About 9 months after I left my corporate job to become a founder, I took some time out to critically self-evaluate my intrinsic entrepreneurial skills. Like everyone else, I realized I had several strengths, but also a few noticeable weaknesses — shortcomings that in my opinion hurt my chances of success in this already risky endeavor. I want to share a simple ritual I followed that helped me greatly towards ironing these out.
Some of the developmental needs were hard skills — not hard as in difficult , but hard as in something you can touch and feel (e.g., as a first time entrepreneur, I didn’t really know how to fund raise). I wasn’t too worried about these. These are easier to fix and I had good advisors to help me.
The skills I really wanted to fix were the soft stuff. Things that were intrinsic to the world’s best entrepreneurs that I didn’t have and badly wanted to develop. So, like all good ex-consultants, I put together a plan.
First, to develop habits or skills, I realized it’s important to prioritize and be focused. It’s nearly impossible to develop 10 habits at the same time.
To help me prioritize, I took a short cut. A select few business communities around the world are constantly stereotyped as being intrinsically entrepreneurial. Whether it is the Marwari or Gujarati community in India or the Jewish communities of the West, certain groups have a reputation of having “business in their blood.”
Sidebar: I’m from the Tamil Brahmin community. We’re stereotyped as being extremely geeky, for pursuing professional careers (management consulting was made for my kind) and don’t exactly have a strong reputation for being entrepreneurial. If anything, it’s the exact opposite (but this is changing). I have a separate post coming up on this one soon.
So, I dove one level further (those who know me will by now already be familiar with my obsession for reflection and constant personal development), and identified a short list of soft, intrinsic skills that many of the wonderful founders from these communities had that I didn’t.
And finally, I put together a 3 part daily exercise checklist. The only way to develop a habit or a intrinsic “muscle” is to do it every day. And the only way to make sure I was going to do it, was to keep it simple.
So, for nearly the entire second half of 2016, I’ve been doing the following three exercises daily. They’ve helped me greatly. In the spirit of sharing, here you go.
Let’s start with the easy one.
Exercise 1: Meet at least 1 customer every day
Sounds obvious, but it’s very easy as a founder to sit at a desk, dream up ideas, and try to build and massage the perfect product. Talking to your customers means you’ll get rejected and often you’ll get laughed at (it has already happened to me at a certain taxi company in the region). You cannot really get rejected if you don’t go talk to anyone, so it’s very easy to fall into this trap. So I make it a point to speak with at least 1 client a day. I try to make it at least one new client a day, but if that doesn’t happen, I at least follow up to make sure the current ones are happy.
This is also inspired in a small way by Dominic Barton’s (MD of McKinsey) metric of meeting 2 CEOs a day.
Exercise 2: Do at least 1 thing that makes me uncomfortable each day
This one was huge for me. I’m the kind of guy who doesn’t like to bother people or ask for things that might be uncomfortable. Ironically, as a founder, all you do is ask for things that you aren’t supposed to ask, or are most likely going to get turned down for, or will make you look a tiny bit like a fool.
For example, I’ve never been shy to ask a question in a crowd, but have always been hesitant to “self promote” or plug my product. I now happily put my hand up and sneak in a reference to my startup.
The only way I got there is by starting small, and doing the small things that made me feel awkward (e.g., asking for a second refill at a restaurant) and working my way up.
Are there things that make you feel uncomfortable? Try doing them slowly, and you’ll realize very soon that it isn’t all that bad.
Funnily enough, I recently came across this TED video of a guy who went through a similar exercise of getting rejected for 100 days and he seems to have had just as powerful an experience as me. I recommend watching it.
Exercise 3: Do at least 1 thing each day that feels “jugaad”-ish
Jugaad is a concept now increasingly made famous by the growth of Indian businesses. The core concept is akin to “hacking” things together in the Western world. But for my exercise, I accepted growth hacks, product hacks, or even …
…hackish answers to questions. No Valley startup ever says “they’re building a learning platform for schools”. No sir, no. These products are “crime reducing, poverty ending solutions to make the world a better place”.
Exercise 3 had to build on Exercise 2 in that most of these jugaad-ish practices that I forced myself to do each day were also things that made me feel uncomfortable. I hated hacking my way through life, but it was an important muscle to develop. It had to be done.
Finally, these three exercises have been incredibly helpful. Apart from helping me build fundamental skills that I think I needed, the practice of religiously hitting 3 things every day that pushed the startup forward meant that I was constantly making progress.
If you have any similar experiences, please do share; I’d love to learn.
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