“You have to go through it to get to it.” – Sly Stone
So, you’re building a company, are you? There is a lot of noise out there about startups, entrepreneurship, venture capital money, and the like. It would seem (with only slight exaggeration) that there are more books, podcasts, and thought pieces on the “startup journey” than there are new companies. Granted, some of it is practical information worth paying attention to, but where do you go when you’d like to be more introspective about what you’re creating in the world?
In the following pages we offer a set of exercises that should help you see your young company in a more expansive light. Starting at Your Philosophical Center we dig into the values, mission, people and associations you make along the way. Then on to Fresh Perspectives with some fun techniques founded in open-mindedness including visualization, using constraints, mind mapping, and even deja vu . Then we come back to earth with The Tactical, our most useful survival techniques for hacking through the day-to-day and having the endurance to stay standing.
We’ve built our company around a cause we really believe in, with people we trust and respect. Our hope is that the things we’ve learned along the way can help guide your entrepreneurial experience, and even help you enjoy the process.
Before we started our company Next For Me we were time-tested Silicon Valley professionals known for our work in online communities, user experience, and research. After years of contributing to successful Fortune 500 companies, as well as participating in our share of startups, you might say we were quite independent-minded.
We weren’t necessarily looking to start something new. But the market signals pointed to something big and meaningful that we couldn’t ignore.
If we had planned to start a company, we could have followed the traditional Silicon Valley approach of hammering out a “minimum viable product” to win over venture capitalists, then we would try to prove a certain growth trajectory to get the capital to keep going. But we’d been down that path before, where there is a financial agenda and outsized obligation to an investor to fit a market into that equation.
Lucky for us, this time, it didn’t work that way at all.
We were becoming aware of bias against older workers in our world of tech. After working together on many successful projects for over twenty years, we had entered the aging demographic ourselves, and we were starting to run into roadblocks to new job opportunities. Not surprisingly, we were starting to see that age bias extends well beyond the tech industry.
There are 120 million Americans over the age of 50 and many are ill-prepared for a time without an income, especially since we are now living 20 to 30 years longer. So there is an urgency about staying relevant in the workforce at a time when the workplace is explicitly looking for younger talent. Add socially acceptable ageism to the mix, and you have an untenable situation that is just getting worse.
We saw a way to help, by providing a platform for people who wanted to stay engaged, and who still had a lot to contribute. We called our company Next For Me, and we were on a mission to help the aging demographic find their new path.
We started the company with this lofty statement:
Next For Me connects and inspires our generation to evolve our post-50 lives through new work, a new purpose, or a new social contribution.
Little did we know how much we would learn about ourselves in the process. Because we were bootstrapping — starting our business with no outside funding — we also began to call in a free set of tools and techniques that we used to stay open minded about the approach to the business we were building.
We started with a weekly newsletter. Our revenue path wasn’t defined. We were thinking that if we hit a chord with the large audience, they would come flocking to us and the path to revenue would come later.
We ran Facebook ads with anxious headlines about the future and got plenty of people signing up. But they weren’t engaging much. We knew they weren’t coming to us through personal referrals, which made them less likely to stick around and engage on our Facebook page or website.
Still, we were growing subscriptions by a reasonable amount month over month. This was a positive sign for us and proved we didn’t have to rely on Facebook to grow our audience. (We were never big fans of Facebook anyway.) We had growth, but not at the rate or size that we could sell ads or products against to keep us going. We were, however, learning a lot about the audience.
An obvious path to revenue didn’t occur to us until Carole reminded us that we had a great story from our past about using our online community building skills in research environments. We had done it before for a big research firm along with Deb McDonald, a qualitative researcher who saw the potential in the technique. It was a game-changer for big consumer firms trying to understand their customers. With Deb’s helpful advice and partnership, we decided to expand our offerings to include market research and consumer insights for marketers.
After a year of focus on product/market fit, building out the brand, and having in-person meetups, we knew a lot about the target demographic. We authored a market report based on our conversations, surveys, and research: “Understanding the 50+ Worker”. The report was not only good, it gave us something to talk about with potential partners and sponsors. It showed there was value in what we were learning, and it was an effective calling card that opened new doors for us.
By being open to alternatives to the venture capital or paid user growth paths, we now had a compelling business story to tell. We started to sell research, sponsorships for our events, and workshops for organizations targeting this in-transition
Simply obvious, you would think. We would grow with money we earned from sales. This would keep us in control of how we evolved and help us be certain that we adhered to our values and a set of guiding principles we would develop.
Or as the authors of “New Power” termed it, in an ecosystem that revered the “unicorn” companies that grow and scale fast to multi-billion dollar valuations, we were “camels,” a “ platform or organization that delivers economic returns that are less spectacular than those of its alter-ego the “unicorn,” but serves an important social function and can sustain investors and its community for the long term.”
Midway into our second year, some of our advisors and readers questioned the tone of our corporate story and consumer message. It was filled with what they considered too much negative messaging rife with doomsday predictions. The feedback was our community didn’t need to hear a retelling of such dark predictions week after week. What they/we needed is something to hope for.
We listened (we had become doomsday weary too) and conducted quick experiments to test the theory. We started publishing articles that were aspirational stories of facing down adversity and finding a way through it. Those articles immediately got considerably better traction and engagement than the darker pieces.
The results also underscored that “mindset” had as much as anything to do with a positive outcome. It suggested that having an open mind was a personality trait that would become increasingly important if our community was to make progress in their own personal development and evolution. We wrote about that too, and the positive reaction to those pieces told us we were honing in on the market fit.
So, not only did an open mind and a willingness to transition benefit the community we were building, it became the “way of being” for our company. If we were going to be a catalyst for transformation , we, too, had to be people open to transition.
It didn’t hurt that we were nurtured in California traditions of Buddhist thinking and social experimentation. Being in California in the 70s and onward meant you were likely exposed to human potential movements, open dialogs about roles and self-identity, political activism, free and open information, often along a thread of eastern philosophy.
That’s how we ended up here.
This book is a set of ideas and experiments you can use to think more broadly and philosophically about what’s next for your business. The concepts can help you no matter what stage your new business is at.
We begin our book by discussing your philosophical center. We’ll walk you through some exercises that help when articulating your core values, and establish some guiding principles as a framework that you can operate within. Once in place, this foundation will be your “north star” when working through your strategy, and is a quick go-to if you’re ever doubting your intentions.
Then, we go deep on how to find and associate with people who share those values: co-founders, partners, advisors, and later, “cheerleaders” and customers.
Next, the broad topic of open-mindedness. Or, how to get your head ready for absolutely anything being possible. We developed an appreciation for techniques to find a fresh perspective, where we detail how stepping back, writing, drawing, or using other techniques to change your perspective opens a world of possibilities. They are simple hacks that expose paths and opportunities you may have missed otherwise.
Rest assured, it’s not all pie in the sky, California-speak. We next cover our methods for the elegant handoff from high-mindedness to actionable strategies. We include a tactical toolkit for staying healthy, financial realness, doing things yourself, and the directive to start selling from day one.
If you’ve taken the plunge to do something new, we hope this book will help you on those days when you could use a nudge toward a bigger view. For us, the process of sharing something new with the world is a gesture that has our reputation, ethics and core beliefs attached. We hope our experiences will help inform your work and sustain you through the long days ahead. Make it fun. Make it matter.
- Carole McManus and Jeff Tidwell