Startup Lessons to Myself, 13 Years Later


Originally published in INC. Magazine on January 21, 2014

If you could go back in time, what words of wisdom would you like to share with your former self? Thirteen years into his business, advertising exec Curt Hanke does exactly that.

Focus. Plan. Network.

Define resources. Be persistent. Get sleep.

Choose the right name. Choose the right partners. Choose the right equity solution.

There are as many tips on how to start a business as there are businesses. But on the heels of our own 2014 planning activities for our firm — and as I cast my eye over almost 13 years of mostly good, very hard work since our inception — I can’t help but reflect on some of the larger lessons we’ve learned along the way.

On the surface, these lessons might seem worthy of filing under: “Brilliant flashes of the obvious” (due credit to Tom Peters for the phrase). To me, however, they actually merit a more prominent spot in our annual planning — as admonitions for entrepreneurs, business owners, and leaders of all shapes and sizes.

And so, if I could travel back in time to the summer of 2001, here’s what I’d tell myself — and likewise, what I’d share with those considering or in the midst of their own startup adventure.

Make Time to Think

The plan is the plan until the plan changes. But for startups in particular (and, let’s be honest, most businesses in general), the reality of execution is predicated on the powerful trifecta of rapid change, scarce time, and slender resources. So too often, the plan remains the plan — even well beyond when it should no longer remain the plan (which is often evident to everyone except those still executing against the plan).

This is true on a macro level (relative to large questions around risk-versus-reward and purpose-versus-prize — including some of the very questions I posed in my recent article on ambition). And it’s also true on a smaller scale — as lack of alignment in small corporate nooks and crannies can aggregate over time into real organizational issues.

Bottom line, make think-time a priority. No matter how busy you are, what your next deliverable is, or when it’s due. Stop. Think. Revisit your premises, big and small alike. Put fresh eyes on your data and assumptions. And refine your approach accordingly. In the words of Mike Tyson, “Everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.” Change yours long before you’re staring at a powerful left hook.

Maintain Your Startup Mentality

Literally embedded within the concept of a startup is a single word. A word that stirs hearts, inspires dreams, and changes lives. This word? “Start.” Tasty, no?

To start is to begin anew, in a land where possibility lives large. To leap into action. To set out on a journey of the unknown.

Now try this word on for size: “Manage.” (Muh.) Sounds a tad less sexy, no? But it doesn’t have to, and frankly, shouldn’t be if you started and own the business.

Yes, when you own a business, you own everything — the good and the bad, the upside and the debt. And without a doubt, the depth and constancy of that responsibility carries a considerable weight (read: “Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” and all that).

But when you own the business, you also own the ability to not just control your own destiny, but to reinvent your business whenever and however you see fit. In other words, just because you’re no longer a startup doesn’t mean you can’t keep thinking like one.

Work hard to maintain the spirit you had when you hung your proverbial shingle. Delight in your pursuit of continued innovation and destruction of the status quo. And embrace the fact that your vision and commitment are the only limitations to your business’ evolution. Remain an entrepreneur — always — in every part of your business.

This Too Shall Pass

As the old fable goes, there was a Middle Eastern ruler who asked his wise men to gather all of the world’s knowledge in one place so that his sons could read it and learn. After years of revisions, they came back with four simple words: “This too shall pass.”

If you’re lucky enough to grow your enterprise over any period of time, you’ll certainly be challenged, that much I can guarantee. You’ll get opportunities that will test your values. Receive challenges that will test your mettle. And live with a responsibility that simply never goes away.

When you’re knee-deep in the muck, the idea that “this too shall pass” will feel elusive and perhaps even comedic — without a doubt. But trust me, it will. Keep perspective. See the whole board. Gripping the ball tight won’t do any good — for you or your team. So breathe, listen, learn, and move on.

Last, amid the dreams and the drama, don’t forget to enjoy the view along the way. Because before you know it — if you’re lucky — you’ll be thirteen years into it. Do your best to find time to think, maintain your startup mojo, and maintain perspective amid the circus that never ends for the modern-day entrepreneur. Lessons, learned.