Several children of my friends have had babies this year, reminding me that babies attract all the attention wherever they appear. Having a baby is a life-changer, it gives you a whole new perspective on why you wake up every day. A baby’s presence turns your life over, as all your priorities change dramatically and your sense of fulfilment reaches new, previously unmatched emotions.
There are no words that can describe the euphoria you feel when your baby recognises you for the first time and smiles – a happy baby, with their innocence and fragility, charms the heart. Even though a new baby seems vulnerable, new parents are vulnerable too, as emotionally you are dependent on this new, vital person in your life.
Birth begins when we shoot out of the womb. From there we learn to walk and talk, ride a bike and go to school. Having your first kiss, passing your driving test and losing your virginity – although not necessarily in that order – casting your first vote…to marriage, first house, kids, life is a series of milestones and time flies, tempus fugit.
Your startup has growth stages too, just as our own human development lifecycle. Whilst a different set of laws apply, there are chronological steps of business growth akin to the stages in human development. So, what are the parallel steps in your natural development and your start-up life journey, and the emotions with them?
Birth: Hope Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being as a singleton, singularity stemming from the amorous clash of parental chromosomes, the emergence of a fresh life into a brand new day. Birth happens as a result of the encounter nine months earlier of Jack Sperm and Jill Egg, the throw of random dice regarding a chance meeting. Human birth is romantic, but so is that first meeting of two startup adventurers – Jagger and Richards on a train platform, Hewlett and Packard at a family party, Jobs and Wozniak at a computer geeks club. Serendipity, chemistry and collision in both.
In response to Malvolio in Twelfth Night – some are born great, some achieve greatness and some have greatness thrust upon them – the birth of a startup is the start of a unique journey and a chance to make your mark in business. This is the very beginning of the startup lifecycle. You’ve got your idea and you are ready to take the plunge. Hope is one of the drivers.
When a child is born, it instills in its parents a sense of optimism, a sense that this new life brings something new and special into the world. Birth marks the beginning of life free and independent of umbilicus, placenta and amniotic fluid. Life starts with conception, followed by the slow motion bloom of the foetus consciousness. Likewise, what was the genesis of your startup, where was it conceived?
Infancy: Vitality An infant is vibrant, filled with a seemingly unlimited source of energy, a dynamo of humanity. Those early days of you startup feel the same, fueling the fires of the human ambition.
Learning to walk and talk are the key stages in infancy. Man crawls, walks upright and then eventually resorts to a walking stick. Walking involves conscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erectus marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time. Of course, babies’ first steps are theatrical, learning to walk usually takes place in a domestic theatre of relatives urging and applauding, capturing moments on camera for posterity.
Making physical contact with another person means crossing the room, the feet enable the touching of hands, socialisation starts, as the first encounter with the first customer with your MVP. As it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movements. This is the riskiest stage of a startup. Much of your time is spent tweaking your MVP based on feedback of your first pilot users. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be noise. You may stumble and hit your chin too!
Childhood: Playfulness & learning When children play, they recreate the world anew. As you get into your stride with your startup, playfulness embodies the spirit of innovation that underlies creative thinking, the sense of inner self alive. Imagination creates ingenuity that enables children to come up with marvellous, inventive solutions. In a startup, this ingenuity gives us the confidence that we can learn and find new ways to solve problems.
Learning to ride a bike is often the first conscious learning process we undergo, creating a freedom of movement not experienced before, it’s all about boyhood youth and summertime. It has a giddy purposelessness to go round in circles, freewheeling without regard to why and where. It is about freedom of movement independently, mastery of the machine keeping the handlebars steady and level, not breaking too hard and maintaining pressure on the pedals. It’s also the mastery of self, getting your legs to do new things in conjunction with your hands and eyes. The bike gives you a chance to coordinate and bring chaos from order, balancing on two thin discs of metal.
Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, removing the stabilisers and, sooner or later, the person pushing you lets go. Without getting into cycloanalysis, the moment where conviction meets doubt is that leap of and the irrational jump from dependence to independence, from security to self-determinism, the madness of a decision the split second when reason must in the name of action go into suspense and you start to pedal away on your own. Your startup in launched, off you go.
For a startup, this is the moment of risk for product-market fit, to prove your value proposition. You’re now creating you own forward momentum, but as Einstein said, to keep your balance you have to keep moving, an epic contradiction to when to stay balanced you had to stay still, now you have to hurtle forward from safety to risk. You’re on your way, my boy, but keep those knee plasters readily to hand. In a startup it’s about managing self doubt, holding your nerve, focus on the wide horizon in front of you, and making something of yourself.
The urge to dig in your heels and pedal hard, to cut an arc into this new panorama, but the freedom means you have to make decisions and with options of turning left or right. With mum and dad behind you, shouting encouragement proud and panting, you are now on your own. The peculiar sound of riding a bike, an auditory rush of inner silence, a paradoxical sense of self-esteem, random deviations for you to control your own direction and hurtle about. Note to self: I did it.
Adolescence: Passion The biological event of puberty unleashes a powerful set of changes in the adolescent body that reflect themselves in a teenager’s sexual, emotional and spiritual development – driven by passion. Likewise, passion for your startup is a touchstone for anyone seeking to connect with their inner zeal for entrepreneurial life. When I turned thirteen it was stubble, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly and randomly.
Oh the rites of passage seem monumental: that first shave at the onset of puberty, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body. While shaving may be new to teenagers, it’s been around since 3000BC, soldiers would pluck hairs using two clam shells as tweezers. Alexander the Great encouraged his soldiers to shave so their hair couldn’t be pulled and twisted in combat. The word barbarian comes from the image of a man who was hairy and unshaven, basically unbarbered.
Of course beards have been de rigeur for some time now with the ‘hipster’ style in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. There are dudes sporting neatly trimmed Vandykes, as Charles I sported at the scaffold, the sharp goatee of an old-time religionist, and the waxed mustachios’ of villains from a Victorian melodrama. There are what I describe as the ‘Captain Birdseye’, a rampant bushy display. I have never been tempted from clean-shaveness save for occasional bout of laziness, I am too afraid of emulating Edward Lear’s Old Man With a Beard, who finds it has become a home to Two owls and a hen, four larks and a wren. Startups in adolescence often see rapid growth, as the business model emerges and you build a repeatable sales process. It can still be a hairy experience as your conversion and retention rates bristle, but you’re growing up, it’s time to scale, by investing in people and process.
Early Adulthood: Enterprise It takes enterprise to accomplish your first jaunt into adult life, including finding that first job, moving out of the family home and hooking up with your first partner. This principle of enterprise serves us at any stage of life when we step out into the world and seek to make our mark.
It takes enterprise to seek that first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, the emotion and meaning, the climax of that tete-a-tete flirting, the sensory neurons in the lips that fire off impulses to the brain. A kiss is a matter of delight, a delicious fluttering feeling of hope, expectation anxiety, curiosity, relief, abandon – this blog could be a sonnet. The romantic idyll and wondrousness of Romeo and Juliet playing with each others’ words, fondling where formality mocks the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending.
In Shakespeare’s words, a kiss becomes poetry, a pleasing rhyme between two faces that tenderly meet, the poetic combination of the ceremonious and the sensual, a ritual and romantic interlude. For unlike mowing the lawn, there is not a natural conclusion to a kiss – unless as teenage boy, according to gender stereotypes, shunting the kissing carriage onto the track of something like foreplay. You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Although we can’t talk while we kiss, kissing eventually speaks volumes.
Understanding your position in the startup lifecycle as you hit the ‘go’ button is helpful, keeping your feet on the ground, but like you were first snogging the face off your first love, you have to metaphorically kiss a lot of customers, so now is the time to get giddy, emotional and express yourself.
Not all startups will experience these stages of the growth cycle, some may see astronomical growth and the fast-track to scale can be as painful as puberty where the hormones run wild, or a troublesome teenager where behaviour is unpredictable.
As logical as this framework looks, anyone who’s thrown their hat in the startup ring knows there are many unforeseen variations on how the parts of this journey play out. Equally, everyone’s biological clock has its own unique timeline.
Life is what you make it. You can either have limited beliefs or shyness that hinder your growth, and leave you depending on others, or learn how to become bold, independent and grow through life’s challenges. The choice you make will determine how far you go in life, as well as your startup.
It does not do to dwell on dreams and forget to live. I may not have gone where I intended to go, but I think I have ended up where I needed to be. Life isn’t about finding yourself. Life, like your startup, is about creating yourself. In the words of Dr. Seuss: You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself any direction you choose.