Entrepreneurial lessons from Star Wars quotes
A long time ago in a galaxy far away…
As most people who spend any more than 5 minutes with me will know, I’m a pretty huge Star Wars fan. I’m also an entrepreneur — I’m the CEO and co-founder of Accomable, a marketplace platform for accessible travel for disabled and elderly people. I coded the first version of Accomable last year in response to a personal frustration as a wheelchair user who found it really difficult to find adapted holiday accommodation.
Just by way of further background, I’m a former lawyer and scientist with an MBA who also learnt to code and make web-apps; and you can find out more about our background story in this award-winning documentary that was recently made about us.
We created and launched the product in the summer of 2015 and the past 7 months have been the craziest rollercoaster of my life.
A number of recent tough times have made me reflect a lot on what I’ve learnt and I what I could do better; but also from what I’ve observed from seeing lots of startups around me.
Rather than merely citing these in the usual boring and plain-vanilla way, I thought I’d find the Star Wars quote that best describes that lesson (I’ve even managed to find clips of each quote on YouTube!). Yes — Star Wars is the source of all wisdom :-)
- “Always remember: your focus determines your reality” — Qui Gon-Jinn — Episode I
Key learning: Focus on what you can do, work hard, be positive, open-minded new things, keep learning and always push forward — and the likelihood of your reality being better is increased.
I purposely start this with a wider life lesson that can apply to any aspect of life. It’s a lesson I’ve tried to follow from my teenage years; where I do everything I can to focus on what I can do rather than dwell on the various physical challenges I have. Focusing on things you can’t / will never do is pointless, a bit like chasing financial losses when under the influence of the sunk cost fallacy i.e. there no point trying to recover things that you can never really get back.
But as an entrepreneur, it’s a mindset that’s more important and necessary in comparison to any other profession. When you run a startup, the proverbial shit is hitting the proverbial fan on a near daily basis. You have minimal resources, no safety net, no protection and you’re never far away from it being all over. Uncertainty and chaos are everywhere.
These are unavoidable realities of getting something up and running; and without a positive and optimistic mindset that operates ‘by default’, very quickly, everything just becomes overwhelming. So instead of hiding under the table when things get hard, a fundamentally positive mindset is needed to create a positive reality. So instead of getting down and just giving up when things are tough, you have to use the tight constraints and complexity as a driver to be more creative and innovative. Sometimes this is easier said than done, but if it’s the default mindset of the entrepreneur, then one way or another, you’re more likely to prevail.
2. “Do. Or do not. There is no try” — Master Yoda — Episode V
Key learning: No half-arsed efforts will succeed. You need to take a total leap of faith, be relentless, be fearless and just go for it regardless of what the eventual outcome could be.
This is a lesson that I truly realised the importance of in 2015.
Prior to 2015, my entrepreneurial endeavours were always side projects that never really went anywhere. I’d previously dabbled in some coding courses, but never really put any conviction in properly learning. I’d had plenty of random ideas, but never really put the blood and sweat into getting them up and running.
This is all changed in 2015. I put a lot of time into learning to code at the beginning of the year and set myself really tough challenges to create products on a weekly basis. Instead of doing a startup as a curiosity, I decided this time to take the plunge and just go for it. It meant doing a ton of things I’d never done before and constantly (and sometimes painfully) being out of my comfort zone.
I had to create and deploy production code for the app that was usable; and iterate it quickly. I had to cold call random property vendors and deal with sometimes unhappy users (yes, prototype products will please some but will displease others). I had to work up the courage to take a more public profile and allow the press to cover what we’re doing; and I had to swallow my worst fears and talk in public or on camera whenever needed. I never particularly enjoyed or sought to do these things, but they just had to be done without hesitation and with total conviction.
I’ve come to the conclusion it’s virtually impossible to get a startup off the ground without a total conviction to ‘do’ rather than just ‘try’.
3. Obi-Wan: “But Master Yoda says I should be mindful of the future.” Qui-Gon Jinn: “But not at the expense of the moment.” — Obi-Wan Kenobi and Qui-Gon Jinn — Episode I
Key learning: As entrepreneurs, it’s easy to get carried away dreaming about our vision. Don’t!! In a startup, the here and now must take priority.
The hardest part for a startup in the early days is to find that all important ‘product / market fit’. To find it requires lots of painful graft and time to get down into the weeds of details and data. Throw into the mix rapidly changing and evolving events; and you can see how taking your eye off the ball can pull you away from that ultimate question of whether you’re building something genuinely useful or needed.
However, the corollary of this is that without any consideration of long-term strategy and vision, a startup can be directionless and overly focused on chasing quick wins that may be detrimental in the long term. It’s a difficult trade-off to make, but I’ve come to the view through my start-up experiences that the future cannot be considered at the expense of the moment.
I’ve tried to get around this problem by diarising some ‘blue-sky’ thinking time every week when I know things will be quiet. Again, it’s not always easy to do, but this is the only approach I’ve found to try and balance these two competing needs.
Key learning: Do not substitute a solid education, skillset and professional background for battle-hardened / ‘blood on the knuckles’ experience on the ground.
There were many situations in 2015, where I thought I knew what to do based on what I learnt as a lawyer or on my MBA or as a web developer or wherever. While having theoretical knowledge and understanding of the various situations faced was helpful, I ended up making some bad judgement calls based on a lack of experience; which in turn ended up causing more problems.
Were I to relive 2015 again, I would have put some more time into recruiting mentors and advisors who may have faced similar challenges or problems in the past. Never be surprised how the same challenges repeat themselves again and again with different businesses.
Its something I’ve addressed; and very quickly having a small group of experienced business mentors and fellow entrepreneurs to speak to has already proved worthwhile. Good people who have “been there, done it” will be very quick to spot problems about to appear over the horizon based on their past experiences; which in turn gives you the time and awareness to deal with the issue.
Key learning: Understanding what a user needs and having empathy in how you build a product is far more important than how technologically powerful a product is.
When you work in technology it can be very easy to get carried away focusing on the power of the technology instead of its utility and value to the user. In the startup world, the equivalent of ‘the force’ is the ability to genuinely understand what a user wants and be able to build something to address that need. Yes, it’s a tenuous connection to a fictional religious mysticism, but equally, it never fails to amaze how many times you see startups building impressive feats of engineering that totally overlook what a user actually needs. The potency of the technology is nothing compared to the ability to empathise and understand a user.
6. “You don’t know the power of the dark side” — Darth Vader — Episode VI
Key learning: Do not give in to the temptation to take short cuts or compromise on your basic moral values. There is no easy way to launch a startup and do not give in to the seductive temptation to avoid the pain for short-term gain.
You’re working long hours, stuff doesn’t work, you’re getting rejection from all the over place; the temptation to exaggerate, bullshit or just plain lie to whoever necessary is never far away. Whatever you do, do not do this!
These are just seductive shortcuts that in the end will burn you. When you work in startup-world long enough, you’ll see a countless number of startups getting burnt because they overstated where they are at or overpromised on what they can do. While we’ve always managed to keep our principles, I’d be lying if I didn’t accept that the opportunity to take unethical shortcuts didn’t at times feel tempting. Especially when things were going really tough. Again, whatever happens do not do this! This is where having co-founders, team-members and caring family and friends really helps to keep you anchored and honest.
As in Star Wars, the dark side of the force is a tempting and seductive path to quickly gaining power by allowing you to give in to your anger and immediate desires. But that power is illusory, short-lived and hasn’t been earned. As with anything illusory and unearned, it will quickly disappear and will never match an achievement gained through hard work, determination and persistence.
If you have any good learnings based on Star Wars(!) films, it’d be great to hear them!