What an empty nest taught me about being an entrepreneur

Robyn Bolton
Photo by Luke Brugger on Unsplash

“I have empty nest induced depression”

My husband signed. He knew that I would be mopey the rest of the day. And probably a bit whiny, too.

There was a nest hidden in the branches, just at eye level, of the wonky misshapen pine tree near our dining room window. One morning, just as I had every morning during the previous week and a half, I looked out the window to check on the family of robins and especially the two little chicks.

But that morning, there were no robins. The two chicks I had obsessively watched grow from naked blind hatchlings to fluffy birdie teenagers had flown away, leaving behind an empty nest.

And leaving me in an unexpectedly depressed state.

In the days that followed, I continued checking the next several times a day, craning my neck, hoping that a different angle would reveal the hiding place of my little robins. And, when each check revealed a still empty nest, I would feel sad all over again.

One morning, as I watched a small fluffy feather flutter in the breeze, it hit me — I missed my birdies because they were living, breathing symbols of change and progress. While, in contrast, my business was behaving more like a giant sloth.

Every time I looked at the robins, they were different. Progress — standing up taller, opening their beaks wider, growing more feathers — seemed to happen from one hour to the next and it was amazing to watch.

My business, on the other hand, wasn’t growing progressing quite so quickly. Change was measured in weeks and months and it felt frustratingly slow.

Businesses are not like birds.

We use A LOT of bird words to describe startups — they are hatched, we nurture them in incubators, we kick them out of the nest when it’s time to scale — but they are not like birds.

They do not go from eggs (ideas) to naked blind hatchlings (MVPs) to feathered and flying adults (scale) in 2–4 weeks. They do not evolve and grow on an hourly basis.

In fact, the only way that startups resemble birds is that, like hatchings, they’re constantly demanding and consuming resources, keeping us, the founders, constantly hopping around, digging up whatever we can find to feed them.

Businesses are more like people

People, on the other hand, take a lot longer to grow up. They take decades to raise and you can sometimes wait years before you see tangible evolution and growth.

Like startups, they take constant nurturing. You worry about whether or not you’re making the right decisions and, more than once, you wonder what the hell you were thinking when you decided to go down this path.

You want to create something new. Do you want it to be like a bird or a person?

When we decide to create a business, whether it’s a standalone startup or a new business within an existing company, we’re often so excited about what we’re going to do that we fail to really think about what we’re willing and able to do.

Startups and breakthrough innovations, like people, are big and they’re more likely to change the world. But they also take a lot more time to develop, are far more complex, how they turn out is far less certain, and they definitely cost a lot more to raise.

Improvements and evolutions of existing businesses, like birds, are important but unlikely to fundamentally change the world. They can also be far more rewarding to create because they take less time and fewer resources to develop, creating and growing them is simpler and more straight-forward, and you have a good sense for what the end result will look like.

Often, entrepreneurs and investors, intrapreneurs and corporate executives say they want a unicorn or a disruptive business but they only have the patience an risk tolerance to improve and evolve what they already know.

I get it. I too want a business that will change the world and I want it to be fully grown in 2–4 weeks. But that ain’t happening. So instead, I will continue to nurture my business, celebrate its weekly and monthly (instead of hourly) successes, and look forward to the day when it takes flight.


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Robyn Bolton

Written by

Founder & Chief Navigator at MileZero, Growth & Innovation Expert, People & Business Builder, Complexity Buster

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