Startups: You’re not nineteen forever, pull yourselves together.

Not Nineteen Forever was the fourth single released in March 2008 by Manchester band The Courteeners, taken from their debut album St. Jude.  The lyrics are built around a conversation between a young man and an older girlfriend, who is disappointed by his wild and hedonistic behaviour that night, and she drives him for ‘tea and toast’. He flirts with her in the car, but she reminds him he’s only young and needs to get his life together.

He goes out again and chases another woman, but she disappears before he can make conversation. He muses about how she probably wasn’t worth chasing before understanding his girlfriend’s words. The tune evokes images of messy nights out, drunken hook-ups and bad behaviour, while waving goodbye to one’s fleeting youth.

You’re not nineteen forever, pull yourselves together; I know it seems strange but things, they change.

It’s about growing old, not wanting to grow up, and probably asking yourself Why are you doing this? I use the song title when talking to startup founders to encourage them not to get locked into the mindset of ‘being a startup’ – you must grow up and push forward, yet I see many using the label after three or four years into their existence, revelling in the social cache of the term. 

For me, you’re no longer a startup after establishing a repeatable scalable sales model for the acquisition and retention of paying customers. If you’ve not achieved that after three years, then…maybe it’s not meant to be. Like real life, there comes a time when your startup has to grow up – there are many parallels to the human growth journey and that of pushing yourself out of the startup zone.

We all move through stages of human development – physical, cognitive, and mental growth. 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 casting your first vote, to marriage, first house, kids. Life is a series of development milestones.

Your startup has growth stages too, akin to the stages in human maturity. So what are the parallels between your natural development and your startup journey, and the ‘growing up’ steps to take at each stage for your venture? 

Birth: Hope Your expulsion from your mothers’ body jump-starts your being, 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. Like Jobs meeting Wozniak, serendipity, chemistry, and collision.

In response to Malvolio in Twelfth Nightsome 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 from the outset. You’ve got your idea and you’re ready to take the plunge.

Step up: change your thinking To make the step up from a ‘baby business’ change your thinking. The startup world is obsessed with metrics like downloads, page views, sign-ups, etc. Stop thinking about that and just think about ‘value’. What is the value that your startup is creating and for whom?  Stop thinking about how to monetise a million users, and start thinking about how to create genuine, tangible value for one paying customer.

Infancy: Vitality An infant is a vibrant force of nature, with seemingly unlimited source of energy. Those early days of you startup feel the same, fuelling the fires of ambition. Learning to walk and talk are the key stages in infancy. Walking involves conscious intent, nothing can halt the urge to stand up and move. Walking plots our journey in life, homo erects marks a triumph, four to two reprises Darwin’s evolution in a moment in time.

As it is with a startup, stumbling around, unsure of the initial direction, a sense of clumsy movements. You’re just starting to walk and talk about your idea with potential customers and there will be stumbles. The purpose of this next step is to test your product hypothesis with the smallest possible investment of time and capital – hence MVP. You are proving demand and learning about customer behaviour, while minimising risk.  

Step up: change your language Don’t call it a startup anymore, imagine yourself as a real venture, and your focus is growth. Planning may morph from the back of an envelope to a one-page plan. Be convincing, so people are confident to put their cash with you. Also, seeing your business as a real deal (not something to ‘fail fast’) will make it easier to grow. It’s all about the mindset. If you want to be more than just a small entrepreneurial project, put on your big person pants and start calling yourself a business. Start using the language successful businesses use and think like them.

Childhood: Playfulness & learning As you get into your stride with your startup, playfulness embodies your ingenuity, innovation and creative thinking. Imagination serves children to create play. In a startup, this gives confidence that we can learn and find new ways to solve problems.

Learning to ride a bike is often our first conscious learning process, creating a freedom of independent 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 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. Yet the overriding sense you need when learning to cycle is embracing risk, as sooner or later the person pushing you has let go, the moment of where conviction meets doubt is that leap of and the irrational jump from dependence to independence, from security to self-determinism.

Step up: change your environment On your bike, you can now venture afar. Birds of a feather flock together. I get it, I really do. If you are going through the learning curve that comes with a startup it makes sense to surround yourself with other folks that are going through that process too, sharing the blogs, the Twitter gurus, the networking events and the co-location working space.  It’s exciting and it’s much more fun than traditional office work…except that it is nuts! There comes a time to escape this crazy environment and literally leave the nursery.

Adolescence: Passion The biological event of puberty unleashes a powerful set of changes in the adolescent body of emotion from hormones. Passion for your startup is a touchstone, connecting your deepest inner zeal for entrepreneurial life.

When I turned thirteen it was stubble, the first shadows of facial hair grew rapidly. The rite of passage seemed monumental, frisky hair sprouting up all over the frisky body. 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. For me, the constant dread would have been stray bits of piecrust lying dormant and wasted.

Step up: change the culture Entrepreneurs often find it difficult to let go, but recognising your limitations is an important part of achieving growth. There are only so many things you can attend to personally each day. Growing a business requires building and operating a set of enabling processes and structures. A startup soaks up all the good and bad habits of its founder, so you need a change in culture, empowering teams to work collaboratively and creatively, in a more disciplined way.

Early Adulthood: Enterprise It takes enterprise to seek that first kiss, like Romeo and Juliet, 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 words, mocking the courting protocols, and before you know it, it’s a snog without ending. You can’t kiss and speak at the same time, as kissing opens a different mode of communication in a relationship. Kissing speaks volumes.

Step up: change the leadership It takes enterprise for young adults to accomplish their step into adult life, including finding a home, a partner, and getting a fulfilling job. This principle of enterprise serves us at any stage of entrepreneurial life when we need to make our mark.

However, the founder skills that build a company at the outset are not the same as those required to lead a maturing and rapidly growing organisation. The founder’s tendency to do the work – which she embraced when the startup was ten people – needs to change, bringing in new leadership talent to make the shifts for the move to enterprise status – drive-by meetings might need to change into a weekly operations meeting.

Growing up doesn’t mean we lose the magic we had when we were starting up. It means we are better equipped to face the challenges that will inevitably come as we scale. It takes a healthy level of maturity to recognise what might be holding us back and have the courage to take that next leap into our potential.

Life is what you make it. You need to learn how to become independent and grow through life’s challenges. The choice you make will determine how far you go in life. You do not need to dwell on dreams you had day one – you may not have gone where you intended to go but ended up where you needed to be. Life isn’t about finding yourself; life is about creating yourself – as it is in a startup.

You started from nothing, and now it is something. But there are plenty of startup failures, they are simply born and gone in the wind. Startups enjoy a reputation as the bright young things of business, they’re digitally fluent, nimble, and free of any baggage. Yet many successful startups face a rude awakening if they make it past infancy and scale. While success is exciting, growth is awkward.

Is your startup ready to be a ‘grown-up’? Recall The Courteeners – You’re not nineteen forever, pull yourselves together; I know it seems strange but things, they change. For me, after about three years in existence, most startups should stop being startups, and aim to grow up. These principles may help: change your thinking, change your language, change your environment, change your culture and change your leadership.

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