Are you drinking the startup Kool-Aid?

A reality check(list) for aspiring entrepreneurs

What keeps me up at night as an entrepreneur isn’t what you think it is.

It’s not because I’m burning the midnight oil, hoping that if I work 24/7, that it will all somehow just magically come together.

It’s also not because I’m worried about going broke and being homeless (although, make no mistake, a new business venture doesn’t just turn a profit over one night — or even one year).

What keeps me up most nights is my own internal debate about whether or not I’m actually an entrepreneur — or just a crazy dreamer.

I mean, just how long do I keep going if I’m still not getting the return I’m looking for?

Despite all of the mainstream hype now around entrepreneurs and startups, it’s a question that no one’s jumping to answer.

I suppose the failures, doubts and rejections that almost every entrepreneur faces in the beginning just aren’t ‘glamorous’ enough. Being told one hundred times how bad your idea is doesn’t necessarily inspire motivational quotes on Instagram or get you invited to pitch to a bunch of ‘sharks’ on TV.

So I feel like the time’s finally come to shine the spotlight on this ‘hidden’ part of the entrepreneur journey — because unless you can get past all of the initial doubts, challenges and rejection, NONE of that other, more ‘glamorous’ stuff has any chance of coming true.

Recently I read Sam Altman’s (of startup incubator Y Combinator) ‘ Startup Playbook.’

I can’t tell you how great it was to finally hear someone with such a high-profile in Silicon Valley talk honestly about the really tough times that entrepreneurs go through in the beginning.

Knowing that Sam’s worked with countless startups in the early stages, it was comforting to hear him admit that “startups are really hard. They take a very long time, and consistent intense effort.”

He also acknowledges the countless amount of times you can expect to hear that “your idea sucks” and that regardless of “how successful you are, the haters will never go away.”

Thanks Sam, I can’t tell you how much I needed to hear that. Especially at the point that I’m at right now.

About a year ago I decided to pursue my dream of turning my ‘passion into profession’ (another phrase I keep seeing in my Twitter feed nowadays) and gave myself the challenge of using my PR background to get more people positively talking about sustainability. (Sorry, no fancy tech prototypes here, I’m working on services for the greater good).

I started with a blog focusing on sustainability startups and ended up working on tailored communications solutions to promote positive social and environmental impact businesses.

In the meantime, I’ve traveled 40,000 miles around the world to meet with industry leaders, attend training and networking events.

It’s been a big commitment and an even greater risk.

But despite all of the ‘small wins’, there are many days when I feel like it’s all still moving in slow motion.

Probably because so much of what I see in my newsfeeds only celebrates the success stories, buried amongst the motivational quotes to keep going — NO MATTER WHAT. (I’ve made it a point now when I interview sustainability startup founders to ask them about the hard times and tough challenges too).

That’s when the self-doubt creeps in.

Am I wasting my time if I don’t already have 10,000 social media followers? And just HOW long do I keep reading those motivational quotes and keep going anyways?

Tips on how to ‘pivot’ are everywhere but advice on when to pull the plug seems virtually non-existent.

But the reality is that 90% of startups fail. Not that the facts stop anyone from talking about how ‘failure’ is just another ‘part of the journey.’

I don’t care who you are, failure is tough to swallow.

So how do I, or other entrepreneurs at that same beginning part of their journey, decide to keep going? With so much conflicting information out there, what signs are we supposed to look for amongst the failures, rejections and late night cups of coffee (or in my case tea)?

To maintain my sanity, I decided to make my own ‘reality checklist’ (including key performance indicators) that I need to keep ‘ticking off’ to keep going. I made sure to keep it pretty general initially — before drilling down into key performance metrics — and it was a great starting point for me prior to pulling together my 2016 strategy.

And I thought I’d share it here:

1. My idea is growing my knowledge base, skill set and profile– and opening new doors

Regardless of whether I’m making a profit right now from it or not, the content I develop for my blog (and all of the research involved in better understanding sustainability startup problems) is a personal interest for me — and I’d be doing it regardless of my job status. So it’s not hurting me to develop knowledge in a specialty area that will only grow in the future — and meet lots of industry contacts doing it.

It’s also been a great way for me to build my own personal profile as a thought-leader.

So, no matter how I chose to use it in the future, my skill set will be up-to-date.

KPIs = 4 x new blog posts per month, 1x owned/earned content post per month, 4 x industry partnerships per year

2. I’ve shared my idea with colleagues (and total strangers) — and gotten positive feedback

I’ve done the rounds at coworking spaces and networking events with my MVP– and everyone seems to honestly like where it’s going.

I was careful about how I approached this though. I got initial feedback in smaller markets like Sydney until I felt ready for the big time in New York. And even hard-to-impress New Yorkers appear to be giving it the thumbs up.

Customer feedback is always important — so the day I see confused looks on people’s faces when I talk about it, I’ll know that my idea might be a dud and it’s time to either do a major pivot or stop.

Of course, the next step is to convert this interest into more site visits, social shares and potential customers — and that’s the real test.

KPIs = 100% increase in unique site visitors and social media followers by year end

3. The business model is sound — and things aren’t going in reverse

I’ve done my business model canvas and can honestly justify my idea from a financial perspective.

But because I’ve chosen to build a new market, it’s been harder to put a timeframe on success. So despite the fact that it’s slow-going, it’s just that — slow but not going backwards.

I also hope to make a positive impact with what I’m doing — so I’ll also need to take this into account.

KPIs = 100% increase in email subscribers, 1 x new services client by the end of 2016, 1 x measurable positive social impact that can be scaled in the future

Overall, I’ve come to the conclusion that

startups are hard because many times, while you can see the future, most other people can’t.

But at least for me, I’ve decided that as long as I’m still somehow getting personally rewarded, the bumps in the road will always be worth it — regardless of which startup statistic I become a part of later on.

Thanks for making it to the end of my post!

If you’re interested in learning more about sustainability startups, please check out my blog globesprouting or follow me @becmann

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