.
Many smart people peak when they reach the pinnacle of their natural talent, without having to put in too much work. But talent alone doesn’t cut it. You also need skill, which requires hard work. Then, to achieve anything, you must apply your skill and do yet more hard work. Think of it in terms of these formulas:
- Skill = Talent x Hard Work and…
- Achievement = Skill x Hard Work so…
- Achievement = Talent x (Hard Work)^2
It’s not about the natural aptitude you may or may not have, because eventually that will hit a ceiling and you’ll need to rely on the skills you’ve built and a ton of hard work to get you where you need to go.
What does your age mean?
A) You won’t get taken seriously as an entrepreneur.
C) People are more willing to help you.
C. Many of the most innovative and influential startups have been built by people who were not yet out of college (some barely out of high school). Mentors are much more willing to take time to help a student, since they know that these people are already poised to be in a learning mode, plus they enjoy being able to give back.
How can you leverage your age (or lack of experience) and use them to your advantage? Your age makes you adaptable; your lack of experience means you don’t have to unlearn a ton of bad work or leadership habits.
What if you replace “age” with “credentials”, “experience” or “money”? The answer is the same. Look at challenges as opportunities in disguise, as difficult as that can sometimes be. I started an education company, without any previous experience as an educator. At first, I was extremely insecure and concerned that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, but I soon realized that it was an advantage to have a different background. If I had the “proper” background, I would have created an education company with the same inherent problems as other parts of the education system, instead of being able to create something innovative.
Leverage what you do have, and see the opportunity in obstacles.
Which is more important?
A) Your idea
B) Your execution of the idea
B! Every investor I’ve ever spoken with has said the same thing: they choose startups based on the teams in place to execute the idea, not the idea itself. Ideas are, unfortunately, a dime a dozen. Every one of us probably has at least 5 great ones we could scribble down if pressed to do so. Most good ideas have also been thought of before (let that be a relief), which makes success in startups more about what you do.
Plus, your idea WILL change once you start building your company. You’ll realize some parts of it sounded better on paper than they look in practice. You’ll find even better ways of solving the problem you set out to squash. You need a strong foundation of work ethic and adaptable participants to grow that idea in the direction it needs to go.
Can you pass the Airport Test?
If someone (an investor, a partner, a colleague) were stuck in an airport with you, what would that experience be like for them? Would you be trying to impress them at every turn, always on? Or would the experience be pleasant?
Too often, high-achieving go-getters make the mistake of always being “on”. That can be as draining and exhausting for the people talking to them as it probably is for them. It’s why we used the Airport Test frequently to inform hiring decisions when I did management consulting at Boston Consulting Group. We wanted to be sure we were working with colleagues with whom we could have a real conversation.
So, be human. Be real and earnest. Don’t think that you have to constantly impress or always remind others of your worth at every turn. Your skills, work ethic, and ideas will do that on your behalf.
What do you do about naysayers (aka: haters)?
A) Work extra hard to convince them you are awesome!
B) Plot and exact sweet vengeance.
C) Don’t waste your time/energy on them.
C. Taylor Swift has the right idea on this one: shake it off! It is not your job to convince anyone who doesn’t see your awesomeness. It IS your job to continue building on what makes you great: your skills, knowledge, and work ethic. Spend your time growing and fleshing out your business.
Whether naysayers come around once you’ve launched your startup, or never, the best thing you can do is to prove them wrong through being a success, not wasting your time trying to convince them why they’re wrong. There will be plenty of people who cheer you on along the way and who believe and invest in your success. Tune into those people and tune out the haters.
How much is your time worth?
This one is open-ended and all up to you. Come up with an actual number for how much your time is worth per hour.
When I was younger, I figured out my time was worth $10 an hour, because that was the amount others were willing to pay me. Reversing that, $10 was also how much value I needed to be able to create in an hour of work.
CEOs usually calculate that their time is worth about $150-$300 per hour. But that also means they have to deliver value equivalent to that. Every work-related activity they engage in must provide at least that amount of value, otherwise they’re not running a sustainable startup. Activities below their threshold can be outsourced to others if they still need to be done.
Determine what your time should be worth in working on your startup. There are countless potential things to do, but you need to focus on the things that are most worth your time.
What’s your end goal? Why?
I knew I wanted to be a CEO at a young age. I idolized Jack Welch, former CEO of GE (the best CEO ever), business author and speaker. I dove headfirst into GE’s leadership program and slipped easily into the identity of the young professional rockstar on a fast track to leadership and massive success. Then, I got fired.
Only after being fired did I realize how unhappy I was just blindly walking down a set path to an unexamined end goal. When I questioned myself about why I wanted to be a CEO, I learned the things that were foundational to my success: I loved problem-solving and using my diverse experience in varied fields.
Your why is just as important as your what. If you don’t understand yourself enough to know why you want to get where you want to go, you may not know yourself well enough to help get you there. Whatever your end goal is — developing the next life-changing app, fixing a major world problem, making an impact in a particular field — take some time to find out why you are so drawn to that goal and why it means so much to you.
What is your company’s end goal?
Hint: It should not be simply to get funding. Many young entrepreneurs — no doubt influenced by how glamorous entrepreneurship is made to look in the media — think the goal of a startup is to get funding then sit back and enjoy the spoils. But winning a pitch is not an end goal; it’s a step, a single still frame in a movie comprised of thousands. It opens doors that lead to more work and skill-building and growth.
We did away with rankings at Launch, in part because we don’t want students to think their entire future as entrepreneurs rests solely on their ability to win pitches. Plus, we found that being highly ranked here wasn’t a surefire predictor of future success. In fact, there was no correlation between a high ranking and later entrepreneurial success.
When you’re an entrepreneur, there isn’t really an end. There’s just the next step in the journey and how you fuel yourself and your company to prepare for it.
“Football is football and talent is talent. But the mindset of your team makes all the difference.”
— Robert Griffin III
Startups, like sports, are daunting, giant, ever-changing creatures that cannot be tamed without the right mental approach. Your mindset is your foundation, the thing you can return to and rely on when you come across inevitable challenges and shifts.
Think about what you want to achieve, why it’s important to you, and how you’re going to do it. Leave the rest — insecurity about your age, the whispers of naysayers, fear of not being taken seriously — to the side, as it’s not useful. Be genuine and know your worth. You may think it’s your idea that makes you special; but it’s actually your unique perspective, hard work, and skill that make your startup stand out.