We began working in January of 2014 on Levaté, an accessory product for wheelchair users to help improve their independence. It'll likely be three full years before the product is ready to be manufactured, about a year and a half behind our original, optimistic schedule. We've slowly learned that developing a new product and launching a business around it takes longer than expected. Double any initial estimate of time and money cost.
Being in a pensive mood as I mulled over what we'd learned in the past thirty months, I began thinking about the broader lessons for my life. This is the list I came up with.
Get used to taking action and learning by doing.
"Accustom yourself to tireless activity." -Aleksandr Suvorov
This was probably the single hardest thing for me to do, as I was a terribly timid kid. But it is a learned skill, and probably the single most important skill any of us can learn. And trust me, if I can learn it, anyone can. It's crucial because it's the only real habit that successful people have that unsuccessful people don't. It separates leaders from followers, excellence from mediocrity, the whiners from the doers, the owners from the employees. Ultimately, action needs to be paired with careful reflection, but only after one is already taking action. There is nothing to reflect on if no action is taken. I am able to reflect on my experiences setting up a startup because I first took action. Some of that action is difficult- like telling a boss I respected that I wanted to quit so that I could devote myself to incubating the startup full time. But the alternative is stagnation, a particularly slow kind of death.
By extension we must thrive in ambiguity and make decisions with incomplete information, otherwise we'll never be able to take action. There have been few black-and-white, easy choices in our entrepreneurial journey. Do we try and develop the product ourselves, or save time by trying to find the funding to work with an outside product developer? How much equity stake do we give away to the other inventors, to investors, to our attorney? When do we call it quits? How do we make money to live off of if we aren't making money from our startup yet? None of these decisions have easy, "right" answers. We just have to make the best decision in the moment and keep learning from the experience to make better decisions in the future.
Sometimes this involves choosing the best of a bunch of lousy choices. Like when our product developers came back and said that the really cool, sleek design they came up with would be too heavy and costly to meet our original design criteria for the product. Do we change our design criteria, which we know were chosen for a reason and are crucial for having a human-centered design- or do we go with the low-tech alternative that meets the design criteria but lacks the sex appeal of the other? We went with the lower-tech design, but it was still a lousy choice that we hated making.
I learned to try things for myself even if conventional wisdom says it won't work. For instance, we knew that the best market validation of our product would be to get preorders before going to investors or trying to build it. But because of the extended development timeline and the price point of $1,000, no wheelchairs users wanted to preorder, not when the product was still a year out from being finished. Though we knew it was a risk, we continued searching for funding without having any preorders and did our best to get other forms of validation.
The easiest thing in the world to do is to sit back, speculate, complain, plan, and analyze without ever taking action. Then when someone else does what we spent years ruminating, we get to criticize them or complain that we'd had the idea ages ago. But here's a secret: ideas by themselves are worthless. Implementation is everything. And most initial ideas are quite bad anyway. The only way to refine them into good ideas is to implement them, as most untested ideas are too far removed from reality to ever be implementable as they are. By taking action, learning from the outcome, and adapting before taking action again, a good idea eventually emerges. Taking action on an idea and putting it into practice is the alchemy that makes gold from lead.
Ideas and inspiration come from experience.
“Don’t loaf and invite inspiration; light out after it with a club, and if you didn’t get it you will nonetheless get something that looks remarkably like it.” -Jack London
Iterating to a good idea is hard. Having ideas at all without any practical experience is even harder. I think that is one of the reasons so many of us young people have no idea what our calling, vocation, or identity is well into our late 20's. We've never had the opportunity to gain any practical experience or take any self-initiated action despite 12+ years of (over)schooling. The only way to change this is to begin accumulating experience and reflecting on it, making lots of little bets in different fields or areas and doubling down where it makes sense.
I remember a girl I knew back in college. She posted on Facebook something like: "I don't know which direction to go. People tell me to just walk forward. But what if I don't even know which way is forward?" She had undoubtedly taken classes in math, science, sociology and a dozen other topics. But taking a class on sociology is not the same thing as practicing sociology. My guess is that many of us felt the way she did in college. Unfortunately, we can't think our way out of the dilemma, which is what school teaches us should be our default response. The only way to have an idea of who we are and what we want to do is to take action, any action, and gain practical experience, ideally in a low-risk way to start, where the barrier to entry and exit is low. In this girl's case, or any college student, that could be volunteering or doing an internship. We can course correct after our first, timid steps and eventually gain both confidence and inspiration. But not without going through the sometimes painful process of discovery first.
We could never have designed our wheelchair lift product on a whiteboard. Instead, we had to gain experience working with wheelchair users to understand what problems they faced and how to solve them. We had to interact with real wheelchair users and understand how they lived their lives, why they wanted a product like ours, and how it needed to perform for them to want to use it. We designed rapid, inexpensive tests to tease out important information like, how much should the device weigh? How high should it lift? Where should it lift from? And the idea wasn't "ours" in that we came up with it. We considered it as an idea only because a friend of a friend who was in a wheelchair had mentioned how he could have used a lift device at a concert to see over other attendees' shoulders. The idea came from someone who had experience with the issues and problems of living in a wheelchair.
A couple times since then my business partner and I have tried brainstorming other product ideas we could work on after the wheelchair lift. But our brainstorming sessions aren't very productive because we lack experience with professions and industries and ways of life outside that of being a student, which we've been for most of our lives. To have inspired ideas, we either need more experience ourselves or we need to work with those who do have the experience required to identify big problems worth solving with new products.
Anything (or almost anything) can be learned, disciplines be damned. And it is an empowering feeling.
"I have never let my schooling interfere with my education." -Mark Twain
Entrepreneurship is the ultimate education for an aspiring jack-of-all-trades. We've had to learn and hone any number of skills to get to where we are. We had help learning some of them, and some we learned by necessity on our own. Just off the top of my head, this includes: CAD modeling, machining (welding, cutting aluminum, etc), financial modeling, accounting, grant writing, FDA regulations, pitching, networking, human-centered design, Agile, customer interviewing, rapid prototyping, online marketing, website construction, and social media. Oh, and patience. Can't forget that one. And there's still a ton to learn. Not on that list are all the soft, leadership-level qualities that are learned: discipline, vision, being one's own boss, building a team and motivating and inspiring them. In that respect, entrepreneurship is the ultimate growth experience.
Contrary to what our commercialized, over-credentialing educational institutions say, there's nothing special about a formal degree program that uniquely qualifies you to do a certain specific thing, and only that thing. Almost anything can be learned cheaply and effectively with a combination of online resources, mentors accessed locally or online, and enough sustained practical experience.
Many people don't believe anymore that they can even learn on their own, despite having learned to talk, walk, and make friends with little active aid from anyone else- parents, of course, put them in situations where they could learn these things, but that was the extent of their involvement. When we do try and learn something on our own, we falter, lose hope, and give up. Probably because of lack of practice. Self-directed learning as a skill takes time to develop, like a muscle. Once you have developed it, though, you know. You feel it. It gives a certain self-confidence and scrappiness, and is probably one of the many facets of maturity we lack as a people.
Sometimes you've got to take the naysayers in stride and either work around them, or tune them out completely.
“Morality is simply the attitude we adopt towards people we personally dislike.” – Oscar Wilde
Feedback is great, and everyone needs a healthy amount of well-delivered constructive criticism. Sometimes, though, you know the course you need to see through in spite of what some may tell you. We met with quite a few investors who didn't want to give us seed funding because we didn't have a product yet, trapping us in a bit of a catch-22. We needed the funding to finish developing the product! Most were still professional about it and some offered other support, like introduction or mentorship. Though in one particularly vivid case an investor we briefly tried to court was quite vicious with us after our pitch, despite being the one to have approached us about wanting to potentially invest. There's not much you can do about people like that except forget about them.
Some people may even try to actively block your path. I mentioned a sort of intellectual independence that comes from learning a wide variety of skills, methodologies, and philosophies on one's own. Ironically, given the American ideal of the self-made man pulling himself up by his bootstraps, this intellectual independence isn't particularly appreciated in many corners, particularly where money is concerned.
I learned this lesson particularly well when Ethan and I were taking steps to find funding after completing a summer accelerator program that the university organized. We needed to create a much more robust financial model along with pro-forma financial statements to present to potential investors. Neither of us having a background in finance, I saw that the business college offered an entrepreneurial finance course. Bingo! Exactly what I needed. I stopped by and sat in on the class, and after the class I introduced myself to the professor, explained my situation, and asked if I could continue to audit the course to gain the know-how to build my startup's financial model.
The professor, a respected local banker, was completely fine with it. But, he said, he wanted to make sure it wasn't against business college policy, so he wanted to ask the director of the program first. I thanked him and left, thinking that there wouldn't be any problem. I had audited classes before and had never had a problem, and the university organization through which we had began the startup was affiliated with the business college. Finally, the business college relied on startups like ours, that originated from within the university, to improve their entrepreneurship program standings. It was in their best interest to see us, and other startups like us, succeed. We had just graduated from a summer accelerator program for students that the business college itself ran. And the university, after much negotiation, was getting a non-dilutable 2% equity stake in the company, so any success on our part meant remunerative benefits for the university.
You can see where this is going. The director, a man who was familiar with the startup we were launching, said the classes were for enrolled students only. I was flabbergasted. The professor was apologetic, and said the director made it clear that they wanted to "protect the integrity of the entrepreneurship program" or some such nonsense.
Reading between the lines, the director didn't see any short-term profits to be made from letting an entrepreneur from the OU community audit a class, and in the process spat on the professor's prerogative to let whoever he wanted into the course. He also spat on the moribund yet traditional (and important) idea of universities as stewards of the public domain and knowledge commons. The whole reason the university goes through so much trouble to promote entrepreneurship is to position themselves as engines of economic growth and development. To find little-minded people such as that in a state university, funded at least in part by taxpayer money, supposedly acting for the public good, is both frustrating and amusing. All the more so because the OU entrepreneurship department competes viciously to claw their way up national rankings, and undoubtedly counts us as one of the startups that improves their standings in the rankings. Amazing.
I'm reminded of the scene in Monty Python and the Holy Grail when King Arthur has to battle his way past the Black Knight to use the bridge. The bridge in this case is metaphoric, but many of the stodgy guardians of our time will probably seem just as hilarious and ridiculous in hindsight. In the meantime, either forget about them, laugh about them, or use the experience as fuel to get you to where you're going faster.
People take you as seriously as you take yourself.
"Do not now strive to uncover answers: they cannot be given you because you have not been able to live them. And what matters is to live everything. Live the questions for now. Perhaps then you will gradually, without noticing it, live your way into the answer, one distant day in the future." -Rainer Maria Rilke
The way you treat yourself, your work, and your passions is the way the others treat those things as well. This makes intuitive sense: how else could an entrepreneur without a product or business model get funding to implement that idea? It's got to be made real in a vision before it can actually come to pass.
Really, it's the old fake-it-till-you-make it advice. This advice becomes vividly real and applicable for an entrepreneur, however. When you're at school or working for an established company, you have the credentials to "prove" that you're an engineer, a sociologist, or a journalist. Entrepreneurs don't have that luxury- we're on our own. We essentially had to assert that we were entrepreneurs even though we didn't have a product yet, let alone revenue or investors!
Yet because we took ourselves seriously as entrepreneurs and dedicated ourselves to doing what it took we eventually managed to persuade several funding sources to contribute enough seed funding for us to move forward. And if it wasn't before, playing with someone else's money made our startup very, very real. Suddenly it wasn't just my and Ethan's time and money that would be wasted if we screwed up.
My time as an entrepreneur has also illustrated this same principle with leadership. If you take yourself seriously as a leader and as someone there to empower the team or group to whichever such goal, so too those around you will take you seriously and the vision you're describing. As with any new role or identity, the hard part is always stepping into it. I know I am always worried that if I step forward to provide leadership that I will somehow be rejected or not taken seriously. But when I look back on my experiences, that has never been the case. In the handful of cases where that did happen there was already a bad rapport in general with that person or group.
The fact is we humans like feeling like we're a part of something greater than us: a movement, an in-group, a revolution, a mission. It all starts with a leader's vision and capacity to mobilize that group of people. Many of us are waiting for someone to provide that vision to us and inspire us. How could the world look if more of us took ourselves seriously as leaders and took action, weaving those visions instead of waiting for them to arrive from abroad?
Antoine de Saint Exupery, author of The Little Prince and Sand, Wind, and Stars had an intuitive and piercing insight into the social dynamics of men and their need for camaraderie and purpose. "In a world-turned-desert, we had the thirst of camaraderie: the taste of bread broken among comrades made us accept the hardships of war."
I've been thinking a lot about this lesson lately as I work to "become" a writer, as well. At what point do I cease to be an "aspiring writer" and I become just a writer? Despite the inevitable feelings of inadequacy that come with mastering something new, I know that it ultimately comes down to how seriously I take myself as a writer and how seriously I take the craft of writing. Just as Ethan and I as entrepreneurs were willing to hustle and do the day-to-day work to move our product idea forward, the question I ask myself as a writer is, am I doing all the hustling and reading and writing and editing that a writer should do? When the answer is yes, well, that's that. Sustained action is ultimately what forms a new identity. We have to feel it in our bones, it can't be thought or talked into experience. As Rilke said, we have to live the answers.
Of course, being a successful writer or entrepreneur is another question entirely.
It is lonely (but fulfilling).
"The Grail Knights thought that it would be a disgrace to go forth as a group. Each entered the forest at a point that he himself had chosen, where it was darkest and there was no path. If there is a path it is someone else's path and you are not on the adventure." -Joseph Campbell
I mentioned in the previous point that our social structures provide a self-reinforcing definition to certain aspects of our identity. E.g., I work at an engineering firm, so I'm an engineer. But an entrepreneur launching his own gig doesn't usually have that certainty and must live with the ambiguity of whether or not his idea can even be successfully implemented. So yes, being an entrepreneur can be lonely a lot of the time. I don't know about somewhere like Silicon Valley with its developed entrepreneurial infrastructure, but in Oklahoma this has been the case for me.
We're born alone and we die alone. And there's a lot of aloneness in between. Life is a cycle of togetherness and apartness. Can we learn to love the apartness as much as its opposite? Appreciating solitude allows ourselves to pursue our own paths through the forest and build a life and identity that is uniquely ours. Without that, we remain an undifferentiated part of the swirling mass of humanity, as Rollo May noted in Man's Search for Himself. May goes so far as to compare conformity for conformity's sake with the womb. It is safe and warm, but while we are in it we can never truly be ourselves. He continues: "No 'well-integrated' society can perform for the individual, or relieve him from, his task of achieving self-consciousness and the capacity for making his own choices responsibly."
Embracing periods of solitude and reflection creates space where we can envision our unique potentialities and step into them. It also opens up an ocean of potential creativity. As we become more networked and collaborative, more creative work is being done in groups and teams, which is great. Yet much creative work still entails and indeed requires solitude, where one's own ideas can emerge over a cacophony of competing voices. And no one can crystallize and share those ideas except the individual, done by capturing them on some medium, digital or physical. Even when a team collaboratively sets a vision, it is still up to the individuals to do the legwork on their own. We cannot have a unique voice that contributes value to others if, in an effort to stay in the womb and avoid confronting our anxiety about ourselves, we neuter our own growth. Which is a shame, because it is precisely these lonely, intense, self-initiated and self-directed, internally-consuming creative projects- launching a business, designing a product, writing a book, whatever it may be- that would give us the fulfillment and sense of self we often crave.
Good partnerships are rare but priceless.
“Brotherhood of men comes not from community of thought but from consanguinity of mind.” -Marcel Proust
In a leadership course I took in college, one of the visiting guest speakers, a successful oil and gas businessman, gave our class the following warning: "stay away from partnerships. They're like marriages, but without the sex."
Thankfully, I have had the opposite experience with my business partner. On reflection, I can see how improbable and lucky our partnership was. We came from vastly different backgrounds and moved in different circles in college. We have very different personalities. Yet we're both committed to the vision we have of our product and how it can improve people's lives, and to the idea of innovative product design as a way to improve the world. Of the six of us that originally worked on the idea while at the university, Ethan was the only other person on the team who wanted or was able to keep at it after the semester-long project was over.
Our differing personalities help us work better as a team. I'm the impulsive one who wants to get started right away and figure things out as we go, while Ethan balances that by taking a patient, more preparative perspective. As a result we're able to find a balance where we still move quickly but also don't jump into things completely unprepared. If something starts to drag on too long, I lose interest and get bored. Ethan is more of a long-term thinker, and he keeps me motivated to continue working on the startup long after I probably would have given up had I been working on my own.
So yes, oftentimes entrepreneurship and life are lonely. That makes it all the more important to realize when someone important happens into our lives- a friend, a partner, or a lover- and not take them for granted.
Dillon Dakota Carroll
Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
...sees much and knows much