Week 13 of Creative Founder: Lessons Learned

Business and social justice can be the same thing—if you try hard enough.

Before this class, I didn’t know if I’d be cut out for business. I didn’t know if any social mission-driven company could be viable at all. I didn’t know a single thing about how to start acquiring users or how to concierge and sell a product before I even had one. I didn’t realize how lean you could get to test a hypothesis, and I didn’t realize how scientific startups could or should be. I didn’t know what kind of CEO I would be — I just knew that I would be one.

I read everything I could get my hands on. All of the readings were great, especially the Five Dysfunctions of a Team. At first it seemed daunting to present every single week, but it got easier over time. I also really appreciated the exercise with a guest where we learned about different types of needs (e.g. psychographic, behavioral, etc), as well as the video to tell your team member how to improve.

Doing the right thing isn’t always telling someone what they want to hear, it’s learning how to tell them what they don’t want to hear.

Conflict resolution is everything. I’m definitely not the worst at conflict resolution, usually I’m one of the better ones in the room, but even I know I need practice. This is something that’s definitely not taught enough, and I appreciate the opportunity to be able to exercise those skills in this class.

What I often say to people when they’re feeling insufficient at any given intellectual topic is that they simply just need to expand their vocabulary to explain and understand the subject matter. We need to read and hear others say the good examples. Even one of my managers previously asked me, “How do I politely disagree with someone?” It’d be great to see a resource like this somewhere with pre-written sentences for how to express certain feelings or concerns in teams. The better we are at this, the better our relationships will be, the better our teams will be, the better our work will be.

This lesson should not be overlooked. It sits in the pyramid as one of the five dysfunctions of a team, and the founding team of a startup is everything. These four months have given me clarity to how things have worked before and now why things don’t. Sometimes I can’t control all the reasons why conflict resolution doesn’t work out, but what I can control is my communication and its frequency. I’ve always erred on the side of over-communication, but now I might go overboard—especially when forming new team relationships.

It reminds me of the advice I gave to a younger intern during my last internship. In conversations with her manager, she frequently did not explain why she had done something a certain way, out of fear of seeming “difficult” or being disliked. What happened was that he had no insight into her thinking and couldn’t help her improve. I told her: Don’t be afraid of the conflict in front of you, what should really be feared is the larger conflict in the future. Keep your eyes on the team goal and not on yourself—it doesn’t matter what they think of you, you’re arguing for the goal, for the mission, for the project—your conflict isn’t about you.

Businesses with a social mission can be viable — don’t give up on them.

One of my MBA friends showed me a TED talk about how we think about non-profits is completely wrong. Why is it that we’re okay with a business like Coca-Cola making profit, but not the International Rescue Committee? There are so many huge problems to solve and mitigate, yet I keep seeing the same senseless reinventions of toothbrushes, home robots that makes privileged people feel even safer, or startups selling smart dog toys. Is this all we care about? Is this it? Why is it that these are the new businesses of the future? Is it because those things are easier to sell, or they’re what the founding team wants or knows how to sell? We can do this differently. It’s possible.

The principles of a lean startup do not exclude content. We can apply those principles to anything. We can also build a revenue model around almost anything. Steve Blank sold products before he even had them. We make it possible. If there’s not a current way to do it, we’ll invent a new one. I can only imagine what would happen if more people like myself enrolled in MBA programs. Would we see this kind of future sooner?

You are just as important as your business.

The social mission is not only good for you, but also for your customers and users. I believe people want something more, and I believe they’ll stay loyal to your company because they believe in your mission. I believe employees will stay loyal to your company if they believe in your mission. Our team was strong because we all believed in the same goal. Our email-sign ups skyrocketed once I introduced myself and what I was doing, giving us a better conversion rate than we had from our Google AdWords campaign. For businesses with a social mission, you need to gain trust, and the best way to do that is show them who you are and why you care. Once you do, they just might become your salespeople.

When I go out into the world, I might apply for a part-time MBA at Stanford.

There are so many businesses and startups that do great things for people all the time — they create jobs, they give purpose, they make people’s lives better. You just need to put in the sweat-equity to figure out how. I know that people make startups based on what they know, so if you bring more diverse people into business, you’ll get more diverse businesses — potentially, I might end up creating something no one else would. Why not try?