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Top Lessons that Startups Teach Entrepreneurs

March 04, 2021

Launching and running a startup is about many things for an entrepreneur: innovating, helping customers, being your own boss, and changing the world. One of the less often talked about benefits has to do with the immense impact on the entrepreneur.  While some people believe that those who venture into the startup world are born with certain entrepreneurial propensity, the truth is that they learn many of the lessons as they go along.  Similar to many jobs where companies refer to on-the-job training, startups provide learnings through experience, though even more than traditional jobs, since the entrepreneur takes on so much responsibility.

Here are a few of the lessons that startups teach to entrepreneurs.

Entrepreneurs aren’t afraid to ask questions

The saying in most business environments has been, ‘don’t be afraid to ask’ and in the startup scene, this is especially true. When people are afraid to ask what might seem to them like a stupid question, they just don’t ask at all.  Big innovative changes have only ever come about only by asking what people had thought at the time were dumb questions. (See this article on The Power of Asking Dumb Questions here.)

Being courageous enough to ask questions involves many scenarios, such as:

  • Clarify when you don’t know what’s going on – this can be scary to admit that you don’t know, but often other people don’t know either and will appreciate you being brave enough to speak up.
  • Ask how the world will look for your customers or the industry of your startup in the future – be a visionary!
  • Ask for feedback or examples from customers and mentors – ensure you listen and internalize then go back to your team and make up your own mind about how to proceed.

You can go fast alone, but you can go farther together. -African Proverb

Michael Bungay Stanier is the author of two books on staying curious enough to keep asking questions. “You must be decisive in a time like this,” he said. “But if you are only decisive, you end up making a lot of decisions that are not necessarily about the right things.” The problem with not asking that weird question you’re wondering means you could end up wasting valuable hours doing the wrong work. Ultimately, not asking the right question means you could end up wasting valuable time. Which is worse?

Entrepreneurs learn to cultivate humility

Many traits come to mind as you think about successful entrepreneurs: confidence, decisiveness, creativity, calm under pressure. An often underrated quality, though, is humility, and can give an entrepreneur a competitive edge as a leader of their organization. It allows them to set their ego aside for the sake of putting their startup mission first, while understanding their own imperfections.

Humility has a few distinct advantages:

  • Allows the entrepreneur to be more open-minded in learning from mentors and customers – without this, an ego can defensively argue with people and make those mentors become reluctant to provide feedback or advice, and worse, keep the startup from making necessary adjustments
  • Ensures complementary teammates come together cohesively and trust one another – humility ensures that people understand that they can do their specific tasks without needing to double-check others’ work, plus can give other people the benefit of the doubt when there are slight misunderstandings, which are bound to happen
  • Keeps the team aware of strengths and weaknesses – with an accurate sense of ability, the team can remain competitive

So how have and do entrepreneurs create this sense of humility?

  • Setbacks, by their very nature, create a sense of humility, and every entrepreneur faces some challenges and learns from them
  • Making wrong decisions, and realizing how they were biased, and learning from it
  • Learning to be transparent, and learning to practice gratitude

Your brand name is only as good as your reputation

A brand is not just a product or a label. A brand is that gut feeling your customer gets when they’re hit with your product, service, or organization. You want that first impression to be a good one. In business, if your brand is riding shotgun, you want your reputation to be driving.

“What humans really want is promises to be kept.” – Seth Godin

In 2015, Volkswagen was called out by the EPA for having software installed that was specifically designed to cheat emissions testing. It was found that the engines that had the code actually emitted nitrogen oxide pollutants up to 40 times above the allowance in the US. 10 million vehicles were sold with the cheat device. The scandal hurt VW’s reputation. The chief executive at the time issued a statement. They owned up, admitting they had “broken the trust of our customers and the public”.

The company was forced to issue a massive recall, suffered significant financial losses and the threat of further legal action by The Environmental Protection Agency. According to Wikipedia, as of June 2020, the scandal has cost VW $33.3 billion in fines, penalties, financial settlements and buyback costs. After a public polling, a US survey by market researcher AutoPacific found that 64 percent of vehicle owners stated they do not trust Volkswagen and only 25 percent of them have a positive view of Volkswagen following the scandal.

“It takes many good deeds to build a good reputation, and only one bad one to lose it.” – Ben Franklin.

Failure is not the opposite of success. It’s part of success.

Scientific progress is built on failure. A vaccine usually takes up to 10 years to develop and can cost up to $500 million (source: weforum). Experiments that were once thought failures hit the market with important innovations instead (source: businessinsider). Penicillin was discovered from the leftovers found in a Petri dish. Research using radio frequency led to the invention of the Pacemaker.  An engineer conducting radar research end up inventing the microwave.

Mistakes will happen when we’re doing the important work of trying, creating, discovering and exploring. Reframing failure as an opportunity to grow, learn and do better will help you stay resilient to the long hours and demanding workloads that nurturing a startup demands. Adopting a growth mindset will inform your business decisions and help keep you on the path to success if you stay the course. If you commit to learning from your mistakes, you can quickly course-correct before a mistake becomes critical.

“In a growth mindset, people believe that their most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work—brains and talent are just the starting point. This view creates a love of learning and a resilience that is essential for great accomplishment.” (Dweck, 2015)

 

Embrace failures and setbacks as your chance to grow. Maintain a spirit of humility, and curiosity. Keep your promises and be honest. Don’t ever quit asking dumb questions. Experience will teach you the most, but now you’re ahead of the game.

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