8 Learnings from 8 Years in Business
Today, my company is 8 years old.
It was born from a university project that went viral on the internet. It’s been the subject of many internet memes and BuzzFeed articles. Due to almost every setback possible, it took an incredibly long time to complete the journey from concept to commercial product.
Today, we connect thousands of people all over the world, sharing millions of heartbeats across our platform. We have products in 47 countries, and Pillow Talk is proudly exhibited in 2 museums as the first communication innovation of its kind. We connect parents with their poorly children in hospitals in a way that has never been done before.
I’ve learned a lot of things over the last 8 years, but to mark the occasion I wanted to share 8 of my biggest learnings thus far. Most of them were things I learned in business, yet transfer over to life quite appropriately, too.
1. Aim for 80% perfection
The pursuit of perfection has killed many great ideas. In the tech world, we’re always told “if you’re proud of the first version of your product, you shipped too late”. As someone with a design background — and someone building a physical product — it’s built into my soul that details matter.
I’ve come to believe that the sweet spot is somewhere in between. It’s ‘good enough’ sprinkled with enough ‘details matter’ to make customers’ hearts sing. Don’t let endless refinement get in the way of something being finished, or released to the world.
In both life and business, strive for continuous improvement. Hold yourself to a standard of grace, not perfection.
2. Focus on the next step
One thing I fell victim to a lot was planning for things — and spending time and money on things — that ended up not happening.
I’m typically not a very organised person, so having the foresight and discipline to prepare for something was always quite taxing for me. When things then ended up pivoting or changing so much that my efforts were rendered unnecessary, I often resented how much resource had been wasted.
I’ve learned that often the best approach is to just focus on the next step. What’s the one thing you can do today to move towards where you’re going? Or, what’s the next thing that will need done, when your team finishes what they’re working on currently? Often, knowing your single next step is enough.
The road that’s meant for you isn’t the one you mapped out, it’s the one you choose to walk. Being able to adapt as you go and change direction means you won’t have to double back as often.
As well as being a means of moving forward, this is also a useful tool for taking control of yourself and/or situation when you feel particularly overwhelmed or things seem especially out of control. Rather than trying to solve all of the problems at once, just pick one thing that will take you one step in the right direction. When that’s done, take another.
3. It’s never the people you expect
Your A Team are never who you think they are.
People who promise you the earth will vanish at the first sign of trouble. Those you think you can count on — both in business and your personal life — are often nowhere to be found when the shit hits the fan. Most of the people who say “let me know if there’s ever anything I can do to help” don’t really mean it.
This all sounds a bit dark, but the beautiful side of this is that your heroes ride in from the most unforeseen places.
It will be the partner you‘ve just started working with who defers their invoice, or someone you already owe a favour to who makes an intro that changes everything. It will be a complete stranger who goes out of their way to help, or a friend you don’t know very well with whom you have the heart-to-heart that helps you make sense of something.
When you are fighting your biggest battles, it‘s the people you never would have asked who step up and fight with you. Support, credit lines, encouragement, help, love, applause when you’re winning… they all come from the places you would least expect.
It brings me such delight to look around and see the team of misfits who ended up being my biggest fans (in all areas of my life). I’m still grateful for the ones I lost though, because they taught me what kind of person I don’t want to be.
4. Stay balanced
We think that ‘hustle’ is cool, that staying up all night makes us a hero. It doesn’t; it just burns you out and ruins your health, your happiness and the time you spend with friends and family. I learned this one the hard way.
I’ve written about this before, so I won’t labour the point, but this has genuinely been one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned along the way — and one that I ignored over and over again before I finally understood the importance of balance in your life.
Work hard, but self-care even harder. Get lots of sleep, put nutritious foods into your body, exercise, stay hydrated. Take time to learn and expand your mind and your thinking. When your body starts to give you warning signs that it’s not doing so well, do not ignore them. Take the day off, have an afternoon nap, spend the weekend on the sofa watching Netflix. Do whatever you need to do.
There’s no point in working all the time at 50% because you are physically exhausted and mentally maxed out. You’re better to work half the time and be fully present and engaged. Trust me on this one.
Yes, sometimes it’s necessary to stay up late to get something finished or hit a deadline, but don’t make a habit of it. Your body and your mind are the vessels through which you experience the world and you only get one set; be smart with them.
5. Not all things that count can be counted
When you spend a long time in the business world and/or the tech world, it’s very easy to get caught up in the numbers. What’s your turnover? How many users do you have? What’s your CPA?
Of course, these things matter. But not all data points have numeric values, or are indeed measureable. Yeah, it’s cool to have a bank account full of money but it’s even cooler to see your product or service making a real impact on the world.
Don’t lose sight of the value of the other things. Never forget the feeling of your first sale, your first six figure deal, the first time you start to tell someone about your company and they say they’ve heard of it. Always appreciate the freedom you have to manage your own time, or take your dog to the office, to be building a life that works for you.
The most rewarding part of the last 8 years — and the thing I will remember on my deathbed — will be the messages I receive from people to whom my product has brought joy. It’s watching a mother feel connected to her hospitalised 2yr old son for the first time. It’s logging into our server and seeing the thousands of people connected at that moment in time, across the whole world.
Generally, building long-term value is better than making short-term money. For both yourself and your customers.
6. Know the difference between giving up and letting go
I’m not a quitter, so the idea of stopping doing something used to feel like defeat.
I’ve come to realise that one of the hardest (but most useful) things to learn in life is knowing the difference — or at least shifting your mindset — between ‘giving up’ on something, versus choosing to let go of it.
There are many things you shouldn’t give up on, and many times when perseverance is required. But there are also many, many times when you absolutely should walk away from something.
Perhaps it is something that’s not good for you, that no longer serves you. Maybe it’s a battle you are not winning that is draining all of your energy. There is no shame in mindfully choosing to stop doing something; ideas, businesses, relationships, projects, friendships, jobs. It applies to everything.
Knowing when to stop pouring yourself into something that isn’t working — and having the courage to recognise that — will help you preserve the best of yourself for things that do work.
7. In 5 years time, will this matter?
This is one of the best self-regulating tools I have in my toolbox.
When something happens that feels like a colossal crisis, ask yourself; “In 5 years time, will this matter?”
You’ll be surprised at how quickly it helps put things into perspective. On a day-to-day level, it helps drop unnecessary stress over stupid little things. If the answer is yes, it’s something that deserves the effort and mental taxation you are awarding it.
I found it particularly helpful in the final few months of Pillow Talk’s production, whilst on the factory floor in China. I mentioned above that I tend to fall prey to ‘details matter’, and being able to ask this question helped me determine which things really were worth fixing or changing, and which things were good enough to get the job done.
8. Always, always trust your gut instinct
Whenever someone asks me what my number one piece of business advice is, this is it.
Your gut instinct is the most powerful thing. It is of years of evolution, rooted within us in a way that we will never understand. It is the most primal level of our being, reading millions of signals being fired at us in any given situation, almost all of which we are not consciously aware of. Our gut instinct takes all of these inbound signals, and gives us a steer on what we should do.
Six years ago my gut instinct was screaming at me and I ignored it. I let someone whom I believed was smarter and more experienced than me, convince me that I was just ‘out of my comfort zone’ and ignore my instincts. That decision turned out to be one of the worst mistakes I made in business. Now, I never question it.
Your brain can be fooled and your heart is an idiot, but your gut will never lie.
Other than the above, the last 8 years have mainly been one big lesson in just… always trying one’s best. Use what you have, do what you can, and make the best decisions possible with the information available at that time.
People often ask me what success looks like, and I’ve come to believe that success is the continued refinement of something until results start to show. It’s also extremely relative; one person’s idea of success is very different to another person’s. My idea of success isn’t the same now as that which my 22yr old self would have reeled off 8 years ago.
80% of all businesses fail within their first 5 years, but we’re still here, and still learning.
Thank you to my A Team — you all know who you are — and here’s to the next 8 years of building a world that still cares about being human.