The image of a successful entrepreneur often brings with it a glamorous sheen of adventure, freedom, office nap pods, and ping pong tables; however, when I founded my first startup, I quickly realized that every entrepreneur has vastly different notions of what success means to them. For some, it means the ability to dictate their own schedule, for others it means raising massive funding rounds, for others it simply means creating a sustainable lifestyle business they can call their own. In contrast to the strictly measured success I was used to in a corporate environment, success suddenly became, in effect, whatever I wanted it to be, measured in whatever metrics I deemed important to me and my business. This freedom was both a blessing and a curse, and as a founder, my path constantly spiraled back and forth, mired in self-doubt, insecurity, forced positivity, and sleepless nights.
As I reflect on what I’ve navigated over the course of the past year – launching my first company, building up a team, finding product market fit, hiring and firing my first employee, pitching investors, networking to no end, forcing myself into intensely uncomfortable situations, selling when I didn’t want to sell, and reaching out for conversations (so many conversations) – I realize that success is really what you make of it – the values, people, and lessons you construct your life upon. Here are a few of the beliefs I have learned in constructing my own success:
Success is liking what you do, who you are when you do it, and how you do it. It is extremely hard to succeed in something that you don’t care about. Figure out what you care about or even what you are slightly curious about and let that be your guide.
Expect less, do more. This is seemingly at odds with the “dream big” mantra, but both can exist together. To “dream big” is to set a purposely high bar for yourself, something that will push you forward during even the lowest times. However, formulating that dream is only the first step, the downfall often comes when you expect too much from yourself, from other people, and from situations out of your control. I always advocate for doing whatever it takes to succeed, but make sure you temper your expectations along the way. That being said…
Push your limits and do whatever it takes. If you don’t do it, nobody will. For our beta tests, I rode around downtown New York on a bike with a backpack full of burgers and dumplings and personally delivered food to customers until 3am. I had never ridden a bike in NYC before that day. I forced myself to apply to every single pitch opportunity even though I have always despised public speaking. I’ve pitched so many times in the past year, that I actually enjoy it now. Funny how that happens. Put yourself in uncomfortable situations. Just do it and you will grow.
Prioritize and don’t let little things get to you.
What are your big goals for today? For this week? For this month? For this year? For your life? The visions you set for yourself will have a trickle down effect and allow you to prioritize your days accordingly. Having this focus is often the difference between having or not having a productive day/month/year. As distractions come up, ask yourself if this is in line with your vision, if it’s not, let it go and don’t dwell. If you make a mistake, learn, and move on. This too shall pass.
Know what you bring to the table. I am often my own harshest critic, and on the lowest days, I have managed to talk myself into a deep hole of negativity… until I catch myself. I counteract negative internal dialogue by reinforcing the traits that have helped me succeed thus far. What brings me joy? What do people always compliment me on? What am I good at? Actually taking the time to write these things out and distilling it into a short pitch can bring you confidence even when you are sitting at a table where you feel far underqualified.
You are the reflection of the people you surround yourself with. If there was any day to let go of toxic people in your life, it was yesterday. Do it now and don’t look back. The people you surround yourself with should be bringing you up not hold you back. I used to have “friends” who, with tight, fake smiles, half-heartedly congratulated me when I succeeded. As a result, I learned that success was a zero sum game, and believed friendship was built upon competition. That belief was shattered when I finally let those people go and discovered friends who showed me empathy, kindness, and genuine delight when I did well. The outer conditions of your life will always affect your inner beliefs–make sure you are proud of those beliefs.
Have integrity. It goes without saying, but too many people do not actually show or practice this. Maybe it’s because we think our actions don’t have long term effects, maybe it’s because we are an increasingly self-absorbed, social-media driven society, whatever it is, it’s still no excuse. Do what you say you are going to do, don’t leave people hanging, be respectful, apologize if you did something wrong.
Stop comparing yourself to other people. This goes back to the idea that there is not a singular definition of success. People will project their best selves not their worst selves in public, and you’ll never really know what others are struggling with underneath their shiny image. Refrain from judging and avoid comparing. Jealousy is the most insidious emotion and does nothing but harm yourself and others.
Be direct and communicate clearly. Never has this been so apparent until I began running a small team. Everything I did, everything I said, and even how I said things, affected the team. Most of the time, there’s really no point in dancing around an uncomfortable subject. Unlike the corporate world, there is simply no room for simmering grudges. Seemingly small annoyances only get worse, and if not addressed head on, become major problems over time.
Nurture your close friendships and value them above all else.
I could not have gotten through this uncertain maze of a year if I did not have my closest friends who took all my obsessive work habits, emotional turbulences, and philosophical tirades in stride. Throughout it all, I made sure I was open about my availability (or lack thereof), expressed my appreciation, and shared whatever lessons I was learning along the way.
Be BOLD. There will always be critics, naysayers, doubters, and haters. Pay them no mind. What does success look and feel like to you? Formulate your vision, stick to your values, own your strengths, surround yourself with good people, and charge forward with all the energy and tenacity required to turn your dreams into reality. The rest is simply noise.
Image credit: CC by Bernard Goldbach