The Value of the Zero (and why community matters)

I originally posted this for my friends over at BoulderStartup.org & Silicon Flatirons – they’ve been hugely supportive to the Boulder Startup Scene and I’m thrilled to be a resource to them.  Check them out!

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Getting my entrepreneurial start – I was still in college.  I was riddled with student loan debt, I was eating at all-you-can-eat restaurants and stuffing food in ziplock bags in my backpack.  I was working my way through school and remember lying to friends about being unable to join them for a movie because I couldn’t afford the $5 ticket.  I was one of the lucky ones, my parents were paying for my tuition; I just had to pay for everything else.

It was during that time when I started my first company.  It was an online retailer focused on selling to the property management industry, and my dad was my business partner.  My dad was the brains behind the operation, I was the braun.  I didn’t realize this last part until later though; I thought I was the brains.  I spent 1 measely, pathetic day scoping out the market and learned we would be the first online retailer targeting in this space.  I came up with a product set for the online store (2,000 products!).  Then I had to figure out how to build a dynamic, database-driven website when the extent to my tech competence was limited to all-nighters fighting my friends on Doom (which we did on our 2400 baud connection). Then I had to figure out how to market and advertise the site.  I muddled my way through it with a lot of hard work, luck, and encouragement.

I had nothing back then.  Nothing.  No money, no family, no husband, no assets of any sort.  I had to cover my $600/mo in living expenses (rent, food, gas, beer).  Well, I thought I had nothing.  But from an entrepreneurs perspective, I had everything.  When you have nothing, you have nothing to lose.  And when you have nothing to lose, the only thing you have to fear is the fear of failure.  Luckily for me I had a family that never let me be fearful of failure.  They encouraged me to take risks, to get comfortable with being uncomfortable, and helped me realize that I could easily start over and wouldn’t really lose anything but would gain experience that was worth more than success could ever garner.

My family was my ‘startup’ community back then.  Boulder has become my startup community now.  Most people here are surprisingly supportive of startups.  Boulder isn’t a place that fears failure.  I’d say it openly embraces it.  You’ll talk to lots of people that are starting something or wish they were.  Successful entrepreneurs, investors, mentors, and peers alike will take your meetings.  People will encourage you, and you need that encouragement to take the first leap.  So if you’re in Boulder and you’re thinking about starting your first company – do it.  But do it wisely.  Here’s my quick action plan for getting started.

  1. Don’t be fearful of failure.  It’s the most crippling, self-inflicted handicap around.
  2. If you have much to lose in the way of assets, just have a backup plan.  What’s the worse case scenario?  What happens if you really do have to declare bankruptcy?  Might be a nice opportunity to wipe away all that debt anyway – could be a blessing in disguise.
  3. Don’t live inside your own head.  Get feedback on everything.  I guarantee one thing in your startup – you will be wrong.  Talk to customers, get yourself an advisory board, talk to experienced entrepreneurs.  They can all help steer you past the obstacles which derail even the smartest of people.
  4. Learn how to accept feedback, even negative feedback.  Don’t take it personally.  Know when to utilize it, when not to, and how to communicate with those whose advice you don’t follow.
  5. Don’t come up with an idea.  Find your areas of passion, then find a problem where people will pay for a solution.  I’m amazed at how many entrepreneurs get this wrong.
  6. Build your team and know everyone’s strengths and weaknesses.  In my opinion, this is the hardest part for the entrepreneur.  It’s like finding your spouse.
  7. When you commit, go all-in.  Stack the odds in your favor by focusing on it 100%.
  8. Love it.

I’m older now, with much more on the line.  But I’m in Boulder, and I’ve surrounded myself with entrepreneurs that are taking risks every day, with much more to lose than I ever had.  Those founders and this town give me the courage and the inspiration to know that I’ll start another company one day.  But not for a while – I love what I’m doing too much to call it quits yet. 🙂