The start-up awards era and how it creates mental demons for entrepreneurs
Last weekend, for some strange reason, I got obsessed (maybe a little too much) with reading Whitney Houston’s story. I listened to one of her classics, “Saving all my love for you” and it was as beautiful then as when I first heard it. Whitney was an icon. A pop legend. The Queen of show business. She was a real diva and it showed not just through her performances but her interviews too. Whilst she was the embodiment of show greatness, Whitney was no stranger to demons of the mind and boy do we all have those!
I remember watching Kevin Costner’s eulogy of Whitney at her funeral and something stood out — she always second guessed herself. Was she good enough? Was she big enough? Was she beautiful enough? This is the most awarded musician in world history and she still was not sure she was good enough. Her story drew me in so deep I watched every documentary I could find. And with each one, I couldn’t help thinking about my own life. Am definitely no superstar and have no millions to my name yet — but even at my level, I could relate to some of her struggles.
I first ventured out into business in 2011 while still at the university. At that time, I was mostly concerned about doing the best I could and making money off of it. The whole point was to make sure that I made no losses and focused my energy on the ventures that worked.
And then along came the “Startup Celebration” phase. I saw a lot of young people (particularly at Makerere University) being awarded for ground breaking innovations ranging from diagnosis of cancer and malaria to smartphone enabled ultrasound tests. I was floored. I could not believe young people my age were doing things this incredible. I got hungry — hungry to join them. Hungry to do something extra ordinary. Hungry for a solution that would be different from anything I or anyone else had done before. I wanted to be an icon of innovation. And no, I wasn’t hungry for the awards — but was certainly hungry for the perks that came with having a “successful” technology startup.
So off I went and started my first company — M-Tambula (better known as Instahealth). Very few people remember M-tambula now but thats the project that got me my first award and with it, my first flight out of the country. I met the world — a new world that I didn’t think existed before. And then, it became an obsession. I wrote an average of five applications a day just to get awards, win competitions or get accepted into a fancy accelerator.
I pulled out every trick in the book and subscribed to every blog I knew would help throw opportunity my way. I did not care about creating a solution that could be paid for. I was after having a “cool startup”. And I sailed with the tide. From being mentioned in lists for tech startups to watch across global magazines to getting my first nod from Forbes in 2015, I felt unstoppable. Every old friend I met referred to me as the globe trotter — the successful startup founder even if I knew I hadn’t converted any of that into paid revenue. Everyone that didn’t know half the story told me how amazing they thought I was — after all, I had these amazing pictures hanging out with Google Executives in Silicon Valley and being in the same room with President Barack Obama.
But slowly, everything was starting to eat at me. I was consistently under pressure to win the next big thing, appear in the next big news paper, get the latest travel nod and so on. I was so engrossed in building a brand rather than a business that I broke and wound up having to do some soul searching. I was lucky enough to get another light bulb moment that led me to create a new startup — which still got some recognition to a healthy extent. Even then, I was faced with a few demons of my own.
Although I had made in a few months tens of thousands of dollars in paid revenue, and got a few investment offers from pre-seed investors, I still felt like I was not good enough. I felt like I was playing in unfamiliar territory. With each leap, I was engulfed by a dark cloud of perceived failure and the proverbial imposter syndrome. I stayed away from Facebook because with each scroll through the timeline, there was impossible pressure to live up to past “glory”. I was getting only 2–3 hours of sleep a night — not because I worked so hard but because I could not reconcile my mind with my dreams. For the first time it felt strange — foreign even, to not receive an award for every milestone I hit.
And then it hit me. That I did not need recognition for doing what I was supposed to be doing. I did not need an award for building a solid business pipeline. I needed no pat on the back for getting my finances in order and being sober (literally). I realized that all I needed was to do what was right and what would help my business grow. I chose to focus on my relationships, on my staff, the impact my work is making, my partnerships and most importantly, my bottom line. That’s the day everything changed.
In this social media age, its easy to mistake Facebook and Instagram likes for real progress. Yes, social media helps shape your business brand but it also makes it easy for one to get carried away by the mental drugs of self importance. It is also, in equal measure, easy to feel like you are not good enough just because you did not get that award nod. But nothing is as tragic as spending the best years of your life building nothing while thinking its something. Business is not about the awards or the social media likes, its about the business. Learn which focus to feed.